Iris

By:
Jamie

Part 16

Jonas watched pensively as the decryption program went to work on the governmental files he had siphoned from the trace. In truth, things had been easier than he'd expected. The improvised hack he'd used had gained him access to files that, although he didn't like to admit it, were way above his pay grade. The files in question, however, were heavily encrypted with complex, interwoven firewalls and virus eradication programs that meant he had to tread carefully. Finding the files had been simple; opening them would be a different matter.

Sitting back in the seat, he dug the nails of both hands into his palms in frustration as he waited. For now at least, he respected Xander's order, staying off the radio, but he'd seen the entire massive cargo bay of the Gehanon depressurise just moments earlier. What that meant, Jonas could only guess at, but he was loath to simply sit on his hands while his crewmates fought for their lives.

Glancing to the right, he tightened his jaw when he saw the magnetic anchor's status. Seven minutes until he had to disengage. Squirming in his seat he interlocked his fingers, twiddled his thumbs and waited, watching the decryption program. The files being cracked open pertained to the Gehanon's mission orders. He had an inkling that the factory ship had been sent out to collect something a little more high profile than fuel compounds.

Leaning over to the keyboard he rattled out a command, opening the first of the files his program had decrypted. His eyebrows furrowed at the star map that flashed up onto the computer screen. He had found the flight path of the Gehanon. Two small, pulsing dots appeared on the screen; the first showed a starting location, and almost three thousand light years away the second corresponded to Alsace IV. The change in flight direction was abrupt and immediate, the heading shifting a full two hundred and seventy-three degrees.

Eyeing the flight path, Jonas came to the logical conclusion. The Gehanon had received a sudden and important order to divert to Alsace IV. Why? Something to do with the strange gaseous clouds of the planet, and whatever was happening on board the ship itself. He ground his teeth together in frustration as the rest of the files remained stubbornly locked up. At this rate the anchor would fail long before he could pass on any information to his crewmates.

His fingers rattled over the keyboard as he tried to optimise the process. The second file in line sat dauntingly on the screen before him, the security firewalls and virus eradication programs waiting for him down every virtual corridor. Licking his dry lips, Jonas leaned in close to the screen, weaving amongst the minefield with painstaking care.

"Okay…" he murmured. "Let's crack this bastard open." Already the signs were there that the document contained…sensitive information, and it pertained to the new orders the Gehanon had received. Rattling in a final sequence he punched the Enter key and waited. A few seconds later the screen flashed with a wall of text headed with four bold letters: O.X.R.T.

His breath caught in his throat. "Ohhhh fuck…" Without warning the screens of the Lunchbox began flickering with static, a fizzing electrical hum filling the bridge. Glancing left and right, Jonas furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. The flickering continued and he squinted at the main screen, trying to make out the text. His eyes widened in realisation.

"Son of a bitch, not now!" he snarled, pressing several keys before slamming his fist down against the large black button to the right of the main console. A pulsing sound echoed through the tugboat's halls and all the lights went out, plunging Jonas into blackness. The ship lurched violently as the power died, throwing him from his chair to the deck. Rolling with the impact, he crashed into the pilot's chair before scrambling upright.

Cursing under his breath, Jonas pulled a pen torch from his back pocket and cast the beam over the Lunchbox's dead consoles. He spun towards the door and bolted from the bridge, stumbling through the gloom of the ship's corridors with frantic energy coursing through his veins. Tripping and swearing his way through the passageways, he reached the main engine room. Following the thin, pale torchlight, he located the main drive initialisation nestled between the two hulking cylinders of the furnace engines. Darting over to it, he pushed the thick central lever down before placing the end of the torch in his mouth, holding it between clenched teeth.

He flicked the four large flanking toggles down before gripping another, small handle beneath the main lever, built into an indentation in the wall. He turned it to the left until a loud clang echoed through the engine room. Nodding in satisfaction he turned it back again, extracting low hum. Instantly he slammed the main lever upwards, followed by the four toggles in order and stepped back, holding his breath. A few seconds later the two furnaces ebbed gently into life, the orange fires of their contained reactions lighting up the room. Soon after, the lights of the Lunchbox blinked twice before coming on fully.

Jonas spun on his heel, ramming the torch back into his pocket as he sprinted though the ship towards the bridge. Hurtling back into the confined space, he narrowly sidestepped the command chair, scrambling over to the main window. Stopping dead, he placed his hands over his head, clenching his fists into his hair in anger.

"Shit…" In the distance the satin bulk of the Gehanon had begun to sink into the atmosphere of Alsace IV, blue-black mist swirling around the massive ship's hull.

*

A rending screech of metal sounded deafeningly on board the Gehanon, the factory ship shuddering from tip to tail under the impact. Xander pitched forward whilst trying to place one of the explosive charges, crashing head first into the bulkhead wall of the fourth floor and tumbling to the deck. He shook his head and blinked in surprise. Further back down the hall, Cassie clung desperately to one of the safety handles, while Isla stayed sitting with her back against the wall, her arms spread out to keep herself steady.

