Striding through the darkness in one of the thickest blizzards ever known, Peter the Ace and Panman reached the top of the ridge. The two first-class bounty hunters stood, thigh-deep in powder snow, and looked down. The sensors on their suits filtered out the dense horizontal blasts of snow, revealing a detailed view of the valley below.
Panman sucked some Foie Gras paté from the feeding tube of his suit and examined the sensor image on the head-up display of his visor. “Whoa! That crater’s nearly filled with them, now!” He spotted some intense activity at the centre of the crater and zoomed in. Dismembered body-parts were being thrown around and chewed on. The bounty hunter laughed. “I think we found the answer to your question ‘What do they eat?’!”
Peter the Ace nodded. “Indeed. They’re really chomping hard on each other, aren’t they?!”
Panman was thoughtful. “Maybe this is the final stage of the infection? They’ll all start eating each other until there are none left. And then the final one will starve. Case closed!”
“That’s a profound assessment based on what we’re witnessing.” Peter the Ace said. “But the fact that the initial infection was intentional makes that outcome unlikely.”
“Yeah. If they’re now eating each other they won’t survive much longer. The reason for their infection must become obvious soon.”
Peter the Ace nodded once more. “I agree. We should get closer.”
“I was hoping you’d day that!” Panman said gleefully. He reached back and grabbed his snowboard, which was clipped to his backpack. He put the board down and then stepped into its bindings. The bindings automatically hooked onto his boots. “Ready!”
Peter the Ace stepped onto his own board. He looked back for a second. Through the roaring blizzard his sensor image showed the outline of the might Blenheim, half submerged in snow a few hundred metres away. He spoke over the communicator. “Justin, we’re heading down into the valley. Monitor our progress, and stay alert.”
The reply was a colourless monotonal drone. “I obey.”
Peter the Ace turned to face the valley again. “Let’s go!”
The two bounty hunters leapt over the ridge and plunged down a near vertical slope. Relying totally on their sensors they carved their way around covered rocks and outcrops. Within seconds they had reached near freefall speeds.
Panman whooped as he launched himself into the air, and then grunted as his board slammed back into the powdered snow. He laughed as the satisfying crunch of the compacted snow beneath resonated through his suit as his board dug in.
Arriving at a smoother and less steep part of the hill, Peter the Ace crouched down causing the underside of his board to automatically transform into its most frictionless state. He accelerated to an absurd speed within seconds. Panman followed suit, cutting through the blizzard like shrapnel through a fat bastard’s belly.
With the soft rumble of snow hitting his visor, Panman spoke. “At this rate we’ll be at the bottom in less than a minute. What’s the plan?”
The ground was uneven now, probably caused by the ejector blanket of the crater. Peter the Ace slowed. “Let’s get a close up view of some of the infected humanoids.”
Skimming over several large mounds the two bounty hunters drew to a halt at the edge of the crater, and less than a hundred metres away from the nearest humanoids. The blizzard seemed much less intense down at the floor of the valley, and it seemed to be subsiding quickly.
Peter the Ace examined the detailed scan of the nearest group. “The pattern of infection seems different to that of Sadie Stick.”
“Yeah.” Panman said. “She certainly did not generate cannibalistic tendencies. She did loose a lot of skin, though. They seem to have lost almost all their skin. They’re covered in some of the thickest and bloodiest scabs I’ve ever seen!”
“They would all benefit from a prolonged period in regeneration fluid. Unfortunately we…”
Panman interrupted. “Look at them all!”
Peter the Ace looked. The humanoids had stopped their cannibal fest and were looking up. They were standing perfectly still. Many still had torn flesh hanging from their mouths. “How very odd.”
The communicator beeped. It was Justin. Panman answered. “Yes?”
“It is I, Justin.”
“Damn it! I know! What is it?”
“A large unidentified vessel is entering this planet’s atmosphere.”
Peter the Ace spoke. “Let me guess. It’s headed for our location?”
“Your guess is correct.”
Panman looked at the mass of infected humanoids. They were still motionless and staring up at the sky. “How do they know it’s coming?”
Peter the Ace was thoughtful. “That’s a remarkably good question.”
“There must be more to that infection than just a virus.”
A deep rumble could now be heard. It was rapidly increasing in volume.
Peter the Ace spoke to Justin. “Send as much information as you can on that vessel.”
“The requested information is transmitting now.”
Detailed images and statistics on the unidentified vessel appeared on the bounty hunters’ visors.
“It’s huge!” Panman exclaimed.
Bright light suddenly illuminated the valley, diffused by the low cloud and lessening blizzard.
“And it’s arrived.” Peter the Ace said.
