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By prudence walker

Children of Hope
“Araya? Your children are hailing us,” Puda interrupted over the comm link.
“Which ones is it now?” I asked, having just finished my exercises in the onboard gymnasium of the Hope.
“All four,” replied Puda with a laugh.
“Put them on,” I groaned, wiping my face with a towel and hurriedly straightening my workout tracksuit.
“Mom, we all want to take our ships and go on this latest mission to check out the search probes report.” A chorus sounded as soon I allowed an open channel.
“Not on your own you aren’t. You either pair up or take someone else with you,” I insisted vehemently knowing I’d get a concerted howl of protest.
“Oh mom, our AI’s are more than capable of taking care of us, and our ships are the latest models, not like your old thing.” Rachel grumbled loudly with the others chipping in with their affirming opinions.
“You heard me. You’re lucky I’m considering letting you go at all, if it wasn’t for your father…” I trailed off, my thoughts going back a few months.
“You want me to what?” asked a stunned Tryst, as I tried to appear nonchalant over my suggestion.
“I think you need to spend some time in the Med unit, I think you’re going deaf in your old age.” I giggled, trying to delay the inevitable.
“Me? I’m not the one suggesting I have the next child,” snorted Tryst indignantly.
“Well you did mention having more children, I’m just offering you a chance to experience the joys of creating a new life and nurturing it yourself,” I prompted.
“But…but,” sputtered Tryst, getting rather red-faced, as he tried to weasel out of it.
“I can have a fertilized egg transplanted from my body to yours, after you change sex. That way you don’t have to get pregnant the old fashioned way and I don’t have to become male to do it either.” I countered, overriding his protests.
In the end, I won him over. I mean it wasn’t as if he had to remain female forever. A lot of the other families were choosing to do the same, becoming more empathic with their spouses as they shared the same experiences and joy.
With the tradition role of breadwinner being made redundant thanks to the new technological wonders Gaia produced, men were sharing the role of mother to help repopulate the Earth.
I thought having had four children a year apart, two of which were twins, it was time for someone else to pop them out. The eldest, Kevin was followed by his brother Chris, with the twins Rachel and Cindy following a year later. Being a mother and giving life to another human being was such a satisfying experience that I wanted Tryst to experience it as well.
Two weeks after Tryst became pregnant with our fifth child, a shock announcement from Gaia revealed that one of the early probes sent out across the galaxy, had found another human outpost. The probe had encountered a serious threat which had caused it to abandon its primary objective and limp back to earth with its discovery. Before it was forced to retreat by an attack on itself by unknown forces, it had detected human life in conflict with those same forces.
If I had held off on getting Tryst pregnant by those two weeks, it could have been me that would have led the expedition to search out the last remnants of humankind. It now looked like my children would be taking my place, so I was going do my darnedest to make sure my children were going to be safe on their voyage. I knew that the AI’s in their ships that they all received on their 20th birthday were clones of Puda herself, and as such, were the best there was, but I also knew you need at least two people aboard a ship in case of the unexpected.
Each of my children had chosen ship hulls of differing shapes. The boys had selected a spherical, and a cylindrical hull, while the girls had chosen a teardrop and a saucer shape hull. Each had the latest armaments and cloaking technology available and didn’t need natural wormholes to travel intergalactic space, as the ships generated their own, sort of like pulling themselves along with their own bootstraps.
If it wasn’t for Tryst, I would have gone along too, but I’d promised I’d stay with her during her pregnancy and I didn’t want to go gallivanting around the galaxy with her when there was a chance of a battle. Not that I was happy that my children were going into harms way, but they were the logical choice as they had lived aboard the Hope most of their lives and knew shipboard life intimately. Everything I could teach them about weapons strategy and navigation had been drummed into their heads and I hoped some of it had stuck there.
“What do the kids want now?” asked Tryst, who had just entered the bridge, dragging my thoughts back to the present.
”They want permission to head the search to find the last colonists,” I answered, turning to look at my husband come mother.
Tryst looked nothing like his male self, having chosen to pick a young female body that most resembled me 25 years ago. Unlike the time when I had been forced to inhabit a male form, there was no reticence at showing our closeness together. I hugged her, receiving a hug and a kiss in return.
“I take it from your expression that you are letting them go, even though you want to be there as well?” Tryst asked with a delicately raised eyebrow.
“You know me too well,” I sighed, nodding my head.
“They do have to learn to rely on themselves, you know,” Tryst pointed out.
“Maybe I’m feeling old,” I joked.
“Well you could get your body clock reset,” winked Tryst. “Then we could cruise bars together,” she added, striking a provocative pose with one hand on her hip.
“Watch it missy, or I’ll show you some bars … in the brig,” I quipped with a giggle.
“We could both go with them, you know,” offered Tryst.
“No!” I cut her off, trying desperately to resist the temptation.
“So what about it?” Tryst persisted.
“Huh?” I replied intelligently, having forgotten what we were on about.
“Getting a younger body, I wasn’t kidding about hitting the bars. I figured seeing I have this body, I could wangle a few free drinks.” Tryst reminded me.
“But we don’t have to pay for drinks anyway,” I snorted, feeling like I was in some sort of melodrama.
“Well?” Tryst began doggedly, ignoring my rebuttal.
“Okay, okay. I promise I’ll do it tomorrow,” I gave in, knowing arguing was futile at this juncture.
“I’ve made the appointment, Araya,” Puda announced with a laugh.
“Hey! I thought you were on my side?” I half-heartedly grumbled.
“Oh I am dear, I am,” Puda replied.
The next few days were hectic, as after I went through the age reversal process, I then went and inspected each of my children’s ships, for a final check. I spoke with each AI, all of whom had been given different personal names as chosen by my sons and daughters. I felt better after that, even though I knew nothing counted more than having experienced an actual battle and surviving. Each AI had the knowledge base from the original Puda and would guide my children as Puda had done for me.
In the end, they each took along one of their friends to crew their ships and after a brief shakedown exercise, they started their journey into the unknown.
After moving clear of the solar system, they blipped (blipped is the kids expression for wormholing) out towards the heading supplied by the probe.
Gaia had thoughtfully provided small drones that would deploy just prior to each of their jumps. These were designed to communicate through the sub space link created by the wormholes. This provided a link through which we could keep in touch with the ships in real time.’ Once they were past the first several jumps, they decided to separate, forming a square with each ship at the corners. The distance between them was determined so the overlap of their sensor fields left no gap in the centre of their formation. This increased their search sweep range while still being within sensor range and help from their sibling ships.
It was Quda, (Cindy’s AI aboard her ship the Hopeful) that located the first signs of life. She then informed the other ships to close on her position. Kevin commanding his ship, the NewHope came to within 50 K of Cindy’s ship, positioning it alongside, with Rachel and Chris in their ships the Hope and Glory, and the Hopetown, lining up behind 500 K to the rear.
“Listen up folks,” Kevin spoke, calling a four ship conference. “Cindy and I will proceed ahead together, while Chris and Rachel remain here as backup. But if I give you the order to leave, YOU MUST OBEY. I don’t want you foolishly committing yourselves in the face of overwhelming odds. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Kevin insistently demanded.
“Loud and clear bro, but in that case, we want you to make all attempts to survive too. We don’t want to face mom without you.” Chris answered.
“We shall try our best,” offered Cindy, as she fell into line behind Kevin.
The NewHope moved out with the Hopeful following in close support. Sensor readings indicated multiple weapon discharges, and there were snatches of human communications indicating that someone was under attack.
Fully cloaked, and defensive screens on, the two Hopes pressed on towards the planetary system where all the action appeared to be located. Kevin sent a tight beam Maser transmission to Chris and Rachel.
“We are out of their line of sight behind the shadow of a gas giant in this system. It seems quiet here so you can advance to this point while we head into the inner planets. Do not show yourselves until we give you the go ahead.”
Kevin didn’t expect a reply, knowing Chris and Rachel wouldn’t want anyone to know their exact position to bother sending a beamed reply in case it was possibly detected by the unknown forces gathered in the area.
Kevin and Cindy then moved forward, past the gas giant and moved towards the centre of activity. Suddenly, Kevin’s AI, Duda, informed him that there were two fleets of ships ahead, both seemingly being manned by humans. It seemed the conflict was the result of a civil war and didn’t actually involve an alien race.

