Xander let his head fall forwards and thump against the wall of the corridor. So much for the cavalry. Closing his eyes, he desperately tried to think. Simply surviving until the Navy arrived had been the foremost thought in his mind since the nightmarish ordeal had begun. Now that plan had been thrown out the window.
"Xander." Isla put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "We should keep going. Let's just get to Cassie, then think of something else."
"She's right, buddy," Redge agreed, keeping a wary eye on the corridor ahead. "We're not that far from the galley. One step at a time, eh?"
"Yeah." He stood up and gritted his teeth, his eyes shining with barely suppressed fury. "C'mon." Clenching his fists tightly against his sides, he started walking towards the galley. His companions followed a few feet behind, the waves of pent up anger and frustration beating from him like hard radiation. Just as he reached the corner, however, a green clad form stepped out to bar his way.
Isla let out a yelp of surprise as the possessed crewman bared his teeth in an animalistic snarl. Xander, however, stepped forward to meet him. He dodged to one side as the man leapt forward, and slammed his wrench against the attacker's stomach. As the crewman doubled over with a coughing shriek, he gripped the wrench in both hands, took a step back and lashed out with a roar of anger, putting the whole weight of his body behind the swing. The heavy metal implement smashed against the side of the man's skull with a sickening crunch of breaking bone. The lifeless corpse slumped to the deck, a gaping dent in its left temple.
After staring at the body for a moment, Xander turned to his companions, his eyes wild. "Keep moving." He took off at a jog around the bend. As he moved off, however, Isla stood staring at the corpse.
"Isla?" Redge paused at the corner of the hall. "Isla, c'mon."
"What the hell's gotten into him?" she murmured, looking up. "Xander, I mean. I dunno, I've just never seen him like this before."
"Wait…" Redge cocked his head to one side. "You mean you don't know?"
He closed his eyes for a moment then stepped back over. He took her by the arm, speaking in a low tone. "Twelve years ago Xander had his first assignment as a contractor on this ship. I didn't read the full file, but there was some kind of containment breach in the furnace drive."
"Well he made it out of the chamber but had to seal the rest of his engineering team inside. There wasn't time. If he'd waited the whole ship would have gone up. The others…" he bit his lip. "They got exposed to hard-line white waves. There wasn't even enough left to fill a matchbox."
Isla put a hand over her mouth. "Oh my God."
"Now you get it. The man has some history with this ship, so cut him some slack." He turned back and started walking. She took a deep breath as the horrific tale sunk in, before following hesitantly down the passage towards the galley.
Entering the connecting corridor, Xander paused briefly, his eyes darting from door to door as he searched for Cassie's refuge. As his companions edged to a halt behind him, he spotted a thick, black number four emblazoned on one of the leftward doorways.
"There's room four," he said, indicating with his wrench.
"Then let's go get her."
Xander smiled slightly then started forward, sidestepping to the left and moving quietly along the wall. The others followed suit until he made it to the door of the supply room. Reaching out, he tapped the plating three times with his wrench, then pressed the release button. The store room door slid open with a barely audible hiss and he poked his head around the frame.
"Cass…you there?" A slight scuffling sound answered, before the young engineer herself emerged from behind one of the bulk shelving units of the store room. She hurtled out of the door and grabbed Xander, hugging him with her eyes tightly shut.
"I'm sorry I took off like that," she babbled. "I didn't…I was just scared, and that thing-."
"Cass," he interrupted. "Forget about it." She released him and took a step back, staring at him. He flashed a smile. "Important thing is we're all here. What we're going to do now is figure out a way to not be here."
"Well." Redge spread his hands wide. "You got any ideas?" Xander opened his mouth to speak, when suddenly the entire colossal mass of the factory ship lurched into motion, so violently that it threw the group from their feet. As the shaking continued, he grabbed the nearest safety handle in the wall.
"What the hell is that?" Isla yelled, spread out on the floor of the corridor, trying to keep herself steady.
"The engines," Cassie shouted back as she clung to the frame of the storage door. "It's the furnace engines!" The roaring and shaking continued for a few unimaginably long seconds before finally subsiding. The group waited for a silent moment, exchanging baffled looks.
"I thought you guys totalled the engines?" Redge said at last.
exactly." Xander pulled himself upright. "We nailed the computer system. The
ship would be virtually impossible for a human crew to fly."
"You think it's that cloud?"
"Well we don't have many other suspects, do we?"
"I know but…but c'mon, simple physics man, it's gas. How can it be pressing buttons, starting engines?"
"The gas is all that we've seen." Xander shrugged. "Doesn't change the fact that we're moving now."
