In the cold darkness of after-hours KEL Port, something isn’t right. Hooligans search for off-worlders to torment. A supervisor tries to hide the evidence of his misdeeds. And down at the loading docks, something strange and dark has found its way into the habitat.

A Shadow of a Presence follows Bradley Radco, a not-so-ordinary cargo handler,  and shows a less Baron Cargo-centric (and less human-centric) side of KEL Port. It is the third installment of the Shadow sub-series, following A Shadow Among Shadows and A Shadow of a Rumor.

In his dimly lit booth at the back of Mog’s cantina, Radco fidgeted in his seat. The obtrusive thoughts were back, and stranger than ever. He blinked. Black liquid pooled on a gangway floor, slowly expanding. Ripples marred its surface.

He blinked again and the tunnel-like gangway was gone. He was still seated in his booth in the cantina, hands gripping the table on either side of his empty meal tray. Glass shattered as two patrons at the bar started a noisily unproductive wrestling match. Shouts rose as their compatriots cheered them on.

He really should head back to his living unit. It was late, and the cantina crowd would only get rowdier and more dangerous as the night wore on. Yet something seemed to hold him fixed in his seat– something dark and dreadful and unfinished. It whispered to him with a voice like the scales of some great serpent sliding between the insulated walls of the flier port. 

It’s just the heating system, Radco told himself. KEL Port seemed colder than usual tonight, and even the usually-warm cantina felt drafty. Perhaps the distant rushing sound was heat transfer fluid pushing additional warmth through the walls of the aging habitat.

Between blinks he saw the dark liquid again; it had found the joints of the gangway. Seeping into the structure, it oozed toward the loading dock. As the dock and its adjoining warehouse were more elevated than the supply pod parking structure, the liquid had to flow uphill. Liquids weren’t supposed to do that in an environment under the affect of gravity.

Radco lifted his hands off the table, mildly surprised by the twin circles of dampness left by his palms. Over by the bar, the Mog and his bouncers were separating the combatants and ejecting everyone involved. The maddening whispering continued, just a few decibels too low to make out the words.

***

KEL Port, never a beacon of warmth and cheer even in the best times, felt colder and darker this night cycle. Planetary midnight had come and gone, bringing with it a sepulchral hush. Frozen moisture traced crazy patterns on the corroded walls as Radco descended into the lower levels of the habitat and headed back to his living space.

Darkness pooled in the gaps between functional illuminators. Muggings weren’t uncommon on these levels, especially during the low traffic hours of the night cycle. It was a good place to be vigilant.

Radco blinked and the corridor became a darkened gangway. In the dimness between lights there was a puddle of inky liquid, rippling gently as if recently disturbed. The whispers became his name, and not the one on his Federation documents.

“Who’s there?” Radco tried to say, but his human physiology mangled the words into an unintelligible croak. He could no longer speak the language of his childhood– but why would he need to? Everyone who had ever spoken that name to him was long since dead.

The sound of rowdy human voices snapped him out of the hallucination, and Radco shrank into the shadows as the voices grew closer.

“It’s the freaks,” the speaker was saying. “They’re still letting anything and everything down from orbit.”

“Port Security is an absolute joke. If we have cases crop up here –and mark my words, we will–  that’s gonna be why.”

“Filthy non-human disease spreaders, all of ‘em,” a third male said as the group approached Radco’s hiding place. 

He shrank deeper into the shadows as they passed, but none of them seemed particularly wary of their surroundings. There were six: all sullen, angry-looking human males. They smelled of liquor, aggression, blood, and vomit.

Radco eased out of the nook in their wake and ghosted after them, sticking to the corridor’s copious shadows.

“I spent six hours clearing the security checkpoint when I came down,” one of the workers complained. “Had to undergo a full physical, submit to a background check– the whole five-hundred-light-years. It was ridiculous. But what was most sickening was watching freaking fish and birds breeze right through the checkpoint because they were on some list!”

The anecdote was met with dark muttering from the other males.

