After a few hours of contented sleep and an unexpected morning frolic with the deeply satisfying Jack Slammer, Sadie Stick arrived in the main chamber of Amino Battle Command. Heads turned as she wandered sexily though the rows of consoles, the light from their screens reflected in the curves of her tight-fitting black and polished bodysuit. The suit was one of the latest designs – created to ensure the sensuality of female bounty hunters was preserved while providing significant protection from energy and stabbing weapons.
Ahead, sitting like giant lumpy potatoes at their consoles, were the dark and ugly external defence assistants, Rebulba and Retsina. They looked up lazily at the bounty hunter.
Sadie Stick stopped at her seat. She gulped and almost coughed as a surge of stomach acid encroached on her throat. The two small round metallic objects that she had felt compelled to swallow an hour earlier were still causing her discomfort. After taking a moment to compose herself she spoke to Rebulba and Retsina. “I’d expected you both to be fresh and eager in the morning. You look like unmotivated, sleep-deprived hog masters!”
Rebulba responded. “We didn’t sleep. We stayed awake. We stayed here.”
“Why? What about the night shift?”
Rebulba shook her head. “There is no night shift for external defence. We work all night. We stay awake with drugs and implants.”
Sadie Stick was confused. “Why do you do that? Don’t you want to go home, have fun and experience the heights of pleasure like normal people?”
This time Retsina spoke, her voice flat and weary. “We are overweight and unattractive. We have tarnished skin and sweat too much. And we are dull. We have no life outside of this chamber. No one takes an interest in us. We prefer to stay.”
The bounty hunter frowned and sat down at the main external defences console. “That’s a sad situation.” Without thinking she logged in using Shu Pong’s account. “Do you live down here permanently?”
“We have been down here for a century and have never left.”
Sadie Stick felt a little sorry for the two lonely females, and for some reason that feeling annoyed her. She looked up at the two assistants. “Well, I can confirm that you both are indeed fat and ugly, and you are dull – exceedingly so. You are socially hopeless, and your decision to spend your entire lives at your consoles here in the darkness at the back of Battle Command is a wise one. No one on the surface or in the rest of the galaxy has to see you, and no one has to know you. Which is good, as no one would want to.”
Rebulba and Retsina had both been sucking on their snack tubes. Rebulba took a break from feeding. Tears welled in her sunken and bloodshot eyes. “Thank you.”
Once again the bounty hunter was confused. “Why are you thanking me?”
“You expressed your opinions of us with eloquence. You did not resort to hurtful expressions.”
Sadie Stick shuddered for a second, and then gulped as a brief surge of nausea engulfed her innards. She began tapping away at her console’s controls. She blinked several times and then continued. “I thought I was hurtful.” She glanced up at the two assistants for a moment. “That was my intention!”
Retsina took a break from feeding. Rebulba resumed. Retsina spoke. “What you said was like music to us. When people down here encounter us they often slap and pinch our bodies. They whisper insults into our ears.”
“Such as what?”
“Things like ‘Fugly dump’, ‘girth monster’, ‘bloated fish pit’, ‘gut sack’, ‘globule’, ‘wobbly bastard’, ‘gravity well’, ‘tulip’, ‘mobile lard unit’, ‘butter factory’, ‘planet’…”
“Fine! I get it. What I said was polite in comparison.”
“Enough of this.” The bounty hunter said as she continued to tap at her console’s controls. “I have things to do. Get back to work.”
The two assistants nodded and returned their attention to their screens.
On the bounty hunter’s screen subtle programs, encrypted and shrouded, coalesced and multiplied, and then hid themselves deep into the external defence’s hierarchy of systems.
Commander Pepe stood by the large panoramic window of his office and looked out at the huge and bustling main chamber of Amino Battle Command. He smiled and nodded slowly, his multiple chins undulating like sacks of jelly. He was incredibly proud of his teams down there. They worked tirelessly, and with a dedication second only to the bounty hunters they supported and protected. Apart from two unsightly assistants on the External Defences team, whose sweaty appearance and attitude had bothered the commander for decades, every single person worked hard and with flawless enthusiasm. It was a magnificent and inspiring display of loyalty. And it was irrefutable evidence of their tremendous respect for his corpulent authority.
