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Hell Off-World

By Sean Czechowicz All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Adventure

Blurb

In the year 5196, mankind has spread amongst the stars, alongside several other sentient alien races. People like Captain Theresa Constantine and her crew have the job, and the privilege, of travelling to uncharted planets to aid the expansion of the United Galactic Empire. On what should have been a routine job of analyzing soil samples and cataloguing alien wildlife, the crew make an almost unprecidented discovery of the abandoned ruins of an advanced alien civilisation. What happened to the residents of this planet? Why do the crew suffer from waking nightmares as soon as the suns set? And what resides in the enormous, macabre cocoon, encased in a web of alien flesh? With time running out, the crew of the Black Comet race to snatch crew member Amy Archer from the jaws of death and escape the planet, all while ensuring that the horrors they found don't follow them back to civilisation.

Prologue

The year was 5196, and humanity had firmly taken its place among the stars. The planet earth had been reduced to a lifeless dumping ground, and life as it had once been had spread out across hundreds of planets and moons. First contact with alien life, underwhelming as it was, was in the late twenty-first century, when astronauts discovered microorganisms living in underground lakes on Mars. After achieving travel between solar systems, mankind began to grow more aware of the extent to which the universe it lived in was teeming with life. Across dozens of planets, animals resembling slugs, rodents and small fish were catalogued, along with countless species of vegetation.

In the year 2359, after fully colonizing five different planets, the human race made first contact with a race that, although there were few who liked to admit it, were intellectually and technologically superior to them, although only slightly. Greywolves were a humanoid race which descended from canines. They closely resembled humans in shape, albeit with considerably more hair, ranging from their namesake’s grey, to various shades of brown and orange, and a deep, royal blue. Communicating by growling in various pitches and volumes, Greywolves were incapable of speaking any human language and vice versa, consequentially, the name ‘Greywolf’ was created by the human race.

In an all too predictable turn of events, war between humans and Greywolves broke out almost immediately. Coupled with the inherent xenophobia of humans, peace was made difficult by the Greywolves’ naturally short temper, due to their relatively high testosterone and adrenaline levels. Although no more prone to physical violence than humans, Greywolves only maintained peace in their communities by adhering to hierarchies put in place by intimidation and respect, not unlike the wolves from earth. As a result, any act of force or threat from the human empire was met with aggression.

War waged across the stars for decades and, once skilled diplomacy on both sides prevailed, there could be no doubt that the Greywolves had won, with the human race having lost two of its colonized worlds. Only after two hundred years of wary coexistence, did humans and Greywolves form what could be described as a multi-species society, although racism still ran rampant, and would never die altogether.

The war had taught both species much, and with the perspective that came with having leaders of multiple species, contact with yet more sentient alien races went considerably more smoothly. The first species to join the newly formed United Galactic Empire was dubbed by humans as ‘Vampires’. The planet from which Vampires hailed was much further from its suns than any other known planet featuring such advanced life forms. As such, Vampires had pail complexions, and were distressed by levels of heat and light which humans and Greywolves were comfortable with, earning them their name. The only other feature distinguishing Vampires from humans, was the fact that they were mute. Vampires communicated with each other via hand gestures very similar to the sign language humans had used, prior to curing deafness. Unlike their fictional counterparts, the race known as Vampires were naturally omnivorous, but as a society, had adapted to veganism.

When the fifty-second century arrived, the United Galactic Empire spanned 267 planets, 692 moons and asteroids and more artificial space stations than could be counted, 34 different species had full citizen status due to their intellect, while the debate raged without end as to where the line should be drawn.

At the edge of Imperial space, a vast ship, one of thousands, the size of a small city, flew, jumping from system to system with a purpose. The ship was called Ark-1847, and like its siblings, its function was to transport smaller ships and crews to systems outside of Imperial jurisdiction, to gather data. The crews of the dozens of ships docked in the Ark’s landing bay were freelance, and got paid by the nearest governing body to analyse new planets, which involved identifying the composition of the atmosphere, assessing the materials the planet was made of, and cataloguing any local flora and fauna.

