Alone in the dark [x4]
Aiming to capture a Cottonee (reduced by Fourplay to medium)

I was a few dozen lightyears from the nearest star when my jump engine failed. The safeties cut in and dumped me back into normal space, but I’d been in the middle of a curve so it still wound up tumbling headlong through the void.
I slapped at the control board to kill the warning klaxons and start a power-down sequence. The stars whirled by out the cockpit windows, but I kept my eyes on the indicators before me. I only had a little time to correct the tumble before the engines powered down, so I focused on carefully goosing the maneuvering thrusters.
Final power cut out before I’d gotten it totally controlled, but I’d made enough headway that the roll was barely noticeable. With the artificial gravity offline, I felt myself floating up against the seat restraints towards the cockpit ceiling. The silence of the ship would have been soothing in other circumstances, but the lack of engine noise and stillness of the air circulators were a bit more ominous than I cared for at the moment.
Emergency lighting came up a minute or so later, lending a bloodred glow to the ship’s interior. My first order of business was to check the jump engine for damage, since its power plant helped feed the rest of the systems. Until I was sure it wouldn’t blow up on me I couldn’t risk starting it back up.
I unbuckled the seat harness and twisted free of the pilot’s seat. The gentle motion of the ship pulled my feet towards the ceiling, letting me brace them and point myself towards the back of the ship. The corridor leading from the cockpit led back into the gloom, and I started pulling myself back towards the ship’s heart.
The noise came from ahead of me, deep in the bowels of the ship. It didn’t sound familiar, which was worrisome. I was alone on my ship, or at least I should be; the cargo hold contained well-sealed crates of seeds and nutrient packs, along with several bales of textiles from my last port of call.
If the crates had broken loose in the tumble, it would have been much noisier. Everything was dogged down for transit, and that had definitely been a noise of metal striking metal. It hadn’t sounded heavy enough for a closing bulkhead, either – those had their own power and could activate automatically if the ship began losing pressure.
Just in case though, I made my way back towards the pilot’s seat to grab the helmet seals for my shipsuit. It could handle decompression, but the face and neck plastine was uncomfortable to wear constantly.
I tucked them into the suit’s pockets and made my way rearward again. The ship was large enough to handle a crew of six, but for this run I’d gone solo. The seats in the main hold’s small lounge were magnetically clamped to the table, and the galley cabinets were all still sealed. The red light from the emergency bulbs didn’t let me see much beyond the main furniture, and shadows were everywhere.
I felt a chill on the back of my neck. My mind treated me to visions of creatures lurking under and behind everything, crawling about in the gloom and waiting to leap upon me. I wasn’t particularly superstitious, but neither did I think we’d managed to move beyond every possible gremlin of every world we’ve found.
Fears wouldn’t help me now, and I had enough real danger to focus on. I pushed the thoughts back in my mind, resuming my journey towards the engine compartment. The hatches to the individual berths were all closed, and the telltale lamps above them showed the green of a good seal.
All except the last one, which was amber. Closed but not sealed.
My breath caught in my throat. Checking the seals was part of the preflight checklist. It’d been sealed then, hadn’t it? I pushed off the roof with my legs, angling towards the last hatch. It was definitely closed and latched, but there was a small snag near the bottom where some debris had lodged in the seal.
I picked at it. It seemed to be a small mass of matted, organic material. I pinched it between my gloved fingers, rolling it about. It was lighter than I expected, almost fluffy. Thanks to the red emergency lights, all I could tell of its color was that it was light.
I flicked it aside, then spun the hatch’s central wheel to open it. The portal resisted opening briefly, then gave way with a burp of air displacement.
I startled, looking around wildly. The noise had still come from deeper in the ship. I took a few deep breaths, trying to calm the frantic beating of my heart. I noticed a new smell, though; an earthy aroma, not quite unpleasant. Right here it was stronger than the smell of ozone and engine coolant.
Focus, I reminded myself. I looked into the cramped berth behind the hatch; it too was lit by a crimson glow. It had been designed to serve as an escape pod in the event of disaster. This one seemed undisturbed though; the acceleration couch was still folded into the wall, the emergency locker was closed, and the tiny waste recycling unit was retracted into the floor.
There were a couple other wispy-looking bits of fluff drifting in the air, though. The air flowing in had sent them swirling in place.
I frowned. Nobody had been in this berth on the last two runs, and there was no reason the loading crew would have tampered with it – I’d been watching them the entire time anyways. And I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t have missed the seals three preflights in a row.
I carefully brushed the fluff out of the gasket track on the hatch, then re-secured it. After a moment’s testing, the telltale amber bulb switched on indicating the seal was bad. No way to know how long that’s been, then, I thought.
I turned back to the main hold that felt less empty. The handheld lamps were further aft with the survival kit, and I resolved to start keeping one in the cockpit. I’d never been alone for a total shutdown before, though. Normally at least one of the crew was near a light of some kind they could use.
Next time. Right now I needed to make sure there would be one.
I pushed off the handle and drifted towards the rear passageway. The lights back here were a bit closer together, making it easier to see and revealing a few more drifting motes of fluff. From the textiles, maybe? They’d made it a long way in a short time, if so, and I didn’t know how they could have gotten wedged into the seal on the hatch.