A voice interrupted the commander’s thoughts. “Commander, the call is coming through now.”
Commander Pepe turned his astonishing bulk round and faced his chief officer. “Put it on the main screen.” As the large view-screen faded to life the commander waddled behind his crescent-shaped desk and began the strenuous and exhausting process of sitting down; a process made all the more difficult when wearing his thick and opulent robes. With a groan like the moans of a ram shackled felko he finally managed to squeeze his obscene backside into his chair. His desktop, normally filled with food, was unusually bare. Only a bowl of butter-coated snacks remained. The commander grabbed one and placed it into his mouth.
The view-screen now displayed the details of two fifth-class bounty hunters. On the left was Maximus Thorn, a bounty hunter of long sinuous muscle and densely platted hair. The life-size full-length image of him confirmed that description and showed him clothed in one of the tightest blue bodysuits the commander had ever seen.
The other bounty hunter was Water Lily. The life-size image of her, wearing an exceedingly short frilly white mini-skirt and high platform shoes, rotated slowly.
Commander Pepe’s eyes widened as he gazed at the shapely pair of pale bare legs in front of him. His gaze drifted up, pausing for a moment on the mounds of her chest, partly covered by the bounty hunter’s long and straight strawberry-blonde hair and a white leather shoulder strap covered in smalls stabbing weapons. Something stirred beneath the commander’s robes. He swallowed the snack he was eating and sighed. “Miss Lily, I am stunned by your image. I don’t believe I’ve ever set eyes on you before.”
The bounty hunter responded; her voice light and sweet. “I’m a little surprised by that, commander. “I am well known by others of my class, and those below, of course. My image adorns the walls of many trainee bedrooms. ”
“I don’t doubt that at all!” The commander said. “I must apologise. I am usually informed when such a delightful specimen of bounty hunter femininity such as you graduates. Your legs are so slender, and so pallid, yet their subtly muscular shape reveals the power that lies within you. I have no doubt that you are an unexpectedly formidable opponent in close combat, and an extremely satisfying companion to many of your male peers – the ache in my groin is confirmation of that!”
“You honour me, commander.”
Commander Pepe nodded. “The honour is mine, and I shall be thinking of you later.” He glanced once more at the other bounty hunter, Maximus Thorn. “Mister Thorn, I’m afraid I cannot compliment you on your physique. I am not a homosexual and I will never entertain such thoughts.”
Maximus Thorn responded, his voice deep and smooth. “I guess I can understand your reserve, commander, but, I’m a little confused. The reports last month of your intimate relations with one of your bodyguards in the lobby outside your apartment suggest that…”
The commander yelled. “He slipped and fell under my robes and into my underwear! It was an accident!”
“But the eyewitness said that the bodyguard was moving in a rhythmic fashion beneath...”
“His head was caught in the elastic!”
“I see… But when he finally emerged his face was said to be…”
After a few seconds of silence the bounty hunter spoke. “Of course, commander. I’m sorry.”
“Get on with your report!”
Water Lily spoke. “We’ve been in the Oaso system, the suspected location of origin of the comets, for several hours now and have done a comprehensive scan of the immediate area.”
The commander nodded, the soothing tones of the female bounty hunter’s voice calmed him. “Excellent. What have you discovered?”
“Many things, especially on and around the planet Tolaso. Maximus Thorn will explain.”
The commander frowned. “If he must.”
Maximus Thorn spoke. “There are two main discoveries. The first is the discovery of a recently abandoned research complex down on the surface of Tolaso.”
A detailed image of the complex appeared on the view-screen.
The bounty hunter continued. “The complex still contains many vats of the infection and huge piles of dung, and is littered with the decaying remains of hundreds of short and chubby humanoids. All of them died due to the infection.”
Images of contorted corpses and huge mounds of defecation swept onto the view screen.
Commander Pepe grimaced. “It looks like the facility suffered a major containment breach.”
“We have evidence to show that it was deliberate. It seems once the research was completed the staff were‘silenced’.”
“Hideous!” The commander said, shaking his head. His chins rippled like jelly. “This provides the source of the infection, then?”
“It does. The infection was indeed derived from the fecal matter of reanimated prehistoric creatures, as that mechanoid, THROB claimed. Some of those creatures are still roaming around the facility, although there is evidence that many were taken elsewhere.”
