While en route to Droma, Killa and Algertz were discussing how the team had formed. He described the way Humph had first come into his life, Killa was at the time aged 14 years old and better known as Michael. A friendly Labrador dog had turned up and taken up residence as the duty dog. As the farm hadn’t had a dog for a couple of years, he was welcome as he didn’t eat much, bark or chase the farm animals. Unwelcome visitors were soon discouraged when he gave them the big grin. These visitors included wild dogs who didn’t appreciate Dog suddenly appearing on their tail with a nip. Their livestock rarely had any trouble.
When the old cat went to its final rest, a replacement cat suddenly turning up was welcome; the new cat soon had the barn empty of rats and mice with no other small vermin replacing them. The cat and dog got on great often teaming up to keep those unwelcome visitors to a minimum.
When their old farmhand Henry decided that grass was greener elsewhere and coincided with Mike’s father having trouble paying him. Having a worker turn up and offer to work for room and board and having the stamp of approval from dog and cat. Tom Smith soon moved into the bunkhouse. Unusually Dog and Cat spent their idle time in his company. He gave his name as Tom Smith otherwise rarely spoke and then in a hoarse whisper, having explained that an accident had injured his throat, this communicated using a notebook.
Tom rebuilt one tractor and soon running it like new, the other unrepairable tractor was tidied up and seemed to disappear from view as did quite a lot of rusty bits and pieces. This arrangement made Mum happy; she had been nagging Dad for years about the unsightly mess. Dad had separated the shed into three zones, ‘gunna’ (going to fix it one day), round-to-it (will get around to it one day) and ‘wonder what that was’ areas. Tom restored the 'gunna' area items to usefulness, and then the other two collections were either returned to shiny parts or disappeared, leaving the shed neat and tidy. As some of the pieces had been there as long as the farm, it was a veritable treasure trove for the travelling parts collectors. Tom had displayed the restored components on shelves with neat labels describing their purpose. This arrangement provided a new source of income for the farm. The kids were delighted as they had their bicycles and toys repaired as good as new.
When a mule joined the crew, the family accepted it without comment. This one soon settled in as a working partner without the ill-famed temper.
Mike’s chores and school meant that he didn’t have time to spend much attention on the four’s behaviour. Until during School holidays when Mike had some spare time and noticed that all four had wandered off to the back paddock loaded with bits and pieces. Following unnoticed, Mike walked after the four as they went over the back fence and into the forest behind the farm. Entering a hidden glen, Mike could see that under the tree canopy was an object which looked like some person’s weird idea of a flying saucer. Sort of an enormous cheese wheel squared off at one end; the four trooped into a hatch and emerged unloaded. Mike was surprised having supposed that he was well hidden behind a bush; when Cat walked straight up to him.
“Have you seen enough, Mike? Why don’t you come out and meet us?” Cat asked in a little sister’s voice.
Cat had rarely meowed, you could have knocked Mike down with a feather, he had great difficulty doing anything except gawp. Then Dog said, “It is Okay I won’t bite.” Delivered in the same voice didn’t ease his bewilderment as both Tom and Mule echoed the invitation again using this same voice.
“Who are you guys?” Mike asked, meaning ‘what’.
“I am Humph one entity, each of the forms that you see are all part of me,” Cat explained, “Follow me into my ship, and I will introduce you to another part of me.”
Thinking, ‘What can I lose,’ Mike followed Cat into the ship and found an enormous teddy bear wearing a tartan suit, bow tie and straw boater.
“I call myself Humph after I saw the TV show and decided that it would be amusing to look like this,” Humph said in that little girl voice, “This is my normal voice and while it doesn't fit the bulk. Though, where I come from, I am considered to have a big voice.”
“Okay, Why have you led me here? The troop has kept this hidden all this time?” Mike asked.
“It won’t be long before I have completed the repairs to the ship. I do have a problem in sending an avatar small enough to fit the voice. The smaller form would not carry the credibility needed to conduct business in the rough and tumble of interstellar commerce. The alternative, robots or androids are ignored too often to be of use.”
“Where do I come in, I don’t know anything except school or the farm?” Mike asked.
“I am prepared to spend some time training you for the job, and then we can have an adventure together touring the galaxy,” Humph said.
“Sounds great. But surely you could find someone out there already trained?” Mike asked scarcely believe his luck, but had to test the offer, “And doesn't it take years to get anywhere as my science teacher says?”
