Chapter 9. Encounters Abroad

Log Entry 18:00:01 – 01.25.2186

The exterior hatchway for the airlock disengaged and moved inward. The eerie greenish light from the interior of the ship flickered and spread across the dim space in the airlock. For a moment, still hovering outside the hatchway entrance, I hesitated. I knew something terrible was wrong inside this ship. The fear held me. I did not want to go in.

I tightly gripped the handholds on either side of the hatchway, frozen. I shut my eyes. I pictured myself getting out of this damaged suit and in to a semblance of safety. I told myself that this was my ship. We identified it by the numbers. Relax!

Then, without warning, the reserve oxygen tank ran empty. No lights. No alarm. No air.

The choice was made. I pulled myself into the hatchway and sealed the door behind me. My chest began to burn. I worked quickly. From the internal access keypad, I dialed in the chamber compression and stabilization codes. Atmosphere began to fill the little room. Without further hesitation, I disengaged the inside collar locks and removed the helmet. I took a deep breath and collapsed to my hands and knees on the floor.

The air in the chamber was cool and fresh. I thought that I could easily pass out for a few hours before continuing. But it was the mystery beyond the airlock that kept me nervously alert.

Looking through the port hole into the aft end of the ship was like looking into a laboratory where a greenish-grey bio-experiment had gone wrong.  It was as if great volumes of fungal material were encouraged to grow on every surface. But no… it wasn’t fungus. It was something with a more-defined cell structure, crawling out of control. I wondered what could possibly cause this discoloration, this madness? In all of this confusion, I knew that I had to get moving and I knew that it would be best to be quiet.

I stood slowly and worked to silently disengage and remove pieces of the Evac suit. I clenched my teeth and winced, as each piece clicked or popped or hissed as it came free. As I worked to keep quiet, I also pondered the questions. This ship had become… what? A giant Petri dish, a growing region, a habitat… maybe? What would I find beyond the airlock hatchway? Who would I find here?

Soon, I was free of the suit and standing in the airlock wearing nothing but my basic duty clothes. The damaged Evac suit was just a pile of components on the floor. I felt vulnerable.

I approached the porthole and slid again to the floor. I strained to look straight up and beyond the hatchway. I was looking for the Emergency Use container just above the door. Inside this container were a number of emergency prep and rescue items for the immediate treatment of airlock-related injuries. There was also a large metal pry bar in the container for use when the hatchway was irreparably jammed. There was nothing on the ship that could be made quickly into a weapon. This is the item I wanted from the container. I would take no chances.

Griping the hatchway release, my hands trembled. I slowly rotated the handle until I heard the dull “thunk” of the bolts coming free of the doorway. I poked my head out into the corridor. Thick and sticky green residue filth covered every inch of the inside of the ship. The smell was horrific. I reached up to my throat with my hand and stifled a powerful retch. All along the walkway down the corridor were scattered footprints, as if there was a massive struggle, a battle. There were handprints and full-body smears all along the walls.

Without another thought, I quickly stood up in the corridor and threw open the clasps that held the Emergency Use container shut. I dove into the container with both hands, feeling all the way to the rear of the compartment. Random items from the container dropped noisily to the flooring. I didn’t care. The pry bar came loose in my hands. It felt heavy, powerful. It had raw bludgeoning power. I grinned as I turned to the corridor behind me. I stopped. I had been heard. My grin disappeared. A hobbling figure emerged from the shadows.

It cocked its head to one side, as it regarded me with big, black eyes. In a gurgling, high-pitched voice, it spoke. “How did you get back here, Chikushou?”

[Communication sent: 25JAN2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

Log Entry 18:50:21 – 01.27.2186

When it stepped into the corridor and spoke to me, I could not have been more surprised. My skin went cold. Little beads of perspiration rose up and down my back. There was terrible nervousness in my guts, the kind of sensation you get when you’re faced with a potential for great danger… and no available escape.

It pointed at me with a long finger and spoke again, showing a wide grin of tiny teeth. “How did you get back here?”

At the aft end of this level, there was no place to easily retreat. I raised the pry bar to shoulder level and held my ground. This particular LMO was clearly not Spegg. Where did it come from? How did it get here? There was no logical answer for any of this. I then realized that, as shocking as it was to see this one creature, there was probably more danger here than I could imagine.

“Who are you?” I said, low and aggressively.

“You forget something,” it replied, glancing quickly between my gaze and the end of the pry bar.

