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Book: The Kretins of Doctor Combobulay
Chapter 7: The Sound of Moaning

Sind’a Thighs clung to the left leg of the giant humanoid-shaped machine and looked up. The water here was deep, and up to the mid-thigh level of the machine, which made it easy for the bounty hunter to reach for the hatch she could see between the machine’s huge chunky legs. She pulled herself up out of the ice-strewn water and jammed her boots into the gap between two armoured panels on the leg. She turned her attention to the hatch, attempting to pry it open. It was locked tight shut. Only extreme explosives would open it. She would have to climb up to the top.

Using the mosaic of tough plating on the machine’s back, Sind’a Thighs dexterously made her way up the torso. It took her only a minute to clamber onto the machine’s broad shoulders. She stood up and took a couple of deep breaths. Twenty metres up the view was much better. To the east she could see far out to sea, the water as black as tar against the ochre sky. In all other directions the plain of ash continued to the black horizon - desolation on a truly miserable scale.

Below, about thirty metres in front of the humanoid machine were the remains of her ship. The Butt Muffin was nothing but a charred carcass half-submerged in the murky water, but she could make out the smouldering remains of the VAPR engine, and even the scorched base of her circular bed.

For a few moments Sind’a Thighs allowed a pang of sadness to pass through her mind. She remembered the thrill of her first flight and the ecstasy of her first romp in her circular bed with a fifth-class bounty hunter known as Big Bad Bob – a very fulfilling experience. She would cherish those memories forever.

And then she focused her thoughts on the task at hand – to seek vengeance for the destruction of her ship. Between the humanoid-shaped machine’s colossal shoulders were the remnants of the dome that she’d seen her ship destroy so expertly. And the two well-cooked crew members sitting there in their exposed seats proved that this was not an autonomous machine. She stepped down into the machine’s cockpit and grabbed the two charred crew members. She pulled hard and dragged their corpses up onto the forward edge of the cockpit. She pushed them, sending them splashing into the river.

The bounty hunter jumped back into the cockpit and sat down. A few of the controls were still illuminated. The machine was still active, at least in some way, but all the display-screens were too badly damaged to be of use.

Then there was a faint noise from below. It appeared that there was another crew member on board.

Pulling her pistol from its holster on her belt, Sind’a Thighs got up and stepped over to a closed hatch on the floor. She knelt down next to it and listened - more faint noises. The bounty hunter shouted. “I am a bounty hunter from the Palace of Amino. Cease your activities or suffer instant Amino justice!”

The faint noises stopped.

Carefully, Sind’a Thighs operated the hatch’s controls. With a sharp hiss it slid open. A bright burst of sizzling energy flashed passed, barely missing the bounty hunter’s helmet. With a piercing yell, Sind’a Thighs leapt into the hatch, firing three quick bursts of her pistol as she fell.

Sind’a Thighs landed hard into the dimly lit room below - a room filled with the sound of moaning. Lying at the bounty hunter’s feet was a plump female; her right arm had been burnt to a crisp by the bounty hunter’s remarkably accurate shots. The female’s blue overalls were smouldering, and she had a large bruise on her forehead. “I did warn you.” The bounty hunter said. “Always heed the warnings of a bounty hunter.”

The injured female nodded slowly, her breathing laboured.

Sind’a Thigh’s looked around. The room was small and uncomfortable. In the centre was a stark-looking single chair with virtually no padding. The chair was in front of a crescent of control panels and screens. A small window showed the view ahead. This was obviously where the machine’s weapons were controlled. The bounty hunter looked down at the female. “So, it was you that first fired on my ship, was it?”

The female nodded.

“What is your name?”

She replied weakly. “Rubella Moul.”

“Well, Rubella, I want you to explain what you are doing on this world, and why you shot me down from orbit.”

Rubella shook her head. “I will be crushed if I reveal anything to you.”

The bounty hunter pressed her boot onto the female’s chest. “You’ll be crushed if you don’t!”

Rubella groaned.

Sind’a Thighs released the pressure. “If you tell me what I want to know I’ll protect you from whoever would crush you. I assume you have heard of the Bounty Hunters of the Palace of Amino?”

Rubella nodded.

“Good. You’ll know, then, that although we have no patience for megalomaniac villains and routinely incarcerate or vaporise them, we do have patience for their subordinates that help us. You have nothing to fear if you tell me what I want to know.”

Rubella looked thoughtful for a few seconds, and then tears filled her eyes. “I had no choice. I was forced to join the Nebulon!”

“What’s the Nebulon?”

“The submarine of Doctor Combobulay.” She sobbed. “We were all forced to come to this planet from Elddem-Ssor. We were promised apprenticeships in advanced engineering – skills in short supply on my world, and skills that would have ensured a comfortable life.” Rubella sniffled. “But then we were taken to the Nebulon and sealed inside. We were shown endless presentations on the desires of Doctor Combobulay. Then we were assigned duties. I became a weapons officer onboard this Kretin.”

The sudden burst of information filled Sind’a Thighs’ mind with questions. Who was Doctor Combobulay, and what are his or her desires? Where is the Nebulon now, and why is the doctor using a submarine? What is the purpose of a Kretin? And why are all the press-ganged crew from the planet Elddem-Ssor, a remote world with a reputation for ignorance, bland quisine and mild obesity? The bounty hunter knelt down. “Rubella, tell me everything again, and in extreme detail.”

