It is the year X0X4, humans have expanded out into the solar system when the Earth began to strain under the weight of over-population. Now the race lives spread out in colonies amongst the planets and moons. Many decades have passed since the last outpost settled and each one had developed their own culture, holidays and traditions. It never ceased to fascinate you the differences between even the most minor of colonies. Even the languages were unique between each colony, but luckily universal translators were practically given away for anyone who worked for the Federation.
Speaking of working, it’s been a few years since you graduated from the Engineers specialist course. Picked up immediately by a repair team, you travelled between provinces in the Pluto section, the farthest area from Earth. It was mostly a quiet job, since a lot of the time you spent either travelling between colonies for major repairs or projection linking to the minor ones to walk them step by step through a relatively easy repair. The colony Engineers seemed to drink up every drop of knowledge you could spare them, and often you never had to help with the same repair twice once taught. And that’s how you spent your time, eating, teaching, reading, daily sensory breaks to stop the emptiness of space breaking you or planning for the next job.
Currently, you were travelling to a new location to start a new project on the furthest territory from Earth.
Stretching amongst your multitude of blankets, a book laying across your stomach as you look out of your tiny, reinforced window to the black vastness of space, stars glittering in the distance. How could such a dangerous place look so beautiful, you loved it and couldn’t help being mesmerised every time. Daydreaming about travelling further beyond the solar system, a sharp knock at your quarters startles you and you leap up to answer it, but the book falls and lands squarely on your little toe.
As you jump about holding onto your abused foot, a burly, heavily tanned man leans against your doorframe yawning heavily before snickering at your misfortune. “Just to let you know, we’re nearing the job site in about 2 hours, so Captain says to start packing up and getting ready. Tools are already bundled up and ready to push off.”
“Thanks Josh, sleep well?” You yawn in response, yet you both knew that neither of you slept well the day before a job. Often you had to adjust yourself to the colony’s time zone, leaving you tired with the old term ‘jet-lag’.
The only response was a defeated snort and he tapped goodbye on the side of the door before leaving. With one last rub of your now swollen toe, you crouch down and pull out your trusty backpack from under the bed. Usually it was already packed with necessities for long stays, clothes, toiletries, sly snacks from previous colonies and your favourite books. Stretching up to look around your room once more for anything you might have missed, you tuck away a faint wisp of loose hair behind your ear contemplating. Nope, got everything, so you heave your bag onto your shoulders and head to the mess hall for some breakfast.
Walking out into the hallway, you once again note that your ship wasn’t the largest of repair ships, but it did the job. Able to carry at least 3 colonies worth of people in case of an emergency, it felt strangely empty and almost scary when alone. No outside ambience existed to fill the silence, so ease your uncomfortable feeling forming in the base of your stomach, you tap on your wireless earpiece and play a selection of your favourite music on repeat.
You were addicted to Old Earth music, the sort that had many turning their nose up in disgust at the out of date fashioned tunes. Humming along, you trace your hand along the perfectly white walls, the cold metal dipped and rose under your fingers. Sometimes, it felt like the ship was as cold and empty as the void surrounding it. Frowning, you shake your head and speed up to chase away the fleeting shadows of worry in your heart. As you continue to pass through twisting corridors, you begin to hear faint chatter and warmth slowly returns to you. Following the lively sounds, you turn around a corner and hear the familiar swoosh as the mess hall’s door slide open. Inside a large domed room, around a bleached table, sat the other members of your team chatting eagerly about their game night which had gotten too rowdy before you had managed to slip away to bed.
Smiling to yourself at their rowdy, eager actions as they grandly retell their misadventures, you move quietly to the back of the room. Spread amongst the kitchen counters were various containers and jars holding a sparse array of food and being eager to eat before the Captain showed up, you hurry along as you check each box. Listening absentmindedly to the enthusiastic chatter around you, a particular chorus has you humming along under your breath. Today was going to be a good day, you just knew it. Spotting your main lifeline brewing in a pot, you manage to swipe some fresh (star-sent) coffee and a brownie. Taking one bite, you sigh unhappily, the brownie was near its expiry date and unbearably dry. Hopefully the new colony had some reserves to sell and you honestly look forward to eating fresh vegetables again. Stars, when was the last time you had a salad? Gosh, you never thought you’d end up craving a salad of all things. Taking another crumbling bite grudgingly, you nearly gag as a crumb catching the back of your tongue.
