The Belly of the Beast
The vast hulk of the mining survey ship; the John Buddle hung like a limpet in close proximity orbit to the majestic ringed planet of Saturn. The cold uninviting husk of metal watched as the planet beneath rotated, stung by solar storms and swept by powerful wind factors across its bleak and desolate surface. Small transponder lights offered glimpses of life from within the bulky vessel as it sat waiting in anticipation of the potential rape of the planet below. It was the thirty-second century and Mankind had driven its seed through the Solar System, having finally plundered the natural resources of Earth; its eyes had turned to the planets closest to its natural home. Mars, Cetes and Jupiter had all succumbed to the ravages and pillage of Man as the fleet of powerful mining vessels ploughed a furrow through space and offered vast turmoil and upheaval to the unsuspecting worlds within their path. Mankind; the worst of all the monsters the universe could offer had posted its intention to the lifeless worlds of the system.
With the population boom on Earth, the populace lived in a two-tier system with the majority of the population crowded in desolate conditions struggling against existence whilst the rich and powerful lived extensive and lavish lives in the upper cities. Many people chose a life in the mining industry and elected to accept missions to the stars in a hope that one day their bleak existence would be elevated into a better life within the clouds. On the underside of the John Buddle a small hatchway opened, spilling a passage of light into the cold confines of space. From the rectangular opening a small vessel was coughed from its bowels and out into space in the direction of the planet below. Wings unfolded from the box body and stretched, reaching and growing in the illuminating glow the world beneath. For a moment it hung surveying the parent ship behind it, before slowing responding to unseen orders and turned its attention to the rings encompassing Saturn. The plain square vessel descended into the atmosphere of the rings and hovered briefly, careful to avoid the floating flotsam and jetsam offered through the dense gaseous rings.
The cockpit of the craft was cramped and practical. Every wall of the control room was adorned by screens displaying images of Saturn, the rings or graphics showing mineral and geological symbiotic of the surrounding area. Vying for position through the screens lay a series of controls, dials and switches, each functioning with practical usage. At the front of the craft lay a plain blank walled area which was obviously a screened area for potential visual viewing areas, currently covered by thick protective coverings. Three seats sat within close quarter in the craft's cockpit, two at the front of the craft and the third just behind close to a walled bank on monitors. The three humans sat in deep concentration within their own individual tasks as the craft moved into position within the rings.
"Coming to target area in...Five...four...three" the pilot flicked switches above his head as he spoke while he watched closely to monitor screens in his eye line, "two...target area acquired...system on hold." The pilot pushed the central column in his remaining hand forward and pressed another series of buttons, this time on the control bank on the front of the vessel.
The man at his side spoke into a headset which sat around his cranium. A small microphone snaked its way from the skullcap and stretched its way to his mouth. "John Buddle...John Buddle, this is Bucket 4, we are in position. Preparing initial survey procedures of area 241, report no problems. Confirm central survey instructions...please confirm."
A burst of static erupted from the speakers mounted into the panels above their heads. "Bucket 4 confirm...commence survey."
The expedition leader; a large built man in his early forties strained under the weight of his harness and spoke to his comrades as he struggled with the metallic buckle around his chest. "Right, let's get this show on the road" he grinned around the cockpit and with his buckle finally released stretched his arms high above his head. "The sooner we get this mission over with, the sooner we can get back to the ship."
By his side the pilot continued with initial checks before releasing his own buckle. The pilot was a lot younger than the expedition leader and his clean cut appearance, pristine uniform and efficient attitude to duty exposed a lack of experience and over-keenness in the line of duty. "Sir..." he began.
The expedition leader waved away the rest of the sentence, "I know, I know Bentley...the rule book states that all initial procedure checks should be adhered to before any officer should remove any protective equipment." he indicated toward his seat buckle as he stood in the confined space, "but once you've done enough of these missions, you'll come to realise that sometimes the rule book doesn't exactly cover the basic survival or comfort protocols."
"Nevertheless sir, I wish it to go on record that you removed your protective harness before checks had been processed".
Behind them, Jane Rosland groaned outwardly at the exchange. "This is going to be a long couple of hours". She flicked her strawberry blonde hair from her face as she spoke, whilst her piercing blue eyes never left the monitor banks at her station.
"The boy's got a lot to learn Jane, might as well show him the correct procedures while I check the gyroscopic motors", and with that the expedition leader ducked through the arched inner door and stepped out into the outer utility room beyond.
"Do you have to antagonize him quite so much?" asked Jane to the young Pilot.
"He has to realise that the correct procedures must be adhered too otherwise..."
"Otherwise what Ben? Otherwise what? Look, we're thousands of miles from Earth, with most of us on tour having not had any contact with our families for years. Look at it out there" She indicated to a screen on the wall above her head. The image showed a partial glimpse of Saturn with particles of rock and dust floating through the atmosphere. "There's nothing there Ben, nothing. No people. No aliens...no threat. Sometimes Ben you just have to go with the flow, just to survive." She stood and stepped toward Ben and placed a hand gently on his shoulder, "you’re young with ambition, I understand...but this isn't where it starts. Here you survive." She smiled warmly at the young man. As she returned to her seat she glanced over her shoulder and spoke for a final time before readjusting several instruments. "You know I haven't seen my son now for five years, he'll be twelve" The sentence hung in the air and the statement made Bentley Reid uncomfortable.
He pushed a red lever on the central column and stood from his seat. "The...the ship's on neutral. I'm err...going to assist the commander" He paused to look at Jane as he left.
