I wrote a short Halloween story for my Patreon group and, now that they've had first dibs, I'm sharing it here :) It's a lighthearted science fiction story with the beginnings of a sweet romance, a reprogrammed helper bot, and a giant spider. Enjoy!
It was Halloween, and Franklin Russel was in space. Specifically he was in the next-generation space station Journey, floating almost a thousand miles above the surface of Earth, part of a crew that was the living proof of concept of an international space station that had permanent artificial gravity. Commander Russel was, in fact, the chief engineer for the station, edging out that bastard Kavanaugh back on Earth for the position. There was nothing about that that wasn’t cool.
Being in space on Halloween and while stuck in a conduit a quarter of a mile into the station’s guts because of course tonight was the night one of the major electrical couplings that controlled the station’s lights decided to crap out, now that wasn’t so cool. Especially not when Franklin was still wearing his Halloween costume, which was decidedly bulky and but at least thick enough to keep him warm this far away from the living areas of the ship.
“Fuck,” Franklin muttered, catching a tuft of fur on a screw. What the hell was a screw doing sticking out of the middle of the conduit wall? These panels were all supposed to be held together magnetically. And here was a fucking screw? One of his staff was being sloppy with their repairs, and he was damn well going to figure out who and ream them over it.
Halloween was one of the few holidays that the crew of the Journey was allowed to celebrate, given its current non-religious incarnation. A celebration meant everyone on board getting dressed up for a party that would be broadcast back to Earth, because like it or not they were all celebrities who had to perform like dancing monkeys for their audience—and their funders.
Franklin hadn’t come prepared. He felt like the only one of the crew who hadn’t come prepared for costume parties, and New Year’s parties, and all the other parties they somehow managed to throw despite the fact that they were so far from Earth they could barely see it out the biggest window the station had.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a spare you can borrow,” Captain Jessica Andover had assured him three years ago, back when this mission first started. The spare ended up being a hot pink gorilla suit with a snarling blue mask. It was the very definition of hideous…but at least behind it, no one could see Franklin roll his eyes.
Don’t be such a party pooper, Jessica had told him half a dozen times. The crew needs outlets like these, and you’re senior staff. They want to see you having fun!
“I’ll have fun when I don’t have to clean vomit out of another work station,” Franklin muttered to himself, peering in at the panel in front of him. He’d have to test the couplings one at a time…delightful. “Jimmy, pass me a scanner.”
“Yes, sir.” The squat, solid helper bot ejected a scanning tool from its gut compartment and extended it to Franklin, who took it with a nod before turning back to the job in front of him with a sigh.
The steady, rhythmic repair work was something he usually found calming. Tonight, though, Franklin would have preferred to get out of the conduit as soon as possible. Therein lay the second problem he was confronting tonight—the fact that for the first time in three years, he would have appreciated staying at the damn party. The new arrivals had shown up five months ago now, bringing a huge load of supplies as well as new experiments to be housed, powered, and run by the incoming scientists. One of those scientists was Lawrence Chieng, an MD/PhD from Malaysia who also happened to be…to be very…
Speak of the devil. “Doctor Chieng, go ahead,” Franklin said after activating his communicator by gently knocking his ear against the wall—he’d broken two of them so far, but when he was in the middle of delicate work it was the easiest way to get the thing to turn on.
“I don’t suppose you’ve managed to locate Daphne yet, have you?”
Aaand there was problem number three, by far the worst one as far as Franklin was concerned. “Not yet.”
“And you haven’t seen any signs at all?”
“The lights are out, Doctor Chieng,” Franklin said in a tone far kinder than he would have used on almost anybody else on the whole ship. “I can’t see much that my bot’s lamp isn’t already illuminating. But no, I didn’t notice any of the things you said to look for. Once I get the lights back on, the search will be easier.”
“I hope so.” It was hard to tell, because Lawrence tended to sound even-tempered, even genial, ninety-five percent of the time, but right now Franklin was detecting more than a bit of dejection in the poor guy’s voice. “Doctor LaSalle still hasn’t come out of the bathroom. I don’t think she’s crying anymore, at least.”
Doctor LaSalle should have been given a more stringent battery of personality tests before being sent to Journey. But no, that was unkind. The poor kid had made a mistake, that was all…a mistake that meant that one of the animals they were using for a variety of experiments here on the station was now loose. The fact that the animal was a Goliath birdeater spider whose legs spanned a foot and whose body was bigger than Franklin’s fist was just the icing on the cupcake.
