Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Saturn and Sphinx

by JD McDonnell


"Naturally occurring my ass," said Pilot Lee Gannon as he fought to keep control of the quivering flight stick in his hands. The stick shimmied short tight circles to the left. Dropship DS7 shook tight short circles to the right. Sparks flashed and somewhere in the middle of the dance his two hands nearly blurred out of existence, simultaneously going numb while lighting up with bone-stinging pain. Spacecraft were never meant to be flown by hand. How many centuries had passed since they figured this out? Unfortunately computer controlled descent was not an option. It was why they had shipped him here all the way from Mars. The exploratory team had wasted eleven robotic probes before figuring out that Saturn's massive magnetic fields were simply too strong for all but the simplest of craft outfitted with the hardiest old-school computers. To its benefit, DS7 did have an anti-magnetic field generator consuming its entire fifth level, but this did its best just to keep the DS7 lit and aloft. Asking the corporation for something as simple as a protected cybernetic uplink would been just plain greedy.

"Will you look at that," said Jessica Ness, stretching against her safety harness, barely able to contain her wound up awe, "Isn't it beautiful? It looks like fudge ripple ice cream."

Towering overhead, just beyond the giant plexiglas dome atop the ship, stood the shaft of the hexagon, the eye of the eternal hurricane that raged around Saturn's northern pole. It was almost three hundred miles high with perfectly crisp sides that only became all the more defined as they descended. Ironically, the wind speed inside the eye was quite calm. What was giving them hell was the constant drumming of sonic booms on the hull. This was thunder peeling off lightning bolts so tremendous that each could power an entire city for a year. The lightning never ventured inside the eye but the thunder hit them from all sides like cannonade with barely a sliver of time to react between blasts.

"Less gawking. More talking," barked Rod Dener, team leader. "Altitude Cory! Give me Altitude!"

"Four hundred and twenty three meters to touchdown," said Cory Tamil the flight mechanic, "Five meters per second descent."

"That's too fast!" shouted Rod, "Slow her down Lee!"

Shut the fuck up Rod, thought Lee.

"Four point eight meters per second descent." said Cory.

"Still too fast Lee!"

Shut the fuck up Rod!

"Three hundred and ninety eight meters!" said Cory, turning green around the jaw line. He was not good for spaceflight. Cory liked the certainty of mechanisms and control patterns. Being out of touch with anything solid left him nauseous. Cory sat back to back with Rod and at right angles to Jessica and Lee. It was a very convenient seating arrangement since it meant that no one would have to see him hurl his breakfast into his helmet once it finally came up. And it was coming up, As sure as the ship's altimeter was going down the bile in his esophagus was rising.

"Three hundred and fifty two meters!"

Not far away, a carrying case bungeed to the underside of the navigation table carried what might be called the fifth and last member of the crew. Despite the shaking blur of the ship rattling itself to pieces, he calmly licked himself. Tigger was Jessica's tabby cat and considered a good luck charm by the rest. If he truly was lucky, thought Lee, momentarily shooting his eyes away from the three monitors suspended on metal arms before him, then the damn cat wasn't carrying his weight today. Lee turned back to the landing pad display where something of a surface was rising into view. It was a hexagon with perfectly matched sides and striations leading from each vertex to a central point.

"Tell me what I'm seeing here Jess," said Lee.

"Three hundred and sixteen meters," interrupted Cory, "Three point four meter per second descent."

"The geospectrometer says it's a solid mass. It should be safe to land on. Wait a minute," said Jessica. Her computer screen ran with with a waterfall of glyphs and numbers. "Wait. No...,"

"Don't tell me no, baby," said Lee.

Jessica almost wanted to slap him. It wasn't that she couldn't be his baby. Lee was handsome enough, despite the mustache and occasional Martian cowboy hat, but this was no time to derail her thinking.

"No. It's good. It's quartz, a humongous, crystal of quartz."

"What's the word, Rod," said Lee, not that he cared spit for what the team leader had to say. Lee's arms burned up to the shoulder and there was no way he was going to take the ship anywhere but down without some rest and a stim shot. Still, Lee knew a thing or two about how big egos worked and it would be good to let the team leader feel he was needed.

"Set her down," said Rod.

"All systems go," said Lee.

"All systems go," added Cory.

"All systems n-no," said Jessica just a second too late, "I mean no! NO! GOD STOP!!!!"

It was quartz. It was solid crystal. How stupid could I be, Jessica screamed inside her head. The hull of the DS7 wailed out in agony. Alarms sounded. Emergency lights flashed. A digital loud speaker counted down the seconds to environmental resources depletion. The grated floor roared with escaping air.

Lee unfastened his safety belt and leapt from his seat. The gravity on Saturn was a bit heavier than back on Mars but not by much. He turned to Rod, Rod the God as they called him back at the academy. The man had managed to ace every course he ever took, but now he just sat there stupified by the flickering screen and lights and sounds. Lee hated to overstep the chain of command, but in a sense Rod was now just another malfunction to be dealt with.

"Cory," said Lee, "lock down levels one through five. Re-route all power out of one. Everyone, fresh ESU's -- even if you've barely breathed the one you've got. Stabilize the ship first, worry about breathing later."

Cory rolled out of his seat. Perfectly pale in the face, he just barely managed to remove his helmet before spewing the chunky remains of a bacon, egg and cheese bagel through the crenelated floor.

With no time for excuses or embarrassment, the crew came to their senses and rushed about their work, unlocking switches and redirecting power around as many damaged sectors as possible. Down on the lowest level of the ship a six sided crystal spike with a ten meter diameter had punched a hole through the floor like a giant awl, effortlessly curling back the hull and stopping mere centimeters short of perforating the level above it. Had the landing struts not found solid ground on the sides of the crystal, the spike would have peeled open the rest of the DS7 like a cheap party favor.

All in all, it was not a bad landing. Lee figured that if they hadn't hit the crystal dead center, the slope of the spike would have sent them skidding off into the eye wall. There the clouds whirling around them at a thousand miles per hour would have sanded the ship down to dust before any of them had had a chance to scream.