Rubella nodded.

“And then,” Sind’a Thigh’s continued, helping the weapons officer to sit up, “you are going to help me get this Kretin moving again.”

After twenty minutes of interrogation Sind’a Thighs new almost everything she wanted, including why the machine she was in was known as a ‘Kretin’. It was actually an abbreviation for Killer-Ray-Emitting Terrain-Incinerating Nuisance. Very odd, but probably very apt.

Unfortunately she did not know the true nature of Doctor Combobulay’s purpose. That was a secret her brainwashed crew had never been privy too. The bounty hunter would have to discover that for herself.

“You Elddem-Ssorians really are gullible to the extreme.” Sind’a Thighs said. “I see now why the doctor chose you all.”

Rubella winced with pain as the remains of her charred right arm fell off her shoulder. She wheezed. “We only wanted to better ourselves.”

“What made you think that running off to a primitive pre-subspace-capable world such as this with a smelly old woman in an electric chair would help you better yourself?”

Rubella started sobbing again.

The bounty hunter lifted up the plump injured female and placed her on the chair in front of the control panel. “Pull yourself together, and then tell me what’s working and what’s not.”

With her remaining hand, Rubella played with some controls. A screen on the wall beneath the window lit up. A grid of status messages was displayed. Most systems appeared to be working. “Weapons systems are still functional, and I think this machine can still walk.”

Sind’a Thighs nodded. “Good. Can it be driven from here?”

“Yes. Motion controls are duplicated.”

“Okay, let’s see if we can…”

The control panel bleeped, and another display lit up.

Rubella shook her head. “Not good!”

“What is it?”

“Two Kretins are approaching!”

“Interesting.” The bounty hunter said. “I wonder why they’re coming back?”

Once again Rubella sobbed. “They’re coming to destroy us! They don’t want to leave a near-intact Kretin for someone else to find!”

Sind’a Thighs slapped Rubella on the back of the head. “Stop panicking! When they see that we can still walk it’s more likely they’ll want to escort us back. This will be an excellent opportunity for me to infiltrate Doctor Combobulay’s operation.” She looked at Rubella. “I need you to be calm. Now, drive this Kretin out of the river and towards the approaching Kretins. Can you do that?”

Rubella looked terrified, but she nodded.

“Good. Off you go.”

Rubella flicked a switch and a control stick popped out of the centre of the console. She grabbed it, and then placed her feet on two pedals. She twisted the stick and pushed it forwards. Lurching, the Kretin turned.

Sind’a Thighs gripped onto the back of Rubella’s chair as the Kretin swayed back and forth. And then it shuddered as it began stomping up the river bank and onto the dusty plain. The view from the window turned orange as the morning sky to the east came into view. Ahead, the silhouettes of the two approaching Kretins could be seen. One of them had an arm missing. They were almost certainly the Kretins that had visited before.

A voice was heard. “Kretin 67, this is Kretin 52. We thought you were all dead. We were ordered to destroy you. Report!

Rubella looked at Sind’a Thighs.

“Reply!” The bounty hunter said. “Act normal!”

Rubella touched the control panel. “Erm… Kretin 52, this is Kretin 67, weapons officer Rubella Moul speaking. The drive crew are dead. I was knocked unconscious for a while. I am able to drive from the weapons room.”

Understood. We’ll escort you back.

Ahead, the two Kretins were already turning to face the sea.

Sind’a Thighs grinned. “Well done! It’s working!”

Rubella was not so confident. “What happens when they discover I’ve helped you? They crush me and place me in the…”

“I told you I’d protect you. Just drive!”

Following the two Kretins ahead, Rubella guided their Kretin over the crumbled coastline buildings and onto the wide ash-grey beach. After a few more heavy steps they entered the sea. Already the lead Kretins were half submerged, the swell of the water breaking into foam on their backs.

Automatically, the hatch above hissed shut.

Sind’a Thighs looked up. “Oh yes. I forgot about that!”

Now, the water level had reached the window. The orange sky disappeared as the opaque dust-laden sea consumed all light.

“How long until we get to your base?” The bounty hunter asked.

“About 30 minutes.” Rubella answered. She activated some floodlights. The backs of the Kretins in front could now be seen as they stomped down the steep slope of the seabed. They were already completely submerged.

“Good. That gives me enough time to do a little studying. Show me a plan of the base on the screen.”

Rubella flicked a couple of controls and a plan appeared, along with the projected route.

Sind’a Thighs studied the image. In a couple of kilometres, and around two-hundred metres down, they would reach the edge of a deep abyss. The entrance to the base was a further two-hundred metres down the side of the abyss. A precarious set of giant steps led down to it – obviously purpose-built for the Kretins to use. “Strange! If this doctor of yours used flying machines instead of these walking contraptions, there would be no need for idiotically massive staircases like that!”

Rubella spoke. “The wisdom of Doctor Combobulay is unfathomable.”

The bounty hunter slapped the weapons officer on the back of her head. “Don’t spout that brainwashed rubbish any more! You are under my influence now. Understood?”

Rubella nodded; her breathing noticeably erratic. She sniffled and shivered. “Sorry. I’m a bit confused right now.”

“I’m here to protect you now. You are no longer under the doctor’s control. Just stay focused and drive!”

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