Beyond the Black Part 7

Are you caught up? If not, be sure to go Here first! “You want to send us down there to retrieve whatever’s in that crashed ship…for you?” Radley shook his head. “We’ll do it.” Hicklepeck

Are you caught up? If not, be sure to go Here first!

“You want to send us down there to retrieve whatever’s in that crashed ship…for you?” Radley shook his head.

“We’ll do it.” Hicklepeck and Pellina said in unison.

Radley jabbed Hicklepeck’s side with his elbow. “I believe what my over-eager companions are trying to say is ‘we’ll discuss it.’”

The Chryl officer motioned to the surrounding troopers. “There will be no discussion. You will return to the seventh planet. The only decision left to you is the manner of your departure.”

The guards dragged the three prisoners to the nearest airlock.

“All right, all right. We will comply.” Radley threw up his hands. “But if we’re going to get you your data, we’ll need our gear.”

“Your equipment will be examined. Anything deemed dangerous will be withheld, the rest will be loaded onto the landing craft.”

“Great, we’ll wait there for you.”

“Negative, you will return to your cell.”

Radley sighed. “Worth a shot.”

Once they were alone again, Hicklepeck turned to Radley. “Why wouldn’t we want to take their offer? We want to go down to the Voyagers’ ship, and so do they. And if we don’t they’ll kill us.”

“Look around, Hicklepeck. They plan to kill us either way.”

“But…that is…they said….” The Filtonian stammered.

“Radley is right. All we’ve done is delay the inevitable. But sometimes a little time is the best you can hope for.” Pellina turned to Radley. “Don’t you agree?”

He thought he understood what she was saying. If they were going to escape, they’d need time to come up with a plan. And a free ticket off the gunship wouldn’t hurt either. “That’s right. But, we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Odds are good our planet-hopper won’t survive long enough in that atmosphere for the Chryl to do anything but point and laugh.”

“My ship could do it.” Pellina said. “It was specifically designed to withstand the pressures of exploring a gas giant.”

“Smart thinking. We might have come better prepared also, if someone had been clearer about our destination.”

Hicklepeck’s scales flushed a light purple. “I told you I wanted to go to Chryl Seven. What’s not clear about that?”

“Regardless, we’ll need to get the coordinates off our planet-hopper before we leave. I don’t fancy the idea of another blind run, even if your ship is better suited.”

The hatch slid open and four Chryl troopers entered. One turned to address Radley, “Your equipment has been judged and everything acceptable loaded onto the landing craft. You will come with us.”

Radley, Hicklepeck, and Pellina followed the Chryl back to the dockingport.

From the outside, Pellina’s ship was a simple squat-bodied design with navigational fins extending from the primary thruster. But the interior was state-of-the-art. Even from within the Chryl gunship it was scanning the upper atmosphere of the planet below them, autonomously searching for its owner’s prize.

Radley grabbed his pants off a pile of Hicklepeck’s gear and pulled them on. “Did you catch the part about pulling the coordinates from our ship, or was that too late in the conversation?”

The nearest Chryl gave a quick response in its own language.

“They’re here.” Hicklepeck called from the cockpit.

“Good to know.”

Pellina helped Radley stow the gear in a small side compartment. “Once this is done, we should be ready to launch.” The excitement in her voice was palpable.

“You’ve been waiting a long time for this, haven’t you?”

“It’s my life’s work, and I almost failed in sight of the goal.”

Radley glanced over his shoulder at the four Chryl troopers who were still milling about. “We’re not out of this yet.”

Her antennae twitched. “Perhaps, but at least now there’s hope.” She glided over to the cockpit.

Shaking his head, Radley turned to the Chryl guards. “I think that’s it then. We’re ready to go. We’ll let you know what, if anything, we find down there.”

“No. We will accompany you.”

“Are you sure? There’s no guarantee we survive the trip down. And it’s not like this little planet-hopper is going to outrun your gunships.”

“Escape is impossible, but you may attempt to deceive us. Therefore, we will accompany you.”

Inwardly cursing, Radley nodded. “In that case, strap yourselves in. It’ll be a bumpy ride.” He donned his pressure suit and took a deep breath.

Four Chryl shock troopers. Hicklepeck wouldn’t be any help, and he wasn’t sure about Pellina. She shared the Filtonian scholar’s outlook on the universe, but she clearly had a better grasp of the danger they were in.