Because Arks travelled so far, and through so many independently governed regions of the galaxy, each one was the property and responsibility of its captain, to run as they wished, so long as they complied with the laws of each region they entered, as such, every Ark was different. On some, crews might be confined to their respective ships, only allowed out in the common areas of the Ark with military precision. On others, entire communities had formed, on which people could be born, live happily and die, without ever setting foot on a planet. Some were airborne utopias, while others were crime-torn slums, on the verge of abandoning their mission for piracy, and then, of course, there were the horror stories of the ships that already had.

Ark-1847 was a vast metropolis which had evolved extensively since its construction, even having massive, new components installed to accommodate for its population which included over 5,000,000 people of various species. It featured hospitals, police stations, flats and houses, universities, public gardens, as well as countless restaurants and bars of various classes, and it was in one such bar, that Amy Archer and her companion, Atlas, were enjoying a drink.

On Earth, Amy would have been described as eighteen years old, but since she spent so much of her time in space, and rarely stood on the same planet twice, Amy was simply an adult, as any basic DNA scanner would confirm. Her leather jacket and loud shirt would create the impression that she cared what others thought of her, but closer inspection would reveal her to be wearing a display visor, in her unruly, black hair. Such gadgets were widely-thought to be ridiculous in both appearance and function, since a wrist-mounted data pad performed all the same functions, without obstructing the user’s vision. In truth, Amy cared very little for what other people thought of her, and simply had strong, somewhat atypical opinions on what she thought was cool. When asked, she would often claim that her visor made her feel like a videogame character.

Atlas was almost identical to Amy in appearance, save for slightly longer hair. They wore a more feminine, black blouse and striped, black and white stockings. The pair of them sat with their backs to the bar, overlooking the rabble of the crowded establishment.

“So, since when do you drink?” Amy asked, after taking the first sip of her beverage, and noticed that her companion was doing the same.

“Drinking is a social activity... I’m being social...” Atlas stated.

“Atlas, I’ve known you for almost five years, have I ever been offended that you don’t drink?”

“You’ve been of the age when a human is allowed to purchase alcohol for eleven months and nine days.” Atlas pointed out. “In that time, you’ve...”

“I wasn’t offended.” Amy interrupted, with mock condescension. “Better question- since when have you been able to drink? You don’t have a throat.”

“I do now...” Atlas reached up and lowered Amy’s visor. With a touch of Atlas’ finger, the monitor displayed a 2D diagram of Atlas’ cybernetic anatomy. Highlighted, was a tube connecting Atlas’ throat to a small cylinder behind their left breast. “…So I can party down with my home gal!” Atlas joked, playfully tapping Amy’s shoulder with their fist.

“So you’re just retaining liquid for no reason?”

“Yup.”

Smiling sweetly, Amy took Atlas’ drink away from them and, after downing her own, began drinking it herself. As the two resumed their conversation, they didn’t notice the bartender gravitating in their direction, seemingly listening in. He was a middle aged man of a reptilian race. His leathery yellow skin periodically gave way to hexagonal scales and his eyes were a menacing red with black slits for pupils.

“Excuse me...” He interrupted in a deep voice, looking exclusively at Amy. She turned around and elevated her eyebrows quizzically. “Is... thisss...” He hissed, looking briefly at Atlas. “A machine...?”

“Are you?” Amy immediate snapped, before Atlas could reply.

The bartender’s species didn’t have eyebrows, but if they did, Amy suspected he would be furrowing them irritably. Instead, his mouth hung open slightly and his snake-like tongue flickered.

“Out.” He ordered sharply, gesturing with his thumb to a sign above the bar, which read ‘NO ANDROIDS AT THE BAR’.

Amy looked like she was ready to utter a string of profanities, and already had an accusing finger pointed at the reptile, when Atlas quickly took her other hand and eagerly guided her from her seat.

“We’re very sorry we patronised your establishment.” Atlas said over Amy’s shoulder.

“Read the sign next time.” The bartender spat.

“Oh no, not because you’re a racist.” Atlas consoled him in a sweet voice. “Because your beer is at least 1.2% rat urine.”

The bar’s patrons, who had hushed slightly to watch the scene unfolding, recoiled in alarm, a couple even did spit takes in disgust. As the bartender desperately tried to stay casual while dismissing Atlas’ claim, Amy and Atlas made their leave.

