We descended to the surface in silence, unaware of the horrors we'd soon encounter.
"Anything on the scope yet, Burgess?"
Allen ignored his captain as he worked the controls beside him, peering through a small viewport, scanning sets of numbers that ticked by with mundane precision. In front of them, the main view screen was a blur of thick, pink and purple clouds, punctured by flashes of bright lightning.
Vash tried to stay hopeful, but that storm was making him nervous. The Alliance reports of this uncharted world were mired with myths and ghost tales: from starships reporting weird anomalies that set them off course, to whole fleets vanishing, never to be seen again.
While the Alliance would never set policy based on hysterical rumors, the mysterious events surrounding this planet were enough to have it classified 'off limits'.
And to Vash, 'off limits' meant 'worth exploring'.
"Just keep at it, Burgess...I've got a good feeling about this."
Vash's grin always disturbed Allen, so he buried his eyes inside his viewport to escape the uncomfortable feeling.
All the numbers had changed.
But he stopped, gazing up at the main screen with Vash. They'd finally pierced the storm clouds, and what they saw now -- the planet's surface -- almost defied explanation.
There were three colored disks hovering in the sky along the horizon, casting off a mixture of white, purple, and crimson light that illuminated a range of distant mountains. They shone like stars, but they couldn't be, as the vast and endless storm clouds swirled behind them.
There was a long stretch of what looked like trees -- a forest of some kind -- with lush, golden-yellow leaves growing from charcoal colored stalks and branches, the entirety of which slithered along, as if attached to the back of some gargantuan, unseen serpent.
And then a massive, translucent sphere, almost looking like a glass marble, rose up and filled the entirety of the main view screen. There wasn't even time to scream before they collided with the object. Plunging into the glass sphere, everything changed.
The universe became a fluid: a viscous, amber solution that filled every crevice of Vash's surroundings, engulfing him in warm, liquid depth. Dark shapes moved in the distance, indiscernable things swimming in every direction. His ship was a distant space; a whole universe away from him, although he still felt encapsulated by its structural angles, which from this perspective felt alien and wrong.
Just then a school of bizarre fishmen swam by, their lifeless, milk-colored eyes unaware of Vash. Their bodies were large, at least a third taller than Vash, and their brown and yellow scales blended with the amber fluid. They carried long, silver poles that glistened with green slime, and they gurgled to each other as they moved. Vash couldn't be sure, but they seemed to be some kind of hunting party.
As suddenly as Vash had found himself in a new universe, he was thrust back into the empty confines of his starship, devoid of Amber fluid and now aware of the loud alarm klaxons bellowing throughout the ship.
The main screen was cracked in half and devoid of any image; Vash felt the ship was still in motion, which he confirmed by the sound of distant scraping against the hull: a rushing, cracking, screeching noise emanating throughout the ship. Then, with an awful moan, the ship came to an abrupt stop, angled slightly forward, and everything went dark.
"Vash," Allen called out, his voice weak. Vash could also hear his companion's breathing had become haggard.
Vash pulled himself out from under a computer terminal and felt around in the dark. He climbed across what was probably the curved section of the sensor station, where Allen was last standing. He groped in the nothingness, until his fingers came to lay on Allen's leg.
"I'm here, Burgess."
"You need to go now, Vash."
"Like hell, Burgess. We both need to go."
Allen coughed, and Vash felt something warm and wet splatter his face.
The whole ship shuddered, letting out another baleful moan. Then it creaked and panged, and the sound of something splintering came across the distance, and the ship angled forward a bit more.
"There isn't much time, Vash."
"I'm not about to-"
"Listen to me. I've never liked you or your brash disregard for Alliance policy. This whole damned thing of coming to this godforsaken planet was an absolute mistake of an idea."
"Look, I'm sorr-"
Allen coughed again, his hand reaching out and grabbing Vash's shoulder to steady himself. "Stop it," he muttered, "there's no point now. The fact is the Alliance knew your plan. They allowed you to break protocol, to pursue this crazed idea of yours."
"What? How do you-"
"Because I saw the dossier. They brought me in to watch you. To make sure you didn't fuck up."
Allen pulled Vash close to him. Vash's chin grazed a piece of sharp metal that protruded into the space between them, somewhere through where Allen's neck should be.
"I failed. You failed. But the fact is the Alliance was willing to sacrifice us, if it meant any chance at them understanding this place better."
Vash was at a loss for words. Admittedly he had experienced too much to process, what with swimming in an extra-dimensional space only minutes earlier, but the state of shock he was in helped keep him focused squarely on a sense of betrayal welling up inside of him.
"Take this," Allen muttered, pressing some small, hexagon-shaped object into Vash's palm. "It's a HexComp; it will help you navigate the planet's surface."
Vash pocketed the device, and felt along Allen's silhouette, hoping to determine his injury wasn't as bad as he'd originally thought. Rather, it was worse.
"Just remember the HexComp will be useless once you've gained access to the planet's interior."
"Wait, what do you me-"
"One more thing."
Vash paused and stared into the darkness, at the place he believed Allen's eyes were. He suddenly thought of the lifeless eyes of the fishmen he'd seen, and his body quivered.
Allen drew in a breath, and exhaled. It was short and weak, and Vash reasoned it had been his last. But there, somewhere in that exhalation, Vash thought he heard Allen's last word. Barely a whisper, there was a final instruction.
Just then the ship jolted and leapt forward, and Vash ducked and rolled to the side to avoid coming down on the blade of metal that claimed Allen's life. More pangs and the vessel tipped further towards its front end, suddenly sliding through some open space before colliding with something massive, sending more echoing noises of splintering, cracking, breaking things against the ship's exterior.
Vash felt his way through the tilted structure, found a doorway, and pried it open. He would reach the airlock soon, escape the doomed, lifeless ship...and be alone on the surface of an alien world, beneath skies blocked out by an endless storm.
Where strange glass spheres send trespassers to bizarre, underwater dimensions, and no doubt even more dangerous and worse things wait to be discovered.
And still, Vash considered what Allen said: "...once you gain access to the planet's interior."
What did Allen know of this planet? Had he been here before? Did the Alliance know more about this world than Vash had assumed?
What was this place?
[TO BE CONTINUED]
[TO BE CONTINUED]