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THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 48 ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS

ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS

"Ullyses calling Moonbase! Ullyses calling Moonbase!"

Silence.

"Ullyses calling Moonbase! Ullyses calling Moonbase!"

Further silence.

"Again, sir?"

"Again, Tullulah."

But before the radio operator could switch once more to transmit, we heard:

This recorded message is not authorised. I am acting entirely on my own. Do not attempt to reply. I repeat, do not attempt to reply. If you suspect foul play, and you still have your mining pod, loose it. Let it enter Steefax atmosphere in your place. One dot on a screen may look like any other to the untrained eye. Good luck to Your Majesty. Good luck to you all.

A few seconds later the message began to repeat, and we listened through it again.

"Can we do that, Commander?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Who'd notice the difference?"

"Drainin and Polikova. Burdon."

"Wishbone?"

"Probably not."

"Nell?"

"Highly unlikely."

"So they might fire at the pod?"

"They might, sire, if firing is what they have in mind. Should have thought of it myself."

"You've been rather busy, Mister Darande."

The Commander got up out of his seat. "Mister Darek," he said, "you have the ship. I need to have a talk with the engineer."

*

Chief, formerly Royal, Engineer Burdon radioed Draxy Palace, and then the missile silo, to report that Ullyses was in orbit. Nell summoned Alkan, her new Captain of the Guard, who had Bagwort fetch Polikova and Drainin from their cell. All five drove in a closed carriage to the Space Centre.

*

Ullyses was half way into its second orbit, at 7.30 p.m., Steefax time.

"I think we might wait until dark, Your Majesty," Darande said.

"Will it make any differnece?"

"Not to us, but it might make them nervous on the ground, if they really do have evil intent."

"Can they do anything to us while we're up here?"

"No, sire. We're out of missile range. We'll be perfectly safe until we're well into the atmsophere. We'll do one more orbit after this one. Will you be ready, Mac?"

"Aye, Captain, I'm nearly there. It's all a matter of the balance," said the engineer over the interccom.

"What is?" The King asked Darande.

"The pod, sire. It has to be so positioned that when we begin the re-entry, the merest touch of reverse thrusters will send it on its way."

"Then what?"

"We get out fast!"

*

We had just emerged from radio blackout on our third orbit.

"Now, Tullulah!"

"Aye, sir." The radio operartor flicked a switch to transmit. "Pegasus is flying again, Steefax. Is the stable door open?'" she said, twice, before switching to receive.

Drainin's voice sounded routine, professional, entirely stress free, as twice he intoned, "The manger is ready, and your corn awaits you, Pegasus. Ride on." At a nod from his mistress, Bagwort removed his knife point from Polikova's neck.

"Drainin sounds very calm, very normal," Tullulah said.

"Yes. Yes he does. He doesn't sound like someone anxious for our safety."

"Perhaps she's going to let us land after all?" Darek suggested.

"Let us land and deal with us later, perhaps?" Darande said.

"All ready, here, Captain!" announceed Macroida from the engine room.

"It looks as though we might not need it, after all, Mac."

THIS WAS AWFUL! HADN'T ANYONE BUT ME NOTICED? I bit my lip, and held my counsel!

*

Burdon did not notice anything actually wrong with the code, but he did think that he might have spoken it slightly differently.

Nell heard nothing wrong. So well coached had she been by Drainin under interrogation, that she would have spoken it in precisely that way.

*

Tullulah had shown me a copy of the re-entry codes while we were on Fendergedano, and I had memorised them, for something to do. I just knew that Drainin had not said his part of the code as it had been written. And if Drainin had got it wrong, then he must have got it wrong on purpose!

"NO!" I screamed. "IT'S WRONG! THE CODE IS WRONG!"

"Wrong, boy! What d'you mean?" Darande demanded.

"The words are right, sir, but the punctuation is wrong!"

"Punctuation?"

"Tell us," Hamlet said. "Tell us what you heard." He held out his hand to Tullulah, who handed him her copy of the codes.

"Drain said, Your Majesty, 'The manger is ready, and you corn awaits you, Pegasus. Ride on."

"That's how he said it, alright," Darande agreed.

"But it's not how it is written, sir," I said.

"Nor is," said the King. He gave the paper to Darande.

Darande read aloud: "'The manger is ready, and your corn awaits you.' FULL STOP! Then we have, 'Pegasus, ride on.' That's how it was meant to be spoken! Well done Drainin, and marvellously well done that boy!" Darande grinned at me before turning to the navigator, "Mister Darek, set a course for the shortest re-entry manoevre in history!"

"Aye, sir!"

"Then plot us the quickest way out again."

"Aye, aye, sir!"

"Pod ready, Mac?"

"Just give the word, sir."

"As soon as we begin re-entry, apply reverse thrusters. Wait ten seconds before giving me all the forward power you've got."

"Aye, aye, sir!"

"Both courses plotted, Commander."

"Thank you, Mister Darek. Now, listen everybody. If this works, we may at least live to come back another day. If they blow up the pod, and think it's us, then this day may be ours. What do we all say? Cry Draxy, for Hamlet, Steefax, and Saint George?"

From all quarters there came a stirring unison roaring of the Rattlelance mantra.

Darande ordered, "Fasten your seat belts, folks. This could get a bit rocky. Ready, Mac?"

"Aye, sir."

"Stand by, everyone, for re-entry - now!"

The ship lurched and I felt gravity beginning to return. Then Macroida began her brief, never to be forgotten commentary on the immediate events: "Reverse thruster applied! Pod away! 10, 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1! You have full forward power, sir!"

"Hold on people - it's time to get out of here!" Dranded roared, triumphantly I thought.

*

Burdon, looking over Drainin's shoulder, saw the white dot on the screen. Ullyses was coming in. The image blurred, then seemed to divide in two for a few moments before becoming one again. But this time, was it not a little smaller than before? The engineer opened his mouth to...to yawn. Nell scowled at him, "Keep alert, man!" she snapped, before looking back to the screen, where she saw nothing amiss. Burdon glowed with satisfaction at what he had not done! He was beginning to feel almost 'royal' again. Under other circumstances, Polikova and Drainin might well have hugged him!

*

General Wishbone took personal charge of firing at the white dot, and he was eminently satisfied by the spectacular result as seen through his bunker window!

*

The Archdraxite saw the brilliant flash on the screen, and Burdon confirmed for her the 'loss of Ullyses with all hands.'

"You have played your parts well, scientists," Nell said. "You will remain at Draxy Palace for the remainder of your lives, but in rather better comfort than of late. Oh, and you will not be seeing Bagwort any more." Drainin remembererd that the named gentleman produced a 'gruesome leer of slobbering regret.'

*

Captain Terson, whose vigil it was, saw the explosion, and believed the worst - while Lindra watched a replay of the explosion on the big screen, and hoped for the best - while Finola, who could not sleep, stood at her bedroom window, and saw a shooting star. And shooting stars are lucky, aren't they?

*

Nell's diary had but one entry for that day.

I am sorry about Diken, and I shall grieve for him. But he made his choices. And now for the newspaper: keep it short, and keep it simple.

Nell penned the following obituary for a special luchtime edition of the Gazette, which was to be distributed City wide by criers.

We regret to announce, that following a massive explosion last night in Steefax space, all contact with the returning Ullyses was broken. We have to assume the loss of the ship with all hands.

Following eight days of solemn mourning for King Hamlet and his companions, an official enquiry into the catastrophe will be set up.

Meanwhile, though we may regret the lack of wisdom amongst the adventurers, we salute their bravery. Our thoughts go out to Her Majesty the Queen, wherever she may be, at this time of her personal tragedy.