BELLY OF THE BEAST

MOONRISER – THE SEARCH FOR A LOST BEHEMOTH

“Don’t worry, it is a start of a long-awaited friendship. You are welcome in my starship but don’t get any funny ideas. The slightest indication that you people are up to something and you will regret that decision.” Said Dhruv through the comm links as the MOONRISER flew towards the SCORPION.

“The ‘leaders’ are ready to start a meeting, if required. Do what you do best and best of luck.” Said Ambrose through a secure channel.

The hangar bay doors of the SCORPION opened under the belly of the ship. As the MOONRISER positioned itself, 4 hangar cranes swooped down and attached itself to the ship, and pulled it inside. We could see the soldiers of THE FIRE looking at the ship. Kind of odd as they marveled at the size and beauty of it considering they were themselves in a ship way bigger than ours.

I walked along with my squad, Joseph and Rooma while Capt. Ismail stayed behind handling the deck. As we were being escorted to the command center, MOONRISER spoke up, once again through a secure channel, “Prepped and ready, Sudhir. Do your job.”

We reached the command center where Dhruv was looking at our fleet on a giant screen with suspicion, he switched cameras and was looking at MOONRISER now. Our weapons and comm devices were confiscated from us. There was no way of contact with the outside world but it was fine. I had explained my plan to everyone, it was obvious they had their doubts about it but seeing that there was a no other option, agreed to play on.

Dhruv turned away from the screen and came forward towards us. He looked at us with scrutiny and then at me. Part of me was angry and I felt like lunging forward and strangling him but that would jeopardize the plan. Patience is the golden virtue… and this was the time to prove it.

“The meeting can wait, Sudhir. First, I want the AI and ship design.” Dhruv ordered.

I took out the hard disk and gave it to him, he took it and looked at us again.

“Where is Dr. Ijaz?” He asked.

I smiled, that question was coming and I was ready with an honest answer.

“I killed him. He is a traitor who went against us. Of course, I know he was brainwashed for a very specific reason… but seeing that he was beyond ‘repair’, I… let us put it this way… euthanized him.” I answered.

Dhruv was startled at first, he then looked at the others and then at the hard disk. A smile sprouted, still looking at the hard disk, he said, “I have done mistakes in my life. Some of them can’t be erased but you my son, erased a mistake that has been a black mark in my career. I am thankful for that.”

He then gave the hard disk to an official and asked him to check it. The official connected the hard disk to a system and started accessing it while Dhruv walked away from us to check on him.

“I hope this works.” Chandni whispered.

Nothing was happening at first, and I was beginning to worry.

“Sir, the codes are perfect. With your permission, I will have the existing AI replaced with the new one.” Said the official.

“Do it while I take care of my guests.” Said Dhruv, and that very moment, everyone had their weapons pointed at us.

I was shocked but then this had to happen. THE FIRE can never be trusted. DEHSAT always wanted the world for himself and so, any form of friendship with us was not in his plan. Dhruv was doing what he was asked to do. I could see my people shocked too, Daljeet was panicking but I tried to stay calm for I believed in my plan.

Chandni glanced at me looking for an answer, I nodded at her indicating that everything will be fine.

“You are a fool, Sudhir. Just like your Dad who never saw his impending doom. You will die like him while we celebrate this victory of ours by destroying your fleet. You have no idea, is it? No idea as to the power of the AI. This AI can run an entire nation, a little bit of tweak here and there… it can make the whole world function according to the philosophy of THE FIRE.

We don’t need you; we don’t need your friendship… you people are good as dead and I will see to that.” Said Dhruv, as he started to laugh heartily and his comrades joined in the laughter.

My eyes fell on the screen and a video was playing. It was familiar… yes, it was… it was my Dad’s final moments and when it started playing, everyone looked at it.

MOONRISER – “Captain, are you alright? You are hurt. You need immediate medical attention.”

CAPTAIN DHIREN – “You are kidding me right. Medical attention… in this godforsaken planet.”

