Zombie Starship, page 1
Nothing Seems Right
Near the Speed of Light
A Science Horror SF Novel
San Diego, California
Copyright © 2019 by Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.
(from an early cover)
“Nothing seems quite right
Near the speed of light.”
The engineer's eyes radiated terror as he ran along the slowly revolving inner surface of the cargo liner Neptune Express. Close behind him, fast bare feet skittered on steel decks. The engineer heard the sinister fluting breaths of his pursuers. They preferred moving in darkness, so he avoided shadowy corners.
He ran hard through alternate stripes of shadow and wan light. The light around him was sickly dim, while in the distance brighter yellowish smears glowed. Brown and amber shadows drowned in a spattering of rusty water. His gasps left puffs of vapor. He smelled rust and decay, mud and mushrooms, as he ran through the echoing holds. The brightness of WorkPod01 drew all too slowly near. Several times, he paused weakly and doubled over. He held the heavy black gun in both hands, and took several deep breaths before he lurched on.
"Come on, you bastards," he taunted them, and his voice echoed harshly. The air in the vast holds was breathable, though it smelled flat and metallic. In places, the metal joints had separated like tissue in rusty layers, and between those sheets grew angry red and white fungus whose acidic powders burned the skin if you touched it.
The engineer looked back and spotted a grayish figure moving between shadows, from a stack of barrels, across a glittering metal floor wet like chrome, to some other black void. The engineer fired twice, and the powerful therm gun sizzled in his hand. The hot ray streaking from its barrel crackled across the air in two short bursts. The air glowed bluish, and not too far away something screamed. The scream was near-human, coming from a throat made for gulping meat rather than talking or singing. As the mudman died, thrashing on the cold wet ground inside the cargo ship, others of its kind made that strange, low, haunting flute-like noise. Whatever they were communicating among one another, the running man shuddered at its ominous sound.
He fired off one more round for good measure, though it depleted the charge in his gun and moved his desperate situation another step closer to impossible. How long before they got to him? The mudmen never failed to track down their prey.
"I'll take a few more of you with me!" he called out over his shoulder as he ran in the direction of WorkPod01. Already he could see the bright lights there, among the windows overlooking the vast cavities of the holds meant to carry people and goods between Earth, the Moon, and the colonies in the Solar System. He could hear the music, the laughter, the conversation of his own kind, and he knew he would be among them in a matter of minutes--if the gray, stitched, red-eyed shapes rising on the heights behind him did not get him first. The mudmen had neither speech nor art, but they had a strange and horrible music of their kind. They formed their mouths into small cones and emitted a deep breathing sound, like a boy blowing air over the mouth of a bottle. The quietly unnerving, nightmarish sound traveled far in the otherwise still, fetid air. Like the hunting sounds by which predators communicated with one another back on Earth-the coyote or the hyena laughing and warbling on a hill under the full moon, the wolf howling on a snow field--likewise, the mudmen whooshed and fluted and murmured among each other. Sometimes when a distant light flashed just so, the engineer could make out the ruby gleam at the back of their eyeballs. He had no idea how these creatures had come to infest the ship. He only knew they were hunting him like rats tracking down a mouse. He must reach the crew of unsuspecting technicians in WorkPod01 to warn them.
And so he ran on, already bleeding from his encounters with the mudmen. He alternately ran and staggered, hid and waited, then ran some more. His jumpsuit was torn and scorched. His hair was dirty, his face sooty, his scratches oozing. Slowly, the enormous mile-diameter drum of the ship turned as he ran. A stain of brown light with yellowish highlights slanted down among the girders and steel framework to light his path. Already he could see the narrow ladder stretching endlessly up, out of the darkness into the relative brightness above, into dazzlingly bluish white light. Behind the locked and sealed portal leading into WorkPod01 were a crew of eight technicians. They would just now be getting ready to emerge for their day's work. It would be their only day's work, as the running man well knew.
The running man threw himself at the cool steel ladder and started climbing. His clothing hung in rags and his breathing steamed about him, as did the sweat on his back. He felt the scratch of a claw on his heel and looked down. He saw two melon-shaped heads bobbing together, and yellowed horn-fangs reaching after him. Rabbit-mad eyes neither quite red nor quite blue in color, but wide open, stared hungrily after him, and he could almost make out a greenish-yellow smile in each cadaver-gray face. He kicked at their reaching hands and climbed all the faster. "Here," he said, pulling out the gun and firing straight down so he singed his own trouser leg and smelled scorched cloth, "here's a good one for you. Take this back to your queen and your hive." He fired twice more and did not look down to see what he had done. His hands were sweaty. The gun slid away, clattering, and fell down into the spattered mess at the base of the ladder. Trembling, he could struggle to keep his slick hands from slipping from the bare steel as he climbed hand over hand as rapidly as he could. He heard strains of innocent music and laughter above and couldn't help but laugh for joy at the thought of being with his own kind in a few minutes, though he knew better.
Cargo vessel F.E.S. Neptune Express (Federal Earth Ship, 50kTn, 16 parallel main ion-drive power plants housed in external silvered nacelles) was one year outbound from and halfway through her two-year journey to Neptune's moon Triton, when an emergency beacon began to send distress signals back to the Colfirio Inter-Planetary Exploratory Corporation base station on Luna.