“I see. Interesting. You mentioned two main discoveries?”
“I did. The second is regarding Tolaso’s largest moon. It is small, only seven kilometres in diameter – most likely a captured asteroid.”
“What have you discovered on that moon?”
Commander Pepe frowned and then shouted. “Then what, in Skidal’s transit, are you mentioning it for?!”
“The moon has vanished.”
The commander was shocked. “How? Where has it gone?”
“We don’t know, as yet. There is no evidence to suggest it impacted on Tolaso, and it cannot be traced anywhere in the Oaso system.”
“I need an answer, Mister Thorn!”
Water Lily spoke. “I’m afraid we don’t have a definitive answer, commander. But we do have a theory.”
Commander Pepe was pleased to hear Water Lily’s soft voice again. “Excellent. Tell me.”
“We have detected traces of comets in orbit around Tolaso, and also irrevium-iron – the material used to make the inner shell of the comets that contained the infection.”
The commander nodded. “That’s evidence that the comets were constructed in orbit around Tolaso. But it gives no indication as to what happened to the moon.”
“No it does not, commander. But we also found traces of tritanium – the material used to make the outer shells that the comets were encased in during subspace transfers.”
The commander sighed. “Despite your exquisite physique you are in danger of annoying me, Miss Lily. I have still not heard your theory on the whereabouts of that moon!”
“Also in orbit we discovered a faint but significant ring of debris.”
An enhanced image of the ring appeared on the view-screen.
“This ring was not there the last time the Oaso system was scanned for our archives. The material of the ring consists of iron-magnesium silicates with some metallic iron in the exact proportions found in the composition of the missing moon.”
“The mass of the material in the ring is equal to thirty-seven percent of the mass of the moon. We believe that the moon was hollowed out and the comet construction carried out inside it. We believe the moon was then converted into a starship.”
The commander nodded. “An intriguing concept.” He said, leaning forward onto his desk. The desk creaked under the strain. “And I assume you believe the moon left orbit under its own power?”
“We do. There are traces of subspace drive residue that support the theory. The drive mechanism was obviously crude to leave such a trace.”
“Where do you think the moon went?”
Maximus Thorn spoke. “We have no idea.”
The sound of Maximus Thorn’s voice immediately annoyed Commander Pepe. “Then you should develop an idea! Both of you continue your research. I want more answers by tomorrow!”
Both bounty hunters responded in unison. “Yes, commander.”
The communications channel was closed.
Commander Pepe grabbed another butter-soaked snack and crammed it into his mouth. He leaned back into his chair, his guts wobbling noticeably under his tent-like robes. He shook his head. “What is going on, Weezil? What is the point of all this?” Melted butter dribbled down into the folds of the commander’s chins.
The chief officer was still standing by the large view-screen. “It is all quite bizarre.”
The commander took a slow deep breath. “It is indeed. Why convert a moon into a space vessel? It would be much simpler too…”
A soft chiming interrupted the commander.
Weezil looked at his data-pad. “There is another call coming in. It’s from the Blenheim.”
With a groan Commander Pepe sat up straight and wiped the butter from his chins with his sleeve. “Excellent! Peter the Ace and Panman must have returned to their ship with news.”
The chief officer looked up and shook his head. “I think not. The call is from Justin.”
Commander Pepe scowled. “That tin traitor? Again?” He pursed his fat lips. “Very well, put the call through.”
The image on the view-screen changed to the Blenheim’s insignia.
A voice, sterile and cold, spoke. “It is I, Jus…”
“I know!” The commander bellowed. “What do you want? Where are Peter the Ace and Panman?”
“In answer to your first question, I am calling to update you on our findings with regard to the deceased infected humanoid we have onboard. In answer to your second question, as far as I am aware my masters are still onboard the huge yellowish vessel.”
“As far as you are aware?”
“One hour ago the huge yellowish vessel emerged from subspace and docked with an asteroid. It is possible that my masters have now left the vessel, but I have no evidence to support that.”
Commander Pepe’s eyes widened. “A large asteroid?” He glanced at Weezil and then back at the view-screen. “Really? Show me the asteroid!”
