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The Challenger – Prisoners Of The Sky – Chapter 2

The Challenger repeated his speech for each compartment of the aircraft, and thanks to the pacification field his armour was generating, there was no panic, no stampede. The people were agitated, and a couple of times one or two people did try to leave their seats, but Mrs Campos’s team did their jobs splendidly, without having to call upon the pacification devices the hero had handed out. Trouble was most likely to come from the first-class compartment, as the evacuation began.

Lee gave the speech one last time, omitting the part about why the front compartment was going first. There seemed to be little point to it. Again, the pacification field did its work – the passengers would only start getting worked up once they were out of its effective range, but thankfully, there were no scenes or sounds of panic as the last of the first-class passengers filed through into the next compartment, disappearing behind the curtains. Now, Lee could get to work…

The hero placed a hand against the flight deck’s armoured door, his suit’s scanning gear looking through the metal as easily as though it was air…

“Sir? Mister Challenger?”

The Challenger turned. A well-built man was standing in the aisle, seven rows back, his jacket pushed aside at the hip to reveal a shiny badge on his belt. “Brian Dakins, Air Marshal”, the man announced. “I think I should be here for this.”

“That might not be a good idea, Mister Dakins”, the hero replied. “Whatever’s in there might go for the easiest target first, and the last thing we want is someone shooting.”

“I was in the army before this”, said Dakins. “Afghanistan. I’ve seen it all – doubt I’ll be freaking out any time soon.”

“You’ve seen nothing, my friend”, said The Challenger, sternly. “This – this is most likely beyond anything you can imagine.”

One life-form, active… several residual life-signs – possibly organic tissue in contact with an external energy source, he’d deduced from the scans. It’s going to be messy…

The Challenger willed the lock to disengage, and his suit’s onboard computers did the rest. The red light on the access key-pad went green. “Here goes…”

The hero opened the door, and for a fraction of a second, even he froze in disbelief. The majority of the flight control compartment was filled with tentacles, gradually becoming visible as smooth, greyish-green limbs the further they extended from a near transparent central mass. At the ends of some of the tentacles were human body parts – arms and heads – and those parts, whilst showing signs of having been violently torn apart, seemed to still be functioning, severed hands on the plane’s controls, dead eyes watching monitors and gauges.

“I am The Challenger”, declared the hero. “You are putting innocent lives in danger. Explain yourself.”

A tentacle whipped around, a human head impaled upon its tip. The eyes blinked in a vaguely mechanical fashion, as though such an action was an entirely novel experience, the mouth opened and closed soundlessly…

Two more tentacles appeared from the corners of the flight deck, one carrying a pair of greyish sacs, attached to a ridged tube much like the “neck” of a vacuum cleaner. This arrangement of flesh was held to the stump of the head’s neck, and the third tentacle wrapped around the sacs – human lungs – and squeezed, as though trying to play some hideous set of human bagpipes, forcing air into the head’s ravaged vocal chords…

“Saving… them…”, the head gurgled, bloody fluid leaking from the corners of the mouth. “Take them… away. Escape gaze… of crimson eye…”

“I can’t let you do that”, said The Challenger, doing his very best to retain his self-control, and not throw up inside his helmet.

“Then I… go alone”, spluttered the disembodied head.

“You still need the plane?”

“Protection… pull of planet… too strong”, the entity replied. “Machine necessary… creature of sky am I… like air…”

“It… it can’t leave”, said the Air Marshal. “It’s – oh my God – it’s guilty of four counts of murder, and hijacking an airliner…!”

“Deaths… unfortunate”, said the creature, its confidence with its awful “musical instrument” increasing. “Have avoided other… beings, but now… must leave! This world… falls under the… shadow. Soon. It comes…”

“Tell me more”, Lee insisted. “It’s my job to protect this world. If there’s something you know, you have to tell me. If you do, I will let you go.”

“Mister, you do not have the authority!”, exclaimed Dakins, and The Challenger heard the Air Marshal going for his gun.

Lee gestured towards Dakins, and the man’s weapon flew into the grasp of the hero’s magnetic glove. “This isn’t a question of authority, Mister Dakins”, said the hero. “It’s a question of necessity. if there’s a greater threat, we need to know about it. This may be our only chance to learn something that could be vital to our survival as a species.”

