After all their efforts they finally swung around the searing ball of atomic fire at the centre of our solar system and the great purple bruise that was Dyzan came into sight. A giant world, the lost triplet to Jupiter and Saturn, swarming with moons and asteroids, each a world in its own right and crowning them all, the imperial worldlet of Rex, now ravaged by civil war since the fall of the Emperor.
Ace’s nostrils flared as the planet came into view. This was the last place he really wanted to be, since the war had come to these moons and him along with them. It was a horrible, grim time for planet Earth, under attack from this distant world and then fighting back, only to find the place in chaos. The whole thing was a mystery that nobody had yet unravelled – why had they been attacked in the first place? Was it just the nature of Dyzan’s people to conquer? Whatever the case, it wasn’t save here now. The Dyzan princes of the scattered moons were at war, squabbling over the corpse of the once-mighty empire while the rest of the solar system fell into ruin, directionless and ungoverned.
It wasn’t safe here.
He flicked the switch to his radio, calling back to the hold where the trio were hiding since the run-in with Rosie. “We’re almost there.” his voice crackled over the tannoy. “Where – exactly – are we going?”
There was no reply, but not much later the Professor joined him in the cramped cockpit. “There.” His rough fingertip pressed against the glass of the screen.” We’re going to Rex.”
Ace rolled his eyes, hard, just his luck to be taking them to the worst spot of them all in this whole benighted zone. He grasped the controls and took them in, swooping towards the moon of Rex over the lurid and turbulent atmosphere of Dyzan itself. Soon Rex swam large in the screen, a battle-scarred world of gold and ash, the imperial city – or what remained of it – visible even at this distance, a massive structure on a scale previously unimaginable to the human mind.
Ace’s radar pinged, warningly and he turned to the little green screen, three blips, incoming. Maybe they’d leave them alone, maybe they wouldn’t. He set his jaw and flipped on the broadcast radio. “This is Man’s Ruin to incoming vessels. We are on a mission of… exploration and mean no harm. Please divert your course.”
This hiss from Dyzan’s magnetosphere almost drowned out any reply but he managed to tune it to hear their crackling missive: “Repeat… Avians – scree! – claim this sector. You are intruding. This is Matloch of the Vulcan’s Claw, turn around or be destroyed!”
Ace turned questioning to the Professor whose thick brow was now set in determination. “We’re paying you well, punch on through man.”
Ace nodded and his own brow furrowed. “Strap yourself down.” He muttered and turned Man’s Ruin towards the oncoming vessels.
This close to Rex’s atmosphere the atomic turbines couldn’t blast full speed, they’d burn up like meteors in the wisps of atmosphere but, at this terrific speed, the flaps and rudder on the ship could get a little bite and that gave Ace the edge. He swooped in lower, biting deeper into Rex’s atmosphere, the ship glowing at the nose as it picked up heat. Distantly he could see the silvery cigar shapes of the Avian vessels with their distinctive back-swept wings barely visible. He flipped up the catch on his control stick and the battle-joy came over him. This was what he was good at.
He thumbed the stud as he roared up out of the atmosphere in a corona of burning plasma, the atmosphere clinging to the ship like a shroud. The vickers opened up with ravening beams of atomic fire, lancing out across the void towards the ‘V’ formation of the Avian rocket ships. Classic formation, the bird-brains never learned. Great scars opened up along the side of one of the vessels and its wing melted away like butter in a hot pan. Venting atmosphere and the distant, doll-like bodies of Avian soldiers it began its death-spin down towards the planet.
The remaining vessels peeled away, one going high, one going low. The higher vessel swept up, then down, barrelling towards Ace’s ship in a hawk’s dive, blazing away with its own cannons, hot ions slapping into the plasma shroud and impacting the crackling lightning shield, but they weren’t going to get through, not in time.
Ace pushed the thruster control forward and headed for the ship dead on. At this speed there were no earthly reflexes that could avoid a collision and both vessels blazed away with their energy beams, gun against gun, field against field in a battle of competing technology that would result in the death of one, or the other.
The Avian’s vessels had been kept weak by the Emperor, not wanting to risk an uprising that could not be crushed by the Imperial fleet and Ace was hoping they hadn’t been retrofitted. His luck held. There was an explosion as the Avian lightning field collapsed and as it did the coruscating beams from the Vickers blew it into a cloud of vapour. Ace’s own field was dangerously low though now and as he dove back towards the planet his lightning field began to register hits from the one remaining ship.
“Hold tight!” Ace shouted, holding on for dear life as he pushed Man’s Ruin to its absolute limit, every bolt and plate rattling as he dove towards the planet’s surface, down towards the rocky outcroppings of the Plain of Misery and it’s ashen wastes. The Avian ship dived after him, following in his wake, but it’s beams couldn’t penetrate the corona of hot gas that plumed behind Man’s Ruin, her hull vapourising from the heat and the ship baking like an oven.
