“Sabotage!? How can you be so certain?”
Daniels was starting to scream now. Panic was beginning to set in. They hadn’t even arrived at their destination and already they had suffered a casualty. It felt surreal, like an ongoing nightmare.
“I’m not. It’s just a feeling,” Conrad was whispering again. “Check the pods.”
“You heard me. Check ’em.”
She moved toward the pods with a slight trepidation, trembling as she looked over each one. Daniels investigated the left-hand side whilst Conrad looked over the right, but not before Conrad did a double take in the direction of young Richard’s pod.
Not him. Not him. God, anyone but him.
He examined and re-examined Richard’s pod for any anomalies. It was a process that took only seconds, but they were long, agonising seconds. Seconds in which a hostile entity prowled the same walls as them. Seconds which could very well lead into the final minutes of their lives. Finally, after a thorough inspection of the pod, he concluded with confidence that it was untampered, and the pilot within was secure.
He continued down the row. After Daniels’ pod was Richard’s, which he had just examined. After his was Marshall’s, followed by Nelson’s, followed by-
There was a shriek. A brief, muffled one, but a shriek nonetheless. It was Daniels’ shrill voice crying out in the darkness. Conrad spun around with all the intensity of a dervish and none of the grace. Karen was standing between the pods of Haggarty and Williams, both of which were just past Carter’s pod.
They were both dead. He knew that in an instant. Two high-ranking personnel, both murdered before they could even make their stand. That made three fallen pilots now: First Carter, and then Williams and Haggarty. He resolved himself to lose only one more: the bastard responsible.
He stood awkwardly in his row, looking side to side in desperation. As far as he could tell, they were alone. But one other warm body was awake on that vessel. Of that he was sure. Of where, he was not.
“Harry… they didn’t make it. What are we gonna do?” Her words hung in silence for several seconds.
“We can’t just stay here. Right now we’re sitting ducks, and worse, we’re unarmed.” Conrad said.
She rushed over to the next pod. The vital signs of the next two were all clear.
“Fitzroy and Campbell are okay!” She whispered loudly.
Conrad did the same, and what he saw was shocking. There was no corpse interred within the stasis chamber, nor was there a living subject. The pod belonging to one Alan R. Jones was empty. Unlike the others, he wasn’t dead. He just wasn’t there.
Their Chief Engineer was missing.
“Daniels!” He was starting to yell, though his voice was still hushed and low.
“Yeah.” She said, not looking at him.
“Jones isn’t in his pod.”
“Son of a bitch! You think it’s him?”
“Who else? Unless it’s one of us, it has to be Jones.”
“Dammit! I never did like the look of that guy.” She pursed her lips and looked down. “Okay… now what?
“Think Daniels. Where would Jones go? What would you do if you were Chief Engineer?”
She paused for a moment. “If I wanted to sabotage the mission? I’d head up to the bridge and change course, that’s what I’d do.”
“And if you suddenly heard the elevator being called?”
She stopped and stared into space. A dozen different scenarios started playing out in his head, but there was only one avenue of escape from the bridge he could have taken: the ventilation shafts. It would be far from conventional, but then their ship wasn’t conventional, either. Crawling through the vents would be his only safe escape route. Taking the other elevator would definitely get him noticed. But the vents are dangerous, and to properly navigate the winding passageways of the Shadowbreaker‘s innards would no doubt take some time….
They both looked up without saying another word. No thumping. No crashing. No slight rumbling. Nothing at all. Either he was out of the vents, or he wasn’t moving.
“Well… what now, big guy?”
“If I were Jones, I’d be headed toward the armoury.”
“So what? We head down there and let him blast us? The lock on the door won’t stop him, Harold! All he needs is one rifle and blam! We’re mincemeat in seconds.”
“But there’s the chance he hasn’t gotten there yet, in which case we need to get there first. Getting armed is our first priority. If he’s already beaten us there, then we’re dead no matter what.”
