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It came out of nowhere.
The ship's sensors should have been able to spot it hundreds of miles in advance, but this time they didn't. I was relaxing in the pilot seat, nursing my exotic fruit drink, listening to pleasant music, and dreaming of the exotic forests and legendary beaches of Planet Caledonia. After thirty years of working in space, I decided to retire there. I was a seasoned space explorer and a former officer of the Confederation space forces. I'd fought many battles, studied many new planets, and met some interesting people during my travels as a planetary prospector and a teacher. I survived asteroid storms, energy leaks, and confrontations that killed many others. I didn't scare easily. I'd seen people die horribly in combat. I saw stars die. I had nerves of steel forged in a desire to survive and prevail. I thought I'd seen it all.
But what I saw on the screens of the main pilot console made me drop my drink and stare. The red monstrosity appeared before my vessel like some kind of grotesque bird from hell. The sight that unfolded before my eyes froze me into a stupor. The massive, red energy cloud pulsed before me like an enormous living heart. I could not effectively judge its dimensions, but it was colossal, bigger than any Confederation battleship, larger than any asteroid. The moment it blundered into my hyperspace highway lane, the ship's gravity wings were forced to shut down to prevent the hull from being torn apart by conflicting gravitational forces.
The red cloud held me in its invisible grasp and refused to let go. Primal terror gripped my heart with iron fingers. The hair bristled on the back of my neck, and every hair on my body crackled from the buildup of static electricity. I just sat and stared at the phenomenon until my survival instinct kicked in. I tried to regain control of the ship, but to no avail. All instruments worked fine, but when I tried manual override, I received an electric shock of such force that it threw me out of the chair and into the padded wall.
I swore mightily and struggled to my feet, feeling my muscles trembling from the shock effect. The ship weighed ten thousand standard tons, but it shuddered and shook like a small boat on stormy seas as the red energy fields coalesced and solidified. I could no longer see the stars. Behind the thick glass ports there was only a sea of red. "No, this can't be happening," I said aloud. "What the hell is this thing? Where did it come from?"
My desperate questions went unanswered. The red anomaly could have been a natural space phenomenon, but there was nothing natural about its behavior. Its massive, smooth red walls were all around me, reflecting my tiny vessel in thousands of mirrors. Crimson tentacles of pulsating energy flowed gracefully around the ship, flowing around the hull in an almost sensual caress. I shut my eyes and opened them again, then pinched myself very hard to make sure I wasn't dreaming. My brief pain was real, and the cloud remained. This was not a dream.
I was looking at alien intelligence unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. Until today, the prospect of encountering intelligent life in the known universe held far less probability than winning the Take Ten Interstellar Lotto jackpot. The human race wanted to meet intelligent alien life, and at the same time, deeply feared the consequences of such an event. Logic dictated there was intelligent life in the universe, and that it was as diverse as the species from planet Earth, the birthplace of mankind. There was little doubt that alien life would be different from ours, due to its unique evolutionary patterns. This time, I witnessed the ultimate proof, but I was in no mood to celebrate. I was scared because, at that moment, I was completely at the alien's mercy.
The ship's computers went dark and then flickered to life again. I tried to regain manual control, but received another electric shock for my efforts. I gritted my teeth and watched as computers were spurred to expose every scrap of data.
The red cloud was accessing technical information, as well as my private files. I was forced to watch as it greedily learned everything about me and my ship, then effectively shut down every system, except for a single data screen and life support. I felt a familiar sense of vertigo as the ship rotated around its own axis. The artificial gravity switched off, and I felt my body rise off the floor, floating weightless and helpless.
"Goddamn you!" I shouted. "What the hell do you want with me?"
In response, the lights behind the view ports flickered almost playfully, and the ship's computer came on line. "Prepare for hyperspace jump," it announced in a smooth female voice.
"You have got to be kidding me," I said. "Computer, restore manual control. Authorization Omega One, execute."
"Unable to comply, the override command is not valid."
"Computer," I barked, "emergency override, activate anti-meteor cannons."
"Unable to comply, the override command is not valid."
I clenched my fists at my sides and suddenly my stomach dropped. I watched the speed indicator on the console change from conventional to hyper-light propulsion mode. The green light switched to orange, and against all logic and reason the ship plunged into hyperspace. No, I corrected myself, the cloud had plunged into hyperspace, with my ship inside it. I was going somewhere, but I had absolutely no idea where that might be. The single active monitor showed me only darkness, devoid of any light. Hyperspace jumps tended to bend time and space in such a way that it was impossible to see any source of visible light for the duration of the voyage. All I could do now was wait and pray.