The dead eyes of the severed head closed for a moment. “The machine… instrument of the ages… lost, and confused… it comes to fulfil its… purpose. The burning… river. It comes from… another place… to feed on this world. Made… by gods. Only gods can… stop it…”

“The ‘burning river’?”, asked The Challenger. “The energy siphon? The ‘river’ brought you here?”

“Yes. The fire from… another place.”

Lee stepped back. The organ-carrying tentacles retreated into the main mass of the creature, as though submerging into something less fluid than water, but almost as clear. “Give us enough time to get the people off the plane”, requested The Challenger, “then you can go, without any interference. You have my word.”

The disembodied head blinked, and with the aid of its supporting tentacle, it… nodded. The Challenger closed the cockpit door, and backed away, handing Dakins his gun as he passed the Air Marshal.

“And what if you’re wrong?”, said Dakins sourly.

“What if that is right, Mister Dakins?”, the hero replied. “If what our unwelcome guest said is true, then we have a whole lot more to worry about than four dead men and a missing airliner…”

The Challenger moved back into the next compartment, and checked the status of the evacuation on his helmet’s display screen. Current passenger complement – 56… 58…

Two-thirds of the business class passengers had left their seats, and Gina and her staff were managing a steady stream of evacuees without much difficulty. “Give them a hand, Mister Dakins”, advised the hero. “I’ll wait here, in case our… friend changes its mind.”

“And if it does?”, asked the Air Marshal.

Lee gave a mental order, and energy conduits all over his suit lit up with alien power, glowing hotly. “Then it won’t change its mind again.”

The Challenger stood watch for going on for half an hour, watching the door to the cockpit with one eye, watching the passenger complement gauge with the other. At eighty-four passengers, light shone out all around the edges of the door, which the hero’s suit registered as transetheric impulses. When the counter clicked over to one hundred and twelve, the ozone level in the air jumped to more than double its usual amount – at one hundred and fifty six, the structural members of the plane’s hull could be seen briefly through the inner walls, sparkling a fierce electric blue…

A few seconds later, a voice reached Lee’s ears from the outside world. “Challenger? This is Foxtrot Delta Leader – we are crossing the coast… now. Sir, I have clearance to open fire – unless you have things under control.”

“Don’t panic, Captain”, instructed The Challenger over the comm-link in his helmet. “I’m securing the passengers and surviving crew – we’ve had four fatalities, but there’ll be no more if we take it easy until everyone’s squared away. We will, however, be losing one airliner – I’ll explain later.”

“Sounds like we should expect a crash”, said Captain Rashell.

“I’m not entirely sure what we should expect, Captain”, Lee told him, “but I don’t think there’ll be any threat to anyone on the ground. Just stand clear, and do not open fire. I made a promise…”

The counter read 178 when Air Marshal Dakins returned. “Sir, we have some passengers getting a bit wound up in economy – some woman says she’s the mother of Tyler Graves…?”

“I’ll deal with that”, said the hero. “I think we’ve nothing more to worry about up here.”

In the part of the plane’s passenger area next to the tail section, there was indeed some increased agitation. Several passengers were trying to get out of their seats, and one of them was a woman, shouting at the top of her voice: “Tyler William Graves, you get your backside over here right now…!

“Mom, I gotta job t’do”, replied Tyler, looking quite helpless. “The Challenger asked me to…”

“I don’t care what anyone else wants!”, shrieked Mrs Graves. “I promised your father I wouldn’t let you out of my sight, and see what happens when I shut my eyes for five minutes – if you and that damned games-thing have been messing with this airplane, I swear you’ll be dead before we hit the ground…!”

Talk of crashing struck unnerving chords in the minds of those lined up to get off the plane, and the fear level rose tangibly. Trust a mother to screw things up, thought Lee. The greatest monster of all…

“Madam, please”, the hero began, wading through the waiting passengers.

