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Scavenger

By CM_Weller All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

Scavanger

It is not precisely true that in space, no-one can hear you scream. In fact, owing to mandatory open comm links and recording devices, along with the obligatory survival suit necessary for almost all known life to still be living once exposed to hard vacuum and temperatures approaching zero kelvin; many a scream in space has been heard.
Sometimes, it was heard by the crew sent to investigate what had happened to the original crew. And, since most humanoids learn from such mistakes, successive investigations are increasingly better prepared.
The whole bit about vicious, flesh-eating creatures is also mostly bunkum. Anything smart enough to hunt is also smart enough to raid unguarded food, but not smart enough to check for sedatives.
But that never stopped a human from telling a story.
And the right kind of story skips merrily past logic, reason, and common knowledge to burrow right into the back brain where all the primitive instincts are and revs them into hyper-awareness.
All of this went through Alex's mind as the Laughing Hyena docked with the latest ghost ship on their two year long tour through a very large area known as the Wastelands, even though it was just a vast swathe of space apparently used as a dumping ground by various civilisations. It was perfect as a place to leave stuff for later. No nearby suns, no passing bodies of any mass. Just an otherwise empty space between wormholes.
Ghost ship. Even the name was evocative. It called to mind glowing green sails and skeletons at the helm, and other ludicrous falsities that filled every young child's mind with adventure, and bedclothes with the after-effects of ancient fight-or-flight instincts.
But those days were a long time ago, now. Alex was grown. Physically mature and psychologically responsible. As sane as any other human in the known expanses of space. Which wasn't saying much for a species declared universally insane, but, thankfully, also mostly harmless.
Alex concentrated on steady breathing as the airlock cycled open. The interior appeared whole, or as whole as the inside of any stripped ship could be. The interior door mechanisms had all been removed, leaving gaping, black maws where more mundane portals should have been. The uneven edges put Alex in mind of a giant rodent, gnawing away at the long-abandoned metal in order to manufacture egress for itself.
Nibble, nibble, little mouse...
Alex turned the helm-lights on, which only gave the darkness shape. There was no grav drive operational in this old hulk, and by the looks of the grapple-bars, there never had been. Therefore, the magna-boots were also necessary.
Readouts declared there was still an atmosphere, but not enough to be breathable. Some other scavengers -or salvagers- had been here before. At least one of them had siphoned off atmosphere to just a hair above setting off a hardwired alarm. It was 'dead' air, anyway. Almost toxic, even if there had been enough to qualify as comfortable.
And yet, something had spun what looked like cobwebs. Weird cobwebs, in patches and in corners, like they were part of a more complex shape. Alex collected some samples. Either something had remained alive after the immense structure had been abandoned, leaving this evidence behind until something or someone took most of the air... or there was something still aboard that could live in an atmosphere this scarce.
Watch the map, watch the floor, watch out for what's behind the door... The old rhyme went. What was it with Alex's fellow humans that they insisted on cooking up horrible things to scare each other with? There was plenty of real stuff to worry about. Micro-meteors, acidic or alkaline gasses, galvanic reactions, booby traps made by previous salvagers... Plenty enough to separate life from the realm of the living.
And then there was walking through an old hulk, and being able to recognise bits that had used to be used. Expecting light and people or voices, and finding none.
There was sound, though. Transferred vibrations of the old ship, through Alex's suit and then into Alex. Most of it was the echo of Alex's own footsteps. The rest were the creaks and resounding percussive booms of a metal vessel reacting to the first real heat it had encountered since someone left it here to cool, untold ages ago.
Alex focussed on mapping the place and taking inventory. This room used to be a mess, judging by the T-shaped 'seats' that still held pathetic flecks of padding, and the centralised 'tables' that were never meant to hold a weight. And right next door, yes; it was the gym. The exercise equipment, designed to combat the wasting effects of nul-grav, was long gone, but the bolts and the shapes left behind spoke clearly of what had once been there.
It was the little things, the things left behind because nobody thought they were worth taking, that pulled at the heart. The corporate motivational posters on the walls. The graffiti that confirmed this was once a human ship. The snapped piece of string by the hole where the lav had been, indicating that someone had taken a book, or e-reader, but hadn't bothered to untie it.
The bunks, part of the bulkhead, were still here. Spots on the dingy walls indicated places that the crew had stuck posters, pictures, or tchotchkes. Someone had left a piece of cardboard that still bore the legend, Graf's kick shield. Whether it was for or against Graf was up to debate, but it was clearly meant to protect one crew member against the other's flailing feet.
This was why humans were still allowed in other species' working environments; because humans were both insane and insanely profitable. Imaginations could create stories, reason out histories, link a missing cause to a known effect, look outside previous assumptions, and always, always question.
Which was why Captain Bo'xandl put up with a small population of humans aboard the Laughing Hyena.
The freight hold, when Alex found it at last, was a cavernous maw of darkness and the cobwebs that chemanalysis said weren't cobwebs, but high-quality, inert, non-toxic, silica filaments.
What the hell were high quality silica filaments doing in a centuries-old freighter?
Another percussive boom echoed in the empty space. Cobweb pieces, dust, and bits of debris shook loose from the walls where they had come to rest and rendered the thin atmosphere cloudy.
Alex toured the nearest wall, looking all about for anything interesting. In amongst the miasma of tan local dust that formerly coated the ubiquitous grey of corporate vehicles, abandoned wires and frayed ends of cargo webbing waved like seaweed in response to the vibrations of the warming metal.
And in these cloudy remains of an atmosphere, where everything inert and therefore harmless would ricochet off Alex's suit, something landed on the clear faceplate with an audible thap and clung there, palps flexing in enthusiasm.
Alex's reaction was both entirely human and thoroughly understandable under the circumstances. Since it isn't often that any human comes face-to-face with the undersides of a hungry spider -even a spider that wasn't one because it had too many legs, which was worse- it involved a lot of flailing and screaming.
Unfortunately, in the process of such emphatic paroxysms, Alex accidentally turned off open comms and disengaged the magna-boots. When sanity resumed its hold and the autocleaner scraped the remains off the faceplate, Alex noticed the damage in the HUD.
Comms were off, but telemetry was still on, sending Captain Bo the clear signs of a possible dying crew member. Alex turned comms back on. "It's all right. I'm still alive. Got a bit of a shock."
"...monkeys..." muttered Captain Bo, his usual curse in similar circumstances. "Our last image from telemetry looked like a life-form trying to eat your head."
"Just a big-arse spider wannabe. Didn't get through the suit. My only worry is I've lost contact with the bulkhead. Please tell me there's another side?" there should be, owing to the fact that there was still atmosphere, but the other side still had to be intact enough.
Bo's response was simply, "Ozzie monkeys..."
Good news, the other side of the hull was coming up in Alex's HUD. Better news, it looked intact and sound. Horrible news, it was covered in those ten-legged, bloodthirsty freaks. "Ooohhh, shiiiiiiittt..."
They all leaped at once.
"Do try to get a live specimen," said Captain Bo over the comms. "Intact."
Sometimes, Captain Bo could be a big bag of fffffff...fun.
None of the creatures submitted to the sample baggie during Alex's ricochet off the opposite wall, though a large number kept valiantly attempting to eat gloves, boots, helmet and, in brief, anything in their way. Flailing at the damned things only seemed to encourage them.
There was one further along the original bulkhead -where Alex started off- that one sat, trying to eat a cocoon made out of the silica filaments. One lucky flinch was all it took to snag it, and then it took all of Alex's self-control to not react to the resulting swarm futilely fanging at the suit.
One lucky flinch sent a critter off into the murky darkness, where one of its fellows fielded it with horrific accuracy. The resulting scuffle attracted a few more.
Maybe...
Alex vented a jet at the left gauntlet of the company's suit, and watched the crowd try to catch it. Eureka. They hunted by sensing changes in the air! The right jets in the right places sent dectapodal spider-mimics off in directions far, far away from Alex.
Now, moving very, very carefully, Alex readied the sampler knife. One slice freed the contents of the cocoon, which looked very unfortunately like a deflated balloon with tentacles. It went into a separate sample baggie, next to the wriggling and furious jumping monster.
The things that spun the filaments could be valuable. If Alex could procure a live one.
Now it was a slow and careful journey, wasting air in directed jets to drive the hideous leaping-spiders away from anything that looked like an intact cocoon.
Personal telemetry had Alex's air in the amber zone before a live jellyfish-balloon thing flitted out of its cocoon and straight into a waiting sample baggie in Alex's eager, if shaking hands.
"Vox command," Alex panted, "quick route home. Init."
Vox had been turned off, damnit. In Alex's initial panic with the first spider beast, some garbled ululating must've sounded like the de-activate command. The only safe place to re-activate Vox was manually, in a proper atmosphere, because it involved taking off the helmet.
Alex swore.
"Problem, mammal?" said Captain Bo.
"Vox got turned off," Alex growled. "Could you put up the quickest path back? I'm at amber air stats."
A nice, golden line appeared in the HUD. All Alex had to do was avoid hungry, ten-legged things closely resembling the unlikely spawn of a camel spider, a huntsman, and a jack-in-the-box. And there were lots of them on that ideal path, drawn to the promise of food by Alex disturbing the still air on the way in.
And there was no air to waste on sending them away.
Alex could just barely deal with spiders thumping into the suit like big, hairy, ten-legged raindrops, but five spiders covering the faceplate at once were spiders too far.
"Aw, shit..." Alex sighed. "Well, boss. I am officially walking blind. Why don'cha come on down to the airlock and pick up your live damn samples?"



