The Ghost Freighter of UJC Science Platform JE L4

This is a speculative micro fan fiction set in the universe of Callisto Protocol inspired by the game trailers and the audio podcast Helix Station.

Following exodus of the crew of UJC Science Platform JE L4 during intense radiation storms and a disastrous fire that broke out during the last hours of the evacuation, the orbital station was reported as a total loss of capital to UJC. Some of the station’s automated systems continued to run for weeks following, including an ice tanker on a least fuel transit loop between the station and Europa, where all the colonies relied on for water. It too eventually ceased to fly, presumably due to simple malfunction. However, the ice tanker resumed routine flights from the dead station a half year later prompting an investigation by Black Iron Security.

UJC lost contact with the security detail shortly after they arrived on station.

A shuddering creak of stressed steel jolted Rebecca from a restless sleep where she lay hidden. The once-soothing rhythmic hum and tick of the freighter’s alarm now seemed unbearably loud in her ears as she strained to listen for another sound she thought she had heard. Her nervous suspicion grew into dread as she heard the faint groan of the nearby capsule door followed by a shift in the composite floor plates. This is when Rebecca started to worry she was not the flight’s only stowaway.

Her, and the doctor lying in the stasis pod, she thought to herself. The only survivors left of the catastrophe at the science platform orbiting near the Jovian moon Europa. “Some six-week program,” she thought to herself for the hundredth time since she was originally scheduled to return home to her sister and parents on the Ganymede colony. More than half a year had passed as the handful of students, scientists and engineers had taken refuge in the station’s morgue to escape the fire. Conserving the oxygen tanks and suit propulsion the station’s chief engineer, Svend, was able to save, they had managed to salvage enough nonperishable food and medical supplies to turn the morgue into an ironically life-saving bunker for those who escaped. At the time, it was less than ten. Today the station’s principal botanist Dr. Albright lay clinging to life in a medical stasis pod in a last-ditch effort to save his life. Everyone else including Svend, who had been like a surrogate father to Rebecca had since died to the same infection they believed to have wiped out the crops on the science platform, or to other causes.

Before the unusual radiation storms they believed had sparked the widespread blight, the crops of UJC Science Platform JE L4 were the ticket to her thesis program, one of the last steps in her final year of schooling. Decades of research adapting Earth-borne plant species to the light and radiation conditions of zero-contact enclosed micro habitats on the Jovian moons and orbital stations had yielded breakthroughs that could enable them to grow foods previously inaccessible to the colonies. Rebecca’s work under Dr. Albright was much more conventional, long hours at a computer terminal crunching data with a hearty side of manual labor. Still, she had loved it. The class size was small and it would open the door for a prestigious fellowship upon completion of Ganymede Bio Habitat 3. Research now that had turned from hopeful to a grim warning now contained to a single bulky drive stored in her suit’s tool belt.

Short range communications were lost in the Jovian radiation, and the station’s long-range transmitter was irreparable after the fire. Svend had theorized the freighter’s transmitter may save them if they could broadcast at the apogee of the ship’s gravity-assisted orbit before it arrived at Europa. Assuming that anyone was listening, and that those that heard it were friendly. Unlike Black Iron Security.

The security forces of the Callisto moon served as law enforcement in the Jovian system, far removed from the eyes and legal systems of Earth. They shared a name with the system’s lone prison, Black Iron. They were widely distrusted by the colonists as operating above the law, which only added to the survivors’ apprehensions when they showed up at the burnt hull of the science platform. Still, Rebecca had held onto the hope that they would be saved by the security forces until it was evident that rescue was not why they had come.

On that fateful morning when the security detail began searching for their makeshift bunker, Dr. Albright had been placed in a medically induced coma to slow the progression of his illness which wracked him with a terrible cough. Rebecca could not shake the feeling that Svend and the doctor shared a secret knowledge that had doomed them, something too terrible for her to know, and was reaffirmed by how quickly Svend had deduced that the flamethrowers that Black Iron Security had brought were for them.

