Chapter 4

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Cora watched the paddock they'd been camped in rapidly shrinking below her.  OK—let's just take stock here.  I'm currently looking out of the window of a stolen spaceship.  I've been nearly blown up by a meteorite.  I've been attacked by an alien.  And I've been saved by a hologram—in board shorts.  She scratched at a mosquito bite on her arm.  And an hour ago, I thought our biggest problem was forgetting the bug spray.

Ethlukjamson had taken the pilot's seat, while the four baristas were seated in the cabin behind him.  The final passenger in the craft was Ethlukjamson's basketball sized meteor/capsule, which—at a simple whistle from him—had floated up out of its crater and followed them on board, before settling in a chair at the back of the ship.  The little orb had now cooled to a uniform silver colour, featureless but for the intricate waves of red and green lights that occasionally shimmered across its surface.

Although unable to manually interact with any of the instruments arrayed in front of him, Ethlukjamson seemed to somehow have the spaceship under control as they rocketed skywards. He studied one of the flickering screens located among the controls and grunted with satisfaction.  "OK, I've jacked into the communication system, and managed to convince our friends out there that Mr Puddleface McRunny the melted trooper is actually alive and well, and piloting this craft back home after a hard day's hologram-hunting.  So we're in the clear—for the moment."

"This," murmured Cam, staring fixedly out the window, "probably qualifies."

Before long, the ground was lost in darkness, and all the baristas could see through their windows were stars.  Cora turned her attention back to the hologram.  "OK—so how about some of those answers?"

Ethlukjamson stood and turned to face them.  "Hmmm.  Answers, answers.  Where to start?"  He took a deep, presumably virtual breath.  "Okay, no point bashing around the shrubbery, I guess.  Right at this moment, your world is being invaded.  Invaded by alien forces with technology and weapons vastly superior to anything you have here on Earth.  Your major cities are under attack, your military forces are being decimated and the leaders of your governments are being hunted down and captured." He paused to scratch his crotch. "Bummer, huh?"

The others let that sink in for a few seconds.  "But who are these aliens?" asked Cora. "Others like the one that melted?"

"Well, kind of.  There are more like him, but others that are much worse. That was only a base-level disposable Narguwullian-class trooper. Cheap to make, big and strong, and you wouldn't want to be in the same zip-code as a pissed-off one, but a bit lacking in structural integrity.  Manufactured for offensive work on low-tech worlds like yours.  Kind of like a biological robot.  Dumb as a doornail, too."

"Dead," chipped in Cam.

"Huh?"

"Don't you mean 'dead as a doornail'?"

Ethlukjamson frowned. "Given he's currently a congealing puddle of goo, I kinda thought that went without saying."

Cam sighed. "I mean the expression—it's 'dead as a doornail', not 'dumb as a doornail'."

"Is it?  Seriously?"  The hologram stomped back and forth across the limited space the front of the spaceship allowed him.  "That's just great, fantastic, wonderful.  So, clearly the eggheads were as good at programming linguistics as they are at fashion.  You'll blend in, they said.  You'll  be just like a completely typical human, they said.  Our simulation algorithms are the most advanced  ever, they said.  Well, they can shove their simulation algorithms up my simulated...my simulated..."  Seemingly lost for words, he looked up at the ceiling imploringly.  "Are you kidding me?  I can't even swear properly?"  Shaking his head, he turned back to the baristas.  "C'mon, help a holo-brother out here.  What's the word I'm after?"

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