Chapter 2: What lurks beneath
Every seat around the kitchen table was occupied. Dinner had been rehydrated early but no one was doing much more than picking at their food.
“There is a ship buried in that asteroid isn’t there? Or a space base? No, it has to be a ship. No, that door was enormous- we found a secret Skyplex! But… maybe it really is a big ship? Under all that rock and ice. 青蛙操的流氓! Is this bad? Is this good? Oh my… Wow.” Wash sipped his tea to curb his babbling.
He and Kaylee were excited at what they saw through the cockpit window, along with just about everyone else once Serenity had come to a standstill. Jayne was convinced they’d found the Alliance’s missing science ship and had talked himself round to the riches of a double bounty, satisfied grin on his face as he downed his drink. Only Mal and Book hadn’t been volubly enthusiastic. Book adopted a shrewd look in his eye when he stared at the newly exposed swath of contoured metal and odd circular hatch. Mal merely scowled and shoved stills from the camera onto the digital paper that was now being passed around the table.
Kaylee spluttered on her noodles in her haste to speak. She forced herself to swallow before carrying on, “When I had a look, I could see it was an iris aperture of some kind. No hinge, just a valve. A bit weird really. Huge too, I reckon it’s at least ten times the size of Serenity’s cargo doors. Just don’t recognise the model is all. The hull doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen. Pretty curves. Whatever it is, it must’ve come from the central planets, don’tchya think? Maybe Londinium? The best stuff always comes from there.”
“You‘re right, Kaylee, but surely a ship or floating city that size wouldn’t be allowed to go missing for long if registered in Londiumium?” Simon pulled a bread roll from a basket before continuing, “Someone would have been keeping tabs on it constantly.”
Mal sipped his tea in silence for a few minutes listening to the back and forth of the various arguments the crew were putting forth. Only Book and River weren’t joining in. Book kept glancing at Mal with a pensive look on his face while River was absorbed in arranging her noodles into concentric circles about her meatballs. He waited until he had finished his drink before speaking, cutting right across the amiable arguments.
“Way I see it, we’ve got some legitimate salvage here. We oughta see what we’ve found. Zoe, Jayne, you’re suiting up with me. Wash, and Simon: See to the remaining tethers. At the end of the day, we’ve got a job to do. Kaylee, and you too Shepherd if it obliges, I want you checking if today’s adventures have damaged the boat. Inara, stay close to the shuttle in case Wash needs you to push the stray ice again. Now people, I want this neat and quick. This going to be risky business, so keep steady. Jayne, don’t forget the demo charges.”
“I’ve always said a day where I don’t get to blow something up is a day wasted.”
The three figures in their fragile spacesuits were dwarfed by the dimensions of the hatch before them. The metal hull surrounding it was seamless and there was no visible mechanism to manually operate the door. Jayne jetted to the one of the giant blades of the iris mechanism and laid the thermic charge, pasting a thick layer of combined gel and fuse in a big circle before retreating hastily as the compound began to eat its way through the metal.
No one was there to see it, since Wash was away from the cockpit, but a second and longer burst of static smothered all frequencies the Comms suite could register before quickly returning to normal operation.
As the salvage team waited for the charge to take effect, they took the time to closer inspect what little of the hull they could see. Mal took photographs with a shoulder-mounted camera.
“Zoe, the more I look at this, the less I understand. I ain’t ever seen a thing like this, have you?” She only shook her head and panned her torch back over the metal. The demolition charge had worked as advertised and melted a thin line away through the hull. Three sets of hands pushed the cutaway section forward and three sets of headlights followed it in.
“Come on Cap, let’s see what a science ship looks like from the inside!” Without waiting for a reply, Jayne shot forward through the new hole on his suit jets, leaving the others to follow at a more careful pace. No one went very far, each brought to a speechless halt by what they saw.
Though bright, their suit lights didn’t reach the walls of the vast, hollow interior. An endless, glistening cavern of blue-white ice and shadow threatened to engulf them. Out in the limitless Black, the void is too large to comprehend, so the mind often doesn’t try. The chamber they were in was just small enough to register as an actual volume of space to the human brain, and the human brain boggled at the sight of it.
“This ain’t no science ship is it?” Jayne span on the spot trying and failing to find anything he recognised.
Each of the crew played their lights over the glittering stillness and knew the enormous space to be empty of life, for it was too cold for anything to survive, but to Mal, there was an air of expectancy about the place. It was hard to place it at first, but as the long quiet seconds filled the space around them it reminded him of the War, of the quiet just before an aerial bombardment, just as the air is sucked away, only to be replaced with fire the next instant. The thought made him shiver in his suit. Looking about him, he saw countless rows of uniformly recessed alcoves each about the size of his arm, apparently following the sinuous contours of the ship’s hull. Every available surface was lined with hundreds upon thousands of them, all bleached of colour by their coating of dirty ice. Each and every nook was snugly occupied with irregular, ovoid shapes that set his teeth on edge without him knowing why.
Manoeuvring further into what must be a storage hangar, they didn’t see the far end of the chamber, but alcoves ranged in every direction a full 360° around them, accompanied by curvilinear gantries that curled round the profile of the walls in series of concentric rings, each festooned with blue ice stalactites, disappearing into the murky distance.
“Mal, I’m not liking them crane things. They have an unsettling tentacle-like aspect to ’em. There’s little I like less than a tentacle.”
“Well, Jayne, as your captain, I can safely assure you that there are fewer places in the ’verse where you’d be less likely to find anything tenticular than inside a giant derelict ship embedded in the frozen remains of a broken comet. You have my word. Now shimmy further up and see if you can find another doorway, this can’t be the only room here. Zoe, what have you got down there?”
“Sir, each of these bays holds a container, you can see the sealed edges. Thought I’d fish one out for a closer look.” With fingers made clumsy by the suit’s thick gloves, she gently pried a pod-shaped container from its housing. A host of thin, now frost-brittle connecting threads snapped and floated away before the thing came free. She held it level with Mal’s camera so everyone else back on the ship could see it. There was a chorus of confused excitement over the intercom. The object was rounded at both ends, with one being rather more pointed than the other. This sharper tip bore four seams as if it opened up like the petals of a flower. Up close, they could see through the coating of frost to the dark, knobbly, metallic surface of the pod. Zoe shrugged and placed the container in a bag on her back before jetting towards Jayne who had found a doorway almost buried beneath a drift of glittering ice.
As they approached, their hopes were dashed by the sight of a huge column frost-ridden rock that had pierced through the ship’s hull and completely blocked their way. Huge strips of metal peeled inwards around the jagged edge of the rock, stained with some unidentifiable dark fluid that had oozed out of the walls and set solid in the absolute cold of space.
“Well, that’s us done then. Ain’t no way we’re getting past that without specialist equipment. Let’s head back. Jayne, Zoe, grab a couple more of these weird boxes in the walls, some of them are different colours, could mean something.” Mal drifted away from the others to take a few more pictures before heading back to Serenity.