An image of the asteroid appeared. The resolution was poor.
The commander was not impressed. “That’s awful! Send a better image!”
“I am maintaining a distance of three light-years from the asteroid and have minimised emissions to avoid detection. High-resolution passive ultraspace imaging at such a distance is not possible.”
“Then it will have to do.” The commander said. “You haven’t, by any chance, compared this asteroid to the largest moon of Tolaso, have you?”
“I thought not.”
“There is no logical reason to perform such a comparison.”
“There is now. We have just found out that the largest moon of the planet Tolaso has disappeared.”
“That is a logical reason. I am now performing the comparison...” After a few seconds a second image, one of the moon of Tolaso, appeared next to the asteroid’s fuzzy image. “The asteroid matches the dimensions and surface detail of the largest moon of Tolaso.”
Commander Pepe grabbed another snack, the last one in the bowl. He chewed loudly, and then recapped on the findings of the last few days. “First we have a bounty hunter infected by something deep inside a fake comet – something derived from the defecation of giant and previously extinct creatures. Then we find that a pre-subspace society of humanoids was also infected after an identical comet collided with their planet. Then we see that same society taken away in a huge yellowish vessel. Then we discover an abandoned research facility on Tolaso that seems to be the source of the infection. Then we discover that the largest moon of Tolaso has disappeared and has most likely been converted into a starship. And then we discover that the huge yellowish vessel containing the society of infected humanoids – millions of them – has docked with the now rediscovered moon of Tolaso in deep space. What is going on?”
Justin droned. “There is insufficient information to formulate a definitive answer to your…”
The commander yelled. “It was a rhetorical question, cyborg!”
There was a moment’s pause and then Justin spoke. “I must update you on our findings with regard to the deceased infected humanoid we have onboard.”
Commander Pepe nodded. “Make it quick.”
“Jemima Murma has been conducting studies on the cadaver of the…”
“I said make it quick!” The commander fumed. He shuddered. “Why do iron freaks like you have so much trouble getting to the point?!”
“I am not constructed of iron. My body consists of…”
Commander Pepe’s face was reddening rapidly. “The point!”
“A nano-mechanism has been detected at the centre of the infected cadaver’s cerebellum. It is fully integrated into the nervous system of the humanoid and contains data reception and transmission facilities.”
“Interesting. Is this technology native to the humanoid’s home world?”
“Then how did it get there?”
“The infection contains a nano-scopic schematic along with barely-detectable construction nano-machinery. The nano-mechanism in the cerebellum of the humanoid was constructed after the infection had entered the humanoid’s body.”
“So what is it for? Have you detected signals from it?”
“No signals have been detected. The type of signal has not yet been determined.”
“Then go away and determine it! And send all the information you have!”
The communications channel fell silent.
The knot of stress in Commander Pepe’s expanded stomach tightened. He looked over at the bulbous breast sculpture next to the entrance to his office but it provided little comfort. He operated a control on his desk. The wood-panelled doors behind him opened. A cloud of hot steam billowed out. He grunted as he struggled to haul his mammoth weigh onto his feet. Two girls - naked, tanned and toned - rushed out of the steam to help him. Once on his feet the commander looked at his chief officer. “Weezil, I need to spend some time in my massage chamber.”
The chief officer nodded. “Of course, commander.”
“Send the information uncovered at Tolaso and by that tin-top Justin to all parties concerned.”
“Yes commander. I must remind you that the bounty hunter, Sadie Stick, was infected by the same infection that infected the humanoids on Lodi.”
The commander frowned. “What for, Weezil! Why, in bounty hell, would you want to remind me of something that I could never for…” The force of realisation whirled around the stress in his stomach. The knot tightened further. “She could have a nano-mechanism in her brain!”
“It is highly likely, commander.”
“Set alert status Lavender-Blue! Have her found, detained and examined immediately!”
The chief officer nodded and tapped at his data-pad.
The commander pointed at his desk. “And have that filled will oily snacks! This is a crisis, and yet my desk looks as barren as a sun-dried nun!” He shuddered and yelled. “I never want to see it like that again!”
With his personal stress levels rising rapidly the commander turned. Flanked by the two naked females, he ventured into the steamy mellow confines of his massage chamber.