The LMO took a half-step forward and I shot out my palm to warn it off. “Back away. Back away now!”

“You are not to look me in the eyes, Chikushou.”

It seemed strangely fearless. I adjusted my grip and gave the pry bar a threatening jerk forward, testing its resolve. It barely flinched at all. A very bad sign. Again, it gave a quick glance at the pry bar and took another half step toward me.

“Baka!” It shouted, with a spray of white spittle. “You belong to us.”

“Enough of this!” I shouted back. “Back away and identify yourself!”

It hunched its back and squinted at me menacingly. It showed even more teeth. “I will not take orders from you,” it hissed.

“Yes, you will, hatchery filth!” I shouted back, as I leaned into the empty space between us.

“Gah!” it screamed, and jumped for my neck with both hands open wide.

With no time to dodge its attack, I took a half-step back to shift some of my weight and brought the pry bar down quickly and savagely. The weighty metal bar connected with the LMO’s left eye socket. It was a soft sound, much to my surprise. The socket caved in and the eyeball burst, spraying a sticky fluid across the floor. Under the force of the blow, it dropped to its knees. Its hands reached up to the ruined eye socket. Then, with a quick screech of alarm, it reached out for my leg. I jumped back out of reach. I brought the bar down again, this time connecting solidly on the top of the skull. The LMO collapsed to the floor. Its mouth was curled in agony. It let out a screaming gurgle, loud, very loud.

The pry bar connected again. And again. And again.

[Communication sent: 27JAN2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

Log Entry 20:48:17 – 01.29.2186

When my attacker stopped wriggling and gurgling on the floor under the hammering of the pry bar, I dropped to my knees. My breath came in ragged gasps and my heart beat furiously. For a while, I sat and watched the blood slowly pool around its upper torso and creep across the floor toward me. I kept the bar held high, in case it made any last moves. When I was certain that it was lifeless, I let the pry bar fall from my aching hands. The bang and clatter from the bar against the deck shattered the silence.  It was then that I realized that there could be any number of other things like this on the ship. I grabbed the bar again, rose up off my aching knees, and quickly hid myself.

The dim green lighting illuminated very little down the long corridor to the fore end of the upper deck. I stood and watched for hours, partially hidden behind the corner of the entryway for the Equipment Lift staging area. During that time, nothing appeared. But nothing looked right either.

The lighting was all wrong, far dimmer and greener than the normal full-spectrum lighting on ships of this type. It hurt my head to stare it it for any length of time. There was also the presence of the thick and sticky green residue that clung to every vertical surface and smeared up the flooring. The smell was awful, choking. It was decay and waste. It was as if the whole ship had become a vile, overgrown aquarium of sorts, sans water.

“An aquarium?”

I suddenly realized that the dead LMO on the floor had more to tell me still. I quickly slipped over to the Emergency Use container and retrieved a retractable scalpel from the med kit and brought it to the body.

Although Living Modified Organisms are common stock for certain business entities and industries, there are only some twenty-three thousand “licensed” LMOs in service. Each type is developed with highly-specific characteristics that meet the needs of the corporation that has the technology to create, grow, train, educate, manage, and track each of these assets. There are a very small number of advanced bio labs on Earth that can create this type of life form. They are highly valuable assets and are tracked as such. Tracking is facilitated by a sub-dermal chipset sealed in a 20mm silicone tube. And each of these tracking chipsets is implanted under the dermis between the shoulder blades.

The chipset is the first key. The chipset is one small piece of the answer. And, after fifteen minutes of cutting and digging, with my hands covered in dead flesh and warm fluids, I realized that I could not find a chipset at all. There was nothing there. This thing did not come from a lab. This was not a licensed LMO. This was something different, something new.

I stood up from the body and tried to shake the filth from my hands, sending splatters of fluids across the floor and all over my clothes. Disgusted, I bent down and wiped my hands off on the body. I then began to make my assumptions.

This LMO could not have been part of the mission on this ship. The ship had either been overtaken at some point during the mission or overtaken prior to departure. I didn’t know which was more possible and I didn’t know which was more infuriating. No reasonable answer was apparent. I was at a complete loss. My mind drifted.

It was quiet. Quiet enough that I could hear residual ringing in my ears from all the recent noise and calamity. For a while, the absence of noise was almost blissful. I almost closed my eyes. It was then that the banging from the decks below started.

