14. TROUBLE ON THE WANDERER

A huge alien ship appears in the Candal system.
Tony and Bea are sent to check it out.

When the alien ship’s airlock door opens, that seems a friendly invitation, so they take their ship in.  The boy who opened the door gives Tony a friendly welcome, but his leader greets Bea with a drugged bullet.

Length : 38 500 words.

TROUBLE ON THE WANDERER
1
“A SPACESHIP?”

Sendi ordered the computer terminal, “Victor, wake. Show us our visitor.”

A picture came up on the screen, showing a square black sheet with a black box in the middle of one side. The bright dots of stars shone round it.

I asked, “A spaceship?”

Sendi answered, “It must be, but it is unknown to the Federation.”

The Bean asked, “How big is it?”

“The sheet is about five kilometres square. The box is about two kilometres square and a hundred metres deep.” Sendi spoke into his wrist unit, and ours translated his answer, giving the sizes in kilometres and metres.

I whistled. “That’s big! Has it done anything?”

“No. About an hour ago, it appeared in our solar system and parked itself in an orbit round the sun.”

“Doesn’t it answer signals?”

“No. We’ve tried everything. So our base commander ordered a team to go up and take a closer look at it. You two were the nearest agents.”

The Bean…. Sorry! Her official name is Bea. She’s my cousin. We’re agents of the Galactic Federation – Troubleshooters. She asked, “Do you think we’ll find anyone in there?”

“No. No one alive. An automatic pilot could have brought it here. Our Victor’s signalling to it, and I’ve sent a robot across. If it doesn’t reply to that, we’ll assume there’s no life on board.”

I asked, “If it does reply to that?”

“That’s why you’re here. You will…. What’s that?! Victor, zoom in on that panel.”

The picture zoomed in on the side of the box – with a door which was sliding open, showing complete blackness inside.

2
“GRAMBLE!”

“That’s interesting.” Sendi’s voice broke the silence. “It’s like an invitation.”

I asked, “Can you zoom in a bit more?”

“Yes. Victor, zoom in on that entrance.”

Even then, we couldn’t see much. It looked like a huge empty hall, but it disappeared into the darkness.

Sendi asked, “Do you want me to take the ship in?”

It was the Bean he asked. Victor judges the reports of every mission, and gives agents ranks. The Bean’s rank (616) was higher than Sendi’s (474) and mine (610), so she was in command of this mission. I don’t like her rank being higher than mine, but I can’t gripe: her brains have saved us on more than one mission.

She frowned, biting her lip and looking at me.

“Go in,” I said. “Opening that door shows intelligence, even if it’s only an automatic response. If we don’t go in, they’ll think we’re rude or frightened.”

She frowned. “Sendi, are you reporting to Candal 2?”

“Yes. Our sound and pictures are going to the big orbiting observatory. But we’re here. We have to make the decision.”

“I was just checking. We were sent up here to contact that ship. Can you take us in?”

“It will be slow.” He began to give the orders to Victor.

We moved to the opening, and through. Our ship’s cameras, set for low light, showed a huge, bare hall – the entrance hall and airlock of the alien ship. Sendi began, “The big ship does not….”

Crash! Our ship fell a short distance, making us stagger. Sendi said, “I was saying that the alien ship does not have artificial gravity. I can now correct that: it does. We have landed.”

“Look!” I called. The door was sliding shut. The bright spots of the stars disappeared, leaving the screen completely black.

“What was that crash?” The third member of our team rushed in, red-faced. In case the team met an alien, it had to include a Negotiator, and he had been the nearest one. Augustus – Gussie when he wasn’t listening – was a fussy old git. During our training, the Bean and I had gone on a mission with him – and fallen out with him.

Sendi and the Bean and I were wearing our uniforms – like grey tracksuits with coloured bands round the chest and cuffs – Sendi’s pale blue, showing he was a Pilot, and ours the dark green of Troubleshooters.

But Gussie said he must be properly dressed to meet aliens. He was wearing a dazzling white shirt, and navy blue jacket, trousers and tie.

Sendi told him, “We have entered the airlock of the alien ship.”

“Without my permission?”

That was a laugh. On our mission with Gussie, his rank was 289, and, after the mess he made of that, it’d be even lower now. He went on, “Can you take the ship out?”

“Yes but, if I do, I can’t return. Victor can’t calculate the exact position.”

I said, “I don’t want to leave. We should go out.”

“Do not be foolish,” snapped Gussie. “You do not know what you may find.”

“That’s why we’re here. To check the ship out. Bean, what do you think?” I hoped she wouldn’t want to say, “No,” to me.

“We’ll wait for a while. See what happens.”

Gussie asked, “Pilot, what would you do if the ship is threatened while anyone is outside?”

Sendi answered, “I’d take off immediately.”

I asked, Leaving us?”

“Leaving you.” He grinned. “I’m sorry. Victor, are we in contact with the Candal 2 observatory?”

“No. The alien ship’s hull blocks the radio signal.”

