10. Congrego

010congrego

 

Desanto sat on a couch which was apparently his, a large knife resting on the cushion next to him. He’d been sitting there for some time, paralyzed by the indecision of fight or flight. After he’d taken a moment to calm down, collect his thoughts and consider his options, he’d managed to open the front door. But then something interesting happened: he didn’t leave. He should have run, should have flagged down help and brought back whatever they had in the way of an army on that ship, or at the very least a witness. He knew this, and yet he hadn’t done it. He hadn’t because he needed to know what he’d woken up to on that ship, what conspiracy if any it hid within its walls. But it was more than that.

He had to know if he was insane.

What had frightened him in that bathroom involved more than the self-mutilation- as if that wasn’t enough. It was that, the more he thought back on the man in his bathroom, the one who was tearing apart a face they may or may not have shared, the more he realized what he’d been ripping off himself, the chunks of muscles and flesh, weren’t entirely right. The ears were just a little too long. The shape of his nose wasn’t quite right, a bit too angular. Even the tongue in his mouth, as it lashed and moaned in a pool of blood, had been oddly forked at the tip. There was something very, very wrong with that man, even before he’d started pulling himself apart. Perhaps it was even the reason why he had.

Eventually, when his need to know the truth outweighed his fear of it, Desanto stood from the couch. He reclaimed the knife and held it out in front of him, slowly making his way back, returning to that place with the blade piercing the air before him like the fin of a shark trolling through shallow waters. There was no sound present but the pounding in his own chest, no smell but the hormonal cascade flooding his bloodstream with catecholamines, that sickly-sweetness of norepinephrine and epinephrine following him down the hall along with the mustiness of coursing testosterone and cortisol. He passed from the living room to the bedroom, and finally, to the bathroom.

But there was nothing. Not only was there no wretched man, there was no sign he’d ever been there. The sink was clean of gore and muck, the floor spotless and free of blood. Knife in hand he scoured the bathroom from top to bottom, looking for any evidence of what he’d seen, but he couldn’t find even a speck of blood.

There was no chance, none at all that what he’d seen could be cleaned and covered up so quickly and so silently. And that left only one possibility: the wretched man had never been there.

Suddenly realizing he hadn’t used a bathroom since he’d woken up, Desanto rushed to the toilet and emptied his bladder. When he was finished he looked around himself. The excess energy in the room, the tension, had dissipated, leaving behind a bland, unremarkable bathroom in its absence. It seemed almost silly to be afraid of it now. He flushed the toilet, wondering how long that stuff swirling down the drain had been with him, frozen inside of him during Cryosleep. It was a strange thought.

He decided a shower was long overdue.

Desanto stripped the gray uniform from his tired body and tossed it to the floor, keeping one eye on the sink as he climbed into the shower pod and let the temperature-controlled water wash over his aching muscles. The thaw was still fresh in him. He soaped himself generously from the dispenser, taking comfort in the simple, automatic act of showering. Before long, though, a wave of nausea too strong to ignore took hold in the pit of his stomach. It climbed out of his gut, through his chest and up his throat.

Desanto dropped to his knees and retched. His stomach tightened and he gagged a second time, the water from above spraying down onto his naked back. He was about to heave a third time when something down in the drain caught his attention. It was a flicker of movement that lasted only a moment. Maybe it was just just a play of light, but it really- not that it was possible, he told himself- really looked like an eye looking up at him.

He stood up, got out of the shower pod, wrapped a towel around himself and left the bathroom without hesitation, deciding he was clean enough. The water shut off on its own behind him, as did the lights.

Back in the bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed, he told himself that what he’d seen in the drain wasn’t real. That it couldn’t be real. It couldn’t and therefore it wasn’t. No. It couldn’t be real. As much as he probably should have tried to ignore the thought of it, his mind kept returning to the image of himself standing at the sink, tearing his own face apart. So he hadn’t found evidence it had happened, but did that mean it hadn’t? Did being a vision, a non-physical event, make it any less real? Did seeing things that weren’t there and hearing voices others didn’t, feeling indescribable dread in the middle of a calm and joyful crowd, automatically make him insane? Or could he simply be more attuned, more aware of what was really going on?

The screen on the wall was flashing. How long had it been doing that? Desanto went to it and found a name on the notification: Doctor Cybele Hannigan. He remembered waking up in the Medbay to the image of her face. He could imagine worse images to wake up to. In fact he’d already had a handful. Maybe she’d left him a message, some piece of advice that would help him understand what in the Hell was happening to him. He pressed her name.