At the last possible moment Ace pulled up, the planet spinning sickeningly beneath him and the controls cutting the air as we drove Man’s Ruin into a desperate set of jinking manoeuvres through the rocky outcroppings of the surface. The Avian was hot on his tail, explosions of melting rock going off like firecrackers beneath them as the Avian ship stuck to them like glue, intent upon their tail and that, that was what Ace was counting on.
Man’s Ruin turned, desperately, and swept towards a rocky arch, sliding through by the barest of margins at dangerous speed. So intent on the hunt were the Avians that they followed, but the great, swept back wings of their ship would not fit where the sleek, penial design of the Spite could more easily go. There was a terrific crash behind them and the Avian ship’s wreckage blasted out of the collapsing arch like the pellets of a shotgun blast. They were safe, for now.
The Professor clapped Ace on the shoulder. “Well done that man, well done! Bang himself couldn’t have done better.” Ace didn’t doubt that and wasn’t about to argue with the man.
“Where to then Professor?” The reward they’d promised him would be half gone just fixing Man’s Ruin, he wanted this job done, now.
The Professor leant of the scope and read out coordinates, it wasn’t far. Man’s Ruin, scarred and battle worn, swept through the smoking skies and landed on her struts, the grey sand sinking beneath her weight as, pinging and crackling, the vessel began to cool.
They descended, Ace first, onto the grim surface of this ruined world. Ace’s hand was on his Eliminator, ready to draw at the first sign of trouble. The trio seemed, oddly, almost at home here. Gail was even smiling as she looked out across the wastes. Bang looked pantherish and confident, in stark contrast to his bullish overcompensation at other times. Even the Professor stood straight backed and confident, all too at home in this alien landscape.
They walked, perhaps ten score yards over the rough terrain until they found a great scar in the surface of the planet, melted rock and sand turned to glass, fragments of wreckage. A rocket ship had smashed down here and as they followed the scar to its end Ace began to feel more and more uneasy.
At the very end were the skeletal remnants of a rocket ship, oddly primitive in design, unlike any other vessel Ace had ever seen but to the trio, it seemed familiar.
“You SEE!” Roared the Quartus triumphantly. “It’s still here! Proof! Evidence that we were here first! That we discovered them! That our story, OUR story is true!” He scrambled a camera from his backpack and began to take shots as Bang clambered over the wreckage and hauled out a metal plate, inscribed, in English.
Ace’s mind reeled and he literally swayed at this news, dizzy with all its implications. He didn’t have enough time to organise his thoughts however, a rock tumbled behind him and he swung around hard, Eliminator at the ready.
“HOLD!” Roared the sneering voice of the man in the silver mask, a plasma pistol grasped in his gauntlet. “I mean you no harm Captain Slamm. I wish to talk a moment and, if you still wish to kill me, we can have it out after that.”
“Kill him!” Roared Bang, tensed to jump, but there was no way he could reach Siltar without being cut down. Ace kept his hand tight on the Eliminator and nodded to Siltar, accepting his proposal with a taciturn gesture.
“Predictable bloody Earthlings.” Muttered Siltar, stepping with distaste down the slope of the scar, as though the ground were not worthy to sully his feet. “This trio came here in the thirties, by your primitive measure. Barely had they been here a day when they began to foment revolt against the Emperor. This brainless lump even turned the eye of the Emperor’s daughter.” He gestured to Bang and, judging by the way Gail reacted, that was a sore point.
“Go on.” Ace growled roughly, without taking his eyes off Siltar, though he could sense the unease of the trio at what was being said.
“It’s because of them that the Emperor launched his war against your Earth, thinking them the vanguard of some invasion, some rebellion. Your armies beat us, but not because of your might, but rather because of what these bumbling fools accomplished against all odds here. The Empire is ruined, but at least we were beaten – so people think – in honest contest of arms. If this… crank…” Siltar pointed with the barrel of his gun at Quartus “…has his way that legend, for both our peoples, will be shattered.”
“Is this true?” Ace and Siltar shared a nod of understanding and he allowed his attention to drift to Quartus.
“Yes!” Proclaimed the man of science. “I invented space travel for our people! I discovered this place! Bang freed her people and Gail infiltrated the palace! We liberated the solar system from Dyzan’s rule!”
Ace lowered his gun and holstered it. “Millions of people died and all because you couldn’t stay out of it. All because you had to interfere. They didn’t care about Earth until you made them care.” He turned and began to trudge back towards Man’s Ruin.
Gail darted after him, recoiling as Siltar blasted a rock to atoms beside her, calling out to him. “Ace! Please! No! People have to hear the truth!”
“No, they don’t need to hear it’s our fault.” He kept on trudging.
“We had a deal! What about your reward? What about me? I’ve seen you looking at me, you’re twice the man Bang ever was!”
“Hey!” the sportsman bristled at the slight, clenching his fists.
“You can stick the reward where the sun don’t shine love.” Ace growled, without turning around. Grinding the ashen soil of Rex beneath his boots as plasma flared, three times, behind him.