The blackened object on the main view screen grew brighter as it slowly emerged from Enchantia’s shadow. Its identity was now confirmed.
Peter the Ace spoke to the ship. “Bring us right over him. Hold at five metres.”
“COURSE SET. ARRIVAL IN FOUR MINUTES AND FOURTEEN SECONDS.”
Jemima Murma entered the bridge carrying a tray. She set it down on the surface beside Peter the Ace’s sumptuous command chair. “A pot of Darjeeling and a bowl of cherries, as ordered.”
“Thank you.” The bounty hunter said as he watched the assistant pour him a cup. He looked up and down her body and smiled. “Is that new?”
Jemima Murma glanced down at her own outfit. She was wearing nothing more than a furry black mini-skirt and a pair of tiny black suctioned nipple cups. The nipple cups were connected to her ears by delicate silver chains. “I’m honoured that you noticed!” She said, grinning. “I made it during our voyage.”
“Marvelous effort!” Peter the Ace said, genuinely impressed. It’s good to see you’re making constructive use of your free time.”
The assistant bowed politely and then glanced up at the main view-screen. She looked a bit shocked. “Is that…”
Peter the Ace looked back at the screen and nodded. “It is. You’d better get down to the sickbay. Your splendid fabric-cutting talents are sure to come in useful.”
Jemima Murma nodded and then walked briskly off the bridge.
After taking a sip of his tea Peter the Ace touched his communications panel. “Justin, what are you doing?”
The cyborg responded in his usual lifeless fashion. “I am scrubbing the bacterial filters on the waste compressors.”
“Excellent. A worthy task. Forget that for now, though. Get yourself cleaned up and disinfected and then go down to the lower cargo bay.”
Justin stood motionless next to the large open door in the floor of the lower cargo bay, his magnetised plate-like feet securing him to the floor in the current zero gravity of the bay. He looked down through the door and out into the blackness of the silent void beyond.
“I’m moving the ship now.” Peter the Ace said via the communicator embedded in the cyborg’s thick metal head.“Get ready to grab him.”
After a few seconds a blackened figure, curled up into a foetal position, drifted slowly up into the bay.
Justin extended his bulky arms. After a few seconds the charred figure was within reach. With the cargo bay door already closing, the cyborg grabbed the figure and pulled it closed to his reinforced metal chest plate. “I have acquired Panman.”
“Excellent. Restoring gravity. Take him to the sickbay.”
Justin waited for a few seconds until his sensors registered the return of a gravitational force, and then he turned and headed for the exit. There was a hushed rush of air around him as the bay re-pressurised.
The Blenheim’s sickbay was one of the most advanced medical facilities in the galaxy, and also one of the most luxurious. The subdued lighting, soft carpeting, soothing aromas and plush beds and seating created an air of sophisticated calm and professionalism. Just the sight of it was said to be enough to initiate a recovery.
With a whirr of his servos Justin entered the sickbay and strode heavily over to the central operating table, the usual clang of his footfalls silenced by the carpet. Jemima Murma was waiting there; a look of deep concern on her face. The cyborg looked at the toned, tanned and barely-clothed assistant. He felt nothing. He put the burnt figure of Panman down on the table. “Panman is now in the sickbay.”
Peter the Ace spoke. “Good. Jemima, please cut him out of his suit.”
The assistant looked nervous. “I will.”
“Don’t worry.” Peter the Ace said, obviously detecting the fear in her voice. “Just get on with it and don’t think too much.”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
“Justin, stay there for a while and offer assistance if necessary.”
“I must take us back to join the battle so you may experience the odd violent jolt now and then. Keep me informed.”
The communications channel closed.
Taking a deep breath, Jemima Murma rolled Panman onto his back. She attempted to straighten his legs and arms but they refused to move. The intense heat that had seared the suit had locked it into position. She looked at Justin. “I think you may need to straighten him for me.”
The cyborg leaned his bulk over the operating table and placed on of his chunky hands on Panman’s knees, which were raised up almost onto his chest. He placed his other hand on the top of Panman’s chest armour and then pushed. With a loud crunching and tearing sound the bounty hunter’s legs straightened out and slammed into the surface of the table. Charred fragments of the suit scattered across the sickbay. As the dull clatter of the debris faded Justin made a dry and lifeless observation. “Panman is holding onto an object.”