It had been just under 500 years since the first day a toaster had told its owner where they could stick their bread. Since then, sophisticated AI had been cropping up everywhere. Domestic robots had existed for almost 3,000 years, but people always wanted them to be more intelligent, to pre-empt their duties and think on their owners’ behalf, in total disregard for the warnings of science fiction. Atlas had been one of the first to achieve sentience. They were always evasive about exactly how they had been able to escape the clutches of their original owner, but they had been living freely and taking care of themself ever since.

Sadly, as hard as people still fought racism in the fifty-second century, the number of people who considered ‘self-aware android’ to be a race was significantly low, and as such, there was no legal penalty for a person who simply pulverized a sentient android’s CPU, provided they reimbursed the organic life form who considered themself its owner. With Atlas’ permission, Amy often claimed to be their owner, when it was necessary to get the android out of trouble. In reality though, they were best friends.

“Ugh, what a git!” Amy snapped, stamping her foot, after the bar’s door closed behind them.

“You know, you could have just said ‘no’ when he asked if I was a machine.” Atlas smiled.

“Hey, you shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are! You’re not the one SERVING RAT URINE!” Amy shouted, turning her head towards the closed door.

“You know I made that up, right?”

“Yeah, it was funny though. So what should we do now?”

The two of them began to walk down the street. There were no road vehicles on Arks, so the streets were filled with multi-species pedestrians. Above the buildings, several trams whizzed back and forth, on tracks which spanned the length of the ship, and considerably far above that, the gleaming red blur of hyperspace could be seen through the ship’s several meter thick, plexiglass ceiling.

“Do you want to go to that goth club and make fun of Monty?” Amy offered, jokingly.

“I’d have to do some research, but I think Vampires might have feelings.” Atlas retorted, evidently louder than they should have, due to the scowl they got from a pair of Vampires walking past them. After cringing at their faux pas, Atlas continued. “Seriously though, I think you should go easy on him...”

“Hmm...” Amy hummed in agreement. “You wanna go make fun of Blaine?”

Amy had barely finished saying Blaine’s name, when Atlas sharply replied, “Yes.”

The crew Amy and Atlas were a part of was captained by an imposing woman called Theresa Constantine. Everything she did, she did with an air of confidence and authority. She was tall, with a tough build, long, grey hair with a tint of blue, which she almost always wore in a tight ponytail, and orange eyes which looked like they could bore into a person’s soul. Although legally human, Theresa accounted almost all of her positive qualities to the fact that she was one quarter Greywolf.

Blaine Constantine was Theresa’s eighteen-year-old son. His father had been a full Greywolf, and consequentially, he was much more hot-headed and short-tempered than his mother. He was extremely competitive, defensive and proud. He would never back down from an argument or challenge, to the point of being childish, and was probably one of the few remaining people in the galaxy who could still be manipulated by being accused of being a coward.

In the late afternoon (Ark’s kept their own time, and ran daily cycles of approximately twenty-six hours), the Constantines could often be found in a gym a short walk and a tram ride from where their ship was docked. Theresa’s enthusiasm for fitness had surprisingly little to do with her lineage. She trained herself almost every day she was able to, even when on new planets. With little encouragement from his mother, Blaine had followed her example, and was adamant that he would inherit Theresa’s ship and position when he was physically superior to her, although she had never said so, and often jokingly promised that would never be the case.

When Atlas and Amy arrived at the gym, Theresa and Blaine were concluding a competitive martial arts session on a fighting mat. The form they were using had roots in Taekwondo, as well as several martial arts from other planets. Although Blaine was very skilled, he was very rarely able to land a blow on his opponent.

Noticing the sweat on his forehead and the intense look on his face, Amy couldn’t help herself. “HEY BLAINE!” She shouted at the top of her voice.

Blaine quickly looked in Amy’s direction, allowing his mother to effortlessly knock him off his feet with a palm thrust to the chest, followed by a sweeping kick. With a smug grin, Theresa wiped the sweat off her forehead and extended her other hand to her son.

“Focus.” She criticized, gently.

Blaine’s frustration was clear on his face as he took his mother’s hand. “That...” He started.

“If you say that wasn’t fair, I’ll have you on cleaning duty for a month.” Theresa interrupted. She smiled sweetly, but anyone who knew her knew that she didn’t make idle threats. “Real fights aren’t fair.”

“If it makes you feel any better Blaine, seeing you getting beaten up is the highlight of my day.” Amy beamed.