MOONRISER – “Please Sir. I can try to help. Tell me what I should do? I have served you for so long. No way I can fail you now.”

CAPTAIN DHIREN – “Yes, you have served me well. You have served all of us well. That being said, I command you to continue doing your duty. We have been breached. There is a mole in ISS. They were trying to capture this ship or maybe steal the AI codes and schematics. They have failed but it does not mean they will not try.

Stop or discontinue all communication and transmission to the ISS command center. Even the WRDO should not know the location of this ship.”

MOONRISER – “It will be done.”

MOONRISER – “I will be all alone on this planet. No one will come seeking for me. No one will come to look for me. I am also a soldier of ISS. How do you expect me to do my duty like this? I was created to serve the nation, serve the people… serve you but here we are trapped on this planet.”

CAPTAIN DHIREN – “You are not alone, MOONRISER. Don’t think you are alone. You are an asset to me, to the ISS. You are a hero to all of us. I have activated my secret tracker. If not ISS… my son will find you. In time, my son will come searching for you. He will find you and together, you will avenge me… avenge all those brave men and women who lost their lives to protect you.

Be patient, my dear. Be patient. My son will come. He will….”

The video ended and a video feed of the MOONRISER came on screen.

“What… is… the… meaning… of… THIS?” Dhruv asked.

I looked at Chandni, smiled and said, “Jackpot.”

We all looked in awe as MOONRISER charged up the EMP cannon. Before it was fired, I spoke up, “Friendship is an expensive thing and THE FIRE, a bunch of beggars cannot afford it. Tell you what, Dhruv… we ain’t trying to sell it. Instead, we will give you something cheaper… DEATH.”

Saying, the cannon fired and the SCORPION was darkened. The very next moment, we heard bombardment and the SCORPION started to rock. The MOONRISER had started firing its weapons inside the ship. There was panic all around as I asked my group to stick together for a few moments. Suddenly, the lights came on and we looked at the screen.

The codes on the hard disk were indeed the AI codes but hidden within were the codes to take complete control of the SCORPION. MOONRISER had all control and had powered up the emergency backup generator. What’s more, we looked at the screen shocked…. the self-destruct sequence of the ship was initiated and we had 20 minutes to escape.

“That was not part of the plan.” Rizwan yelled at me.

“Not my fault. Tell that to MOONRISER.” I replied.

“If we die because of this STUPID plan of yours, I am going to bring you back alive again and kill you once again.” Rizwan yelled at me again, can’t blame him.

“Be my guest, shithead.” I responded.

We could see the soldiers of THE FIRE running away from the command center. We rushed to the console and tried to contact Ambrose.

“This is Lt. Chandni aboard the SCORPION. Can anyone hear me?” Chandni tried to contact INTREPIDITY.

“Chandni, Ambrose here. We saw everything… the most epic thing I saw in my entire career. The self-destruct sequence has been initiated. Get out of there before it is too late.” Said Ambrose.

I looked around and saw that Dhruv was nowhere to be found

“I am not leaving yet. Dhruv is still here somewhere. I have to find him. Get to the ship everyone.” I ordered, as I brandished an assault rifle.

“No way, Brother. This is no more your fight. This is our fight. We will find him together and put every single bullet from our guns on that son-of-a-bitch.” Said Joseph.

I was about to go against that but then realized that he was right. Dhruv was the reason for so many lives lost and we will avenge that together.

“He must be in the hangar bay, trying to escape along with the others. If we hurry, we can catch up to him.” Said Daljeet.

We all agreed and rushed towards the hangar bay. We reached it soon enough and could see soldiers scurrying around to find a carrier ship that had space. Rizwan saw ogres docked on the left and pointed at them.

“No one is leaving this ship alive. I say no one. Man them, and let us reign hell on them.” Said Rizwan.

We all stared at him.

“The best thing I heard all day. What are you guys waiting for? Man them. They will not know what was coming.” I said.

