2947-05-21 - Tales from the Inbox: Revenge of the Recycler

Today’s entry of Tales from the Inbox is quite delayed. The reason for that will be explained in a later text feed item once an information embargo has been lifted. 

Obviously most of you will be aware that we have confirmed datastream proof of a Sagittarian cruiser being picked up on the outskirts of a system on the near side of the Gap. For the moment, this incursion has not resulted in any violent confrontations, but Cosmic Background – like every other news operation which operates on the Frontier – is following the situation closely.  

The Fifth Fleet’s lead battle elements arrived in Håkøya this week, and some of you will have seen the impressive assembly of warships now sharing orbit space with Argyris spaceport in footage shown in our week’s vidcast episodes. Since the only significant military presence in this system since its colonization was the lighter ships of the Arrowhawk squadron, the Håkøya system has never seen anything quite like this. 

What we’re seeing here isn’t even the main Fifth Fleet. The battle line itself has taken up station at Maribel due to that system’s better-developed interstellar infrastructure; most of what has come here has been the fleet’s “outer line” ships, mostly cruisers and fleet destroyers, along with the escort ships and logistics ships which service them. Even without the heavy battlewagons, Håkøyan space is now better armed than any system in Confederated Space other than Sol, Centauri, and the Strand border-posts. 

Today’s entry was relayed to me by Ulrik Kulkarnisenior officer aboard the destroyer Rheanna Zhu, arrived as part of this force. I cannot verify it, but it is similar to other stories I have heard from far less reputable sources; I have every expectation that it is true, or at least mostly true.  

Ulrik studied the numbers rendered on the ensign’s data-slate for several seconds, concentrating very hard on not letting his reaction show in his face. “Thank you, Mr. Itamar. He handed back the slate, then waved the junior officer away. “I’ll look into it.” 

Ensign Itamar scurried off without remembering to salute, but Ulrik had never been one to stand on formality among officers, and his thoughts had already moved on to what he should do about the information. Itamar’s numbers didn’t lie; Rheanna Zhu was, despite being a ship manned by twelve officers and twenty enlisted crew, exerting its atmospherics as if it had almost fifty people aboard.  

A quick dive into the maintenance logs of the atmospherics revealed no irregularities; just before the ship had left Centauri to join the fleet’s move out to the Frontier, most of the life support machinery had been replaced. Problems that could result in nearly fifty percent over-exertion of atmospherics would not have made it past port inspection teams, much less Zhu’s veteran maintenance personnel. No pressure loss events, even minor ones, had registered in Itamar’s analysis, so there was only one thing Ulrik could conclude. 

“Skipper, are you in your office?” Ulrik called out, knowing his earpiece comm would carry his words to the correct recipient. 

“Negative, Mr. Kulkarni.” The commander’s heavy breathing told Ulrik where she was before the explanation came. “If it’s urgent, I’m in fitness.” 

“Be right there.” Ulrik hurried past the lift to use one of the ladder-shafts, which brought him down to the correct deck as fast as was practical. Entering the fitness center, he spotted Commander Gajos straining against the elastic resistance of one of the multifunction aerobics harnesses. Other than her, the compartment was empty. 

“Something urgent, Lieutenant?” Gajos picked up on Ulrik’s haste and got out of the machine, mopping her face with a towel. 

“I think we have...” Ulrik lowered his voice. “Stowaways, Skipper. Ten, or even fifteen.” 

Gajos looked around to see what Ulrik already had; there was no-one to overhear. “How is that even possible?” She kept her voice as low as his, and to his relief appeared to be taking the claim seriously.” 

“The atmospherics are running at one hundred fifty percent, with no maintenance problems to explain the power draw. They’re designed to handle quite a few guests in an emergency of course, but...” He didn’t need to finish the sentence; ten to fifteen stowaways, properly armed and coordinated, could overpower the thirty-two officers and crew relatively easily. 

“Keep this quiet. Who else knows?” 


“Ensign Itamar, report to my duty office immediately.” Commander Gajos barked, knowing her own comm unit would whisk the order to the young officer immediately. “Lieutenant, get me a map of the places we could have that many stowaways without noticing. I’ll be in my office. Do it personally.” 

“Aye, Skipper.” 