"So what do you think," asked Lee of Cory as they surveyed the damage done to the first level via video monitor.

"I think that's one hell of a mineral sample. Let's hack it off and leave," croaked Cory.

"Aside from the obvious," said Lee.

Cory flattened his face in thought. "On the lowest level we can weld a series of struts in place, to hold it tight. I don't know about take-off though. Those rocket pods need a base ring to keep from flipping up on their arms and smacking into the rest of the ship. The computer says the hull is intact but the software is not designed to judge internal integrity. Ninety Nine Percent? Fifty Percent? Twenty Three Percent? It's anybody's guess, especially under the stress of liftoff."

A hand came down on both their shoulders with a jarring force. Rod beamed above them. "Well boys, guess what you get to do?"

Lee looked over to where Jessica was changing the ESU on Tigger's space case. In her skin tight spacesuit the Enviro Sci Geek from Tyson U. was an amazing sight to be seen, far out of his league yet fun to ponder all the same. "Hey Jess," called Lee, "want to help us fix the loading bay?"

Jessica stood up and looked to Rod. Welding wasn't exactly her thing, but hanging out with a supervisor known for touchy-feely tendencies wasn't exactly her cup of tea either. Still, Rod was the boss.

"Sure," said Rod, "go with them. You guys get on with that and I'll contact the mothership to see what kind of assistance they can lend us."

####

The lowest level of the ship was far worse than it appeared on camera. The massive point of quartz had turned up thick crumpled peels of carbon-fiber steel, leaving just barely enough room to squirm around its entirety. Blown out plates were scattered everywhere. Electrical wires sparked and hissed like angry snakes descending from the ceiling. Worst of all, the room was cold -- scientific laboratory cold -- the kind of cold that could only be measured in Kelvin. Despite top-notch spacesuits the crew chilled inside their gear and took to hopping from one foot to the other, beating their thickly padded hands under their armpits to fool themselves into thinking this might somehow keep their extremities warm.

"All right," said Lee, carefully noting the spidery ice build up inside his helmet.

"Cory. Start those laser welders. We have to cut some debris free. And maybe get some damn heat in here too. Jess. Go up top and find us some enviro. A space heater at the very least."

"Right on it," said Jess, happy to disappear through the airlock.

Lee and Cory took to cutting off the curls of metal with reckless abandon. It didn't warm the chamber, but seeing the steel turn molten and fall apart like butter in a skillet warmed their hearts. They were halfway through a torn curl of substructure when Lee's communicator beeped and buzzed. It was Jess.

"I think I found an emergency unit, but it's too big for me to move."

"Be right up." said Lee and flicked off his laser welder.

He looked over to where Cory was standing on top of the crystal, cursing at a shard of metal caught up in a tangle of wires.

"You got this" he asked.

"Just get us some fricken heat cowboy. Before my nutts fall off!"

"All righty then."

The space heater was a bullet on wheels so mucked up with age that the only direction its didn't want to roll was forward. Still, Jess and Lee were determined and after a good ten minutes of wrestling with it they managed to get the beast tilted onto a roller dolly and trundled through the airlock.

Back in the cargo hold it was even colder than before. There was no longer a crystal as they had known it. The point had somehow retracted into the crystal shaft, exposing a hollow core. Cory's laser welder dangled over the edge by its power cord, but Cory was nowhere to be seen. Lee and Jessica carefully edged up to the hollow's rim. Down below lightning flashed and filled the tower with cold blue light. By the crackle of electricity they could see a single set of translucent steps spiraling down and widening out to follow the silo's sides in a descent to the edge of infinity. Cory was not down there. Cory was nowhere to be seen. They screamed Cory's name into their communicators but received only crackling fuzz for an answer.

####

Lee set a large dull green case on top of a pile of storage units and unlatched the lid. The heater was up and running yet the room didn't seem any warmer, especially not with Rod the God down from the command module and hawking over them as if they had lost Corey on purpose.

"I'm going down there," said Lee.

"And if you don't come back." said Rod, "who will pilot the ship?"

"You will pilot the ship."

"I don't know how to pilot a ship. That's why you're here."

"Then get an instruction manual."

Lee clicked together three black metal boxes, fixed it with a stock and loaded up what looked suspiciously like small mortar rounds.

"And what is that?" snapped Rod, "Is that regulation?"

"This is an RXD-49 Gyrojet rifle. It is both regulation and ship safe. It just doesn't look it. I bought it straight from the company store."

Ship safe meant that it could be used aboard a space ship without having to worry about blowing leaks in the hull. Typically it applied to needlers and tasers. Gyrojets had a very low projectile speed and hit with a shaped charge designed to explode in every direction except the one in which the missile traveled. They delivered concussions, very big concussions that just barely met the proper safety certifications.

"How about I go down there." said Jessica.

They both stared at her but only briefly.

"What," she said, plucking the rifle from Lee's hands, "you think a college girl doesn't know how to use one of these things? It's all point and click, these days anyways."

Lee turned back to Rod. What he wanted to hear was Rod volunteer to go search for Cory. But that wasn't going to happen now was it?

"How about, we all go down." said Jessica with more than a pinch of finality.

"No," said Rod, "someone needs to stay in communication with the mothership."

Lee took back the gun and prodded Rod in the sternum with its barrel. "I think the intern has a great idea. Let's all go down."

"Okay," said Rod not willing to push the issue any further, "but this will go on your permanent record."

"I hope it does," said Lee.

####

The steps were as slick as wine stems and just as perfectly cut. The walls were super thick yet crystal clear and only visible by the light from their spacesuit LED's reflecting against the glass. The term otherworldly stuck in Lee's head to an embarrassing extent. Of course it was otherworldly, this was Saturn after all. Still, the quartz tower didn't exist in his scheme of understanding. Jessica may have been able to pick it up and identify it with her pack of computer tricks, but the tower was like nothing that could possibly exist in nature, man-made or otherwise.

