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.