“Spiders don’t need to eat all that often, do they?” Franklin asked, eager to sustain the conversation while he worked alone in the darkness with only the faint orange emergency lights and Jimmy for company. “So it won’t starve.”
“No, she should be fine on that front for another week. These surroundings are rather inhospitable for this species, though. They’re burrowers, and tropical, and tend to be aggressive. I worry that one of the crew will happen upon her and be…unwise with their use of force.”
I worry that our expensive giant spider will be squashed by some startled arachnophobe. “I’ll set up sensors tomorrow to help us track her down,” Franklin promised. It was a bit of a rash thing to guarantee, but he was gratified by the relief in Lawrence’s voice.
“That would be fantastic, thank you so much, Commander Russel.”
“Call me Franklin.”
There was a significant silence, and Franklin decided to interrupt it before it ventured into awkward territory. “We’re off duty, after all, and tonight is supposed to be relaxing. Not that it has been for me, but…”
Ugh, fail on the awkward front. Thank god the scientist interrupted him before he could make it worse. “Then call me Lawrence, please.”
“Sure.” Franklin was torn between being grateful and embarrassed that Lawrence was playing along.
“I hope you finish up the lights soon,” the other man said, taking over the conversation with the ease of someone who was adept at small talk in a way Franklin had never mastered. “It would be a shame if you didn’t get to enjoy the party yourself.”
“Eh, I’m not really much of a party person.” He turned his head toward Jimmy. “Spotlight straight up sixty degrees.”
“Yes, sir.” Jimmy dutifully moved his spotlight higher up the wall, and Franklin kept testing couplings. Up, down, note the readings…up, down, check again…honestly, he ought to be able to program Jimmy to do this kind of thing; the bot was advanced enough.
“As long as you’re not a teetotaler, I think there’s something at this party for everyone,” Lawrence said, sounding more than a little amused. “There’s vodka in the luminescent jello shots, the punch has been ‘elevated’ with rotgut…even the apples people are bobbing for have been injected with apple liquor.”
“Apple liquor? Someone’s been holding out on us,” Franklin said, still testing the couplings. Up, down, take a reading…up, down, take a…wait, why did the reading look so pink? Or was that…red?
It took a moment for him to realize that the color wasn’t in the panel, it was coming from Jimmy.
He turned around and stared at the bot. Sure enough, its little spotlight had gone from white to blood red, and was beginning to strobe. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“What is it?” Lawrence asked quickly. “Is it Daphne?”
“No, it’s a dumbass prank that’s going to make my life a lot more difficult.” Franklin resisted the urge to just keep swearing. “Is Lieutenant Hawkins there?”
“Um, would that be the one dressed as the pirate?”
“That’s the one. Do you mind putting them on your com?” Because Franklin was willing to bet that his number two engineer wasn’t carrying their own com tonight—not when they’d been promised the night off for an evening of drunken revelry.
“Of course not. One moment.” Lawrence stopped speaking, leaving Franklin with nothing to focus on except the freaky strobing red light that had turned Jimmy from his faithful helper bot into something you’d find in an old-school haunted house.
“Hey! Boss!” Riley Hawkins shouted into the com, sounding merry as ever. More disgustingly merry than ever, now that they were drunk as well as highly extroverted and well-socialized. “Boss, omigod, I’m sorry, did you take Jimmy-bot with you tonight?”
“Yeah.” The other bots were Bendy and Twisty, respectively. “What the hell did you do to it?”
“I, um, I maybe programmed it to run a really, actually it’s really a funny scenario, it’s from an old movie only I changed it up a little, I was going to have it startle people at the party—”
Oh, they didn’t. “Damn it, Riley, did you Hal my helper bot?”
“No!” Riley protested. “I Audrey’d it, what kind of uninspired trash do you take me for?”
Sure enough, a second later Jimmy began to make menacing snapping and hissing noises before bursting into song. “Feed me, Seymour,” it sang in a deep, wholly unexpected voice. The light turned green, then red again. “Feed me, Seymour!” The voice got deeper and deeper, and all of a sudden—zap!
“Jesus, ow, fuck!” Franklin jerked his hand back, away from the bot’s electric-blue spark. “What the fuck else did you program it to do?”
