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The Challenger – Prisoners Of The Sky – Chapter 1

Above the Atlantic Ocean…

“Aphrodite Airways Flight Two Seven Two, this is Foxtrot Delta Leader, of the United States Air National Guard”, repeated the F-22 pilot. “Flight Two Seven Two, you have departed from your filed flight plan – do you require assistance? Over.”

Again, there was only silence – or at least what seemed to be silence. Captain Seth Rashell put what he thought he had heard down to the stress of the situation, and there was stress aplenty. Any time now, he expected to be given the order to fire upon an uncommunicative commercial aircraft, a plane full of innocent people, sending them all to undeserved deaths…

He had to be sure. “Foxtrot Delta Two, this is Foxtrot Delta Leader – get a look in the cockpit, as best you can. we need to confirm whether this is a hijacking, or something else entirely. Over.”

“Roger that, Foxtrot Delta Leader”, said the other pilot. “Taking up position for visual reconnaissance. Over…”

The second of the vaguely arrowhead-shaped aircraft moved ahead of the airliner, then carefully adjusted its position so that the pilot to look to his right, straight into the crew compartment of the passenger plane. “Okay, Foxtrot Delta Leader, I’m in position. Relaying helmet-cam view to you now. Over…”

Captain Rashell’s eyes went to the video screen on his control panel, and he saw what Foxtrot Delta Two saw – a darkened cockpit, with vague suggestions of movement within…

He was about to look away, unsure what to report back to base when something flashed across the window of the airliner cockpit – a tentacle, slithering over the armoured glass, leaving a trail of clear slime that appeared to have streaks of red in it… streaks of blood.

“Base Tower, this is Foxtrot Delta Leader. I have reason to believe we have a non-terrestrial threat aboard Aphrodite Two Seven Two. Request clearance to declare a Category C situation. Over.”

“Roger that, Foxtrot Delta Leader”, replied the controller on the ground. “You’re on-site; it’s your call.”

Rashell opened a broadcast radio channel. “Attention, attention. This is United States Air National Guard captain Seth Rashell, calling The Challenger –”

The answer came immediately. “This is The Challenger”, came the electronically-altered voice. “I have you and your situation on my screen. I’m on my way.”

…o O o…

Elsewhere…

Lee Croxley had not been entirely truthful with the Air National Guard pilot. “I’m on my way” more properly translated as “I’ve set things in motion, and by the time your relay the news to your superiors, I will be airborne…

“Computer, open me a ‘slipway’ to Greenland Base”, said the young man, addressing the control matrix that was present, in some form, in every door, wall, floor, control panel and light fitting of each the secret complexes that were now his to command. “Have a hypersonic transport ready for immediate departure when I get there. Something big enough to carry the entire passenger and crew complement of a trans-Atlantic Boeing 767…”

Walking through the arch in front of the slipway portal, Lee was instantly “dressed” in his “superhero costume”, the suit of extraterrestrial armour teleporting onto his person from its storage and maintenance bay. The “head-up” display inside the helmet shimmered into life as the various components of the suit synched up, and the cheerful message

HERE WE GO AGAIN…

flashed up before his eyes.

It had seemed funny at the time – at the beginning. That was when all the secret bases and hidden alien devices were fun, and Croxley could fly off to the rescue whenever he wanted, whenever the world called for The Challenger. Before long, however, worldwide adulation became worldwide expectation – everyone with a problem expected a personal appearance by their hero, and Lee simply couldn’t do it all. He’d still make personal appearances every now and then, but sometimes the “personal touch” just wasn’t possible, and an automated craft would be sent out to perform a daring rescue of children from a collapsing orphanage in Brazil, or deal with a sea-monster on the rampage off Madagascar…

Maybe I need to delegate some, he thought as he stepped through the slipway portal, and in one step traversed the thousands of miles to the facility concealed in a mountain-side in Greenland. Maybe start up some “Challenger franchises” – but that’d risk devaluing the brand…

Lee came to a halt, and laughed. “Maybe I should just change my name to Captain Heroes-R-Us…!”

There were, he knew, far more important things in the world – on this occasion, the three hundred or so people on the airliner – and they became his sole concern as he strode across a hangar floor spanning an area equal to several dozen football fields to a pool of light centred upon a flattened, dark object, somewhere between disk and arrow-head in shape, and easily as large as the aircraft we was going to assist.

