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The two guards tried to challenge the cloaked figure as it approached them from the other end of the corridor. They crumpled a moment later, stunned by shots from a concealed blaster. The figure knelt by their prone forms briefly, checking their pulses, then moved on. Security cameras and other detectors were disrupted along the way.

Nearing its final objective, the figure paused in shadow. Voices. There should not be others here. He readied his weapon once more, checking the charge. The cloak fell silently to the floor, its purpose served. He readied his weapon and threw himself around the corner, poised to fire on the intruders.

They were ready for him - but no-one fired. Weapons were holstered. Shiro approached Barry and Lee, quickly learning that F Zero One had also visited them leaving only one course of action open to them all. Barry and Shiro stood watch as Lee punched in the final commands on his self-made override pad, connected to the guts of an access panel alongside a heavily armoured security door. The door finally growled open.

It had been a while. The three pilots stepped through the door and looked out over the subterranean hangar at her. A few spotlights illuminated her dull grey flanks, the rest of her bulk lay bathed in darkness. The X-Bomber. Not quite fully repaired, but they had repaired her many times over. She was more than capable of getting them to the Thalian Zone. What was cause for concern was the lack of the Dai-X component fighters - they lay embedded in diagnostic dry docks at the far end of the bay. This battle the X-Bomber would face alone.

The three pilots kept to the shadows as much as possible before making the final run across a gantry to the Bomber's main airlock. Lee began work once again, running through code sequences on the access panel. The outer door slid open and Lee followed the others inside having retrieved his decoder. The inner door closed noiselessly behind them as they entered a darkened corridor. Shiro broke silence. "Let's get to the bridge."

The bridge door was unlocked and opened as they approached. Stepping through it, memories came flooding back to them - the desperate battles, the race to get back to Earth, suffocating for lack of oxygen; and the death of Dr Benn in the command chair. The chair from which a voice suddenly came, shocking them all from their reverie. Pistols were no longer in their holsters.

"What took you so long?" said Professor Hagen, as he stood and turned to face them. He raised an enquiring eyebrow. "Not quite the reception I was hoping for - but I'm sure you'll have a need for those later."

Shiro was nonplussed. "F.. father?! What are you... of course. You found her, after all..."

The Professor smiled. "Yes, she came to me as well. I know what you need to do, and I'm here to help. The X-Bomber isn't quite the same ship you remember. For example... LIGHTS." The pilots blinked in the sudden illumination. Lee was clearly impressed.

"Voice activated controls Professor? You've been doing more than just repairing her, haven't you?"

"Yes, Lee. As you may recall, the X Project wasn't quite completed when you and Dr Benn took her up. There was a very key component which hadn't yet been installed. That component is now in place."

Barry looks up from his weapons console which he'd been checking. "What component? A new weapon?"

The Professor's smile broadened. "Perhaps it - or rather he - should introduce himself."

"Certainly Professor. Good evening Lieutenant Hercules. I trust you find the systems to be performing at optimal efficiency."

Barry's jaw dropped. He span around, looking for the source of the all too familiar voice. "PPA?! Is that you? Where are you?!"

Professor Hagen made a broad gesture with his hands. "It would be accurate to say that PPA is - everywhere."

Barry was speechless. Lee spoke up, fascinated. "You mean, you've integrated him into X-Bomber? That's how the speech recognition works?"

The disembodied voice responded. "Yes, Lieutenant. I now control all of X-Bomber's primary functions and am able to relay your commands to key systems in the event that you are unable to assert manual control or are otherwise incapacitated. I am also in direct control of several slaved drones not unlike my previous housing with which I can conduct damage control and other operations requiring physcial intervention."

As if on cue something flew through the bridge doors and came to rest in front of Hercules. It bore more than a passing resemblance to the PPA the pilots were familiar with. "I trust I will now garner more respect from you, Lieutenant Hercules, than has previously been the case. I am now capable of enhancing X-Bomber's performance envelope well beyond its previous abilities, formidable as they were. I look forward to working with you again."

Hercules grunted at the drone which PPA was now using as his mouthpiece. "Well, your attitude seems to have imrpoved, so I guess the feeling's mutual PPA."

"Father, we have to leave now. The base could go on security alert at any..." Sirens sounded outside, cutting Shiro off. Light flooded the hangar.

Professor Hagen headed for the bridge door. "I'll get the hangar depressurised and open the surface doors. PPA can fill you in on the ship's status. Clear the repair equipment any way you can and take off immediately. Good hunting to you."

The Bomber's systems came to life all around them as PPA initiated a system wide power up. As Lee worked to lock out external overrides, Barry and Shiro manned the manual laser turrets and opened fire on the scaffold surrounding the ship. The metal bars sprang away in every direction as the Bomber was gradually freed from its cradle. The cacophony of falling metal ceased abruptly as the Professor completed the evacuation of the hangar's atmosphere.

The pilots adopted their customary positions and Shiro initiated the vertical lift engines. The last elements of the scaffold tumbled noiselessy across the hangar as the Bomber broke free of its moorings and angled towards the slowly opening space doors. Which suddenly stopped opening.

Professor Hagen's voice called out urgently on the comms channel. "Shiro! Moon Base has locked me out of this console! That's as wide open as the doors are going to get!"

"Acknowledged father. They're wide enough. Thank you - and goodbye." Shiro killed the external comms.

"Shiro, I hate to contradict you, but my readings say we can't get out of here with those doors stuck in that position," Lee said anxiously.

"Then we'll just have to change our position Lee," Shiro responded, smiling grimly. He pushed the Bomber forward until she was directly underneath the doors, then swung her round ninety degrees on her vertical thrusters to align her wings with the narrowest part of the opening. "Will that gap take our width in our current alignment Lee?" Shiro asked urgently.

"Yes, with nothing to spare. But we normally exit at right angles to this heading Shiro - she's too long to take her up vertically without losing our tail and our nose! If we could stand her on her tail we could make it, but we haven't got enough room for that..."

"We don't need to. Barry - ready the main laser cannons."

"Alright - we're going to shoot our way out!"

Shiro shook his head. "No. Just alter our configuration as if we were going to use them."

The other two sudenly realised what he had in mind. Barry grinned. Lee nodded. Shiro noticed that space suited figures were starting to pour into the hangar below them - and then the view from the cockpit began to change as X-Bomber's neck hinged. The hangar floor drew closer and then farther away as the configuration change was completed. It left the cockpit on a level with the space doors.

Shiro nudged the Bomber upwards, then forwards, until the chest cannons were just metres away from the rim of the launch aperture. He switched back to vertical flight and the main engines cleared the gap with nothing to spare. When she was free and clear to navigate the Bomber reverted to standard flight configuration and blasted away at full quantum speed keeping close to the Moon's surface to evade detection by the increasingly alert Moon Base. Once below Moon Base's horizon Shiro stood the Bomber on its tail and broke away from the lunar surface, heading out towards the edge of the solar system.

Back at Moon Base, Professor Hagen monitored their departure and allowed himself a quiet smile of satisfaction. He accessed the fully functional console in front of him and opened up a secure channel to General Kyle. "They're away, General. I think the performance will have been convincing."

"Very good Professor. Now we can only wait and pray."

Last updated 14 December 2013

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