Ellie tensed, jumped and grabbed hold of the lip of the access hatch. Malachi reached down from the shadows above and gave Ellie his hand. Ellie took it, Malachi pulled her up and Ellie wriggled through the opening. Once through the hatch she sat on the dirty floor and dangled her legs through the hole.
Tila flashed a light around the cramped space while Malachi scattered glowcubes around the cabin.
“Is this the right place?” Ellie asked before climbing to her feet. “I didn’t see a name outside.”
“This is it,” said Malachi. “Well, the right location anyway. Looks like the name got scratched away when they shoved it in here. There’ll be a nameplate somewhere in here, anyway.”
Tila scanned the room by flashlight while the cubes slowly came to life.
Malachi pulled two more flashlights from his pocket. He gave one to Ellie and clicked on the other.
“Do you carry spares of everything?” said Tila.
“You can’t be too prepared,” he replied as he ducked underneath a console to inspect it.
“It’s a bit small for a cargo ship,” said Ellie, calculating the ship’s volume from what she could see.
“It was a hauler, not a transport,” said Malachi. His voice came back muffled beneath the console. “This is just the rear cabin. A hauler is basically a tug which pulls a shipping spine full of cargo pods. They stick thrusters on the other end to make it go. That hatch we came through would connect to a habitation module for longer journeys.”
Ellie smiled to herself in the dark. It amused her that Malachi was always ready to teach. “I love that you know everything,” she said.
“Some things,” said Malachi.
Tila leaned over a console and wiped the sticky dirt from the display with her fingertips. The cabin wall above the desk crumpled inward, as if the hauler had been forced into a hole that was too small.
“He doesn’t know everything,” she said. “Ask him how to cook.”
“Hey!” Malachi protested. “I can cook.”
“You can’t,” said Tila, without looking up.
“She’s right though,” said Ellie. “You cooked for me once.”
“Just once?” said Malachi. He tried to remember when that happened.
“Mmm hmm. I never let you do it again.”
Tila smiled into her shoulder and pressed switches at random. Maybe there was still some life in the batteries. They were real switches, not smooth glass touch panels. Nothing worked. She straightened up. “So, all we have is a cockpit?” she asked.
“This is just the rear cabin. The main cockpit is through there,” Malachi replied, and pointed at a door Tila had assumed was a closet.
Ellie touched a finger to the door control mounted in the frame. “There’s no power.”
“Can we force it open?” said Tila.
“Try the manual release,” suggested Malachi, pointing to a spot over her head.
Tila reached up and unclipped a panel covered with faded instructions. Inside was a red handle. She yanked it sharply and something clunked inside the recessed mechanism. The cabin door opened an inch.
She tugged at the lip of the door with her fingertips but could barely move it any further.
“Can you help me?” she asked Malachi.
Malachi edged his way past Ellie, squeezed one hand into the gap, took hold of a grab handle with his other hand and pulled hard. The door shot open with a loud crack. More dust billowed up from door frame which made them cough.
The cabin was a standard commercial design. It was practical, efficient, and entirely lacking in imagination.
Two chairs, once white and new but now covered in the same fine dark powder as everything else, sat before a cracked command console which filled the width of the cabin. The three-paned view-port had smashed open when the ship had been wedged into its final home.
The impact had crushed and twisted the nose of the hauler. Evidently, an air-tight seal still existed somewhere or the cabin would have de-pressurised and they would all be breathing vacuum by now. Even deep inside the city people had to be alert to leaks.
What remained was damp and surprisingly cold, most likely the result of an old coolant leak nearby.
The madescent air chilled them through their clothes and made dusty surfaces become grime to the touch.
The moist atmosphere had corroded any wiring exposed by the impact. Broken electronics hung from the underside of the console. A myriad of electronic and mechanical crumbs littered the dirty floor.
Malachi dropped into the pilot seat and blew hard at the dirt covering the controls. Only a few particles danced free from the damp film which trapped them on the glass and metal surfaces.
Tila surveyed the scene with doubt. “Nina was right, someone did get here before us after all.”
“They can’t have,” said Malachi. “The hatch was sealed. We must be first.”
“So why is it such a wreck?” asked Ellie as she poked her head into the room. Her breath misted faintly in the chill air.