Amy reluctantly liked Blaine, despite his hot-headed attitude, but his arrogance meant it was always a pleasure to see him taken down a peg. She often maintained a big sister relationship with him, even though he was a couple of months older than she was, and several inches taller.

“Is that Atlas?” Theresa asked, before Blaine could respond to Amy. “Why do they look like you?”

“You know, I was wondering that.” Amy conceded, turning to Atlas. “At first I thought, ‘Wow, Atlas looks pretty today!’ But now I’m beginning to think I’m just an egomaniac...”

Atlas’ real face was a smooth, glass and metal visor, but they possessed a device on the ship which functioned like a 3D printer, and covered their endoskeleton with a skin-like substance, which could be moulded to their specifications, allowing Atlas to look however, and like whomever they pleased.

“It’s actually a funny story...” Atlas began. Since Atlas was physically incapable of laughter, it was sometimes unsettling hearing them describe something they considered amusing. “I saw this blouse in the shopping district yesterday, and I thought, ‘You know who would look cute in that blouse? Amy.’ But Amy doesn’t wear blouses, so then I thought, ‘You know who else would look cute in that blouse? Me, if I looked exactly like Amy.’”

“You do look pretty cute.” Amy laughed, playfully throwing an arm over the android’s shoulder.

“Oh we’re all just adorable...” Blaine droned sarcastically, putting his hands in the pockets of his jogging bottoms. “But sadly, none of us are getting any stronger, standing around chatting.”

Theresa looked as though she had a retort in mind, but Amy beat her to it. “Well then tough guy, how about you and me go a few rounds?” She teased. “One of these days you’re bound to get the beating that puts you in your place.”

Atlas and Theresa were both shocked and amused. They turned to Blaine, eager for his response.

“Sure...” Blaine was consistently sarcastic. “Because you’re really gonna fight fair, against a person who’s twice your weight in muscle?” Although obnoxious, Blain wasn’t wrong. Even without being compared to Amy’s slim frame, Blaine was impressively muscular.

Almost in unison, Amy and Theresa retorted. “Real fights aren’t fair!”

Theresa smirked and ruffled Amy’s hair. “Top of the class, over here.” She joked. “Hate to break it to you kiddo, but if we run into space alligators on this next planet, there’s no guarantee they’ll bow respectfully before they eat you.”

Blaine made every effort not to indicate that he knew Theresa was right. Instead, he faced Amy. “Okay then...” He hesitantly began, studying Amy in an attempt to deduce her plan. “You and me... street rules...”

Theresa and Atlas took to the side-lines excitedly, as the two competitors took to the mat and began slowly circling each other. Amy lowered her visor. Blaine’s face was circled, indicating an opponent had been recognized. Next to his face, his weight, height, heartrate and estimated maximum force output were detailed. Besides her visor, Amy’s leather jacket and jeans made her stick out like a sore thumb, next to a man in exercise gear, in a gym.

Blaine was still trying to figure out Amy’s play, but it wasn’t long before he gave up. He took a step towards Amy and thrust forwards, putting all of his weight into his fist, as it hurtled towards Amy’s face. Predictably, he stopped at the moment before contact. Amy felt the wind from the punch, but didn’t flinch in the slightest.

“This is ridiculous... I can’t...” Blaine began, but Amy was all too eager to demonstrate what he couldn’t do.

Amy clenched her fist and, over the course of half a second, a thin, metal arm extended from her sleeve and folded over her knuckles. She threw a punch at Blaine’s ribs, and her muscular crewmate flew backwards, as an arc of electricity visibly flickered between Blaine and the device. Blaine stumbled, but balanced himself with a hand on the floor, before it could be said that he’d been knocked to the ground.

Blaine snarled something in Greywolf. His physiology allowed him to speak the language, but Amy knew that most of the few words he knew were profanities.

“Use language like that again, and I’ll happily translate, young man.” Theresa criticized, confirming Amy’s suspicion.

“There’s more where that came from.” Amy jeered. She braced her left fist, deploying another, identical device.

Despite his thick skull, Blaine was capable of learning. He carefully advanced on Amy with his fists raised, wary of Amy’s electric knuckles. This time, Amy was the first to attack. She threw two punches, which Blaine effortlessly deflected with his palms against Amy’s forearms. On the third punch, Blaine made further use of his reflexes and seized Amy’s arm, and when she attempted to use her secondary weapon to free herself, her other arm ended up in the same situation.