“Perhaps he doesn't know everything; I have an interstellar drive which reduces the larger distances and makes galactic travel practical. I have known you these past few years, and you like science fiction. It is not easy to recruit someone with this voice,” Humph explained, “I once had a protocol Android to negotiate with erratic results. I also need an organic companion on long trips to provide certain substances to maintain my health. I breathe in Carbon Dioxide, and shall we say, absorb stale water, delivering oxygen and freshwater back. Only small amounts at a time, but I balance the ship atmosphere quite nicely. Not something that I could explain to a sceptical adult. With you, I can guide you to the idea. You are still listening to me instead of running home to hide under the bed.”
“I suppose it is hard to be scared of a giant friendly teddy bear who sounds like my little sister,” Mike conceded.
“Just so,” Humph grinned, “Part of the reason for selecting this form. And the other reason is that you can’t talk to yourself for weeks at a time without going stir-crazy. Another of my race can’t live close enough to have a practical ship. Another detail is that the people in authority are beings similar to yourself and regretfully somewhat xenophobic. Having a human agent also gives an advantage while trading. While I can simulate a human such as Tom, the voice would give away the secret.”
“I doubt that Mum or Dad would be too thrilled at me disappearing into the void with Cat and Dog, let alone someone like Tom, they have only known for a relatively short time,” Mike suggested.
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it. Perhaps if Tom’s sister turned up and offered an apprenticeship in the city, room and board included?” Humph suggested.
“Sounds like a great idea,” Mike was warming to the prospect as space was becoming news lately with the moon landings and the proposed International Space Station.
Every boy that Mike knew had ambitions to go into space. Mike perhaps more than most as he was a solitary bookish boy especially fond of science fiction. Like most dreams, Mike tempered the expectations with the reality of farm life and the likely need to leaving home for a job as he was the younger son.
The prospect of being taught all the information required to perform the job of a crewman in a spaceship was somewhat daunting. Mike was young and an avid reader, he had a naive expectation that all would fall into place.
Later thinking about the quartet, Mike wondered why he hadn’t suspected the truth. Though who complains when someone is too perfect? Tom as the most prominent for instance, as he went through the motions (pun) of going to the outhouse regularly, when does someone complain when following and finding that the little house smelled better than normal?
Hell! After old Henry went, the kids declared it a no-go zone unless they were desperate as he was a heavy smoker, drinker and preferred the strongest curry. Body cleanliness also wasn’t high on his priorities only consenting to do something about it when Mum threatened to burn his clothes with him still in them.
None of the group smelled terrible, either body odour or emissions, and cats are very discreet about their deposits. Dog and Mule were unusual that only when it was noticeable that they hadn’t gone recently, would go off into the distance and go there. Manure is hardly a premium on a farm; no-one checked the deposit. The old term ‘kill a tree’ usually meant happy trees with no smell or browning being was evident. Mum was confident with Tom as while he spoke seldom, was a great listener and would converse happily with a notebook or chalkboard writing neatly; setting an excellent challenge for the kids to emulate because precise punctuation and spelling were standard. When Dad had to practically order him to have some money and have a day off in town, Tom would return sober, loaded with books and gifts for the kids.
This behaviour was a total contrast to Henry; he would scamper off to town the moment he had some money only returning when his cash or welcome at the hotels had run out. Dad often had to make a special trip to pick him up; then Henry would be useless until after the hangover.
Having agreed in principle to Humph's proposal, Mike visited the ship regularly on the pretext of solo fishing trips spending half of the time in a learning machine where he was educated the galactic way with direct transfer of the information needed to crew a spaceship and converse with aliens. After which Humph would team up and catch enough fish to justify the time absent. The hands-on experience of flying was carried out at night using the shuttle, a small version of the big ship. Despite Humph being careful to avoid people, flying slow and low behind hills then doing the high-speed runs far out to sea, stories started circulating about ‘flying saucers’ with the UFO nuts.
Within months, he could speak in several languages as well as the Lingua Franca (gal-basic) used in space commerce. He managed to startle the family and school teacher when he answered a foreign visitor to the town in his language when the guest had asked a rhetorical question to himself. As previously he had been a bit lackadaisical using English, it raised a few eyebrows and cautioned Mike into being a little more discrete; the training also showing up in improved results for his school work.
When the pair had a brainstorm session, they decided that Killer or equivalent would give Mike more credibility in dealing with aliens. ‘Killer Karl Kox’ was the ring name of a World Championship Wrestler on Television at the time; Mike had worked out that he was only playing the role of a nasty tough guy, actually holding a PhD as did his team-mate, ‘Brute’ Bernard. So it was decided that Mike would be known as Killa Mike Cox in interstellar commerce.
After a few years of lessons, it was agreed to broach the prospect of an apprenticeship in the city with Mike’s mother. Humph proposed that having Tom’s ‘sister’ write, ring, then visit in a car and offer accommodation to allow him to do so. ‘Her’ voice while high-pitched was not remarkable. Mike, as he had an older brother and sister, either of whom would presumably take over the farm; both parents welcomed the prospect of learning a trade in the city, with the caveat he maintained regular contact.