“Give people a little jolt! It’s totally harmless, like an old-fashioned low voltage taser. It won’t hurt anybody, it’s—”
“God fucking damn it, Riley.” Franklin shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m alone in a corridor with a bot that supposed to be helping me turn the lights back on, and instead you programmed it to give me a jolt every time it gets close enough to be useful. Do you understand the situation you’ve put me in?”
“Oh…shit. Um…yeah.” Riley, to their credit, was never malicious about these things. They just tended not to think before they acted on their “great” ideas, and usually they were around to shut them down before things got too out of hand.
Not this time, unfortunately.
“Um. I can come to you? I just need to—woops! Sorry, did I spill your drink?” Riley’s voice turned extra friendly. “Can I get you another one?”
“Don’t try to find me, you’re too drunk to find your own feet,” Franklin ordered. “Give the com back to Doctor Chieng.”
“Right! Right, look, I’m so sorry, and the program will only run for, like, five minutes before it switches back over to normal. You can wait it out or do a hard reboot, boss.”
A hard reboot would take ten minutes. Waiting it out wins, then. “You are going to be overseeing all station-wide routine maintenance for a month,” Franklin said.
“Aw, boss, come on! I just—oops, hey Lawrence! Yeah—what, oh right, yes! Hang on.”
A second later Lawrence was back on the com. “I take it something has gone wrong.”
“You take it right.” Franklin sighed and eyed his bot. As long as it didn’t suddenly activate its wheels, he was apparently out of range. “Riley decided to try to be funny.”
“A Halloween prank gone awry?”
“Something like that.” Aaand there the program went on auto—Jimmy was making the hissing, gnashing sound again. To Franklin’s great surprise, something hissed back. “What the…”
“Franklin? Is everything all right?”
“Hang on.” He took the com out of his ear and focused intently on the noise around him. There was the mess coming out of Jimmy, and the ever-present hum of the station, the closer, higher-pitched hum of the open electrical console beside him, and—
Franklin resisted the urge to pound his hand against the wall. “Lawrence, do goliath birdeater tarantulas make any sorts of noise?”
“Ah, well, they do make a bit of a tapping noise walking on hard surfaces. And when they feel threatened, they can create a stridulating sound that’s something like a hiss.”
“Stridulating sound. Great.” And now that he was tuned in to it, there was the tapping as well. The fucker was on the move. “Oh my god.” He had fallen into a horror movie on Halloween, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. Franklin made a slow circle, trying to narrow in on the source of the motherfucking stridulation while not antagonizing either the spider or his poor hijacked helper bot.
Franklin wouldn’t call himself arachnophobic, but he couldn’t think of anyone who wanted to come across a spider the side of their head in total darkness. Especially since he wasn’t allowed to smash the thing. “Uh…so I think I’ve found Daphne.” In a manner of speaking.
“You have? That’s fantastic!” Lawrence sounded really upbeat about it. God damn it all to hell, now Franklin really couldn’t smash the spider, not when it made the guy so happy. “I’m so pleased to hear it. I actually have a catch net with me—if you can guide me to you, I’ll retrieve her.”
“Um.” Slowly, Franklin reached to his left and began flipping couplings again. He only had a hundred or so more to go—one of them would turn the lights back on. Light would be really, really nice right now. “I don’t think I can do that.”
There was the tapping again. The hissing sounded closer now. Franklin flipped the coupling switches faster. So fucking what if he didn’t get a good reading on which one was fucking up and why right now, he’d come back tomorrow and measure them all again—or better yet, send Riley to do it. “I can only split my focus in so many directions, Lawrence, and right now—”
“Feed me, Seymour!” Apparently the spider got too close to the bot, because all of a sudden it was singing again, singing and brandishing its miniature lightning rod. “Feed me, Seymour!”
“Oh, fuck.” Would a zap from that thing be enough to kill Daphne? She was a big damn spider, but she was still just a spider.
At least there was some light now. Reddish-greenish horror show light, but enough light to see the spider standing there not two feet in front of Jimmy, hissing and doing something that Franklin couldn’t quite make out, but shit—his face was starting to itch. The smart thing to do would be to put his gorilla mask back on and wait out the chaos.
And lose his crush’s freaky fucking spider, which was getting closer and closer to Jimmy’s electric arc.
“Franklin? Is everything all right?”
“No,” Franklin said. “But what the hell.” Before he could have second thoughts, he grabbed the helmet up off the ground, knee-sprinted over to Daphne and got his rubber gorilla mask over the top of her just in time to keep the helper bot from zapping her.
His bare hand got zapped instead. Again.