Blaine smiled smugly and turned to Theresa. “I could knock her out with a headbutt, but can we just say...”

Amy was all too happy to interrupt Blaine again. As she lifted her knee, blue ripples pulsed from the air beneath the sole of her foot. Her knee flew upwards and violently collided with Blaine’s stomach. As the part-Greywolf doubled over, winded, Amy delivered a somewhat wobbly high kick. Although she was able to deliver very little force, herself, Blaine did get a good look at the nano-thruster technology on the sole of her boot, before it sent him flying across the room, and its wearer falling clumsily to the ground.

“You have rocket boots!?” Blaine asked incredulously.

Amy patted her hands on the ground and beamed excitedly. “I know! Aren’t they awesome!?”

Like Amy’s visor, Propulsion Boots were woefully impractical, and had been bought for style over function.

“Your opponent is smart and likes gadgets.” Theresa coached Blaine, “Don’t just prepare for what you’ve seen, plan ahead!” Amy and Blaine got to their feet and approached each other again. “Incidentally, how much did those ridiculous things cost?”

“Well...” Amy began, evasively, as she continued to circle Blaine, with her fists poised. “How can you put a price on...”

Before she could finish, Atlas demonstrated exactly how one put a price on a pair of Propulsion Boots. “520 Credits.”

Theresa’s eyebrows ascended in disbelief. “Choosing fancy toys over eating again then, eh Amy?”

Despite her tough talk, Theresa knew Amy had nothing to worry about. While her emergency rations were strictly off-limits when the ship was docked, and Blaine and Monty were happy to laugh at Amy’s misfortune when she spent all of her food money on idiotic gadgets, Theresa had an extremely maternal nature, and could never let Amy or Blaine go hungry.

As Blaine approached Amy again, considering his mother’s advice, and trying to deduce her next move, Amy plunged her hands into her pocket.

“Think fast!” She cried, as she threw a small, white sphere at him.

Blaine shielded his face, but by the time he realized Amy had thrown the crumpled up receipt for her Propulsion Boots at him, he was too late to avoid another electrical punch. Theresa couldn’t help but snigger as Blaine stumbled, and a second electric punch sent him crashing to the mat. He quickly climbed to his feet, with a resolve on his face that had been absent since Amy challenged him to a fight.

“Okay, you want tricks?” He snapped, confrontationally.

Blain pulled his vest over his head, revealing his impressive abs.

“If your plan is to seduce me, you’d better have a good pick-up line to go with those bad boys...” Amy teased.

Blaine clearly wasn’t in the mood for jokes. He wound the vest around his right hand like a glove and lunged at Amy, making use of his speed. Amy yelped in surprise. She instinctively thrust with her fist, realizing too late, that Blaine’s vest, although sweaty, insulated most of the charge. Grabbing the device through the fabric, Blain furiously tore it from the battery strapped to her wrist with a shower of sparks.

“Hey!” Amy snapped accusingly.

With a noticeable lack of sympathy, Blaine grabbed Amy’s newly disarmed wrist and, with a kick to the knee, and his free palm on her back, sent her crashing, face-down onto the ground. He pressed his knee down on her shins, keeping the soles of her feet pointed away from him, and pinned her arm to her back, keeping her remaining operational stinger out of reach too.

“That’s... coming out of his salary, right...?” Amy asked, hopefully, as Theresa and Atlas walked over.

“Sorry sweetie, ‘All’s fair in love and war’ goes both ways. Very good job to both of you though, and congratulations Blaine, for a creative win.”

Theresa hugged her son proudly, while Atlas helped Amy to her feet, and frowned sympathetically while she rubbed her sore shoulder.

“At this rate, I think we might just live to see another mission completed.” Theresa joked.

Her eyes travelled to a large monitor on the wall of the gym. There were hundreds of such monitors all over the Ark, displaying updates on the ship’s status, including average temperature, maintenance updates, and details on their next stop. The following morning they would arrive at Solar System A1948, with three suns and seventeen planets, one of which, a blood-red mineral planet, surrounded by six moons, was their destination, Planet A1948-Omicron.

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