A meteorite the size of a golf ball had torn through the outer skin and exploded, vaporizing important elements of the ship's delicate cargo maintenance systems. The ship carried nearly one million individual seed units for trees, vegetables, and other living matter along with growth matrix, soil, hydroponics, shelters, converters, and supplies to be deployed on a major new research station approximately 29 AU from the sun and 81 AU from the heliopause.
The stock, matrix, and growth supplies were vital to the survival of 7,000 colonists on Triton engaged in mining, research, and support activities. Without the successful transport of these materials, the colony would begin starving and suffocating within one earth year. The next mission would not reach Triton for five earth years, so the success of the Neptune Express mission was nonnegotiable.
The ship had been designed with redundant systems, and was staffed by crews of highly competent maintenance and repair experts. These dedicated engineers were often all that stood between life and death in the infinite and lonely void. With the ship halfway to her target, rescue was out of the question. She was leaking atmosphere. Water and other fluids were boiling away from torn conduits. Without skilled and immediate intervention, the ship would begin to implode silently and irrevocably one section at a time within a few earth days.
Acting heroically, and with some injuries and loss of life, repair crews stabilized the ship and kept her on course. They worked around the near-catastrophic impact point. They sealed off gaping holes, rerouted torn conduits, reconnected loose and dangerously sparking conductor cables, and guided the automatic systems through self-test and reoperability routines. With the crisis resolved, there was nothing more to be done b
Section Leader Ridge had a feeling of déjà vu as he looked up from his digital writing pad at the main table in the crew mess in WorkPod01. Ridge was a slim, wiry man with dark hair, strongly angular facial features, and large inquisitive dark eyes.
Rock music boomed from a speaker on one side, while holographic movies played in two or three corners, one woman lifted weights, another woman slept in a sling mat under an artificial sun-and-wind machine, and two men played chess over a tiny table. The table was littered with digital writing tablets, holographs of loved ones back home on Earth, and a hundred other little personal items that eight long-haul space mariners tended to accumulate around them in their everyday life. Last night had been Asian dinner, and in the middle of the table were piled half-empty food containers that smelled faintly of miso soup, sweet and sour shrimp and beef, eggs tofu garnished with seaweed, sukiyaki, and a dozen other ethnic dishes. Ridge had to admit: the Corporation took good care of the crew's culinary and other personal needs, as best that could be done two billion kilometers from home port on Luna.
Mahaffey, a welding tech 1, belched loudly in a corner. He watched a holographic remake of a Hitchcock suspense film. "Are you looking at that food again?" Mahaffey said in a booming voice. He was a long, slender man of African descent, and Ridge always found it amazing how Mahaffey could be comfortable wrapping himself into a ball in his white composite chair with those long stocking-footed legs protruding.
"I just glanced at the boxes," Ridge said. "Isn't it Lantz's turn to clean house?"
"Guilty as charged," said the athletic redheaded woman who was just then pumping iron in another corner--Lantz, a metallurgy tech 1, which Ridge thought of as a fancy term for welder, although lots of times the welding was delicate micro, nano, and even smaller stuff requiring world class microscopes and tools so small a sneeze would blow one's whole toolkit from here to the asteroids and back.
"It's E.S.P.," Mahaffey declaimed without looking away from his holo. "If anyone even thinks about food, I start getting gas." Mahaffey was a metallurgy tech 1 and as a much a competitor as a colleague of Lantz. Like everyone on board, they were a careful match made by expert Corporate social scientists interested in keeping peace aboard these long hauls. One did this with lots of work, a little play, and no stray emotional crosscurrents except a little vinegary banter.
"I'm still full from last night," Ridge agreed. He flicked his stylus idly around his nose while struggling with the words in a report. Other section leaders he'd known could simply dictate verbally and the tablets output text, but Ridge was too self-conscious about his own writing to let it flow like that. Briefly, he thought about the other sections in the vast ship. What were they doing in WorkPod02? 05? 69? There were something like forty self-contained workstations like their own, each manned by eight technicians capable of handling any emergency or maintenance task whether mechanical, electrical, or biological-or any combination thereof. "Hey, Mahaffey," Ridge said, "don't we have intramurals coming up soon?"
"Yeah, we have a round of volleyball due," the long dark-skinned young man said, folding large hands on a flat stomach. "When we get the large holds on front and stern emptied out on the return trip, we can play baseball in them under the lights, just like home."
Lantz chimed in: "Just like home, but no honey and no kids."
"You're not married," Mahaffey bantered back idly.
Sweat dribbled from Lantz's tightly braided golden-red hair and ran down her plain, healthy, freckled features. "Speak for yourself, Moses. I have one kid and when I get back he'll never have to play alone again."
Ridge chuckled to himself and tried to focus on his work while the others chattered playfully. "Tonight will be Greek night," he reminded them, as if rubbing it in. "Work hard today. Burn off the carbs."
"Cruel master," Lantz jibed. "Who else here besides me pumps iron? Nobody. If I don't do this, I can work all day and still be as wide as I am tall."
