Mulligan, instead of spending two weeks on a ‘pleasure planet’ now finds himself having to deputise for an injured colleague. It was bad enough having to watch the departing transport, let alone being left in the middle of nowhere. The true purpose of his mission soon becomes apparent when he is sent a disc containing some vital information. Can he solve the mystery, or more importantly, can he save his holiday…
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Following Earth's provisional membership of what was known as the Galactic Council, Earth people, or ‘Terrans’ as they were referred to, were allocated their own sector of the galaxy.
The only condition attached to this agreement was that they would now be responsible for their own people, whom it was hoped would soon settle down into life within the collective…
“All systems go!"
The voice of the autopilot rang out, as the ship left the docking pylon. Mayberry sat at the controls making a few minor adjustments before heading towards the star gate. It was her first solo run, and she was looking forward to starting her first assignment.
The event horizon was soon visible as she approached the far side of the moon. It was all very exciting, and she was so amazed at how spectacular it was that she did not even notice the energy fluctuations on the dials in front of her. A sudden surge of power began to build up in the circuits and just as she emerged on the other side there was an explosion.
Slowing the engines, Mayberry switched to manual control as the ship began to tilt.
"Computer, damage report!"
There was a moment’s silence before it spoke. "Main engines off line!" The reply reverberated around the cabin, with the effects of the explosion distorting the speakers. This sent an icy chill down her spine as the lights began to flicker, and the distress beacon activated.
Mayberry checked her instruments, which were registering a fault with the main drive unit, and more seriously, a steady loss of life support. "Well, there's only one thing for it!" She grabbed the communicator and switched to an open channel. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! My engines are off line and I'm losing life support!"
The second moon of Orillion Prime was bathed in the first flickers of light from the lunar day, as pale shadows were sent chasing across its rugged landscape. Its cold barren features looked so peaceful, in contrast to Mulligan, who stood by the observation window pondering the personnel files that lay scattered over his desk. Shrugging his shoulders, he began to rummage back through them again, before turning to the observation window once more.
A transport barely visible carved its way through the dawn at regulation speed, its image fading on the edge of the radar screen. It already seemed like an eternity since it left the docking bay, passing over the observation area, before banking sharply as it climbed out of the complex.
"There goes my holiday!" With that he took a bite out of a large sandwich that obscured the centre of his desk. He was really looking forward to his two weeks on a pleasure planet, and now he found himself posted to the middle of nowhere, and he did not like it!
Turning to the observation window once more, he looked out at the tiny complex, which sat huddled at the base of a small crater. His large frame towering over the desk as he grabbed the sandwich between his big powerful hands, taking another huge bite out of it. He had been lucky to scrounge that from the cabin crew, as he had arrived in the middle of the night and the complex was virtually deserted.
Looking at his watch he decided to catch the news update on the view-screen.
Good morning and welcome to the Interplanetary News Network. The subspace transmission flickered slightly as he adjusted the picture. And here live on the brand new I.P.N.N. channel today we have news from Earth for all you lucky travellers out there, as well as our continuing series of special reports from around the Galaxy.
Mulligan stretched out a leg, placing a large boot on his desk.
My name is John Stevenson and here are the headlines.
More personnel left today to take control of another system in the Terran sector from the newly formed Inter Galactic Security Service. Huge queues have formed outside recruitment centres as the clamour for positions ‘off world’ intensifies. Back on Earth the recent panic buying has led to many shortages and caused a crisis on the food markets…
Mulligan's stomach rumbled in sympathy.
And reports are just reaching us of a major-
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!" Mayberry's voice suddenly broke through on one of the emergency channel. Mulligan turned off the screen, quickly grabbing his communicator.
"This is Arctic Bay Research Station, can I be of any assistance?"
Mayberry's frightened voice came through again. "I've a steady loss of life support and my engines are off line!" She began to shiver as the temperature dropped.
"What are your coordinates?"
She looked at the helm control. "I'm not sure, all my instruments are down apart from the emergency radio, and the distress beak…"
The transmission ended abruptly in a build-up of static. He tried again, but the signal was dead. Turning to his scanners, he tried to locate her, but for some reason the beacon had been deactivated.
Filling his broad chest with air, he shot out of the office and raced down the corridor, his large feet pounding on the floor, as his big frame agilely slipped past a startled deputy.
