Peter the Ace sat next to the Bob the nomad in his silver bowl as they sped silently just a few metres above the icy plains of the nomad ship’s vast inner chamber. Despite the speed, and the fact that the silver dome was completely open, the bounty hunter felt no wind and heard no sound, and he could not feel the frigid chill of the arctic conditions all around. An energy canopy, invisible and efficient, must be surrounding the aircraft – a remarkable technology. Not far behind the other two bowl-like aircraft followed; their occupants still and solemn.
Looking up Peter the Ace saw the many city platforms of the chamber passing by, held aloft by thick and transparent columns that rose out of the ice and snow. Beyond the cities the chamber’s ceiling emitted a blue glow giving the impression of a clear sky. Some small clouds had formed at the apex.
The bounty hunter looked up at nomad. “This is a most impressive artificial environment that you’ve created. In fact, it’s one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many.”
Bob remained still and silent.
Peter the Ace was curious. “Why did you create such a cold environment? Is your planet of origin like this?”
This time Bob nodded and spoke, his voice light; almost a whisper. “My people’s planet of origin had an environment similar to this for most of its year. When we knew of our planet’s impending destruction we created five ships like this that could hold a matching environment to our planet. We wanted to create the minimum of upheaval and distress when the population was evacuated.”
Peter the Ace nodded. “A wise decision. If your other four ships are as large as this then a significant percentage of your planet’s population must have been saved.”
Bob looked down at the bounty hunter. “All were saved.” He said. His slight change in tone implied that the idea of not saving all had never been contemplated.
Now visible a few kilometres ahead was silver dome poking out of the icy landscape. There seemed to be a lot of airborne and surface activity nearby, especially around the thin and very long-looking object half buried nearby. It was the strange Sadeeni ship.
With a motion of his large and slender right hand Bob slowed their craft and directed it on a circular course over the dome. “That dome contains this ship’s bio-mind.”
Peter the Ace leaned over the edge of their flying bowl. The dome of the bio-mind was at least a hundred metres across but it was now dwarfed by the four-kilometre-long Sadeeni ship. Looking up he could see a hole, now sealed, in the edge of the frozen inner chamber many kilometres away, and a deep groove cut into the ice all the way to the back of the long Sadeeni ship. After entering the ship had skidded to a halt using the frozen snow-covered landscape as a breaking tool. The pointed nose of the Sadeeni had penetrated deep into the bio-mind’s dome. Considering the length of the ship – 40 times that of the width of the bio-mind’s dome – it was an incredibly impressive achievement to hit the dome so accurately. The bounty hunter made a mental not to underestimate the abilities of the Sadeeni.
The point of the Sadeeni ship’s penetration was where the most activity was located. Dozens of nomads in thick fur clothing could be seen carrying out surveillance work.
The red light on the device on the side of Bob’s head flickered. The nomad cocked his pale hairless head to one side for a second. With a barely perceptible movement of his right hand he set their craft on a descent course. He spoke gently. “A critical situation has arisen.”
Peter the Ace was curious. “What situation is that?”
“This ship has altered course without consent. So have all four of our other ships. All ships will converge at one location in 46 minutes.”
The bounty hunter nodded. “As I had feared. It seems the severed heads of the two professors have already infiltrated the bio-mind of your ship, and whatever program the heads are supposed to follow is already running.”
The bowl-like aircraft set down on a rough patch of snow and ice at the edge of the dome near the long Sadeeni ship. Several other craft were parked there, and a dozen nomads in thick fur clothing stood nearby. They were holding long tube-like devices, most likely weapons of some sort.
Bob reached forwards and opened a compartment. He pulled out a fur coat and turned to the bounty hunter. “The temperature outside is extremely low. A fur coat is recommended.”
“Don’t worry about me.” Peter the Ace said, tapping his black armoured suit. “This is a fully automated battle suit! It will keep me at a respectable temperature.”
“Your head is not covered.”
“No problem. I love the feeling of bitterly cold air on my face. I find it once of the most refreshing experiences possible.”
Bob nodded. “Very well.” He put on his coat, and then operated a control. Immediately the temperature plummeted as the outside air entered the unprotected bowl. Bob stood up and stepped down into the snow.
Peter the Ace leapt up and landed next to the nomad. He took a deep breath. “Ah! Wonderful!”
Bob gazed down at the bounty hunter. “Follow me.” He began to stride slowly through the snow towards the Sadeeni ship.
Peter the Ace followed. “Why do we have to walk? Isn’t there a better way to get into that dome? A hanger you could land in, for example?”
Bob shook his head. “There has never been a need to enter the dome before. The bio-mind is self-maintaining. You will enter through the hole created by that ship.” He pointed at the Sadeeni ship.
The bounty hunter shook his head. “It’s always wise to build in an entrance. Remember that in future.”
The nomad appeared to ignore his suggestion. He pointed at the huge jagged hole made by the Sadeeni ship. “Enter the dome here.”
“I will.” Peter the Ace said, stepping up onto a torn piece of the dome’s shell. He rested on the smooth hull of the Sadeeni ship and peered into the dome. It was dimly lit, and a waft of warm humid air breezed out from inside. He headed in.
The energy discharge was massive. In a flash of light Ross Mental was thrown back. He slammed into a curved piece of panelling and then fell to the floor. “Decapitated fuckers!”
The transparent dome containing the heads of Professors Espanys and Larberec shimmered as its protective energy field dissipated.