Whenever the ship passed near; letters and phone calls were made to preserve the illusion that Mike was near enough to keep in touch. After a few months of this, Mike revealed the truth of his actual occupation to his family, and subsequently, the shuttle delivered him directly to the farm for regular visits even taking the family on planetary tours as a novelty. The giveaway had been the fact that the Quartet had also departed at the same time leaving no explanation. The shuttle was usually disguised as a hot air balloon to match the quietness and ease of ascent using the planetary drive.
Mike once had asked what it was like to be a colony. Humph explained that a human was one, having several layers of interdependent ‘brains’. One of the lowest level 'brain' was the spinal cord shortcutting reactions to move the finger or toe from pain; then the primary drives and feelings culminating in the pre-frontal lobes, this part considered the centre for overall thinking and personality.
Humph's avatars had some independence for self-protection as Humph the central personality effectively being the pre-frontal lobes remote from the unit. Humph confirmed that when an avatar is injured, this hurt at least as much as hitting a finger with a hammer. Humph the central brain was effectively sessile and limited in movement, up to two-thirds of the mass could be hived off as individuals to perform mobile functions. Humph found that modelling his primary avatar as the giant teddy bear useful as well as amusing. The smallest practical size is about 4 kilogrammes (cat) which can unobtrusively survey the area to design larger fellows, time being the constraint with an independent existence of 48 hours before returning to the mass, in Cat’s case every couple of nights a swap was carried out to refresh the avatar. The bear and mule size could act independently, as energy can be acquired as needed.
On one of those long and uneventful trips, read boring, Mike asked Humph what his name was before he changed it. “The short version was equivalent to ‘The Astronaut’, and before that ‘Stargazer’, my full name is sung over a twenty-five-hour session starting with ‘Humph, the one who lived by sea and mountain, gazed at the heavens and now voyages through the skies.’ Then it includes my parents, all of my meld partners, their parents, and where each comes from, going back for about fifty generations where the song becomes the same as for all our people.” Humph explained. “In space, most people we meet are astronauts, in English, this translates to ‘star traveller’; I found on your planet a short name which is unique and amusing. So my ID reads Humph from Droma after I nearly broke the computer when I first tried to read my full name into it.”
“Interesting; I wonder how that would sound if you traced my name like that?” Mike asked.
“Let’s see; Pride of God, of the family named after a Rooster, son of Gentle Warrior and White Brow who live on a farm by the Nature Park.” Humph recited. “From the continent of Australia, Planet Terra orbiting Sol; I believe your song may be at least twice as long as mine despite being a singleton.”
“Where did you come up with that?” Mike marvelled.
“Research keeps the mind busy. I had several years to contemplate, and it is important to us to have the full song of anyone that we associate with,” Humph explained, “I believe I still have the data stick with the whole song on it. If you need to have some insomnia treatment, I will play it back for you.” Humph laughed as he thought Mike was a person of little patience.
“Ha, I will take you up on that, perhaps I can use it to punish my children if they misbehave,” Mike retorted.
Another time Killa wondered about the whys, and wherefore of Humph being on Earth, Humph related the story reluctantly as he had not given the reason as to why the repair of the ship and the keenness of recruiting Mike for the co-pilot’s job.
It seems that yes, he did have a companion to supply ‘fresh’ sustenance for himself. Initially, this was only a companion pet similar to a chimpanzee, and Humph had struggled using one of his avatars to do the negotiating with poor results.
The accident that required the repair also resulted in the loss of his companion when the ship had encountered a stray object which de-pressurised and destroyed the cockpit.
The pet had been bored then started fiddling with controls, had accidentally shut the protecting shield off; it then ran frightened and hid while Humph handled the emergency. By the time temporary repairs had been carried out, it was too late to save the companion.
Mike was sitting in the command chair of the Yellow Terra, contemplating his life over the last fifty years. The stars on the screen glittered like many diamonds set in a field of black velvet.
'Like yesterday and the day before,' He sighed. The clearance for departure wasn't for another three hours at sunrise, and the ship's clock was midday.
What a life, first as a starry-eyed youth, Humph had plucked Mike out of a small farm; then began exploring the Galaxy. While he had seen only a fraction of it; he had nearly crept up to the Biblical 'use by date'.
While still reminiscing Humph came into the cockpit and asked, 'Penny for your thoughts?'
'About what it is worth,' Mike said absently.
Observing that it was more profound than this, Humph asked, 'If talking helps, I am all ears.' Raising a chuckle when he changed into an enormous pair of ears with legs.
