Onboard the Mining ship Salem.
Near the Crab Nebula.
Everything shifted to one side.
“GODDAMNIT”, someone shouted.
Markus woke up on the cold metal floor. He mumbled a confused obscenity.
“Hey Markus, get your hungover ass up to the roost right now. We got a live one here.”
“Alright, alright”, he grumbled to Molnja. She always seemed to forget she was just a deckhand.
Salem had been out for 7 months. Seven goddamn months. Salem wasn’t new. Well, it was new to the captain, Arakim, but Salem was 70 years old. Old mining ship. Probably was in service in the old Sirius colonies.
The crew was the lousiest bunch of low-lives you’d ever seen. Arakim served in the military on his home planet, but he deserted to pursue better endeavours. Markus worked as a mechanic on one of the occupied Scuttloid planets, but he had to leave once the Scuttloids retook the planet. Molnja had lived a quiet life in Moscow on Earth, until the meteorite storm of 2267 destroyed her family home. Vom was just a well-educated man that accidentally stumbled into Salem one day.
The crew was unique.
His thoughts were blurry.
Markus glanced out the window. Through the 6-inch glass he could see a hulk of metal drifting through the black void, and the grappling claws of the Salem creeping towards it. Markus wiped his head with some oily rag and shakily stood up. He made a mental note to kick the ass of the Chi’Kri who sold him the Vreek Ale he had drunk the night before.
“What do we have here?” Markus asked as he climbed into the c***pit (casually referred to as the roost).
“Volaktris-class Kreesta Kreesta trader.” said Molnja, emerging from a corner. “Derelict, must have been abandoned. Got some nice loot, so we’re going in to see what we can make off with. Where have you been?”
“Kreesta Kreesta?” said Markus, ignoring Molnja’s complaints. “Are you sure we raid them? They don’t like their goods stolen.”
“We’ll be fine.” Arakim strolled into the room from his quarters. He lit a cigar. Cuban. “It’s a derelict. Ain’t no laws against raidin’ derelicts.”
“I thought Desharkians don’t smoke.” commented Molnja.
“We don’t.” said Arakim, fumbling with the lighter. “On account of the fact we don’t got lungs like humans.”
“But doesn’t that mean that....nevermind.”
Markus saw his chance to interject.
“Kreesta Kreesta ships are a valued commodity. There’s no doubt there’ll be other scavengers out here who have their eyes (if they have any) set on this ship.”
“Plus, who knows what kind of spooky phenomena are creeping around out here.” Vom popped down from the ceiling shafts. “We could potentially find ourselves--”
Vom was cut off. The ship flew violently to one side.
“What in the hell??” Molnja exclaimed. She switched on a viewer and revealed a large, hawk like craft lurching towards them through the void.
“Hergrethite raiders.” Markus grabbed the helm and began to steer the Salem.
“Get defenses online!” he shouted as another bolt of plasma careened against Salem.
“Defenses are down, you idiot!” Molnja shouted from another station. Markus fired up emergency engines and was able to drive the ship away barely before the attacker launched another barrage.
Minutes later, the Salem lurched out of a tachyon jump, battered and bruised.
“I told you not to raid the derelict!” Markus shouted at Arakim. Arakim whirled around.
“How the hell was I supposed to know?? Those Hergrethites had a stealth device or something?”
Markus cursed Arakim’s incompetence. This wasn’t the first time the Desharkian had his eyes set on a risky prize and had paid for it.
“Bottom line, we need to land and make repairs.” Vom said. “Weapons are down, comms are down, and the engine situation is absolutely bonkers.”
“Fine.” Arakim conceded. “Where’s a planet?”
“Whaddya know, we’re in luck.” Vom pointed to a spatial map. “Alpha Carianis 17b is earth-like. I can have us there in 20 minutes.”
“Well, folks”, Arakim announced, “It looks like we’re going camping.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Salem touched down on the world, not without some rattling. The small crew disembarked and ‘secured the perimeter’, as Arakim called it. Right away Markus was on edge. The sun wasn’t as bright as it should’ve been, there was a strange musty smell in the air, and Markus kept hearing strange noises. Or at least he thought he heard them.
To him, the noises sounded like faint, tortured wails of anguish.
The first to start acting strange was Arakim. Maybe it chose him because the Desharkian psyche was particularly delectable, or vice versa, and it just wanted the hard meal out of the way.
He seemed fine at first, but as the hours drew on he seemed drained, like he was slowly deflating. His eyes slowly glazed over. He was sluggish. Everyone shrugged it off to sleep deprivation. At least until they found him with a gun to his face.