Lee sat down at the controls of the alien spacecraft, his helmet display identifying the function of each touch-sensitive section of the other-worldly instrument panel, laid out for more eyes and more limbs than he possessed. Given enough time and practice, he could most likely operate many of the machines at his disposal, but that time was a luxury he could not afford, and as always, the suit would be doing most of the flying…

Normally, such things didn’t bother Lee – without a pilot, a controller, all these machines were just metal and plastic, metaphorically “gathering dust” – but again, there was that prickle of doubt, lurking at the edge of his thoughts. It was like finding a spider or some such in your bed, and lying awake wondering whether the one that had been discovered was the only one, or the least fortunate of several.

I could hand this all over to the Air Force, and walk away, he told himself as the ship’s reactor core, a source of power centuries beyond man’s current technology, came to humming life, but humanity just isn’t… grown up enough to share yet. We’re under threat from all manners of things from other worlds – other universes – but the human race just refuses to stop being so damned selfish…

It was the worst choice of words – selfish. Lee was the only person on earth, or what currently passed for an Earth, who had such power under his sole control, and he genuinely didn’t feel that he deserved it. I’m just a guy who knows a bit about computers, who got caught up in stuff that’s way over his head, he told himself. Surely there are thousands of people out there who’re better qualified for this – Air Force pilots, scientists…

“But who’s in the hot-seat right now?“, he said out loud as the ship started to rise from the hangar floor. “Yeah, that’s right – Lee Raymond Croxley, and he better get his head into the game right now. You can draft a letter of resignation when you get back, m’man.”

The ship began to move forward, picking up speed as it approached the very solid-looking wall of the cavernous hangar chamber. At exactly the right moment, the wall became almost transparent, its substance shifted momentarily into another reality, and the alien craft sped down a temporary tunnel, hurtling towards a patch of daylight up ahead. Lee immediately forgot his worries, reminded now of the good times, when he’d been able to play the hero without psychoanalysing himself – yes, he’d been like a kid with the key to the toy-store, but when he “played the hero”, he’d been damned good at it.

The craft burst out into open air, the muted landscape of Greenland’s coast smeared into Impressionist greenish grey as the ship make short work of the sound barrier, several times in as many seconds. “Set intercept course for Aphrodite Airways Two-Seven-Two”, instructed the hero as he allowed automatic controls to take over completely, “and give me all you have on the Boeing Seven Six Seven – in particular cargo holds, emergency exits and secondary control circuits. Let’s see if we can evacuate the plane without whatever’s taken over knowing…”

The land beneath the craft became sea, and the vessel turned sharply south, accelerating to a speed that would bring it into visual range of Flight 272 in mere minutes. Lee used to the fullest every second that journey allowed him, uploading all the data he could to his armour’s memory banks, and devising several “sketched out” ideas for the impending rescue. I just need to dock safely, and transfer the passengers, he thought. Anything else is a bonus.

A few moments later, the universal comm-link interrupted the hero’s contemplations. “Unidentified aircraft, this is Air National Guard Foxtrot delta Leader – you are entering restricted air-space…”

“…at your request, Captain Rashell”, Lee intervened. “The Challenger – at your service.”

“We thought it might be you”, said the pilot, “but, y’know, nothing’s ever straightforward these days. You could’ve been anyone – or anything.”

“I promise not to take offence”, Lee replied. “So, what’s the story?”

The fighter pilot Captain sent over the footage from his helmet-mounted camera, and those images were brutally eloquent. Something utterly inhuman had invaded the air-liner, and had killed at least the flight crew…

“And the aircraft is continuing to fly normally, apart from the course change that brought it to your attention?”, enquired The Challenger.

Captain Rashell responded in the affirmative, adding “Of course, that doesn’t mean it’ll carry on flying in a controlled fashion – and let’s not forget that we have our orders. Any aircraft to responding to communications from Air Force planes are to be counted as under hostile control, and if there’s any chance the plane is going to be used as a weapon against United States citizens…”

…you’ll blow it, and all aboard, out of the sky, thought Lee. Nobody wants a repeat of what happened before, but still – these are human beings “Let’s just make sure that doesn’t happen”, he told the Captain. “Now, do we have any potential communications channels available? is there any chance we can contact someone on the plane, without going through the cockpit?”

“They’re pretty strict on cell-phones and stuff when they’re in flight”, said Rashell, “but we’re not equipped to scan for stuff like that up here.”

“My kid has this games console”, interjected the pilot of the other F-22. “It can connect to the internet, by wi-fi – dunno if that sorta thing would be any use.”

