2947-08-13 – Tales from the Service: The Haunted Hauler
Fifth Fleet intelligence has relayed some sort of secret dossier to commanders. Most of my contacts deny having seen the so-called “Benedict Dispatch” but datasphere rumors inside and outside the fleet are full of speculation as to its contents. Several purported leaked copies of this payload are making their rounds, but as they are contradictory and unverifiable, Cosmic Background is going to play it safe and not report the contents of any of these competing versions yet, and not only because that will keep us in Naval Intelligence’s good graces.
I will say that about a third of my contacts seem to have grown ten years older since I last talked to them, and that all these contacts are flag captains or senior officers. I’m going to take a wild guess that these are the persons who are in on the Benedict secret, and that whatever was in that file is not helping anybody sleep at night.
There might be other things preventing Navy spacers from sleeping at night – this ghost story has been making the rounds ever since Saint-Lô had its last resupply. Apparently, it came aboard from the supply ship’s crew.
Tyler S. stared blearily at his display and reached for the long-cold cup of synthetic coffee perched on its edge. Into his third shift without a break or a breakthrough, the ship’s maintenance woes had evolved from a thorny puzzle into a taunting demonic horror coiling through the eighty-year-old cruiser’s bowels.
“Have you been here since I left?”
Tyler started so violently at the unexpected voice behind him that he sloshed coffee on his uniform. The smart-fabric shrugged off the liquid easily as he staggered to his feet, but disheveled and dripping spilled coffee was no way to greet his shift lead. “Lieutenant. Is it third shift again already?”
“Not quite.” Lieutenant Yasmine Brankovic stepped into the maintenance annex, her perfectly creased uniform at odds with Tyler’s twenty-six-hour grime. “I’m three hours early. I figured someone would still be on this... But I didn’t expect it to be you.”
Tyler glanced back at the corner of his display to verify her claim. His shift started again in three hours, and he had not slept since before the previous one. “Mack and Penny are following cables on level six. Each time we think we have the problem patched, it only comes back worse. It’s like it’s alive or something.”
“Captain is probably fuming.” Yasmine reached out to take the half-empty coffee cup from his hands. “We told him this would be fixed by 0800 yesterday.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Obvious.” The third shift on any crew always tended to be overly familiar with each other, but Brankovic encouraged a crass atmosphere on her maintenance crew which would get her written up on most crews. Since she served aboard a hastily-refitted supply hauler running equipment, her improper discipline earned nothing but rolled eyes from the senior staff. “It might be faster to go steal another hull out of a breaker’s yard at this point.”
“We should be so lucky.” Yasmine took Tyler’s place at the console, where the first thing she did was put in a remote request for fresh coffee. “Get some sleep, I’ll cover for you until at least 0400.”
“I’d rather stay on.” Brushing the last few droplets of coffee off his uniform, Tyler shook his head. “We’ve almost got it this time. I’m certain of it.”
“You said that at 1530.” Yasmine tapped through the display settings until she found the map indicating the locations of the other two members of her shift crew. “And again at 1800. And...”
“You’ve made your point.” Tyler caught a clever grin on his superior officer’s face as she bent over the console. “I’m going.”
Heading out into the dingy corridor, Tyler headed for the ladder shaft rather than the still-broken lift. His shared cabin being on deck nine, he stopped first on deck six, wandering in the general direction of the cable runs Mack was tracing. The vaguest idea of helping for a few minutes bounced about in his head, intermixed with the scattered detritus of his triple shift. They were close – he knew it – if only he could think properly for ten minutes, he’d have it solved.
An open access panel caught Tyler’s attention, and he stopped in the otherwise empty corridor to peer inside. “Mack! Need anything before I clock out?"
The call echoed in the narrow maintenance tunnels without reply. Tyler checked his pockets for his comm, and cursed – he’d left it in the duty annex. There was another in his cabin, of course, but that was no closer.
“Mack, how’s it going?”
There was still no answer, though Tyler thought he heard a scuffing sound deep in the tunnel. Grumbling, he climbed in, determined to check in with his compatriot before surrendering to the call of the top bunk.
The scuffing sound, joined at odd intervals by a clinking and a rushing sound as if of venting gas, led Tyler on, deeper into the tunnel than he would have expected Mack to need to go for a simple cable trace. Something seemed off, but putting off the siren song of the bunk took most of his remaining attention. “Come on, Mack.”
The sounds ahead stopped suddenly, and light footsteps padded on the hollow maintenance tunnel deck. Tyler couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like they were retreating away from him.
“Mack, this isn’t funny.” Tyler redoubled his pace, just in time to trip over a tangle of cabling strewn across the half-lit deck. “What the-”
Before he could finish his question, the pile of cables squirmed as if alive, twisting its way up Tyler’s body and binding his jaw shut. Perhaps he had been right in his grumbling – perhaps the problem wasn’t a maintenance fault. Perhaps the ship’s antiquated systems really were alive, and fighting back.
Struggling madly against the cables, Tyler tried to scream, but the sound went nowhere. As the cables wound around him, he felt the breath forced out of his lungs – the living systems would protect their secrets, even if it apparently meant killing a few maintenance techs. Had Mack and Penny succumbed to the same malicious machinery?
“There you are!” It was Mack’s voice. The beam of a maintenance torch blinded Tyler for a moment, and strong hands seized the cabling crushing his lungs. “What the hell have you gotten into down here?”