Halloween 2013: Haunted

The lights hovered at the corridor junction, waiting until Dane caught up. They floated, orange-red and silent, along the left branch, toward the cargo holds. When he’d first come aboard as new captain of the Jack O’Lantern, Dane Torrey thought the flickering lights he’d been seeing were an anomaly of the adjustment from planetary life to space. After a few days, the other effects of adjusting were gone, but the lights remained.

Dane moved down the corridor slowly, following the lights. He turned to look back down the corridor. A large black cat, golden eyes reflecting the orange glow, followed at his heels. He’d inherited the cat when he agreed to take command of the ship people said was haunted. Wisp belonged to the former captain, who was found shot to death while the ship was orbiting a large asteroid being scanned for mineral deposits. The captain was alone in the cargo hold, the rest of the small crew on the bridge or in one of the sampling pods scooping pieces of the space rock for analysis. The rumors said he still roamed the corridors of the ship, eyes glowing, trying to find his killer. Dane didn’t believe in ghosts. Then. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

The lights stopped and hung in the air at the oversized doors to the bay. The first time Dane saw them, he was in his quarters. They looked like a face, with two eyes, a nose, and a larger, oval mouth. From that first sighting, they had appeared more and more frequently, and almost seemed to be asking him to follow. At first, he assumed they were an anomaly of the older ship, some trick of the dimmer lights and odd angles of the walls. But none of the other crew ever saw them. Or at least, they wouldn’t admit it. It was the cat that convinced him otherwise. Every time the lights appeared, Wisp would come from wherever on the ship she’d been, and reach up to paw at the glowing face. When it started to float down the corridors, she would follow, stopping to look back at Dane as if she expected him to come. Tonight, he decided to give in and see what happened if he did.

He checked the energy pulse pistol at his hip, unlatching the safety strap that held it in its holster. He’d made sure it was fully charged before he left his room.

“Okay, cat,” Dane muttered to the animal sitting at his side. “Let’s see what you- and they- want.” He keyed the code for the door into the pad on the wall. Dane winced at the low grating sound as the doors slid apart. He stepped into the doorway, and looked around. There was no one else in the bay that he could see. He stepped further into the room. The black cat trotted ahead, and disappeared among the containers stacked in the room.

“Lotta help you are,” Dane grumbled. “Cats.” He threw the toggle on the wall next to the doors and lights flickered on overhead. Even with them on, it was dim in the big room. Dane looked around, but all he saw was a standard asteroid fishing boat cargo bay. Ships like the Jack trolled asteroid belts, looking for rocks likely to hold good mineral deposits. They sent small, single person pods with scoop arms to the asteroid to collect samples which were analyzed by the mining companies. If the asteroid was minable, the crew was paid. The cargo bay held the containers of samples, marked with the location of the rock it came from. The Jack was heading to a group of large-sized asteroids, hoping to find some that would pay off. Most of the containers were stacked and netted in place along the walls. A few were standing in piles, creating the effect of a shoulder high maze along the length of the room toward the space hatch. He stepped into a pool of light, and peered into the dim stacks of boxes. He didn’t see the lights.

“Now what?” Dane said, his voice sounding thin and hollow in the bigger room. He wasn’t sure what he expected to happen, but without some clue, he was lost for what to do or where to start.

“Mrrow.” The sound made Dane jump. He turned toward the sound to see Wisp sitting on top of one of the stacks of containers. He walked toward the cat and reached a hand out to her. Before he could touch her, the cat leapt to the next stack, and turned her head to look at him.

“Mrrow,” she said again. Dane shrugged and followed as she led him through the maze toward the space doors. As they got closer to the end of the bay, Dane could see the lights he’d followed hanging against one of the netted groups of containers. He approached slowly, glancing around as he did. There was a small work desk attached to the wall beside the dock door control pad. When Dane got close to the desk, he could see a figure, barely visible in the dim lighting, standing with its back to him.

“Who’s there?” he called. The figure didn’t move. Most of the crew should be asleep now, with only a few monitoring the bridge. He moved closer, putting his hand on the pistol at his belt.

“What are you doing down here?” The figure still didn’t turn or give any indication he’d heard. Dane took another step forward, and stopped. The figure seemed unsubstantial, almost as if it were in a hazy fog. He also didn’t recognize the clothing. The gray-blue coveralls were not the black and gray that his crew wore. He was sure he’d seen them before. As he watched the figure doing something on the desk, he remembered. The murdered captain and his crew wore that color uniform. He started as Wisp jumped to the floor behind him and darted forward to the- ghost.

“Mrrrp” The cat chirped. Dane slipped the gun out of its holster.

“Whoever you are, turn around. Now.” Dane said, taking a step closer to him. The figure turned. Dane staggered a step back and almost dropped the pistol. The front of the ghost’s coveralls was soaked with blood, and burn marks scarred the frayed fabric. Dane forced himself to look away from the bloody uniform and moved his gaze up to the face. It was spattered with blood, and the eyes, nose, and mouth blazed orange-red, but he recognized the former captain of the Jack O’Lantern. The ghost didn’t come closer. He just stood there, staring with glowing eyes. Wisp stood next to the ghost, as if a dead man in a bloody jumpsuit was a normal sight.

“Okay, so what do you want?” Dane asked. The ghost’s head lifted a fraction, and he reached out with one hand. Dane pulled the trigger without thinking. The pulse beam lasered through the apparition and scored the desk behind it.

“Great idea,” he muttered. “Hope it doesn’t make him mad.” But the figure simply turned back to the desk, and stood still. Wisp jumped up onto the desk and began scratching and digging at the back where it sat against the bulkhead. She turned to Dane every few seconds with a loud “Miaow!” and went back to digging. Dane edged closer to the desk, stepping to the side to avoid the space where the ghost stood. He wasn’t sure what might happen if he touched it, and didn’t think he wanted to find out.