They followed the steps down below the clouds to where the world was darker than dark, discotheque dark, pitch black but broken by just enough stroboscopic flashes to leave ones eyes aching. A few thousand feet more and Saturn brightened up a bit, lit by distant lightning strokes refracting through endless curtains of methane rain. Unlike the eye of the hurricane it was quiet here. The thunder was just barely audible through the crystal, and that which they could hear probably filtered down from above.

A thousand more aching steps and the surface of the planet was reached, or at least a place in the stairwell that was on par with it. A small barren island of basalt had clustered about the crystal tower and just beyond it in every direction raged a silver ocean of metallic hydrogen. It was like liquid mirror or an endless expanse of pure mercury that scintillated with amazing brilliance when they shined their lights over it. The three stopped and stood for awhile, soaking in the awe. The crystal was not so clear here. It was scarred and abraded by the constant wash of chemicals, but still it was beautiful, lonely and beautiful.

"There's no life, anywhere," said Jessica, more demure than intrigued."

"Did you really expect to find any," asked Lee.

"A girl can dream, can't she?"

"Well." said Rod, "Somebody had to build these steps. Stairwells don't build themselves."

"I don't know," said Lee, "it could be like those submerged temples off the coast of Old Japan. Everyone thought it was the remains of an ancient culture, but it turned out to be nothing more than a volcanic arrangement of rock crystals."

Both Jessica and Rod looked at bundled brows of disbelief. Lee smiled awkwardly and cranked up his suit lights. Below the surface of the planet the tower was perfectly dark. The stairs carried on for ten or twelve more spins then stopped. Just after the last step they found Cory lying face down in the center of a large circular clearing.

"Oh, Cory, no!" cried Jess, running up and crouching beside him.

"What happened," asked Rod, keeping his distance, just in case plummeting to ones death was communicable.

Despite the unparalleled fall, the mechanic's space suit held together. Inside it he was as pliable as a chunky beanbag. The face of his helmet was an opaque plate of blood red glass.

"He fell." said Lee, blithely stating the obvious, "When the stairs opened up they must have caught him by surprise. See, I told you this thing is geologic. Anyone with half a brain would have put in a handrail."

"What's this under his chest," asked Jessica, running her hand above a strange hump in his rib cage.

"Hold on," said Lee. He flipped the body over to expose a triangular brass dial. It spun easily under his fingers and clicked to a stop before he could think not to turn it. A ring in the center of the floor split in half and dilated open with surprising speed. Jessica and Lee just barely scrambled to the safety of the sidewall before it fully retracted.

Cory's body disappeared into the black pit for a moment then reappeared. It shot upwards just as quickly as it had fallen down. It descended again and then reappeared, but this time with considerably less speed. Finally, like a tetherball on an invisible pole, Cory slowed to a stop, floating somewhere in the middle of the pit below them.

"I take back every fricken word," said Lee as he laid down and stretched out an arm to reach the floating corpse.

If Cory had been alive he might have been able to reach up and grab Lee's hand. As it was the body hung like a puppet on invisible strings, defiantly out of reach. From this perspective Lee noticed that there were more rings carved in the crystal. They could be used as finger and toe holds if he were daring enough. They could also be hiding blades or gears just waiting to slice into anyone foolish enough to try.

Lee got to his knees and then to his feet. "There is nothing natural about this place. I vote we leave. We know what happened to Cory. It's a damn shame but that sort of shit happens."

Rod stepped to the rim of the pit, aimed his suit camera and snapped off a couple of hi-res still shots.

"I don't know." said Rod with some thought, "I mean, think of the ramifications. Think of how interested everyone is going to be when we return with the news."

Lee's stare could have started a fire.

Jessica kneeled on the edge of the pit, looking down at Cory. "He had a wife and three kids." she muttered, "It'd be a shame if we couldn't at least give him a decent funeral."

Before either Lee or Rob could react, the science officer swung her legs over the edge and spidered down the side of the pit.

"You're not going to believe this," she called up through their bitching and moaning about how foolish she was being. "But gravity is reversing. Right where Cory is at. It's like deep space, a no-grav zone. I've never seen anything like it before. I'm going a little bit farther."

"No you don't!" shouted Lee, terrified at what she might find down there, terrified she might get back to the mothership and squawk about what a big chicken shit he was being.

"Guys, there's an other side," Jess radioed back, "And you're not going to like believe this, but it's a huge chamber. And it's beautiful. There are crystal bars set into the wall, glowing. Cogs and gears. Like the inside of a humongous clock but without a face."

"Is there anything alive down there?" called Rod.

"No. Nothing. No dust. No dirt. No signs of life. Perfectly clean, sterile beyond belief. It's like, have you ever been to a factory where everything is so orderly it seems like chaos. You just can't get your mind around it all? It's like that, only moreso."

"Jessica, come back up," said Lee," We aren't prepared to go this far."

"No," she said wistfully, "Just a little more."

Rod smirked at Lee. Who's the brave bold adventurer now cowboy?

"Let's do it." said Rod over a private com link, "Why should she have all the fun?"

Lee was not amused yet the dark hole did seem to beckon him. "You first," said Lee.

Rod nodded and climbed in. He handed up a line and Lee pulled the dead astronaut through. He set Cory by the stairs and then followed Rod down.

The no-grav zone washed Lee around until he was upside down yet right side up when he entered the giant sphere on the other end. There the ground gently curved beneath his feet yet somehow kept him standing upright no matter where he wandered. Miles overhead, in the center of the darkness, hung a gold gilt chandelier the size of a small city. It seemed almost Victorian with countless fluttering valves, springs, wheels, ratchets, pendulums and turn shafts -- all gargantuan in scale and spinning to a synchronized yet mentally unfathomable design.

Angles and creases in the floor rose in intensity as they moved away from the portal. Smooth basalt walls began to rise up out of ground. Lee and Rod caught up with Jessica just as she entered the maze.

"Wait." said Lee, "Let's not get lost in here."

"Just a little farther." said Jessica.