It was later. Official reprimands had happened. The sight of a buttload of spider-esque things leaping on Captain Bo was more than enough to make up for the absence of a bonus on Alex's pay cheque.
Today, they would dock with Foreman Station, hand in their salvage, the surviving jelly-thing and force them to take custody of the twenty-six surviving dectapods that, despite everyone's best efforts to erase it, the auto-dictaphone had labeled Oshits.
The squints would come up with something scientific, later. Something nobody alive now or later would ever use. They were Oshits now and forever.
Alex, despite a new-found status as persona non grata to Captain Bo, managed to hover in the background at the handover at the life form labs.
The Biotech raised her eyebrows at the dectapods, battling in their containment module.
"They eat most pests," informed Captain Bo. "We've tried them on the assorted vermin that's part of the ships biota. Nothing they ate disagreed with them." Bo did his best at a human smile. "But where we found them, they ate these. These little things spin cocoons made out of high-grade silica filaments. With luck, you could farm it."
Captain Bo revealed the jellyfish-balloon with a flourish. It was jetting around its smaller enclosure, much like a squid, by using tiny puffs of air. In the light, it was rather beautiful, iridescent and shiny. There were even some remnants of silica filaments, testament to both the creature's potential profit and their attempts to feed it.
"A Fhitt?" the Biotech winced. "This station has twelve million of them. They came in two weeks after you left." She made a dismissive gesture. "How much for just the spiders?"

END.

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