Isambard Smith ran ten yards before the jungle burst open behind him and a mass of tentacles the size of a house threw a tree-trunk at his head. The tree flew past, throwing up earth like a bomb, and he swerved and headed east towards base camp. He glanced over his shoulder and shouted, ‘You didn’t give me an answer!’ A second Thorlian broke out of the greenery to his right, honking and bellowing, and Smith ran headlong for the bridge.
His boot caught on a protruding vine and he stumbled and lurched upright to hear the forest erupt in roars and the flapping of frightened birds as he raced on down the path.
His earpiece crackled. ‘Smith! What the devil is going on down there?’
‘Minor problem,’ he panted. ‘They seem to want to murder me.’
‘Hmm, that’s not good.’ A tentacle swept into view, glistening like an anaconda. Smith ducked as it whipped overhead, and he plunged off the path and weaved between the trees.
On the other end of the line, Hereward Khan struck a match and lit his pipe.
‘So I suppose they don’t want to join the Empire,’ Khan said.
‘Well, they didn’t actually say no,’ Smith replied. Fronds snagged his coat; branches and trunks splintered and fell behind him. ‘But to be honest, they don’t seem very keen.’
The ravine was in view. Smith broke from cover and sprinted to the rope bridge. The Thorlians howled. He bounded across, wood and hemp swaying under him, reached the other side and drew his sword. Smith cut once, twice, and the rope-bridge fell across the gorge to slap against the rock beneath the aliens.
As Smith dusted himself down Khan emerged from the undergrowth with a mug in either hand. ‘Hello Smith. Tea?’
‘Good idea, Sir.’
They drank, watching the Thorlians make threats across the gorge. ‘Typical aliens,’ said Khan. ‘Always making a fuss.’
‘It’s as though they think Space belongs to them by rights,’ said Smith. ‘Shame, really. They’d have made useful allies against the Ghast Empire. I suppose someone will have to civilise them now.’
‘I doubt the Navy can spare a destroyer. Besides,’ Khan added, and he smiled, ‘a message has come through from my contact in the Service. You’re to fly to the Proxima Orbiter at once. Top Secret stuff, apparently. Very dangerous.’
‘Excellent!’ Smith finished his tea and wiped his moustache. ‘My crew will be delighted, once she knows. She’s always saying how she needs to get more action.’
There was light: painful light. Dimly, voices seeped into Polly Carveth’s mind and she realised that she was still alive. Debris crackled under polished shoes. A man’s voice said, ‘My God. What a hell-hole.’
She muttered, rolled over and sat up in bed. She was still dressed, although her boots were gone. The stripes on her socks made her eyes hurt. ‘My skull,’ she moaned. ‘What did I pour into my skull?’
‘What didn’t you?’ He was young, dark haired, in a Royal Space Fleet uniform: very dapper and very handsome.
‘Hello,’ she said, and she frowned. ‘No, I don’t know your name. But you look nice.’
‘You look like you had a hard night,’ he said. He was holding one of the empty bottles he’d encountered beside the bed.
‘I’m sure you helped,’ she said coyly. Then she winced as she rubbed her face. ‘Oh my God, I’ve got boils!’
‘It’s all right,’ said the officer. ‘You fell asleep with your face in a box of Dairy Milk.’
Puzzled, Carveth prised off one of the boils. It was a blob of chocolate, slightly melted. ‘Gross,’ she said, looking at it. ‘Well, waste not want not. Mmm, praline.’
A second young officer stepped out of the bathroom and adjusted his hair. ‘Whoa,’ Carveth said. ‘There’s two of you?’
‘You’re not seeing double, no,’ said the first man.
‘Two. Bloody hell.’ She rose uncertainly to her feet. ‘Look, um, I’m not feeling too good. I’m sure you’re both really nice blokes, but two… I feel really bad. I honestly have never done this before. This isn’t the sort of thing I’d normally even dream of doing on a night out, even with one of you. I feel low, slutty and really ashamed of myself. Last night was not typical of me.’
One started to say something, but she raised her palm like a saint and trudged into the bathroom.
She closed the door, slid the bolt and did a dance. I scored twice, I scored twice, she mouthed at the mirror, look at me cos I scored twice. She did several pelvic thrusts, but stopped when her brain started aching. Grimacing, Carveth stepped into the shower, annoyed that her memories of the night were so dim.
When she came out, the nearest of the two said, ‘Fleet Command sent us with orders to collect you, Miss Carveth. You’re needed for a mission: Base wants the John Pym to travel to the Proxima Orbiter this morning, and you’re to go as ship’s simulant.’
‘You didn’t sleep with both of us last night, if you were wondering,’ said the other officer. ‘Or either.’
Carveth felt that it was only force of will that stopped her shrivelling up like a salted slug.
‘I don’t know where you got that idea,’ she replied, rising to her full height of five feet four. ‘I am a Class Four synthetic with precision piloting capacity, not some sort of cheap harlot. Now, I have work to do. A chance has arisen to serve the Empire, and I welcome it with open arms.’
‘And legs,’ one of the men muttered. She ignored him and proceeded to the door with haughty regal dignity. It would have been a perfect exit had she not tripped over a Bacardi bottle on the way out and nearly brained herself on the doorknob.
The car’s engine echoed off the walls of the huge, vault-like hall that held Valdane Shipping’s selection of spacecraft. The great nosecones jutted out of the dark like a row of missiles, shining and white. At the end, the John Pym stood, looking like a missile that had bounced off its target and come back for a second go.
Smith had flown in it several times now, but the emotion he felt on seeing it was always the same: a mixture of affection and disappointment, like someone coming home from the wars and discovering that his wife was actually quite plain. Under the left back leg (the one that sometimes only folded out halfway) two men in overalls were working beside a van. He drove closer, wondering who they were. Technicians, perhaps, fine-tuning the thrusters? No, Pest Control.
Smith got out of the car and took out his bag. He adjusted his collar and stepped over to one of the exterminators. ‘Hello. I’m Captain Smith.’
‘Alright mate.’ The older, squatter of the men pulled off a glove and shook Smith’s hand. ‘Mike Rudge, pleased to meet you. You had some vermin running around in the hold.’
‘The hold? You, ah, didn’t look in all the rooms, did you?’
‘All the ones that were unlocked. There was one we couldn’t get into.’
Smith breathed again. Suruk kept his favourite things in that room, which visitors unused to his lifestyle might have found unsettling.
The exterminator said, ‘Don’t worry, mate: it’s all sorted out now. We killed ’em – very quick and painless.’
‘What did you use? Traps?’
‘Submachine gun. Normally we’d just put some stuff down, landmines, say, but this is a small ship, and you’ve got to remember that it’s somebody’s home.’
‘Guns? What the hell was it?’
‘Procturan black ripper. It’s always a shame. Near-perfect organism, your Procturan ripper. Beautiful animal. A born predator, unencumbered by delusions of conscience or remorse. Its hostility is matched only by its physical perfection… we found him down the back of the fridge.’
‘I didn’t realise the fridge was that big,’ Smith said, looking into the back of the van. A corpse lay in there, a wiry, bulbous-headed thing slightly larger than a man. ‘Are you sure that’s not a motorcycle courier?’
‘Nope, genuine article. We’ll fax the costs over to your boss. Got to get off,’ the exterminator added. ‘Flying up to the polar regions to deal with a metamorph. Best get up there before it turns into the bloke what’s paying for our petrol.’
Smith opened his cabin and dumped his bag on the bed. The John Pym hadn’t changed: the same posters were there, the same model space-fighters hanging from the ceiling. He brushed his hands together and smiled, then stepped out into the corridor.
© Toby Frost 2008