The stench of blood, decay, urine and defecation was intense. Fortunately Peter the Ace only had to read about it on his environment suit’s head-up display. He did so as he quietly breathed the cool filtered air that circulated round the inside of his helmet.
Peter the Ace and Panman had been inside the strange yellowish vessel for almost two hours now, after having been sucked up in quite a thrilling fashion from the frigid surface of Lodi by one of the ship’s transparent loading tubes. Now they both walked through chamber after chamber filled with moaning and phlegm-drooling infected humanoids. Most of the humanoids were now sucking like cubs on nutrients passed down through flexible transparent pipes from the dark domed ceiling panels above.
For fun Panman tripped up the nearest humanoid. The humanoid keeled over backwards and slammed onto the hard floor. Congealing blood splattered from between two large scabs on his shoulders. He continued to suck on his feeding pipe as other infected humanoids trampled over him. “At least they’ve stopped eating each other.”
Peter the Ace nodded. “That is one positive aspect about their new predicament.”
The gentle background rumble of the vessel increased in pitch. Vibrations quickly built in intensity.
“Finally!” Panman exclaimed. “I was wondering when this thing was going to leave.”
Like pigs on a multitude of teats, the humanoids continued their feeding.
Peter the Ace looked around. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of watching these hopelessly diseased folk gorge themselves.”
Panman sucked on his suit’s food dispenser. He swallowed hard. “For some reason I feel quite at home here. I think I’m developing a strong empathy for them.”
Peter the Ace looked at Panman. “This is not a restaurant. They have no choice but to feed. The disease has obvious reverted them to follow only the very basic of instincts. You gorge in fine restaurants and do so by choice. It’s a big difference.”
Panman shook his head. “Some of my hunger cravings are extreme and often I feel I have no choice but to gorge. I do dine in fine restaurants, but that’s because I can. Other than that, and the fact that I’m a first-class bounty hunter with a supreme intellect, physique and lifestyle envied by even the elite of the Central Worlds, I feel I have a lot in common with those infested rag-wearing people.”
Peter the Ace continued to look at Panman for a few seconds. And then he smiled. “That’s an astounding explanation. Bravo!”
Panman nodded and sucked out another mouthful from his food dispenser.
Peter the Ace continued. “I’ve still had enough of watching them fill their stomachs, though. I suggest we try to find the command centre of this vessel.”
Panman agreed. “Sounds like a good plan to me. From what I’ve seen, though, I would expect this ship to be almost totally automated.”
“Indeed. It looks like its on nothing more than a collect and return mission. If there’s a crew it will be minimal.”
Panman pointed up. “That ventilation shaft looks quite large.”
Peter the Ace laughed and pulled a grappling hook and line from his utility belt. “It certainly does. Of the hundreds of massive ships we’ve infiltrated, every single one had an unmonitored ventilation system large enough and extensive enough for us to travel throughout the entire vessel with minimal opposition. And I doubt this is any different!”
“Yeah!” Panman said, chuckling. He pulled out his own grappling hook. “The retarded intellectual megalomaniac behind all this is as predictable as always.”
The two bounty hunters threw up their hooks, activated their retraction controls and disappeared into the darkness above.
The swelling mass of infected humanoids paid them no attention. They continued sucking on their feeding tubes, and defecated without thought.
Looking like a deeply deformed and mildly emaciated metallic elephant, Justin sat on his reinforced bench at the back of the Blenheim’s spacious bridge. A long thick data cable stretched from the control consoles at the front to a data port in the cyborg’s polished forehead. A dense stream of information flowed in both directions.
Having collected the corpse of the infected humanoid and the snowboards of Peter the Ace and Panman, the cyborg had now set the Blenheim on a pursuit course with the huge yellowish vessel, which was currently powering through subspace less than two light-years ahead.
A surge of simulated pride flitted through the electrical domain of Justin’s artificial brain. It had been 36 years since he had last been at the controls of the Blenheim. Throughout the entire period of his punishment as an exhibit at the Mad Animated Head Gallery he had nurtured and amplified a simulated ambition to fly the ship again. And suddenly that ambition had now been realised. With a digital pulse of synthetic satisfaction the cyborg flagged the relevant ambition module as completed. A mathematical model of contentment was generated, compiled and executed.
Via the data cable stuck into his shiny forehead, Justin activated his communicator. “Jemima Murma, it is I, Justin.”
The reply was almost instant. “Yes, I know. Your name appears when you call. You did know that, didn’t you?”
“Right… What can I do for you?”
“I require an update on the status of the deceased infected humanoid.”
“Of course. As ordered I placed it in an isolation chamber in the sickbay. I am about to commence scanning to try and determine how it knew about the arrival of the ship that came to collect it.”
“Your update was satisfactory. Keep me informed.”
“Your forehead is plugged into to the command console, isn’t it?”
“You can access the sickbay systems and keep yourself informed, can’t you?”
“Then you should do it, shouldn’t you?”
“Great! Then there is no further need for inane verbal communication such as this! Jemima Murma out.”
Jemima Murma’s obvious dislike of cyborgs had no effect at all on Justin. The cyborg, his deep red glowing eyes devoid of all expression and life, sat still and silent on his reinforced bench. Data, organized and precise, flowed freely into his head.
“There are hundreds of them!” Panman said, looking down through the grating. “It’s crazy!”
More than twenty metres below the huge water tank, more than three-hundred metres across, was writhing with giant scaly creatures.
Peter the Ace was curious. “This is indeed a rather unusual sight to see onboard a space vessel. It’s certainly not something I would have predicted. What’s the point of it?”
Panman activated his pulse scanner. “The water’s about eighty metres deep, and there’s what looks like a huge mincing machine at the bottom.”
Peter the Ace looked at his companion. “Are you saying that this is some kind of food stock?”
Panman nodded. “One of those reptiles has just been sucked down and minced. This is what those infected dudes are being fed on!”
“How bizarre.” Peter the Ace said, returning his gaze to the creatures below. “Why not feed them synthetic food – that’s a far simpler process!”
“The highly retarded intellectual megalomaniac behind all this must also have an unhealthy fixation with giant lizards!”
Peter the Ace nodded. “He must. His mental state is worse than I imagined.” He activated his sensor. “I’ll see if I can identify their species.” After a couple of seconds the information was displayed on his visor’s head-up display. “Very interesting. They are almost identical to the long extinct heguorons of Tolaso!”
“Whoa!” Panman said with realisation. “That’s one of the planets in the Oaso system that THROB claimed was the origin of the comets!”
Peter the Ace nodded. “I believe we have found evidence to confirm that claim, and also to reinforce his claim that the infection is derived from the dung of giant omnivores.”
“Yeah. Our megalomaniac has been bringing back to life Tolaso’s prehistoric beasts!”
“Maybe we’re heading for Tolaso now?”
“Perhaps, but why send a comet all the way to Lodi to infect millions of humanoids, and then return them to a dying planet of creeping deserts, filth and stinking decay?”
Panman nodded. “It does seem pointless.”
“I have a feeling this ship is headed for a rendezvous somewhere else.”
Panman knew the accuracy of Peter the Ace’s legendary feelings all too well. “Cool! Rendezvous with what?”
“I would expect we are to rendezvous with another vessel on which the retarded intellectual behind all this is residing. And from there the infected humanoids will be used for whatever purpose they were destined for.”
“Yeah.” Panman looked at Peter the Ace. “We should get to this ship’s command centre.” He looked at his head-up display. “We must be near the top level by now. If we head over this water tank we’ll be close to the front of the ship. I would expect to find the command centre there.”
Peter the Ace agreed. He pointed into the darkness of the ventilation shaft. “After you!”