by Matthew James
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"Aw, shit", whined Tom Gillilan as he dropped a tool deep into the recesses of the machine he was working on. He heard it clatter a few times as it tumbled off cables, then a clunk as it hit home on a large circuit board. He jumped back just in time as the wrench he dropped shorted two contacts on the board, blowing the whole thing. A faint whiff of smoke curled out of the front panel. "Double shit!", he muttered, cursing over the shoddy conducting tools TriOp was giving their maintenance crews. He kept asking for nonconducting ones... and they kept telling him he should just make it a habit of not dropping them where they shouldn't be dropped. He was gonna catch shit for this one... this was the third fried board in as many months.

"Nice one Gillie", laughed a crewmember as him and a group of techies walked by, nostrils flaring to pick up the smell. "Nothing like the smell of burnt transistor, eh?", he joked back, trying to make light of it. He cut power to the machine (though the breakers had already fired), locked it down so that nobody could turn it on again, and collected his tools. No matter how high tech the space ship or station, they always needed maintenance guys, human ones. And humans make mistakes. Time to walk back to the maintenance shop and get a spare for this particular mistake...

"So you did it again eh?", said his shift boss Kevin Ploucha, none too happy upon hearing the news. "I'd offer an excuse if I had one. I had my arm kinked about thirteen times inside that machine. Why don't we just open the whole thing up instead of dinking around only opening part of them?", countered Gillilan, really not wanting to catch all the flak on this one. The terminal he tried had only been a small vend unit, but add that to his bill of fried access terminals, help panels and fritzed RNA learning centers, and the total started looking pretty grim.

"Nah, takes too long, and this ship has too many problems spread amongst too small a crew. C'mon, don't gimme this crap, we've been over it a hundred times. And why in the hell did you leave power on the vend unit when you were working on it? You know that it's against regs to work on a powered machine; both because exactly something like this can happen, and also because you might just catch a few volts yourself", said Ploucha, exasperated that Tom just wasn't getting it. "Ya, ok, this'll be last fried unit in a long time", interjected Tom, trying to get Kevin off the subject. "What's next on the list chief?".

A month later the situation had gotten worse. The Von Braun was clearly immature; in that it hadn't been tested long enough, and for a prototype ship they had wanted to prove out a lot of new technologies, not just the FTL space drive. Literally everything was going wrong. Serious reactor problems were starting to crop up, along with scores of cabling and environmental problems. Issues so mundane as vend units weren't even really handled anymore. And some personnel were pressed into duty as maintenance techs, and given pretty simple grunt work to free up the skilled hands to do the really pressing jobs.

"Beats sitting around vacuuming that pool eh?", joked Tom to a recreation worker they had gotten off the Rec Deck. Poor Suzanne was deep in the innards of a access panel, removing a dead power coupler and installing a new one. This was her first time doing it, so Tom was making sure she did it right and giving her pointers. "No way, Rec duty is nice and easy... I hope this extra duty comes with extra pay from TriOp" she groaned as she wiped her grimy hands off on her mechanic's smock. "How the hell does dirt get in these sealed panels anyway", her detached voice echoed back from inside the panel as he finished the installation. "Who knows. Who cares. Seal 'er up and I'll turn it back on and make sure everythings ok". Suzanne pulled herself out of the panel and closed it, while Tom powered the unit back up. With a hum, indicator lights on the front came to life. "See these two green lights up there on the front? Means job well done. Good work Suzanne, go back to Kevin and see if he has another one of these for you. There's hundreds of 'em around the ship, and they seem to be failing way more often than they should. Odds are another one or two have blown since last shift", Tom said as he collected up his tools again.

Life sort of drifts on in a spaceship. Without the sun to remind you of the demarcation between days, one shift blends into the next. Time becomes measured in problems and jobs completed instead of hours. The ship was abuzz with news that they were going into a holding orbit around Tau Ceti 5. Rumours had it they had picked up some kind of beacon. Other rumours said it was Earthlike so they were checking it for colonization purposes. Other rumours said, well, you could find a rumour for literally every scenario. The popular maintenance outlook on things at this point was to pack up and go home; the FTL drive had been well tested, and it was debatable how much longer the ship would last. They were running through spares really fast. Hell, some things they didn't even have spares for anymore. One of the techs had duped some of the science boys to use a nanite lathe to start rebuilding dead parts into live ones again, but the 'nites were only really good for small fix jobs. What do you do with a 150 pound power inverter whose temperature has gone to that of the surface of the Sun? You simply aren't going to be able to fix it, not in any useful time frame. And when you are out of spare inverters, guess what... you have to just stop using what used the inverter. Or turn the ship back. Problem is, the top brass didn't want to turn back yet. Wanted to keep stacking success upon success. But these successes were becoming a wobbly pile, like stacked plates. Pretty soon Tom figured it was going to topple.