“Ah yes”, said Lee. “Good idea – kids never listen to grown-ups…”

The hero started scanning for stray signals, and once he had worked through all the tiny buzzes and crackles generated by the plane’s less-than-perfectly shielded electrics, and the faint output from several items in the hold that hadn’t had their batteries removed, he found five potential sources for contact in the main body of the airliner; a netbook, a laptop, two phones… and a handheld games console.

The computers are too high-powered, thought Lee. Phones are the main fear for airlines, and their activation will be detected… but the console is too low-power for that…

“Be careful now”, said Rashell. “We’ve stayed low-profile so far, so’s not to scare the passengers. They start freaking out, this’ll all go to hell really fast.”

“Understood, Foxtrot Delta Leader” Lee responded. “I’ll do my best to keep things under control.”

Lee felt distinctly uncomfortable accessing the games console’s user data, extracting relevant pieces of information from it – gender, age, preferred language. It was the sort of thing technology-savvy sexual predators would do, but the hero couldn’t allow himself to dwell on such things. He needed to know, or he risked losing his chance to contact the crew of the airliner.

Male… okay, less likely to panic. Fifteen – good, not an easily-spooked third-grader… selected language – English. Three for three…

The handheld games machine was a recent upgrade, with built-in cameras and microphone for multi-player interaction, and Lee activated the camera facing the user. The player was your average American teenage gamer, in-ear headphones firmly wedged in place – the ideal demographic to be deputised as The Challenger’s “eyes-on-scene”. Okay, let’s go…

The Challenger tapped a glowing square on his control panel, and the game the youth was playing abruptly locked up, freezing completely. The boy looked disgusted, and bitterly frustrated, but before he could switch the device off in a rage, Lee made his move. “Sorry to interrupt”, he said, replacing the corrupted game image on the small LED screen with his own, “but I need your help…”

…o O o…

On board Flight Two Seven Two…

Tyler Graves from Atlanta stared, slack-jawed at the helmeted figure on his console screen. “Y-you’re The Challenger?”, he spluttered, almost forgetting to keep his voice down. “For real? If not, ya better know that my dads knows guys at the FBI, an’ they’ll hunt down y’r ass…”

“This is absolutely for real, Mister Graves”, replied the hero. “Now, could you please put me in contact with a member of the crew? It is rather urgent.”

“But-but I’ll get in deep you know what for playin’ on a plane…”

“I think you’ll be forgiven if we can get everyone to safety, Mister Graves”, The Challenger intervened. “Now, if you please – someone in authority?”

Tyler left his seat and quietly as he could, trying not to wake his mother, and went to the rear of the aircraft, and the air stewards’ station, just past the toilets. Gulping down his anxiety, he approached one of the uniformed women, and meekly called out “Errrr, excuse me…?”

The cabin crew seemed agitated, and at first they didn’t notice that Tyler was there. “I-I need to see someone in authority”, he said more firmly. “There’s something I think they need to see.”

A blonde woman, her age somewhere between Tyler’s and his mother’s, at last responded to him. “Please return to your seat”, she said. “Someone will see to whatever you need shortly.”

She sounded nervous, even afraid – clearly something was not right. “I don’t need a pillow, I don’t need a drink, an’ I don’t want any damn peanuts”, he said sharply. “The Challenger wants to speak to someone in charge – now either you listen to me, to him, or point me in the direction of someone who will.”

Another stewardess, this time clearly more senior, stepped forward and glared at Tyler. “Look, kid, we don’t have time for your crap…”

“Put the console next to that computer screen”, instructed The Challenger. “Set it down with one of the cameras facing them, and I’ll do the rest.”

Tyler took out his ear-buds, unhooked them from his games console, and placed it on the counter underneath a computer monitor used to handle the inventory of foodstuffs and other consumables. The lists and figures flickered, then the screen went briefly blank…

“What the hell?”, exclaimed the chief stewardess. “It’s a serious offence to interfere with–”

The Challenger appeared on the computer screen. “Ladies and gentlemen”, he said politely. “It seems to me that you have something of a problem.”

“Yeah – a kid who’s looking at twenty years behind bars!”, muttered the only man in the group in a steward’s uniform. “Get lost, sonny – we got enough trouble…”

“Trouble I can help with”, interrupted The Challenger. “This is no game. I have made contact with Mister Graves here – seat thirty one B – in order to contact you in a way least likely to cause a panic. Now you can either work with me, and get everyone to safety, or the two Air Force F-22s following you will most likely drop this aircraft into the Atlantic. I think that’s something we’d all like to avoid.”

