Rust hung like icicles from the turbine shafts. Patches of different metal covered the hull like a quilt. The arrowhead-shaped cockpit stuck out below, the windows covered in dull gold. The Captain, tall and proud, limped around the landing gear.
“This one’s it,” he said to his crew.
“Are you sure, Captain? It’s looks like a disaster waiting to happen,” said Jodie. She thrust her hands deep into her pockets, rocking back and forth on her heels.
“It matches the exact description. She might not be pretty but she has a hyperdrive, so it’ll be a quick delivery.” The Captain went back to the vendor, his hand clasped around a wad of credits.
Maris ran his hands over the hull. He’d heard of these ships – ancient recon ships that have been cannibalized and rebuilt, over and over again by insane, overzealous collectors. He chewed the inside of his cheek.
Rust flakes fell from the hull. Then again, thought Maris, Captain’s word is law.
The hyperdrive room was quiet while the rest of the ship bellowed and groaned at odd intervals. Maris watched the glowing plasma core through the tinted glass window. The tentacle-like arcs of ionized gas stuttered in and out of existence, caressing the walls like a doting mother.
The rest of the crew slept while he prowled the mismatched corridors of the ship. As soon as he found the natural rhythm of the ship, he could relax and fall asleep. But this one eluded him. He ducked into an unexplored corridor that looked more like an air duct. The floor grating, some ancient, some new, seemed to breathe below his quiet steps. A noise – a scrape of metal against metal. Turning around, he saw a shadow walk past the entry.
“Captain?” he asked.
The ship sighed in response.
Outside the Belt, they prepped for the jump. The cockpit was uncomfortably small for the four of them.
“How many people was this ship supposed to fit, Captain?” asked Cain.
“Give me a break, Doc. I know you get tense before jumps but strap in and try to relax.” The Captain pushed some buttons. “How’s she looking, Jodie?”
“Captain, the engine is accelerating, hot but steady. Hyperdrive is fine. Temperature is good. Should be…” Jodie’s eyes were glued to the maintenance screen. It flashed blue. “Now! We’re revved!”
“Hold on,” said the Captain. He punched it. Maris held his breath.
The stars turned off. The crew felt their skin getting pinched and bunched. Their very atoms jittered nervously for an instant before a sudden, overwhelming relief passed through their bodies. Jodie collapsed and Maris fought back the urge to vomit. Cain turned green and as soon as they slowed down to cruising speed, ripped off his straps and raced to the commode. Only the Captain passed through fine. He looked around the cockpit, smiling.
“I think I need a new crew,” he said.
No one could be bothered to reply.
The engine room was too hot.
“If this is gonna happen every jump,” muttered Jodie. She slammed the toolbox shut. “Why would anyone couple the engine with the hyperdrive? That makes no sense.” She wiped her brow with her gloved hand, smearing a band of grease on her forehead. “Piece of shit,” she said, and started towards the exit. A silhouette stood in the doorway.
The door slammed shut and the emergency horn blared.
Maris pounded on the door, steam billowing from the gaps. Pushing with all his strength, he felt the door give away to the side, until he was able to put his fingers through the gap. The steam seared his fingertips and nails.
Jodie was already unconscious, her face frozen in agony, tools strewn around her body.
Cain wrapped her burns in ice plastic. Jodie shivered on the table, her pulse gently blipping on the monitor. Her eyes rolled underneath tightly shut eyelids. The Captain looked on, a snarl on his lips. Maris stood in the back of the operating room, fingering the pistol in his coat.
The Captain spoke first. “If we get the engine up, we’ll be there within a week. Doc, get Jodie back and we’ll be home soon.”
“Yes Captain,” said Cain.
“Captain, I heard someone walking around last night,” said Maris.
“Me too,” added Cain.
The Captain stared at them until they averted his gaze. The monitors barely filled in the silence. He spoke: “Get a hold of yourselves. Without Jodie this ship is a floater. I don’t want to hear any more ghost stories. I already have too much on my mind. Set up watch.”