This long shot plan was of Svend’s design; the improvised radiation shielding, the manipulation of the freighter’s perpetual alarm to mask the presence of functional life support and live passengers, the precise amount of oxygen they would need and the suits to survive the crucial final step when it arrived at the Europan ice quarry it was destined for, as the freighter would open to near vacuum when it attempted to receive a new load of water ice. This was her only opportunity for escape before it would leave as there was no way to override without authorized UJC biometric commands. Svend had intended to be here himself until that day. Instead, when they began burning the survivors, he bought time for Rebecca to escape with the motorized stasis pod containing the doctor and her supplies before sealing himself in with the Black Iron squad. The ensuing explosion told Rebecca all she needed to know of their fate, but not before Svend managed one last radio communication. “They must know what happened here. You need to be brave, brave for your sister.”

Rebecca had allowed herself to be lulled into a tearful sleep in her hiding place in the narrow hollow portion of hull shielding until the unexpected sound startled her. She had to control her breathing as once the oxygen in the pressurized portion of the ship dropped too low, she would have only the reserve intended for her suit left which she knew she couldn’t use now. Except for a narrow gap where the shielding and hull segment let air in, she could not see out from her hiding spot, and the only light source was the dim red emergency light, which rotated in a slow pulse. The stasis pod lay just out of her sight secured in the medical isolation partition.

Suddenly a shadow passed in front of the light source, something very near where she hid. She could hear a wheezing sound, someone or something opposite the thin wall panel from her in the medical capsule. Rebecca held her breath, eyes wide in fear as she listened to it lurch slowly through the room. It had to be right next to the stasis pod. It let out a distressed whine, like frustration and sorrow. The breathing sounded wet, sticky. After what felt like an eternity, she heard the footsteps pass back through the capsule hatch and out of the room. Once she could hear what she believed to be movement again in the main hold, she dared peek out. The stasis pod was open; empty.

“Dr. Albright?” Rebecca whispered fearfully, the hollow rattle of the freighter’s hull the only response. The stasis pod bed and opening were coated in a thick mucus-like substance that had a repulsive copper smell even through the filtration of her suit’s respirator. It was intermingled with what looked like blood on the inside of the pod’s glass panel. A similar liquid pooled at the base of the pod where something had recently tracked through towards the capsule door.

The hull shook again, this time for longer and she felt the floor shift under her. She braced against the paneling as she heard the poorly secured contents of the freight hold shift loudly. She looked to the readout the digital assistant on her wrist; they could be approaching apogee. She needed to make her way to the ship’s control station and see if she could get a transmission out. With luck the radio was not locked down like the flight and other ship controls were. There was just the matter of the missing doctor.

She switched on the small light on her suit’s helmet, good for illuminating a few feet in front of her but not much further. Beyond that was only faint red light from emergency bulbs, each slowly rotating. The unfamiliar ship was nothing like the open design of the science platform, here the corridors were not much wider than shoulder width with deep shadowy recesses the light did not reach. The medical capsule attached to the main freight hold after an exchange module that was about ten meters long.

She passed slowly through the open hatch, minding the slimy residue. In her suit her breathing sounded loud to her, even as she fought to remain quiet and calm. She cautiously moved the light to each side of the exchange, checking the overhead rows of cabling and conduit for any signs of damage. Aside from a slight vapor leak there was nothing for her to worry about. The heavy door opposite her was already open, where she spotted another glossy handprint.

“Dr. Albright?” she called again, daring to raise her voice just slightly. Again, only the grumble of stressed steel bulwark replied. She inched forward until she could start to see the inside of the freight hold, a massive chamber that made up the majority of the ship. Her path would take her up a ladder at the far end of the room into the overhead loft where the ship’s lone exterior window was along with operator controls.

Inside the hold were just a few pallets of supplies that had been largely picked through and were no longer flight secured. They rest at oblong angles free of the tiedown restrains. The center of the room, which would normally be loaded edge to edge with blocks of ice, was empty except for packaging trash left when the ship was first looted. She peered as far as her light allowed but saw no sight of the doctor.

As she crept into the room, she checked the dark corners behind her. The rattle of the hull and hum of the alarm the only sounds below her breath. She could not see any more signs of the mucus trail, nor anything that was out of place from what she remembered seeing when she had boarded, although at the time at a quick dash. She checked her composure and raised her voice further to call out. “Dr. Albright? Hello?”