“Jesus, ow, fuck!”
Five minutes later, the lights came back on. Cheers rang out across the station’s mess hall, which had been appropriated for the party. Five minutes after that, Doctor Lawrence Chieng was leading his tearful research assistant out of the bathroom when the door on the opposite side of the mess hall opened with a bang.
In walked a familiar man with short brown hair, wearing a bright pink gorilla suit and an unfortunate scowl on his handsome face—Commander Russel. He held a tightly-clamped mask in one hand and a powered-down bot in the other. All conversation stopped as people turned to stare at him. He honed in on one person in particular, his very jocular pirate lieutenant, marched over and shoved the bot into their arms.
“Fix it,” he ground out, then scanned the room until he focused in on Lawrence, whose heart literally skipped a beat. The commander stalked over, and even in the gorilla suit it was one of the most intimidating, transfixing things Lawrence had ever been the subject of. Only—
“You Doctor LaSalle?” Commander Russel snapped, ignoring Lawrence in favor of glaring at his assistant. Kimmy nodded, speechless.
“Your goddamn spider is in here.” He shoved the mask into her hands. “Do not lose her again, you hear me?”
“You found Daphne?” Kimmy went from dejected to rapturous in the space of half a second. “Really? Oh my god, thank you so—”
Commander Russel held up a hand. “Do not thank me,” he snapped. “I never want to be thanked for anything in conjunction to that thing, ever. Ever,” he added when she opened her mouth again. “I’m serious.” He paused for a second and looked at Lawrence, who found himself holding his breath. Was the commander about to…
But no. The commander sighed and looked down at the ground, then marched over to where the captain was watching the whole thing play out with a bemused expression on her face.
“Next time, you can wear the monkey suit.”
With that, he turned and headed for the hallway he’d just entered from, scraping one hand irritably across his face. Lawrence looked at Kimmy, who was staring into the mask and cooing at her enormous spider, and said, “Please put her back as soon as possible.”
“Of course, Doctor Chieng, I—Doctor Chieng?” But Lawrence was already striding away, practically pushing through the other partygoers as he worked to catch up with Commander Russel. By the time he got out into the hall, the man was already halfway down the corridor.
“Commander!” Lawrence called out. “Wait!” For a moment he wasn’t sure the other man was going to respond to him, but Commander Russel slowed, then stopped and turned.
It was said briskly, meant to dissuade further contact most likely, but there was a look of something deeper than loneliness in the commander’s face. Lawrence decided to go with his instincts.
“Are you all right, Franklin?” he said, still daring to use the man’s first name even though they no longer had the comfortable distance of a com to separate them.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked gruffly, but his face expression had already softened a bit.
“If Daphne was stridulating, then she was probably releasing urticating hairs as well,” Lawrence explained. “It’s another defense mechanism. If they lodge in the skin, they can be very irritating.”
“Daphne just gets better and better, doesn’t she?” Franklin asked dryly.
“She’s a remarkable creature,” Lawrence said, deliberately misunderstanding the sarcasm. “And so are you, for going to such great lengths to get her back. I have the feeling it wasn’t as simple as just catching her in your mask.”
“You have no idea,” Franklin muttered.
“No,” Lawrence agreed. “But I’d like to.” He stepped in a little closer. “Maybe we should go back to my quarters and check your skin for urticating hairs.”
Franklin’s eyes widened, then he began to laugh. Lawrence almost shied back before he realized there was nothing but genuine pleasure in Franklin’s voice. “Is that what kids are calling it these days?”
“Not for anything improper,” Lawrence said, blushing a bit. “Just…I really would like to make sure you’re all right, and I’d be pleased to get to know you better in more…private surroundings than the station’s Halloween party. I could make coffee.”
Franklin sighed, brushing one hand over his short hair. “That’s the best offer I’ve gotten all day,” he said. “If you don’t mind me hanging around in a gorilla costume.”
Lawrence smiled. “I think I’ve got something you can borrow.” He indicated the right split in the corridor. “This way.”
“Checking me for hairs, making me coffee, letting me borrow clothes…” Franklin joked as they headed down the hall side by side. “Did rescuing your spider really mean this much to you?”
“Daphne is important, of course,” Lawrence said, “but you’re much more so. Besides, it’s Halloween, and you’ve already had plenty of tricks played on you. I think you deserve a treat as well.”
Franklin laughed again. The sound sent a thrill down Lawrence’s spine. “Happy Halloween to me.”