Tom was whistling to himself as he dropped his wrench again. "Aw, shit", came his same response as he got to watch the wrench tumble once again. Before gravity lured it back onto a board, Tom remembered what he had forgotten to do…kill the power, again. "Double shit!", he tried to spurt as he pulled back as quick as he could. The back of his head slammed on the back panel, just as the wrench hit a high power coil. The impact was enough to break the insulative material on the coil, with predictable results. A huge flare of flame, vaporized copper gas, chunks of wrench and board all squirted into the air. Tom was burned, but not so bad that he was incapacitated. "Ummm... shit... help?". He slowly finished extricating himself from the panel, dripping blood from dozens of cuts on his face which had been exposed. He looked at his hands; his left was not too bad but his right had been burned pretty bad. It hurt like hell. He left his tools scattered on the floor and started for the nearest med station. The hall was noticeably empty. He doubled back quickly, cut power to the panel and locked it down, then resumed moving to the nearest med station, which was a couple halls down.

"Shit buddy, what happened? You ok?", said a crew member as they almost bumped into each other around a corner. "Ya, fucking explosion in a panel back there. Stay clear of it. Med's up ahead right?", Tom answered back, trying to keep moving as he was getting drips of blood all over the hallway. "Ya, here, let me see you there.", offered the crewman. "Nah, I'll be ok. Actually, you wanna be a hand you could call up Kevin Ploucha on Maintenance Deck and let him know there's been a small accident and Tom Gillilan is in Med... I'd rather he heard now rather than get a report of blood and smoke from a panel one of his guys was supposed to be at...", Tom grinned feebly. "Sure, no prob", said the crewman as he wandered off in search of a comms terminal. Tom walked into a small med station to find another maintenance tech working on the surgical unit. "Shit... does it still work? My hand is killing me, and I'd love to stop dripping blood down all these nice hallways", Tom joked to the tech. The tech looked up and turned out to be Suzanne. "Holy shit Tom! You ok!?", she asked in surprise as she jumped up. He pointed at the surgical unit and repeated his question. "Nah, some bonehead tried to force a damaged key into it and broke a bunch of pins. Not a huge problem but I just got here. Go use the Med center on another deck.", she said as he checked how bad Tom was hurt. "You want me to come along?", she offered. "Nah, could you call Kevin though and let him know what happened? I'll be at some other Med station, and I'll call him once the autodoc fixes my hand up", he said back as he turned to leave. "C'ya!".

After checking one or two smaller med station which were powered down and unstaffed, he decided it'd be best to head to the MedSci deck to one of the largest hospital areas. He'd be sure to find a working surgical unit there. As the nearest elevator took him to that floor, he rechecked his wounds. The bleeding from his facial cuts had more or less stopped; now he probably just looked like he had gotten into a losing fight with an angry cat or a shaving razor, or both. His right hand was getting real puffy and red. It really hurt, and some parts of it were oozing clear liquid, not blood. He pressed the MedSci level button with his left hand, and tried to dream up a story for why the accident had occurred. He was pretty sure there had been some big capacitors on the board; he might try claiming he had cut power but had forgot to discharge the capacitors, and they had had enough power left in them to fry the wrench. Still didn't look good, but it looked better than both forgetting to cut the power again and blowing a board. He hated lying, but hated looking stupid even more. He stepped out of the elevator to a steady flow of scientists all heading one way. He joined the flow, and found himself tugged along with the crowd.

They were heading to a hospital unit too, apparently something was going on. He kept hearing whispers, but people kept accidentally jostling his hand and he'd pull back out of whispering hearing range. They all stopped to look in unbreakable windows, but Tom went right in figuring he had good reason. "Hiya Doc, mind if you...", Tom started as he lifted his injured hand to show to the Doc. The Doc was hunched over a body on a surgical unit, and lifted an arm to indicate Tom should both be quiet, wait, and stay back. Funny how a doctor could put all that in one simple gesture. Tom emitted a mild "Harumph!", and wandered over to a waiting chair. He'd make sure he'd work extra slow on the next thing that broke down on this deck. Tom tried peering over at the patient, who was under a white sheet to hide most of him. Must be something really bad. Maybe he should just come back later, or try a med station on the Command or Hydroponics deck...

"Nurse, please hold the patient!", said the doctor as the patient began struggling. The nurse, a pretty big guy who should have been a pro wrestler instead of a nurse, was trying to keep the patient still. "I'm trying!", he protested, trying to pin the patient's arms and chest. Tom looked up with interest. Onlookers peered through the glass. The doctor gave them a stern look and another one of his magical hand gestures. Judging from how quickly the crowd dispersed, this 'doc had to be pretty important. The white sheet had been working it's way off the patient, and it was pretty clear to Tom that something was really wrong with him. That and the fact Nurse Biceps couldn't seem to win the little arm wrestling contest he had going with the patient. Tom started to nervously get up, thinking it really would be best to leave. The puffiness in his hand wasn't that bad...