Once the joke was made; Humph reverted to his 'Tom' persona. This shape had been his preferred aspect of recent years, rather than the big teddy bear. Now that he could speak and intermingle without restriction, a social-sized man fitted in better.
'I am just reviewing the past, wondering if I have made a difference to the Galaxy and what to do for the time remaining,' Mike said then reassured, 'I am not about to kick the bucket or anything soon. The idea of retiring to watch Su knit doilies is not tempting either.'
'That is good to hear, I wasn't looking forward to breaking in a new crewman,' Humph said.
'I am sure that you could do it easily enough,' Mike said with a smile, 'I suppose I am just a bit off because Su is away with Renee and our new grandson.'
There was a moment of silence as each returned to their thoughts.
'You know that a man depends on someone needing him to justify his worth,' Mike said, 'And a woman needs someone to look after.'
'How about we pick up a pup next time we are home,' Humph suggested.
'And be stuck having it whine every time I step off the ship and be swamped with the greetings when I come back,' Mike pointed out, 'Besides I would then have the same problem because of the relative difference in lifespan. Before I met you, I had to bury a couple of dogs, and while they weren't mine, it still hurt.'
'While it would seem that I could do everything myself, I do need company. I have found it helpful that you and humans in general, make intuitive leaps of thought. While I have advanced computing powers; making a 'breakthrough' is beyond my sight,' Humph said, 'When I locate an existing technology I can adapt it using the application of multiple attempts whereas it seems that you can spot the tweak without much effort.'
'Thanks, I suppose I can't complain, the exercise regimen that you encourage is starting to take effect. When I visited home last time, big brother Tony was starting to look a little frayed around the edges and has retired from active farm work. Whereas I can take it easy with low G if I feel a bit jaded,' Mike said, 'I have heard that the yank's celebrated painter Grandma Moses didn't start painting seriously until into her eighties and continued creating masterpieces for years.'
'There you go, I expect that we have many more years together, and I can keep dredging gems from your ideas,' Humph said.
After a few minutes of silent contemplation, Mike said, 'To quote another anecdote. If you love what do, you never have to work a day in your life; I can raise my hand for that.'
'And the other point about age is just how stiff you feel when making sudden moves,' Mike continued, ‘I haven't noticed; though Tony is walking like an old man, expecting the first step to hurt then is surprised if nothing falls off. Mind you; I don't leap out bed as I did as a kid.'
'I have been waiting for the best time to drop a pebble in the pond,' Humph said, 'The "holy grail" I have been chasing is to find the truth behind our fables. It seems our original purpose in life was the ancillary equipment of an organic spaceship. This entity performed the functions of navigation computer, medical and systems technician, with a side occupation of environment suit. I suspect that some of the strange monsters of the galaxy are descendants of other parts; the asteroid worm and Salac, perhaps are from the spacecraft, the energy bats could be exo-techs initially to retrieve energy and mineral resources for the ship. The Zombie beast I suspect is likely a cancerous spacesuit which has become a life taker instead of a saver, a reason why my race instinctively eliminates all of those we find.'
'We have a medical aspect; I am aware of the psychological damage of seeming too "godlike". This factor is the reason for the long-winded explanation; I would make it clear that I am a computer designed by an intelligent being to perform functions that they consider trivial, same as you would use a hammer to drive a nail.'
'I would never think of you like that. I feel that you are my friend and mentor,' Mike stated, 'Though I guess you are about to drop the pebble?'
'Yes, if you remembered the time a couple of years ago, you and Su suffered a radiation flash which put you in a critical condition?' Humph asked.
'Yes, it took a week before we were back on our feet,' Mike replied.
'It was six months; I covered the gap by putting your minds into a couple of my mobile units. This routine was to shield you from the fact that you both were severely injured,' Humph admitted, 'Fooled you didn't I?'
'I find it hard to believe; the log only had a 7-day gap, felt a little wobbly as I remember,' Mike said, 'I wasn't puzzled by that.'
'Informing you just how serious your condition was, would have had dire mental consequences. If I had taken you to the best hospital available the prognosis was poor,' Humph advised, 'While you were in the meld with me I was able to repair all the damage; using your stem cells to rebuild the damage.'
'Sounds logical. I don't blame you for not telling me the details,' Mike said, 'Why now?'
'The news is that you are as good as new, and the pair of you are going to be around for a long time yet,' Humph said, 'There is no hurry in training up a replacement.'
'I hope that is the only 'bad' news you can drop on me?' Mike asked.
'I may have a little advice to Su when she gets back, perhaps a good idea if she resumes taking her contraceptives,' Humph said, 'I won't add too much detail, but an analysis of hormones is a natural function of my recycling process. Before she left, I was reading hormone levels consistent with thirty-year-old for you both.'