"Peavely, prepare the station for a possible emergency landing!" Mulligan's forceful voice rang out, as he entered the docking bay.
The deputy jumped to attention as Mulligan headed for the small craft. "Sir!" He had been the only person on duty when he had arrived, and was anything but pleased to see him. Peavely was a small man, with shifty eyes, that made him look as if he was hiding something.
Mulligan went through the pre-launch sequence, firing the thrusters as he pulled gently at the joystick, lifting the front off the ground slightly. It slid effortlessly off the docking pad in the low gravity, and banked steeply as it made its way out of the complex.
Mulligan studied the screen for a moment, as the scanners tried to locate the signal. He had passed all the training modules, which had been hurriedly put together, and had been one of the first to benefit from these specially adapted craft. They had been nicknamed ramblers, as they had been designed to go just about anywhere.
In the relatively short space of time that they had been in service, he had never known a distress beacon to suddenly deactivate itself like that, and he searched for the trace of debris, but there did not appear to be any. Acting on a hunch, he moved the joystick forward as the ship accelerated quickly. There was a faint trace of something on the screen, as he approached the nebula that stood on the edge of the system. The long-range sensors had already scanned the area, but his recent experience guided him towards the hazy cloud of gas. This particular phenomenon had been distorting the transport’s readings on the journey out here, and he was gambling that it was doing the same thing again.
Mulligan put the main viewer on, filtering out some of the light, and there caught on the edge, was the unmistakable shape of a rambler. He was now at full speed, and would be there in less than ten minutes. He checked the instruments again as he approached it quickly. Besides the helm, there was a scanner, a view screen, and the asteroid defence shield. Ramblers also carried a laser cannon, and several pieces of rescue equipment.
It was not long before he was swinging it round as he drew level with the craft. The autopilot was adept at making the docking procedure, and the locking mechanism was soon snapping shut. It sent out a metallic vibration around the hull, as he dashed towards the airlock door. Pulling it open, a blast of freezing air rushed past him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up on end. He was now probing the darkness with his torch, trying to see who was inside.
Taking a deep breath, he forced his way through the doorway into the main cabin, his eyes struggling to focus in the gloom. There huddled in the pilot’s seat, was the body of a young woman. He moved closer, and with a flick of his wrist, he had her slung over his broad shoulders in a fireman’s lift. Moving back towards the doorway, he closed the hatch firmly behind him, placing her on the couch at the back of his cabin. He removed his tunic, and wrapped it around her freezing body as he attempted to administer the kiss of life.
Fortunately he had arrived just in time and she started to breath on her own, so he removed a bottle of brandy from the medi-kit and poured a little onto her blue lips. She spluttered as it ran into her mouth, warming the back of her throat. She held the brandy between her hands as she attempted to take another swig. Mulligan supported the bottle, as she swallowed again.
"Hey go easy with that!"
He watched as the level on the side went down. She smiled, as he allowed her another swig, before placing the remains of the bottle on the side.
"Thank you for saving my life!" Although the words were a little clichéd, she was extremely grateful, and kissed him on the cheek. Mulligan blushed, as her smooth lips pressed against his rough face. "I was supposed to contact a 'Mulligan' on the second moon of Orillion Prime, but I'm not sure where I am now!"
He began to smile. "You've found him!"
She clung onto his arm, as the relief overwhelmed her for a moment. Mayberry was just twenty-one, and this was her first assignment since graduation. He looked down at her slim, attractive body as she pushed a strand of wavy blonde hair off her face.
"The rambler suffered an explosion!"
The communicator buzzed before he had a chance to answer.
He reached across, pressing a button on the consul. "Mulligan!"
The screen sprang to life, as the deputy’s thin face stared out at them. "Everything's on standby should you require an emergency landing!"
Mulligan thought for a few seconds. "I've got a disabled rambler here, which I'll bring back on tracto-beam!"
The deputy nodded. "OK, I'll make the necessary arrangements." And with that the transmission ended.
When he was sure that she was OK, Mulligan slipped back into her ship. Mayberry reluctantly followed on behind, carrying his torch. He started pulling panels off the wall and delving into the mass of circuitry that spilled out around him.
"It’s not all that bad when you get used to it!" he said.
She looked on in amazement, as the lights flickered and the life support started sending out warm air from the duct above his head.
"Just a few crossed wires!"
She felt a little easier about it now, as she stood shining the torch onto where he was working.