Back on Terra firma…
“Araya? There’s an urgent call coming in from Gaia,” Puda announced, sounding agitated.
“Put her on,” I acknowledged, wondering why Puda sounded so concerned.
“Hello my child, it seems we might have been misled in our haste to recover our other lost children,” the motherly sounding voice of Gaia began.
The contrite tone in her voice sent shivers down my spine. I braced myself for bad news as Gaia continued. “On further analysis of the data, the probe returned with, we have determined to a 97% chance of possibility that the conflict was between humans calling themselves the Chosen and the Mutoids.”
“SO?” I asked, waiting to the hammer to drop.
“It appears that there are no aliens. Both groups are human.”
“Oh crap! I exclaimed, knowing this was bad.
“Indeed,” confirmed Gaia.
“What’s bad,” tryst chimed in, having just entered and catching the last bit of our conversation.
“We sent our kids into a civil war. There are no clear cut aliens to fight against, only other humans. Trust me, that’s bad. Who’s to say which are the bad guys, or even if there are any. Just read any of the old history files from earth’s civil wars and what happens to third parties that try intervention to stop them.”
“Gaia I need a new ship … a big one,” I asked, turning away so Tryst couldn’t see my tears. My children needed me, I had to go.

Meanwhile, in an uncharted region of space.
“They have stopped attacking each other,” Cindy reported, via a tight beam, having seen the multi-hued fire fight flashing between both fleets.
“Yeah, they seem to be moving apart. I wonder why?” Kevin commented with a hint of worry in his voice.
“I don’t suppose they have detected us?” asked Cindy, echoing Kevin’s worry.
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” Kevin beamed back. “We are fully cloaked against visual and electromagnetic sensors.”
It became apparent by the movement of the two fleets that they had detected something approaching. The fleet nearest the planet had started to turn and head toward the two ships while the opposing fleet remained relatively in the same place, apart from closing ranks and turning to face the same way as the other fleet.
Cindy had a premonition and opened a channel to her sibling ships far behind and had Quda relay all the telemetric data as it occurred as well as the voice logs.
“The nearest group is heading straight for us. Somehow they know we’re here,” stated Kevin, as he calculated the vectors.
Shall we decloak and hail them?” asked Cindy in reply.
“Yes, tell the others to be ready,” agreed Kevin, sending the command to decloak the ship.
“Already done brother,” as she too, began to decloak.
Before either of the two Hope’s could deliver a message to the approaching ships, both of them came under attack from the fleet closest to them. Their screens flared white, but sustained no damage as the barrage increased in intensity. Their relief was short lived though, as soon both Quda and Duda reported hull breeches.
“How can they get through our screens,” shouted Kevin, as choking dense smoke filled the bridge.
“It’s some kind of knock out gas, choked Cindy, feeling dizzy and nauseated as she breathed in the toxic cloud.
“They are using a wormhole weapon,” warned their AI’s. “They opened a miniature event horizon inside our hulls and sent their loads through it,” they explained to their nearly unconscious captains. “More incoming,” they warned, as small balls of sparkling energy disrupted everything electrical with an EMP like pulse. The computers fell silent and the two Hopes drifted helplessly as everything shutdown and all members’ aboard succumbed to the gas.
Chris and Rachel were in a quandary. They were torn with the need to stay and protect their brother and sister and the duty to retreat and report the situation back to Earth. The decision became moot, as they found themselves under the same attack from a breakaway group from the other fleet. They had no defence against the wormhole weapon, and Chris barely managed to send several data probes back to the last jump point before succumbing to unconsciousness.
Kevin awoke to hear strange voices near him. He opened his eyes and coughed in reflex to clear his lungs. Hands from several strangers pulled him to his feet and he got his first clear look at them, as they threw questions at him in some barely understandable English. He feigned weakness as he tried to figure out where he was. The people shaking him for answers were dressed oddly, their clothes seemingly mismatched and looked like hand me downs.
As Kevin shook his head, the men turned their attention to Jennifer his only other crewmember. Seeing that they were only firing questions at her, Kevin took a moment to look at the screens that showed the outside of the Hope. He was shocked to see that the ship appeared to be underground. They must have taken the ship down to the planet where they used the manual access hatch in the hull. Although some electrical systems were active, most were not. He took a chance and spoke a single word.
“Duda?” He called out to his AI.
Silence answered, at least from the AI. The men turned their attention back to him.
“Crikey mate you do talk, we thought you didn’t understand our lingo. Is that your name or hers?” the one in charge asked, pointing at Jennifer.
“It’s my ship,” Kevin answered, not wanting to be caught in a lie that might bite him in the ass later. It was true anyway, just not all the truth. “Where are we, and why did you attack us?”
“You and this ship are on New Australus. We were at war with the Mutoids and we thought you were their new secret weapon. We were surprised when we took you so easily. The Mutoids have developed a defence against our inter-dimensional transporter.”
“Where is my sister’s ship? Is she okay?”
“The other ship is here as well, our men are about to enter it now. Where are you from? You are obviously the chosen, but we don’t recognise this ship or your style of clothing.”
“The chosen?” Kevin questioned.
“Crikey mate! The chosen are the fair dinkum from flippen Urt, surely you know that much.”
Kevin struggled to make sense of the man’s words, but eventually he worked it out.
“You mean Earth?”
“Yeah mate, you got it in one,” the man answered. “So where did you come from?”
“We all came from Earth.” Kevin stated.
“Yeah, I figgered that much, but where do you live now?” the man questioned, seeming to get annoyed with his obvious evasion.
“We live on Earth, we just travelled here to find you,” Kevin elaborated.
“No bleeding way mate! The Urt was destroyed millennia ago. You can’t come the raw prawn wid me mate.”
“It’s true, the Earth wasn’t destroyed. We were lost just like you, but now we have returned home. We came to bring you back home as well,” insisted Kevin.
“Home,” the man sighed, his gaze lost in half remembered history lessons.
“My name is Kevin Lightfoot, and this is my friend, Jennifer Matisse,” offered Kevin.
“They call me Jack Dundee,” the man in charge returned. “What happened to the rest of your crew?”
“This is all I have and need,” smiled Kevin at Jack’s disbelieving look.
“We’d better discuss this later. Let me show you New Australus. I’ll have your people on the other ship join us directly,” Jack said, starting to lead off.
Outside, Kevin could see they were in a huge underground cavern. It seemed that the planet had an atmosphere, but it wasn’t one suitable for humankind, so everyone lived underground in an oxygen atmosphere separated from the surface by an airlock. Kevin walked along his cylindrical ship to where he could see the teardrop shape of his sister’s ship. Cindy, and her navigator Jenna were being escorted towards them with several strange men guiding them along.
As everyone gathered in a control/command room, one of the men there came over to Jack and whispered in his ear. Kevin gave Cindy a hug and shrugged at her questioning look.
“Did you have another two ships with you?” Jack asked, looking upset from the news he’d been given.
“Yes, my other brother and sister were lagging behind us, why do you ask?” Kevin answered.
“They have been captured, taken by the Mutoids to their moon.”

Back on Earth.
“What do you mean I have to wait?” I fumed in frustration at hearing Gaia’s call for patience. “If I have to, I’ll take the Hope and go now.” I told her. “I will take on anything to protect my children,” I ranted, pacing the bridge angrily.
“My child, your ship is larger than theirs are, but it will do you no good if you leave now,” Gaia spoke with a quiet patience.
I felt guilty acting like a petulant child to her calm response, but my protective maternal instinct knew no reasoning when it came to my children’s safety. I had wanted a huge ship bristling with arms to frighten anyone I encountered out there.
“We have new information.” Gaia continued undaunted. “A probe from your son’s ship returned with new data. It seems the human colony has a new weapon. If you left now, you’d be just as vulnerable to it as they were.”
I sighed, knowing she was right. If I rushed off now I could be compounding the situation instead of countering it.
“What sort of weapons do they have?” I asked hopefully. “More to the point, will we have a counter for it?”
“It appears to be dimensional in nature. Duda reported containers of anaesthetic gas being ported past the screens directly into the bridge. The last stream of data, before the AI’s transmission stopped was that there was some kind of electrical disrupter sent aboard. We postulated that it was most likely an EMP generator to knock out the computer systems.”
“And the defence against it?” I pressed.
“We’ve come up with one. The ship will be enclosed in a warp field of its own and anything trying to pass through it will be redirected away. It may even be possible to return the fire to its source.
“Why is the new ship being built in a low moon orbit?” I asked curiously.
“Until the ship is complete and the warp field is energised, the sheer mass will would cause gravity disruptions on Earth,” Gaia explained.
“Oh? So just how big with the new ship be?” I asked.
“Well this ship could serve as a life boat on it. The diameter will be 125 miles, and the outer hull will be 1 mile thick. If the screens failed completely, the adamantine/tungsten composite hull could withstand a direct strike against a planet.”
“Wow! I know I said I wanted a big ship, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that big.
“This will be the last Hope we need build. It will carry your ship and all of the other Hopes your children have in it, plus any survivors left to be returned to Earth.”
“The last Hope. That sounds like an apt name for it,” I mused.
“There’s more,” offered Gaia.