They took shifts. Cain worked on Jodie, but the coma had its claws deep in her. The dead engine meant that everyone took in each other’s breaths. The hyperdrive hummed on as if on its own accord. Maris slept in fitful intervals, drawing his pistol at every sound. The Captain kept to himself in the cockpit, staring into the stars.
Then, the plasma core shut down. Silence carried farther than noise. No one slept. Maris stalked the halls with his pistol drawn.
Jodie’s vitals stabilized over the next couple of days. Shortly after Maris woke from a nightmare there was a small crack like a whip. The lights flickered before going out. The mechanic’s pulse disappeared and the monitors wailed. Cain leapt out of his chair and hammered at the keys. The wailing died and the monitors clicked off.
“Maris? Captain?” The doctor groped the walls for the switch.
Something heavy fell onto the floor with a crunch. Cain backed into the wall. His screams carried through the ship. Jodie’s screams followed.
Maris and the Captain banged on the medical bay door, but it was welded shut. When the screams died down, Maris thought he heard the plasma core humming a little tune before going silent again.
“Captain, I need to know you aren’t hiding anything.” Maris paced.
“Take your hands out of your pockets,” said the Captain, turning away from the stars to face Maris. “That’s an order.”
Maris whipped around, his eyes reflecting the starlight. “Why haven’t we turned on the distress beacon?”
“Because the only people out here are pirates. You want to risk that right now?”
“I’d risk anything to get off this ship.”
“You’re sounding awfully scared for a mercenary. I’m not paying you to jump ship, Maris. I’m paying you to protect me. What have you done so far?”
“Captain, whatever took out Jodie and Cain, it wasn’t human. You saw yourself. It welded the door shut.”
“That’s typical quarantine procedure, Maris. Find whatever this thing is and destroy it.”
“I’ve checked everywhere.”
“Check again. Dismissed.”
“Captain, who is the buyer?”
The Captain turned away. “Dismissed, Maris.”
The door to his quarters had moved. He pressed his hand against the wall where he was absolutely sure his door stood before. The metal didn’t give, and instead left a matte of dust on his fingertips and palm.
Maris stared down the hallway, where the door to his quarters was open. Before he could even decide to step forward, it slammed shut, echoing through the hall. The emergency lights began to fade.
Maris hid. In the air ducts, he turned on his night vision implants and crawled slowly to muffle his movements. Booming steps marched up and down the corridor below him. Their steps resounded off the rusted walls of the ship, making them sound closer than he’d like.
Deep in the recesses of the ventilation system, Maris went through his checklist. There was more than one of them. They were silent and swift and deadly. They controlled the ship completely and totally.
Maris blinked. There were no escape pods.
He cursed and turned a corner into a dead end. The hyperdrive began to hum, its vibrations pulsing through air ducts, as if taunting him. Air stopped flowing. Backing up, Maris hit a wall. Craning his neck, Maris found himself boxed in. Something whispered in his ear, and before he could yell out the ship closed its mouth.
The Captain sat back in his chair, shaking. The windows were filled with stars, crowding around him, waiting for him to speak.
When he didn’t respond, the engine suddenly came to life. The dashboard came alive, flashing warnings and then settling to a cool blue throughout. The stars winked out of existence. He imagined the plasma core revolving in the heart of the ship, the tentacles attaching themselves to the walls. As if it was trying to pull itself out. The captain tried to breath but the hyperjump constricted his body into a knot.
His skin tingled as if scraped with razor blades. The shadows took the remaining seats, and the rest stood close by. Turning around, he saw them, deep gray against the black of space. Stuck in hyperspace, he could barely move his mouth. “Are you satisfied?” he whispered. He felt their cold fingers sink deep into his shoulders. “I gave you my crew. I gave you their strength. The collector would have destroyed you. Have I not proved myself?”
The Captain braced himself. After a moment, he was still alive. Breathing a sigh of relief, he asked, “Will you let me join you?”
They hissed in response. The stars came back.
The distress beacon lit up the emergency networks for hundreds of klicks around. They would be rescued. There were plenty of ships around to take notice. There were plenty of willing and able crew members to run things like they should be run. The Captain would see to them.
Image Source- “the wild rose, hydrogen-alpha” Adam Evans https://www.flickr.com/photos/astroporn/