"You do that" she whispered quietly, her head hung in self-pity as she thought of her family miles away. She hated leaving her family, but life in the squalor of the undercities had forced her to enter service into the mining corporation. A ten year mission into the Solar System would provide a better life for her family, but also mean she would miss her son growing up. He would be Seventeen when she would see him next and a man. She had regrets, but she held onto her memories. The first step...first word, this far out all you had were your memories and once they faded all that was left was a world of hurt. That was the commander. He had joined the mining corporation fifteen years ago, and upon his completion of his first tour of duty he had returned to Earth to discover his wife had annulled their partnership and married a chemical plant worker, their children now called him father. Jane was plagued with fear that this would happen to her on her return to Earth, but she also held a steely determination that she would not enter a second term of service as he had done. The monitor screens sparked and jumped as she was lost in thought, and an image appeared briefly swelling the image of the rings causing a bulging formation. This was missed by Jane as she wiped a small tear from her eye.
Ben discovered the expedition leader standing above a set of monitor banks holding a clipboard tight to his chest, "Sir?" The sudden break in silence caused the commander to start slightly.
"Christ Ben! Didn't anyone ever warn you about creeping up on people?"
"Sorry sir" apologised the pilot meekly. "Status?" he indicated toward the monitor banks.
"All systems working fine get to the front and prepare initial survey, may as well start straight away...unless there's anything else?"
"No sir". Ben watched the commander as he placed the clipboard down and read some of the information on the monitors. "Sir..." he began.
"Yes?" The commander turned as he spoke. A haunted look crossed his face.
"Oh...doesn't matter" Ben turned and entered the cockpit. The commander laughed slightly and placed a hand on his bloated stomach.
"No, it doesn't does it lad" he whispered at the empty room before he too returned to the cockpit.
Commander Zachary James stood in the doorway for the briefest of moments surveying his team at their seats. Each of his team had their own agenda's and own motivations for their duty; Jane for her family, and Ben for his own personal ambitions. Zac smiled inwardly as he recognised the look of devotion on the face of the pilot, a look that he held fifteen years ago. He had entered the service full of ambition, full of hope. Yeah, sure he was an expedition leader, but he knew he would never amount to any more than that. He just wasn't seen as officer material, if your face doesn't fit...well that summed his life up. One failed tour of duty, several passed over promotions and a failed marriage had led him to his present status; survey leader and experienced mining engineer, but relationship nothing and no-one to love. Sure he had friends, but very few that he actually liked and even less which actually liked him. He sighed and took his seat by the pilot and glanced toward the young man and nodded. "Commence unlocking protocols..."
Ben flicked three small switches on the forward panel. "Arms prepared and ready sir."
"Navigator...forward scoops activate"
Jane turned a dial by her hand and spoke, "Scoops active and ready for deployment".
"All systems primed for activation sir"
Zachary pulled a hatch from over his head and removed two large glove-like appendages from the compartment. He pulled them toward his seated position and placed them over his hands. "Deploy arms..."
Ben pulled a lever down, "Arms deployed."
The planet watched as the small craft hovered gently in a fixed position amidst the rings which surrounded it. It gazed at the vessel in silent awe, as two side panels in the vehicle slide back revealing two metallic struts which slowly extended outward, reaching into the ring itself. From the end of end arm, a large scooped device slowly unfolded and reached downward, stretching and letting the flow of the dust particles from the rings wash over the protuberances.
"Monitors and receptors on standby..." stated Jane, "all systems aligned mineral and geological survey of outer rings ready for initial result programme."
Zachary stretched his arms out in front of him, turned his palms upward before speaking. "All systems online..." The cockpit hummed gently as the equipment began to operate. The atmosphere in the cockpit was still as a red tinge flooded the confined space.
Jane broke the silence, "results coming through commander".
"Transmit directly to the John Buddle..." he flexed and moved his arms as he spoke and with his movements the arms outside the craft copied and mimicked his every movement as the scoops filtered traces of raw material from the composition of the rings.
"Traces of Hydrogen...iron...methane...ammonia" Jane read the results from the monitors as the filter programme separated and analyzed the raw spectrum of information filtered through the scoop. "ethane...liquid helium...nickel compound...aragonite...limestone...and traces of molybdenum" Jane clapped her hands together and spun on her chair, "payday boys!" she gasped in delight.
"Only minimal traces of molybdenum, not enough to make us rich" said Zac matter-of-factly.
"Oh, come on Zac, a girl can still dream can't I?" she laughed.
"Sir..., seismic receptors aren't stabilising".
"Hmmm...Check system, it could be a fault." The mood in the cockpit changed almost in an instant. "Jane, outward monitors?"
"Nothing sir… no radar confirmation, might be turbulence from the planet surface."
"Could be, still I'd feel better if we checked the systems." The commander nodded toward Ben. "Ben..."
"Yes, sir" Ben flicked a series of switches on the control panel. "Readout status...no fault, could be an external problem."
"Go and check external linkage system valves". As Ben rose from his seat, the commander barked savagely in his direction, "quickly man! This could be serious". The urgency in the command sparked action in the young pilot who dashed from the cockpit. "Jane any external visual?"
Jane examined the relay monitors on the display unit in front of her, "No, nothing sir. No visual readings. Radar confirms no alternation on any scale."
"There has to be something wrong with the external stacks then" He craned his head around into the bowels of the craft, straining to see the results from Ben.
The pilot stood by a bank of monitors reading a relay printout and examining the results. He reached forward and turned a series of dials, then re-read the results in his hands and compared them with the results on the screen by his head. After several brief checks he returned to the cockpit with his findings. "Calibrators check, auxiliary pumps check...ancillary drive units check...rectifiers check...I could go on commander, but there all the same no internal or external faults to report."
"Check seismic report again".
"Readings still the same sir, seismic activity".
"Jane, any geographical activity?"
"Nothing...Saturn remains stable"
"Check Seismic again..."
"Still the same..."
"Check again, Ben" shouted the Commander.
"Zac, shouting isn't going to change anything".
"Jane outward monitors"
"Check again, there must be something out there" desperation began to seep into Zac's voice.