My prayers were soon answered. I wasn't molested or harmed by the cloud in any way, but I was still its prisoner. The gravity suddenly returned and I fell painfully on my butt, thanking the heavens that I didn't break anything. The red walls around the ship began to part like the petals of an immense flower, and once again I was able to see the familiar velvety blackness of space studded with glittering stars. Light abruptly flooded into the cabin, and the forward filters darkened to protect my eyes. The red energy fields receded further, and the crimson shroud surrounding my ship was immediately replaced by an immense field of blue and green. An orb appeared above the ceiling windows, and my eyes opened wide. I was looking at the planet that spread before me in all its alien glory. It was magnificent, and under different circumstances, it would've made me smile with joy of the discovery.
"Warning," the computer announced without emotion. "The ship has been caught inside the planet's gravity well. Secure all stations and prepare for atmospheric reentry."
On the screens and behind the armored view ports, the red cloud finally loosened its invisible grasp on my vessel and moved away, morphing into a huge disk that smoothly sailed away from the planet and toward higher orbit. My hands itched to give it a taste from my anti-meteor cannons. The electromagnetic guns, firing solid slugs at supersonic speeds, were capable of immense destruction. But after what the cloud did to me, I realized it would be no contest. In direct confrontation, it would squash me like a bug. I should feel very lucky it let me go.
The unknown planet spread before me like an enormous carpet. By the time I plopped into my seat, secured my harness and tried to escape, the ship began to enter the planet's upper atmosphere. The manual controls were restored, but then I realized to my anguish that the main engines were off-line and no amount of swearing and pushing on the buttons would bring them back to life. Orange flames enveloped the ship, and the gravity relentlessly pushed my body into the pilot's chair. I was falling like a meteor and prayed that the electromagnetic shields and the lower carbonized hull metal would save me from a fiery death.
Below, the unknown world waited. I gritted my teeth and prayed like I'd never prayed before in my life. Please, God, let me survive the landing. Please, God, save me and I shall sin no more . . .
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In the Space Marines, we called the planetary drop capsule the Hell Elevator. They never fed you solid food before the mission, just water and energy pills. This way, there was less chance of you and your buddies puking on each other. I personally never got used to drops, but there were daredevils who actually enjoyed them. The control stick felt sluggish in my hands, and until I entered the lower atmosphere, there was nothing to do but ride it out. I glanced at the screens and readouts. This planet had a thick atmosphere, and the orange flames around my ship continued to roar outside the windows.
After two minutes of fiery descent, the ship began to shake and shudder as if it were a cart rushing down an ancient cobblestone road. I had entered the range of sonic speeds, and as if by magic, the fire around my ship disappeared, and was replaced by frigid streams of howling wind. With the ship's gravity wings secure, I deployed the ramjet engine and the shaking stopped, replaced by a steady whine. Twice I plunged through the thick cloud cover, and twice I broke into the clear sky and under the rays of the planet's sun.
"Altitude one hundred thousand feet," the computer reported. "All systems nominal, outside temperature is minus seventy degrees Celsius."
"Atmospheric analysis," I commanded.
"Scanning," the computer replied. "Atmospheric content is similar to standard Earth-type planet. Oxygen levels are at thirty percent with traces of nitrogen and various neutral gases."
"Check the gravity and magnetic fields."
There was a brief pause, then the computer responded, "Magnetic field fluctuations are in balance with normal planetary rotation, gravity is 1.5g."
I rolled my eyes. I weighed two hundred standard pounds. On the surface I would be carrying an additional fifty pounds of my own weight. The thought brought me back briefly to my adventurous days in the military, when I, along with hundreds of grunts, endured long marches in every possible type of terrain carrying seventy pounds of weapons, food, and survival gear. Not only I was abducted by an unknown alien intelligence, I was also being thrown onto a planet where I would be huffing and puffing until my muscles and bones got used to their increased weight.
But I had little time to ponder over what condition my body would be in after I landed. I had to land somewhere. If this planet was colonized, I would contact the local authorities, rest for a day or two at the local hotel, repair my ship, tell the people in charge about the red cloud, and be on my way to Caledonia. I wondered where to land. There were high and flat plateaus, vast green fields, and thick green forests, through which I could occasionally detect the flow of a freshwater river. I could see no sign of human habitation. Still I had to try and raise them on the radio.
I flipped the transmitter switch to broadcast on all frequencies and cleared my throat.
"This is private ship Epsilon calling on all channels. I need assistance. Can anyone hear me? Please respond."
