54. TROUBLE ON IXI IXO 9*

Why did Solonso visit Ixi Ixo 9, and why did he disappear there?
Tony and Bea are sent to find out.

When some explorers on Ixi Ixo 9 see ghosts, and others fail to return, the Galactic Federation makes a strict rule that no one must visit the planet. Despite that rule, they allow Solonso to go.  When he fails to return, Tony and Bea go with his young daughter to look for him.

Length : 8 500 words.

1

ROCKS.

“Let’s go,”  I said.  I switched on the head-torch on my helmet, and ducked through the narrow gap between the two rocks.  The ground sloped up, but the rock was rough, giving a good grip to my boots.  In the darkness high above my head, my beam showed one slab, jammed against the other.

About ten steps in, the slope stopped suddenly at the edge of a short, steep drop.  I jumped down, into a tiny hollow among the rocks.  The ground wasn’t level, but I could stand.  A white < on the rock pointed to a high crack at the left.I shone my beam in.  I couldn’t see the end of the crack: it must be long.  And it was narrow – very narrow.  I took off my backpack, and slid in.  Behind me, I heard the thud as the next member of the team jumped down.

I shuffled on, through the crack.  It was so narrow that I couldn’t face forward, so I had to look sideways to see where I was going.  At one place, I had to climb over a rock about the size of a footstool.  Then I had to wriggle under a big slab that was jammed across the crack.

Farther along, the rock at the left stopped, leaving a triangular hollow. Where now?  Another V pointed to a gap under the rock at the right.  I knelt, to shine the beam in.  It showed a short tunnel, getting wider and higher as it went on.  I crawled in, dragging my backpack.

This planet, Ixi Ixo 9, was uninhabited.  I’d seen an aerial photo of the place we were exploring.  Rocks, most of them bigger than cars, were piled in a huge, untidy heap, leaving lots of funny-shaped gaps between them. Over our uniforms, we were wearing tough suits, to protect us from the rough rock.

The gap stopped at a rock face with a white, upside-down V.  I stood – carefully – but I didn’t bang my helmet on anything.  Behind me, a rock sloped high over my head.  In front, it went up steeply more than twice my height, with blackness above.

Could I get up there?  I had to try.  I put a foot on the slope.  The rock seemed rough enough to give a grip.  I took a deep breath, and walked up. No problem.  On the other side, the rock sloped gently down, so I sat on the edge, to wait for the others.

There were four of us on this mission.

Me.  I’m Tony.  Age 13.  Born in Scotland, but now an agent of the Galactic Federation.  I’m a Troubleshooter: I get the tricky jobs that no one else wants.  I was quite enjoying this one, but I didn’t like to think about the thousands of rocks piled above me.

The next head-torch appeared, and Talypso stood.  She was about 11 Earth years old, but from the planet Twiglo 5.  Twiglons remind me of twigs, because they have skinny – very skinny – bodies, arms and legs, and their skin is the colour of tree bark.  Talypso’s beam waved as she looked around.  Seeing me, she grinned, and climbed up, quickly and easily.  She spoke into her wrist unit, and the translation came through mine.  “This is an interesting place.”

A big backpack appeared from the gap, followed by the next member of our team – G-Zh-N, our guide and porter.  He was from a planet with a weird name.  Its natives can’t say vowels, so their language, including names, just has consonants, with sort-of breaths in between.

Would you call G-Zh-N human-like?  His body was about the same size as mine, but the shape of a packet of cornflakes (with rounded edges). At each end of the bottom was a leg which was shorter and thicker than mine. At each end of the top was an arm which was much longer than mine. And bendy: I don’t think he had bones.He had no head, and no eyes.  He sensed his surroundings like a bat, using ultrasonic rays.  Since he could find his way in complete darkness, he was a good guide for exploring underground.

Standing at the bottom of the slope, he squirmed a bit, using his ultrasonic sensors, through the slots in his suit round the top of his body.  Then he climbed using his hands and feet.  He looked clumsy, but he romped up that rock.

As he stood beside me, I asked,  “OK?”