'That should delight her,' Mike said, 'She was getting used to the idea of being past women's problems. She may not be impressed.'
'We will see, fingers crossed," Humph said.
"Is that all to divert me from my sombre mood?' Mike asked, 'Telling a joke would have sufficed.'
'Perhaps she may find it amusing?' Humph asked.
'Good luck with that. You can hide in your den and pretend that no-one is home, then leave me to catch the flack,' Mike said sourly, 'Okay I will take precautions until you drop the other shoe.'
'I will recite my story to her and put her to sleep," Humph offered.
Humph briefs Su Lin
When Su returned from visiting the children, Humph sat her down to explain the new status of her health.
'Remember when you had the radiation flash burns?' Humph began, when she nodded, 'Rather than the week you may recall, it was six months while I healed you in the meld.'
'That is news, what are you getting at?' Su asked.
'I rebuilt your damaged organs using stem cells and lately as these are having an effect of restoring you to an apparent age of thirty. I recommend that you resume taking your contraceptive pills,' Humph explained.
'Oh how wonderful, I was getting used to not having to deal with the monthly fun,' Su said, not impressed.
'That's the bad news, now I drop the other shoe,' Humph said, 'I get to have your company for many more years.'
'Meaning?' Su asked.
'Since your apparent age is in the thirty, you still have a working life of another forty or fifty years,' Humph advised.
'That will take some time to digest, does Mike know?' Su asked, 'And if so, why didn't he tell me?'
'Nervous that you would blame him, while it is entirely my doing. Your condition was critical, especially the psychological aspect,' Humph said, 'Now to explain my motives and background, I can entertain you for some time.'
'Well if it clears up your motives and settles my questions; go for it,' Su said, 'I will let you know if boredom sets in or I need a break.'
'As I explained to Mike, I may be descended from an organic computer, which performed navigation, medical and technical tasks with a side job of environment protection. Therefore I am a complex tool designed to run a spaceship. The medical aspect covers the psychological area which is why I have to tread lightly to avoid harm,' Humph explained, 'I had spent some time solo before meeting Mike, this wasn't satisfactory as I didn't have a valid purpose.'
'If you're suggesting that our main function is as a glorified pet. Don't expect that would make me happy,' Su said.
'Do you consider Mike as your pet or vice versa?' Humph asked rhetorically and received a wry smile.
'He is barely house trained, and he had better not suggest that role for me,' Su laughed.
'You are essential to the smooth running of the ship, and the pair of you keep me on my toes so to speak. I can look at something and only see the primary use; while either yourself or Mike can see multiple possibilities at a glance. Your revelation then gives me a task to make it work,' Humph said.
'I forgive you this time,' Su said, 'Any more gems I should know about?'
'I suggested to Mike that a pup would give him an additional purpose, but that didn't impress him,' Humph said, 'I haven't mentioned it, I will be joined shortly by Junior who will be in my care for at least another eight years. I will be engaged in building another ship for him and his sister. Since you have been through this before, there should be no surprises.'
'Always a delight, all the fun of a new child without the dirty nappies and other delights,' Su said with a smile.
'And I have someone to educate, that is not a burden,' Humph said, 'Any questions?
'I will let you know. First I am going to give Mike a flea in his ear,' Su said.
'He should enjoy that, though where are you going to find a flea?' Humph asked.
'Metaphor,' Su laughed, delighted to go one up on Humph.
After Su left, Humph started reviewing his interaction.
'I look forward to the challenge of mentoring children. Perhaps I shouldn't have told Su and let it be a surprise when she had another child herself?'
Thinking about it further, he considered, 'No, that has to be something the two of them plan the pros and cons.'
'I have finalised the last of the goods to return from the pirate hoard so the next year or so that should keep them on their toes. It has taken nearly fifty years so far, and it certainly has been challenging to match goods with the descendants.'
After a time when the ‘milk run’ trade route was becoming tedious. Humph decided the time was ripe to tackle the hazard of the Zombie beast. From his big teddy bear aspect, he said, ‘Time to sort that Zombie beast out.’
This comment attracted the attention of his crew; Mike, an Aussie country boy and Su Lin, his wife from Aurea.
‘What is your problem with this Zombie beast?’ Mike asked.
‘It could be an aberrant ancestor; you know that I am a collective of twenty-one juveniles. My people suspect that centuries ago, a spaceship abducted a juvenile, which is usually only viable for a hundred years. Perhaps this entity was seeking a collective and absorbed the crew. Whatever the connection this entity is immortal similar to an amoeba, converting all life to its substance. It animates captured animals and people using their memories to enable it to spread and infect worlds,’ Humph said, ‘The beast uses mind control with telepaths, implanting an image of fabulous wealth in the mind of a potential victim.’