“That’s what I thought.” He turned to us. “If you go out and hit trouble, that information must go to the Federation. If this ship is threatened, it must escape while it can. We can leave now if you want.”

“No,” I said, but he was asking the Bean.

She said, “N…no. We’ll continue – cautiously. If nothing happens for an hour, we’ll go out.”

I asked, “Should we use spacesuits or bubbles?”

It was Victor who answered. “They will not be necessary. The chamber has filled with a mixture of gases which you can comfortably breathe, and it is now lit.”

Lights had come on along the edges of the floor and ceiling. The hall must’ve been the size of a footy pitch, and at least twice as high as our ship, with black metal ceiling, walls and floor. Near us, a heavy door was open, swung back against the wall, but the opening was blocked by another door behind.

When everything stayed quiet for an hour, the Bean, Gussie and I went to our ship’s entrance hall with the fourth member of our team – Carrington, a robot like a flying saucer about a metre across, hovering above my left shoulder with the blast from his jets blowing my hair. Sendi was in the control room with the door closed, watching us on the screen.

I took three stun-guns from the trolley that held the kit for our trip. I gave one to the Bean but, when I held one to Gussie, he stepped back as if he expected me to use it on him. “I hope you do not intend to wield these things. We have come to befriend these people, not to conquer them.”

“I’m not going to wield it – but I am going to take it.” I didn’t put the gun on the clip at my waist, but slipped it in my pocket.

“You may do as you please as long as you do not risk the success of the mission. I shall wait here. I shall emerge when I am certain that it is safe to do so.”

“If you want it, it’s here.” I put the gun in the trolley.

The Bean said quietly, “Right, Tony.”

I faced our ship’s door. “Open.” It slid aside. Air swirled in, cooler than the air in our ship.

I went out with Carrington above my left shoulder. The place was huge, silent and empty. The nearest wall was about forty metres in front of me, with the door about the size of an ordinary door on Earth. That meant the people weren’t any bigger than me. I hoped.

“Carrington,” I said. “Fly round the place. Transmit your picture to my wrist unit.”

“Yes, sir.” He zoomed off, but the tour didn’t tell us much. The place was empty. Apart from the outer door, it had only two entrances – the door facing me, and huge double doors – shut – in the ceiling near the back.

I called, “Hello.” My voice drifted into the emptiness.

“Hello.” Louder. It rang off the walls and faded into silence.

“Carrington, come with me.” I took a deep breath and walked towards the door. When I was about five steps from it, it opened, swinging away from me. I stopped and glanced back. Our ship, with the Bean standing near the open door, looked horribly far away.

Next moment, I could’ve laughed in relief because a boy appeared in the doorway. He looked about the same age as me, with short fair hair and a round face with a half-smile. He wore a baggy dark grey sweatshirt and trousers. On the sweatshirt, under his chin, was a big white circle with black squiggles.

The Federation likes young people from Earth as agents because we can sense the feelings of people from other planets. This boy gave a weak but clear mind signal – worry as he looked at Carrington. So I said, “Carrington, back off a bit.”

“Certainly, Tony sir.”

The boy gave a relieved smile, lifted both hands high above his head, and called, “Grample!”

I lifted my hands above my head and called, “Grample!” I thought it sounded the same as the boy, but he laughed. He pointed to himself. “Whistle.”

“Hi, Whistle.” I pointed to myself. “Tony.”

“Tony,” he repeated and waved me to follow him through the doorway.

I spoke over my shoulder. “He seems friendly. Augustus, do you want to take over?”

Gussie’s answer came from inside our ship. “No. I do not negotiate with children. Kindly order him to fetch the commander.”

That might be tricky since I only knew one word of the boy’s language – “Grample,” which probably meant, “Greetings,” but I shrugged. “Whatever you say.”

The doorway led into a control room. On the wall at the left was a big screen showing a clear picture of our ship. Below it were switches and dials. Facing the screen was a command chair and a table with an empty bowl, a sheet of yellow cardboard and a mug of yellow liquid. Through an open doorway at the right, I glimpsed a room with stuff – machines? – under grey cloth covers.

Spotting a speaker below the screen, I went to the door and called Carrington into my arms. Whistle looked nervously at him but didn’t protest as I carried Carrington to the speaker. “Carrington, this ship seems to have a computer. Would you communicate with it and ask Victor to set some wrist units for the language of the people?”

“Yes, Tony sir.” He hovered beside the speaker and squeaked at it. Before long, it squeaked back at him.

The Bean appeared in the doorway and exchanged Gramples and names with Whistle. From our ship, Gussie yelled, “Order him to fetch his commander.”

A whining noise, a thump, then running footsteps brought a boy into the other doorway. He looked about 15, with short black hair and a sneering expression. Like Whistle’s, his grey sweatshirt had a white circle with squiggles under the chin, but it also had a white band round the left cuff.

The Bean was nearer him. She lifted her hands. “Grample.”

He laughed – a nasty laugh – and pulled a white gun from his pocket. It made a loud pop, and the Bean fell.