Baron Onslaught cringed as the voice of the annoying female, Mad Woman, sounded over the communications channel. “There is it! Heading 315-332-021. Subspace emergence is even closer than expected. Execute Attack Run ‘Poison Bug’ – modification two!”
With a swift sweeping movement of his right hand, Baron Onslaught activated the pre-configured attack plan. His ship surged forwards and banked hard to starboard, pressing the hefty bounty hunter hard into his seat. He took a quick look all around through his viewports as the hundreds of other ships in the fleet performed similar manoeuvres. It was an impressive sight, all the more so because of the stunning backdrop of Enchantia a few hundred kilometres below. He grinned as the fleet sped closer to the planet on a course that would send them skimming the atmosphere at more than fifty kilometres per second.
The head-up display was now brisling with colourful information on the state and position of the fleet’s ships, a summary of the progress of ‘Poison Bug’, and, of course, tracking information and sensor details of their target eight hundred kilometres dead ahead.
Minimising some of the head-up information, Baron Onslaught looked at the view ahead. For a few seconds he caught his first clear view of Lawrence’s asteroid – a gleaming grey and brown rock in the bright sunlight. It seemed to disappear suddenly as it plunged into the shadow of Enchantia’s night side, but then it reappeared almost immediately as a rapidly brightening ball of blazing plasma.
“It’s already in the upper atmosphere! We’re going to have to be quick. Prepare the first salvo. Break and fire on my mark.”
Baron Onslaught savoured the sensation of excitement as the fleet spread apart in groups of three. His ship, the Packet of Organic Dried Mango, stayed in close formation with Mad Woman’s ship, the Bone, and Master Freak’s glossy red and spherical ship, the Full Bog Experience. For a few seconds the view ahead changed to a dim field of stars before the three ships arced back towards the planet. Once again the glowing ball of plasma that was the asteroid was dead ahead, and looming larger than ever against the black night side of Enchantia.
“We’re close. My sensors are reading multiple and energised emitters on that thing’s surface, so watch out. We must be in range by…”
Several blinding beams of energy emanated from the asteroid and swept across the dispersed fleet, one passing within a few hundred metres of Baron Onslaught’s ship. On his head-up display more than a dozen ships winked out of existence. To the port side he noticed the distinctive flashes of detonating globular drive cores. He looked at the new information on his head-up display. Already bounty hunters – two of which he had known personally – had died. His excitement turned to anger.
With a slam of his palm, Baron Onslaught activated his ship’s forward disruptor. A rapid stream of energy pulses leapt forwards. The pulses slammed almost instantly into the surface of the blazing asteroid, along with hundreds of others from the other ships. With another slam of his palm he released a spread of MELTERS – Massively ExpLosive Torpedoes with Extremely Reactive Shields. The torpedoes leapt forwards, their flickering sublight engines burning brightly as they manoeuvred along their intentionally erratic courses. Most failed early; intercepted by the asteroids emitters, but enough got through to cause of a cascade of detonations across the asteroids surface, which now filled the view ahead.
Baron Onslaught laughed with satisfaction. His ship shuddered violently as it hit the outer atmosphere of Enchantia and then passed through the expanding cloud of vaporised and shattered rock, all the time maintaining its formation with the Bone and the Full Bog Experience. For a second he was no more than a hundred metres away from the asteroid’s surface.
Commander Pepe watched the attack unfold on Amino Battle Command’s giant view-screens. Already thirty-six bounty hunter ships had been destroyed. He took a final swig from his mug of coffee, finishing it. “When will the second fleet intercept?”
Chief Officer Goliath Snook analysed the information on his data pad. “Within three minutes, commander. They were on the other side of the planet and need more time to…”
“Yes yes, I know!” The commander blurted. He sighed as he noticed that four more bounty hunter ships had been lost. “What about the damage to that asteroid?”
“It’s loosing mass at a rate of four million tonnes per second.”
The commander nodded. He was confused. “It does not appear to be slowing down.”
Goliath shook his head. “No, commander. It appears that its flight through the atmosphere is powered. It is no longer loosing altitude, either.”
“When will it reach us?”
“Within sixteen minutes.”
Commander Pepe grunted and touched the control pad on his chair. “Woody? What’s the status of the defence field?”
Woody Tiptoe’s reply was swift. “It’s still down, commander.”
“Damn it, I know that! I need it active within the next few minutes!”
“Of course you do, but it may be a little longer than that. There is still a significant amount of infection in there. You’ll need to be patient for a little…”
The commander wheezed at the top of his voice. “How dare you tell me to patient?! Look at the screens, frill seeker! Do you think Lawrence and his invasion force will be patient? Get it working!”
“I’ll do my best, commander.”
The communications channel fell silent. The commander gasped as a feeling of breathless anxiety briefly overcame him.
“Commander,” Goliath said. “There is an urgent communication from Peter the Ace.”
Commander Pepe nodded. “Patch it through.” A second later the image of Peter the Ace appeared on his personal screen. The image of the first-class bounty hunter made him feel a little better. “Peter the Ace! Good to hear from you. I see from our sensors that you’ll be arriving in ten minutes or so. Having you and your magnificent ship here will…”
“No time for chit-chat, commander.” Peter the Ace said. “I picked up another message from Panman a minute ago. It was embedded in the asteroid’s subspace field again.”
Commander Pepe attempted to sit up straight but failed. He slumped back with a groan. “That’s good news. What did he say?”
“Unfortunately his message was cut off as the asteroid emerged from subspace, but it seemed to be a warning about the landing craft that will emerge from the asteroid. He said we should not shoot them down.”
The commander frowned. “Not shoot them down? They are part of an invasion fleet! Are we supposed to just let them land unimpeded?”
“That appears to be Panman’s advice.”
“Why would he advise such a ridiculous course of action?”
“As I said, the message was cut short. The instruction not to shoot them down was very clear, though.”
Commander Pepe grunted. “Panman must be under some form of duress. He would never suggest such a ludicrous course of action!”
Peter the Ace spoke sternly. “It is impossible for a first-class bounty hunter to succumb to such a situation. You of all people should know that, commander!”
“Of course.” The commander said, nodding once. “My apologies. But you must admit the advice is strange.”
“It is, but only because we do not have access to the facts and reasoning that caused Panman to issue the advice.” He paused for a second. “The course of action our fleets must take is ultimately your decision, commander.”
Commander Pepe felt a surge of stress pass over his blubbery frame; one of the most powerful yet. “I know.”
Peter the Ace smiled. “Good. Make sure you make the right one. I’ll be joining the battle in eight minutes. Peter the Ace out.”
The commander gazed at the images and data on the giant screens as he considered his course of action. He could see that the second fleet was now descending on the asteroid and that twenty-three more bounty hunters had perished. And he could also see that something long and thin had been ejected from the asteroids upper surface. Bemused, he turned to Goliath. “What, in an ape’s crevice, is that?!”