Somewhere inside a cavern on a moon circling New Australus
Rachel woke with a pounding headache, then realised the pounding was coming from somewhere in her ship.
“Juda?” She called, trying for a response in the darkened bridge. There was no response, just a few telltales lit on the console. She saw that one represented the airlock on the hull. It had been opened, which meant she’s been boarded. She staggered to the weapons bay and after opening the biometric lock, pulled out a non-lethal dart gun. She waited by the console, trying to regain control of the ship, while listening to the approaching intruders as they forced their way through the inoperative doors. Frustrated in her efforts, she started a cold boot of the ship’s systems, knowing that she would be captured long before the ship finished its task. While she waited, she wondered how her friend Susan was doing. She’d been down in engineering when the shit hit the fan.

Chris in the Hopetown had faired a little better. He’d guessed what had disabled the others and having been the last attacked, had time to crash the ships systems, so that the EMP effects would be minimal. When he woke, the ship had still not been boarded, as Cuta, his AI had rebooted and prevented the unauthorised entry attempted via the hull airlock.
“Cuta? What’s the situation outside?” Chris coughed out, trying to clear the fuzziness out of his head, while checking out his companion Bob, who was still unconscious.
“We are currently 600 feet below the surface of the moon circling the planet known as New Australus. The atmosphere outside is an oxygen/ nitrogen mix with a higher than normal concentration of carbon dioxide, plus some exotic gasses. Pressure is Earth normal at sea level, 14.7 psi. It’s breathable.”
“How did we get here, and who did it?” Chris pressed.
“We were captured by a group humans called the Mutoids. While I was rebooting, they used a tractor beam on both the Hope and Glory and myself and towed us to their moon base. I can’t communicate with Juda, but I did detect that your sister is okay at the moment. However, that may change, as she has been boarded by the Mutoids.”
“Can we do anything?” demanded Chris, feeling frustrated in his helplessness.
“Not at this time. I can’t defend against their weapon at this time and I’d need time to counter the EMP weapon they used against our ships.” Cuda shrugged, her hard light form moving from panel to panel, her hands disappearing eerily into the guts of the panels as she worked to harden the circuitry by attaching bypasses to bleed off unusual voltage potentials.

Rachel watched as several figures entered the bridge. She showed herself once she determined that they were men, her weapon held ready, but facing upwards in a non aggressive manner. The two “men” stopped and took in her stance, their own weapons dipping towards the floor, seeing she could have fired on them and hadn’t.
“Gday. You speak Strine, missy?”
“I speak English. I don’t know this Strine,” offered Rachel, slowly lowering her weapon carefully and placing it in her belt.
The two men grinned at each other and holstered their own weapons. Rachel could see that the two men had what looked like genetic damage. One had an extra finger and seemed to have an extra ear below his left one. The other had an unusual skin problem that left patches of his face mottled alternatively red and black, which, with his hairless head, looked rather odd.
“Where am I?” Asked Rachel, and who are you?”
“We are on Mutant moon, least ways that’s what the Australins call it,” offered the taller of the two. “I’m Conrad and this is Elliott. They call us Mutoids, but we’re as dinkum as they are, we just don’t fit into their concept of normal.”
“Rachel Lightfoot of Earth.” She responded, seeing a shocked look cross their faces.
“You’re from Urt?” questioned the two men incredulously.
“Yes, we came out to find the lost colonies of man in this sector of space. We want to return everyone home.”
“I don’t suppose you will want to take us back, deformed as we are.” Muttered one of them, turning away with an angry voice.
“It doesn’t matter what how you are different. My parents were originally male and female in one body. With Gaia’s help they now have new bodies, and so now you can too,” promised Rachel.
Just then, Rachel’s AI appeared in her hard light form, startling the two men. They whipped up their weapons and fired at Juda reflexively before realising this was a seemingly unarmed human. The weapons’ beams passed harmlessly through Juda’s semi solid body.
“Your brother’s ship is berthed alongside,” she informed Rachel in an equanimous tone, not reacting to the actions of the two men.
“This is my AI. She runs this ship. Is my brother Okay? What of the other two ships with my older brother and twin sister aboard?”
“We haven’t gained entry to the ship next to you yet. It’s overriding our efforts to board it. The other two strange ships were taken to New Australus,” the shorter man admitted.
“Juda, contact Chris and ask him to stand down,” Rachel ordered.
A screen lit up in response, and Rachel could see her brother’s concerned face in the view screen.
“How are you okay sis? Are those guys threatening you?”
“No, I’m okay. Can we meet outside?”
“Okay, but I’m leaving Bob aboard.”
“Damn, that reminds me. Juda? Where is Susan, and is she okay?” Rachel asked, feeling stupid for not remembering to check on her companion.
“Susan fell and suffered a cracked rib and bruising when the gas knocked her out as she was climbing through an access hatch. She is now in the med bay recovering.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Rachel turned to the still stunned men and spoke.
“Let’s go meet my brother outside, shall we?”

Later, in more comfortable surroundings two sets of brothers and sisters were asking their captors on different planets very similar questions.
“What is your war all about?”
They received differing answers.
Kevin and Cindy heard this version from the Australin’s.
The Mutoids had been banished from New Australus as soon as they were discovered. The first ones were given a ship and supplies to enable them to live on the nearby moon. They were told not to return. Babies and any young children found with deformities were sent up in space pods out to the growing colony of Mutoids. The pods contained radio beacons to ensure that they would be picked up and taken into care. The Mutoids grew resentful of their forced exile and attacked any ship that dared to stray near. They also raided the planet for minerals and other things, like the food crops grown under domes on the surface of the planet. This raiding was what had started the bitter feud, according to what Jack told them.

The Mutoids answer to Chris and Rachel was simpler. They needed supplies, and the moon didn’t provide them. The New Australin’s wouldn’t trade for them. They grew bitter, knowing they’d been born on the planet, but were now denied that which upon their very survival depended.
“Do you have any technology aboard those ships that we could use against the Mutoids?” Asked Jack Dundee. “I know your defences suck, but what about weapons?”
Kevin looked at Cindy, seeing the same thought pass through her mind. *No way are we helping to destroy more humans.*
“We still need to see if we can reactivate our ship after you overloaded the peripheral systems,” stated Kevin defensively.
“We can help replace your computer hardware,” promised Jack confidently.
“I kind of doubt that. Anyway it won’t be necessary, the ‘Computer,’ as you call it, is perfectly alright. Even though you caught us out with your EMP weapon, it didn’t disable us permanently,” Kevin laughed. “Give us 15 minutes and the ships will be back in action.”
“And your weapons?” Persisted Jack, still looking expectant.
“We only have defensive weapons, nothing that would be any use for offence,” Kevin lied smoothly.
“Maybe we could test that for ourselves, once we strip your ship down,” suggested one of the other men who had since joined them.
“Hey! There’s no need to start doing that,” protested Jack, with surprise at the newcomer’s suggestion.
“I’m afraid it’s no longer your decision. The Security Council have decided to utilise any technology on the captive ships, especially now that the Mutoids have captured two similar ships themselves.”
Both Kevin and Cindy started to protest, along with Jack, who saw the opportunity to return to dear old mother Earth slowly disappearing. The new man waved to some others standing nearby and had them escort Kevin, Cindy, and their crew to holding cells, where their protests fell on deaf ears.
It seemed like hours passed, before anyone bothered to visit them.
Finally, when someone did, it wasn’t exactly who they had expected. It was Jack.
“It seems the men assigned to open up your ships are having difficulty,” he grinned conspiringly. “Without power, the hatches to the engine bay won’t open, and the metal is resisting being cut by plasma torches. What the hell is your ship made of?”
“Cobaltstantium with a Cerametal coating,” ‘not that it will help you knowing that fact’, Kevin answered bitterly.
“Hey I’m on your side,” Jack protested. “Earth can be reached in my lifetime?” Jack asked hopefully.
“It’s about three solar days away with our jump technology.”
“What’s that, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“That reminds me,” Kevin added, kicking himself for not warning the wrecking crew. “They better watch out for the black hole we have on board.”
“Black hole?” Shuddered Jack, not liking the grin on Kevin’s face.
“We call it a quantum anomaly, but essentially it’s a black hole, and if the containment system is breached or bypassed, it could swallow this planet and send it God knows where.”
“Bugger mate, why didn’t you tell them that?” Jack remonstrated.
“We didn’t exactly get the chance before we got bundled off to here,” Kevin pointed out, waving his hands at the surrounding bars.
“True. Is there a way to stop them destroying the ship and us along with it?” Jack asked worriedly.
“Sure, we could power up the ship and then safely deactivate the anomaly,” Kevin dissembled smoothly.
“I’d better skedaddle then, before they try something that will really put us up shit creek,” Jack said before rushing out.
“What are you planning, oh brother of mine,” asked Cindy with a hushed voice.
“Just a little surprise, but it will take two of us,” Kevin whispered in her ear.
It wasn’t long before both captains were released from the cell and escorted by guards to their ships. The other crew members were held as hostages to their good behaviour. Under close scrutiny for any attempt at sabotage, they were ordered to initiate the powering up of their ships. Cindy followed the instructions Kevin had given her in the cell. Going to a near invisible access panel, she opened it under the gaze of her guards, who then pushed her aside and looked inside. One guard radioed to the team in Kevin’s ship, just as Kevin was explaining what was inside the panel on his ship.
“This red button supplies emergency backup power to the green reset button. Hold the red button down and hold it, then push the green button for 2 seconds,” he told the one looking inside the panel for any booby traps.
“You do it,” he said finally. “Remember, if anything untoward happens you will die and your sister too,” he threatened.
Kevin complied, doing exactly what he’d told them to do. The ships instruments flashed momentarily, before going dark again. A simple “rebooting” message flashed on a screen, as a deep whine of systems slowly powering up.
When the instruments started showing signs of life, the one in charge radioed the okay to the man aboard Cindy’s ship to repeat the sequence on her ship. Kevin tried moving towards an instrument cluster, but was observed and prevented. The man ordered him and Cindy to be taken back to the cells where they could cause no more interference.
The guards herding them back to the cells might have been suspicious, if he’d seen the slight grin on Kevin’s face, when Cindy winked to Kevin unseen.
“Everything go okay?” Kevin asked her, when they were all together again.
“I’m glad you remembered about the red alert button,” she laughed.
“They swallowed the lie like lambs to slaughter. Once the AI’s detect that the emergency alert buttons been activated, I wouldn’t want to be in those guys shoes.” Kevin grinned evilly. “You still have your ring on?”
“Yeah, they only did a cursory body search for concealed weapons with a hand held device. With our hands held out, they never bothered to sweep them.
Just then, a quiet beep sounded from their rings. Instantly, Kevin brought his ring to his mouth and spoke into it quietly.
“Duda, you and Quda are to execute an immediate withdrawal, ASAP. Try not to hurt the humans aboard too much. You are not, repeat, NOT to fall into the hands of the New Australin’s. You could see if the others are okay, but only if you can do it safely. Don’t attempt a rescue unless you have all possible backup. I’m worried about the EMP weapons, can you guard against them?”
Somehow Duda’s tinny voice managed to sound concerned as he confirmed his orders.
“I can rig a dead man’s relay to reboot the ships systems in case I get overloaded again. It will mean I’m out of action for five minutes, so there is a danger if there’s something directly ahead of me once I’m in motion. I’ll disable the outer hatches so I can’t be boarded while I’m down. Good luck, Kevin,” Duda offered as the com link went silent.
“Good luck too,” Kevin responded.