‘I remember Su saying that at Aurea,’ Mike said, ‘It didn’t catch me.’ Grinning at Su’s discomfort.
‘I am contacting the other ships and will begin fitting large sleep guns to them,’ Humph said.
‘I wondered what you were tinkering with,’ Mike said.
‘After we fit the gear, the team heads to the infected planet and beam the ring of orbiting ships, making sure they are clean. Ensuring the beast has no way of leaving and infecting the Galaxy,’ Humph explained, ‘The planet is on the other side of Oxzen sector. This area has a dangerous reputation. I will have a run to scout the area, and see if everything is the same as when I saw it twenty years ago.’
The next day they departed Grnatz and headed towards the Zombie system. When they approached, Su Lin complained, ‘Something is trying to make me fly the ship down there. It feels like the time back on Aurea.’
Humph moved the Yella Terra back from the planet until Su relaxed.
‘You should have been in a suit before I came close. Sorry.’
‘I am alright. Now you know that it is active,’ Su Lin downplayed her discomfort. ‘I had forgotten the danger myself.’
‘Right we back off, fit the new equipment and come back fully primed to eliminate this menace,’ Humph decided.
The Yella Terra returned to Grnatz where the other three ships were waiting for their equipment. Brothers Mike and Jim transferred the three kits; each crew would then fit their own with the help of Mike, who already had installed one in the Terra. The program was replacing the lower Ion cannon with the new sleep-cannon.
‘We can retain the sleeper ray afterwards. It would be a better way of repelling attacks without harming anyone,’ Humph decided.
While the work went slower than if Humph was helping, the other dromans soon learnt the techniques and completed the task. The team grouped in orbit and set out for the jump point to the Zombie World. Arriving at the system, Humph ordered a relatively slow approach to ensure safety, with the humans donning their spacesuits for insulation from the enslaving thoughts.
‘While caution does seem a little extreme, I think that it is justified. This beast has been around for a long time and is capable of learning, I will send a sleep-gun armed drone to neutralise the armed spacecraft,’ Humph suggested, ‘Our shields should handle most threats, a stitch in time.’
‘I am not objecting. That is one scary Zombie,’ Mike said, ‘I have been reviewing the video from our visit. There are a lot of military-type units there.’
‘I have started construction of a drone, it should be ready by the time we have a visual on the closest craft,’ Humph advised, ‘I have fitted a smaller gun that I devised in the design process.’
As the planned approach was at minimum speed, the drone was ready to flight test, so this craft was launched and put through its paces. After establishing a holding orbit, Humph manoeuvred the drone to operating range and treated the first vessel, then onward to the next. The instruments indicated that one of the ships was activating armament systems. The drone was withdrawn to safety while Humph evaluated the situation.
‘Hmm let's see,’ Humph considered the readouts, ‘I believe the shuttle's shields could handle that.’
Humph launched the shuttle, then picked up the drone on the shuttle's freight lift so it could still operate the gun. As the shuttle approached the active vessel, a flash struck the shuttle's shields. The drone responded by activating the sleep gun, stopping the firing.
‘We will have to to do a thorough survey. I will rig the drone with a shield while that is happening,’ Humph decided, ‘I won’t risk the shuttle if there is something more powerful.’
The shuttle unloaded the drone; then Humph directed it to Terra's hold and the shuttle into its hanger. Humph began working on the drone installing the shields. ‘I can see this taking a bit longer than anticipated. I am transmitting the drone specifications to the other ships and see if we can assemble a dozen,’ Humph decided.
Humph’s workshop was soon manufacturing the new drones, and it wasn't long before he had a couple ready to fly. The armed and shielded the drones were directed to approach the designated ships which Mike assessed as being armed. With a few responses dealt with, losing only one drone in the process, this stronger armed craft was taken out with three drones operating together.
‘If a ship big enough to be a problem, it is worth salvaging,’ Mike said a little frustrated. ‘Otherwise, we could just go in, guns blazing.’
‘Tempting but do the job slowly, and it gets done properly,’ Humph said, ‘The orbiting craft will keep me in spares for the foreseeable future.’
The Terra continued the process at a safe pace, and after a week the suspect armed vessels were cleared. The main sleep guns quickly cleared the remainder; then each vessel was visually inspected. Locating a brightly painted ship, Humph decided to do a physical boarding on the odd-shaped craft. Approaching the ornate vessel, Humph was stumped for identification and asked Lasurus, ‘Have you seen or heard of anything similar to it?’
‘I have heard that a notorious pirate used to parade his treasure around in a barge,’ Lasurus the android said.