“Hey, what do we have here?!” one of the group’s leaders announced. “There’s a freak hiding in the corner!”

“Oy, get out of the shadows! What are you, some kind of lurker?”

Two of the humans stepped into a nook formed by a pair structural supports.

“You’re an ugly one, aren’t you? Why don’t you come out into the light so we can see you better, sweetheart?”

There was a hiss of outrage, and then one of the males yelped in pain.

“She farking bit me! Sweet stars above, it burns!!”

Shouting in rage and indignation, the humans piled onto their hapless victim.

Radco quickened his pace. The situation was not optimal; there were six of them and one of him, and they’d already proven they were functioning as predatory unit. He would just have to convince them he was not easy prey.

“What is going on here?” Radco demanded. Each word was hard and precisely enunciated– an attack. He drew himself up to his full height and fixed a thunderous scowl to his face as the humans redirected their attention to him.

“Who the fark are you?!”

“What is the meaning of this?” he snapped. “Explain yourselves!”

“What are you, Port Security? What’s it to you?”

“He ain’t even. Look at his clothes.” The speaker gestured to Radco’s well-worn cargo handler’s coveralls and scuffed boots.

“Call me a concerned citizen,” Radco retorted.

“Do yourself a favor and mind your own farking business!”

“Your business is my business now.”

The humans were too drunk to take the hint, and now the largest of their number stepped into Radco’s personal space.

“What are you gonna do, make us stop?” the human snarled.

This was where it got really hairy. Humans had this precise dance of threat vs counter-threat, and one tiny misstep would set them all on him like a pack of rabid gnargels. He couldn’t flinch, couldn’t break eye contact, couldn’t even blink. Moving was out of the question, unless it was in response to an attack– and then he would need to meet that attack with a decisive display of equal or greater force.

Radco refused to give ground as the human closed with him, meeting the male’s glare with one of his own. At the same time, he subtly adjusted his stature to appear more imposing. Humans respected size more than almost anything in a fight. Most of the time he tried to appear exceptionally average, but he might be able to tip the encounter in his favor if the humans got the impression that he was more physically intimidating than they’d thought.

“What, all out of words now?” the leader hissed. The male’s breath was practically flammable.

Radco curled his fingers over the hilt of the shiv hidden in his left sleeve. The attack would come any second now, but humans were soft and squishy, and they would vastly underestimate his strength and speed. They always did.

On the flip side, he really did not want to stab anyone. It was messy, and there would be many questions. Questioning by Port Security– or indeed any form of law enforcement– was not a process he had any desire to repeat.

All of that and more flashed through his mind as he stared down the group’s leader. The pack of humans stank of blood and adrenaline, but there was also the sour tang of fear oozing from more than one of them. And all of that was buried under the stench of the gallons of cheap liquor they’d consumed.

Feet shuffled. Somewhere in the distance, a door clanged shut. The one that’d been injured kept up a pathetic whimpering that grated on his nerves.

“Vanet, buddy, Jeno needs a help,” one of the companions said quietly.

“My skin’s turning black here, man! It burns so farking bad!”

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Yeah, this creepy freak ain’t worth it.” The speaker shot Radco a venomous glare.

“I had better not see you again,” the leader snarled, turning away.

And just like that, it was over. The corridor echoed with muttering and footsteps as the pack of humans hurried off.

Radco let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and slowly folded in on himself until his uniform no longer felt uncomfortably tight in the chest and shoulders. Thank the Star Mother–  and the ship’s officer he’d copied the intimidation routine from–  that it had actually worked.

“Are you alright?” he asked, peering into the darkness where the humans’ victim still hid. “Are you injured?”

“No injured. Only hungry.”

There was rustling, and a bundle of dirty clothing uncurled into a person. Wide eyes, all pupil, reflected the glow of the nearest light fixture. Pale lips framed sharp, blood-stained teeth.

“Eskie? Where is your partner and offspring?”

“Partner guards little one while I find food.”

“You’re out of money again?”