Mutoid moon, some time earlier.

“So this weapon of yours, how does it work? If it can get past our defences, how do you defend against it?” Asked Chris, as they sat in a room under the moon’s surface with their new acquaintances.
Steven Durral, the tall bald man with the patchy skin colouration problem laughed.
“You should see the inside of our ships. The weapon was developed on New Australus. The first time they used it, we were helpless against it, just like you were. We managed to capture one of the ships after it attacked one of ours that was heading directly at it. The captain must have been inexperienced or a fool. Once the EMP generator had disabled the drives, it turned our ship into an unstoppable mass. The captain continued firing, not realising in time that it had worked and the oncoming ship was un-manoeuvrable. He realised his mistake at the last moment, but the two ships collided, putting both out of action. We concentrated on retrieving it to gain the weapon system aboard.”
Steven got up then and motioned them to follow him, while continuing to explain. He led them to one of his ships docked nearby and showed them inside.
“The weapon uses a dimensional warper to get past the hull of a ship. The only drawback is that it needs a clear space for the exit point. Any object in its way prevents it opening a portal to send through the canisters of gas or EMP devices.”
Chris and Rachel pushed their way into the ship, pushed, because the corridors and the cramped cabins were filled with hanging threads of clear plastic material. It was like walking through a gigantic hair brush.
“This stuff is enough to prevent the weapon working, but if you make a big enough space, then it can get through.” Steven demonstrated by brushing aside the strands to clear a space.
“The warper is hard to use on a fully prepared ship. You’re constantly sweeping the ship, looking for an entry point as the focus diameter is very small.” We keep the rooms small and the engine bay is filled with foam beads, as are all spaces in the bulkheads and instrument panels.”
“That must make it messy to work on,” Rachel mused aloud.
“Well it would be if we had to do it in space. We use a large volume suction hose when we open anything up on the moon base.”
“What about the moon base, can’t they use the weapon to gas everyone or knock out your life support systems?” Chris asked.
“No, it will only penetrate solid material to 500 feet, before the beam attenuates. We are over a mile beneath the surface,” Steven answered.
“My man Elliot said that you mentioned that you had a way of reversing the mutations in our body. I’d like to see that, as we have some very serious cases of deformity on the moon base.”
“Tell you what, I’ll demonstrate it for you,” offered Chris with a smile. We can have the demo shown to all if you’d like?”
“You brought DNA templates with you?” Rachel asked, mentally slapping herself for not being as prepared as her brother.
“Sure, sis, I figured that any colony out in space would need some sort help, although my DNA supply is limited to about 50.”
So saying, they left the Mutoid ship and boarded the Hopetown. Chris led the way to the med bay, while the hard light figure Cuda introduced itself to Steven.
“Cuda, interface with the moon base’s visual and audio systems, please,” Chris ordered, after getting the okay from Steven.
“Communications link established captain,” Cuda said after only a few seconds.
“You don’t have any nudity taboos do you?” Asked Chris as he started to undress.
“No, with our limited resources we had to implement communal bathing,” Steven replied.
“Cuda? I want the sample W459,” Chris ordered.
“W459? Are you sure?” Cuda repeated, sounding surprised.
“I’m sure. I want to make this an unquestionable demonstration of our claims,” Chris reaffirmed.
Rachel grinned, knowing what the W meant in the sample selected. Chris stood naked, his sex unmistakable as he turned to step into the chamber.
“This should take about 20 minutes Earth time. You can stay or go, but I want the video stream to be broadcast continually,” Chris said before the lid closed down.
“I’d like to stay,” Steven said, as the process began. Cuda materialised two seats for them to sit on, while Bob, Chris’s crew member brought out refreshments.
“What’s this, and that?” asked Steven, as he gazed at the unfamiliar offerings.
“That in the dew coated bottle is beer, an alcoholic drink and the food is sliced cheese and tomato on a buttered wafer biscuit,” explained Rachel with a knowing grin.
Steven’s trepidation at trying the strange food, soon turned to delighted enthusiasm as his taste buds were treated to a sensorial extravaganza.
“Are all earth foods this delicious?” He asked hopefully.
“Oh no, some are even better,” laughed Rachel, amused at how such simple foods could be so enjoyed.
“We only have agar bars grown from algae and some illicit alcohol that’s brewed occasionally.” Steven explained, as Rachel mentioned some of the treats in store once they all got back to Earth.
“You know, it’s still a mystery how Earth survived, as our records said it was destroyed completely.”
Rachel gave him the pocket edition explanation of the Earths survival, knowing her words were being heard by all people on the moon base.
A low chime sounded, from the chamber and Cuda materialised again and started pushing some buttons on a clothing fabricator.
A slender arm pushed up the lid of the chamber and a form flowed out in sinuous grace, making Steven gasp.
“Like what you see?” A throaty contralto asked, as the newly reformed Chris did a twirl.
“That … that’s amazing,” stuttered Steven as he took in the beauty standing coquettishly before him.
Chris was now a raven haired Caucasian with flawless features and a figure that struck a chord deep in Steven’s core, as being the perfect womanly shape.
“I suppose you’d better call me Christine while I’m like this.” She smiled, as she took the clothes offered by Cuda. “Not only can we fix your deformities, we can change your sex if you should so desire it,” Christine offered to her wider audience.
Anticipating unfamiliarity difficulties in donning feminine apparel for the first time, Cuda helped Christine into her undergarments and then the tight jumpsuit she’d produced for her charge.
“Wow, somehow I feel more naked now than when I was naked,” grinned Christine, as she ran her fingers over the figure hugging outfit, cupping her breasts on the way.
“Stop that girl, you’ll give Steven here a coronary,” chided Rachel with a half smirk.
“Don’t stop, it’s a risk I’m prepared to take,” pleaded Steven, with a shit eating grin.
Everyone laughed.
Now dressed, Christine and the others all trooped back to the control centre back on the moon base.
“Nice body, sis.” whispered Rachel with a grin, as they walked side by side.
“Well I’ve been meaning to try this for some time, so this was a great opportunity,” Christine whispered back.
Christine’s form drew all the attention once they entered the control room, and not just from the men either. One man who stared a little too much prompted Christine to direct a comment his way.
“See? You too, can have a body like this,” she said, striking a pose and looking directly at the man in question.
He blushed scarlet and finally looked away embarrassed. Something in his look made Christine certain that the man wouldn’t remain a man long, once he was returned to Earth.
A man at the communications panel suddenly called to Steven.
“Sir, we have some odd radio traffic coming from the planet where they took the other ships.”
“What sort of traffic? Never mind, open the channel to speakers.”
What they heard seemed to sound like the other two Hopes had escaped from where they had been housed. Attack orders had been issued, among some confusion that the ships held some of their own people.
Steven ran out, indicating they follow them to a better station where they could observe the action. Christine then offered a better place aboard the Hopetown, where they should be able to communicate ship to ship using the AI’s. As they entered the bridge of the Hopetown, Christine called out for a situation report.
“The New Hope and the Hopeful report that they have broken free of the planet and are under attack. They have aboard the crew that was sent to pirate the technology, but they have succumbed to the gas sent by their own people. We have rigged a dead mans system to reboot us if an EMP attack gets though. We are working on hardening our systems against such an attack, but conclude that it will only give us minimal protection.”
“What of our brother and sister and the crew?’ Rachel chimed in.
“They are still on the planet. They ordered us to leave them.”
“Crap!” was Christine’s only expletive, but it carried a wealth of emotional overtones.