He put his wrist unit to his mouth, in the top of his body, and grunted, “Yes.”

The last head-torch bobbed around below.  Bea.  She’s my 11-year-old cousin, also an agent of the Federation.  Her beam waved over the rock, as she looked at it, then up at us.

I knew she’d want a help, but she wouldn’t like to admit it, so I asked, “Rope, Bean?”  G-Zh-N and I had bits of rope about five metres long, to use in places like this.

One end of the rope had a claw.  I hooked it into a hole in the rock, and threw the other end down to the Bean.  She took it, and hesitated.  I knew she was psyching herself up, and I knew I’d get a telling-off if I said something encouraging, like,  “It’s not too hard,”  so I just watched quietly as she pulled herself up.

She sat beside me, and said shakily,  “This… this  is not easy.”

I asked,  “D’you know where we are?”“Yes.”  Her wrist unit screen showed the grey shapes of rocks, with a bright green line weaving through them.  On a clip at her waist, she had a gadget called a navigator, which sent a signal to her wrist unit, showing exactly where we were.

From the other side of the Bean, Talypso said,  “We won’t get lost.  We’re following Dad’s marks.”  Solonso, her dad, had made the Vs we were following.  Eight days ago, he and G-Zh-N had been exploring in these rocks.  G-Zh-N had come back, but Solonso hadn’t.  We’d come to look for him.

I asked,  “G-Zh-N, how do you make these marks?”

“Use this.”  He took a thing like a gun from a clip at his waist, pointed it at the rock in front of him, and pulled the trigger.  A white jet shot from the muzzle, making a faint V on the rock.  In a few seconds, it foamed up, to a bulging white V, like the ones we’d been following.

The Bean said,  “We can’t leave that there.  If everyone did that, the caves would soon be a mess.”

G-Zh-N said,  “It goes in twenty days.  Or use this.”  From another clip, he took a thing like a torch.  He pointed it at the new V, and pressed a button on it.  In its hazy blue beam, the V got smaller and smaller, until it vanished.

As he put the thing on its clip, I pointed to one of the two small silver cylinders on other clips.  “What are these?”

He hesitated, then tapped the stun-gun, on its clip at my waist.  “Same as that.  To defend.  Go?”

“Yes,”  said Talypso.  “It’s not time for our break.”  We’d agreed to have a short rest every three quarters of an hour.

“OK, Bean?”  I asked.

She sighed.  “I suppose so.”I led – down the gentle rock slope, then through a crack at the right.  We went on in silence, except for the scrape of our boots and suits on the rough rock – climbing slopes, creeping through cracks, ducking under rocks, always following Talypso’s dad’s marks.

We stopped for our rest in a triangular hole.  The floor was flat, but the roof was so high that our beams couldn’t see it.  We shared a bar of chocolate from G-Zh-N’s pack.  He had the big pack, with most of our gear.  My pack had our emergency equipment.  Talypso had a coil of thin rope – more like cord – slung round her.

After a ten-minute break, we went on, through more cracks and gaps. We’d been moving for another ten minutes when the Bean called,  “Tony, are you still following the marks?”

“Yeah.  Haven’t you seen them?”  I was puzzled, but not worried.

After another ten minutes, I scrambled down a steep slope to a flat rock, with a slot at each side.  Neither of them had Talypso’s dad’s arrow.

I waited till the others had climbed down beside me, then asked,  “Where now?”

G-Zh-N said,  “Solonso tell me, ‘Wait here.’  He go there.”  He pointed to the gap at the right.

Talypso asked,  “Why didn’t he make a mark?”

G-Zh-N said,  “Not know.”

Talypso said,  “Dad’s an experienced explorer.  He would never go anywhere in a place like this without marking his route.”

G-Zh-N didn’t speak.

The Bean said,  “I suspect that we left your dad’s route about ten minutes ago.”

We looked at G-Zh-N.  He didn’t speak for a while, then said,  “I explain. Watch.”  He pulled one of the silver cylinders from its clip, and threw it down on the rock.  It burst into a dazzling white flame.