The ogres were of a different variant, 2 people could pilot it with one taking care of the driving and the other controlling the weapons. We manned them and before anyone could realize pushed forward guns blazing. With the help of the miniguns, missiles and newly installed plasma cannon, we destroyed most of the carrier ship and killed most of THE FIRE soldiers. A few of them escaped – no worries – they had no place to hide or escape.

Suddenly, the ogre Joseph and Rooma were on was hit with a tank shell. The ogre staggered and I noticed a tank smash through the pillage of a carrier ship and aim its gun towards us. It was without doubt Dhruv who was controlling it.

“Why you…!! You are not getting away with this.” Saying, Joseph drove the ogre forwards.

“Joseph, don’t be a fool. We need a plan.” I persuaded but Joseph was not listening.

“Rooma, get off this ogre. I am about to end this man’s career.” Said Joseph.

“Sir, no… please… listen to us.” Rooma tried to persuade but to no avail.

The ogre was shot at again and the shields were losing power.  A few more shots and the ogre was going to explode. We still asked Joseph to reconsider but he was not going to listen.

“This is an order, Rooma. My last order… if that is going to be. You are right. I have done a lot of mistakes in life but my dream to fly on the MOONRISER has come true. I thank the almighty for this and now… it is time to return the favor.” Said Joseph.

A heartbroken Rooma had no other choice but to listen. She quickly got off the ogre as the latter took another shot. Joseph charged forward saying, “Die, you…”

Joseph fired rockets after rockets, fired the minigun, fired the plasma cannon, the tank was strong enough… but not so strong as it started to burn up. Dhruv was singlehandedly trying to control the tank but was not able to as loading the shell onto the gun and firing it took 3 seconds which was less considering the ogre didn’t require reload mechanism unless and until it went empty.

The ogre received another hit. Dhruv had switched on the heavy machine guns on the tank but it was of no use. The ogre staggered again, Joseph realizing that it was time activated the self-destruct mode on the ogre and again charged forward, he jumped onto the tank and within seconds, there was a huge explosion. We watched in horror as a ball of flames caused due to the explosion went upwards and hit the ceiling of the hangar bay.

We got of the ogres and ran towards the debris but stopped due to the flames still blazing from it. I cried out Joseph’s name, I was in the mind to jump over the debris and retrieve him but was stopped by everyone.

“He is gone, Sudhir. He is gone. There is nothing we can do.” Chandni said, as I sat down on the floor clutching my head in despair. Not the first time I lost someone but not Joseph… not after all that we went through to achieve what a lot of people thought was impossible.

Rooma came forward weeping, she spoke up, “This is my fault. I shouldn’t have told all those words to him. I was angered at how inconsiderate he could sometimes be but… I couldn’t help it that time.”

Chandni comforted her, saying, “No, it is not your fault. Don’t take it to heart. Joseph did what he should have done a long time back. It was… I guess… too late for him. Too late did he realize that but he redeemed it with this sacrifice.”

As we continued looking at the flames, we saw Dhruv coming out of the debris. His jacket was on fire and he removed it. He had sustained burns, was barely able to stand but he still tried and looked at us. I got up from my place and walk forward.

Dhruv looked at the flames, he then started to laugh heartily and taunted, “Your old fried… or enemy if I have to say is dead. His sacrifice was in vain for here I am standing and facing you. You will not win; you will never win…”

I was in no mood to hear his ‘monologue’ if that was his intention, I took out my knife and forced it inside his stomach as he let out a cry of pain, anger, surprise and sadness. For once, I enjoyed hearing it as I twisted and turned the knife in his stomach.

“You think we are weak, is it? We know how to kill for we have been trained to do it. It is just that… we are considerate enough when it comes to killing unlike you… who enjoy doing it. As for my friend’s sacrifice, no one… I say no one’s sacrifice goes in vain. He has done what he should have done a long time ago and for it, he is going to heaven.

However, if he is going to hell which is most unlikely, he is going to enjoy having you as company and enjoy seeing you brutally burning in hell. Sad, that I am going to see it but my friend will. Goodbye, you son-of-a-….”

I took out the knife and Dhruv fell to the ground. He coughed up blood and clutched his stomach in pain. He had one look at me and then breathed his last.