Back on Earth.

“There’s more?” I asked, feeling overwhelmed already.
“Yes, the inside structure is built like an orange, with segments going from the outer hull to the inner spherical hull of the warp engine bay.”
“Warp engine?” I queried.
The Hope has FTL capabilities. It’s an offshoot of the jump technology. Once we have the last jump co-ordinates we can jump directly to it in one go. If there are no pre-surveyed coordinates to emerge from the wormhole, a drone can be sent ahead of the ship to emerge into real space before the ship reaches it. The drone will then send data about the conditions at the point of emergence.” Gaia continued.
“Sort of like poking your toe into the ocean to see if you want to go swimming?” I glibly added my own simplistic interpretation.
“Ah yes, I suppose,” Gaia replied slowly as if thinking about it.
“What about weapons?” I pressed, wanting to get to the good part.”
“Well, along with the tractor beams and the force tubes, we have 60,000 pulse weapon rings.”
“Sixty thousand?” I gasped incredulously. I knew the power requirements of the hundred such units on Hope 3 was about a million exawatts or one yottawatt. It took the incoming fire of the opposing alien ships to help supply that power.
“Are you out of your mind? How will we power that many?”
“The engines are new and much bigger now. Even without any external input, they will generate nearly 300 yottawatts. That’s more energy than the sun generates. As we won’t be firing all of them at once, we have more than enough capacity.”
“Anything else to surprise me with?” I asked, feeling more than a little stunned.
“Well … there is one thing. The ship can become inertialess, allowing instant changes in direction from any speed or vector.”
“Wow! So when will she be ready?” I pressed, wanting to get going as soon as possible.
“We are just installing the AI’s now, once they are loaded, you can take control. I would estimate that the Last Hope will be ready in hours.”
“AI’s? There’s more than one?” I gasped.
After Gaia explained about the AI’s, I knew I had to talk to Tryst. I felt excited and nervous as I went to tell her the news.
“How would like to tour the galaxy with me?” I asked once I’d found her soaking in the bathroom. “We could pick up our errant children along the way,” I added with a grin.
“Just how safe is this trip going to be and how long do you expect to be away?” she asked, her hand rubbing her lower abdomen meaningfully.
“Would I put you in danger when you’re carrying our child?” I asked, quirking my eyebrow, while rubbing her back with a sponge.
“Not intentionally,” she answered cautiously, neatly avoiding the question.
“Would you rather stay behind then?” I asked, changing tactics.
Tryst leaned back against my ministrations on her shoulders, and then tilted her head back to meet my lips in a kiss.
“Of course not, when do we leave?” She asked after breaking our lip lock.
“Hours,” I replied simply, before capturing her lips again.

Back on New Australus.
While waiting in the cells, Kevin and Cindy heard a sudden commotion. The sound of weapons firing made them grin, as this meant the AI’s had taken control and were now escaping. They heard a huge booming sound and their ears popped as the two Hopes breached the airlock/hanger doors leading to the surface causing a pressure drop. Secondary, not as loud booms, came as pressure doors closed, separating the living habitat from the hanger bay.
As they were adjusting to the pressure increase as the area repressurized itself, several angry men rushed into the room with weapons raised.
“Call your ships back. They have some of our people on board, and we want them back safe and well,” they demanded angrily.
“Sorry, you must have triggered their self preservation protocol. They don’t like being pulled apart just by any so and so. Your people won’t be harmed. We came to rescue you, remember?” Kevin retorted, sounding bitter and unrepentant.
One man shoved the barrel of his weapon into Kevin’s face, his expression turning ugly. Kevin didn’t back away. He just looked calmly into the face of the guy who’d demanded the ships recall.
“Killing us won’t bring them back, and even if we could, we wouldn’t. We refuse to allow you to destroy our ships just to find something that will help kill other human beings.”
“They aren’t human any more,” scoffed the one with the aimed weapon.
“Of course they are, stupid,” countered Kevin. “What’s the bet that they or their parents worked in the domes on the surface of this planet?”
The one in charge had to call off the man with the weapon as he threatened to smash Kevin across the head with the barrel.
“What makes you think that is a factor?” he asked interestedly, having had his own doubts about the origin of the Mutoids.
“You may have an oxygen atmosphere inside those domes, but you’re missing one thing. The Van Allen Belts. You need a magnetosphere to protect against the sun’s cosmic radiation. Without that, human DNA mutates. We suffered the same thing in our space colonies, so we know how it works,” Kevin explained.
What happened next took everyone’s mind off the conversation, as some severe ground quakes and loud impact noises heralded the wail of strident sirens.
Everyone vanished, as they ran out to see what was happening. The noises grew and they seemed to be getting closer. This worried Kevin and the others, as they hadn’t any clue what was going on, and stuck in the cells, they were helpless.
One man ran back and unlocked the cells, urging them to follow him if they wanted to live.
“What’s happening?” Gasped Cindy, as they all raced down narrow corridors going moving ever deeper into the planet.
“We’re under attack,” the man wheezed back, trying to keep up with the fitter members of the group.
“From the Mutoids?” Kevin asked, guiding his sister through another airlock in the tunnel.
“No, these craft are much bigger and deadlier, from what little I saw before I had to leave the control area,” the man panted as they stopped before a large metal door. He punched a code into a keypad and the door groaned open. When everyone had scrambled through, the door closed with a resounding clunk.

On the Mutoid moon.
“Those ships are not all from New Australus,” offered Steven, as he checked the screens. “See those larger craft? I don’t recognise those at all.”
They watched, as the group of larger craft split up, half starting to attack the planet, while the other started attacking the New Australus ships that were pursuing the two escaping Hopes. Something in the shape of the strange ships triggered a recollection in Christine’s mind.
“Those are the same type of ships that mom fought to free the Earth,” he finally stated.
Just then, the pursued Hopes, having re-established contact with the Hopetown, reported that they had encountered alien craft similar to the ones that they, in an earlier incarnation had fought on Araya’s Hope.
“Any idea how to defeat them?” Christine asked, half dreading the answer.
“No, but we can resist them for several more hours,” came the gloomy report.
“I do recommend evacuating those on the planet and bringing them to the moon,”
‘What!” exclaimed Steven angrily.
“They don’t have any proper defences against the aliens attack. Their airlocks to the hangers and subsurface living quarters don’t have airlocks strong enough to resist a vacuum like yours do. Theirs are little more than thin membranes separating the two atmospheres. As the external pressure is only a few pounds lower than the internal pressure, they only needed a thin barrier to stop them mixing. Any leaks would be from the inside to the outside. That’s how we broke free so easily,” stated the AI’s logically.
“We need to unite against them,” affirmed Rachel, seeing Steven was about to object. “All humans against the aliens,” she added, seeing him wavering on his stand.
“They won’t stop with just the New Australins, they’ll be after you next,” Christine added her input in an attempt to sway the man’s mind.
“What about our warper? Won’t that be effective against them?” Steven offered, still trying to avoid joining forces.
“They are more mechanical in nature, so gas won’t be very effective, and their ships are more cramped than yours, so there’s no guarantee that the EMP load will work either.” Christine answered, sealing the choices for Steven.
“I guess we’ll have to use all of your ships to ferry them here, seeing they have more room in them,” Steven capitulated suddenly, giving out orders to the rest of his men.
“Our ships are smaller than the one our mother has, but I think we can squeeze in about 500 people in each. How many people do you think are on the planet?” Christine asked Steven.
“I’m not sure exactly, but I would guess it’s around four and a half thousand,” Steven answered.
“I suggest you let us do most of the transfer. I think our hulls can take more punishment that yours, as they are based on the one our mother used to defeat the aliens in our system,” offered Christine.
“Your mother sounds like something else, I hope to meet with her,” sighed Steven enviously.
“You will, trust me you will,” Rachel grinned.
Before contacting the planet, Christine suggested that one of the more deformed undergo DNA repair to show once and for all, that the Mutoids were still human, and not some sub-species. The procedure would be recorded in time lapse, so it could be sent and viewed by the New Australins in short order. The man selected had an extra arm and leg on the left side of his body. Christine instructed Cuda to just reverse the genetic damage and not give him a new body. When questioned, she explained.
“He will still be recognisable as the same person, with just the damage removed. If a new body was selected, they would think there was a switch somewhere. I will send my own change after, to show them further possibilities.”
The next few hours were spent contacting the forces of New Australus which were arrayed against the aliens. Finally, a truce was called as the Australins viewed the tapes of the transformations and then accepted the Mutoids offer of help.