Unfortunately, knowing the danger and doing something about it were two different things.

Radley gave the Chryl one more glance before heading up to the cockpit, all the while running through the Chryl design weaknesses he could remember.

Hicklepeck was already in his pressure suit and settled into a high, backless chair with a large display panel.

Pellina had taken the central seat and was running systems checks.

Radley picked a stool near her. “You should suit up.”

She stretched her wings. “My suit is too restricting. I need the fine motor control to pilot this ship.”

“What about the auto-navigation?”

“It’s hardwired to keep us out of places like this. At best, it’ll just return us to orbit.”

“I thought this ship was designed for exploring gas giants?”

“It was, I just haven’t worked out all the quirks.”

“Then let me pilot it so you can wear your suit. Better safe than sorry.”

She laughed. “Could you?” She gestured to her control panel.

The layout was strange, and the labels were all in a language Radley didn’t recognize.

“You could walk me through it.”

“You wouldn’t be able to react quickly enough. If the atmosphere is as hostile as Drurary described, it’ll take an experienced pilot to get us down to the Voyagers’ ship.”

“I am experienced.”

“Not with these controls.”

“Enough talk. It is time.” One of the Chryl stepped into the cockpit and settled into the final seat.

“You heard the man.” Pellina turned to the Chryl. “We are ready. Signal the launch.”

He bristled at the order in her tone, but he complied.

The Chryl gunship spat the small landing craft into a high orbit around the gas giant.

Once they were clear, Pellina brought them around to directly above Hicklepeck’s coordinates. “Here goes nothing.”

They plunged into the swirling upper atmosphere.

High winds buffeted them and the outside view gave Radley the sickening impression they were spinning. But Pellina held the little ship steady, even as the outer pressure built to ridiculous levels.

“We’re almost there!” Hicklepeck shouted. “The scanner is picking up some structural features.” He transferred the data to the other displays.

A large, hollow tube jutted up at them from the ancient ship.

“What is that?” Radley studied the readout.

“An exhaust port?” Hicklepeck offered.

“A weapon system.” The Chryl trooper was also studying the display.

Hicklepeck shook his head. “The Voyagers were the first interstellar travelers, why would they need weapons?”

“Why would an interstellar craft need such a large exhaust port?” The guard countered

“We’re talking about technology that was traveling the cosmos before most modern civilizations even existed. Who knows how it functions.”

Radley pointed to the display. “Whatever it is, it’s active.”

A port at the base of the tube opened briefly and another gust of atmosphere stuck them from below.

“See? A weapon.”

“If so, not a very effective one.” Radley gripped the edge of his seat as Pellina evaded a second burst. His suit was compensating for the increased gravity, but her movements had become labored.

“That’s probably where the ships atmosphere is leaking into the planet’s.” Hicklepeck said.

“Leaking or being pumped?” Pellina re-oriented the ship back toward their target.

As they descended, the scanner picked up two more intact tubes and what might have been the ruins of a fourth.

The body of the Voyagers’ ship was the familiar spherical shape of modern interstellar craft. It had impacted a large asteroid, or possibly a small dwarf planet. Probably a failed landing. Or astronomically bad luck coming out of a drop.

But why would an interstellar ship try to land?

Pellina set the landing craft down on an external airlock.

“I-I can’t believe I’m really here.” Hicklepeck rose to stare out the viewport.

“We’re all really happy for you.” Radley cast a sidelong glance at the Chryl trooper. “Now help me get Pellina into her suit before the pressure crushes her.”

“Oh, of course.”

Pellina’s “suit” was practically another small spacecraft. Four mechanical limbs were attached to a large box with three clear sides. With a little effort they got her safely inside.

Hicklepeck turned his attention to his stowed equipment, gathering all the scientific instruments he could carry.

Radley went looking for the other three Chryl troopers, which had disappeared from the main cabin. He found them in the airlock, setting charges around the hatch of the Voyagers’ ship.

“What are you doing?”

One turned to face him, its weapon raised. “We will blow the seal and enter the vessel.”

“You can’t!” Pellina waddled up behind Radley. “If the internal seals aren’t broken, the technology might still be in pristine condition. If you breach the hull, the planet’s atmosphere could flood in and destroy a priceless piece of history.”

The Chryl stared at her blankly.