"Nothing sir, radar and external sensors aren't picking anything except for natural orbital movement".
"Relay servitors, patch in over-riding network patterns".
"Open full communication network with Mother-ship; priority-one status". Jane worked furiously at her control bank, her fingers moving with expert dexterity over the switches, whilst Ben moved across the cockpit and switched on the communication relay with the main ship. He nodded toward Zac and gave him quick thumbs up, indicating communication systems were now open and operating on emergency frequency. "John Buddle...John Buddle...this is Bucket 4, report...we are experiencing difficulties...seismic activity...possible hostile activity, request immediate evacuation crew, priority one. Repeat Bucket 4, reporting difficulties, request assistance."
"Sir, seismic activity increasing"
"Thank you Ben, but I can feel it now". As the commander spoke the vessel began to rock and shake as the ripples of the unseen activity began to affect to outward hull of the craft. "Retract arms, prepare to take evasive maneuvers. Jane, any visual movement yet?" Zac removed the gloves from his hands and replaced the equipment in the compartment, pearls of sweat began to force their way down his forehead. "Jane..." he repeated. He turned in her direction. She sat immobilized in her chair staring at the screens in front of her. "Navigator! Report!"
"Wh-what, sorry commander..." she stammered as she was broken from her revere "still nothing on monitors." Zachary stroked his chin for a moment, considering his next move.
"Sir, no response from the John Buddle"
"Right, we have to assume that we're on our own then. Jane, status?"
"Still no visual, radar images showing no visible external influence"
"Thank you, Jane." Zac paused for a moment and consider the current situation for a fraction of a second. "Okay, status on arm retraction Ben?"
"Gyroscopic failure in starboard arm, almost full retraction on port arm"
"Might need to disengage starboard arm if necessary, make initial preparations." Ben nodded and opened a conductive panel close to floor level. As he pulled at a set of wires, Zac turned to Navigator Jane Rosland. "Open external viewing hatches".
Zac waved away her protests, "I know, I know...at this range to the planet the exo-glass won't stand extensive pressure but it's probably the way to get a proper idea of what's happening out there. Then maybe we can work out just what is going on and more importantly how we can survive this." Jane nodded and adjusted a set of controls, before releasing a lever. As the external screens began their slow descent light from Saturn began to filter into the cockpit. "Everyone, blast protectors immediately" He pulled out a small compartment and withdrew three sets of googles, each with the lens covered in a non-reflective material giving one-way protection from the glare. "How's the detachment going?"
"Programme set sir, starboard arm ready for detachment."
"Shield integrity down to 95% Zac" said Jane as she read a series of figures from the screen in front of her. "Hull pressure up by 10%, exo-glass integrity holding at 100%, but computer suggests corruption of system at full deployment."
"Okay Jane, turn report on audio and begin calculations for escape velocity...Ben disengage arm and prepare for evasive procedures, we may only get one chance at this people".
"Screen deployment at 50% sir"
Zac rose to his feet and peered through the exo-glass as the screens protecting the craft fell slowly. "Can't see anything..." He glared through the blast googles and out into the rings of Saturn. The planet below looked calm and still, with no sign of atmospheric change to the surface of the planet the answer had to lie with the rings...or perhaps beyond. The craft rocked again violently this time, throwing Zac to the floor. Jane moved to help him up, but was waved away. "No! Continue with the calculations". He stood and wiped a small trickle of blood which now emerged from a slight cut on his forehead.
A female voice erupted from the speaker system, soft and gentle and designed to sooth and reassure in equal measures. "Screen deployment at 78%, shield integrity 91%, exo-glass stability beginning to decay, now at 94%".
Zac peered through the exo-glass deep in concentration at the rings encircling both craft and planet. "There!" he pointed at the glass, "Did you see it?" Zac looked again the cockpit, "did anyone see it?" He was met by both Jane and Ben shaking their heads. He scratched his head and pondered, "Am I going mad then? Surely that couldn't have been..." The stopped and stared out into space once again and was forced to steady himself as another shockwave hit the small vessel.
Ben sat in his seat and joined his commander in staring out into the rings. "There beautiful..." he breathed as he watched the scene outside. Jane looked up from her work as joined her comrades as they watched as small asteroids and rock fragments danced and span through the dust covered rings.
The voice of the computer broke the revere of the crew, "Full screen deployment, exo-glass integrity 92%, shield integrity 83%, coolant systems beginning to fail, system malfunction detected in rear retro-firing system, drive system compromised, gyroscopic starboard arm detached, life support system stable at 97%".
"There commander..." breathed Jane. She pointed out through the glass.
"What the hell was that?" he asked. "What do the scanners report?"
"Still nothing on radar system; no visual recognition, whatever that is out there it isn't giving off any form of ident signature".
The three crewmembers sat staring into space at the scene unfolding across through the rings of the planet. Dust and rocks were split as a large shadowed shape thrust its way through the rings briefly as it rose then fell back into the ether.
"Looked like a kind of...fin..." The appendage rose once again through the dusty ring causing fragments of rock to scatter. The craft rocked and bowed once again as the shockwave from the appendage spilled out from the creature. Once again the fin broke the surface of the ring. The appendage resembled a dorsal fin, with ridged seems running at vertical lengths across the surface of the creatures back. Veins could be seen running and inter-twinning through a thin skin on the fin. "Ben, take evasive action, now!" barked the commander.
"Sir, no velocity programme is in the system"
"I don't care about that, we've no time...take evasive action now, that creature is heading straight for us!"
"Commander escape velocity is not an option, but possible asteroid outlet could offer vague protection" said Jane.
"Shield integrity 78%, exo-glass integrity..."