A sudden sharp gnashing sound from somewhere ahead of her called back, causing her to flinch. It sounded inhuman, what she imagined an animal might sound like. Following the almost bark like sound, she heard a strangled noise like constricted breathing and that same sticky wet wheeze. Her heart leapt into her throat as she struggled to control her breathing, searching with her light for the source of the noise. She looked around, fear creeping up her spine as she checked to look a second time behind herself. A loud strike of metal against metal ahead of her in the room caused her to let out a small cry.

She focused the narrow beam of light intently where she had heard the sudden loud noise. An overhead storage unit had fallen open, now swinging on creaky hinges. She remained still, fighting back a tremor as she peered into each dark corner and long shadow to find no sign of the unseen presence. She braced herself at the first of the cargo pallets as a strong vibration shook the ship. The cacophony of the loose compartments of the mostly empty hold formed a pit in her stomach. She strained to hear what seemed to be in the room with her, but after a moment still had heard nothing.

She redoubled her nerves, making her way through the midpoint of the room past the next two cargo pallets before the hull began to shake again, each time feeling a little more severe. She tried to remember what Svend had told her about the automated flight maneuvers but had focused so much on what would happen during landing that she had glossed over the mid orbit flight corrections. She was feeling less and less sure she knew how far along in the journey she had slept. Either way, she needed to try and send a radio transmission in hopes that someone on the Europa colony was listening. She forced herself to keep moving until she reached the ladder.

Her boot steps on the ladder sounded louder than she expected, seeming louder than anything else she could hear. The narrow ladder safety cage going up to the hold to the operator controls prevented her from turning her head to look behind her, causing her to feel panic coming on at the sound of something moving in the hold where she had just stood. Breathless, she rolled off the ladder onto the operator control catwalk and looked back down the way she had climbed. A tie-down was swinging freely as if recently disturbed, but she could see precious little with her headlamp from this vantage. She sat back and leaned against the controls. She could feel the click of the perpetual alarm originated from it. Standing up, she assessed the panel and the small port hole window into space.

Europa looked large already on their approach, but she reminded herself how far away she likely still was. Behind the pale blue moon loomed the night side of the king of the gas giants, Jupiter. It’s night sky rippled with aurora and the occasional flicker of lightning. The view gave her pause, stealing her breath until she had calmed, ignoring tears of stress as she took in the small dose of celestial beauty.

She pried her attention away from the window back to the control panel. All of the operator buttons were dimmed next to a large handprint scanner, keycard and pin panel. Svend had warned the controls would be inaccessible without biometric access, but she had held onto the hope that a common freighter would have some sort of manual override. The controls were complex to her untrained eyes, finding rows of oversized buttons both on the panel and overhead. The wall readouts had all manner of flight controls and positional readouts in simple monochrome display. She found additional controls for some of the interior, including an overhead crane and three heavy lift robotic arms, the latter of which looked like similar analog controls to an arm they used to move micro habitats back on the science platform. Wagering a guess, she flipped the safety cover over the yellow operators switch and flipped it on. The light illuminated. She nudged one of the controls and could hear the gas compressing in the articulated arm below in the hold. She smiled nervously, not all the controls were restricted after all.

She turned back to the main panel and moved to the radio which was positioned in the corner of the operator space that was big enough for just one. A single band selection dial pointed to a lone mark made by a previous operator. She turned it, half expecting she might hear feedback from the tiny radio speaker but nothing happened. When she pressed the call button there was no indication it was working. She wondered what she was supposed to say.

“Can anyone hear me?” she began. She brushed a layer of mechanical grime off the call box where it showed the ship’s identification. “This is UJC FR209 Echo”. She felt like she was holding her breath waiting for something to happen. She pressed the call button a few times and began turning the band selection. There was no way to know if it was even working. She repeated herself again on an arbitrary band. “Someone, anyone.”

“Rebecca” a pained, hoarse whisper came from below. She recognized the voice as Dr. Albright, but something was terribly wrong. Her heart pounding, she overrode her fear of whatever she had heard making noise below to descend and investigate. When she arrived at the bottom of the ladder in the hold, she could hear the strain of a pipe valve turning followed by a loud blast of venting gas. She looked towards the billowing mist, seeing the doctor standing in a corner just beyond it at the valve. He was facing away from her, and she noticed he was shirtless. Her headlamp illuminated his back and skin where she could see his sores were swollen to the point they had ruptured his skin. He seemed to be shaking as he breathed and was covered in a glistening sweat. “Rebecca?” he repeated.

