A few minutes later the five engineers stood ready and waiting outside the steely grey door of the main airlock. One huge hand-wheel controlled the mechanism which was virtually impossible for one person to operate, and the door itself had plating almost three inches thick. Gathered outside, the crew had amassed a staggering array of equipment; welding torches, cases of spare parts, tool kits, wrenches, jacks, drills and Redge even carried a sledge hammer. Shifting the heavily weighted backpack more comfortably onto his shoulders Xander felt the metallic contents digging against his back. Frowning, he glanced up at the light above the door. Green.
"Jonas," he said, placing one hand to his mobile earpiece. "Give me one more scan of the Gehanon."
"On it." Blowing out his cheeks in anticipation, he waited. "It's all in the green, full atmosphere, artificial gravity functioning at optimum levels. You're A.OK to board."
"Copy that, Jonas," Xander answered, grinning at his irrepressible companion. "We'll be in touch, keep the engines warm. With any luck this won't take too long." Closing the channel he turned to the rest of the group. "We all ready to go?" A rumble of acknowledgement greeted him. "Well then let's do it!" With Redge assisting him he gripped the hand-wheel firmly, gritted his teeth and pulled. After a few stubborn seconds the wheel began to turn, until a heavy clunk from the other side of the door signalled that the airlock had opened. He heaved the hefty frame open with a grunt of exertion then stepped inside.
The rest of the group scrambled into the confined space of the adjoining airlock, dragging their equipment with them in a clatter of metal. While wrestling with one end of a case of spare parts, Cassie caught her foot and tumbled through the doorway with a crash of equipment and a colourful curse. The other end of the case fell onto Isla's toe, causing her to yelp in pain, hopping backwards.
"God damn it!"
"Real smooth, Cass," Redge chuckled as the girl picked herself up.
"Screw you," she hissed, punching him playfully. He grinned, reaching forward and dragging the suitcase into the airlock with a single powerful heave.
"You good to go?"
"Just open the door!"
"You guys done?" Xander enquired, barely managing to stifle his laughter at their antics. Brodie rubbed his eyes with one hand, leaning against the wall of the room.
"Yeah, laugh it up," Isla growled back, returning her foot tentatively to the floor of the airlock. He smirked before turning to face the Gehanon's side of the chamber. Straightening up, he took a breath then banged on the door.
"Engineer crew here, making a house call." He waited for a moment but there was no response. Exchanging looks with the rest of the group, he tried again, thumping a clenched fist three times against the door. "Hello, anybody home?!" Still nothing.
"Maybe it's unlocked," Redge suggested.
"Yeah maybe." Xander let out a sigh of exasperation, tapping his earpiece. "Jonas, patch me through to Captain Nordstrom."
"Gimme a second," the pilot replied. "Okay, you're live, Xander."
"Captain Nordstrom, I'm at the airlock but nobody's here to open it," Xander snapped. "I'm not going to stand in here all day. What's the hold up?"
"I'm sorry. There are no crew members nearby at the moment. The airlock, however, isn't locked. Please, enter of your own accord."
"Will do," Xander grunted before closing the channel again.
"Two thousand crew," Isla muttered, folding her arms. "You'd think they could spare somebody to open the ruddy door."
"Never mind, let's get on board." Xander took a deep breath and pressed one shoulder against the inside of the airlock door. As Redge followed suit they pushed the hulking structure open, revealing the corridors of the Gehanon.
In stark contrast to the functional gun metal of the Lunchbox, the factory ship's passageways shone with luminescent rows of ceiling lights, the rays rebounding off the stark white walls. Perfectly even floor plating led off in three different directions from the airlock, stretching down the incredibly long corridors like an oil-black carpet. It was all grimly familiar in Xander's eyes.
"Well here we are," he murmured to himself, casting a glance down each of the corridors. Cupping his hands around his mouth he shouted. "Hello!" His voice echoed eerily in the deserted space.
"Looks like the life signs detector wasn't that far off," Cassie laughed, her hands fidgeting with the hem of her body-warmer.
"Mhm." He stepped forward into the central corridor before tapping his earpiece again. "Jonas, we're onboard the Gehanon, but there's no-one even in sight. Do another scan."
"Doing it," Jonas answered. "Same as before, Xander. The only readings I've got coming from the ship are you guys."
"What the hell is going on around here?" he growled. "Get me Nordstrom, right now!"
