Chapter 44

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Silence reigned in the corridor; the baristas and non-earthlings were shocked into speechlessness by the magnitude of what they had just heard, while the world leaders were simply stunned by the untranslated Rigellian language's remarkable similarity to the sound of a grizzly bear playing a tuba, while simultaneously gargling gravel.

Wide-eyed, Cora stared at Mel.  "Did he just say...does this mean...surely it can't be...over?"

Still in rant mode, and simmering with outrage at having been interrupted mid-rant (even if it was by the prime minister of Britain), it took Mel a moment to respond.  She blinked.  "I...I don't know.  I guess so."

Chek gave both Cam and Max a hearty slap on the back, before breaking into a little celebratory shuffle.  "Oh yeah, oh yeah, we won, we won.  The forces of epic awesomeness—one, the evil dweebs of Rigel—zero.  We won, Earth-dudes!  And I couldn't have done it without you.  Well, I probably could, but it would have been way harder.  Who's up for a celebratory drink or ten?  I'm buying."

As the enormity of the news sank in, Max's mouth opened as if to say something, but as his brain failed to supply any actual words, it had to content itself with grinning manically instead.  Seemingly oblivious to Earth's apparent salvation, Cam simply stared at Mel.  He took a step in her direction.

"Will somebody damn well tell us what in the name of Sam Hill is going on?  What the hell was all that ruckus about?"

The translator-chip in Cora's head worked so seamlessly that she tended to forget that it was there, and it took her a moment to realise that the US president didn't have one.  "The invasion is over," she called, from across the corridor.  "The Rigellians have called it all off, and are going home."  Her features formed into a tentative smile.  "The Earth is saved."

After another few moments of shock, pandemonium erupted, gradually increasing as the news was passed and translated to the other world leaders, stretched in an untidy procession back down the corridor.  Backs were slapped, hands were shaken and there were rapturous hugs all around.

Being forgotten about was not something Kral Vanar was accustomed to, nevertheless it was clear to him that this was exactly what was happening.  He glared at the unruly crowd that was doing its best to ruin his moment of triumph, and deciding it was time to regain some attention, drew a jet-black handgun from the holster on his hip.  He briefly considered blasting a hole in Pok, still standing there with that idiotically benign smile on his face, but was loath to give up the satisfaction of beating the old fool to death.  Plus, deep in his frozen bones, he had a horrible suspicion that killing the last Flame Monk couldn't possibly be that easy.

No, he'd just have to blow away one of the other inconsequential heat-sacks steaming up the corridor, and the newly arrived loudmouth would do nicely.  He'd just lined up the US president squarely in his crosshairs, when he felt the unmistakable and remarkably unpleasant touch of room-temperature metal on the back of his neck.

"Well, well," said Uva Kwoin.  "Look what we have here.  The Arcruxian criminal Kral Vanar—number three on GalCon's most-wanted list.  What an unexpected surprise.  If I were you, Kral, I'd lower that gun.  That is, unless you'd like your head and your body to undergo a trial separation."

Vanar snorted in derision.  "I am a warrior.  A soldier of Arcrux.  I am no criminal.  But if I was, I would certainly be higher than number three.  After all, I was on the cover of Ice-cool Bods of Acrux.  I am on a sacred quest, a noble—"

"Oh, cram it in your ice-hole, sleet-for-brains," snapped Kwoin.  "The Steam Wars ended years ago, and you're nothing but an amoral killer-for-hire.  You're under arrest, and you're going to face justice for the countless murders you've committed."

Vanar's personal snowstorm intensified, and even through its insulated grip, Kwoin could feel the temperature of her handgun dropping.  Ice crept along the barrel, as the Acruxian began to tremble with rage.

"You—cannot—be—serious!  You cannot be serious!  He's right there!  The old fool, the wrinkly bastard I've chased from one side of the galaxy to the other is finally right there!  And you think you're going to arrest me?  You think you're going to stop me from fulfilling my quest?  Ha!  You cannot be serious!"

Despite her fingers going numb, Kwoin grinned.  "Try anything funny and you'll find out just how serious I am."  She became aware of someone shouting to be heard over the general hubbub in the corridor, and it took her a moment to realise it was the hologram she'd last seen during her visit to Antarctica, on the bridge of the stolen battle-tank.  Wondering who the hell else was going to turn up, she leaned a little to the side, so as to see past the enraged ice-warrior, while keeping her gun firmly in place.

"Hey, everyone shut the heck down!  Er, I mean, everybody pipe up!  Or is it shut the pipe up?  Hang on, maybe it's put the pipe down and—"

"EJ," interrupted Cora.  "Everyone has shut up.  And they've piped down as well.  What is it?"

The hologram looked around at the sea of expectant faces staring at him.  "Oh, right.  Baristas, we have a problem. I'm picking up a transmission from the control-room, and you guys really need to see it."

"No, they don't," said Flenson, with surprising vehemence.  "Now that Splurmfeen's been stripped of his command, anything he has to say is completely irrelevant."

"Maybe.  But this transmission isn't from Splurmfeen.  Watch."

A hologrammatic projection materialised in the air above EJ, a closeup of a grimy, fatigue-lined face, topped with a mop of unruly hair.

"Hello, viewers.  Strarl Fabulon here, still broadcasting to you from the control-room of the Rigellian battle-station, orbiting the planet Grime, and still in mortal danger—only now more than ever.  Impossible, I hear you say?  Not so fast, my doubting devotees, my cynical supplicants.  I too did not think that my situation could possibly become any more dangerous, or that my courage could be tested any further.  Sadly, I was mistaken.  Truly, no reporter in the history of journalism can ever have braved the perils to which I am currently exposed.

"Several minutes ago, while valiantly hidden behind a water-cooler, I witnessed ex-Admiral Xarnax Splurmfeen setting this battle-station on a collision course with the planet below us.  Unable to conquer the primitive but stubborn Dirtlings, Splurmfeen has apparently decided to destroy them instead, along with everybody on this station.  Including your plucky correspondent.

"Everybody, that is, but for one notable exception—the admiral himself.  Just moments after announcing his dastardly plan, Splurmfeen evaded capture by leaping into a transport tube, leading to the station's escape pods.  The admiral then preceded to not only launch a pod for himself, but to also release every other pod, doubtless to confuse any pursuers.  He is now at large, somewhere in the Soilian system.

"After Splurmfeen's escape, I recorded the following interview with the senior surviving Rigellian officer.

"Lieutenant, this station will soon be destroyed in a catastrophic, apocalyptic explosion and you yourself will be incinerated in a devastating inferno of white-hot heat.  Tell me, how does that make you feel?"

"What?  How does it make me feel?  Get the hell out of my way, you idiot—I've got an evacuation to organise."

"An evacuation?  But Lieutenant, aren't you going to try to save the battle-station?  Aren't you going to steer it away from Sludge?"

"Impossible, Fabulon.  I can't steer it away, because as it turns out, the admiral didn't steer the station towards Earth."

"What? But I heard—so you mean it's not going to crash?"

"Oh, it's going to crash alright.  What Splurmfeen actually did was simply turn the engines off.  He's letting gravity do the steering."

"But Lieutenant, why don't you just turn them back on?"

"Because, Fabulon, I don't know how to hotwire a battlestation."

"Huh?"

"I can't turn the engines back on for one very simple reason."

"Which is?"

"Splurmfeen has the keys."

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