He turned; his face disfigured beyond recognition from an injury that should have surely killed him. His jaw was split wide and hung open like a pair of grotesque fleshy flower petals. His tongue waggled lifeless from his enlarged throat, from within emerged two snakelike tentacles. Rebecca screamed in terror.

The beast that was once Dr. Albright roared in fury and began a lurching charge towards her, still limping. Rebecca flailed as she continued to scream for anything to grab onto, finding an empty insulated crate that once held medical vials. She threw it at him, which barely slowed his advance. She spun around and scrambled for a handhold until she pulled herself back to standing and began to run. Her suit suddenly felt too tight around her chest, and her breathing echoed in her helmet. There was spittle on her visor, obscuring her view. She collided with one of the standing pallets of empty supply crates, falling back down. Dr. Albright swung wildly, striking the pallet near where she had stood, sending crates flying.

Rebecca thought in an instant to turn off her headlamp, which surely would prevent her from any attempt to escape and hide. She stood up again and ran towards the next pair of pallets as the ship’s hull began to shake and vibrate again, slowing her as she lost her footing and fell to a knee. An upward lift in the flooring suggested the ship was making another flight maneuver. The overhead storage compartments rattled deafeningly. Relying on only what the pulsing red alarm lights illuminated, she pulled herself to standing again and ran past the shape of the furthest stack of crates into a narrow maintenance access.

She dared a glance behind her but was unable to see the doctor who had been almost on top of her before the last set of pallets. She looked at where she had found herself. Nearby was a dangerous sounding voltage panel which connected to one of several conduits and pressurized pipes in the maintenance shaft. It was not tall enough for her to stand in, so she could only move at a low crouch. At first it looked like a dead end until she noticed that one of the flashing lights seemed to come from a source above the end of the passage. When she made her way to it, she found another service ladder to the upper deck, which from her memory would be near the overhead crane in the hold.

Finding nothing else that could help her in the maintenance shaft she ascended, finding herself in an even shorter ventilation access. The row of red alarm lights ran the length of the vehicle along this point in the ship, making the view forward a dizzying display of spinning lights and rotating fans. She crawled along, listening for noise below that could be the doctor but hearing only groans of the ships hull. She made it to a spot above a catwalk in the hold near the overhead crane. She could see through the slots in the vent cover that there was an auxiliary control panel for the crane on the catwalk. As she fumbled around for a way to open the vent, she heard a new sound. The radio.

The voice cracking through the static was an older gentleman’s, Rebecca thought his accent sounded Russian. The words sounded kind and conveyed a sense of concern. She had not heard the first of the message but listened with interest to the rest.

“…come in FR209. Do you copy?” the first reply ended. “Repeat, UJC FR209 Echo this is New Commonwealth Icebreaker 3.” It was a ship operating for the Europa free colony.

Rebecca’s eyes swelled with tears in relief, a tiny cry escaping her lips that was quickly cut short when the ship began shaking again, but now with substantially more bounce. The ship was beginning to enter the thin atmosphere but was not designed with passenger comfort in mind.

Without warning, the vent panel she was struggling with swung open, and Rebecca tumbled out crashing into the catwalk railing with a painful gasp. She struck and then fell over the rail, getting caught in her fall when her tool belt hooked onto the overhead crane control box. The tubes connecting the large box-lid shaped crane hissed to life and began moving in a lateral direction away from where she hung. She thrashed at the belt as it had slid up to her chest and below her helmet before binding up. Below she heard a long, sickening draw of breath followed by the uneven stomp of the creature as it moved closer to where she was swinging.

“No, no, no,” she panicked as the belt slipped further and the shift moved the analog control stick, sending the crane back her direction. She swung around to see it would strike her if she did not move, so without any time to think she unhooked her belt and fell the rest of the way to the floor. Her belt and its contents landed a few feet away.

She quickly rolled to her back, facing the doctor who was limping forward with his mangled arms outstretched, mouth tentacles flailing. She scrambled backwards on her hands and heels as he lunged for her. She rolled out of the way but not before another stack of crates came tumbling down on her. A strong jolt to the ship tipped the stack of crates further, and a new alarm started blaring. It was more rapid than the perpetual alarm, urgent. Something in flight control had detected a failure.