Cindy, Kevin and their crew found themselves in a huge room that was a hive of activity. Instrument panels showed various views of the surface while others showed feeds from ships in space. There was even a shot of the pursuit of the two Hopes. They were both relieved to see that their ships were so far undamaged. The man who’d led them here, had left them and was now talking to a group of people gathered round a table.
One of the group waved them over. “Do you know anything about these new ships that have appeared over our planet?” He asked, pointing to a monitor set into the table top.
Both Cindy and Kevin thought they recognised something about the ships shown in the view screen, but what? Their crew shook their heads. Then the realisation dawned to the two who’d been shown similar video clips on their mother’s lap. Mom had fought these very ships to a standstill way back when.
“Yes we do,” they chorused solemnly.
“Can they be defeated? We are losing ships and people to their assault,”
“Maybe. It might be barely possible, if it was just this lot, but if they run true to form, they will have sent for reinforcements now that they have found a suitable target,” Kevin answered less than enthusiastically.
“Any advice, young Captain?” Asked an older man, who seemed desperately happy to delegate the responsibility of the defence of the planet to him, in the wake of their own inability to do so.
“Try avoiding a frontal attack. Withdraw your ships to the edges of the alien fleet and maintain a defensive position, falling back if they press forward. I’d also get everyone deep underground in one central location and blow the tunnels accesses, apart from some to the surface that haven’t been attacked yet,” offered Kevin. “Oh, and pray for mom to get here in time,” he finished with a shrug.
“What’s a MOM? Some kind of weapon on your other ships?”
“It’s not a MOM, it’s our mother, and yes, you could say she’s a weapon all on her own,” Cindy explained, poking her brother as he smirked knowingly at the question.
“Just who is your mother?” the men asked incredulously, wondering who it was they had in their midst.
“Araya Lightfoot, heroine to all that survived the great evacuation. She located the lost Earth and led her people home, fighting off fleets of aliens like these,” Cindy choked out, suddenly realising how much she owed and loved her mother in that instant.
The men gathered there felt stunned. Cindy’s impassioned explanation struck home in their hearts, as they tried to visualise a person who could have done all that and survived. The simple words “and led her people home,” held them in awe. Every one of them still hoped, in a tiny corner of their soul that they also could go home. Memories only last so long, and history often gets corrupted by bad recall or data loss, both of which had resulted in myth and legends of the lost Earth. Now standing in front of them was a group of people claiming to have come from Earth. Their minds boggled.
“You’ve seen Urt, um Earth?” one half whispered, still not fully believing.
“Seen it? We were born upon it,” Cindy answered, tears running down her face as home sickness struck.
It was then that communications became very busy as messages from the Mutoid moon started coming in. Cindy and Kevin grew very interested when they heard that their siblings were coming to help as well.
A truce was called in short order, and Cindy nudged Kevin in the ribs as Chris’ demonstration was beamed throughout the area.
“We outnumber you three to one now,” she giggled. “I’m sure you’d look cute as our forth sister,” she teased gently.
“What about my girlfriend, Jennifer? I’m sure she’d have some problems with that,” he sighed, not actually rebuffing her offer.
“Let’s ask her, shall we? I wondered if there was more to her just being a crewmate,” Cindy pressed, dragging Kevin over to where his crewmate/girlfriend stood.
“Ask me what?” Jennifer began, having heard her name mentioned.
“You saw that Chris is now Christine … well I was just proposing that Kevin join our ranks as well, for a short period at least,” laughed Cindy.
“A short period? I wish,” began Jennifer, the double meaning very clear. She cocked her head and looked at Kevin, visualising him in an entirely different form. She smiled, which sent alarm bells off in Kevin’s head.
“I’d kinda like the statuesque redhead look,” Jennifer offered. “What do you think?”
While his sister and his girlfriend seemed engrossed in redesigning him into some iconic female figure, his panicked thoughts raced in ever decreasing circles in his head. This was getting too close to some of the thoughts that he had shoved away in the hidden corners of his mind. He’d always had a thing for the female form, thinking it was one of the most beautiful shapes in the world.
His mother hadn’t tried to force any stereotypical male/female roles on any of her children, letting them decide for themselves just who they wanted to be or act. So Chris’s change hadn’t surprised him too much, as he’d always been a gentler soul.
Being the eldest, he’d unconsciously taken role of protector to his brother and sisters. This self imposed responsibility had often clashed with some of his hidden thoughts of being more like his sisters. His sisters seemingly carefree attitude and their obvious joy in being flamboyantly female often struck him with an irresistible attraction, which then flared into pangs of intense jealousy. He’d tried burying these thoughts as unworthy of him, but every now and then they’d surface, as he’d wonder what it might be like to be young and female.
“Okay, that’s settled,” the two girls said, as Kevin’s thoughts came back to the present.
“Settled? What’s settled?” Asked Kevin worriedly, as he’d missed what they’d been saying.
“See? Typical male, never listens to important stuff,” Cindy laughed to Jennifer.
“Well that will change, won’t it,” Jennifer agreed, with an anticipatory gleam in her eye.
‘Oh boy!’

As alerts sounded throughout the complex, telling everyone to move to deeper levels, the comm board lit up with incoming messages from Duda and Quda, the AI’s of Kevin and Cindy’s ships. Putting them on speaker allowed each to report their situation. Both Captains were glad to hear that their ships were close at hand, and that they would soon be united. While they were updating each other, a small swell of song started among the people gathered, as they prepared for the oncoming assault.
Once a holly swagman camped by a billabong.
Under the shade of a Cooliba tree.
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled.
You’ll come a waltzing my ilda with me.
“What’s that song?” Asked Kevin intrigued.
“It’s our national anthem. Don’t ask us to explain it, some of the words don’t mean anything to us now, but we sing it as it was passed down from our ancestors,” explained one of the men there.
“Kevin? My archives have the original version of that song,” offered Duda.
“Can you pipe it in through here?” Asked Kevin.
Just as the chorus of the song was being sung by those in the room, their slightly out of tune voices were overridden by a strong male voice and accompanying music coming from every speaker on the planet.
Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda.
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me.
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled.
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me.
The room fell silent in awe as they recognised how far from the original their own version had drifted. Duda started the second verse as the people began to join in with the correct words and tune.
Down came a jumbuck to drink at that Billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag.
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me.
The eyes of all the men glistened as they finally heard the full version of Waltzing Matilda as sent by Duda.
Then it was time to move. Everyone was to assemble in a cavern under the original landing site. It had the only real metal airlock on the planet, made from the original colonist’s ship. It was set into rock, and so far hadn’t drawn the attention of the alien invaders.
“You realise that once we begin, there’s no stopping the evacuation. The aliens will target that lock once they see our ships dock there?” Kevin apprised those gathered.
“Understood Captain. Once all our people are aboard, all our ships will form an escort to the moon base.”
“They do realise its only personal keepsakes they can bring, no clothes or equipment?” added Kevin.
“Yes, that’s been made clear.”
As the New Hope settled onto the airlock on the planet, it came under heavy weapons fire from the aliens above. Little damage was done, as most of the energy was focused on the screens and no offensive weapons. Duda helped guide the horde that flowed onboard, while Kevin, who had been at the head of the crowd, checked out the bridge and the situation there.
Once Duda announced that she held as many as could be handled, Kevin had his ship vacate the lock while defending it for Cindy’s Hopeful to take its place. The other two Hopes were hovering in place, when Cindy’s ship filled. It seemed that Christine's ship was the last in the line, and surprisingly found that everyone on the planet had been vacated. There had been some deaths and all the ships the planet had on hand were filled with people.
The four Hopes kept a close formation with all the other craft, providing a shifting shield around them. Occasionally a bolder alien craft would try and penetrate the shielding ships to get at the Hopes. Fire concentrated against it usually saw it destroyed, although some damage to the defenders was inevitable.
As they withdrew from the planet, some alien craft remained behind, searching for their precious requirements. By the time they fought their way to the moon base, the Hopes had been reduced to defensive tactics.
Suddenly another fleet of alien ships emerged into the system. This group had some larger ships that easily dwarfed the Hopes in size. Everyone groaned, seeing the reinforcements heading their way. They were pressed back as the combined forces against them began to take its toll. Kevin had the Mutoids and New Australins forces retreat into the moon itself, while the four Hopes sat on the surface around the airlock, like a huge plug. This allowed the aliens free reign to gather around them, but the superior hull construction continued to take the brunt of the attack. The AI’s spread the screens across the four ships, synchronising them so they meshed into one whole. But as the energy beams arrayed against them, even those mighty hulls began to show signs of failing.
“How long can we take this?” Kevin questioned Duda worriedly.
“At the exponentially increasing load, about 10 minutes,” Duda announced solemnly.
“We need a miracle,” sighed Kevin heavily.
“Or mom,” offered Cindy over the com.
“Or mom,” echoed the others.
All the comms in the ships were opened to those gathered inside, so that they were aware of the critical situation. So far, there had been no panic, merely a resigned realisation of their possible imminent demise. When the limit of the screens was reached, the skin of the hulls reluctantly evanesced away.
“Four minutes to penetration,” intoned the AI’s voice.
At that moment, the system’s sun broke past the edge of the planet and the Hopes were bathed in possibly their last sunrise. Kevin could just see the sun through the myriad of ships arrayed between them and the life giving sun. It was a poignant moment.
Then, as he stood looking, the sun was blocked out. Something had eclipsed the light, something huge, by the way the fleet before them was put into shadow as well. Something odd was happening, but Kevin couldn’t work out what the bright beam-like flashes that seemed to be coming from where the sun had been.
“Is that an optical effect?” He asked Duda, curious to the last.
“No, it is weapons fire, I think she’s back.” Duda answered without further elucidation.
Everyone turned to the instruments that read the hull integrity levels. The time to failure remained at four minutes, even though it had shown that a minute ago. Everyone either prayed or held their breath. Some did both, as eyes were glued to the screen. Five minutes came up to a hail of cheers and exhaled breaths.