"Ahhh!", shouted the nurse during the struggle. He was using his upper body to pin the patient to the table, but Tom guessed the patient must have brought his head up and had bitten him savagely. Tom finished getting up, but to help instead of leaving. The nurse stumbled away in pain, hands to his throat, where blood was freely flowing from a vicious wound. Both the Doctor and Tom shockedly looked at the nurse. "Holy shit! Get him something fast!", Tom shouted as he leapt forward to the nurse. The Doctor pointed to a cabinet containing some skin sealants; fast acting polymers that would form a second skin. "That won't stop the bleeding inside, will it?", Tom asked as he ran to the cabinet. The nurse was on the ground now, vainly holding his neck and making burbling sounds, as well as turning a ghoulish white. Tom fumbled with the cabinet lock, as he looked back to see how the doctor was doing with the patient. And he caught his first full view of the "patient". Time literally froze.

The patient had obviously once been a man. Now, it looked only vaguely human. He looked half melted, and decomposed, almost like the 'doc was struggling with someone who'd been dead for quite a while. Some weird... thing... was on him; looked like a gigantic leech or eel. What the hell had happened? Tom took all this in in the blink of an eye. The Doc was momentarily watching Tom and the cabinet of skin sealant, not watching the melted man. Tom opened his mouth to warn the Doc, and the Doc looked down in the second he saw Tom's eyes. The melted thing lunged loose of the table and tackled the Doc to the floor. Tom couldn't see over the surgical unit, but saw flailing limbs and heard the screams. He ran over to help the doc, a can of skin sealant in his hand, and saw what the thing had done to the Doc. He had been beaten unconcious, possible dead. The dead looking thing ungainly got up, looking straight at Tom. It uttered a growl. It assaulted all the senses; to the eyes it was a living horror, yet even its impact in smell and sound were horrifying. It belong in a nightmare, ghost story or horror vid, not on MedSci deck. And definitely not in the same room as Tom. What the hell did they bring it in here for... it belonged in an incinerator. At least throw shackles on the damn thing or incapacitate it before operating on it...

Tom started to back off. He didn't want to turn his back to run, figuring the not being able to see the thing would be even worse than seeing the thing. The fumbled his hands around behind him for a weapon of any sort. His right hand painfully closed around a light chair; one of the ones from the row he'd been waiting in. It wasn't heavy, but it was better than nothing. The melted man shuffled forward slowly, as if waking from a sleep. If moved its lips as if to talk. It definitely was human once. It even wore a shredded TriOp uniform, with Command Deck colours. What could have happened to him? More disturbingly, what the hell was that eel thing doing on him?

Holding his chair in front of him, Tom kept moving for the door. The thing kept up with him, shuffling with a strange gait as if learning to use its legs for the first time. The nurse let out another gurgle, which caused the melted thing to look over. Tom used the opportunity to rush the door. He'd come back with armed guards; maybe they could still save the nurse and doctor from that undead freak. But the thing seemed to anticipate it. It came lunging forward with powerful strides; school time for it's legs was over. Tom turned in midrun to try to swing the chair at it. He struck it soundly, and some plastic ripped off the chair and fell to the ground but all he accomplished was to rip the dead thing's jumper a bit more, and add a few bruises to a body that seemed already covered in hundreds of them.

Tom screamed as the thing decided it had taken on two people already, why not a third. It grabbed at Tom with long, misshapen arms. The thing really was dead; this close Tom could actually see maggots working through it's flesh. He was ready to puke a few times over. If he lived; which he was starting to doubt. The can of skin sealant was still unused; he had shoved it into one of the many pockets in his jumper when he had picked up the chair. As the thing latched onto him, he fought with one arm momentarily while the other pulled the can out and gave the thing a good shot of it in the face. The sythetic skin came out with a hiss. While it wasn't exactly a torrent of blinding death, the spray did coat the thing's eyes, nostrils and mouth with a foam that hardened almost instantly. It let go of Tom and struggled with it's face, trying to tear the hardened foam off. It tripped over the plastic back from the broken chair, and slipped over, landing in an ungainly heap. While he had a few seconds, he grabbed a better weapon; he picked up a large medical tool of some sort; it was a metal cylinder a few feet long. Probably some part of an medical autoclave that was right next to it. He watched the thing struggle in a heap with it's face while he sidestepped to the nurse. Checking the nurse, he saw that he had already died, probably from blood loss judging from the neck wound and the cooling pool of blood that surrounded the nurse. Moving behind the surgical unit, he checked the Doctor. He too was dead, Tom couldn't detect a pulse. If Tom could get a medical team in here, they might still be able to revive him. Tom suddenly froze again. While checking the doctor, he couldn't see the melted dead thing, as he was using the surgical unit to distance himself from it. But now the struggling sounds had stopped. As ridiculous as it seemed; the thing had disappeared while Tom had bent over to take a pulse. Tom peeked around the left and right of the surgical unit, but it wasn't hiding flush behind it. It must be in the room somewhere...


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