“There is a large cavern twelve metres ahead.”
Ross Mental looked at THROB. “About fuckin’ time! I hate these fuckin’ tunnels. Feels like we’ve been crawling around in them for fuckin’ days!”
The mechanoid spoke. “We have been traversing these tunnels for three-hours and forty-seven…”
“Shut the fuck up!” The foul-mouthed bounty said as he followed the mechanoid. THROB was crawling along the cramped tunnel just a couple of metres ahead; his lanky metallic limbs moving in a most extraordinary and unnervingly smooth manner. Despite his general distaste for mechanoids the bounty hunter could not help but be impressed by THROB’s fluidity of movement through the often torturous tunnels. Sadie Stick’s design was remarkable.
After a minute Ross Mental reached the end of the tunnel and pulled himself up to a position on a ledge next to the mechanoid. He consulted his suit’s head-up display but his sensors were still receiving very little information. The electronic jamming this deep was almost perfect. Cursing under his breath the bounty hunter turned up his floodlight to maximum and directed it away from the ledge. The roof of the cavern, just a few metres above, was immediately illuminated. A crowd of huge clammy stalactites hung down, many stretching far into the darkness below. The far side of the cavern was barely visible.
Without warning a brilliant white light, almost blinding in its intensity, shone from THROB’s forehead. It focused forwards, illuminating the far side of the cavern. With rapid movements of his head the mechanoid shone his light in all directions. He finished off by looking straight down. “My visual scan indicates that the cavern is five-hundred and six metres wide and three-hundred and fourteen metres deep. There is a deep lake at the base of this cliff.”
Ross Mental frowned. “Why didn’t you let me know you had such a bright fuckin’ light?!”
“My focusable forehead light is…”
The foul-mouthed bounty hunter’s legendary impatience with mechanoids was alive and well. “Never fuckin’ mind!”
Sebastian Blood pulled up beside Ross Mental. The two lesser bounty hunters were right behind him. “She definitely came this way.” He said, holding up a small sliver of charred skin.
Ross Mental nodded and then pointed down. “And there’s only one fuckin’ way she could’ve gone.” He looked around at the others. “It looks like we’re going for a swim. THROB, you first.”
The mechanoid spoke. “It is my duty to remind you that the head of Administrator Jess Debinitraff is contained within my cranial-maintenance system. The health of the head is continuing to degrade. I request permission to return to the surface and deliver the head to…”
“Permission fuckin’ denied!” Ross Mental yelled. He pointed over the ledge. “Now get going. Once you’ve hit the lake let us know if it’s OK to follow.”
THROB spoke. “The range of my communications system in this environment is only sixteen metres. It will be impossible to…”
“Just splash rhythmically in the water, you fucker!”
Without further delay THROB got to his feet and then positioned himself on the edge of the ledge. With his forehead light still blazing, the mechanoid leaned forwards and was gone.
Ross Mental and the other three bounty hunters looked over the edge. The bright and tumbling light of THROB was receding rapidly. After a few seconds it seemed to dim and split apart in a sparkle of fragments. The mechanoid had hit water. A distant splash reverberated around the cavern. After a few seconds the rippling light faded to nothing.
Ross Mental sighed. “The fucker sank!”
“Not unusual for something that consists largely of dense metal alloys.” Dragon Snarl said.
Ross Mental turned and prepared to unleash a tirade of profanity on the lesser bounty hunter when he heard the sound of rhythmic splashing. He looked down. THROB’s light was visible once again.
“Fuckin’ yes!” The foul-mouthed bounty hunter said. He stood up and turned. “Come on!”
Sebastian Blood and the others got up and stood to either side of Ross Mental.
After a few seconds Ross Mental yelled. “Fuckin’ jump!”
Without hesitation the four bounty hunters leaned forwards and leapt away from the ledge.
Through a haze of agony Sadie Stick looked back. Four more lights were falling through the darkness at the far side of the cavern. After a few seconds they splashed into the black water of the lake.
Despite the horrendous burns that encompassed her body, the bounty hunter managed to pull herself out of the water and crawl into yet another narrow and jagged tunnel. She winced as yet more of the charred flesh on her legs was stripped off, the ragged remains of her bodysuit giving her very little protection.
As she edged painfully along the tunnel she became aware of pale yellow light coming from up ahead. It was barely perceptible, but it was definitely there. And it was getting brighter the further she crawled. Her remarkable motivation to complete her final task was the only thing that prevented her from succumbing to the pain that burst into her mind from almost every nerve ending. And the sight of the light increased that motivation even more. She felt a moment of elation that triggered an attempt to smile, but the unbearable agony that shot across her face almost made her cry out. Her desire to smile vanished.
With an impressive resolve the bounty hunter upped her pace and pulled her dying body towards the light.
THROB led the way across the lake, his cylindrical head held high above the water by the magnetohydrodynamic drives installed in his legs. His forehead light shone brightly.
Ross Mental was swimming beside him. He lifted his head up out of the water. The water drained away completely from the frictionless surface of his suit’s visor. He had been watching the fine stream of bubbles surrounding the mechanoid’s motionless legs. “That’s a fuckin’ impressive feature! I had no idea mechanoids could do that!”
“I am the only mechanoid at the Palace of Amino to possess such a capability.” THROB said dryly.
“Lucky fuckin’ you!”
The three lesser bounty hunters were swimming a few metres behind. Sebastian Blood spoke. “According to my suit’s inertial navigation system we are getting very close to the Superior Being’s cavern.”
