The blade entered easily. The infected humanoid gargled, frothy blood spurting from his neck and mouth, and then sank to his knees. Panman withdrew the rusty knife, grabbed the humanoid’s head and twisted. With a dull snap he was immediately rendered silent and limp. He fell forward onto several other still twitching corpses.
Panman looked back up the narrow passageway. Dozens more infected humanoids, all brandishing rusty bladed weapons, were lumbering towards him, their bare scabby arms occasionally scraping on the uneven walls and leaving bloody smears. Their eerie melancholic moans, remarkably similar to the distressed call of habitually constipated gasping whales, had amused the bounty hunter for a while, but now the sound was becoming highly irritating.
For more than an hour now the bounty hunter had been pursued by them, and he had slaughtered more than three-hundred, many with grenades, and many with his bare hands and with the rusty weapons he had snatched from his victims. Lawrence’s soldiers were, as always, pathetic and mindless drones, at least individually. As a whole, however, they did have the potential to overwhelm even the most skilled opponents if their numbers were great enough. And with around three-million of them waiting to be dispatched to the Palace of Amino, they were certainly going to prove a significant risk.
Panman looked down at the small display on his suit’s forearm. There was only around thirty-five minutes left before the asteroid would reach Enchantia and the Palace of Amino. He had wasted enough time dealing with the infected humanoids and their annoyingly mindless stumbling around. Turning, and dropping the rusty weapon, Panman headed away from his groaning pursuers and sprinted further down the passageway and round the tight bend just ahead. The passageway widened considerably and was now lined with thick square columns of dull metal on either side. Twenty metres away at the far end was a set of tough-looking black doors flanked by two large sculptures of disembowelled bipedal lizards. Panman grinned. The sculptures were a definite sign that something important was behind those doors. Pulling a small fusion charge from the belt of his environment suit, the bounty hunter activated it, set the blast level and type, and then threw it at the doorway. He leapt sideways, and rolled to a position behind one of the metal columns, the helmet of his suit sealing rapidly over his head as he did so.
An agonisingly bright flash bleached out the entire passageway as the deafening thud of the pressure wave passed by. It was accompanied milliseconds later by a wall of intense fire. Panman’s suit, buffeted by the blast and heat, displayed dozens of red icons on its head-up display as its protection systems were challenged. The bounty hunter, however, remained comfortable and cool as the suit’s integrity was maintained.
The chaotic sound of the explosion died quickly and was replaced by the distant clatter of debris, and the weak and high-pitched moans of pain from the infected humanoids back down the passageway.
Taking a quick and well-earned sip from his suit’s liquid food dispenser, Panman leaned over and glanced back up the passageway. At least thirty infected humanoids had taken the full force of the detonation, their bodies cooked and blackened and decimated. The few at the front were still enveloped in flames. A few of those further back writhed slowly amongst the remains of their peers. The sound of their despair was fading fast. Knowing that the blast and fire would have travelled a considerable way back around the corner of the passageway, the bounty hunter turned his attention back to the doorway.
It no longer existed.
Instead, through the thinning haze of vaporised metal and stone, Panman could see a round and still molten hole more than three metres in diameter and beyond it a large and now devastated chamber. Panman got to his feet. He sprinted towards the hole and leapt through it, tumbling over and landing in a crouched position. Taking note of an alarm and a threat warning symbol that had appeared on his suit’s display, the bounty hunter rolled to the right. A blast of white energy crackled passed and burned into the ground where Panman had been only half-a-second before. Jumping to his feet the bounty hunter charged towards the source of the energy blast, swerving and jumping randomly to avoid being targeted again. Two more blasts crackled passed, one grazing his left side. A few seconds later the bounty hunter leapt onto the source of the attack, pinning down a squirming and obese female humanoid onto a badly damaged control console. He grabbed her pistol. The humanoid looked up at Panman, terror and agony written all across her blistered and lacerated face. Her clothes and hair were smouldering. Holding the humanoid’s neck firmly in his right hand the bounty hunter smiled and spoke. “You almost got me with one of your shots. For such a feeble lard-ridden mass of sagging flesh that’s very impressive!”