The jump went smoothly with the new Hope performing perfectly. We emerged into a planetary system and Puda immediately began reporting energy weapons fire somewhere ahead. As we cleared the edge of the planet ahead, I could see the moon beyond that. The sight of a familiar looking fleet attacking what seemed to be four incandescent ships on the moons surface made my blood. I recognised those glowing forms.
“Fire on my mark,” I shouted. “Mark.”
Immediately, streams of unbearably intense energy streamed forward and stuck the rear guard of the fleet. Such was the energy, the ships struck flashed to incineration in an instant. We bored on, closing at normally insane speeds for a planetary environment. I let Puda take over the targeting, a job she was far more suited for than I was. I wasn’t even concerned if the ships before me couldn’t move fast enough to escape our impact as we mixed company.
“I’m back,” I crowed, more to myself than anybody else as destruction of the alien ships began in earnest.

Kevin couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A ship the size of a small planetoid was ablaze with actinic sunbursts that annihilated anything they touched.
Duda announced contact with the planetoid, confirming that it was indeed his mother’s ship.
“Way to go, mom,” Kevin’s sense of pride going hand in hand with relief as the energy levels on the hull fell with every passing moment.

Seeing my children were safe for the moment as Puda fed me data directly from their AI’s as to their status, I gave them a quick call, before turning my attention elsewhere.
“Hi kids,” I vid’d to them, enjoying the irony, that at the present moment, I was no older than any of them with my rejuvenated body.
“I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes. I just have a few house cleaning chores to handle.”
Before I turned my attention to the aliens, I noted the changed status of Chris, as my children each answered my hail. They had seemed to take my rejuvenation in stride, with Kevin saying I looked hot. Cindy and Rachel commented on my outfit. Only Chris remained quiet. I’d have to speak with my new daughter, but now I had other things to do.
Besides firing my weapons on the ships around me, I zigzagged amongst them, using the sheer bulk and speed to crush their ships like papier-mâché. This inertialess drive was amazing. Being able to change vectors without worrying about conservation of momentum, I felt like a pin ball in one of those ancient game parlour places I’d read about. The only difference was, instead of forces acting against me to change direction rapidly, I was the force doing the moving, and my targets were the recipients of that force.
It was soon evident that they had no defences against me and no weapon they turned on me had any damaging effect. I took them all out in about ten minutes, leaving only lifeless hulks of shattered metal behind. After checking the region for any other threats, I moved the Hope back to the moon. After warning my children, I used the new transporter device based on the weapons used against my children, once Gaia had deduced the function from data gathered from the probe.
Each of the Hopes were transported into the holding bay of the planetoid, coming to rest next to the Hope I’d been using before they’d left on their adventure. Once aboard it didn’t take long to evacuate the rest of the moon’s personnel, and move them aboard the planetoid.
“Araya? Your children are here,” announced Puda.
“Show them in,” I replied, checking to make sure my figure hugging jumpsuit hadn’t developed any wrinkles. Tryst, who’d been waiting with me as well, stood up slowly, her figure showing the nice curve of motherhood.
“Mom,” they chorused, as they ran to hug me. I then brought Tryst into the group hug as well, since she was also a mom now.
“Looks like we have a hold out,” I said, looking at Kevin, who immediately went red.
“Not for long if his girlfriend has anything to say,” challenged Cindy with a grin.
“Sons or daughters we don’t care. We both love you no matter what. Even your father is expanding her personal horizons.” I offered with a smile.
“Is it Chrissy or Christine now?” Tryst asked the latest convert, eyeing her former son with a critical eye.
“Okay let’s talk later, we have a home to go to,” I interrupted.
“Incoming anomaly,” warned the ever vigilant Puda.
“On screen,” I ordered, feeling a sense of unease.
“On screen.”
What we saw displayed was a nebulous cloud like formation with coruscating swirls that was clearly under some alien direction. It was moving across the region where the remains of the alien craft lay scattered in space. Where it came into contact, the hulk disappeared entirely, releasing a short burst of x-rays according to Puda’s sensor reports. It moved around the Hope clearing away all signs of the alien ships. It then moved down to the planet and scoured it clean of any ships left there. Once it had finished its unknowable task, it came up to the Hope and floated there, its internal swirling gathering intensity.
“Screens on max,” I ordered, somehow feeling that it might be a useless order in the face of the unknown out there.
“On max,” Puda confirmed.
“Shouldn’t we fire at it?” asked Kevin worriedly.
“No,” I answered emphatically, somehow knowing that that was the last thing I should do.
“Two in fact, to date,” I answered honestly, feeling unrepentant at my actions to save our people.
“Database is compromised,” Puda informed me.
“Puda is more than a machine, she is my friend,” I defended stoutly.
There was a pause as if the cloud was conferring. I’d just been talking aloud, and not using any communication network, as it seemed to know everything about us and its voice had just sounded in the air and hadn’t seemed to be transmitted via the ships systems.
“If you mean you’d like to meet and discuss things, then yes, I am willing to meet you here on board.” I offered generously.
No sooner had I spoken than a swirling cloud materialised inside the bridge. It condensed and coalesced into a figure resembling a female humanoid.
“Merry meet, Captain,” the figure spoke in normal tones.
“Welcome aboard the Hope?” I responded, before introducing my family to the figure.
“I, or we, are called the Valkarie, but for this meeting you can call me Val.”
“We were forced to destroy your cousin’s fleets, they gave us no other option,” I began.
“We regret you had to do our job, Araya, and we regret the loss of life suffered in doing so. Even we, as powerful as we are cannot bring them back. They are now on a higher plane of existence beyond our reach.”
“Your job?” I asked Val.
“Let me explain,” she offered.
I nodded, and indicated she sit, even though I wasn’t sure she required it. Once she sat down, we gathered around and sat too.
“We the Valkarie, are an ancient race. Once, long ago our home system was under threat from our very sun. Our people became divided. Some of us decided to transcend our physical bodies and roam free in the universe without needing material things. The others decided to flee in a huge armada of ships while developing ways to prolong life in their physical bodies so they could survive the immense distances between the stars. Even as we that had managed to free our minds prepared to leave, we could see that those you know as the aliens, were already integrating their bodies with machines.”
“How could they have changed to what they became?” I asked. “They attacked and tried to destroy us without reason,” I added.
“We are not sure, but suspect that during their long initial journeys, they became warped mentally, becoming more of a hive mind bent on survival at all costs. It is to our shame that we didn’t foresee this, and our own journeys through the cosmos let them spread unchecked. Once we became aware of what was happening, we returned and tried to remedy things. Because they hadn’t developed your warp drive, we were forced to follow their trails through normal space. We developed a sort of sense where they had travelled in space.”
“What happened to those you came across?’ Asked Tryst.
“Let’s just say we were able to cure them of their machines, and bring them back into the fold.” Val answered slowly.
“So what happens now?” I asked, changing the subject.
“We will scour this region of space for any more of our wayward souls, before checking out your own region of space. We think they had homed in on the increased energy discharges in this region. Ah, I see what the conflict was all about,” Val smiled wistfully.
“Are you reading our thoughts?” I questioned warily.
“Only those that are broadcast outside your heads. I’m sorry if this concerns you, but being mentalists, it’s kind of second nature to read thoughts. It is why we are conversing so well, and it helps prevent misunderstandings.”
“It sounds like you and Gaia would get on together, I’m sure she reads my thoughts too,” I half grumbled.
“Ah, Gaia, yes. We see from your thoughts that you are fortunate to have a sentient world to live upon. Those are rare among the cosmos. Even our own world was bereft of a similar trait. We now understand why your AI is so different. She was made on your Earth, through another like her.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of confusing. We have Gaia, who was constructed by humans to protect Earth, and the Earth itself, who was often referred to as Gaia by our forefathers. The constructed one has an interface with the living planet we call Earth,” I explained to our guest, knowing that it was also being heard by all the humans we had rescued.
“We will treat with you and Gaia later, but before we leave, we beg to grant you a boon for all your trouble,” Val offered.
“Oh?” I asked curiously.
“The reason for the initial conflict in this area was due to genetic damage causing fear and isolationism. We can fix all those affected.”
“It’s kind to you to offer, but everyone will need to undergo a body change, anyway. We have stored DNA forms that are resistant to the Earth’s natural environment. Normally we’d get them to choose a form from a list that would be pleasing for them to reside in,” I explained again.
“We can accommodate those conditions in a fraction of the time it would take you. Everyone would have Earth’s bio immunity. All they need to do is for each to visualise how they’d like to look and which gender they want to be. They can even remain as they are at the moment, if they so wish, and I’ll remove any genetic abnormalities due to accidental inbreeding. I’ll exclude your son, as I see her future is in other hands,” Val added with a wink to a rose faced Kevin.
‘Hmmm, I’m really going to have to talk with my boy,’ I thought to myself.
“I’ll let them know their choices,” I said aloud, indicating to Puda to put me on ship wide comm
“As you may have gathered, each and all of you require genetic changes to rid you of any undesirable traits. We will also give you immunity to Earth’s biospheric conditions.” I explained to the nearly 9000 people gathered together in the huge living sector of the ship. This sector was three levels deep, and encompassed nearly a third of the circumference of the ship. The outermost walls of these levels were filled with multiplexed screens so closely fitted that it looked like one giant screen. It was on these screens that the images from the bridge and that of myself were being displayed. I could also see those gathered and was judging their collective reaction to my words as I spoke.
“All you need to do,” and here I paused, while I got a confirming nod from Val. “Is for you to visualise the form you wish to look like. Remember, if you later change your mind, we can give you another of your choice,” I continued.
I looked to see the reaction and saw most seemed happy with the news. A lot were already deep in thought, judging by their closed eyes and signs of concentration on the multitude of faces.
(It is done,) Val spoke sonorously, and I saw that it was.
I did notice quite a few changes in sex going both ways from the few I happened to be looking at. All the Mutoids, changed, not surprisingly and with that, the subtle tension in the air seemed to vanish.
“Thank you. That would have taken weeks back on Earth,” I told Val.
“Our pleasure. We have also gifted your AI with the power to do the same, but due to its physical nature and computational limitations, it will take about six times as long.”
A quick calculation put that at about ten seconds. Still a tremendous leap forward in technology from where we stood at the moment.
“Thank you. That gift is truly appreciated,” I gushed in awe.
(Till we meet again,) Val bowed her head before vanishing from sight.
We watched, the cloud outside move off and soon it was gone. We all drew our collective breaths as we contemplated the future and what we had all just witnessed.
I went around and hugged my family again, feeling pride in how everyone one of my children had acted in their trial by fire. I looked at them all and said, “Let’s go home.”
“I’ve put out refreshments for our passengers while we return to the jump co-ordinates, Captain,” announced Puda.
“Thanks, I hope you kept it simple. We don’t want them throwing up some exotic dish they find hard to handle. Remember, they are survivalists, not gourmets.” I warned.
“I do remember, Araya,” Puda answered, sounding somewhat offended. “Orange juice and/or milk, with beef or chicken sandwiches,” she added haughtily.
“Sorry, Puda, I know you don’t forget. It’s just me. I tend to think of you as just another fallible human like me and not an AI that can run rings around me in terms of brain power,” I apologised.
“Thank you Araya,” Puda replied, sounding much happier.
I wondered what she was thanking me for, but decided it wasn’t worth pursuing, as we watched through the monitor, the passengers eating their first Earth fare.
It was amusing the expressions on their faces as they gingerly sampled the food and drink. at first, the expressions of wonder and delight reminded me of my own first experiments. I guess I wore a similar look, as I reminisced.
Of course the kids were rapt watching people taste Earth food for the first time. I think they realised just how much they took for granted, having never had to go though a similar trial themselves.
“Christine,” I whispered to my newest daughter, beckoning her aside where we could take quietly.
Christine came over, a look of trepidation on her face as she looked at my face.
I schooled my expression, letting no signs of my thoughts show until she reached my side.
“Welcome to the club honey. Now dish!” I ordered, wanting to know details. We hugged and her face broke into a smile at her acceptance. We talked, and she told me of her desire to experience her feminine side.
“Okay, but what about Kevin?” I asked as talk ran down.
“You’ll have to ask her,” Christine perked with a cheeky grin, emphasising the “her.”
“Sheesh it didn’t take you long to learn to tease,” I grumbled, feeling pleased inside.
“Well I learned from the best, MOM.” She laughed, looking me directly in the eye.
“Ready to jump, Captain,” Puda announced.
“All hands! All hands! Ship is ready to transition into hyper jump. You should not feel any effect, but be seated just in case,” I announced ship wide.
We jumped.