"Which is not very," Tomson said. He was a shorter, older dark-skinned biotech, EMT, usually called Doc. He was the best biomedical tech in the service, but Ridge and most of the others thought Tomson had developed a sour streak and should have retired long ago. How many million-dollar jobs did a person need to retire rich, before he or she was too old to enjoy a beach house on the Med or a villa in the Rockies?
"Says who?" Lantz said, stopping to towel her dripping face. She wore black and blue tights under a flowery torso garment. She also wore a white headband and a wide blonde-leather kidney belt.
Tomson grinned from his chess game. "Says a hundred bucks I have in my pocket. You want to bet I can't lose ten pounds faster than you can with all that sweating and puffing?" Tomson's quiet chess partner was Yu, a Bio-Engineer 1 who specialized in servomech wetware but could expertly handle any sort of halfway intelligent motile artificial tool.
Lantz puffed loudly as she hopped to her feet after finishing her sets. "Exhale and you'll lose ten pounds of hot air."
Brenna came out of her module and slapped palms with Lantz. Lantz headed off to the shower, while Brenna took Lantz's place on the exercise complex. Brenna was the tallest of the four women in WorkPod01, towering inches above Lantz, Jerez, and Mughali. The latter, an Electrical and Mechanical Engineer 1 from Mumbai, who was still asleep in her personal module, was despite the name a practicing Hindu with a red dot of kumkum powder on her forehead.
As he watched Brenna walk by, Ridge felt a strange skip in his heart. He felt a special affection for her that he believed she somehow returned, although these things were not supposed to happen. Like every person on the ship, whether in this workpod or any other, Ridge and Brenna had their own loved ones back on Earth or Luna. Ridge was from San Diego, where his wife Dorothy and their two children lived in the sunny seaside community of Imperial Beach. Brenna had a husband, Ricardo, and a little boy and girl, back on Earth in Buenos Aires. She was originally of Cuban-German extraction, having grown up in New England, but had married an Argentine airline pilot and moved to the Villa Santiago de Liniers, Buenos Aires to be a school teacher. Ricardo and she were very much in love. Ricardo came from a wealthy family of building contractors, but they had fallen on hard times. Ricardo and Brenna had decided he should retire from flying and go it from scratch in a new business as a cyber engineer, using his copious college and family connections. They had decided that one four-year haul around the planets would set them up for life. With an extended family including lots of aunts, the hardness on the children would pass and they'd benefit for the rest of their lives. Like most persons on board including Ridge, Brenna communicated daily with her family back home. Ridge's situation was much more straightforward. He'd graduated summa cum laude from the University of California at San Diego, done six years as an Air Force engineering officer, married a Miss San Diego (Dorothy) just out of junior college, and planned to do four full tours before retiring as a wealthy man. This was his third tour. He was in mid-career. Standard practice was to get a year at full pay and half time, usually consulting, which was very cushy, and they'd moved from the more military oriented Imperial Beach to the more upscale Mission Hills overlooking the bay. Despite all that, Ridge felt a chemistry with her (ironic, because as they had kiddingly observed, she was a Chemical Engineer 1) that made them feel exceptionally close, even when they were simply near each other, without even looking at each other or speaking. It was a potentially dangerous matter, and they let a little go a long way, spending very little time directly or alone together. By common practice, a person's single-room room ("cube") was off-limits to all others, so individuals rarely visited each other at such a personal level. Instead, the workpods were spacious and designed to offer optimal elbowroom
Brenna sat in her stirrups, rowing. She was an attractive woman with rich dark-amber hair and deep blue eyes. She had pleasantly proportioned features that conveyed a delicate balance of strength and softness. She was disciplined, but kind. Ridge watched for a moment as she moved forward and backward in the soft light. Tiny golden hairs glowed on her long pale arms with their wiry upper-arm muscles. Other than being tall, she was generally unremarkable in stature, with smallish breasts and a tendency toward a beanpole straightness rather than much curvature, so he wondered what it was about her that made his heart beat this way, and his thinking grow fuzzy, and his fingers tremble just a bit. She glanced up at him as she rowed, and smiled faintly, with her eyes glowing briefly, deep blue, like a forest pond amid the tangle of her hair. Ridge nodded and turned away, feeling a flush in his cheeks.
A shudder or a creak or the faintest of groans or something passed like a wave through the room. That would be WorkPod01 starting to move on its tracks, heading toward the area where repairs were needed.
Mughali, wearing an ornately decorated mustard sari of silk over her red tights, came from her cube to wash a few items of clothing in the laundry sink. "Looks like it's going to be a busy day," Mughali said in her lilting Universal Anglo. One of those laughing, happy, impromptu conversations about nothing and everything instantly ensued among the crewmembers. Ridge smiled to himself. He saw Mughali at the sink; Tomson and Yu playing chess; Lantz whistling as she swept from the showers in to her cube, wearing her carrot hair in a turban and a fluffy white robe over her newly exercised musculature; Brenna rowing away; Mahaffey curled up in front of his movie with his stocking feet outthrust; and now Jerez, the other woman, a Cyber-Engineer 2, emerged from her cube.