"Someone's been messing with the systems - no wonder they all went down!" He continued to rummage through the circuit boards, pulling them out and replacing them in sequence. "It almost looks like sabotage!"
The rambler sprang back to life as he replaced the last of the boards, clipping the casing back into position.
"Sabotage!" She just could not believe it. "Who'd want to do a thing like that to me?"
Mayberry unzipped her pocket, and took out a small envelope, which she had been given at her mission briefing.
Mulligan's eyes lit up. "Is that for me?"
She nodded, as he clasped his fist in celebration.
“It’s from Mr Van den Brock!” He had been the one that had persuaded Mulligan to take this assignment, and he was hoping that his old friend had found a replacement, and that he would be able to take his holiday after all! "Well, at least we should be able to get it back for maintenance to take a look!" He brushed past her in his eagerness to return to his ship, leaving her tottering in his wake.
Once through the airlock he separated the two craft, and within a few minutes he had the tracto-beam on and was heading back towards the docking bay. Mayberry sat beside him at the controls as he switched to autopilot.
"Now then, let’s find out what's in this envelope yours!" He slipped one of his large fingers into the corner, tearing the paper eagerly. She watched as his face dropped, when he pulled out a small silver disc. “Oh!”
Mayberry could see his disappointment as he held it out on one of his large palms.
“Is that it, no message?”
She shook her head.
“That’s all I was given!”
He took it out of its little envelope, carefully placing it in the viewer. The screen flickered for a moment, before showing a picture of the surface of Orillion Prime. Lush green vegetation smothered the ground like a giant organic carpet concealing every millimetre of the rich soil below, even the pieces of shattered rock that stuck out stubbornly had a covering of moss on them.
“This is quite amazing, as you only have to remove the top centimetres of soil to reveal the charred layer of debris. Everything it seams, has recovered from the devastating fireball caused by the asteroid shower!"
An elderly professor stood analysing another sample.
"Even after all that devastation, the planet's soon recovered!" He picked up a large rake and gently pulled back a layer of undergrowth. "As you can see, this plant network is only secured sporadically, but it tends to weave itself in a thick blanket of ground cover - remarkable when you think about it!"
The professor knelt down on a large rubber pad, and taking a hip flask from his jacket took a swig. "Now, if I just remove this top layer of charred debris…" he gently brushed the ground with what looked like an old fashioned shaving brush, revealing the rich soil below. "and these stones…" Picking them up, he gently placed them to one side, before removing more soil until he came to solid rock. "Got it!" The professor brushed away at the rock revealing what seemed like a pathway.
"Fellows!" An even more elderly man appeared with a contraption resembling a vacuum cleaner, and started sucking up the fine soil from the hidden pathway. "I think the sensors were right!"
The archaeological dig had been going better than expected, and the professor had taken full advantage of all the new resources that he now had at his disposal.
"Splendid!" His assistant moved forward slowly churning out soil, which he dumped in a line at the side of the path. "Don't worry about that - we'll sieve it later!" The machine made a whirring sound, as the rotating brushes revealed a step.
"That's it, that's it!" The professor could barely contain his excitement. "We've found the chamber!"
With that, Fellows removed a tube from the front of his machine and began sucking the soil out in ever increasing amounts. The professor stood by excitedly as it blew past his legs, the sides clanging as a cluster of small stones rattled through.
"That's as far as we can go sir!"
Fellows had the vacuum fully extended, and the professor looked down glumly.
"Oh, well, it’s the hand scoops from now on!"
His assistant stopped what he was doing and climbed back up the steps, handing him a scoop, as he made his way along the path. Fellows then attached a large rubber chute to the front of his machine and began filling it with compressed air, and as the pressure built, a series of mini scoops started to move along it like a giant conveyer belt. It slipped down just above the professor, as he got into position. He would now have to proceed by hand, and this meant emptying the contents of each scoop onto the conveyer, from where it would travel up to the surface, and collect in an ever-increasing pile behind the machine.
The automatic camera glided, as its lens focused on the delicate operation. Fellows brushed away gently, as it hung in the air above his head, scanning the area constantly. The rubber conveyer slid down another step, as Fellows activated the tracks on its underside. If the staircase descended any further, then he would have to consider replacing it with a crane and bucket!
"I've found a door!"