And so, unfortunately, I probably wasn’t alone on this ship. The dark corners seemed even more menacing, and my ears seemed to go into overdrive. Was that a footstep, or a lost chance cube bouncing around in no gravity? A ping of cooling metal, or someone moving around?
I shook my head to get a grip on my thoughts. First order of business was to get to the toolkit and a lamp or two. Whoever the stowaway might be, they were just as stuck out here; and they hadn’t done anything in the past day and a half, when they’d had plenty of opportunity.
The aft passageway was shorter than the fore, and it led me to the cargo hold. Stacks of crates and barrels were still secure in their webbing, though the lighting was concentrated towards the front where I floated. The rear was mostly in darkness, with patches of shadow large enough that an entire merc squad could have hidden in them.
Mercifully, the emergency kit was only a meter away from me. I wrapped one leg around the rail next to it to hold myself in place, before undoing the latches that held its glassine cover in place.
I flinched away, and only my leg kept me from drifting free into the hold. Which would have been doubly bad, as it clearly came from deeper within this hold.
I fumbled again at the catches, and the panel came loose at last. The hand lamp was front and center in the kit, and I grabbed it with relief. It turned on with a simple push toggle, and the bright beam was nearly blinding in intensity.
I blinked away the dazzle and swept the beam across the hold. All the crates were in the same places as when I’d started this trip, and the webbing looked secure.
A flicker of what seemed like motion caught my eye and I turned the light on it. Floating there near one of the main structural ribs was what looked like a kid’s stuffed toy; it had a brown body with greenish horns, and its entire back was covered with the same fluff I’d been finding drifting through my ship.
Well, that was somewhat reassuring. Hopefully the stowaway was simply some urchin that’d wanted to get offplanet, and I could just leave some food in the hold and lock myself in the cockpit until I reached my destination.
I fumbled for the general toolkit that should have been in the survival kit, but it wasn’t where I expected. I looked down, finding only an empty space and two lost-looking straps that had held it.
I flinched less this time, though it still scared me. I couldn’t see the engine compartment hatch from where I hung, and the noise seemed to come from around there.
Hopefully the little scamp had simply snagged it to sell later, and that was it banging around. I pushed away from the wall towards the rear of the compartment, swinging the light around to illuminate dark nooks and corners, and get another look at that doll as I passed.
Only it wasn’t there, its former place occupied only by another small wispy fluff.
My stomach lurched as I realized that, and between shock and the ship’s gentle tumble, I wound up crashing into the far wall harder than I intended to. I rebounded, flailing until I snagged a loop of the cargo netting and halting my movement. The light danced crazily, but I held onto that lamp even more firmly than my newfound anchor.
After a few deep breaths, I had my heart rate into a healthier range, though I still felt the cold sweat that had sprung up on my back. On the plus side, I caught the flash of red-painted metal floating nearby that looked an awful lot like the toolkit I needed.
In fact, it was between me and the engine compartment hatch on the aft wall. The case had some dings on the edges where it must have been bouncing around. And its trajectory was about to bounce it off the floor, sending it somewhere else.
I pushed off before it could, reaching an arm out to grab the strap on one side. But I forgot that its motion would change mine without a place to stand. I still got close enough to the engine hatch to snag a handle, and thanked the designers for giving that hatch a latch I could work with my boot.
Swinging it open was a little trickier, but I managed it. The toolkit bounced gently against my side as I swung my way into the engine room. The emergency lighting in here was bright white, another design choice I was incredibly grateful for.
“You’re not the only one to lose power out in space, it’s probably saved plenty of lives,” I muttered to myself.
The problem with the jump engine was pretty obvious, once I saw it. Someone – likely my stowaway – had been loosening panels, probably to steal the metal for scrap peddling. One of them had also been connecting several of the sensor cables, and it had shut down as a safety measure.
A few tools were still floating around the engine, though once I gathered them back into the kit it was clear the largest wrench was still missing. I made do with one of the others, snugging up the connections and re-fastening their bolts before manually turning it back on.
The engine came to life with a gratifying hum, going through an initialization sequence before it began feeding power out to the other systems. I could control them better from the cockpit, but enough overrides were in this room that the automatics could handle the rest of the startup sequence.
Interior lights came on first, and the gravity slowly dialed back up until I was standing firmly on my feet again, and could no longer feel the gentle tumble of the ship. Looking around, I made sure there weren’t any hiding spots in here that could hold a stowaway; then I carefully stepped out of the engine room, closing the hatch and overriding the lock to seal it.
The cargo hold was much less menacing – and smaller – in the full running lights. I moved quietly but quickly back towards the front, passing through both holds and passageways without seeing either the stowaway or their spooky doll. I locked the cockpit hatch behind me in the same fashion, then settled into the pilot’s chair and bringing up the controls.
The rest of my jump to Sinola was still in the computer banks. I keyed the commands to stabilize the ship and resume its travel, then let out a deep breath I didn’t remember holding. It was only another day to get there; and I would worry about leaving food for the stowaway later.
The stars flickered in the cockpit as we broke the relativity barrier, and I strapped myself back into the chair, but a small tuft of white caught my eye. Wedged in the corner of the control panel was another fluffy puff of an off-white color.
Staff, head grader, chief judge, ranger. My stats (always a work in progress!)
Park: Evan Morphic: Aaren Cassandra

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