The moon instantly loomed before us, its pock-marked scars clearly detailed in the airlessness of space. I had the screens show the exterior views for our passengers and I could see all eyes were riveted to them. Part of the gantry that had been constructed to hold the Hope as it was built, was already being dismantled. The metal tracery that reached out from the surface of the moon to about a mile out was being recycled by the tiny machines that had built it. I wasn’t sure if the passengers thought the moon was Earth, judging by their expressions.
I grinned as I had Puda manoeuvre the Hope over the horizon formed by the moons curvature.
We in the bridge heard the murmur grow as the Earth in all its speckled glory rose into view. Clear of the moon, we accelerated, shooting to a low Earth orbit in a minute. Cries of wonder and joy grew from the passengers and faces were flooded with tears as they beheld the brilliant jewel that was Earth itself. I slowed the ship, knowing there was one more surprise for the passengers.
The Earth seemingly turned below us, as the ship orbited the Earth, showing off its blue seas and green and brown landmasses. The clouds added another dimension to its beauty as they scudded in a myriad of shapes. Then a land mass hove into view. Australia, the land from hence the passengers ancestors once lived. There was a sudden collective silence, as the symbol that had been their icon on their adopted planet, became reality. People began to dance and hug each other as they recognised the land of their ancestral beginnings. Song broke out as the Hope flew down towards the Earth below.
As we hovered over Australia, a mere thousand feet from one of the restored cities. Gaia’s voice interrupted the celebrations among the passengers eagerly waiting aboard.
“Welcome home, children, may your lives be filled with as much joy as mine at your return. All is prepared and your new life has just begun.”
Cheering broke out and didn’t stop as Puda in her multiple selves guided the passengers to the transport tubes, where the Hope would deposit them on the surface to the waiting bots.
Twenty minutes later, the Hope rang with silence, as the last passengers disembarked. I hugged my children and told them “Job well done.”
We returned north, rising back into the rarest parts of the atmosphere and creating a fiery trail as we travelled at high speed just for the fun of it. We said goodbye to the huge Hope, as we boarded our individual ships and left for our homes. The planetoid Hope would remain in low Earth orbit, keeping a close watch on us all. I did get to talk to Kevin and his girlfriend and extracted a promise from them that I would be included in their future sexual experiments, although I think Kevin’s sisters were also interested in educating their future sister to be.
That night, after a meal of fresh caught trout, salad and fresh baked crusty bread, Tryst and I sat out under a star studded sky. We held each others hands as we lay on the extra wide lounger provided by Puda.
“Do you think there are any more humans left out there?” Tryst asked idly.
I thought about her question before answering. “I don’t know, but I suspect that if there are, we will soon know about it.”
“Think about it. The Valkarie are searching this area. I think that if they come across any others left out there, they will let us know.”
“Do you think we will see the Valkarie again?’
“Count on it,” I replied.
We sat there in companionable silence till it grew too chilly to stay outdoors. As I helped Tryst inside with her widening dimensions, I looked once more into the night sky. There! I saw a shape occlude the stars above. I smiled, secure that the last ever Hope was watching down on us. I went inside to my future, feeling extremely happy.
The End.

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I kept expecting Puda to be put into a human body. Maybe in the future?

Great story
Chris in CA