A deep and resonant roar sounded as the vast underbelly of the dull yellowish vessel, so large that it spread across the entire valley, descended from the clouds. A few hundred metres above the ground the vessel stopped its descent. After several seconds dozens of wide circular platforms full of vertical transparent tubes were lowered to the ground. The millions of infected humanoids, illuminated by the bright lights of the gigantic vessel, headed for the platforms. Within minutes they were being sucked up into the vessel with remarkable speed.
Peter the Ace watched as thousands of the scab-ridden humanoids shot up the tubes. “That’s a reasonably entertaining spectacle.” He shouted over the resonating roar of the giant vessel above.
Panman agreed. “I’m recording it. The trainee bounty hunters on my Peculiar Abduction Techniques course will love it!”
Peter the Ace turned to his companion. “I wasn’t aware that you taught such a course.”
“I’m starting it next month. I’m just doing one session a year. All trainees will attend!”
Peter the Ace was impressed. “That’s a big class. How many peculiar abduction techniques are there?”
“At least a thousand.”
Panman looked around. All of the platforms were now sucking up the infected humanoids at an incredible rate. Illuminated by the bright lights of the enormous vessel above, the valley was slowly but surely being emptied. “At this rate all of those diseased scabby dudes will be onboard in just over two hours.”
Peter the Ace thought for a moment. He looked up. “Despite THROB’s recent findings we still have no idea what’s really going on.” He turned to Panman. “We need to get into that ship. And we need to do it without being detected.”
Panman laughed. “And I know just how to do it!”
“I knew you would! Explain.”
“It’s brilliantly simple: we smear our suits with the blood and entrails of one of the half-eaten infected corpses we’re sure to find out there. Then we go to the nearest platform and get sucked up!”
“That is indeed brilliantly simple. But won’t the fact that we’re wearing white heavily armoured environment suits give us away?”
Panman shook his head. “There is a risk of that, but it’s very minor. Remember that the dude or thing behind all this is almost certainly a deeply unstable and highly retarded individual with a remarkably well-developed intellect. That combination is sure to mean that the sensors on those suction platforms will, at most, be looking for external confirmation of infection only.”
Peter the Ace grinned. “As always, your plans are consummate examples of effortless genius.”
Panman shrugged. “Of course.”
The two bounty hunters leapt over the crater wall and boarded down across the blinding snow towards the centre of the crater. They drew to a halt near the edge of the crowd of infected humanoids. They both unclipped their snowboards.
Peter the Ace stood and looked at the crowd as it shoved and jostled its way towards the nearest platform. He looked up. “We need to find out how they knew that ship was coming.”
Panman nodded. “I think that’s a job for our chrome-plated assistant and Jemima Murma.”
“They’ll need a specimen. As intact as possible.”
With the speed of a Regnil snug sniper, Peter the Ace pulled his quantum-flux pulsar rifle from his backpack. He set the weapon’s power setting to minimum and narrowed the pulse width. He aimed at the back of the neck of the nearest humanoid and fired. A pea-sized pulse of bright energy passed through the humanoid’s neck. The humanoid slumped instantly to the floor, its spinal column severed and cauterized. It gasped once and then was still.
Peter the Ace operated his communicator. “Justin?”
The reply was instant and toneless. “Yes?”
“Panman and I are going to infiltrate the unidentified vessel. Once the vessel leaves I want you to follow it, discretely. And send a message back to the palace explaining what we’re up to.”
Peter the Ace looked down at the humanoid corpse. “All of the humanoids appeared to know about the arrival of the vessel long before they should have. There is a dead humanoid at my location. When that vessel leaves this valley I want you to come and collect the corpse. I want you and Jemima to examine it to find out how it knew about the vessel.”
“That order conflicts with the previous order. Which order is considered the highest priority?”
Peter the Ace frowned. “Both orders are of the highest priority! Pick up the cadaver first, and then follow the vessel!”
There was a moment’s pause. “I obey.”
Panman looked down. “And Justin, pick up our snowboards too.”
“That order conflicts with…”
“No it doesn’t!” Panman yelled. “Pick up the snowboards, then the humanoid, and then follow the ship.”
Peter the Ace silenced the communicator. “Is it my imagination, or is Justin not as sharp as he used to be?”
Panman shook his head. “It’s not your imagination, although he was never that sharp to begin with. I’ll get him to make a pizza when we get back onboard the Blenheim – stuffed-crust for an extra challenge. That’s probably the best test. If that’s up to standard then we have nothing to worry about.”
Peter the Ace agreed. “Excellent idea.” He pointed at the nearby mass of scab-encrusted humanoids. “Right, let’s cake ourselves in blood and guts and get onboard!”