Of course, when your mouth is stuffed full of brownie, crumbs scattered around your mouth, does Captain Sven decide to walk in. Sven, short but full of an authority that no-one could question. His brow was ever furrowed into a deep scowl, long trails of scars from his left eye lead down into his collar. Frontier wars he said, and never elaborated since. Hair buzzed to the skin, face clean shaven, he was the pinnacle of discipline and his stride matched this fact.
Scrambling to clean yourself up and scarf the remains of your breakfast, you rush to your seat at the table. Coughing draws your attention as one of your teammates held back laughter, pointing to the side of their cheek. Mimicking them, you see the tell-tale smear of chocolate on your hand and you flush with embarrassment. That’s when they lose it, spluttering with laughter as you scrub at your face in dismay. Sven raises an eyebrow, tapping his fingers against the table to silence the room, your friend swallows nervously and tries to keep a straight face.
As though charmed, everyone’s attention is captured by Sven as he flicks through the documents projecting from his glass tablet out onto the table for everyone to see. “Now,” His deep voice rumbles, “We all know about this colony, serious business here, so let me remind you one more time. They were recently working on creating a state-of-the-art training centre for a new project on deeper space exploration. Unfortunately, the lead Engineer passed away before training a new person to continue.” He pauses, letting the information sink in.
“List of priorities, though I’m sure I’ve drilled them enough into your thick heads.” A murmur of chuckles agrees while your captain flicks once more to a new page, “Priority one is repairing the gravity core in the 54-NS section, get that training centre up and running as soon as possible. If we don’t have this done, the Federation will have our hides for delaying their agenda. We got about 4 months before the first training cadets show up, so no slacking.”
A few joking boos rise to his admonishing, making a smile slightly curl his ruined lips. “We also got a wonky space lock, faults in the greenhouse and need a general health check on the colony. So, we’ll be splitting into two groups, Josh, you’ll be leading the minor repairs. Run a quick sweep after making sure there’s no extra work before you merge with the main group.”
Josh amicably nods, taking a different glass tablet from Sven and begins swiping through the notes. You smile, knowing that Josh was the perfect choice for this. Quick but thorough, he had minor repairs done in a flash.
Lost in thought as you wonder which group you’ll be in, your name rings out loud in the quiet mess hall and you jump. Huh? Sven slides across some documents, you meet his eyes with confusion, “With the current Engineer dead, you are effectively this colony’s temporary Engineer. So, whilst we are searching for someone to train, you might be called upon for other outpost duties. Here are the details of the personnel you might be dealing with.”
Why you? This was such an important project, yet he chose you to lead it? Not only that, but colony Engineer? Sure, you’d led jobs before, but everyone else had been on this job much longer than you! Plus, you were so clumsy… You nibble your lower lip and try to focus your panic away by browsing through the tablet staring at unfamiliar faces, names and the detailed layout of the colony trying to tie them into your memory. Sven claps his hands together, “Right, briefing over. Get your asses in gear, work hard, earn hard ladies and gents.”
As your ship drew closer towards the moon, whiteness forces you to wear your helmet earlier to save your eyes from the glare. Slowly massive buildings come into view and you gasp. This colony was one of the largest you’d ever seen. When you had spotted it from the bridge it looked so much smaller. Yet face to face, this province was a sight to behold. Blindingly white to reflect the sun’s light away, it almost seemed to glow with an ethereal light. Large spires swirled into the atmosphere with a huge, metal dome nestled amongst them and in the front and centre, you could see multitudes of empty apartments. Then along to the far left, within what looked like a bubble, fields upon fields floated above the moon’s surface filled with crops, as farmers worked between the neatly planted rows. On top of the impressive sight, stretching far into the horizon, was a town bustling with crowds. You wondered if there were markets in amongst those streets.
Jane, your co-Engineer pushes your open mouth closed, snickering, “She’s a proper beaut, ain’t she? Worked on this one meself, back in me hayday.” You could see her warm, brown eyes swim with slight tears, pride etched in her weathered face. Letting out an emotional sigh, she pushes her dreadlocks with a yellow headband then twists the rest into a ponytail. “Well, time ta greet the flock. Come on, honey, let’s get this done.”