"End report, Ben evasive action". The young pilot stared at the screen; frozen as the creature rose once again from the ring. This time the creature was almost on top of them and more clearly visible as it rose majestically from the ether, it's grey mottled skin visible in the light of Saturn. The creature opened its mouth revealing a mammoth gaping maw of darkness beyond its gullet. "Ben! Evasive action now Asteroid belt, come on man!" As the creature neared, the light reflected from the surface of the planet glancing off its back, dust shimmered and glistened in the moist atmosphere as it focused on the small craft circling and flailing in the wilderness of the ringed planet. Sweat pearls fell down the forehead of the young pilot as inexperience took hold and held his heart in a vice-like grip of fear. Zac dived across the confined cabin and thrust the control column forward, and fell as the ship lurched under the sudden movement. The engines groaned in protest as they were forced into excessive trauma through exertion of the extra pressure placed upon the servitors. Darkness surrounded the ship as it lurched and buckled under the intensive pressure placed on the stress of forcing the craft through the debris strewn space.
Zac stirred and forced himself over onto his back and from his position on the floor surveyed his surroundings. The cockpit was tinged with a reddish hue; sparks erupted from the console and small lights danced across the computer banks. Apart from this there was no other activity from the room, Zac slowly moved into a sitting position. The sudden rush of movement from the commander caused an overwhelming feeling of dizziness which swept over him. He pressed his hand to his head and felt a warm sensation trickle from a gash on his head and through his fingers. Zac groaned as he applied pressure to his hand as the throb from the wound intensified under his hand. He briefly took his hand away from his head and looked at his palm. Under the dim light of the cabin, he watched as rivers of blood snaked their way away the lines on his hand. His vision was drawn around the cabin and out through the cracked exo-glass. Scatter patterns covered the windows, but beyond the glare of the craft there lay darkness...complete and utter darkness. Zac pulled himself to his feet using the communication bank on the navigation panel and he glanced toward his the empty seat.
"Jane..." he breathed. He glanced around the small confined cabin, but could see no sign of the navigator. The door to the outer compartment still remained open and through the archway he could see a prone body sprawled across the floor. Summoning up vestiges of energy Zac forced himself through the door, briefly steadying his frame before moving through completely. He crouched over the body of the Navigator and placed a hand on her forehead. He nodded and looked around the room taking in his surroundings. The light, like the cockpit was dim, tinged in the same red hue. Steam spewed from pipes across the wall and compartments and lockers lay open spilling their contents out across the floor. He moved to an unopen locker and pulled at the latch, then took out a green tin with a red cross sprawling out across the lid. Zac sunk to his knees by the body of Jane as he fumbled with the latch and opened the medical kit. He glanced at her and took a small plastic package from the kit and tearing the end off; withdrew a small white tissue from the packet. He gently wiped away the bloodied smear from her forehead, which he had left during his first check of her condition, before cleaning his own hands.
The brushed aside several items inside the tin before pulling out a simple stethoscope and placing the instrument around his neck. Zac leant forward close to her mouth and turned his head slightly, listening for the sound of breathing before reaching for her tunic. He tugged at the zip cord on the front of the tunic and pulled it down toward her naval before parting the material slightly revealing a laced black bra and her exposed flesh. Taking the end of the stethoscope in one hand he paused before placing the instrument just above the exposed bra and listened for a heartbeat. "Very faint...but still alive", he sank back onto his haunches and sighed heavily with relief. Then he rummaged through the tin once and took out a small fabric strip which he placed across her forehead. A thin metallic sliver of wire stretched across the surface of the fabric and clamped down onto the skin of her forehead. Zac briefly held the side of her face and caressed her cheek; "You'll be fine..." he smiled slightly as he spoke to her unconscious form. He removed his tunic and rolled the piece of clothing into a tight bundle and lifted her head gently, resting her head on top of the tunic. With a final check of her pulse from her wrist, he glanced into the cockpit and heaved himself to his feet and grasping the medical kit in his hand left Jane to recover.
The cockpit remained bathed in the dim red glow, but after a quick look at the exo-glass he could swear the extent of the cracks were beginning to spread out across the craft's exterior. Zac lent on the back of the pilot's chair and looked at the slumped figure of Bentley. The pilot sat with his head forward into his chest, but firmly in place still in his seat. A wry smile crossed the commander's face as he realised that through all of the chaos of the last few minutes/hours; he had no idea, the pilot had followed regulation procedure and placed his harness into position. As he crouched by the pilot's seat, Zac became aware of blood trickling down his face and he wiped away the smear of blood from his eyes. He slowly moved Ben's head and checked his pulse. As he moved the pilot's head a groan erupted from his mouth. Slowly his eyes flickered open and he rolled his head, dazed from the crash. "Easy lad" warned Zac.
"I...I'm fine commander" he wheezed.
"I'll be the judge of that son, you take it easy"
"Where are we?"
"I have no idea". He glanced at the window once again and straightened. He peered through the web spreading out through the glass. "I think we managed to get into the asteroid belt. I'm pretty sure that we've crashed inside a crater on one of the larger rocks." The cracks were definitely spreading and their expanse could be visibly seen spanning across the surface of the craft. "Check the glass integrity".
"Down to 28% commander", Ben said matter-of-factly reading a set of instruments. Ben looked around the cockpit, "Jane...?"
"She'll be fine; she's resting in the other room. I've administered a paracetamol strip to ease any pain she may have." He glanced over his shoulder back into cabin beyond. "Better lower the blasts shields Ben, and check the systems while I check on Jane." The pilot nodded and unbuckled his seat, crossing to the navigation desk and pulled at a series of levers. Slowly the metallic shield began to rise across the three glass covered ports, hiding the view from outside. Zac left Ben with the task of checking the systems of the craft while he returned to the outer room. Jane was sitting up, still on the floor with one hand resting on the top of her head. "How you feeling?" Zac asked.