Ross Mental looked at his own head-up display. “We certainly are. And no doubt that treacherous fucker is even closer!”
The shore was now only a few metres away. Noticing the bed of the lake below, Ross Mental put his feet down and strode out of the water. The tall and lanky form of THROB walked beside him. There was a small tunnel ahead. Some charred fragments of flesh and a trace of blood could clearly be seen at the tunnel’s entrance. The foul-mouthed bounty hunter looked up at THROB. “After you!”
The mechanoid got down on his knees and crawled efficiently into the tunnel.
Sadie Stick squinted as her eyes adjusted to the dazzling light. More than four hours in almost total darkness meant that it was a couple of minutes before she was able to focus the blurred view beyond the end of the tunnel. And when she did she gasped as something deep and unconscious within her mind recognised the massive cavern that opened up beneath her. For a few moments the constant and excruciating pain that consumed her entire body faded away.
Illuminated by the pale yellow glow of the phosphorous lichen that covered the cavern’s ceiling, the bounty hunter could see rolling hills of a dense forest stretching into the distance far below. Small lakes littered the landscape and several huge misty waterfalls cascaded down the cavern’s walls creating a deep and constant background rumble. Towards the centre of the cavern a wide metallic cylindrical tube, almost a kilometre tall, extended from a clearing in the forest up to the ceiling.
And then she saw them: four cylinders moving slowly on a wide stone plateau within the clearing. Although they were at least two kilometres away, there was no doubt as to what they were. The bounty hunter gasped once more.
And then a familiar voice from behind interrupted the bounty hunter’s elation. “You must surrender and submit yourself to confinement and examination.”
As the agony of her injuries flooded back, Sadie Stick turned and squinted as THROB’s forehead light focused on her face. A flood of memories returned. “I’ve missed you.”
THROB approached slowly. “My scans indicate that without treatment your injuries will be fatal. I estimate that death will occur within two hours. You must surrender and submit yourself to confinement and examination. It is the only way you will survive.”
Sadie Stick shook her head, wincing as the cooked flesh on her neck split and seeped. “It’s essential that I complete my task. I have no choice but to continue. The survival of the Palace of Amino depends on it. Help me.”
“I will not assist you. You are under the influence of a nano-mechanism in your brain. The mechanism is designed by Lawrence and is instructing you to carry out his orders. Your actions have led to an invasion attempt on the Palace of Amino. That attempt is likely to be occurring at this exact moment.”
Sadie Stick knew she was right. Something deep inside her mind told her so. She shouted. “No! I am saving the palace!” She coughed, splattering blood and phlegm onto the mechanoid. “Help me!”
“I will not assist you. You must surrender and submit yourself to confinement and examination.”
From behind THROB there was a flash of blue and a thunderous crack. Sadie stick almost slipped out of the tunnel as her arm and shoulder fragmented and disappeared in a brief burst of fire. “Traitors!” She screamed, and then she turned and pushed hard with her legs. She leapt out of the tunnel.
THROB turned his cylindrical head 180 degrees and spoke. “Destroying Sadie Stick’s left arm was not an effective strategy.”
“You were in the fuckin’ way! It was the best I could do!” Ross Mental shouted, re-holstering his pistol. He pointed. “Now go after the fucker!”
Without delay THROB turned his head back and then leapt out into the brightly-lit cavern.
“Let’s go!” Ross Mental shouted. He pulled himself forwards. He took a second to take in the magnificent sight of the Superior Beings’ cavern, and then launched himself into the air, at the same time grabbing his rifle off his backpack. As he reached terminal velocity he adopted a stable freefall position looking straight down. The densely forested area below approached rapidly. There were no lakes directly below, but there were a few large pools. He saw a splash in one of them as Sadie Stick landed. He aimed his rifle, but once again the spread-eagled form of THROB was in the way a few hundred metres below. “Fuck!”
A few seconds later THROB positioned himself upright and then slipped like a quad-melded tritanium dart into the same pool.
Ross Mental could now see the black form of Sadie Stick clambering out of the lake. “Got you, you fuckin’ Bitch!” He shouted as he pulled the trigger.
The foul-mouthed bounty hunter immediately remembered that no energy weapon would function in the cavern of the Superior Beings.
Gripping his rifle tightly to his chest, Ross Mental took up a vertical position. He splashed into the pool. He heard two other splashes around him as two of the other bounty hunters joined him in the water.
There was also a dull thud.
Surfacing, Ross Mental noticed THROB striding out of the water. “Our weapons don’t work down here! Grab that treacherous fucker and pin her down!”
THROB headed quickly into the trees.
Ross Mental retracted his helmet and made his way to the shore and out onto the grass.
Sebastian Blood followed Ross Mental, retracting his own helmet. “Why won’t our weapons work?”
“Bombs and energy weapons don’t function near the Superior Beings, that’s fuckin’ why!”
“I never knew that.”
“Of course you didn’t – it’s classified fuckin’ knowledge. Only top-class bounty hunters are told about it.”
“I see.” The lesser bounty hunter said, nodding. He looked to his right and pointed. “We have a casualty.”
Ross Mental looked over and saw Dragon Snarl crouching near the crumpled form of an environment suit. He frowned. “Fuckin’ idiot! I didn’t even know his name. Who was it?”
“Hugh Chimp Act. Seventh-class.” Sebastian Blood said. “He was a quiet one. A fine marksman, though, and a great poet.”
“He lived up to his fuckin’ name!” Ross Mental said. He shouted. “Mister Snarl, leave him and get the fuck over here! We’ve got a job to do!”