“I don’t know, but not all of this damage was accidental.” He waved a hand over the console. “Maybe the screens, but not this.”
Tila slumped into the co-pilot seat. She didn’t know what she had expected to find here. Part of her fantasised about opening the door and finding all the answers she wanted neatly wrapped up and awaiting her arrival, but life was rarely so accommodating. Even so, she had hoped for more than a battered old cabin that had been squeezed into the pock-ravaged skin of the Juggernaut.
It’s not like anyone could even have piloted the ship in here, she thought. The ship had simply been forced into a hole to be forgotten.
Ellie and Malachi were by this time deep in the underside of the main flight console. Tila could tell what they were doing from the noises. She heard Malachi pushing through a mass of dangling wires, then call for Ellie’s flashlight. They swapped places. Malachi passed Ellie a tool and directed her smaller hands in some task his own hands were too big for.
She heard wires being snipped. Then a component of some kind, unrecognisable to Tila, appeared on the floor next to her.
“Keep this,” said Malachi.
She picked it up and placed it on the empty seat beside her. She heard another snip, then a tearing sound as Malachi or Ellie ripped something free from the console. This appeared on the floor too.
“Junk,” said Malachi.
Tila placed this on the chair, too. Over the next few minutes more things appeared. Malachi said “keep it”, or “junk it”, and Tila placed it in the correct pile. Malachi was obviously taking care with the items he wanted to keep. That pile of components had been neatly trimmed away from their housings. The items he didn’t want had simply been ripped out to make room.
Tila stared blankly at the heap of discarded electronics. Frayed wires sprouted from each item like a rooting seed. Like her, they were useless now. Malachi and Ellie were doing the work. She just had to sit here and wait. She half-smiled to herself. Hopefully I have more to offer than a frayed wire, she thought.
She dragged a fingertip over the filthy console without realising she was tracing out letters.
“How did this place get so dirty, anyway? It hasn’t been here long, and it doesn’t look that old,” she asked.
Malachi’s hand appeared from underneath the console and his fingers wiped through the dirt. The hand vanished again. Malachi sniffed the dirt and rubbed the residue between finger and thumb. “It looks mineral to me. Maybe this was hauling rocks or soil? It gets everywhere if the crew are sloppy. All these surfaces should be sealed during normal operations.” He threw an old rag at her leg. “Here, use this, and see what else you can find in there.”
Tila wiped the worst of the dirt from her fingers as Malachi returned to his work. In truth, there wasn’t much to see. The row of small lockers at the back were empty. Any items in there had been removed long ago.
The first-aid kit was gone, which was a shame. Medical supplies of any kind were always in demand. Even the fire extinguishers had been removed from their bright orange plinths. The high visibility signs above them pointed to nothing.
Tila used the rag to wipe the console clean for something to do, grateful that some things were as simple as they appeared. The dirt gave way to reveal the perfectly smooth glass surface beneath. Almost perfectly smooth. Her actions revealed a shallow, oval indentation at the top of the console. At each side was an empty screw hole. They even took the name badge.
“Ow!” Malachi’s exclamation jolted Tila from her thoughts.
Ellie pulled her head out of the console desk. “You okay?” she asked.
“It’s nothing, just a sharp edge.”
“Let me look,” said Tila.
Malachi rolled his eyes at her concern. “It’s nothing. Really. Look, see? Just a little cut.” He presented his wound with a flourish.
He was right, it was just a minor cut. Mollified, Tila sat back in her chair. Just a little cut. The thought gnawed at her brain. She mentally shook her head to clear her mind.
“What are you going to do with those?” She pointed at the pile of broken electronics with her toe.
“That’s what I asked him,” said Ellie. She stood and stretched to work out the kinks that had developed in the cramped workspace.
“No, you asked what was I going to do with all this junk,” accused Malachi.
The familiar sound of good-natured banter between her friends relaxed Tila. “So, what is it for?” she repeated.
“Some are spares, some are just for fun,” said Malachi.
“Isn’t this too old to be useful?”
“Some of this tech is less than fifteen years old. We’re getting by with parts much older than this. We couldn’t buy this tech in the city. It’s not like anyone cuts their prices for us.”
Tila frowned. That word again. It wanted attention. “Be honest with me, Mal, do you think this ship came from the colony mission?”