Jane snorted, "Like I've had one to many last night..." smiled looked at her commander and smiled, "bit fuzzy..." The smile faded as she saw the gash on his forehead and she lowered her hand to her mouth. "Oh my God Zac, your head!"
"It's nothing..." he started, but any further protests were waved from Jane as she clambered to her feet and took his arm.
"Don't be so stupid" she chided him, "Look at the state of you." He smiled at her concern. She pushed him into a sitting position on a metal crate and began to examine the cut.
He gazed into her face as she worked. She was beautiful he pondered, and so caring, her partner didn't realise how lucky he was he considered too himself in a corner of his mind which hid his inner feelings and thoughts. "It's not that bad" he protested.
"I'll be the judge of that" she said softly and touched his hand. "Now, be quiet while I patch this up." She pulled open a side compartment and removed a strip of material from its interior. "I don't think it's as bad as it seems..." she said as she unfolded the bandage "most of it seems superficial, you've been lucky".
Zac smiled into her eyes, "You don't know how lucky I 'am" he laughed. She playfully hit his arm and smiled warmly at him.
"Clown", There was an awkward silence in the air between them for a second before the voice of the computer broke the silence from the cockpit. They both shuffled uncomfortably under the weight of their own feelings before moving into the cockpit. "Take it easy...please" she whispered.
"Always" he smiled quietly back at her, and then placed a hand on her arm. "Thank you". Ben turned at the sound of the couple returning to the cockpit and immediately his eyes were drawn to the floor in mock embarrassment at the sight of Jane and her tunic partially undone. "Replay that" commanded Zac.
Ben pressed a small blue button on the console and the computer's voice sparked into life. "shield integrity 56%, exo-glass 28% but stable condition...redeployment of forward and side blast shield holding integrity stability...coolant systems complete failure, hull temperature rising, internal temperature and internal pressure rising...life support systems 68%, oxygen levels and minimum efficiency...hull integrity compromised...calibrator systems offline...communication array offline...transponder unit operable; transmitting on all emergency frequencies...retro engines 34% integrity...drive systems on low power...internal lubricants failed..."
"End report!" barked Zac. The three sat in silence for a moment, each looking into their own thoughts and considering their own souls and demons. "Ben, suit up. Go outside and do a quick reconnaissance of the area." Ben nodded and rose from his seat. "And Ben, no heroics eh? Straight out, look around, any samples and in; understand?"
"Yes, sir" Ben moved out of the cockpit.
"Will we get out of this?" asked Jane. Zac stared at her; she had asked the question that had hung in the air ever since the computer report but only she had the confidence...or fear to ask it.
"Yes, we will" he replied unconvincingly. He looked at her, grabbed her hands and spoke directly into her face. "I promise nothing will happen to you, I will always make sure that you are okay". She smiled and he rose and left the room. Jane looked about her and despite his words the echo of the computer bounced around her head. Realising that she was alone, she buried her head into her hands and released a slight sob. Salty tears pooled in her hands.
Zac stood and considered Ben as he completed his external suit checks. Sometimes he felt a pang of jealousy toward the youth which had been robbed from him through the rigors of time, but not now. He watched as Ben lifted the helmet and turned his back on Zac, he wouldn't want to live through those times again; he was finally quite content with his life after sealing his own demons and fears deep down beneath his own consciousness. The young man stood facing the outer door with his arms held aloft at his sides. Zac moved and checked the seals before taking the helmet and placing over Ben's head. He tapped his pilot twice on the shoulder and turning Ben around clipped a radiation monitor to the front of the suit. Zac raised his thumb to the visor and the pilot mimicked his actions. Zac turned a wheel in the heavy metal door and Ben stepped through the gap as the commander pulled open the heavy door. The small airlock beyond was plain and functional. Ben stood in the middle awaiting for the release of the outer hull door and the world beyond.
His internal radio burst into life causing Ben to start slightly. "Hull pressure lowered, atmosphere level, prepare to disembark and good luck, come back alive" The door slid up and Ben stepped out into the unknown world beyond the small craft. On a screen inside the cockpit, Zac and Jane watched safely on monitors. One screen gave a picture of the image directly in front of Ben from a visual camera mounted on the peak of the helmet, whilst the other screen monitored the internal life signatures broadcast from internal monitoring systems housed inside the suit.
Outside the craft was cold and dark; Ben reflected that this was a dark he had never encountered previously. It was dark, claustrophobic and something else...something he couldn't quite place. He could feel moisture beneath his feet and even through the compression suit he could feel the moisture in the air. "Zac...Zac...do you copy?" he stammered.
"Come in Ben, copy loud and clear".
"I don't like this sir, it feels...I don’t know kind of...can't explain it..."
"Try to dammit; this could be the information that saves our lives"
"Zac" warned Jane. "Ben, what do you see?"
The calming reasoning voice of Jane eased his feelings, but only slightly. His voice crackled across the audio system, "It’s dark..."
"We could see..." Jane shot Zac a warning glance, "sorry, son. Continue"
"Yeah, well it's dark. I can't see more than a few feet in front of me. The exterior of the craft appears badly damaged, but I can't see any signs of external breaching". His hands pressed against the metallic framework of the craft as he spoke. "It feels as though there is water under my feet, but I can't be sure".
"Yes, commander, well it feels wet anyway."
"What do you mean wet?"
The computer voice broke the silence. "Suit integrity compromised, system failure...suit capacity operating at 82% and falling. Calculated operating parameters ranged at 5 minutes."
"You here that Ben, got to make this fast"
"Continue recon operation."
"Feels like we're in a cave system or something similar, I can make out a curved ceiling...just." Ben moved further from the craft and reached for the walls.
"Don't go too far Ben" warned Zac.
"Cave wall feels soft to the touch commander, like the floor, moist or something."