"Moving where?" Cassie murmured. A single, sharp jolt answered her, shaking the entire length of the Gehanon, once again sending the group tumbling to the deck like scattered bowling pins. Pulling himself upright again Xander glanced around the hallway in bewilderment.
what?" His com started crackling several times in quick succession. With a
snort of impatience he opened the channel. "Jonas, what did I just tell you?"
"This reeeeally can't wait, Xander."
"What is it?"
"The engines of the Gehanon just came online, the whole ship nearly detonated in the power flux."
"We are aware of that, the ship got shaken around. I told you to st-,"
"Fucking hell, would you listen to me for a sec?! You've started heading towards Alsace's atmosphere. The ship's going to sink in and then…well then it's gone. The gravity will crush it if it goes deep enough."
"What about the second jolt?" Isla asked, rubbing her injured arm gingerly.
"Jonas, we had a follow-up jolt over here. Was that the engines too?"
"Nah, that was probably my handiwork."
"I grabbed the Gehanon with our magnetic anchor."
"You're towing us?"
"Not exactly. She's too big, Xander. I'm pulling directly away from the planet with full engines, but the Lunchbox hasn't got the muscle for this. She was designed to tow disabled ships, not something the size of the Gehanon trying to get away. You're still edging towards the planet, and I can't keep this up for long."
"How much time do we have?"
"Twenty minutes, tops. Then I have to disengage or our engines'll blow out."
"Fuck!" Xander smashed the wrench against the nearest wall with a snarl of fury.
"You've got to shut off the engines over there or you're not going to be around to be blasted apart by our friends from the navy."
"Thanks, Jonas," he growled. "Your grasp on the blatantly obvious never ceases to amaze me."
"Alright, engine room, now." Xander started walking, straight past the rest of the group. "Stay off the fucking radio from now on! If we haven't managed in twenty minutes shut off the anchor and get yourself out of here."
"That is an order, Jonas," he snapped. "Xander out." He turned to the others who had yet to move. "Are we coming?"
"You have a plan?" Redge asked.
"Go to the engine room and shut off the furnaces."
"Maybe something a little deeper?"
"No, but we don't have much of a choice. Now if you want to stay and wait for this ship's hull to be crushed like a damned egg then be my guest, but I'm more interested in the whole ‘staying alive' business." Turning his back on them he started walking, listening intently. A few seconds later the clatter of booted feet filled his ears as they scrambled to catch up and he let a thin smile flash briefly over his face.
They had been silent for a few minutes as they walked through the halls of the factory ship, until Redge piped up.
hold on," he began, stopping in his tracks. "None of this adds up."
"Redge, damn it!" Xander rounded on him furiously. "We do not have the time for this!"
"Just hear me out. The military is on its way to blow up this ship, yeah?"
"And that's probably based on killing whatever this thing is."
"I guess so."
"Then why is our sentient cloud taking the Gehanon down into a planet that will crush it flat if it goes too deep?" He spread his hands wide. "It would be basically doing their job for them. I don't buy it."
"What's to buy?" Cassie cut in. "We're sinking towards the planet, that's what is happening right now. I don't care if it makes sense or not!"
"She's right, Redge," Xander agreed.
"No she's not, Christ, think about it for a minute." The burly engineer shook his head in annoyance. "I know I've not exactly bought into the idea of this cloud being behind everything, but it does seem pretty smart. Maybe it's up to something a little more intelligent?"
"This is a big ship, she can take a fair bit of pressure. There's a good chance we'll be completely obscured by the planet's atmosphere before any damage happens. Meaning?" Redge gave them an expectant look.
"It's hiding…" Isla breathed. He gave her a nod.
"Fair point, Redge," Xander said. Then he stepped close to the other man, looking him squarely in the eye. "But are you willing to risk all of our lives on that assumption?" Redge hesitated for a moment. "That's what I thought. Maybe you're right, but maybe not. Either way, I'm not about to sit here and do nothing. Now we don't have much time, so let's see if we can throw a spanner in the works, alright?"
"Yeah…yeah alright." Redge rubbed his eyes. "Sorry."
"C'mon, let's go and break up the party." Xander clapped him on one hefty shoulder then turned on his heel and set off down the corridor. Cassie followed him immediately, but Redge stood still for a moment.
Stepping over to him, Isla placed a gentle hand on his arm. "Redge, we need to go." He met her gaze and let out another long breath.
"Y'know, he's not pleasant to be around when he's like this." He inclined his head towards Xander.
"Can you blame him?" she returned. "You told me to cut him some slack. He's not giving up hope, and that's all we can ask for. Nobody could be ready for this."
"I guess so." He gave a faint half smile, then started walking again. Isla let her eyes linger on his back for a fleeting moment before following.