Radley sighed. “You could destroy whatever’s left that has value.”

The Chryl that had joined them in the cockpit said something in their own language before turning to Pellina. “Open it. Quickly.”

She shuffled up to the hatch and searched for an interface.

Radley called over his shoulder. “Hicklepeck! Get in here, your dream’s getting ready to start without you.”

The Filtonian hurried into view, arms full of portable scanners and recorders, as Pellina found a manual override for the airlock.

She eased the hatch open, and the Chryl rushed in.

Radley and Hicklepeck followed.

The interior of the Voyagers’ ship was a stark utilitarian gray, much like the Chryl vessel, except for a series of glyphs every few meters.

Hicklepeck ran to the closest and studied intently.

Radley kept his distance, but couldn’t help notice some familiar designs. “Hicklepeck, why do these symbols look so much like Interstellar-trade?”

The Filtonian didn’t look away from the wall. “Interstellar-trade was developed by species whose primary commonality was their visits from the Voyagers. It makes sense that it was derived at least in part from the Voyagers own language. See here, I think this says ‘Airlock 3.’”

“We know it is an airlock.” The Chryl leader gestured with his weapon. “Find us what the Invaders have hidden on their ship.”

Pellina closed the airlock behind them. “It’s not that simple—”

A metallic clank, followed by a scraping echoed down the corridor.

They all turned in the direction it came from. The Chryl raised their weapons, and the cybernetic tentacles on their backs rose threateningly.

The sound grew closer.

Radley wished he had a weapon too.

But maybe whatever it was would take some of the Chryl with it.

Soft, yellow light shone around the corner, the clanking followed it.

A blocky robot with thin limbs dragged itself into view.

For an instant they just stared at each other.

Then it let out a shrill whistle. One of its eyes turned red, while the other simply went out. Amid the alarm, it tried to speak, but there must have been some damage to its speakers, because the sound was garbled.

Though Radley thought he picked out words that sounded like “Alert” and “Anger.”

The Chryl blasted the ancient machine apart, even as Hicklepeck and Pellina yelled for them to wait.

As the smoking and sparking wreckage clattered to the ground, they rushed up to it.

“What have you done?” Hicklepeck lifted the shattered remains of the robot’s head.

“It was attempting to warn others. We have neutralized this threat.” The Chryl leader said.

Another trooper went over to examine the remains for weaponry. “It was primitive.”

“Primitive? Primitive!” Hicklepeck rose to glare down at the trooper. “This machine has been functioning here, at the heart of a gas giant, since a time when all of our peoples still used animals for transportation. Think of the knowledge it might have contained.”

“It was an enemy.” The Chryl responded.

Hicklepeck put a hand to his helmet. “Savages, I’m surrounded by savages.”

The Chryl leader came up with the rest of the group. “Enough. Find us the value on this vessel.”

“To start, we need to find whatever passes for a command center.” Pellina said.

After a few false turns and dead ends, they managed to find what looked like a central hub.

It didn’t strike Radley as the bridge of a starship, but there were plenty of displays to sort through.

Pellina and Hicklepeck happily dove into the work.

“While you’re doing that, I’ll check around for anything the Voyagers left lying around.” Radley wasn’t convinced they even heard him.

But the Chryl did.

One of the troopers followed him out into the corridor.

One on one, better odds.

Radley intentionally wandered deeper into the ship, and farther away from the other Chryl. There were a few rooms that opened off the hallway, but they were all empty.

Radley turned a sharp corner and found himself face to face with another of the blocky robots.

It was half trapped in closed door, but it turned shakily toward him. Rather than raise an alarm, it lifted its free hand, palm out toward Radley and sputtered a garbled string of syllables.

Radley didn’t catch much, but a word that sounded like “Hazard” was repeated twice before the Chryl demolished it.

His pressure suit blocked the burnt smell, but Radley couldn’t help remembering the friends he’d lost to Chryl weapons.

The trooper motioned to the closed door. “Why did it guard this room?”

Guard? It was trapped. “Let’s find out.” Radley used the broken robot’s arm to pry open the hatch and peer inside.

It was as empty as the other rooms.

“I think it’s some kind of armory.”

The Chryl pushed him aside. “I will investigate.”

As the trooper stepped past him, Radley took the metal arm in both hands and swung.

To Be Continued…

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