"Got it." They waited for almost a full minute before Jonas came back onto the radio. "Err…sorry Cap, the channel's gone dead. All I'm getting is static."
"Nordstrom's gone, Xander. I can't get a hold of him on any frequency."
"Fantastic," Xander snorted, throwing his hands up in the air resignedly. "Okay, Jonas, sit tight. We'll call you." Closing the channel again he closed his eyes, placing two fingers of each hand to his temples. So far they had nothing to go on, no information, just a big blank slate. Thing's couldn't have gone to plan, just for this one, he thought as he tried to make some sense of the situation.
"Great. Now what d'we do?"
"Now…" he replied quietly. "Now we proceed with the mission as planned. Let's see if we can't find out just what's going on with this ship. I know we're getting no life-signs, but the crew've got to be somewhere." He opened his eyes and hitched his backpack onto his shoulders. "We'll split into two groups. Cassie, you and me are going to the bridge. We'll see if there are any logs, sensor readings, anything at all."
"Redge, Brodie, Isla, you go to the engine room. See if there is actually any malfunction going on, and if so, fix it. And everybody, eyes open for the crew. Whatever we're doing here the lives of two thousand people are more important, understand?" The group nodded almost in unison. "Good, let's make tracks."
With a disgruntled Cassie in tow he set off down the leftward corridor, leading the way towards the prow of the Gehanon. His hulking backpack clanked with the mass of tools he'd brought, while his companion plodded along doggedly with her own bag bouncing against her hip. The noise of the tools and the pair's footsteps were all that could be heard in the eerie silence of the factory ship's hallways. Twisting and turning through the labyrinthine maze, Xander's deep blue eyes flitted from side to side instinctively, but every corner revealed the same thing: brightly lit, stone cold empty corridors. It felt like exploring some kind of modern day catacombs.
"Xander?" Cassie said quietly as they ascended a flight of stairs to the next deck.
"What do you think's happened to the crew?"
"I have no idea, Cass," he replied. "That's why we're going to the bridge, to get some answers."
"I'm sure our sensors were working properly," she persisted. "But no life-signs. Either they're not here or…" her voice trailed off.
"Well that's not a possibility we're considering," Xander declared. "At least, not yet. Just keep your cool. There's a logical reason for this, I'll bet my shoes on it." The pair lapsed into silence after that, the sound of Xander's voice echoing disconcertingly in the deserted passageways. Continuing on they made their way steadily closer to the factory ship's bridge. However, they paused when Xander spotted an elevator at the far end of their current passage.
"You said the power's still on," he murmured.
"Uh-huh," Cassie replied, pulling up alongside him. "That elevator should be working fine."
"Good news for us then." Xander cracked a smile, clapping her reassuringly on the shoulder. "C'mon." He set off again, hitching his backpack higher onto his shoulders with a grunt of exertion. Cassie hesitated for a fraction of a second before following him, casting a nervous glance over her shoulder. The corridor, however, remained empty.
at the elevator door, Xander punched the release button surprisingly hard. As
his companion moved up beside him the doors slid silently open. Poking his head
inside he checked the interior of the metal casket, but nothing seemed to be
"Going up," he chirped, stepping inside. Cassie followed suite with a mock frown.
"What floor's the bridge on?"
"Ninth," Xander replied as the doors closed. "Right on this big monster's nose cone." He reached forward and pushed the number nine on the panel beside the door. The number lit up, but nothing happened. Blowing out his cheeks he waited. Then tried again.
"Maybe it's offline or something," Cassie muttered, moving forward to examine the control panel. As she reached forward, however, the elevator lurched violently into motion, throwing her backwards with a yelp of surprise. Xander grabbed one of her flailing arms, stopping her from slamming into the rear wall of the chamber and pulled her upright.
"The hell was that?" she exclaimed, staring wide-eyed at the innocently glowing panel.
"Beats me," Xander murmured, letting his gaze wander around the silvery metal interior. The machine was moving smoothly now, the hum of its systems filling the tiny space. Narrowing his eyes he tapped his earpiece, opening a channel to the Lunchbox. "Jonas, come in."
"Got you loud and clear. What can I do for you, Cap?"
"Have you been monitoring the Gehanon's power output?"
"That I have," the pilot answered cheerily. "Why?"