“Oh, don’t you ‘Madam’ me, mister”, growled Mrs Graves. “The last thing this boy needs is some idiot dressed up in a spacesuit telling him to ‘play with the grown-ups’! He needs to get his head out of the damn clouds…”

“Far from it, Mrs Graves“, said The Challenger, this time carefully weighing up how he addressed the woman. “Tyler has done a fine job today – I’m thinking he just needed someone to give him a chance…”

“A chance? A chance to get us… all… killed? Hey… whatever…”

Mrs Graves slid back into her seat, a blissfully vacant expression on her face. The Challenger looked over at Tyler, who quickly tried to conceal the pacification device, and when the hero approached him, the young man shrugged, and half-smiled as he asked “I… I couldn’t keep this, could I…?”

The rest of the passenger transfer went without incident. The Challenger remained until last, with Co-pilot Salter, the last pair of passengers being Tyler and his semi-conscious mother. “It’s all yours, as soon as we undock”, the hero called out to the empty aircraft. “I hope you make it home – and tell others of your kind that there are people out here…”

It was a mind, not a voice, that responded. ***They would have been safer with me, man-in-metal. Pray you have not damned them…***

The elevator rose, and stopped on the passenger deck one last time. “Let’s go, Mister Salter”, said The Challenger. “There’s nothing left for us here.”

The two men descended to the supply hold, then hurried through to the baggage area, and through the hold hatch into the cargo bay of The Challenger’s ship. The passengers were relieved to see their rescuer, and the last living member of the plane’s flight crew, but were anxious about the lack of any kind of safety belts – or seats. “Sorry things are so… minimalist”, said The Challenger, on the way through the crowd to the flight deck, “but I didn’t have time to fit any seats. Just sit down, and try to relax – I’ll keep our flight as smooth as possible.”

“Could you do with a co-pilot?”, asked Salter. “I might not be rated on this model, but I have experience on my side.”

“There are plenty of seats”, Lee told him, “but don’t touch anything, if you don’t mind.”

Robotic cargo-handling arms closing the baggage hatch of Flight Two Seven Two, Lee took the pilot’s seat again and prepared the ship to detach from the airliner. The cargo bay doors closed, briefly subjecting the huddled passengers to complete darkness until banks of lights came on, almost simultaneous with a distant double clunk, and a sensation of falling that lasted no more half a second.

“We’re detached and clear”, The Challenger reported over the ship’s internal communications system. “If you’ll bear with me a while longer, Challenger Airways will have you to your destination safe and sound before you know it.”

Keep sensors locked onto Flight Two Seven Two, he mentally instructed the ship. Record everything until the aircraft no longer registers, and the area it was in when we lose track of it for as long as we’re in range…

The Challenger kept a display screen on the airliner as the courses of the two vehicles diverged, and after about two minutes, the plane started to glow. Wave after wave of what seemed to be liquid lightning passed over the hull, the wings… over, and through its very substance as though aircraft and air were one and the same.

And then, the airliner was gone, faded away to nothing.

After a few moments of silence, Captain Rashell made contact. “Holy…“, gasped the National Guard pilot. “Wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it…”

“Story of my life, Captain”, Lee replied, wearily. “Story of my life.

With the Air National Guard fighter planes as escorts, The Challenger’s ship turned west, and north, as he headed for Chicago to fulfil his promise, taking the passengers all the way to their intended destination. That course of action probably meant that he would be unable to avoid the press, but for now, The Challenger wasn’t all that bothered. He’d regained some faith in himself, in part due to the faith he inspired in others – and as far as “sharing the load” was concerned, he’d met several prospective candidates on this day…

He just hoped he was going to have enough time to get the right people ready before the creature’s disturbing prophesy became fact, as he felt sure it eventually would. Something like that was, he feared, going to need more than one Challenger.

And those Challengers would need a leader. An experienced leader, who was now forced to reconsider any thoughts of resigning.

…o O o…

Epilogue…

It didn’t take long for the media to get word of the sudden arrival of an mysterious aircraft at Chicago O’Hare International Airport – the best description of it was “a flying saucer”, and all sense of order collapsed as soon as those reporters and camera-men heard that The Challenger had been sighted, exiting from the vehicle with several hundred bewildered-looking people. Security staff hurried the new arrivals away to an isolated hangar, with airport police in attendance to keep prying eyes away until the authorities felt they had the matter under control.