Putting on your Environmental Protection Suit (EPS for short) then swiftly pulling your backpack on, you march with Jane to the cargo bay. Towering crates filled with folded machinery, boxed workshops, toolboxes and resources were strapped down to hover-plates. Scuttling in between the cargo, your team rushes about to their designated spots while Josh and you flit around making sure everything is in its proper place. With a slight shake of the ship, a light siren noise wails, alerting you of the imminent landing. Hurrying to brace yourself, you make your way to the forefront cargo crate, holding on to its straps with one steady hand on the control pad.
The ship sways back and forth as it slowly lowers down on to the docking bay, everyone waits as the ground ahead comes into view, tensing as they clung to the equipment. It seems like an eternity as the ship adjusts this way and that, the quiet hiss of air pressure being squeezed from the landing tripods fills the silence. A nervous energy washes over you. Your team always operated under the pretence that every repair was an emergency and needed to always get on site as quick as possible. Every passing second that ticked by could mean the life and death of a colony in such a situation. At last, the cargo doors click, releasing more pressure and the air locks swish open, finally the doors fall forwards to form a ramp. Immediately, your team push out the freight boxes into the annexed building, while your Captain rushes out to greet a man, who you recognise as the colony leader. Sven adjusts his universal translator to download the local dialect across the team’s comms, crucial if there was an emergency.
Jane and you lead the way to the training centre, the corridors already pre-emptively cleared of colonists. As team leader, you run assessments while on the move, checking the current situation with your scanner. It was the usual checks, like if the atmosphere was safe and while you could obviously see people in the distance looking at you all in curiosity, you still had to proceed with the scans (protocols, what can you say?) Upon arriving at the centre, you start to inspect all surrounding tech for any major malfunctions that could prove lethal to your team.
Finding nothing, you pull off your helmet with a grin and click your comms, “Assessment complete. Safe.”
Your team begins to copy you, breathing in the fresh air of a colony. Sighs of satisfaction fill the air, you swear you could smell the trees and filters they used to keep it so pleasant. With the situation reviewed, people began to move slower as they rearrange the tool crates and set up the basic workshops.
Josh laughs at you as you order where to place the tools and gear, “This is the only time I never see you stumble.” His laughter growing as your face heats up, and you turn away with a ‘hmpf’. Coughing sternly, Sven comes in with the colony leader trailing behind. Clearly, he had been the leader for a long time, age and stress of the job carved deep crevices into his face. Wispy, silver hair was pulled back into a low hanging knot and his fingers tremble as he held a gravity support orb like an old Earth cane. He looks down his long nose at your team but says nothing while Sven raps his knuckles on a wall. Again, he holds everyone’s attention.
“This is Seymour Gravis, he’s the colony leader and in charge of reporting your progress to the Federation. Now get this gear sorted, we’re starting appraisals in 45 minutes. Find and confirm to me every issue by evening.” He nods in your direction, “You’re working overtime with Josh, compile all the data and set up a plan by tomorrow morning. I want this job clean and easy.” Nodding as Sven and Seymour turn away to discuss other matters and leave down the distant corridor, you let out a nervous sigh. Then taking in deep steadying breaths to calm yourself, you begin stretches before grabbing one of the larger tool boxes for your appraisal tools.
That’s when you see it.
Screaming loudly, you fall on your butt and scramble backwards, pointing as you shake. “What is that?!”
Your team runs over, immediately alert, but their shoulders sag in confusion. “What’s what, hon?” Jane asks perplexed.
“That!” You point once more.
In front of you floats a short skeleton creature, eyes closed as it peacefully leans back into its own arms, seemingly sleeping through your scream. It wasn’t quite a human skeleton, being wider, thicker in stature and had a chubby looking face. A lazy, almost cartoonish smile stretches its features, the teeth almost as large as your little finger. But the strangest thing was it was wearing clothes, an oversized, dark blue and yellow hoodie hugs its body with fluff that looks like a piece of the background was cut out to reveal a huge nebula behind it. Blue shorts with a yellow stripe ripple with no breeze and little, sparkling blue slippers adorn its feet.
“It’s a floating skeleton,” You manage to gasp, your eyes grow wide with fear. What was it? You feel the pinpricks of sweat tingle your face.