“Purchased housing. Then Port Po-Po made me buy clean cards, and…” She spread her hands, denoting destitution.

“Clean cards?”

There was a patting of pockets, and Eskie produced a small composite card embossed with the Federation logo. An immigrant’s medical visa, denoting a clean bill of health and full immunization record for the holder.

“Put that away before someone sees it,” Radco said quickly, although there were few passers-by this time of night. “Those are worth a lot of money. People will want to steal it.”

“You asked,” Eskie said reproachfully, tucking the card away.

“I didn’t know what you meant by clean card.”

“It means we’re clean. The other name for it is too long and makes no sense.”

“I understand.” He really did. Federation Standard was a convoluted mess of a language with tens of thousands of similar but not-quite-the-same words, not to mention acronyms, local slang, and bureaucratic jargon. It often varied subtly but significantly from system to system, and even from planet to planet in-system.

You had to learn all those words and their multiple meanings for each place you visited. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you also had to put them together just right or people looked at you strangely, as if you’d forgotten to put on your skin when you left your living space.

“Here.” Radco held out the sandwich he’d been saving for breakfast. The Mog’s sandwiches were excellent and he’d definitely miss that in the morning, but– “You need this more than I do,” he added, pressing it into the new arrival’s hands.

“Thank you.” An awkward half-bow that mimicked the style on some worlds that hadn’t move forward much in the last few centuries. “Very kind! Very, very kind!” And then she was hurrying away.

In the ensuing silence, the whispering resumed as if had always been there. Somewhere down near the loading dock, dark liquid continued to creep uphill.

***

Radco was most of the way back to his living space when a short, portly human ran into him. The male had been glancing over his shoulder as he turned the corner, not looking where he was going, and the collision sent the human sprawling.

“So sorry,” Radco said, offering the stunned human his hand. “Didn’t see you. My apologies.”

As the human brushed off his help, spluttering indignantly, Radco recognized him. Oddly enough, it was not the man’s face, but his tone. Voices stuck in his mind far more readily than faces, and he’d heard enough of Kelly’s screaming that the sound of the human’s voice was permanently seared into his brain.

“Respected Supervisor, I didn’t expect to see you down here. Is everything alright?”

“Everything is fine, no thanks to you!” Kelly glanced over his shoulder, and the human’s tone became one of nervous distraction. “Everything’s fine, just fine. Nothing’s wrong.”

As the Supervisor hurried away, Radco glanced down the side corridor he’d come out of. It was one of those dead ends that people used as a trash dump. Most of its living units had been condemned and stripped, and there was no one left to complain about the smell. Now there was a gently used Baron Cargo box sitting amidst the usual detritus.

The box was small enough for one human to carry, but strangely heavy. It was also sealed shut in a way that invited investigation. No one applied that much sealant unless there was something good inside. Radco scooped up the box and took it back to his living space.

After considerable scraping and prying, the lid finally came off. The box was full to the brim with old analogue notebooks and personal effects. On top of those, seemingly hastily jammed into place before the lid was sealed, were identity documents for one Diamond Desmun. She was a Transportation Worker, Class: Commercial. Specialization: Hazardous Materials Handling. There was also a visa granting the former spacer permission to descend form orbit for surface work on KEL26.

There was a Diamond that worked for Baron Cargo, and her specialty was hazardous materials. Had something happened to her? Why had the remains of her life been boxed up and dumped in the depths of KEL Port?

Radco chewed his lip in distress. This was not good. Diamond was a highly intimidating human, and he definitely didn’t want to have to explain to her why he had her things. At the same time, if something had happened to her someone needed to know about it– especially if Supervisor Kelly was involved.

In the late night silence, the habitat seemed to come alive with sibilant whispers. They were a few decibels too low for the words to be audible, but one word was repeated more often and more loudly than the others: Teller.

Radco pressed the lid back into place. If anyone would know what to do with the box, it’d be Teller. He’d turn his find over to the Loadmaster first thing in the morning.

A Shadow of a Presence © 2021 Leland Lydecker

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