The thrusters of the Zenith roared at full power as the ship charged at the restless clouds of Centauri Ab. As the entire bridge rattled and convulsed, Commander Viktor squeezed his seatbelt straps, palms drenching with sweat and cold drops sliding away from his forehead. Their menacing destination zoomed in more and more by the second through the viewport as if they were plummeting into the wide-open mouth of a whale. Floating islands of volcanic matter rammed against each other, bursting into hundreds of bits just as vicious; even the smallest chunks could still rip the craft apart. Meanwhile, dust and rock erupted from the fiery depths, polluting the scene further. Sometimes, openings cleared among the clouds, revealing a far more daunting fate beneath; an inferno of desolate, sterile land besieged by magma. And to all of this, Viktor and his crew were defenseless. The pressure glued them to their seats, limiting their movement to blinking and slight tilts of their head as they plunged into hell inside that metal coffin. “Stabilizing.” The hustle muffled Captain Annie’s voice. To her command, the Zenith shifted from bolting directly at the planet to an orbit.
A bed of dust and rubble dashed past the craft as it continued towards the horizon where a curtain of starlights polluted by drifting boulders stretched into infinity. They haven’t entered the clouds yet, and the hot air battered the bow of the ship, scorching and skinning its red coating. If it weren’t for the heat shield, the crew would have burnt to a crisp already. Still, Viktor squinted with the heat rising quickly and consuming his body, his face and back soaked in sweat.
“Hang on to your seats. We’re going in,” Annie announced.
And then they submerged into the grim fogs of dust.
The sunlight of Alpha Centauri waved them goodbye as it disappeared past the thick debris engulfing their surroundings. The hull cried with the rubble bashing it with fury as if they were drilling their way into the solid ground.
Only the gleam of the screens on the stations countered the gloom of the bridge. The more they dipped into the pyroclastic clouds, the worse the heat stung Viktor’s skin as if he was rolling over an ant nest. Each gulp of air burned his lungs. He had an urge of ripping off his clothes, but he was a prisoner of his shaking seat, subdued by the pressure.
“It’s getting too hot. Are you sure she’ll hold?” Casper said in rasping breaths from his station.
“She will, Lieutenant… she has to,” Viktor said, each word like breathing fire.
Ahead, a thick slab of rock swirl resembling a loose sail in the wind and cut through another, both blowing to bits. A frantic beeping came from somewhere in the bridge as the fragments bulleted towards the Zenith.
“Incoming,” Annie shouted. She banked the ship to one side, dodging the rubble. Then to the other side. More rocks. Then a barrel roll. The craft subdued to her control as if it was one more part of her body; it slit right through the leftovers of the clash, farther into the void, deeper.
“Geez, that was too close, way too freaking close,” Casper said.
“Calm down, Lieutenant. She’s got it,” Viktor said.
“Shut up—I’m calm!”
An incoming call prompted in Viktor’s console. He expected Mission Control to reach out at some point, but he was hoping they wouldn’t reach them inside the clouds. His little stunt must’ve had everybody going crazy over there.
The broken video feed of a man looking at the camera with a kind smile disguising panic popped to one side of his screen. “ERV Zenith, this is Kepler calling from the SS Valhalla, please respond.”
Viktor didn’t have the slightest intention of answering. But as he reached to the console to reject the call, Director Amelia Walker tackled the man and took over. She pulled her long red hair away from her face, green eyes glaring at the screen.
“Don’t you dare to press that button, Viktor Larsson,” Amelia said without even getting any video from him yet.
With no options left, Viktor accepted the call. “Director, I’m afraid this will have to wait, we’re in the middle of something here.” He struggled to look normal despite the racket unfolding around him.
“What do you think you’re doing, Commander?” Amelia stared right into his soul. “We’re very impressed with your findings, but this is suicide. I’m sorry, but I’m calling off the mission immediately.”
“We’ve come a long way, Director, and we’re not going back empty-handed. And even if we wanted, that is not an option anymore.”
Amelia frowned at him. “Viktor, this isn’t even coming from me—this is a direct order from AHC.”
No reply from the Commander.
Amelia went on. “Listen. If you get into those clouds, you will all die—don’t you understand? Even if you don’t, AHC is speaking of—”
With the press of a button, the video feed died. Viktor glanced at the screen one last time before fixing his sight back in the viewport, determined.
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“You hung up on her?” Casper said. “If we somehow come back out alive from this one, Kepler won’t let us back onto a ship ever again.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to worry about that later, Lieutenant,” Viktor replied.
“Holy shit! Watch out,” Casper yelled as a huge rock emerged ahead, filling the view. He hadn’t yet finished his sentence, and the crew was already upside down as Annie rolled the ship again. The bottom of the hull shrilled, grazing the rock, sparks raining over the bow.
They cut through the ash and dust for a few more miles before the ship rolled and stabilized.
“What’s that?” Lucas said.
“Oh, no! More rocks,” Casper said, the lock of his seatbelt clanking as he clenched both hands to the straps, bracing for more action.
Viktor squinted, focusing his sight on seeing through the thick dust. In the distance, silhouettes fade into view. Those weren’t rocks. No, their shape was too well-defined. Someone had built them. “Ships,” the word escaped him.
Casper’s reply came after a moment. “Ships? What the—where did they come from?”
“That’s what we’re here to find, Lieutenant.”
“Almost there. Reducing speed,” Annie announced as the Zenith dipped to the side, changing to a circular path. Far below, one more shadow dwelled in the violent abyss, stationed against a massive rock. It was many times larger than the others—twelve or thirteen hundred feet across at least.
As the Zenith approached, more details cleared on that monster of a craft. It seemed dead—no lights or any signals of its crew. Debris jetted from a gigantic hole in one side of the hull. Despite the rocks bashing and crashing around it, none were thick, sharp, or fast enough to pierce like that, side-to-side, so cleanly. What would have done it, Viktor could only wonder.
“Seems like this is it, Commander—the signal is coming from there,” Annie said.
“Right, Captain, get us closer.”
With speed decreasing, Viktor could move after a few minutes. He didn’t lose any time and turned to Casper and Lucas in the stations behind.
“All right, gentlemen. Let’s suit up—we’re going in.”