"Ben take an analysis sample"
The computer voice spoke again. "System failure imminent; suit integrity 45%"
"Ben, hear that...get out of there. Repeat return to the Bucket immediately!"
"Just a minute longer sir..."
"Ben, now! That’s an order...I won't lose you!"
"Just a minute..." From the utility belt around his waist Ben unclipped a pocket and withdrew a small vial. He bent to the floor and forced the small tube into the soft moist material. As the liquid filled the tube Ben could hear the voice of the computer from the craft echo in his audio system.
"Suit integrity compromised...17% efficiency...coolant system offline...oxygen regulators compromised...full collapse imminent". Panic swept over Ben, he thrust the small rubber bung into the head of the vial and ran lumbering toward the craft. "Full system failure...full system failure...suit compromised..." Ben reached desperately for the craft; he was only a few feet from safety when his own personal darkness swept over his body.
Zac hauled the unconscious body of Ben back through the door of the Bucket and into safety. Steam rose in clouds from the suit of Ben and Zac forced the helmet off, ignoring any form of safety protocol. The young pilot's eyes flickered as he sucked in oxygen from the craft, "Sorry commander..." he breathed "first time I've ever disobeyed a direct command..." he coughed as he spoke, and then smiled. He held up a small vial into the light "Got it"
"Idiot", Zac smiled and pressed his helmeted head against the pilot, "Don't you ever scare me like that again. I've lost one person on a mission before...I won't lose another."
It would be ten minutes before the two men stood side by side in the craft looking at the vial of clear liquid sitting on the table in the centre of the floor. "Impressive" commented Jane. She knelt closer to the vial and peered through the clear liquid content. "Looks like water"
"If it is", said the commander "then this could be the most important discovery since mankind left Earth. Water on another body...and in liquid form this is massive." He reached forward and grasped the glass vial and winched slightly, placing down the vial as quick as he had lifted the item.
"Commander?" Jane frowned as she spoke. "Zac...what's wrong"
Zac looked hard at the vial. "It's hot." He placed his hand on the vial again. "And it's getting hotter. Better get the stuff into the computer core for full analysis." Ben pulled open a locker in the corner of the room to reveal a hollow compartment hidden amidst a network of plastic coverings and cables wiring. Zac breathed heavily before grasping the vial and thrusting it quickly into the open chamber. Metal fingers grabbed at the vial and held its treasure securely before the entire chamber lowered into the depths of the computer system. Zac held his hand and winched as the searing heat left its residual mark across his palm and fingers.
"Zac..." Jane placed her hand on his shoulder "Zac" she said softly. "Let me look...please" He offered her his hand and she recoiled at the site of the burn marks across the soft white skin. "Oh...Zac" she breathed. She pulled a gauze bandage from the medical kit and slowly wrapped the linen around the wound after spraying the infected area with a coolant stimulant. The computer whirred and offered a series of clicks and beeps as it ran a full spectrum analysis of the liquid. Ben returned to the cockpit and began to operate a series of internal checks.
"Sir, the internal temperature is getting hotter, and computer is reporting all systems are beginning to fail. If we don't begin evacuation operations we may not be able to return to the John Buddle."
"Understood, prepare probe unit 1, 2 and 3. Initiate evacuation programme Delta."
Jane rested her hand on Zac’s knee, "slow down, you need to rest. You’re doing too much" she said.
"I can't Jane; I have to get us out of here".
She shook her head, "let us do our jobs Zac, your good at your job. You are, you’re a good commander and I would follow you to the end of the Earth, but you can't do everything yourself. Trust us." She smiled at him and pressed her lips against his forehead.
Zac held her hands in his; "Sometimes I don't know what I'd do without you" he smiled.
"You’re not just my commander, you’re my friend" she smiled warmly at him as she spoke.
"System analyses complete...computer system down to 38% operating capability. Internal core compromised, system warning...inner casing breach"
"The vial… Christ!" Zac leapt to his feet and shouted into the audio system. "Jettison sample! Immediate jettison!" The compartment slowly rose from its casing to reveal a half melted tube casing and an empty vial. "Hell! No! Possible breach of internal systems, close and seal internal core operations. Seclude all systems defect from internal operating systems, seal the breach!"
Jane swept her hands over the control panel holding the vial and closed a series of systems. "Operating systems across the Bucket are down by 38% Zac, any ideas."
"I don't know..." he shook his head "If only we knew..." he tailed off in thought "Are the results of the analysis complete?"
Jane stared at a monitor briefly and nodded in his direction. "Full analysis"
"Probes ready sir", shouted Ben from the cockpit.
The computer voice spoke and echoed through the entire craft. "Sample analysis complete...compound residual liquid retained from unknown source. Results indicate traces of bicarbonate...alkaline...potassium chloride...sodium chloride...hydrochloric acid...amylase...saliva...and mucus".
A stunned silence faltered around the craft. Jane placed an arm on that of her commander, "Zac..."
"I know...computer evaluate information, possible cause and effect?" He looked at Jane, then through to Ben. He already had an idea of the cause, but would need confirmation before making his next decision...Saliva and Mucus, could only mean one thing...surely.
"Compound fluid in core analysis found in large abundance within the digestive system."
Zac let his head slump against the control desk, "It swallowed us..." The dank, harsh realisation felt like a heavy weight bearing down on the shoulders of each member of the crew, images fleeted through each mind of the small Bucket sitting in the stomach of the creature waiting patiently for digestion to occur. Zac rose and entered the cockpit and placed his hand on the shoulder of the pilot. Ben looked at his commander with a glistening pearl of a tear in his eyes. Zac returned his gaze and nodded at the youngster, "Reprogramme the probes, send two out into the beast; both in separate directions. Let see exactly where we are and what we're up against." A steely note of determination could be heard in his voice, through the grief and through the horror. Ben lent forward the let his hands dance over the keyboard. Zac turned to Jane who had entered the cockpit and resumed her position at the navigation desk. Sweat ran down her neck and followed the contours of her cleavage through her still open tunic. "You okay?" he asked. She never replied, simply nodded in his direction.
