Previously in Future Prefect... Bill revealed to The Geraldine that there is a second spacecraft approaching Earth, this one coming from the inner solar system. Lloyd's talent for remote viewing further revealed that the second spaceship is crewed by humans, and Bill calculated its arrival at just before the first ship. Not long afterwards, Gillian travelled to the moon to show Derek images of the interior of the first ship.
The snowflake that starts an avalanche. The straw that breaks the camel's back. That last glass which makes the entire stack collapse in a maelstrom of shards and slithers. Bill looked at the computer screen in front of him and let out a long, slow breath. No turning back.
Lloyd and Gillian were gone, their tasks completed, their gifts no longer required in this time. He'd sent them back to their own time, along with the fully-recovered Daniel Harris. Their parts were described by history now. He looked across the room.
'Are you sure this is the right course of action?'
'Certainty doth lie only in the hearts of those lacking the wit to consider alternative actions,' the Dustbins of Wisdom replied. 'Thou of all people shouldst be aware of that.'
'Yes. Of course.' He sighed.
'We, of course, art convinced of the wisdom of this path.'
'You would be.' Bill drummed his fingers on the desk, then tapped the keyboard. The screen changed. Message sent. 'It is done.'
'But does it change for the better, or the worse?'
The dustbins rattled their lids.
'Who can tell?'
They paused for a moment. Then the one on the left spoke.
'We missed you, once you'd sent us back.'
Five months later
The blue-green world of pictures and dreams. Blue and green under white, a jewel in the blackness of space. Home. Almost home.
Prepare to enter orbit.
'It's slowing down,' Bath said, looking up from the holograms floating in the air before him. 'Setting up for entering orbit.'
'What kind of orbit?' Pord was somewhat concerned about where on the planet the ship might choose to land - if it was going to land at all, that is.
'Geostationary orbit above London.' Bath got up, following everyone else's involuntary glance upwards. 'Oh come on, I doubt it's going to land and squash us all. That's the ship with the humans on it, remember?'
'Assuming there aren't humans on the other one as well,' Agnes said.
'Assuming that, of course,' the wizard accepted graciously. Agnes stuck her tongue out at him.
Outside the newly-rebuilt, redesigned and much more earthquake-resistant Towers, crowds of people had gathered - assuming, Agnes supposed, that London was a logical place for them to gather to witness such an important event in human history. That the ship had entered orbit right above the city was quite a coincidence - or had the crew chosen the place deliberately?
A shadow passed briefly across the sun, then a beam of light shone from the sky, illuminating the balcony outside the operations room in which Pord, Bath, Agnes and The Geraldine had gathered. At its base, there was a flickering, then it vanished, and a lone human woman stood where it had been. The noise from the crowd below became deafening as Agnes hurriedly followed the others out onto the balcony. The woman, who had been looking out at the crowd, turned as she heard them approach.
'You saw us coming then,' she said. 'We weren't expecting a crowd... did you tell them?'
'Of course,' Pord said. The woman looked taken aback.
'I hadn't imagined... excuse me, please. I forget myself. You must be wondering who we are.'
'You could say that,' The Geraldine muttered.
'Since you saw us, I imagine you know of the other ship which approaches this planet?'
'Then we have much to discuss, for they will enter orbit in under four hours, and then it will be too late.'
'Too late for what?' Agnes asked.
'That is one of the things we need to discuss,' the woman replied. 'Is there somewhere we can talk?'
They led her into a small conference room and sealed the door.
'We were rather surprised when we found out that your ship is crewed by humans,' Pord began once they had sat. 'As far as we know, no human has ever gone further than the moon.'
'In that, you were mistaken. I am Commander Lauren Oakham of the Alliance ship Homeland. We come from a planet sixteen light years away which was colonised by settlers who left Earth some two hundred and fifty years ago, as I understand it.'
Agnes exchanged dumbstruck looks with The Geraldine. Pord leaned over to the intercom.
'Please get me a Guru in here at once,' he said into it, then turned his attention back to Commander Oakham. 'And why are you here at this particular time?'
'We knew something was going to happen - a matter of prophecy as I understand it. That's why we came. We dropped out of hyperspace at the edge of the solar system to check up on things from a safe distance, and spotted the other ship heading for Earth. We also picked up on an installation on the moon which was firing on it.'
'Yes, we stopped that,' Bath told her.
'Perhaps you shouldn't have. It was unlikely that the occupants would be particularly happy to meet you anyway. Mind you, that gun could never have destroyed the ship before it arrived.'
There was a knock at the door, and Bite walked in.
'You asked for a Guru?'
'Yes,' said Pord. 'Did a group of humans leave the planet two hundred and fifty years ago?'
'Not from h2g2.'
'What about America?'
'We haven't properly absorbed America into our knowledge yet,' Bite said. 'I couldn't say for sure.'
'Thankyou,' Pord said. 'Please have a seat.' Bite sat down, and Pord turned back to Commander Oakham.
'Do you know anything about why that ship is coming? And what you're going to do when they get here?'
'My Captain would like to meet you, but we don't have time for a proper exchange of pleasantries and an explanation. I have to be blunt and brief, and I can't explain all the reasons. You will have to take what I say on trust.'
'What will happen if we don't?' Bath asked.
'In all probability, you will see the end of the world before your afternoon coffee.'
Who is this Commander Lauren Oakham really? Why is she really here? Could she possibly be telling the truth? Why does she think the world might end before it's time for coffee? Do we get to find out what the other ship really wants? Find out in the next installment of Future Prefect, the story that throws plot twists at its audience like fishfood into a pond.