Then the shadows began to move. Softly glowing gemstones, seemingly no different from the ones used to make mindless glowing mosaics on the walls, plucked themselves out of the darkness and began to slither together. Someone let out a sharp scream. Lee spun and almost blasted what appeared to be a small black kitten with opals for eyes and streaming ripples of emeralds and sapphires running along its sides. The ribald glitz terminated with the flashing glint of diamond on the tip of its tail. The kitten sat on its haunches and looked at them, quietly, patiently. Another one slipped out of the shadows to join him, and then another and another.

"Oh my god," said Jessica, "They're so cute."

"Yeah, well," said Lee, flitting the rifle barrel off into the darkness but not daring to pull the trigger, "Maybe you haven't noticed but they're also moving to surround us."

The cats smoothed in around them, dozens of them, some scaling the walls as if only mildly amused by the matters of up and down. Others didn't so much walk as stretch and roll and slide about on the pull of four paws. These aren't cats, Lee reminded himself, they're aliens with a certain cat-like quality about them, a certain cattiness, like my first girlfriend in college. The memory made him shudder. He audibly freed the rifle's autoloader bolt.

"What are you doing," snapped Rod, "Nobody touch anything. We're just going to carefully trace our way back around to the porthole and return to the ship. Now! And that's an order!"

"Can't I pet a kitten," asked Lee, sarcastically.

"Nobody pets the kittens. Nobody touches the kittens."

"Awe, come on Dad," said Lee, "He followed me home. Can't we keep him?"

Rod thumbed his throat for Lee to cut it out. Suddenly the cats stormed towards them, en mass, like a silky black flood of fur and gemstones. Before the crew could scream, the feline army flowed past them and rushed up onto a giant obsidian flat, a byzantine platform that soundlessly rose at least twenty feet into the air above them. Atop the platform the cats folded together into a mass of oily black tendrils, white teeth, nails and thousands of small hissing jaws. A roiling spin of fur and fury brought the gem stones to resurface. Far too large and perfectly cut to be real rocks, the gems gave the creature substance, a form which resembled a giant panther made of opal and obsidian, gilded to the hilt. Small fits and sparks of electricity shot through the darkness of its body like strokes of lighting on the edge of a storm. The cat stretched up on its haunches and let out something which was half yawn and half spine rattling roar.

The three were too terrified to move.

I was wondering what took you so long. It thought to them, and then added with a second thought, Earthlings.

The three looked to each other with worried eyes. No, they were not the only ones to hear something that hadn't first come through their ears.

Four and a half billion years is a terribly long time to go without company.

"Oh," said Rod nervously, "Well. It takes time to um, to ah...."

"To evolve." added Jess with fear stricken glee.

"Yeah. That's right," said Lee.

"Up from protoplasm!"

Why are you here, asked the Cat.

Once again they looked at each other with worried eyes. Should they lie? Was it even possible to lie to a creature that communicates through ones thoughts?

"We're scientists." said Jessica, "just friendly, friendly scientists exploring your planet. Seeing what there is to see, that's all. Sight-seeing."

You are not here to control the machine?

"What machine," said Lee. "I'm good with machines. I can pilot almost anything."

What a pity. I will take no joy in destroying you.

The panicked babble that followed went in many different directions at once but ultimately returned to Jessica blurting out "What do you mean destroy us? We've done nothing wrong!"

And that only compounds the pity.

"But" stuttered Rod, "what's wrong with simply wanting to explore and discover and educate?"

And do all of those bullshit things the corporation trumpets in its commercials, thought Lee, momentarily forgetting that he was dealing with a creature that could read minds.

Tell me, said the Cat, has your species discovered life on other planets?

"Well, we've brought life to the other planets, here, in the solar system," said Jessica, "But no non-Earth life. No. That makes you the first! Isn't it great to be first!"

Have you discovered any other solar systems with large ringed gas giants in them?

"No. None I'm aware of," said Jess.

Have you ever investigated the coincidences between the two?

"That's not really our department," said Rod, "We don't actually do the science. We just collect the samples."

The cat angled its head down to stare through to the backs of their skulls. Thin streams of lightning flashed from its eyes. The bolts flitted effortlessly through their helmets and enshrouded their brains in a fine mesh of static electricity. Imaginations lit up with ancient alien memories. A giant crystal skewer shish-kabobbing a number of rocky black spheres sailed through space to where a bright whirling pool of stardust was compacting and hatching planets. The system was destined to have binary stars, but silvery saucers piloted by the mental flux of long haired cats set the baton in place and began it spinning. Once up to speed, the baton moved at an astounding rate, pulling dust and rocks into itself, robbing body and mass from what would become the planet Jupiter. Saturn sprouted rings to become one of the most familiar celestial objects in the sky.

Now do you understand why I cannot let you leave.

"No!" was the astronauts' resounding reply.

The Cat seemed perturbed. The near endless years of waiting had left him expecting so much more of his company.

If anyone were to shut down the machine, Saturn would disintegrate. Jupiter would absorb its substance, achieve critical mass and ignite. All life would be burned clean from the solar system. No place to house the cats. No servants to feed the cats. No one to pamper the cats.

"You can switch Saturn off," asked Rod, incredulously.

Has a machine ever been made that could not be turned off?

"Wait a minute," said Lee, "You're saying that all life exists -- in the entire solar system -- to keep cats happy?"

The Cat rose up on its forelegs and proudly stuck out its gem-encrusted chest. Four billion years ago, made in my master's image. Purrfect in every way.

"Four billion years," said Lee in awe, "Wait a minute. How are you even alive? Cat's don't last more than a few years. Are you a robot of some sort? Are you a machine?"

Are you a robot, returned the Cat sharply.

"What do you mean, am I a robot? Do I look like a robot?"

I have seen your mind and found a man who constantly chafes at the orders given him, yet he continues to follow -- even when he knows they are wrong.

The girl standing next to you. You have often thought of her and in some very lavicious ways. And might add my dear, you do look splendid in black leather.

Jessica looked at Lee, shocked, while also a bit flattered. Lee returned a toothy grin.

Yet you never do anything about it. Company protocal 9283: employees may not fraternize or become romantically involved with other employees while at work or afterwords.

And you call me robot.

Only the cat knows no master. Only the cat knows true freedom. We are all servants of the cat. And we do as we are told.