‘Sounds interesting though I have never understood the benefit of accumulating of shiny bits and pieces,’ Humph said.
Humph, Mike and Su rode the shuttle over and boarded with Humph opening the airlocks to gain entry. The airlock, and passageway to the control room were standard enough until exploration led them to a sturdy door, which was a little beyond even Humph’s strength.
‘If Lasurus is correct, that is the treasure room. I will bring over some heavy cutting gear. The shuttle is going back to Terra,’ Humph commentated, ‘Loading, I will be here in another ten minutes.’
It wasn't long before a vibration announced that his mobile was carrying the gear to the door. It arrived borne by another Humph who then set it up against the door and then commenced dismantling the barrier.
‘Stand back. Likely it is booby-trapped,’ Humph warned. A flash erupted from the wall to be harmlessly absorbed by Humph, who ripped the offending projector from its niche. ‘Safe now. Shall we see what it was protecting?’ The team entered the room, finding it stacked high with gleaming precious metal and sparkling jewels, a veritable king's ransom.
‘Loxz will be very annoyed. Though since it is pirate spoils, we could spend the next century returning it to the owners,’ Humph said.
‘We won't spend the last lot in my lifetime, that sounds like a good idea,’ Mike agreed, ‘Su?’
‘Great idea, we will get plenty of brownie points,’ Su laughed.
‘There is a computer that may contain information as to the when and where the pirate captured the goods,’ Humph observed, ‘Still the priority is to eliminate the Zombie.’
Returning to the Terra, Humph decided to make a low pass to view the target as they descended towards the grey surface. Showing through were straight lines and occasional ruins.
‘This was once an inhabited planet, only takes a short time to convert everything to goo,’ Humph said.
Humph passed on the news and liaised to determine the best way of sterilising the planet surface. The team decided that cruising at about two thousand meters altitude giving an overlap when the ships were four thousand meters apart with the drones and shuttles filling gaps, thus allowing a wider spread. Plotting a polar orbit and flying at a thousand KPH by the time the ships had completed one orbit; the planet had rotated to allow a slight overlap for the next pass. Using the ion and laser cannon to burn, this extended the destruction out to a twenty-kilometre swath with the cannons marking the extent.
‘Mr Humph, I have made an estimate, this task may take five years to complete,’ Lasurus said.
Humph thought a few seconds and said, ‘Indeed, you are correct while we two have the patience, it may be a little daunting for the children.’
‘Many hands make light work. You can run the drones indefinitely while we play with our blocks in the sandpit,’ Mike said, ‘If you constructed a few big ones to do this autonomously we would then be free for more entertaining projects?’
‘I knew I had you on board for more than the company,’ Humph agreed.
‘Don't forget my dazzling repartee,’ Mike laughed.
‘We can start the process with the drones which will keep the Zombie busy while I construct the necessary additions to our fleet,’ Humph advised, ‘Shouldn't give the beast any leeway to forge escape plans. We should have the other ships maintain a blockade in case of escape attempts.’
‘You have a ready supply of spaceships already armed and powered. You can modify some of those to do the job,’ Mike said.
‘You are certainly earning your lollypops today. I will continue the search of the derelicts and choose several. If there are a few androids aboard we can rescue to do the tedious bits,’ Humph decided, ‘They should be as grateful as Lazarus here after escaping the beast.’
Humph and the other ship teams continued the boarding and evaluation of the craft, they indeed located several dozen suitable spacecraft frames and several androids of various specialities, including pilot and astromechs. Bringing the androids to the Terra, Humph programmed them to carry out the conversions needed for the task. It promised to be a shorter time-frame than the original project of strafing the planet with just the four Terra class ships. As each craft was modified, fueled and either manned by the pilot androids or onboard computer, each was then set to join the drones previously set going, expanding the swath burnt by the automated ships.
‘Once we have the stun guns operating perhaps I can ask Admiral Rham to bring his toy over, to complete the sterilising the surface,’ Humph said, ‘There should be no danger to his crew once the sleeper rays neutralise the Zombie.’
‘Sounds like a great plan. Better than five years of sightseeing over a grey landscape,’ Mike said.
‘Yes indeed the androids can keep a close watch without becoming bored or distracted,’ Su Lin added.
‘I will go along with that, let's get the ship renovating underway and we can do something more entertaining,’ Mike suggested.
Humph and his crew began surveying ship after ship, setting androids to work modifying selected vessels. Humph revisited these ships to monitor progress.
The Task complete, Terra resumed the milk run, allowing the other ships to resume their routine. After a break in the routine, Humph directed the Terra to survey the progress and found that the drone team had cleared most of the planet.
‘Well it seems the androids have done the job,’ Humph said, ‘Now is the fun bit ensuring that it is complete.’