Gajos was already in motion, striding past Ulrik toward the corridor. He followed after a few seconds, snatching a data-slate out of a dispenser chute near the lift and calling up the ship’s schematics on his way back to the ladder shaft. The pressure hull of a destroyer was not known for containing a large number of hiding-places; assuming none of the official crew were involved in the stowaways’ designs, it would not take long to fulfill the skipper’s request. Crew cabins and the engine room were easily excluded, as were the command deck, lounge, fitness center, sanitary compartments, and other high-traffic areas.  

Turning these areas green on the schematic, Ulrik had only the cargo areas, low traffic maintenance crawlspaces, and a few other areas left to search. There were so few, in fact, that he knew he could peek his head into most of them before Commander Gajos had finished swearing the young ensign to secrecy. Dropping down to the bottom-most deck in the pressure hull, he quickly walked through the twin pressurized cargo compartments, then peeked into the auxiliary life support spaces to verify that the cold, silent machinery contained there had not sheltered any stowaways.  

Searching on his own, without even a side-arm in case of trouble, was a risk, but Ulrik knew that he was checking the lowest-probability areas. If he did happen on any hostile stowaways, he could raise the alarm with his comm earpiece. 

One by one, Ulrik excluded some of the larger areas on his schematic, narrowing down the search area. Once he was down to four of the most likely locations for a number of stowaways to hide, he headed up toward the skipper’s duty office to report 

On the way up, however, he paused at a closed hatch leading off the ladder shaft. According to the schematic, the space on the other side of the sealed doorway was a maintenance space for the primary bio-recycling system, where the ship’s organic waste was dehydrated and then fed to specially gene-edited bacteria. The space needed air pressure and oxygen, but the foul smell of the sewage digestion process ensured that it was sealed off behind airlocks, with its atmospheric ductwork isolated from the main network. The compartment was large enough to house a dozen stowaways, to be sure – but Ulrik chuckled at the idea that anyone would subject themselves to its noxious conditions voluntarily. 

Entering an access override into the bio-recycling compartment airlock, Ulrik took several deep breaths and hopped inside, taking several deep breaths as the outer door sealed. The pressure inside was the same, of course, and the foul smell was not dangerous, but there was a good reason why cleaning this particular compartment was the worst punishment the skipper could mete out. 

The inner hatch clicked and hissed as its seal broke, and Ulrik held his breath. He planned only to look, then close the door and head up to see the skipper and Itamar. If there was anything out of place, a single glance would be enough to spot it. 

The hatch whined in distress, opening far slower than usual, and Ulrik stepped up to look for the source of the mechanical problem. Just as he did, the hatch shuddered and shot into its recess too quickly, as if relieved of a great weight – and perhaps it was. The lieutenant had only a fraction of a second to wonder why the inside of the compartment was dark before the darkness extruded itself into the small airlock with a noxious sucking noise, and a wet, sticky wall of black goo pressed him gently but firmly back against the outer lock. Even though he was holding his breath, the odor of the stuff – to say nothing of the stuff itself – invaded Ulrik’s nostrils. 

Gagging and trying to get a hand over his mouth to prevent the spongy ooze from getting inside while he spoke, Ulrik eventually managed to rasp out an override code for the lock, in the hopes that his comm would pick it up. 

After several desperate seconds, Ulrik felt the lock bump and hiss behind his back, and it slid with familiar reluctance to one side. Pushed slowly by the wall of sludge into the ladder shaft, he grabbed for the rungs and clawed his way upwards, ignoring the heavy plopping as gibbets of ooze fell several decks to the bottom of the shaft. 

The hands of a surprised and then horrified crew tech helped Ulrik onto the floor of the next deck above, but the crew tech barely stayed to ensure the unrecognizably soiled officer was alive before dashing off to clean his own hands and arms. Coughing and gasping for air, Ulrik lay on the formerly pristine deck for nearly a minute. 

“Skipper.” He eventually remembered to croak, for the benefit of his comm unit. “I think I found our problem.” 

This sort of malfunction with the new type of bio-recycling systems used by the Navy may be uncommon, but I don’t think we can deny that it takes place. The bacterial colony used to break down waste needs to be kept to a certain population, but if the system intended for regulating its growth malfunctions, it often expands well outside the bounds which it is meant to occupy. The result is an entire compartment filled with sewage-fed bacterial mat, which is just spongy and porous enough not to block inflow and outflow of air. 

Ulrik is lucky; in other variants of this sort of story that I’ve heard, crewmen entering the compartment unawares have been badly injured or killed by this phenomenon.