8. TROUBLE ON JINJI 5*

It’s an ordinary shuttle trip for Tony and Bea
- until it ends in a dark and silent room.

When they investigate, the local leader appeals to them for help.  A gang of crooks has damaged the shuttle line to stop anyone interfering while they hijack a shipload of valuable ore from the nearby mine.  And, with the power down, no one can warn them about more danger on the way.

Length : 27 900 words.

1

DARK? COLD?

I lazily opened my eyes. It was dark. The air felt cold on my face. Dark? Cold? As my mind surfaced, I realised something was wrong. The shuttle should be warm and bright.

Shuttles are little cabins with one bunk above the other. They’re the usual way of travelling between planets that are far apart. They hop through the stations of the planets in between. The hops twist your guts, so the shuttle puts you to sleep for the trip, and for an hour after, to recover.

But, when you waken, the shuttle is warm and light. Not cold and dark.

As I sat up on my bunk, a nervous voice came from the one below. “Tony, what’s happened?”

That was my young cousin. “Young,” means younger than me. I’m 13, she’s only 11½. She’s a skinny girl: when they were giving out muscles, she was back in the queue for more brains. Her mum and dad call her, “Beatrice”, and her official name is, “Bea”, but I’ve always called her the Bean. She’s a good kid.

A few months ago, the Bean and I accidentally found the secret Earth base of the Galactic Federation. We became agents of the Federation. This time, we weren’t on a mission: we were on our way home. But, if this was Farhoy 12, the nearest shuttle station to Earth, something was badly wrong with it.

“I’ll get a torch.” I jumped down and felt my way to the kit trolley, a big metal box on wheels, carrying the equipment we’d used on our trip.

The shuttle began to shake, making the kit trolley wobble under my hands. I asked, “D’you feel that?”

“Is it an earth tremor? Maybe that’s why the power went off.”

The shaking died down as I swung the torch beam round the shuttle. The Bean was sitting on the edge of her bunk, looking worried.

I said, “The shuttle looks OK.” I faced the door. “Open.” It didn’t move. That was no surprise.

I shone the torch on the metal surface of the door. “Isn’t there a slot on those doors, so that you can open them if the power goes off?”

“Tony… Tony, do you think we should put on our expedition suits?”

“That’s a good idea.”

Our expedition suits were in the kit trolley. They’d go over our uniforms, protecting us and keeping us warm.

Should we wear our helmets? When I turned to ask the Bean, hers was on. I didn’t ask: I put mine on.

“We’d better wear these.” I held up a wrist unit – like a watch with a screen, used for translation.

“I’ll take one. I suppose we should wear our stun-guns.”

“And our knives. I’d rather be laughed at by a friendly native than caught by an unfriendly one.”

Kitted up as if we were going on a dangerous mission, we went to the door. It still wouldn’t obey a command, but I found the slot, near the edge. I put two fingers in and pulled gently. The door slid open a crack.

No light streamed in. We waited with eyes and ears straining. Nothing disturbed the silence.

After a few seconds, I put the torch and an eye to the gap. All I could see was a band of grey wall and floor.

I pulled the door wider and poked my head and shoulders through. The beam swept over the room – bare walls, bare floor. The ceiling was the usual white plastic but it wasn’t glowing as usual.

“Nothing,” I told the Bean. In the silence, my voice sounded horribly loud. To show I wasn’t nervous, I added, “I’ll have a look round.” Maybe it fooled the Bean but it didn’t fool me.

I slipped out. This was a typical small communication centre – about the size of my maths room in school. One long wall had our shuttle door and two transporter doors (for shorter trips). On the wall at the left was the blank screen of Victor, the Federation computer.

And, under that, a hole so big that I could’ve got my head in. The edges were melted. Inside was a mess of charred plastic and wire.

The Bean said, “That explains why our shuttle stopped.”

I added, “And an earth tremor didn’t do that.”

“Jinji 5,” said the Bean. “What do you know about Jinji 5?”

“Jinji 5?” I asked.

She flashed her beam over the plate above the shuttle door, showing the name of the planet.

“Never heard of it.”

“Neither have I. Take care.”

We crept to the entrance, in the other end of the room. It led into a corridor cut out of cream-coloured rock. We must be underground.

We clipped the torches onto our helmets. The beams disappeared into the distance in the empty corridor. Empty? Was that a lumpy shadow on the floor? As we crept towards it, I realised what it was. The body of a man.