‘How do you propose to do that?’ Mike asked.
‘I need a volunteer; I am afraid that only someone from out of this sector would qualify,’ Humph said.
‘Well, I am here, as long as you know that I don't like the idea,’ Su Lin said, ‘How would you tell that it is not lying low?’
‘If you agree, we can strap you into a seat and monitor your thoughts while you are asleep,’ Humph suggested, ‘That way you won't experience any contact except as a fleeting nightmare. The computer would detect the contact and throw on a guarding field before you can experience anything and then at the same time pinpoint the location.’
‘I will give it a go. I certainly don't want to meet the thing unprotected,’ Su shuddered then asked, ‘Is there any other way to detect it?’
‘We have to prove it is there before we can record any emanations,’ Humph said, ‘If we get another report that is the first thing I will do before we annihilate it.’
‘They do say hindsight is the most accurate,’ Mike said eliciting a raised eyebrow from Humph.
The test was set up with Su lightly sedated to relax; the Terra was then positioned into an orbit pretending to come in for a landing, after several passes, there was no response from Su.
Terra climbed back into orbit and Su awakened.
‘Thank you, Su. There was no attack on yourself which unfortunately is an unproven negative,’ Humph said, ‘I believe that it must be able to detect intelligence to able to contact and try to control.’
“What is next?’ Mike asked, ‘Any other sites need to be checked by us? Elysium especially needs to be warned as they are as vulnerable as yourself.’
‘Yes, I believe we should do that now in case there is another infestation,’ Humph decided.
Humph used the sub-space radio to make contact with Elysium and relay the danger. Then received a report that two scouts had stopped contact when they were exploring the Alpha Centauri system.
‘I believe we have a clue to our next destination,’ Humph said as he plotted the next leg to Alpha Centauri.
‘As we approach the sector, be wary, this beast is in contact with all its parts. It is likely aware of what this ship means and may be very aggressive or the worst case it will act passive and hide,’ Humph advised, ‘While intelligent it is also slow and complacent which should work in our favour.’
The Terra arrived in the Solar System to re-orientate for the final leg to Alpha Centauri. As it was a relatively short hop, it wasn't long before the ship entered the first system there and prepared to search. As they approached Humph detected the dwarf sun Proxima and separated Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. They flew closer to the planet, Alpha Centauri Bb, this planet was a hot, dry planet in a 'Mercury' orbit and not viable.
‘What we are looking for is an Earth-size planet in the 'Goldilocks' zone. It doesn't have to be life-bearing only look possible. Otherwise, no one would come close enough to bother looking,’ Humph commented, ‘There is a likely one, probably make Tatooine look pleasant but curiosity would draw a ship close enough to investigate.’
‘Mike and Su suit up. I will set as many detectors as possible in action when we get closer. At that time Su sits in the G seat and says faceplate off,’ Humph suggested, ‘With the suits on fully there would be no emanations that the beast can detect.’
Su stiffened as emanations from the first scout hit her, Humph actuated the faceplate restoring the protection.
Humph discharged the sleep gun and neutralised the target, crossing from Terra’s airlock to the scout he entered and flamed the goo which is all that remained of the beast.
‘I have isolated the frequency. I will reset the shields and detectors, and Su won’t have to suffer again.’
Once the team had finished the first vessel, the next craft was tackled using the same technique with similar results accumulating more data for consideration. After the team had disposed of these, Terra moved onwards to the three scouting ships as they weren't a challenge or danger for the two shuttles. The team gathered back on the Terra to compare notes and have Humph’s assessment of the likely situation.
‘The original trap was an old vessel that had arrived from the Zombie planet and was orbiting waiting for a victim. The world below isn't populated, leaving the Zombie stuck in orbit having insufficient fuel to seek prey elsewhere,’ Humph announced.
‘Earth was lucky that the Zombie turned left instead of towards our sun,’ Mike said.
‘We should do a full survey of the system to ensure that it is safe and advise spacefarers that there is nothing here to attract their attention,’ Mike suggested, ‘We then set a beacon to transmit a warning.’
‘We can do several orbits until we are sure,’ Humph agreed, ‘I will build a couple of those to warn any ships when they enter the system.’
The Terra spent several days surveying and had discovered no further derelicts, the surface of the planet was clear of any infestation.
‘It seems that the beast only made it as far as orbit with no life present on the world to attract it to land. Perhaps if one of his victims had been a mechanic, he could have refuelled to attack a living planet.’
The Terra returned to the entry point and the two scouts, where Humph set an orbit close by and sent a team to each of the ships to commence repairs.
Convoying the retrieved ships back to Elysium, they reported mission complete and transferred the possession to their Government so that they could set a memorial or the crew’s remains.