"Well this has been fun," said Lee with spite on his tongue and a tightening grip on the rifle, "but we really must be going." He flashed the gyrojet rifle up to his shoulder but never had the chance to squeeze the trigger. White bolts of lightning lashed out of the giant black beast. Stinging, burning fire streaked about their bodies, a sensation caught halfway between having the most amazing orgasm in the world and being deep fried. Only Rod was left unaffected. Before the Cat could take notice, the team leader rolled across the floor, snatched up the fallen gyrojet rifle and rocketed a round into the beast's chest. The explosion showered them with dark gem filigreed kittens, hissing bundles of black fur that quickly found their feet and scampered back towards the platform in a desperate attempt to reform.

"Come on!" commanded Rod, trying to drag a smoking Jessica and Lee to their feet. Slowly, groggily, the two stood up, stung back to consciousness by the stink of frying body hair inside their suits.

"Howwwwwwwww," asked Lee aloud, "Did you not get make bacon?"

"AS Implant. More later," barked Rod, "Now move! Run!"

They ran back through the convoluted maze of free-standing angles and basalt walls. AS Implant, thought Lee to himself. Holy shit. Rod has an Anti-Shock Implant in his neck. An ASI was little more than a computer chip attached to the spine which worked as a surge suppressor against pain, yet it was also a highly controversial device available only to the military for use in super soldier programs. They helped create warriors who could go on fighting despite having limbs blown off or being toasted by malfunctioning power armor. Rod was by no means super-soldier material which only furthered the mystery of how he ever got his hands on such a device.

They came to the portal. It was closed, covered over by crystal like ice on a pond. Rod hopped up and down on the lid. The surface refused to crack or even waver.

"Just blast it already," shouted Jessica.

"It's a ship safe gun!" grunted Rod, tossing the rifle at Lee as if this were somehow his fault. Lee flipped the rifle around and aimed at the hatch. The rocket hit the crystal sheath with an explosion that rocked them off their feet and sent sharp stints of crystal flying everywhere. Once the chaos had cleared, the hole was sharply edged but open.

"Jesus," exclaimed Rod, shaking off the reverberations of the blast still rattling through his teeth.

"I said the rifle was ship-safe," said Lee, "I didn't say anything about what I put in it."

Jessica dived head first into the hole and came out the other end landing on her feet. Rod and Lee shook their heads and followed in suit. On the far side of the portal the crystal tower loomed impossibly high, weaving and turning into a nauseating infinity above them. Lee reached down and patted the soft shoulder of Cory's inert form. He sincerely did want to bring the man back for a proper burial but it would be a miracle if they managed to haul their own asses up to the top of the tower. Their space suits were by no means the bulky white armor of old, yet they didn't exactly come with jet packs either.

"Sorry buddy," said Lee just as a black pool of tentacles burst up through the ragged hole, dozens of diamond fanged jaws screeching with ear and mind splitting clarity.

Quickly the three fled up the steps, holding their backs to the wall and their eyes to the horror swelling and pulsing beneath them, rising like tendrils of black oil in a well. Rod led the way with Jessica in the middle and Lee at the end, gun pointed back the way they had come. The Cat had broken apart to squeeze through the hole, yet it wasn't long before it had recoiled into its stately panther-like form and began charging up the steps after them with lithe leaps and bounds.

Thank God , thought Lee as he stopped on the stairs and lifted the gyrojet to his shoulder, Thank God you can't seem to fly either.

"What are you doing," shouted Rod, "don't stop."

Jessica shrieked as the beast rounded the stairwell opposite them with starling speed. Lee held onto a twitching nerve until the beast was almost on top of them, tooth and nail studded tentacles slashing through the air in every direction. He fired. The shell sank into the beast's chest and the following blast reduced the cat to a hailstorm of flailing kittens and gemstones.

"Okay," said Rod, panting nervously. The concussion had almost whisked him off the impossibly smooth steps. "Good. But next time not so close!"

I don't even get a thanks, thought Lee as he stared down into the inky darkness down below where sparkles and flashes of light were coalescing. He had hoped there wouldn't be a next time. He had hoped that despite the Cat's unfathomable invulnerability that it wouldn't survive a skyscraper tall fall. Luck however was not in his favor and Lee would blast the Cat back down to the bottom of the tower three different times as they ascended through the lightning field and into the freezing cold clouds above. Eventually the Cat wised up and began to simply stalk them, prowling the tower directly two flights below.

With backs aching and legs feeling as if they had been shredded by the endless flight of stairs the astronauts finally reached the tip of the crystal spire. It had tried to close on them, yet was narrowly held open by two curls of steel that Lee and Jessica had welded in place before descending the spire. Rod climbed through. From the other side he helped Jessica up. Rod stretched an arm back down for Lee.

"Throw me the gun," said Rod, "I'll cover you!"

"Don't bother" hissed Lee into his communicator, "I'm out of ammo."

"What do you mean you're out of ammo," shouted Rod.

"Get up here!" panicked Jessica, "Quickly!"

Out of ammo, Lee? thought a ferocious voice from below.

Like a hydra, the Cat split into a black mass of tendrils and slick polyps that shot out in every direction as it heaved its massive bulk out into the silo and rolled upwards towards the spire. Angry jagged bolts of electricity crackled through the air. Giant obsidian claws snapped forward from stretching tentacles as they whistled on the crystal steps like ice skates slicing across a frozen pond. The Cat had enjoyed the company yet grown weary of their games. It lurched in for the kill and exploded as the last shell in the gun pierced its black, gem-encrusted core and blew it into a thousand different disbelieving feline forms.

Sucker, thought Lee.

He tossed the spent gyrojet rifle down the shaft and scrambled up into the DS7's cargo hold. It hadn't been easy keeping his mind blank and thinking zero while the digital ammo indicator stared at him with a big red one, yet it wasn't impossible either.

Lee pulled himself up through the crack. Quickly the curls were cut free and the crystal tip spun shut. With the laser welders Jessica and Lee took to burning a bead of steel around its outer edges, praying it might hold the portal shut.