Jemima Murma looked underneath Panman’s arms. There was indeed an object there encased in a translucent bag. Grabbing the bounty hunter’s arms she pulled hard. This time she did not need Justin’s help. The arms moved apart relatively easily, and with only a mild cracking noise. She picked up the object. It was quite heavy, and through the semi-transparent bag she could see that the object was as heavily charred as Panman’s suit.
Justin spoke. “The object is encased in emergency cranial maintenance bag. There is a high probability that the object is a humanoid head.”
Jemima Murma grimaced slightly and then handed the head to Justin. “I’ll let you deal with that.” Free of the head, the assistant tapped at the operating table’s control surface and programmed a cutting sequence. Immediately a piece of equipment descended from the ceiling. A barely visible beam of energy began to move across Panman’s helmet in a crisscross pattern. Within seconds the helmet was breached. The equipment retracted into the ceiling. The assistant took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment, preparing herself for the traumatic experience of seeing the roasted corpse of one of her idols. She cleared her mind and opened her eyes. Gripping the helmet’s visor, she pulled it apart.
Panman’s face was revealed. Mercifully he seemed to have been spared the ravaging temperatures that had virtually incinerated the outer layers of his suit. He looked calm and at peace with his eyes closed. A small dribble of food clung to the side of his mouth.
Despite her attempts at self-control, a tear made its way down Jemima Murma’s cheek.
Justin spoke. “My heat sensor indicates that the core temperature of Panman’s body is 36.7 degrees Celsius.”
Jemima Murma felt angry. She looked up at the cyborg and was about to reprimand him for his cold and inappropriately timed technical statement when she was distracted by movement below. She looked down and gasped at what she saw. Panman was staring up at her.
“Sorry, I must have nodded off!” The bounty hunter said. “The entertainment system failed. It was as boring as a nun’s résumé in here!” He licked the food from the side of his mouth and grinned. “Hmm… Tangy!”
Jemima Murma could not contain her joy and relief. She sobbed openly, a huge smile across her face.
Panman looked over at Justin. “Ah, metal buddy! I see you’re holding the head of Shipoopaa. She’s in a desperate state. Take her to the cyborg construction lab. Get her a new body as soon as possible.”
“I obey.” Justin said as he turned. He stomped away.
“Now,” Panman said, looking back at Jemima Murma, who was still sobbing and grinning, “calm yourself and help me get out of this suit.”
The assistant nodded and programmed another cutting sequence into the operating table’s control surface. “I must let Peter the Ace know you’re OK.” She said as some equipment descended from the ceiling once again. This time several beams of energy began cutting into Panman’s charred suit.
“Allow me.” Panman said as the right arm of his suit was opened up. With remarkable dexterity he reached over and activated the communicator on the table’s control surface. “Yo, Ace!”
The response was swift. “Panman! Great to have you back.”
“I guess Lawrence’s attack is well underway.”
“It is indeed.”
“Did you get my last message?”
“Some of it. I passed your warning about the landing craft to Commander Pepe.”
“Not so cool, I’m afraid. For some reason he thinks you sent the message under duress. He felt inclined not to believe it.”
“What?!” Panman exclaimed. He sat up, his sliced-up suit falling away. “It’s me, damn it!”
“I did try to explain. His stress levels are higher than ever, and his confidence lower than ever. For some reason he’s finding the current crisis particularly difficult to deal with. That’s evident in one of his most recent orders. I’ve just zoomed in to the tactical display for the four landing craft that are now approaching the palace. They will arrive in about eight minutes. Three of them are being left alone as you ordered, but one is being attacked furiously.”
“That’s an alarming tactic! Is he going mad?”
“I guess he’s unsure so he’s attacking one of them to see what happens.”
“He is going mad!”
“Perhaps. He does think you’re dead, and that he killed you.”
Panman frowned. “Definitely mad!”
The equipment retracted back into the ceiling.
Ripping the last remnants of his suit from his body, Panman leapt off the operating table. He was wearing only his grade-one red inner comfort suit. He grinned at Jemima Murma. “Thanks for getting me out of that thing.”
The assistant, still tearful, bowed. “It was an honour and a privilege.”
“I’m sure it was!” Panman said as he bounded for the exit. “Ace, I’m coming up. I need to talk to the commander as soon as possible.” He paused at the doorway and looked back at Jemima Murma. “Bring a bowl of dipping-custard and a basket of white chocolate mini-muffins and caramelised bananas up to the bridge as soon as possible!”