She looked to her tool belt which was out of reach and too near the doctor, and then to the ladder far to one side. She made a daring leap and dashed for the ladder while the doctor lumbered to face where she had ran. He crashed into the bottom of the ladder in pursuit, nearly making her lose her grip as she climbed. When she rolled out onto the catwalk on the top she could see through the port hole the horizon of Europa was turning under her; the ship was entering on a spin. Below, the doctor was fumbling trying to make use of the ladder to pursue her. She drew in a breath and stifled a shriek, moving to the crane controls.

Thinking quickly, she toggled the analog stick until the crane detached itself from the opposite catwalk where it had struck earlier and steered to block the doctor’s path up the ladder. With a grimace of determination, she lowered the crane with intent to crush the monster, only to find it stopped short of pinning him with a loud click of a safety system. The clear light flickered at her in protest. She sobbed, her strength leaving her at the cruel irony.

The shaking of the ship grew into a tremendous force, and coupled with the sharp increase in relative gravity and the ships spin everything in the hold began to shift until the large chamber was in full tumble, pallets crashing to the walls until the ship was flying completely upside down. The crane swung free of its conventional restraints and struck the overhead storage violently, sending large portions of steel flying everywhere. Rebecca sailed through the chaos before striking her head on a pallet.

Just as suddenly as they had spun out of control, the floor rushed up to meet them with force. Rebecca could feel the landing boosters had engaged, correcting the descent of the ship and greeting them with the G force of entry. Already struggling to stay conscious, she felt her grip slipping as she struggled to see where the doctor was. When her head stopped spinning, she could hear the radio again.

“FR209 Echo I have visual. Please copy.” The gentleman sent.

She leapt to her feet and ran through the debris back to the ladder, the doctor nowhere in sight. She climbed with renewed strength and stepped out on the catwalk to the radio. “Icebreaker 3 thank God,” her voice cracked. “I am so happy to hear a friendly voice.”

Before she could press the call button again, a single drip of mucus fell onto the control panel. Rebecca froze. A second drip struck her visor, and she leapt back, wailing in horror. The creature that was once the doctor had scaled the wall into an overhead corner above her, mandibles flexing menacingly at her. When she jumped to go down the ladder, so did the creature, landing on her other side to block her escape.

Cornered, she jumped for the robotics arm controls. The creature’s tentacles lashed at her, grabbing at her leg with surprising strength. She wrapped an arm around the railing, fighting back as she extended one of the robot arms out and began maneuvering it up to her position. Without having mastered the controls, the best she could manage was to swing it wildly at the creature, knocking it into the wall.

The ship touched down with an ungraceful bounce, settling on uneven ground. The ship rocked to one side, sending both the creature and Rebecca crashing into the control panels. The main cargo door sprung open, venting the pressurized cabin to the outside in a cold blast of air along with dozens of small crates and other trash. Rebecca saw her toolbelt among the ejected material. The massive door only opened as far as the safety latches would allow, which was less than a foot high. The creature had fallen over the rail to the floor, while she had kept hold of the rail.

She quickly moved the robotic arm again, this time pinning the creature to the floor with the claw grasp. “Sorry, but the doctor is… detained,” she declared. It flailed frenetically against the restraint. Rebecca then moved a second freight arm to the cargo door so she could pry it open further.

Her suit had automatically cut over to onboard oxygen when the cabin depressurized. Outside the cargo hold she could see the bright lights of the Icebreaker 3 as it was approaching in the Europa surface snowstorm. She hurried down the ladder and out of the hold, stepping down the uneven slope into snow where the cargo and other trash lay scattered. She began searching for her tool belt which contained the drive of data on the research from the science platform.

Ahead up the hill she could see the lone pilot of the Icebreaker class ship had exited, holding a bright light aloft as he made his way down to help. After a moment of worry she found her tool belt, holding it high like a trophy as she smiled through her pain to show it to the man who had come to her aid.

The man froze, shouting a warning but it was too late.

Tentacles wrapped around her neck and helmet, crushing the glass on her visor. She fumbled, dropping her belt. The other grabbed her at the thigh, pulling her screaming back into the ship.

Thank you for reading

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