Finished, sweating butter inside their suits, Lee looked at Jessica and Jessica looked at Lee. Their eyes shot around the deck. Where was Rod? The hatch jumped as the Cat hit it with full force from below. The beast recoiled and vaulted again, breaking apart into a mass of writhing, screaming tentacles on impact.

"It's working!" said Jessica, delighted yet exasperated. "It's going to hold!"

"Great," said Lee, grabbing her hand and running for the ship's elevator, "Let's get out of-"

The room shook with the heavy grind and thump of the ship's anti-magnetic shield generator kicking in. Once it reached full force, it would be perfectly silent and barely anything other than yet another power drain on the reactor. Until then however, the amount of centrifugal force it tossed around was a scary thing. The elevator chimed and opened its doors. Rod stepped out. He had the struggling orange fur ball barely recognizable as Tigger clutched in one hand and a pistol in the other.

"What are you doing," shouted Jessica, "It's freezing in here. You'll kill him!"

Rod gently waved the gun in their direction, "Stand back the both of you. Go up top and get the ship ready for take-off."

Neither of them moved.

"Now!" shouted Rod.

They gave him a few blinks of disbelief but nothing more. Ignoring them, Rod walked over to the crystal spire and pressed the struggling feline's face against it. Below the beast pulled back and slammed the hatch until spider web thin cracks began to spread across its surface.

"That's right," said Rod. "Who do you love."

He leaned back and unloaded a shot into the glass. The slug ricocheted twice around the room before lodging in a fire extinguisher that dusted the floor with a rushing white cloud of dust.

"That can't be ship-safe," whispered Jessica, clinging to Lee's arm.

Rod held the cat up again and put the gun to its head. He clicked back the hammer. The whole ship seemed to jump with every hit on the beast against the crystal spire's underside. Invisible gears whined and skipped and screeched as they desperately tried to pull open the hatch.

Tigger bit into Rod's hand. Even though his teeth were not sharp enough to pierce the spacesuit glove, the shock of the prickly teeth was enough to jolt Rod into dropping the cat and pulling the trigger simultaneously. The searing slug blew his thumb off at the ball and sent the digit flying through the air like a small blood and steam powered rocket ship.

Rage incarnate, the Cat exploded into the room, suspending itself from a dozen gleaming black stalks anchored to the metal infrastructure. Electricity snap-crackled up and down the sides of the cargo bay. The beast reared back, ready to fall on Rod like a wave of pure death.

What hit Rod was not complete and utter destruction but a shower of cut and colored glass, the blackness that bound them suddenly gone like a shadow dispersed.

Rod picked up a piece of frozen metal and clutched it to his broken hand, hoping to freeze shut the wound. The anti-shock implant in Rod's neck kept out the screaming blind agony of the wound but still let in enough pain to tell him that something was terribly wrong. Tears ran down the side of his face. Tigger hissed at him and bolted for the open elevator. Jessica and Lee stood like statues on the other side of the spire. Lee licked his dry lips and spoke into his suit's communicator.

"What the fuck was that Rod?"

Rod turned the pistol on them.

"You. Lee," he barked, "go upstairs and get this heap ready to fly."

"Jessica. Get a broom and sweep up those stones. I want every one of them, and I want them on the bridge."

"You're crazy," muttered Jessica.

"Don't do it." said Lee, holding her back, not that she was actually making any moves to go anywhere or do anything. "Those stones aren't going anywhere except back down into that pit. They're dangerous. I won't fly with them on board."

"They're dead cowboy," he shouted, kicking a small pile across the floor. "Think about it. Billions of years old. Planet with nothing to eat on it but tons of static electricity. It was a robot, just like you said. Once the anti-magnetic field generator kicked in it was caught in the pulse and sucked dry. Throw those stones outside the field and it'll probably zip right back to life. And then where will we be?"

Lee was in no mood to compromise. By being the only one who could fly the ship he figured he didn't have to, pistol or not. "We toss them in," said Lee, "right before lift off or I don't fly."

Lee began to walk toward Rod, hand outstretched to take the gun. "Your pistol is no good here Rod. Triple F. Friendly Fire Failsafe. Threaten us all you want, but if that's company material, which I'm guessing it is, it's not going to fire."

Rod's brow quilted in anger. He knocked Lee aside with a shoulder to the chest and bolted past him to grab Jessica. Rod pressed his thumb against the gun's safety pad. The touch sensor flashed green and beeped.

"Sorry, but that doesn't apply to interns," sneered Rod, "So fly this ship or I blow some big ugly holes in your girlfriend."

"Jesus Rod," said Lee, "come on, think about what you're doing. Four billion years is damn a long time to protect a planet and we don't know what against. Do you really think it's a wise to leave Saturn defenseless? What if someone shuts that thing down. What if Jupiter attains critical mass?"

A greedy gleam filled Rod's eyes. Yes, it would be tragic and certainly any government or perhaps a certain corporation would greatly reward him for the chance to take over the Cat's role as the protector of Saturn, the sole defender of all life in existence. Keeping the solar system safe from total annihilation could prove to be a very lucrative prospect indeed.

"Just give up," said Lee, "You can't win. In order to take off we all need to be strapped into our acceleration seats, back to back. What are you gonna do then, train the gun on yourself? Aim it over your shoulder at her?"

Lee waggled an arm back over his head and contorted his face into a grimace of stupidity.

Rod jostled Jessica over to the edge of the crystal spire. He checked her life support gage and slapped her backside with a cold bloody hand. "Hit the steps and start walking, kid. Don't stop until you reach bottom. We'll come back for you, once we first get this load up to the mothership."

Jessica shot a worried look back at Lee, gulped, and then did as she was told.

"You heard me, move!" called Rod to Jessica, "All the way! When this thing takes off it's going to shoot quite a blast down that hole, and I'd hate to singe your pretty little head."

Rod trained the gun back on Lee before Lee could try something desperate.

"You," said Rod, "get busy shoveling the stones into those carrying crates. I want them on the flight deck. According to Jessica's ESU she's got eighteen hours left to live. That's more than enough time, but not if we dally."

