Ahrottl’s breath came quick, her heart beating a steady but rapid pace, as the outer airlock door opened.
In front of her was a vast expanse of grey metal, hovering in the void, and between her and it was nothing but space. Empty space, but for particles and energies that were outside her range of perception. Empty space, but for the ghosts of the crew of that colossal station that she imagined waving to her, calling her forward.
“Securing the line.” She said, and reached around the outside of the cabin door, briefly dizzy from the scale of what she was witnessing. She closed her eyes, and felt with her suited paw for the loop beside the airlock door, and hooked the end of her line through it, snapping it shut. She opened her eyes and tensed her body, ancient processes in her hindbrain gauging the distance and angle between her and the open docking bay ahead of her. Her hips wiggled as she crouched, and sprang forward.
She flew, not feeling the velocity as she might in an environment with gravity and air, but watching the universe slide by her silently. She felt a bubble rising up from deep inside of her, pushing past her rips and into her throat, and she let out a wild, chittering scream of exhilaration, wonder, and terror. She slid effortlessly through space, the motor attached to her suit feeding out line in time with her velocity.
The closed doors of the docking bay were approaching rapidly. Floating in dead space with no gravity, turning effectively would have been impossible. Reluctantly she fired a small jet on the back of her suit, slowing her approach. Her kind was acrobatic and loved to play in low gravity or gravity-free environments but she knew that if she did not slow down at all she could easily get injured; she might be weightless but her mass had not changed at all. She held her forepaws forwards as she landed against the docking bay door.
Ahrottl glanced around, seeing something that looked suspiciously like a handhold close by, on the frame of the gate. She reoriented herself and let a small blast of her jet carry her towards it, grabbing at it quickly before she slid past. She reached back and grasped her line in one hand, then tied it to the handhold, tethering her to both this station and the mining ship. Feeling a bit more secure, she nosed her comm back on.
“Is the pickup working?”
“Yup!” Came Gerry’s voice. “We can see you, and see through your helmet. Is everything all right?”
“As all right as it can be. How are you doing on opening that outer lock?”
“We’ve found what appears to be a control panel on the inside of the lock. We’re attempting to compare it to the other panel that we found.” Mother Superior said in her crisp tones. “Your time might be best used examining the outside and seeing if you can’t find the same.”
Aware that her face was visible to the rest of the crew, Ahrottl merely whirled her whiskers instead of screwing up her face and mimicking Mother Superior. She began to look around for other handholds.
The outer lock seemed to be lined with them, at about two meters apart, each roughly a meter from the frame. Others grips were placed even further out, roughly a meter and a half past the first row, and seemed to have even more space between them. Ahrottl moved gingerly, heading “up” (the direction that her head was currently oriented), rung by rung, looking for some sort of manual control or more lettering.
An irregularity in the surface caught her eye; she moved to examine it. A square seam in the surface of the ship, perhaps ten centimeters on a side, was depressed into the hull within easy reach of one of the rungs. “What do you think?”
Non-committal noises came over the comm. Ahrottl shrugged and pressed against the plate gently with her suited paw.
The panel turned dead black against the grey background and images popped into view. A series of colored circles, each highlighted with a symbol, connected by white lines in an arrayed pattern. Ahrottl nibbled on her lip while looking them over. The symbols familiar ones from previous experience with the alien alphabet, and they had a different quality; angular where the others curved and flowed, blocky where the others seemed to have some nuance.
“What do you think?” She asked of the crew.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Maria said. “Probably better.”
She looked it over and contemplated it. The circles ranged in color from primary hues to mixtures, a few of them similar shades, and there were twenty two of them in all. The arrangement was roughly oval.
“Maybe it’s a numbering system.” Timmy suggested brightly. “They may have been generated by a different culture, or created to look deliberately different from the rest of their script to avoid confusion.
“So this might be a number pad? Hmmm.” Ahrottl scanned it again. “None of the symbols are the same? A base twenty two number system? That seems…”
“Unlikely, given that they resemble the Vessels, which resemble the humans and Zig. Most species seem to have number systems primarily based on their number of available digits for counting, with the exception of the Mauraug who use a base six and the Zig who use a binary system now, but did not start with one.”
Ahrottl twirled her whiskers and banged on the docking bay door in frustration. “Come on!”
Mother Superior’s voice came over the communicator, “There seems to be a change.”
A couple of the other crew members murmured in surprise. Ahrottl, blind to what they were viewing, asked, “Well? What is it?”
“There’s a sequence forming on the panel by the door. It looks like a series of symbols – similar to the ones that you’re seeing. Maybe it’s the entry code?” Maria suggested.
“It’s better than guessing. Can you relay the image to me?”
“I’ll take care of it, ma’am.” Timmy provided helpfully. Soon enough there was a small holo of the inner panel floating in the helmet of her suit; she manipulated it with her tongue and nose until she could see it clearly. The symbols did seem to match, and it looked like a sequence, a pathway from one end of the oval to the other.
“Now I just have to hope that I’m going in the right direction.” Ahrottl said, and began pressing the glowing circles in sequence. They each dimmed after she touched them, and when she reached the end, the oval faded, leaving behind a blinking message in the script.
“Any change?” She asked, and then saw the miniature holo sent by the probe shift its vantage point rapidly, looking as though it was careening. “It appears that the pressure has dropped again.” Timmy said, as Ahrottl saw the massive docking bay doors slide silently open.
“Well… that worked.” Ahrottl said, wonderingly, and swung herself around the edge of the frame of the doors and began to propel herself inwards. She floated past the ship, trying not to give in to her curiosity and look in to the port, and brought herself straight to the inner airlock. “I’m going to unhook now – the outer doors probably won’t close with the line still in them, and if they do, I’ll still be tethered either way.” She unclipped herself and watched silently as the line floated away, at first lazily and then snapping to as the mechanism on the mining vessel began to reel it in.
She licked her lips nervously and looked at the floating probe beside her – a grey cylinder, wider at the center than at the ends, with antennae and manipulator arms extending from either end – and then turned her attention to the door and its panel. The sequence that had been there before was gone, and was replaced by the previous image that they encountered. She pressed the light blue button, gripping on to the handhold beside the inner airlock as she did so. As predicted, she shook a bit as pressure returned to the chamber.
Ahrottl let out a long breath and said, “All right. Now I’m going to try and open this thing manually.”
Recalling the sequence that the probe had touched that had caused the repetitive message to play before, she began tapping buttons on the panel. This time, a different message appeared, and she could hear faintly through her suit a different message being played.
The airlock slid open effortlessly to a gruesome tableau. “The Red Key…” Ahrottl murmured in her native tongue, and fell back on her rump, dizzy and stilled, while the crew shouted their concern and confusion for her over her suit’s comm. “The Red Key…”