"Probes ready sir"
A small hatch slid quietly open in the outer hull of the craft and from it emerged two slim discs flew from the bowels. They hovered for a moment in quiet communication before setting off in separate directions. Each disappeared into the ether of the creature with the small camera unit at the front of the probe transmitting pictures back to the main craft. Zac, Ben and Jane sat in silence watching the monitor screen displaying the two separate visions from the two probes. As they flew, each probe transmitted a small light which illuminated the walls of the creature and cast abhorrent shadows up the creatures inside. They could see the walls glistened in the gastric fluid, as it flowed down the nodules and crevices of the creature's body. The first of the probes broadcast images of a widening cavern as it flew further into the digestive system. The passage widen the further the probe flew, and the deeper it went the more fluid was evident until finally the image broadcast was a twisted fantasy image of a large cavern with a widening deep pool of liquid fed by a series of cascading falls. Scattered across the ridge of the pool were a series of rock-like substances which sat half submerged in the lake or close to the perimeter. Chunks of white fat were visible around the lake and jutted from the floor in a strange parody of a tropical paradise. The probe closed in on one the cascading liquid falls on its journey through the digestive system and as the gastric fluid overwhelmed the device; the picture began to flicker violently on screen. After a few moments the screen went dead, leaving nothing but an image of static across the flat surface.
"That's one probe gone, what's the condition of the secondary device?"
"Nothing to report sir… no intrusions or obstacles as such, just a clear singular passage"
"Thank you Ben". The commander stroked his chin and folded his arms behind his back as he considered the two choices which lay before them. He studied the images relayed from the secondary probe. On the screen the image remained stable and constant. Endless reams of lining greet the probe as it transmitted scanned pictures from its lone journey. The small light illuminated the same glistening images of fluid moisture from the walls and floor, with droplets falling in intermittent intervals from the roof of the tunnel. Slight changes in the topography of the tunnel suggested that the probe was approaching the back of the throat and tongue of the creature. "Right, close transmission...I think we've seen enough" said Zac. He sat in his command chair and placed his hands on the two arm rests, before swinging around to face his comrades. "As I see it, we have been swallowed by this creature and judging by the images I suggest we have become lodged within its oesophagus. Judging by the images from probe 1, the trajectory would indicate that further down the tunnel would present us with the stomach of the creature and hence had we crashed there I can safely conclude that we would not be sitting here now having this conversation. Are we all agreed so far?"
Both Jane and Bentley nodded in agreement with the hypothesis of their commander and listened as he continued. "I see two options open to us...one we journey on the flight path of probe 1 and travel further into the creature. Judging by the size of the probe and the limited protection of the shielding and the difference in proportion to the Bucket we should pass through the stomach chamber and out the other side with limited damage to the craft. Once through the stomach our flight would take us through the small intestine, then the large intestine and finally we force our way out of the creature's rectum." He paused, waiting for a response from either of his crewmates.
It was Jane who responded first, "That's disgusting..." she exclaimed.
"I don't think I understand..." stammered Ben.
Jane turned to him with an incredulous look across her face, "Really!" she cried, "You really don't get it?" he shook his head. Jane indicated downward with her eyes and caused Ben to look down toward the ground. He raised his eyes back to her and shook his head. "We get shit out!" The look on his face changed from disgust to horror, then embarrassment as his face tinged red as he realised how obvious the statement had been.
"Is that viable?" he asked.
"We could survive...what are the status of the shields?" asked Zac.
Jane checked her readout display, "24% Zac, it may not be enough to survive the journey. At the rate of deterioration the shields will give way long before we could be out...and that's only if the oxygen lasts."
"Present state of life support?"
"Life support on at 49%, heat transfer intensifying, coolant failed and engines at reduced power with retro at only 17%. The way were going were only going to be able to limp out whichever way we go." Zac nodded at the information and sighed heavily.
"Commander… the other option?"
"Wh- oh sorry, yes Ben. Option two; we traverse the way we came in. Up the oesophagus and follow toward the trachea, larynx, pharynx then the tongue and mouth. If we can fly toward the head of the creature we can induce a pharyngeal reflex at the back of its throat and force the creature to propel us out through its mouth".
"Sick us up then"
"Yes, sick us up". Zac clapped his hands together, "Right then, which is it to be? Do we go up the creature or down..." He looked about the cockpit before asking, "What do you two think?"
"You’re the commander" stated Ben simply, "It's your decision...I will follow which ever choice you make."
Zac turned to Jane who simply smiled, "I know you'll make the right decision...but judging by the state of the ship it had better be a quick one."
Zac looked at both monitors and lent heavily on the control panel from his seat. His eyes flicked from one screen to another, and then back again before checking the condition of the craft's status. Up through the mouth logically the safest and quickest route out of the creature and judging by the condition of the craft there wouldn't be the time to make the other trip, and even if they did the other direction there would be no telling what other waste they would be deposited with. He nodded, "We go up...Jane plot course...Ben fire up servitors and prepare retro-engines on minimum power" He checked several monitor readings before reporting, "Calibrators are completely out, as is directional relay systems...so we will have very little control of the Bucket. Jane you will have to be our eyes and ears" she nodded and stabbed at the controls as her desk. "Ben, switch to dual control, it will probably take both of our combined strength to keep her stable" Ben flicked a switch on his column and the craft lurched violently, "Whoa! Easy old girl!" complained Zac to the craft. "Are we ready to disengage?"
"Launch...ahead minimum power...Jane keep vigil and monitor shield integrity, switch all non-essential power conducts to engines".