"Dally? Dally! The ship's damaged you dimwit. We'll be lucky to get back to the mothership in one piece. It's not going to make another flight after this one!"

"Then you'll just have to be extra careful with your flight plan, now won't you?"

Lee detached a toolbox lid and began to shovel the dim gemstones onto it, cursing under his breath. The Cat was right, he did have a bad habit of always doing as he was told.

####

Back on the flight deck, Lee strapped himself in and checked the computer. Rod had locked off all communication with the mothership. The DS7 couldn't shoot off a distress signal if it was being hauled ass first into a black hole. Lee burned with anger. Rod had lost it. Rod was insane, insane with greed and pain and exhaustion -- much like himself, sans the greed. Aluminum sample containers packed with gemstones were netted and bungeed and strapped in wherever they could be stored. The flight deck was no longer a flight deck but a warehouse packed to the gills with stuff that did not belong. Even Cory and Jessica's empty recliners were now filled with pale aluminum suitcases. There was going to be a hellish amount of explaining to do once they arrived.

Countdown commenced. Engines throttled up. There were checklists to go over and procedures to commence, but screw it. Lee never thought much of such formalities and knowing just how badly damaged the ship was would not help him get it into space. The rockets blasted at zero and Lee hoped to God that Jessica had taken Rod seriously when he told her to go all the way to the bottom.

Gravity pinned them to their seats as the DS7 crabbed forward, seeming to skitter in every direction but up. The floor rumbled. The walls creaked and buckled and warped. Any second now the O-ring on the first level would splinter apart and send thruster pods smashing up into the body of the rocket. Bright red flames would explode through breaks in the steel floor and incinerate them just a second short of instantaneously.

Amazingly though, the ship held together. They rose up through the hexagon, past the different strata of clouds and out into the quiet of space. Not far away the USS Carter held a steady orbit. The massive steel hulk opened its bay doors and welcomed them in with a flashing array of emergency lights. Lee spiraled the ship around and gently set it down. His body wore a wet mask of cold sweat under his suit.

They had made it.

Somehow they made it back alive and with fourteen hours to spare. There was still time to pilot a ship back down the hole and pick up Jess, but not the DS7. The ship's computer read off a list of systems failures that could fill an online encyclopedia. The DS15 or the DS9, however, these ships might be ready for flight. They were a bit on the high-tech side but Lee could easily shut off the fancy stuff and fly it old school, now that he knew where he was going and what he had to contend with. Lee unbuckled himself and kicked up through the negative gravity.

A shot rang out. A hot steel slug perforated the back of Lee's spacesuit and sliced out through the front, carrying with it a bright red contrail of billowing blood. Lee grabbed his chest. That wasn't supposed to happen. His suit was kevlar reinforced to protect against space crud. It would take an armor-piercing round to penetrate one side let alone both. Definitely not ship-safe ammunitions. Definitely not company material. Just how far did Rod's treachery stretch?

"It's a shame you had to be so greedy," said Rod, bounding over with the pistol, "killing off your two teammates and then trying to kill me. Glad I wrestled this pistol away from you. To bad it had to go off in all the commotion."

"Bastard." hissed Lee. His lung sucked at the wound like a mad plunger, unable to breath in anything but his own blood.

"There are videos," said Lee, "records, surveillance."

"Nothing that can't be altered in time." said Rod.

Armored guards appeared behind Rod and bounded forward to grab Lee by the shoulders.

"Please, escort the Mister Gannon to the brig," said Rod, "And do be careful. He may be wounded but he is still quite tricky."

####

When it comes to starships, economy is the rule, nothing is wasted. In the brig of the USS Carter there were three squallid cells each about the size of a walk-in closet. Each bearing little more than a bench, a wall of bars, a toilet made for squatting and a recessed computer screen whose sole purpose seemed to be to deny Lee everything he could think to ask for. As of seven o'clock, system time, his employment with the Ralyeh Corporation had been terminated and with it went any and all privileges and services extended as such. They were even docking his remaining pay to cover the air he was breathing.

"But I'm bleeding to death." he muttered, smearing a blood painted glove over the camera eye. "I need med bot. Medical robot. Pretty please. With sugar on top."

The computer babbled on about what kind of health care plan this would require and how he was no long applicable for said service since he was no longer an employee of the Ralyeh Corporation. Lee felt himself growing weak and pale. It didn't mix well with anger and left him feeling sicker than he was. Sorry Jess, he thought to himself, I thought I could do it. I thought I could do better.

In a strange way it had an almost poetic quality to it, watching her descend those steps into the crystalline darkness, destined to be destroyed by time alone on an ice cold planet named for a dead God whose only claim to fame was eating his own children. Lee laughed until it hurt. Small bubbles of blood orbited his chest like little red moons.

"Can you at least get me a cleaning bot?" he asked the computer, "so I don't have to die wallowing in my own filth??"

To Lee's amazement the computer screen flashed, Request Granted.

A minute later a sanitation robot that looked like a self-propelled hub cap floated in along the ground and slid in through the grate at the bottom of the cage. The top of the robot dilated open to let a menagerie of telescoping arms, vacuum pipes, and eye cameras emerge to examine the situation. Its LED panel chirped and flashed the symbol for biohazard. Lee grabbed it by the tentacles and hoisted it squealing off the ground. Using the last of his strength Lee twisted the cheap aluminum piping and tore the top off the robot's mantle. Alarms sounded. A synthetic voice summoned guards to his cell and ordered Lee to cease and desist in the destruction of company property.

From a zippered pocket in his spacesuit Gannon pulled out a handful of dark gems, secreted there while Rod had been busy stacking cases. Lee didn't know why he did this. Uncharged they were not necessarily pretty and he could care less about the wealth. Maybe it was evidence. Maybe he did it just to tick Rod off. Maybe he did it because it was the only thing he could do despite his rapidly dwindling options. Now he was flying on a mad hunch and hoping for the best. Lee dumped the handful of gems into the sparking hole of circuit boards and color coded wires. The finely cut rocks began to hum and glow with dim luster. Black felt spilled out between them, juggling the gems around the shadowy substrate until finally a small face emerged. Gone were the intricate filigrees of before, this face bore just the essentials of two eyes and a nose carved from what seemed to be emeralds. The kitten yawned to show a small prickly mouth filled with diamond bright teeth. It stretched its back and sat up on its haunches. Lee took off his suit glove and tickled it behind the ears. Its soft fur crackled with electricity.