“What the heck are you doing, cat?” he asked the feline, whose scratching became more insistent as Dane approached. He leaned over the side of the small desk to see what the cat was so interested in. There was a small gap between the back edge of the desk and the bulkhead. As Wisp dug her claws into the gap, he could hear something moving. Leaning farther over the desk, he could just make out the edge of something small and metallic that was wedged into the gap. Dane searched a bit and found a slim-bladed knife. He slid it into the gap and under the object. He grabbed the edge as it slid up and pulled it out. He was holding a comm pad, similar to the ones everyone onboard carried for communication and data access. He pressed the button on the side of the screen and it powered on.

“Figures,” he said, watching the blinking words “Password Required” on the screen. He stared at it for a long moment. He felt a sudden chill washing over him and turned to see the ghost of the ship’s former captain turning toward him and drifting closer. Dane shivered. The ghost lifted a hand and pointed to the comm pad. Dane held it up.

“This is yours? So, what’s the password?” The ghost just continued to point. Dane turned the pad over in his hand, and thought. The cat nudged his hand again. He looked down and saw the gold tag hanging from her dark collar. He’d looked at it when Wisp first showed up in his quarters, but the strange combination of characters made no sense. It wasn’t her name, or the ship’s name or registration number. He’d not thought about it after, but now he tipped the tag to the light so he could read it.

“I wonder…” Dane said, staring down at the pad. He shrugged, and began tapping the sequence of random-seeming characters into the device. The screen cleared and he was looking at a list of files. He tapped the last entry in the list. A picture of the captain’s face appeared on the screen. He was concentrating on something to the side, a stylus in his hand. A faint sound made him turn around, and all Dane could see was the back of his jumpsuit.

“Evenin’, Captain.” Dane recognized the voice as Jackson Tufts, the first mate. “Here kind of late, aren’t you?” The captain’s body stepped away from the desk, still blocking the video.

“I can’t let you do this any longer, Tufts,” came the captain’s even voice.

“What’s that?” Tufts replied.

“I know what you’ve been doing,” the captain said. “You’ve been changing the codes on the samples to send the best ones to a rival company, and pocketing a nice payment for cheating us.” Tufts laughed.

“Well, now, I guess you caught me, huh?  What are we going to do about it?” Dane could see the captain’s shoulders lift in a shrug.

Wish you’d moved a step to the side, Dane thought.

“We aren’t going to do anything. You are going to give me that case of chips and then you are going to be confined to quarters until we get back to base. You’re not going to get away with this.” Tufts laughed again.

“We’ll see about that.” Dane saw the captain jump aside, and heard the sound of a pulse blast ricochet off the bulkhead. The pad, propped up on the desk, now showed Tufts, a pistol in one hand and a metal box in the other, turning in the direction the captain ducked. The captain lunged back into view, hitting Tufts with a shoulder and knocking his aim off. Tufts swung the case at the captain’s head, forcing him to turn away. The first mate shoved and the captain thudded against the desk, arms flailing forward to catch himself. He knocked the pad with one hand and it skittered away, the screen going black.

“That’s when it slid behind,” Dane said. The sound continued as the fight went on for a few moments more, and then Dane heard the captain shout Tufts’ name, and one more shot from the pistol. There was a muffled thud. Dane could hear someone walking around the bay for a few minutes more, and some clicking and other noises. After that, there was silence. Dane tapped the screen to stop the video.

“Well, now, that is damned inconvenient,” a voice said. Dane looked up to see Tufts standing a few feet away, a pistol leveled in his hand. Dane’s hand twitched toward his own gun, which he’d set down to look at the pad. Tufts shot a burst across the desk surface, and Dane jerked his hand back.

“Don’t,” Tufts ordered. “Step away from the desk, and slide that comm pad over here.” Dane stepped forward, but held on to the pad.

“How did you know I was here?” Dane asked, stalling for time.

“I was lucky enough to be on duty on the bridge tonight. Saw your shot register, and came to see what was going on.” Tufts answered. “Hand that thing over.”

“What are you going to do? Kill me, too? Isn’t that going to look a little off?” Dane watched a grin spread on Tufts’ face.

“Oh, I don’t know. This tub is haunted, remember? It’ll just add to the charm, when I say I came down here and found you shot, just like the guy before you.”  Tufts looked pleased with himself.

“What I don’t understand is how you did it? The files said you were in aux control when the captain was shot.” Dane said. The grin came back on Tufts’ face.

“Not only is she haunted, but this boat is old. It isn’t hard to fiddle with the systems.” Tufts gestured with the gun. “I need that pad.” He started to step forward. With a loud “Rrrowrrr,” Wisp leapt from a stack of cargo containers onto Tufts’ back, her spine arched and claws digging in. Tufts yelped and spun, trying to disengage the cat. Dane ran forward and grabbed the hand holding the gun. He wrestled the gun from Tufts’ hand. The cat let go and ran off between the stacked containers. Tufts tried to grab the gun again, and Dane used the butt of the pistol across Tufts’ temple and the first mate slumped to the deck.

Dane stepped away, and pulled his own comm pad out of his pocket. He called the dry dock office and asked for security to be sent to the Jack. He took the old pad out of his pocket and turned it off. He’d started it recording again when Tufts came in. The two recordings should prove his part in the unsolved death. He looked down and saw Wisp sitting next to him, cleaning one paw carefully. He felt the chill from beside him again, and looked beyond the cat. The ghost of the dead captain still stood there, but now, his face was normal, without the orange-red glow. He nodded once to Dane, and slowly faded from sight. Dane saluted the last visible trace with two fingers to his temple.

“Glad to help.”