“I say again, target the rear craft only. That is the order of Commander Pepe.”
Baron Onslaught was still confused by the order. He glanced over at Mad Woman’s ship as they sped in close formation and at hypersonic speed through the dawn light of Enchantia’s lower atmosphere. “That order is ridiculous. It goes against all tactical common sense!”
“The order is clear, Mister Onslaught. It’s unnecessary for us to know the reasoning behind it, and there is no time for us to discuss it!”
The bounty hunter had to admit she was right. “Fair enough.” He waved a hand over his control surfaces. “Target acquired.” His head-up display showed the thirty other ships assigned to this task all locking on to the trailing landing craft, less than fifty kilometres ahead.
“Prepare to fire on my mark.”
Baron Onslaught’s head-up display highlighted some new information. He looked up. The asteroid, still blazing in a cloud of burning plasma high above, was noticeably receding. With most of its rocky surface now burned or blown away the asteroid resembled a giant pin-cushion, with the pins actually the stalks of the potent energy emitters that had so far destroyed more than three-hundred bounty hunter ships. Explosions could be seen flashing across its surface as hundreds of bounty hunter ships continued their attack. “The asteroid’s heading out of the atmosphere.”
“That’s not your concern, Mister Onslaught. Maintain focus!”
Baron Onslaught struggled to contain his annoyance at Mad Woman’s voice and manner, but he managed. He took a deep breath and looked beyond his head-up display at the brightening horizon ahead. There in the distance, silhouetted against the dawn light, were the four black landing craft. The head-up display had surrounded the nearest one in a glowing green square.
Mad Woman’s irritating voice spoke yet again. “Fire!”
Commander Pepe watched as a portion of one of the giant view-screens showed the ongoing attack on one of the landing craft. Layer after layer of the rectangular craft’s thick black armour was being stripped away by a constant barrage of disruptor beams and missiles. The other three craft were continuing on their course unchallenged. This troubled the commander. His instincts told him that he should be attacking those, too. But he could not completely ignore the partial message from Panman that contradicted his instincts, nor the very recent lack of confidence in his abilities expressed by Peter the Ace. His compromise, to attack just one of the landing craft to see what happened, felt totally inadequate, but it was the only course of action he could think of. Wincing as his deepening anxiety caused a surge of stomach acid up his throat; he knocked back the last dregs of his ale and then turned to his chief officer. “Give me some good news, Goliath.”
The chief officer looked down at his data pad for a second, and then up at the main screens. “Well, as you can see the asteroid has unexpectedly left the atmosphere. We had expected it to pass very close to, or even hit, the Palace of Amino in the next ten minutes – a certain catastrophe considering our defence field is still not functional. The most recent attack by Peter the Ace seems to have damaged its propulsion system, which has probably bought us some time.”
Commander Pepe nodded and looked at the information on the asteroid’s position on one of the main screens. It was now more than five-hundred kilometres above the atmosphere. It had taken on a weird and spiky appearance since its rocky surface had been worn or blasted away. A swarm of bounty hunter ships were continuing to attack it, focusing their attentions on the long energy emitters that were continuing to wipe out ships at an alarming rate. According to a nearby table of data close to four-hundred ships and bounty hunters had now perished. His anxiety deepened further.
The commander focused his attention back on the approaching landing craft. At their current speed they would arrive at the palace in fourteen minutes. He tapped on his communications console. “Woody! Update!”
There was a moment of silence before the head of External Defences responded. “The defence field should be back online soon, commander.”
“Within the next hour.”
“Be more specific!”
“I’m afraid I can’t. Sorry, commander.”
Commander Pepe slammed down his fist and closed the channel. He grabbed and swallowed his remaining antacid pills. He breathed heavily and noisily.
Goliath Snook had noticed the commander’s stress. “Perhaps another pork pie would help, commander?”
The commander glared at the chief officer and then nodded. “You’re damn right it would! Get me one. Now!”