"Well Cass and I are in one of the elevators," Xander explained. "And the thing just had a bit of a fritz when we tried to get it going. Did you pick up any power spikes or surges?"
"Nope, everything's silent as a grave up here, Xander."
Cassie shot him an incredulous look. He gave a nod of understanding before replying. "Alright, keep your eyes on the power readings. You see anything out of the ordinary radio me straight away."
"Will do, Jonas out."
"No way! That was a power jolt, it must've been!"
"Hey, I'm with you." Xander shrugged. "I was just checking. Just because we didn't read a spike doesn't mean there wasn't one."
"I don't like this, Cap," she declared. "Sensor readings going haywire, the crew missing and a message from that Nordstrom guy, none of it adds up."
"Believe me, I know. That's why we're going to find some answers." The elevator ride passed without further incident until the doors slid open again, revealing yet another gleaming white corridor.
"I've seen more life on a black-rock asteroid," Cassie whispered under her breath, pulling her military style body warmer tighter, but in the complete silence of the Gehanon's halls Xander heard her anyway. He stepped out of the elevator.
"Look, Cass," he began without facing her. "I'm just as creeped out by all this crap as you are, but the sooner we get to the bridge, the sooner we dig out some answers from this hulk the sooner we can all go home. Okay?"
"Yeah I know." She stepped out of the elevator, looking furtively left and right. "Let's be quick about this."
"Well, assuming we're on the right floor," Xander replied. "We go down this central corridor, take a right then a left and we're there."
"Then let's go." Without waiting for him, Cassie set off down the corridor, moving so quickly that he had to jog to pull level with her again. Striding through the lifeless passageways they turned right, followed a short connecting corridor then turned left onto the main bridge hall. Virtually identical to the rest of the ship, the bridge corridor spanned a wider area, solely to accommodate the massive steel door at its far end.
Walking straight up to the door control, Cassie pushed the open button in a flitting, nervous motion. The cumbersome structure didn't respond. She tried three more times with the same result before kicking the plating of the door with a growl of frustration.
"Damn thing's locked from the other side," she grumbled, sidestepping over to the control panel. Wedging her screwdriver under the small plate, she broke it open, revealing the circuit board. Xander raised an eyebrow at his companion's impatience. With a grunt he dropped into a crouch at the central fissure of the door. Squinting at the barely discernable line that separated the two halves of the door, he spotted a tiny bubble-like blemish running up and down the otherwise flawless metal. His eyes lit up in surprise as a realisation struck him.
"Eh…Cass, that's not going to work." He nudged his companion. "It's fused solid from the other side."
"Someone's melted the friggin' doors together."
Cassie dumped her bag on the floor and dropped down beside him, staring intently at the joint. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion and she reached out, running her index finger lightly down the rough, bubbled surface. "Why?"
"That's the million dollar question," Xander replied, standing up. "But this is the first sign of life we've seen on this hulk." He tapped his earpiece, opening a channel to the rest of the crew. "Redge, come in."
"I'm here," the man replied. "We're nearly at the furnace chambers now. Still no sign of life anywhere. How you getting on?"
"We've made it to the bridge," Xander said. "And the doors are fused solid. Somebody was here."
"Xander," Cassie interjected, tapping the screwdriver against the door. "This was done recently. The agent has barely had time to run its course." He nodded his understanding.
"And," he spoke into the earpiece. "It didn't happen that long ago."
"You think someone's inside?"
"Couldn't say." Xander unshouldered his backpack and placed it on the floor of the corridor. "But I know how we can find out. You guys radio me when you reach the furnace chambers; we're going to cut this thing open." Closing the com channel he opened his bag and reached inside, retrieving a small, portable thermo-cutter. Handing the black tube to Cassie he picked the backpack up again and returned it to his shoulders.
"What are you doing?" she asked nervously.
"I'm going to check the living quarters." He pointed at the door. "You just cut this thing open and radio me when you're done, okay?"
"I…" She hesitated, glancing down the empty corridor. "Yeah, just don't go too far."
"Relax, Cass, I'll keep in touch." Xander tapped his earpiece with a grin. "The main living quarters are on deck seven, I'll be two flights of stairs away." Stepping forward he ruffled his young companion's hair playfully until she ducked away. "See you in a bit." Turning, he set off back down the corridor, leaving Cassie staring at his back until he rounded the nearest corner.