The professor rubbed his hands excitedly, as his assistant casually descended the staircase carrying a large soft brush. "Fellows you’re a marvel!" His assistant just smiled, as he handed it over.
Brushing off the excess soil, the professor studied the inscription carved on its surface, whilst he took another swig from his hip flask.
'It’s not in any language that I’ve ever seen before!' The adrenaline was pumping around his body, as he pushed the door sideways. It was surprisingly light considering the large piece of stone it was made of, and the fact that it had been sealed for centuries. It just slid gently sideways, with a rush of stale air.
The automatic camera moved forward, its helium bubble hovering cautiously as the rotor-fans steered it towards the chamber. The lens scanned for hidden dangers, as the professor waited excitedly for the all clear. It was yet another new piece of technology and a very welcome addition too. After it had finished its inspection, the camera buzzed and he advanced torch in hand.
The chamber was surprisingly small, and had been carved out of solid rock, curving up gently to a central point. He could see a brightly coloured painting that lay perfectly preserved on its smooth walls, and the professor marvelled at the detail, as he shook his head. It depicted a scene of people wearing a type of space suit, gathering something from the surface of a barren moon. In the corner there was a beam of light being projected from a weird looking device, which appeared to be causing a rift in space, with an even more unusual looking spacecraft emerging from it. In the other corner was a type of clock face with a series of numbers indicating a shift in time.
He span around to see Fellows pointing towards something. "What have we here?"
He caught it in the beam of his torch, and had the shock of his life, for there sitting just a few metres away from him was the very same device. It was shaped like a large canon, with lots of knobs and dials on the side. There was also a fuel container which had traces of the substance that was depicted in the painting. "Well I never!" He just could not believe his eyes. The professor had been expecting something in keeping with the ancient Mayan civilisation back on Earth, not thinking for a minute that these people would have had this sort of technology!
Mulligan sat motionless as the final caption appeared on his view screen. Instead of some important message, or better still the reinstatement of his holiday, he had been sent a disc from the archaeological dig that had been going on for the last couple of months. His predecessor had taken charge of the small complex following the agreement, although a small team of alien scientist had remained.
“Great!” Mulligan hated anything to do with history, and found archaeology extremely boring, although the prospect of solving a mystery was quite appealing!
Mayberry could sense the curiosity in his voice, and was about to say something, when Mulligan spoke again.
"I don't remember reading anything about finding that device in my mission briefing!” He had been told that he would have to take temporary charge of the small research station, and help supervise an archaeological dig. He distinctly remembered reading all the reports on his way out here, and suddenly began to wonder just what was going on. He knew there were literally hundreds of discs in the office, and as soon as they arrived back, he was going to start searching through them!
Mulligan guided the two ramblers into orbit around the second moon, taking them within range of the docking bay. He was attempting a double landing, which was a trick that he had learnt on the simulators. Although he had never actually tried it in real life before, he was not about to let Mayberry know.
He cut his acceleration, drifting down slowly towards the main pad. The most important thing was to keep one ship hovering, whilst he safely landed the other. Mayberry looked on as he brought her rambler down, whilst keeping them at a safe distance. She watched as it landed smoothly on the pad, with their rambler coming to rest by its side. It all looked quite simple, although few people would have attempted it on their first day!
It was not long before he was dragging her through the docking terminal, along the corridor into his office. There was no time for a guided tour yet, as Mulligan wanted to get back to his new office as soon as he could. When they arrived, he started searching for the relevant disc, crying out when he had found it.
"Ah this must be it!" He carefully removed the shiny metallic object from its container, and placed it in the viewer.
They both sat waiting for it to start, as the captions appeared on the screen. 'Archaeological Expedition, Orillion Prime, disc 11375.'
The disc began to run just like the one his friend Claus Van den Brock had given her.
"It’s exactly the same!"
Mayberry could not tell the difference, but Mulligan sat fiddling with the viewfinder.
"There, did you see that?" He pointed to a faint line on the right hand edge of the screen. She could barley make it out, and would have dismissed it as a static. "This disc has been electronically altered!"
It continued to the end, with no mention of the device at all. Everything was identical, apart from the very end, where Mulligan froze the frame.
When he enhanced the picture, she could just make out the faintest of shadows on the chamber wall.
"Someone's deleted it from the frame!"
This was indeed turning out to be quite a mystery, and the lack of excitement made him want to get to the bottom of it!