Molnja had finished repairing some hull plating, and she went to check on Vom (he had been trying his luck at hunting some of the local life-forms), when she turned a corner of the ship and found Arkim sitting in the alien grass, staring blankly at a plasma pistol he had in his hand.
“Hey cap, you OK?” Molnja asked, a little worried.
Arakim offered no response.
“Hey Markus, get over to the port hydraulic casing, Arakim’s acting funny.” she said into her comm.
Molnja walked closer, barely a foot from him. Arakim offered no reflex, no response or reaction, physical or verbal. Markus came running.
“Arakim, what’s up?”
Arakim moved this time. He turned his hand to the pistol so it pointed at his face.
“Whoah, hey man, take it easy!” Markus exclaimed. “Let’s just put the gun down, and stand up, and we’ll have Vom take a look at you.”
“The Mindful loves me, but for him to be with me he must consume.”
Arakim’s finger twitched.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Arakim’s suicide was chalked up to stress and a lasting depression. The remaining three were in a state of numb denial, but they tried to stay on the task at hand. Fix. The. Ship. Get. Off. The. Planet. It’s what Arakim would have wanted.
Molnja cracked next. She had been paranoid ever since the Salem landed, but on day 12 she reached a whole new level of anxiety. She degraded into a constant state of childish phobia. She was irritable (more than usual) and constantly broke down into tears. The second day of her breakdown she spent against the ship, her legs pressed against her body, curled into a fetal position, and staring at a spot in the ground. She mumbled something about thousands of ants rising from the ground and crawling into her eyes, eating away her body as they advanced. On day three of the breakdown, she disappeared. Neither Vom nor Markus could locate her, even by trying to track her comm. Vom was searching in the outskirts of the nearby forest when something leaped from the trees on top of him, clawing and biting like some sort of deranged animal. It was Molnja.
Markus heard the screams and came running. Vom had lost a lot of blood. It seemed as though Molnja was trying to eat him. Markus yelled for her to get off, and she would not answer. He shed an unexpected tear as he drew his weapon and shot her in the leg. She howled in pain, but relaxed her grip on Vom enough for him to drag himself away. She descended into the jungle like some sort of begrudged beast, hissing and yowling as she went.
Vom’s left leg was the worst off. Huge chunks of muscle and tissue were missing. It was like Monja attempted to amputate his leg using a giant piece of a jigsaw puzzle. He was surviving, but he was quiet for a while. Markus had pretty much determined that there was something eating away at them. He had overheard Molnja screeching things about The Mindful as she descended into the jungle. He determined Vom had not succumbed to it yet, but his morale was low.
Three days later repairs were complete. Molnja was nowhere to be found, and Vom was getting better. He said he longed to see the stars, and the cities of Earth. Markus agreed. All was well as it could be (though the wailing grew in his head), and Markus was about to lift off when Molnja emerged from the jungle and bounded towards the Salem with a ferocity Markus had only seen in cheetahs on Earth. She screeched not to leave her behind. Markus knew if she boarded she would only attack them again, so he hurried to close the hatch but it was too late.
Molnja leaped into Salem, and Markus whipped out his gun.
“Molnja, please, don’t make me hurt you. You need to sit over there.” He motioned to a small room he could trap her in.
“Markus, I’m not going to hurt you.” Molnja said. She spoke in her normal voice, but she had the appearance of the deranged Molnja who had attacked Vom.
“Markus, I just want to tell you that you are safe here. The Mindful loves you.”
Markus shuddered in fear.
“Molnja, you need to go into that room. Now. I’m not going to ask again.”
“Don’t hurt me, Markus. The Mindful loves you. But in order for you to be with him…” Molnja lurched towards him.
“He must consu--”
Markus pulled the lever. Tears streamed down his face as Molnja’s body dropped limp. He shook his head.
“Let’s get the hell out of--”
“You can’t escape The Mindful, Markus.”
Markus whirled around. There was Vom, standing upright for the first time in four days. One of his legs was still broken. Vom seemed unfazed.
“Markus, you know The Mindful loves you.”
Markus began to weep. The wailing in his head grew louder.
“Oh god, no--”
“Markus, The Mindful loves you. You wouldn’t kill Vom, would you? Don’t let Vom die. Let The Mindful live. Let The Mindful consume.”
Markus screamed in anger has he shot him several times in the chest. Vom dropped like Molnja. Markus dropped too, only to his knees in grief. The Salem slipped the bonds of the atmosphere, and two Hergrethite raiders closed in. Markus stood as the door burned open. He didn’t care what horrors faced him now. Space pirates were nothing compared to shooting two of his crewmates. Anything was better than being pursued by The Mindful.
The door flew open and and the slithering, tentacled body of a Hergrethite slipped forward.
“The Mindful loves you, Markus.”