My friends came forward and looked at Dhruv.

“Revenge best served cold,” Rizwan commented.

“We have only 5 minutes remaining. We have to get off this ship.” Said Daljeet.

“There is one carrier still docked. Get aboard and let us get out of here.” Said Chandni.

We agreed, we ran and got into the carrier. Rooma and Daljeet took the pilot seats and switched on the main engines while we sat down and strapped ourselves.

“What is the status of MOONRISER?” I asked.

“She is tearing through the hull of the ship. She is still on with her job.” Chandni answered.

“MOONRISER, we are done here. Get out of this ship. We will rendezvous once we are all clear from the blast radius.” I said.

“I can’t, Shipmaster. I am stuck. I thought I could make my way out but the interiors are too thick. I had already switched on the alarm for the people on the ship to escape as soon as possible. The same has been done. Get out of here before the timer reaches zero.” Said MOONRISER.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Our carrier had already taken flight and we were away from the SCORPION. We were still within the blast radius and therefore, Daljeet activated the booster which pushed the carrier away from the radius… as far as possible.

Soon, we linked up with our fleet. Ambrose had already given clearance for docking on INTREPIDITY and we did the same. Soon, the timer came to zero and we all watched as the SCORPION imploded in a ball of fire. We reached the command center of INTREPIDITY and met Ambrose.

“Anyone survived?” Ambrose asked.

“Analyzing…. Negative, Sir. The entire fleet including everyone on board the SCORPION has been obliterated.” Said one of the officials.

This reply was received with loud cheers and howls, the news of this was replayed to the entire fleet and all the people concerned. Ambrose was still silent but was smiling, he replied, “Copy that, Captain.”

He then looked at me as I looked at the same place the enemy fleet was.

“MOONRISER, can you hear me?” I asked as all others in the center looked at me.

I asked the question again and without a doubt, everyone wanted to hear an answer. Ambrose didn’t stop me; he instead asked the same official to check for any signal from the MOONRISER.

“Sorry, Sir. Signal has gone dark. After the dust and flames clear, we can send a salvage team to check the debris… that is the least we can do.” The official said.

I was sad, disappointed yet I looked at Ambrose and smiled.

“We gave her what she wanted. She deserved to be an active member of the fleet. Be it a person or a thing, everyone has the right to live for what they believe in and what they were made for. She deserved her vengeance and a last attempt to fight back… and we gave her the same. We honor those who have fallen and, in their memory, we promise to move on, never give up and fight as long as we have the strength given. We have won today, we deserve this victory… and I thank you all for supporting us, supporting me.” I said.

I didn’t plan this speech… it just came with a flow but it was well received by everyone.

“Just like your Dad, Sudhir. Even he loved giving speeches and you have kept that ‘tradition’ alive.” I heard a voice but it wasn’t Ambrose’s, it was not anyone close to me.

I looked around trying to understand where the voice came from and in turn, the others looked at me confused. My attention turned to the comm I had inserted in my ears when I we docked on INTREPIDITY and realized soon enough that the voice was familiar.

“Sir, we are getting a signal. It is coming from within the debris. It is… it is the…” the official started but I finished her statement, “It is the MOONRISER.”

The people in the command center gasped in shock and our eyes fell on the debris of the enemy fleet again. From within the debris, the MOONRISER activated its engines and lighted up. It made a dramatic exit from the debris and within moments, the people in the center starting cheering and howling again.

“Of course, the MOONRISER has the ability to deactivate its signal to keep itself from being detected from any radar man has known. How the hell did we miss that point?” commented Ambrose, as he started laughing heartily.

My friends and I joined in the laughter.

“Show off.” I said.

“I will take that as a compliment, Shipmaster.” Said the MOONRISER.

I laughed at that comment as we all saw the MOONRISER come closer, it turned around and stopped next to INTREPIDITY.

“Time to go home. It has been a long day. Inform everyone that we are returning back to base.” Said Ambrose.

“Roger that, Sir.” We all replied in unison.

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