"Xander," Redge bellowed through the com set. "We are MOVING!"

"Moving where?" he snapped, scrabbling upright again.

"We're in the atmosphere of Alsace IV, I don't know what happened!"

"Shit, shit, shit!" Xander slammed a clenched fist against the nearest wall before glancing at his watch. "Are you sure? We still have a couple of minutes; something must have gone wrong on the Lunchbox."

"Pretty hard to misinterpret something like this. I'm in the cargo bay, I can see the atmosphere."

"Maybe Jonas got the timing wrong," Cassie suggested.

"I doubt it. He knows that anchor inside and out."

"Unless he started messing with the power output. I know I would."

"If you want to ask him," Redge interrupted. "Do it soon before the planet's ionisation wipes out the com sets."

Xander gritted his teeth, tapping his earpiece. "Jonas, do you read me?" He waited for a moment but only static filled the com. "Jonas?"

"I…-ou, Xander, gov-…virus."

"Jonas, you're breaking up. Repeat?"

"I read you, Xander," the pilot's voice said over the com, tinny and distorted by the planet's ionisation effects. "Shit, I'm sorry, I lost the anchor."

"What the hell happened?"

"I was…doing some digging."

"Jonas." Xander turned his eyes skywards. "Do I even want to know what kind of stuff you were looking at?"

"Normally no, but I think this time you'll want it. Xander, the Gehanon got a course change order and new directives straight from the O.X.R.T. At least that's what it looked like before the entire operating system crashed."

"The O.X.R.T…you've got to be screwing with me."

"What's that?" Cassie piped up, confusion clear on her face.

"You don't know?" Isla interjected. The young engineer shrugged. "Stands for Office of Xenolithic Research and Training. Something we want nothing to do with."

"I've never heard of it."

"Count your blessings. They're a shady bunch."

"If they were sent here by O.X.R.T orders, that means this cloud thing…whatever it is." Xander sighed and rubbed his eyes. "It's probably a life form of some sort. That cage in the cargo bay… I Redge was right. They must have been sent to catch one for study."

"Obviously that didn't pan out," Redge cut in over the com.

"Obviously. Jonas, what about the anchor, what happened?"

"I opened the order package from the O.X.R.T and some kind of retaliatory virus must have been triggered. I only just managed to shut down the computers before the thing could melt the mainframe. Problem is I had to shut off the anchor to do it."

"You utter pirate," Xander muttered. "How the hell did you even get a hold of that file?"

"That's something you probably don't want to know," the pilot returned.

"Forget all that, for God's sake," Cassie shouted suddenly. "We know why the Gehanon is here, and we know a little more about what we're dealing with. Great, fabulous mystery solved, but that in no way improves our chances of getting off this bloody ship alive! We need to do something; I don't care about some government science project."

"She's right," Isla agreed, inclining her head.

Xander closed his eyes for a moment then nodded once. He crouched down to place the mining charge again, when another, gentler lurch of the Factory Ship interrupted him. He paused, hands poised over the device as he looked around the corridor.

"Did we just stop?" he murmured, half to himself.

"I think so…" Isla glanced back down their current corridor, but nothing appeared. She took a deep breath and turned back. "So…why?" As if in answer to her question, a strange, low, throbbing alarm began droning through the passageways of the Gehanon on every deck. She placed her hands over her ears, grimacing. "The hell?"

"It's an atmospheric alarm," Xander shouted over the noise, bounding upright. "They're triggered by toxins in the life support system."

"What does that…?"

"Xander, we are in a whole new kind of trouble." The usual sense of cold disregard had vanished from Redge's voice, replaced by something approaching genuine panic.

He placed a hand to his earpiece, eyes widening. "Redge, what just happened?"

"That thing just opened all the outer hull vents, I can see it seeping in now. In about five minutes we're going to be breathing in the atmosphere of Alsace IV."

"And it's toxic." Xander let out a growl of frustration.

"That's one word for it. It'd be like drowning in boiling vodka."       

"Doesn't sound so bad," Isla joked hollowly after a moment's silence. "What now? This blasting plan is out the window."

"We don't have a lot of time. They have portable breather units on board this ship, back down at the equipment storage. If we can grab some we might be able to buy some time." Xander took in a deep breath and started jogging, with his companions in tow. "Redge is there anything you can do?"

"Well I can't go anywhere if that's what you're asking," the man replied ruefully. "But I can short out the life support unit in the cargo cabin. I won't have a whole lot of time left, but it beats breathing in that blue gunk."

"Jonas?" he snapped. The com crackled with violent static.
"Ionisation," Isla put in. "We're cut off now."

"Sit tight, Redge, I'll think of something." Xander closed the com channel and broke into a flat run, all the while the atmospheric alarm blaring in his ears.

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