I repeated the message five more times and each time I received static in reply. Great, I thought bitterly. If this planet hasn't been discovered, then no one is going to hear me. Then, another thought struck me, and I smiled grimly despite my predicament. If this planet is empty but can support human life, I could lay claim to its discovery under the rules of the Colonial Planetary Survey Act. As a planetary prospector, I collected fat bonuses from several companies for several unclaimed worlds. I was already reasonably wealthy, but I could be even richer . . .
"Ramjet engine is overheating," the computer reported.
"Switch to turbofans."
"Turbofans are not responding."
"Diagnose the problem."
"Detecting electrical failure in the turbofan engine ignition system, recommend deploying glider wings to slow down the ship's velocity to avoid the crash."
"Shit," I said. "Do it."
I heard the whirring of hidden mechanisms, and the ship's glider wings deployed with a snap. The ship leveled at thirty thousand feet, and the only sounds I could hear were the purring of the air-conditioning systems and the humming electrical noise of the ship's navigational instruments. As the ship descended, I picked out what I thought as a perfect landing spot, a flat field near the forest. Just as I was about to make the necessary course correction, I heard a blip on the long-range scanner screen. Curious, I adjusted the instruments to follow the intruder. It was big and was approaching rapidly.
The ship's computer could not identify the approaching aircraft type and as the unknown vessel entered visual range, I realized why. I was looking at something that resembled a giant manta ray measuring no less than twenty feet from wingtip to wingtip. I could detect no engine nacelles and no canopy for the pilot. The gray manta made a wide circle around me, then another tighter circle and then, without warning, it attacked.
The creature slammed into the ship and bounced back in fury. It apparently realized its prey wasn't organic and was much tougher than the predator. I banked to the right and then to the left, taking evasive action. With engines inoperative, I could not outrun the creature, but I didn't want to kill it unless there was no other choice. The intruder stayed with me, and when I tried to change course, it would easily match the ship's velocity. The ship's ramjet could not function at this altitude and the turbofans were inoperable.
More blips suddenly blossomed on my screens. I counted six of them, and they were approaching rapidly. I hoped against hope that they were human aircraft. No such luck. The gray mantas screamed at me from the sky. A stream of what looked like large black needles projected itself from their bodies and bounced off the thick forward armor glass leaving scratch marks and sprays of yellow fluid. Whatever the hell it was, I didn't want to find out, but I had to get them off my back even if it meant taking one or two of them out.
"Computer," I commanded, "activate anti-meteor cannons."
A glowing targeting display appeared over the main navigation screen.
"Guns are ready and loaded," the computer replied.
"Automatic fire," I said.
The computer obeyed. But in its obedience it went beyond my expectation. Streams of ultra high-velocity slugs tore two of the creatures apart, and the computer proceeded with the methodical slaughter. Two more mantas went down before the predators realized they could not win; they turned and flew off. The guns fell silent, and the sky around me was clear again.
I wiped my sweaty forehead with a sleeve and grasped the flight stick, returning to the previous course. The computer could easily land the ship, but after the encounter with the red cloud, I decided to land using manual controls. The red cloud had no doubt hacked and possibly corrupted my systems. The only way to be sure was to land and do a thorough systems check. Maybe the damage was not serious, and I could make repairs on my own.
"Altitude ten thousand feet," the computer reported.
"Switching to manual control," I said. "Deploy inertial dampers."
"Dampers deployed. Airspeed is five hundred fifty miles per hour."
The land grew in my field of vision as I bled off the speed and watched the screens for any sign of intruders. I'd had enough for one day and looked forward to at least an hour of peace and quiet to get my head together and check the ship's status. In gliding mode, the ship was a pleasure to fly, and I actually smiled when I saw the ground rushing toward me.
"Airspeed is two hundred forty, altitude two thousand feet."
"Thanks, Mother," I said to the computer. "Deploy landing gear."
I heard a loud metallic click and then something snapped inside the ship.
"What the hell was that?" I demanded.
"Landing gear is inoperable. Recommend dumping fuel to avoid explosion during landing."
"What? Shit! I don't believe this!"
I grasped for the manual landing gear control and received a familiar electric shock. My fingers went numb, and I experienced an urge to smash the controls with my left hand. It would not do any good under the circumstances, and the console was designed to take punishment.
"Dump the fuel," I said through gritted teeth.
"Dumping the fuel and shutting down all nonessential systems except life support."
"Execute," I said.
The ship bled off the fuel gliding toward the ground. Holding the flight control stick, I bit my lower lip and waited for the impact. The numbers were steadily counting down and when the ship's belly finally contacted the ground, the ship shook and trembled as it rolled and tumbled, raising clouds of dust.
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