Ross Mental got to his feet. Despite his violent and profanity ridden attempts to stop it, the dome had managed to connect itself up to dozens of what looked like data ports that were situated all around in the dimly-lit room.
And what a strange room it was.
All over the floor and ceiling were thick transparent tubes along which dull green and red liquids flowed. The tubes connected together glass pods that appeared to contain brain-like masses. Each of the brains was covered in thin wires and cables that stretched to a mesh on the inside of its pod’s glass casing, like course spiky hair. The brains pulsed gently in the liquid. It was a confusing and disturbing sight.
Ross Mental approached the professors again, this time with his pistol drawn. “Right, this is your last fuckin’ chance. Tell me where the fuck we are and what the fuck you’re up to! Refuse and I’ll have no choice but to fuckin’ fry you!”
The professors said nothing. Their heads shuddered sending fat ripples out across the green nutrient gunk that they rested in.
The bounty hunter noticed that some of the tubes that were connected up to the necks of the professors now contained a slow-moving black liquid. It was highly likely that the professors were too drugged-up to even hear Ross Mental’s questions, let alone comprehend them. Whatever it was that the heads were here to do, they were doing it.
Ross Mental aimed his pistol at the transparent dome. Despite not knowing what the heads were up to, he knew it would not be anything good. It must end now. The bounty hunter started to squeeze the trigger.
From the left, a voice, soft but firm, spoke. “Put down your weapon and submit yourself to us.”
Dropping to his knees, Ross Mental turned and fired. In a flare of energy an exceedingly tall figure at the far end of the room, clothed in what appeared to be a thick furry coat, fell to the floor, his chest flaming like a petroleum-drenched barbeque. The figure groaned.
Two other figures were nearby. The tube-like devices they were holding were pointing squarely at Ross Mental.
Two blasts of energy hit Ross Mental. Once again he found himself thrown backwards, but this time he landed on a soft mass of liquid-carrying tubes – not at all unpleasant. Reacting instantly, the bounty hunter rolled across the floor. As he rolled under tubes and around brain pods he was surrounded by swirls of smoke from his smoldering body armour. He stopped rolling next to one of the larger pods and peered through it to the two figures several metres away. The liquid in the pod distorted their image, making them appear even taller.
One of the figures spoke. “Submit yourself to us.”
“Where the fuck am I?!”
“Submit yourself to us.”
Agitated to the extreme, Ross Mental pulled himself up and onto the top of the pod. With a tirade of profanity the bounty hunter leapt towards the figures, his powerful artificial legs propelling him at an incredible speed.
The two figures had no time react.
With the force of a charging mega-mammal, the bounty hunter, with his arms outstretched, smashed into the figures. They collapsed to the floor. With a multitude of swift yanks and kicks Ross Mental snapped and crushed several bones in each of the figures’ arms and legs. In the span of only five seconds the figures, both almost twice as tall as the bounty hunter, had been immobilized. Reaching out, Ross Mental grabbed both the figures round their necks – one under each arm. They groaned. “Right,” the bounty hunter said, “this is your final opportunity. Tell me where the fuck this is, or…”
A noise disturbed Ross Mental. He turned. Another figure, smaller that the two he was holding, stood silhouetted against the dim lighting at the far side of the room. The figure was flanked by stacks of interconnected brain pods.
The new figure spoke. “Ross Mental, it’s me, Peter the Ace. Let those two go. They are not our enemy.”
Ross Mental was confused. “How the fuck did you find me?”
The new figure took a step forwards. “I followed you.”
The foul-mouthed bounty hunter frowned. He gripped the necks of his captives. “Don’t come any closer. You could be lying! Prove who you are in three seconds or I start snapping necks like there’s no fuckin’ tomorrow!”
There was a moment’s pause, and then the figure spoke. “Your middle name is Candice.”
Ross Mental stood and let go of his two captives. They dropped to the floor gasping. The foul-mouthed bounty hunter strode over to the new figure. “Fuckin’ hell, Ace! You promised never to fuckin’ speak that name!”
Peter the Ace smiled. “Sorry, it was the quickest way to prove who I am. I’m the only one you’ve told, if I remember rightly.”
“Yeah, and I wanted to keep it that way!” Ross Mental said. He pointed at the two figures on the floor. “Now they know!” He looked around. “And all those fuckin’ brains in pods probably know now, too!”
Peter the Ace patted the foul-mouthed bounty hunter on the shoulder. “Don’t worry; it’s not as bad as you think. All of this is just one mind – a collective bio-mind. It runs the nomad ship that we’re on. So, in total, only three others know.”
Talk of his middle name had caused Ross Mental considerable anguish. He decided to change the subject. “We’re on a fuckin’ nomad ship?”
Peter the Ace nodded.
The foul-mouthed bounty hunter thought through things for a moment. “So, the Sadeeni kidnapped the two most fuck-off academics in the known systems, severed their heads, put them in a dome, and then smashed them into the bio-mind of a fuckin’ nomad ship to take control of it?”
Peter the Ace shook his head. “I don’t know, but a huge fleet of Sadeeni ships recently emerged from subspace nearby.”
“Indeed.” Peter the Ace said. “It is urgent that we figure out what’s going on as soon as possible.” He turned and started to walk away. “Come on, we need to discuss this with Bob.”
Ross Mental nodded and followed. He frowned. “Who the fuck is Bob?!”