[Communication sent: 29JAN2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

Log Entry 16:41:32 – 02.01.2186

The noise had stopped almost as soon as it had started. Bent over the hatchway ladder guard, above the down ladder to the lower decks, I strained to hear it again and identify the source. Turning my head from side to side, alternately switching ears, I struggled to make out the faintest whispers of movement over the natural hum and thrum of the ship. Heat rose from the decks below and warmed my face and neck. It was an odd heat, like wet warmth from living growth. I watched droplets of warm sweat fall from my face to the darkness of the decks below. I heard nothing.

When it first started, it was a series of dull poundings from far below, like someone battering a hatch or a bulkhead with a sizable object. Although muted, it was certainly a metallic bang, as you would expect from metal-on-metal behind a closed door. This was no ship noise. It was too erratic. Someone or something was trying to get in to or out of an enclosure.

I stood silently, unmoving on the upper deck, next to the fore-end personnel lift. I was at the top of the ladder that descended down to the lower decks. I didn’t want to activate the lift, for fear of drawing attention to my location. I didn’t know what was going on below and I wanted to execute the search as stealthily as possible.

Bang! Bang! Bang! The noise came again.

Did I hear a voice this time, a muffled shout? Was this a lure, a trap? This strange ship held more than its fair share of secrets and dangers. The pry bar felt warm and heavy and rough in my hands, but I longed for a weapon of more substantial reach and effectiveness. An LMO is bred to be tough and capable of working in harsh environments. Most LMOs are docile and even fearful of humans. The dead one in the corridor was a different type. Were it not injured from some earlier scuffle, I would have had a difficult time subduing it with a blunt object alone. I longed for a hand-held EMD, otherwise known as an electro-muscular disruptor, something common to survival packs on pods. But the pod on this ship had been launched. There was nothing to scavenge from.

I must be cautious!

I hooked the pry bar into my waistband and over my belt and stepped carefully over the ladder guard onto the downward ladder. I could scale the ladder system straight down to the lower-most deck, stopping at the mid deck to listen again for the source of the noise. My heart began skipping beats and my palms were sweating. This was a descent into madness. Every fiber of my being wanted to stay topside, but there was no place to hide, not for any length of time. Soon, whatever haunted this ship would see the mess I had made of the LMO in the corridor and set after me. It was best to take matters into my own hands, play the game my own way.

I started slowly working my way down the length of the ladder. At the half-way mark, I stopped briefly to listen. I didn’t want to step down into a waiting ambush. Again, I heard nothing. Then, without warning, the ship gave a terrible, jolting shudder. I was thrown from one side of the ladder to the other. I momentarily lost my grip and slid with a rush down to the floor of the mid deck. My feet landed first with a bang and my right ankle rolled with an audible pop. The ship shuddered wildly again and I was thrown to the floor in a full-body sprawl. The pry bar shot from my waistband and skittered across the smooth deck into the darkness, rattling and clanging all the way.

In the dim light of the mid deck, I rolled over on to my chest and waited, listening carefully. No sound. No movement. Then, one last minor rumble from outside the ship vibrated the deck again. The pry bar rang like an alarm bell on the hard floor ahead of me. I held my breath. My chest began to ache.

Something will hear! They will come for me!

I hugged the deck until the vibrating ceased. A few seconds seemed like an eternity.

When all was calm again, I took a few deep breaths and steadied myself. I was fairly certain that these were the same violent tremors that seized the SM5 and threatened to rip the survival pod from the ship weeks ago. I wondered if the bizarre gravitational deformity had returned to claim this new ship. I also wondered how much time I had before it was too late.

I slowly rose to my feet and staggered after the pry bar. At first step, a searing pain ripped through my right foot, telling me that my ankle had been seriously injured in the fall. I hobbled the last few feet to the spot on the floor where the bar had landed and snatched it up into a high attacking position.

As I slowly moved backwards to the ladder, I scanned the darkness for movement. There was none. I reached out and grasped the nearest rung with my free hand and stepped on to the ladder again. Slowly, I began to move downward to the lower deck. As I descended and my head disappeared below the mid deck flooring, I heard the voice. It was a long howl of anger and frustration. It came from below.

[Communication sent: 01FEB2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

Next Chapter: 10. The Mission

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transmission details:

A communications specialist in the year 2185 is abandoned in deep space by a deranged Living Modified Organism, setting up a series of events that lead him back in time to a ruined home world ruled by a wealthy eccentric, a scientist playing God, and the very creature that first stranded him in space.
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