Chapter 40

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"Are you sure this is going to work, holo-boy?"

EJ gave Mel a pained look.  "Am I sure that a plan consisting of a prototype hologrammatic AI, impersonating a missing Rigellian, flying a stolen battle-tank, which he's pretending he's stolen back, so that he can infiltrate a heavily armed battle-station, which has enough firepower to take out a small moon, for reasons you won't tell us about, all while wearing a stubbornly persistent yellow hard-hat, is going to work?  Is that seriously what you're asking me?"

"Yep."

"Right.  Oh yeah, I'm sure it'll work.  Totes."

Despite her anxiety, Cora couldn't resist a smile.  "Hey, you're actually getting the hang of the whole sarcasm thing."

"Great," muttered EJ.  "Let's all celebrate by getting vapourised.  Huzzah."

The tension mounted as they slowly approached the station, weaving their way through the motley but now impressively numerous Earth fan-club flotilla.  As they skimmed alongside a massive space-liner, displaying the message, "Costume party on the Nova Deck tonight.  Come as your favourite barista!" EJ transformed into a duplicate of Captain Zlep Flenson, exact in every non-hat-related detail.  With a last desperate glance at the others, he activated the tank's communicator.

"Attention, Command.  This is battle-tank unit 146, recently recovered from enemy hands, requesting clearance to dock."

Now was the moment of truth.  The point of maximum danger.  The most perilous part of their passage.  With the press of a single button, or the utterance of a single command, the station could release a searing rain of death, unleashing enough firepower to destroy the tank a million times over.  All it would take was one alert controller or one suspicious signals tech—just one highly trained, conscientious, razor-sharp Rigellian, ready to rumble their frankly preposterous deception.  As the communicator screen flickered into life, EJ braced himself for the sight of the cold, calm and calculating features that would surely herald their demise.

What he saw was a cook.  Wearing an apron.  Who frowned out from the screen, removed his enormously tall, food-stained, white hat, scratched his head and said, "Battle-tank who?  Requesting what, now?"

EJ blinked.  "Er.  Tank 146.  Requesting clearance to dock."

The cook consulted a portable data screen, flicking through several pages, while muttering, "Clearance to dock, clearance to dock, I dunno, it's gotta be here somewhere."  Evidently giving up, he tossed the screen over his shoulder.  "Whatever.  Look, we're a bit short-staffed here, at the moment.  There was some sort of drama with the security meatheads, most of the soldier-knobs are swanning around down on Earth, and now they tell me the control room is in lockdown.  So, us domestic stiffs are helping out.  Whole place is going to hell, if you ask me.  Not that anybody ever would.  Unless it was for a burger.  Some days I wonder why I even bothered going to the academy.  First-class honours in insults, I got.  Can you believe that?  First-class bloody honours.  So they made me a cook.  Where's the justice in that?  I'll tell you where.  It's right up my—"

"Er, look," interrupted EJ, deciding there was unlikely to be a break in the monologue anytime soon.  "Can we dock, or not?"

The cook shrugged.  "I dunno.  When you normally ask the sort of person who normally sits here, would they normally say yes?"

"Um...yes?"

"Good enough for me.  Knock yourselves out.  Come on in.  The more the merrier.  Let's face it, it's not as though we couldn't do with the help.  In fact, when you get on board, how about you do me a favour and come and take over here, for a bit?  Some of those security guys have got some sweet, sweet boots, and while they're out of action I wouldn't mind giving their collections a bit of a peruse, if you get my drift.  How about it?"

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