Gail Armesty of the FBI had crossed paths with The Challenger before, when a disused automobile production line in Detroit came to life, and the hero seemed thankful to see a familiar face when the agent’s identity documents were finally deemed sufficient to earn her access to the hangar. “I hope we haven’t gotten you out of bed, Agent Armesty”, the masked man said to the slight, yellow-haired woman as she shook his hand. “I think we have this situation well enough in hand…”..

“Think again”, interrupted Gail. “Aphrodite Two-Seven-Two left Dublin with three hundred and nineteen passengers – and you landed with three hundred and twenty.”

The Challenger looked over to Gina Campos. “That doesn’t tally”, said the chief stewardess. “I was there, counting them as they went down to the hold – three nineteen. I’d swear on it.”

“Airport security counted three twenty, and removed a man when they were putting the passengers through checks”, said the FBI agent. “We have him in isolation – probably a smart move by the look, and smell of him. He has no boarding pass, no passport, no form of identification, no wallet, no money – and apparently no name.

“Show me”, said the hero. “If he was on my ship, I want to know how – and why.”

Through the two-way mirror of one of the isolation areas at the airport security block, Armesty and The Challenge observed the shabby figure pacing back and forth, leaving dust in his wake – a man past middle age, with a grey beard trailing down his chest, a faded square of once colourful fabric tied into a skullcap. He looked like a farm-worker, or maybe a retired lumberjack, in work trousers patched who knew how many times…

The man stopped after a while, turned to what was just a mirror on his side, and seemed to stare right through it. “Ah know y’re there”, he called out, stuffing leathery hands into his pockets. “Ah wancha t’know that ah c’n wait right here ’til y’all are dust, ‘n’ bones. But ah ain’t gonna do that, ’cause ah ain’t gonna stand aroun’ here, when there’s… when m’people’re still in danger. So, what’s it gonna be…?”

Before Armesty could stop The Challenger, the hero had walked through the wall, into the isolation room. “I am The Challenger, protector of this world”, he announced. “Would you care to explain…?”

“Wish ah could”, replied the man, seemingly utterly unsurprised, and unimpressed, by a man in armour walking through a wall. “One minute, ah’m in the desert… listenin’. The next, ah’m on y’r air-cruiser, with alla those poor scared folks.”

“How about we start with, say, a name, and work from there?”, suggested The Challenger. “I’ve given you mine…”

“What’s the point of a name, when y’re the lasta y’r species?”, replied the stranger. “Ah got outta the habit of usin’ the one ah was born with – they call me The Grey Man now…”

“And who’s ‘they’?”

“The two peoples ah’m tryin’ t’stop gettin’ wiped out”, answered “The Grey Man”. “An’ as fer y’r next question, ‘where ah’m from’ ain’t the same thing as ‘where ah was’ – long story, that.”

“We seem to have plenty of time…”

The Grey Man leaned close to Lee’s mask. “No, Mister Croxley, we don’t”, the bearded stranger whispered. “You know it, ah know it – an’ with every second that passes, it is gettin’ closer. I was listenin’ fer signs of the… creatures that made me the last a’my kind, but instead, ah heard tickin’, like someone hollowed out t’universe, an’ put a great big clock inside it…”

Lee should have been surprised that this stranger somehow knew his real name, but a greater revelation had since taken its place. The machine… instrument of the ages…, the creature on the plane had said. …it comes …to feed on this place. Made by gods… only gods can stop it…

Well, thought Lee, it hasn’t met me yet…

“It seems to me that I’m going to need your help… Mister Grey“, said the hero. “You’re the second… person I’ve spoken to in the last twelve hours who’s mentioned some kind of machine, something that’s a threat – something that may be capable of eating worlds.”

“Sounds about right”, said The Grey Man. “So, whatcha gonna do about it?”

Behind his mask, Lee smiled. “Throw one hell of a spanner in the works…”

Open new file…

File title: Prospective Recruits – Challengers Project…

Adding names: Rashell, Seth – Salter, Don – Dakins, Brian – Graves, Tyler…

Begin deep scan for personal profiles.

…to be continued.
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