The humanoid’s wide eyes continued to gaze up at the bounty hunter. She gagged and wheezed as the effects of his tight grip took hold.
Panman took a moment to look around. The oval chamber’s wall was lined with now gashed and shredded control consoles. The dozen or so operators that had been sitting at those consoles were now slumped, burning and deeply lacerated, over their controls. He looked down at the debris-strewn floor and noticed for the first time that it was transparent. Beneath was what looked like a huge dimly-lit cave. A huge black rectangular object filled most of the view. Panman looked back at the now gasping humanoid. “That floor’s a nice feature! I take it that that huge black thing is one of the landing craft for those infected dudes?” When the humanoid did not respond the bounty hunter squeezed her neck even tighter. She nodded rapidly; her tongue now sticking out of her mouth with the pressure on her throat.
Panman released his grip. The humanoid coughed and took in huge breaths. She sank to the floor and vomited. The bounty hunter waited a few seconds for her to finish spilling her guts. “What’s your name?”
She looked up at him and wiped her mouth. “Shipoopaa.” Her voice was weak and trembling.
“Shipoopaa, you will explain to me when and how those landing craft will launch.”
Tears welled in her eyes and she shook her head. “Lord Ecnerwal will have me executed if I tell you such things. I must…”
“I am Panman, a bounty hunter of the Palace of Amino.” Panman said sternly. “You will answer my questions or you will suffer the seething ferocity of immediate Amino justice – something far worse than the punishment Lord Ecnerwal, or Lawrence as he is really known, can inflict on you!”
Panman knelt down beside her. He softened his tone. “Help me and I promise I will take you into my custody and protect you. You will no longer have to answer to Lawrence.”
Shipoopaa looked up at Panman. “Lord Ecnerwal promised me a glorious position within his…”
“His promises are empty.” Panman said, raising his voice. “Look around you. I am just one bounty hunter and yet I have infiltrated this vessel and caused havoc, death and destruction on an immense scale. I have even been into the private chambers of Lawrence – Lord Ecnerwal – himself and inflicted great pain on him and his fat little companion.” He motioned towards the devastation surrounding him. “And I have brutally dispatched your companions in this facility. Imagine what will happen in thirty minutes time when this vessel encounters thousands of bounty hunters and their ships!”
Shipoopaa shuddered. After a few seconds thought she nodded. “I have no choice but to help you.”
Panman smiled. “Not unless you want to die immediately, no!” He helped her to her feet. She winced with pain. “Now, answer my question.”
Shipoopaa pointed down. “The landing craft will be launched when the floor of the hanger has been vaporised.”
Panman looked down through the transparent floor at the rocky base of the vast hanger. “Vaporised? How will that happen?”
“It will be burned off by the friction of entry into the atmosphere of the target planet.”
An anvil of realisation hit the bounty hunter. He suppressed his normal reaction to such information. “I see. Go on.”
“The landing craft will then drop to the surface and release the scab demons that will…”
Shipoopaa nodded. “That is what Lord Ecnerwal is now calling his army.”
Panman laughed. “He’s such an astounding idiot! Not only because of the stupid name he’s give to those infected humanoids, but because those landing craft will come under a sustained and overwhelming attack the moment they leave this asteroid!”
Shipoopaa nodded once more. “That is what Lord Ecnerwal wants.”
Panman frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Those landing craft are sealed shut and are surrounded by fifty-metre-thick multi-layered tritanium armour. The armour is designed to be worn away by the defences at the target. Only when it’s is worn away will the scab demons be able to get out and commence their invasion of the target.”
The anvil of realisation struck the bounty hunter once more. “Wow… That is remarkably cunning for Lawrence. I must find a way to warn the Palace of Amino as soon as possible.” He thought out loud for a moment. “It will take too long for me to go back to the subspace field control room and program another set of fluctuations.” He looked at Shipoopaa. “Is there a way to access the subspace field controls from near here?”
She shook her head. “No, but the actual subspace field generator itself is only two-hundred metres above us. There is a maintenance access core hatch over there that will allow you to climb to…”
Panman grabbed the dumpy female humanoid and dragged her in the direction she had pointed. “Time to burn off some of that lard!”