A simplified version of a story I’ve been meaning to write for several years.
John pulled the photograph out of his pocket and looked at it again. As a government-contracted shape-shifter he had had a lot of odd assignments and had even killed a few people along the way; but this was his first contract kill. At least the target looked like a monster. That would make it somewhat easier. Knowing that the target was also planning to sabotage the time-warp engine on board the Historicity III research craft and destroy the entire universe made it easier too. But he still wasn’t really happy with the assignment.
John put the photo away and began worming his way down through the ductwork. As he poked his head out of the ceiling of the main hallway of the craft he was surprised to see his mark peering into a trash chute at the other end of the hall. An opportunity too good to miss. John pulled out his gun, took aim, and fired…
…right as the mark startled and turned to look up at him. It was a hit, but maybe not a clean hit. The body, living or not, tumbled into the trash chute. Now John’d have to go find it and make sure it was dead. He could do that by going down the trash chute himself, but that might dump him in space or in an incinerator or any number of other nasty things. The only sane plan was to find out where the chute led first. And that meant getting to a control terminal. The most likely place to find a terminal was in the flight deck.
John stashed his spacesuit and gun and dropped down into the hallway. He then made his way toward the nose of the craft and peeked into the flight deck. There was just one pilot inside, and he appeared to be using a data terminal instead of actively manning any controls, which was good for John’s purposes. John banged on the wall next to the flight deck door. As he had hoped, the pilot came out to investigate the noise. John hit him hard, knocking him out in a single blow, then stripped off his uniform and shoved him in a hall closet.
Dressed and shape-shifted to look like the pilot in case anyone came by, John entered the flight deck. The pilot had left the terminal logged in, so John pulled up the layout of the ship. This took longer than he had hoped it would, since some parts of the ship were classified, but he did find the trash chute in question eventually and found that it led down to a large trash bay in the lower levels. That was a little odd, but not too surprising. Research vessels often lacked basic features like proper trash disposal systems.
John was just making sure that all the chutes led to this single bay in case he had identified the wrong one when he heard banging coming from the hall closet. The pilot must not have been as thoroughly knocked out as he thought. John noted the entry to the trash bay, cleared his history, closed the search window, and went out to the closet to keep the pilot from making so much noise.
As he walked out of the flight deck door, John felt a heavy blow on the back of his head and knew no more.
When John awoke he found himself stripped of the pilot’s clothes and stuffed inside the same closet he had put the pilot into. That was odd; why stuff him inside a closet instead of in the brig? Unless there wasn’t a brig, this being a research vessel and all…
John managed to work his way out of the closet with minimal trouble; the lock was not designed for keeping prisoners and there was plenty of wire in the closet that could be repurposed to pick such a simple lock. He glanced into the flight deck but the pilot was nowhere to be seen. Fearing that that might mean the pilot had raised some kind of alarm, John quickly jogged down to the door that led to the trash bay access hatch. No need standing around waiting to be found.
The door was locked. Fortunately not a hard lock to pick, but it took a bit of time. Once inside, John locked the door behind him, grabbed a jumpsuit from the rack on the wall so he’d not be in the trash bay in his skivvies, and headed for the trash access hatch.
It was clear that people didn’t often come down here; the various trash chutes were all backed up with what looked (and smelled) like weeks of refuse. The body would probably be halfway up the chute on top of the backlogged trash. John steeled himself for the overpowering stench to come and then jumped into the trash hopper and began pulling refuse away from the openings, more trash pouring in as he did so.
The last of the backlog cleared in a huge torrent, knocking John onto his back. Rising with a muttered oath, John searched through the trash but found no body. His target must have survived and climbed out of the chute on the mountainous backlog of trash. John shook as much trash off of himself as he could and then climbed the ladder back up to the access room.
John was about to change into a clean set of coveralls when he heard someone fiddling with the door. He looked around for a hiding place, saw a ventilation grating, and wormed his way out of sight. He watched as a pair of legs walked into the room, climbed into a jumpsuit, and headed down the ladder to the trash bay.
It might not be long before whoever it was came back up; after all, John had just cleared out all the chutes and it was not clear what else someone would be doing down there. John hurriedly wormed out of his hiding place and stepped out into the hallway…
…where he came face to face with someone in guard uniform. Or more correctly, face to side; the guard was not looking at him at first. John ducked his head and started walking along, hoping not to be noticed.
“Dude, you stink!” said the guard. “Here, wash up in the guards’ shower so you don’t go trailing that smell all the way down the hall!”
John mumbled something in reply and moved into the room indicated. To his relief the guard didn’t follow him. He stripped, tossed the jumpsuit down a trash chute, showered, and donned a guard uniform which he took from one of the lockers. He then assumed the visage of the guard he had just seen and stepped out into the hall.
As he glanced around he saw a man walking out of the trash bay access room, still wearing a jumpsuit and fairly stained with trash juice. Time to sell the false identity he had taken.
“Dude,” he said, imitating the guard’s voice as closely as he could, “you stink!” The worker said nothing and seemed to be a bit shy, maybe even frightened. “Here,” John continued quoting, “wash up in the guards’ shower so you don’t go trailing that smell all the way down the hall!” The trash room worker mumbled thanks under his breath and shambled into the locker room John had just quitted.
As soon as he was alone, John started down the hall toward the trash chute where his target had fallen. He moved slowly, looking for any clues as to where a wounded man might have passed. He was most of the way down the hall without seeing any sign of a bleeding person’s passing when he heard a noise behind him. Glancing back he saw the same guard he was impersonating standing in the hallway outside the locker room. John quickly moved through the nearest door, hopefully before the guard noticed him.
To his surprises, this appeared to be the bedroom of his target. At least there were multiple photos with the target in them. The room was empty and, from the dry sink and tidy bed, had not been used recently. Wherever his target had gone, it wasn’t here.
Worried that the guard might be coming down the hall behind him, John changed into clothes he found in the wardrobe and assumed the visage of his target. He then returned to the hallway. There was no sign of the guard; the hallway was once again empty. John continued his walk toward the trash chute, still without seeing any signs of blood.
When he reached the chute and looked into it he found it was fairly backed up with trash. This was odd. There must be some jam that had kept the trash from falling when he had cleaned out the backlog at the bottom of the chute.
Scanning the trash, there was no sign of a body nor even any blood.
Then the trash began falling, a bit at a time, as if it was being scooped out from the bottom. He watched in surprise as, after a few settlings, the entire mass fell down in a rush. As the trash cascaded down, he heard a voice from down below cursing under its breath. A voice he knew. His own voice.
How could it be his own voice? Unless the time warp engine had been sabotaged and he was crossing his own time line. But if that was happening, and he was here in the form of his target looking into a trash chute…
John turned in fright and stared down the hall just in time to see a head hanging from an opening in the ceiling, with a gun, which was firing…
Pain overwhelmed John as the bullet ripped into his chest. Stumbling, he fell into the empty trash chute.