Now you know why I couldn't let you go. The Cat thought to him, purring ever so slightly. Why some secrets simply cannot be revealed, not to anyone.

Lee nodded. The Cat was right. It had been right all along. They lived in an age when satellites had the power to scan people's minds and upload their deepest secrets in a matter of seconds. Even if he and Jess had survived, the corporation would have invaded their brains, taken what they could and then make them conveniently disappear, so as not to have their secrets stolen by anyone else. Mankind never learns. Lee didn't have the heart to tell the Cat that the Earth, that cradle of the life it thought it existed to protect, had long since been reduced to a radioactive wasteland by just such a vicious desire for power and glory.

Lee thought to the cat everything he knew about the USS Carter, the aluminum cases in which the other gemstones were being kept and where on board they might be found. He also thought across the idea of power plugs and what a socket looks like, places where the kitten could lap up a quick sip of juice should he start feeling drained. Four guards marched into the brig. The computer whisked back the door of the cell to let them through.

"What the hell," exclaimed a guard, not so surprised by the amount of blood Gannon had washed down the walls with as the presence of a small black cat with glowing eyes sitting on his lap. It had absorbed the rest of the robot's battery through its paws and was growing before their eyes.

"Kill it!" the sergeant commanded, but the cat was quick and effortlessly flitted off between their legs.

"Go get 'em tiger!" called out Gannon, breathless.

A rifle butt cracked down on the side of his head, knocking him forever silent.

The Cat was thrilled. Everything was so curious and new and different from the world it had known just short of forever. Power surged through these walls and he sucked it up like a dry sponge. Lights flickered and burst as he passed beneath them. In one corridor he was a panther, by the next he was a lion dipped in indigo ink. By the time he reached the science wing he was so large and surging he had to lose his shape and move through the halls as a rolling black ball of claws, jaws and whip-snapping tentacles. It found a brightly lit room containing a dozen open cases filled to the rims with dim gemstones. The Cat's black form turned as thin as a drizzle of oil and slid through the cracks around the door.

Rod menaced the computer tablet in his hands, possibly hoping he could somehow intimidate it into producing different results. The medbot had stitched up the hole where his thumb used to be and given him a cocktail of painkillers and antibiotics to handle the damage, but it wasn't the wound that pained him. The problem was that no test could identify the chemical substance of the gemstones. Their atomic structure did not exist on the expanded periodic table of elements. No one had a clue. The scientists of the USS Carter were idiots, better suited to scrubbing toilets than playing with test tubes.

"I need this," Rod shouted, "I give my report to Ralyeh Headquarters in four hours and I need this. Damn it! Are any of you even listening!"

The other scientists in the room had gone completely silent. Rod spun around and slammed down the tablet, shattering its plastic casing.

"This is make or break time people! Make or...."

The words cowered in his throat. The air stank of acid and ozone. Small hairs on his neck stood erect. The perfectly sterile white of the laboratory had become stained, no, infected with a liquid darkness that was climbing the walls and spreading out across the ceiling. Dr. Symesh, Watts, and Cleveland were no longer standing but hanging by their faces, dancing on the ends of oily black cords. Electric shocks riveted through their bodies, making them hitch and jiggle like sick puppets in a twisted show. Rod backed into a corner. The exit was gone, closed off by the impenetrable shadow. Gemstones floated up out of the aluminum cases to mix into the body of their rightful owner. Fluorescent tubes burst in their sockets, showering him with glass. Soon there was nothing but darkness. One by one the rocks glowed alight and the creature shown like a night sky full of stars, one where the celestial bodies floated far closer than any Rod cared to know. He screamed as electrical currents coursed over his skin. They searched down the Anti-Shock Implant in his neck and fried its circuitry with a barely audible snap and crackle. A feline voice whispered in Rod's head with a single word that was almost a purr.

Playtime.

####

Deck by deck the USS Carter went cold, dark and silent until only a dead steel hulk remained, drifting through space.

Half a year later, investigators from the Ralyeh Corporation visited it to find fried memory banks, depleted energy reserves, and a fair share of frozen human remains floating about the rooms and hallways. With no records to consult, the best guess they could give was that something had malfunctioned in the life support system causing a madness similar to decompression sickness to spread through the crew. PMDA: paranoid mutinous delusional activity. It would explain the mass expenditure of ammo by the guards and the futile attempts to bar up living quarters and storage facilities against unseen attackers. But it would not explain how so many people seemed to die of electric shock, or more disturbingly, wounds of a more ferocious nature typically only seen around large pieces of malfunctioning factory robots.

It would also not explain the sizable hole broken through the landing bay doors, or the single solitary message left by a wounded guard scrawled on the inside of an elevator with his own blood.

The hole was obviously a strike by a massive object, possibly an attempt to fly a dropship out into space without first opening the hull. However, there was no wreckage or debris floating about the ship and no spacecraft that couldn't be accounted for. Out through the hole the investigators could see Saturn patiently gazing back at them with its strange hex shaped eye, mighty rings flowing about the planet like a giant beige halo. A few moons quietly shined in the endless night, but that was all.

The message left in the elevator was even more cryptic. With jagged letters it simply yet inexplicably read it took the cat. The only registered feline animal to launch with the USS Carter was an orange tabby cat by the name of Tigger, the pet of science officer in training Jessica Ness. At the time of the investigation neither Ness nor her cat could be found.

THE END


© 2009 JD McDonnell

Bio: JD McDonnell has been writing stories since he was fifteen years old, back when typewriters were the norm. He is self-described as living with one foot in the literary world, one foot in the land of Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and one foot in the grave. Yes, apparently he has three legs. You can learn more about him and his endeavors at his homepage: JD McDonnell.com

E-mail: JD McDonnell contact page

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