The dire nature of their situation began to dawn on him then.
“And then what? We start a gunfight in the middle of the ship? Listen Harry-”
“Don’t call me that!” His frustration was beginning to peak.
“Just… listen. We head to the armoury now and we leave the pods wide open. If he’s already loaded himself up, he could just be waiting for us to leave. Then he lights up the pod bay while they’re asleep, and then we’re screwed.”
Conrad nodded. “But if we stay here, we’ll be on the defensive with no real defense. And besides, I have a funny feeling he knows where we are.”
Things got quiet again. Jones had a reputation for being reliable, but socially inept. Whilst they were preparing in secrecy for their mission, the growing crew of the Shadowbreaker would often complain about strange bumping noises scattered around the ship. Eventually, the source of the sounds was traced to none other than Alan Jones, one of their best and brightest, recruited onto the mission for his many years of experience and utter brilliance in the field of mechanical engineering.
There was never really any reason for it; he just hid in the vents to get away from the others. After a short interrogation, Conrad had dropped the subject. He was never doing anything shady; he just didn’t particularly like people. He was always seen fidgeting in a group, and one crew member swore up and down he saw the man speaking to himself in the corner, but these too were dismissed as harmless quirks. Conrad had innocently assumed that the stressful nature of their situation was wearing him down. He never anticipated him becoming this unhinged and violent. Had he still been flying with the Federation, he’d have been sent in for another round of thorough psyche evaluations. But they were a desperate lot, and competent crew members were difficult to come by.
Conrad was now beginning to regret his previous executive decision to keep all weapons locked away. This was far from a professional venture, and as such, he had to agree to keep all of the weapons onboard locked away in the armoury. If he had his way, he, Daniels and Rookson would have all been placed in stasis with a sidearm. But there was distrust and even animosity amongst them. Most of them were punk kids who had nothing better to do, some of them were Fed vets, a couple of them were mercs with nothing to lose, and one of them was a hacker for hire with a serious grudge against the Federation.
“If he’s still in the vents,” Daniels’ voice was at an all time low now. “He can probably hear us.”
“If he can hear us, he should know he’s dead meat.”
“So…. what’s the order, cap’n?”
There would be no more words. Their moves would have to be planned out very carefully from that moment on. Conrad motioned toward the twin set of hallways ahead of them at the end of the Stasis Pod Bay. They crept along until they reached the end of the narrow passageway that ended in the branching path, at which point Karen crept left and Richard right. The right side was a straight shot to the armoury, located on one’s left, just before the next corner. The left-hand hallway would take Karen past the sick bay before looping around a corner before looping to the armoury. If Conrad was correct in his assumption, they could trap the killer in a pincer attack as he tried to enter the armoury from an adjacent ventilation shaft window.
At least, that was the plan. It would only work if he hadn’t already reached that point.
They parted ways at the opening, each going down a different corridor. Splitting up wasn’t Conrad’s first choice, but he was left with scant alternatives. Waking up the others for backup would take too long, and no amount of strength in numbers would help them if Jones could get his hands on a plasma rifle.
A plasma rifle, he thought. That oughta be the least of my worries. We have a B3-771 in there. If he gets his hands on that thing….
He shuddered. There was no time to think about that. Up ahead, the door to the armoury came into view. The walls of this sector were carbon black, with a few variances in tone where parts of the hull had to be taken from other vessells. The door was a solid rectangular portal with a single screen beside it. As he walked toward it, he noted the ventilation shafts. One directly above and ahead, and another ahead and to the right. He stopped dead in his tracks and listened intently. He was sure he could hear the slightest sound of rustling overhead.
He took another step forward toward the armoury. Above him, a shaft opened in near silence. Conrad showed no reaction to this, and crept ahead another step. And another. And another. And one more before finally, he could hear faint breathing. He rotated on the balls of his feet in a fluid motion to face the security panel, and that’s when it happened.