A man spoke up from the back of the group. “You can say that again”, said a weary-looking fellow in the uniform of a member of the flight crew. “Dan Salter, relief co-pilot. Okay, I’m listening.”

“Something appears to have happened to the crew…”

“The flight deck is completely sealed off, and silent”, said the co-pilot. “We have no communications. Now, we’re guessing some kinda terrorist action…”

“I don’t think so, based on what the Air Force have shown me”, The Challenger interrupted again., “but this aircraft is still in danger. Now, I understand you have access to the hold from where you are…”

“Yeah, that’s right”, said Salter.

“I’ll be docking my ship on the underside of your aircraft shortly”, The Challenger continued. “I’ll come aboard to deal with things, but I’m going to need your help. We’re going to start evacuating the passengers, starting with those closest to the trouble, and we need to keep things quiet, and orderly. I don’t want to alert our… uninvited guests to what we’re doing. They may want the passengers for something.”

Oh. My. God“, gasped the male air-steward. “It’s aliens. They’re gonna experiment on us…!”

Tyler grabbed the man’s sleeve, and shook him. “And that’s what none of us are gonna do – panic“, snapped the teenager. “I’ll do whatever I can t’help, Mister Challenger – just like these folks.”

“Glad to hear it, Mister Graves”, said the masked man. “Now, you may feel a slight shudder, much like a brief pocket of turbulence…”

The aircraft trembled ever so slightly. Almost none of the passengers within sight of the stewards’ station seemed to notice.

“…there – we’re linked up. I’m coming aboard.”

To co-pilot and the chief stewardess went to the elevator connecting the main deck with the section of the hold where the food, pillows and such were stored, and which connected via security doors to the main baggage area. Already, there were sounds of activity below – and a few moments later the elevator, no bigger than a shower cubicle in a roadside motel, started to descend.

“Two maximum at a time”, observed Salter. “We’re carrying three hundred plus. Our masked friend better be as good as they say he is.”

A half-minute later, the conveyance began to ascend once more, and through the small windows, vertical slits in the doors no wider than a hand, one could see an armoured figure, with a featureless helmet, rising from the depths like some figure of legend – the same individual they had just seen on the computer screen.

The doors opened, and The Challenger stepped out. “Good afternoon, Mister Salter”, he said, nodding to the co-pilot. “Miss… Gina.”

“Gina Campos”, said the chief stewardess, her hand subconsciously going to the badge on her lapel that bore only her first name. “And that’s Mrs Campos. I’d very much like to see my husband again, if that’s all right with you.”

“That’s what I’m here to achieve”, said the hero. “For everyone.”

The armoured man turned to Tyler, who stood there awestruck. “Mister Graves”, said The Challenger, extending a gloved hand that the boy eventually grasped, and shook. “Good work – now, can I count on you a little longer? The stewards will need all the help they can get.”

“Absolutely, sir”, answered Tyler. “But I dunno how much good I’ll be if three hundred people start panicking.”

The Challenger handed him, Co-pilot Salter and Gina devices that looked like stainless steel pens. “Point at the trouble with this, and press the orange button”, the hero told them. “It’s a telepathic tranquiliser – short-term effect, but don’t use it too much, as you might start feeling the effects yourselves.”

The hero glanced out into the main seating area. “All right, here goes. Mister Salter, Mrs Campos; you and two others come with me to the forward cabin. Once we’re there, start moving the passengers to the rear of the plane, and down to the hold, and my ship. Mister Graves, stay back here and be ready on ‘crowd control’…”

Tyler braced himself, staying out of sight as The Challenger and the cabin crew emerged into public view. There was a murmur of amazement and confusion as the hero was seen and recognised, then the passengers fell silent as The Challenger spoke to them. “Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention, please. Shortly, we’ll be asking you to move to the rear of the aircraft as quietly and calmly as possible. A situation has developed on this aircraft, and steps are being taken to ensure your safety. Please pay close attention to your cabin staff, and follow their instructions – no matter how unusual they might seem. We’ll be starting with the passengers up front, and I’d like to assure you that’s not because they paid more than anyone else. They’re the ones closest to the situation…”

The young man suddenly felt as though someone had dropped a big lead ball down his throat, and it had just landed in his stomach. This was all real – everyone on the plane was in danger – including his mother, who was now awake, and looking around anxiously for her missing son. She was scared – he was scared

…to be concluded.

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