It was a desperate time for the Palace of Amino, and Peter the Ace understood that with a depth and clarity second only to the Superior Beings. But even at maximum subspace velocity it would still take another three hours for the Blenheim to reach the palace – at least fifteen minutes after the arrival of the asteroid. It would be wasteful and psychologically destructive to spend that time worrying about what might or might not occur when Lawrence and his army of infected humanoids reached their destination, so Peter the Ace did not worry at all.
Wearing nothing more than a white towel around his waist, and lying face down on one of the soft beds of the Blenheim’s luxurious spa facility on deck two, the bounty hunter groaned in satisfaction as Jemima Murma, dressed in a black loose-fitting gown, massaged a soothing cocktail of warm oils into his densely muscled back. He breathed slowly and deeply, savouring the silky smooth aromas. In the background he could hear the gentle lapping of the moat-like water feature that surrounded the bed.
Jemima Murma spoke softly. “It’s time to do the other side.”
Peter the Ace turned slowly over.
The Blenheim’s assistant could not contain her delight at seeing her master’s sculpted chest and abdomen. She gasped, and for a moment simply stared at the muscular perfection that confronted her. And then she blushed and quickly reached for the oil. She poured a little onto her master’s chest and began to move her hands over his skin in slow and precise arcs.
Peter the Ace looked up and smiled at his assistant; more or less a silhouette against the soft orange lighting that circled the ceiling of the spa. “You’ve been doing this for decades. I’m surprised that you still get so flustered at the sight of my physique.”
Jemima Murma leaned closer and worked on the bounty hunter’s astonishing shoulders. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need to be. I find it quite endearing.”
“It’s during moments such as this that I realise just how privileged I am to be here. There are tens of thousands back at the palace, and millions on the Central Worlds, who would give anything to simply be near you, let alone be in my position and work with you on board this amazing ship.”
Peter the Ace closed his eyes and relished the firm and sensuous touch of his assistant. “You are indeed privileged, but you also deserve such privilege. Never forget that. Your physical and mental skills, and not least your culinary skills, are perfectly suited to your position here. You are to be congratulated for developing such skills and for applying them in such a consistently outstanding manner.”
A soft alarm sounded. The wide view-screen on the ceiling glimmered to life. The ship spoke. “THE UNIDENTIFIED DISPERSAL FIELD AROUND THE OBJECT BEING TRACKED HAS DISAPPEARED. THE IDENTITY OF THE OBJECT BEING TRACKED HAS NOW BEEN CONFIRMED AS THE FORMER MOON OF TOLASO.”
Peter the Ace looked up at the detailed sensor information on the screen. He chuckled. “It seems that Panman is hard at work!”
The Blenheim spoke again. “THE DIAMETER OF THE SUBSPACE FIELD SURROUNDING THE FORMER MOON OF TOLASO IS FLUCTUATING.”
“Excellent! Perhaps Panman has damaged it. Is it about to fail?”
“NEGATIVE. THE FLUCTUATIONS ARE MINIMAL. A PATTERN HAS BEEN DETECTED WITHIN THE FLUCTUATIONS.”
Peter the Ace thought for a moment as Jemima Murma moved down his body and began to oil and massage his legs. And then he grinned. “Analyse the fluctuations. Compare them with the data configuration of all Palace of Amino communications protocols.”
“ANALYSING… COMPARING… THE PATTERN DETECTED IN THE SUBSPACE FIELD FLUCTUATIONS MATCHES THE PALACE OF AMINO AUDIO-ONLY PROTOCOL KNOWN AS ‘CUNNING-MONKEY’.”
“Decode and play it.”
As Jemima Murma continued massaging, a low-fidelity voice was played over the spa’s sound system. It was Panman.
“… this information to the palace. The data file that will follow contains some details of Lawrence’s plan of attack, and also a schematic of this asteroid. Can you believe that the freak actually built a jungle at the centre of this asteroid?! He’s got huge creatures in there – egralons. He’s got labs here creating more and more of the infection. I’ve no idea why as all of the infection he required could have been created back on Tolaso. He’s obviously developed a perverted desire to watch giant omnivores empty their bowels! And he must have developed some kind of hideous foot complaint, too, as there seems to be a huge chiropody clinic here! This message will repeat as often as possible to make sure you get it. Here’s the data file…”
After a few seconds the ship spoke. “THE DATA FILE HAS BEEN RECEIVED.”
The view-screen filled with charts, text, maps and images. The schematic of the asteroid was shown, with the jungle at the asteroid’s centre clearly visible. Below it was what appeared to be a lake filled with small boats. And below that was one of the largest chiropody clinics the bounty hunter had ever seen.
“Lawrence’s feet must really be in an awful condition.” Peter the Ace remarked. “Blenheim, Encrypt and send Panman’s message and data file to Amino Battle Command.”
“MESSAGE AND DATA FILE ENCRYPTED… MESSAGE SENT.”
Peter the Ace turned his head and looked over at Jemima Murma. She had reached his feet and was now pressing her thumbs hard into his soles. “I need to go and study Panman’s data further so I must cut this massage short, I’m afraid. Prepare a bath for me.”
Jemima Murma smiled and nodded. She stepped across the moat of water and over to the large oval bath in the corner. She activated a control. A rapid but smooth flood of steaming water poured into the tub, filling it with remarkable speed. The underwater lighting of the bath faded up causing the water to glow a deep shade of lilac. Jemima Murma turned. “Ready.” She tapped on the wall and a panel opened. She picked up the bottle inside and poured champagne into a tall glass.
Peter the Ace got to his feet and stepped over to the bath. He accepted the drink. “Thank you.” He said, taking a sip. “I’ll be up on the bridge in thirty minutes. Please have a large mug of Darjeeling and a selection of sashimi and cheeses waiting for me.”
The assistant nodded sweetly. “Of course.” She turned and headed out of the spa.
Stepping into the bath, Peter the Ace sank into the hot water, taking completely for granted the opulence that his status as a first-class bounty hunter granted him.