The craft lurch as it struggled from its resting position on the lining of the creature's gullet. Vast scars could be seen along the underside of the craft, caused by the combination of the crash and resting in the gastric fluid. Small lights at the front of the craft offered slight visual relief as it began the long arduous journey up the oesophagus. A dim light illuminated a small area of the cockpit, which allowed the inhabitants limited visibility to work in; Zac and Ben struggled at the controls desperately peering through the gloom at the darkened screens at the front of the craft. Jane monitored the visuals of both craft and outer environment as they travelled for what seemed like an eternity.
"Sir?" Ben's voice broke the silence.
"Conserve your air..." Zac urged.
"But sir, how are we going to induce the creature to gag?"
"I'm thinking about that, don't you worry". The journey continued in silence for a few more minutes then once again Ben spoke.
"I'm not afraid to die..."
"Nobody said anything about dying lad"
"I know, I just wanted to say that...err..."
"Go on, out with it"
"It's been an honour to serve with you...that's all"
"Don't be silly son; we will get out of this".
Ben shrugged as he pulled at the control stick. "Even so sir" he glanced at his commander "Do you have any regrets?" he asked.
"Many..." came the simple reply.
"My life has been full of mistakes and regret, but you learn to move on and move forward"
"How about now sir, any regrets now?"
Zac looked over his shoulder in the direction of Jane who sat staring into her monitor pretending not to listen to the conversation. "Not telling people how I really feel about them..." he said simply and quietly "Should have said something a long time ago..." his voice trailed off as he spoke, his eyes fixed on his navigator and the slight smile crossing her face, "How about you son?"
"Yeah, there's this girl see..."
Zac laughed "Always is!"
"Never got the chance to ask her out...always wanted to but never could find the time or the courage".
"Who is she?"
"Chas...Chas Warner...she works in catering" Ben searched for the words as he spoke, "She has the most amazing eyes I've ever seen...the type you can get lost in." Ben smiled as he spoke.
Zac looked at him and flashed him a wry smile, "When we get back, you have to promise me that you'll speak to her and tell her how you feel."
"Ah, mine's a little more complicated than yours I'm afraid, but still..." he trailed off wistfully.
"Zac..." Jane's voice shattered his personal thoughts, "I've got something on visual"
The image on screen sparked into life and ahead of the craft, suspended from the roof of the oesophagus hung a large bulbous shape of the creature's uvula. Even from this distance it ballooned into a hideous representation of freedom.
"Commander, could we ran the thing?" asked Ben.
"We could do, but if that doesn't work we've spent a lot of time and energy for no reward. I think I may have a better idea." He withdrew the gloved apparatus from its compartment and smiled at his young companion. "Deploy arm..." Ben smiled and operated a series of controls and slowly the singular remaining arm snaked its way from the base of the craft and reached from the hideous apparition of flesh hanging in suspended animation from the roof of the mouth.
"Zac, shields are reaching critical levels. The arm is draining excessive power from shields, engines and life support systems."
Zac nodded his understanding, "Prepare to initiate forward scoop...slowly...that's it..." he sat watching the screen intently and under incredible strain as he moved the arm into position "When I activate the scoop, disengage engines, understand Ben?"
"Jane activate transponder signal on all emergency frequencies upon arm activation." She nodded and adjusted the communication array to the responding frequency. "Make sure you’re all strapped in your harnesses, this could be a wild ride." The three made the final adjustments to their own individual seating position before the oncoming action which would either kill or save them. Zac turned in his chair and took Jane's hand with his spare hand and squeezed it tightly. "Ready..." he whispered to her. She avoided his eye contact, but simply nodded to his question. With her eyes down Zac mouth the words "I love you" toward her before turning back to his forward facing position. "It's a good day to die" he whispered to himself and thrust his arm forward at speed. With the movements of the arm surging forward, Ben turned off the engines to the craft and relying on the spasm of the creature to jettison the craft from the beast.
The arm copied his movement and with the scoop at full deployment plunged into the bulbous uvula. The craft lurched slightly as the muscles within the creature’s throat contracted. Zac drove the arm forward once again and once again produced a reflexive movement from the creature.
"Zac, I've got readings of a mass coming from the rear at great speed" shouted Jane as the craft began to lurch more violently. For a third time, Zac thrust the arm forward into the fleshy uvula causing the most violent lurch and at that moment a violent tsunami struck the craft from the rear of the vehicle. The muscles went into spasm as the creature began its pharyngeal reflex causing a massive contraction. The craft rocked on a tidal wave of vomit brought from the stomach of the creature. Inside the craft, the occupants were tossed around violently in their seats and as the wave struck the vessel the smell and the noise from outside the vehicle was overwhelming, causing Jane to gag. The three occupants held on to their respective stations as the craft was forced through the mouth amidst a mass of liquid vomit. The screens inside the craft showed a mass of vibrant colours ranging from green to red to blue and black, and out through the imagery of the mass on screen the image of Saturn could be seen through the vomit.
"Saturn..." breathed Zac breathlessly.
The creature lurched and rolled as it dispatched its waste out into the rings of Saturn. The craft rolled helpless amidst the waste, a small red light signaled beneath the vessel in a singular appeal for help.
"Bucket 4, this is John Buddle respond...Repeat Bucket 4, this is John Buddle report your present condition. Bucket 4, report your condition" The voice crackled through the audio speakers of the craft. Three prone figures sat slumped in their chairs as the voice echoed across the cockpit and bounced off the walls. "Bucket 4, emergency frequency received and understood...prepare for immediate extraction...Bucket 4...Bucket 4". Across the confines of space a rescue vehicle made its way out toward the lifeless form of the small survey vessel amidst a sea of debris and through the rings of the planet.
Zac's eyes flickered open for a moment and he smiled before falling back into a grateful unconsciousness.
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