A hologram of the Doctor’s face formed in front of him, her red hair and blue-green eyes rendered in soft light. The moment she appeared she glanced down at the towel wrapped around his waist, then quickly looked away. Desanto quickly realized his mistake.

“Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“Sorry,” he said, looking around for some clothes to throw on. He gave up quickly, figuring she was a doctor, after all, and the towel covered enough. “I’m, uh, still getting a hang of things. Even common sense apparently.”

She laughed softly, looking back at him. “How do you feel?”

“Like I’m catching up on a century’s worth of hangovers.”

“That’s normal. I saw that Doctor Dubicki cleared you on the Psych Eval. That’s good, but be careful.”

He squinted. “What do you mean?”

“I mean go easy. I was looking at your scans again, I can see just how much work Sunn did while you were in Cryo. Don’t be surprised if there are some lingering effects, especially nausea and vomiting.”

“Now you tell me.”

“I take it you know what I’m talking about.”

Desanto nodded. “A few minutes ago in the shower.”

“Well on the positive side, once the sickness clears up you’ll be in better shape than ever before. I’d like to see you for a follow-up as soon as possible.”

“Okay.”

She reached out to press some unseen button to end the call.

“Doctor?”

She paused. “Yes?”

He hesitated to say more. Should he tell her the things he’d seen? Should he ask her if they were anywhere near normal, or was that a question for Doctor Dubicki? Most importantly, could he trust her? He honestly didn’t know the answer to those questions. “Thanks,” he finally said, “for checking on me.”

She smiled. “That’s my job. You’re alive, so enjoy your new lease on life.” With that she ended the call. The hologram slipped away in front of Desanto’s eyes. He made sure it was completely gone before he ditched the wet towel and went searching for some fresh clothes. He found a closet full of plastic-sealed shirts, pants, underwear and socks, all in his size. He took a breath, feeling more relaxed. It had been good for him to see a friendly face, even if it was in the form on a hologram.

Hologram, he thought. Could the scene in the bathroom have been a hologram? Maybe someone was fucking with him, using psychotic sounds and visions to send him over the edge. Doctor Dubicki had asked him if he remembered any enemies. He didn’t, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have some. Holograms would surely explain the lack of physical evidence. Sunn had shown him holograms, in fact Sunn was a hologram, maybe it was him who was orchestrating Desanto’s nervous breakdown. Sunn had said he wasn’t allowed inside personal quarters, but that didn’t mean he didn’t go into them, just that he said he didn’t.

Desanto didn’t know what reason a highly advanced artificial intelligence could have to fuck with him, but he wasn’t willing to rule out the possibility.

A skittering sound came from the living room, like a rat scurrying across the floor but bigger, faster. Desanto finished pulling on his pants and hurried into the other room, determined to find the source. He found nothing. No rats, no holograms, nothing that could have made a single sound. He was already getting tired of the game. Tired of being so unsure all the time. But there was one thing, one fact Desanto was sure of: he didn’t want to be in his quarters anymore.

He looked at the time. It was nineteen-thirty five: time for the gathering.

\^/

 

Looking around at the crowd, Gunnar noticed more of what he’d seen over the last few months. People had been clumping together, staying in tightly-knit groups rather than dispersing evenly throughout the open spaces of Deck Two. There was an unspoken tension in the air, as if the passengers were picking sides in an unseen struggle. Gunnar didn’t like to see that kind of division on the Ark; a lack of cohesion didn’t lend itself to the best parties.

With the artificial sun long set, replaced by the phosphorescent glow of night mode, First Officer Oberlander led the gathering. The gathering was a kind of weekly town hall meeting where passengers could catch up on the ship’s operations and planned activities. Some wanted their voices heard. Others went for the same reason most went to church- as a chance to gossip.

Oberlander made the usual updates from the elevated platform, the commencement of the new school year, a ration on milk due to a faulty processor, and so on. Normally it would be Captain Ashby giving the announcements, but apparently she couldn’t clear her busy schedule for the hour it took to address her adoring passengers. There were rumors going around that her wife was sick, of course, but nothing concrete had been announced. They were stuck listening to the young and unpracticed First Officer doing his best impression of an actual leader.

“The rash of, um, mechanical failures seems to be the result of, well, is believed to be the result of, an increase in insect populations which are…”

Gunnar tried to pay attention to Oberlander’s words, at least for entertainment’s sake, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Desanto’s appearance in the cafeteria earlier that day. Not only had it caught him by surprise, coming a few weeks early, but his friend had looked crazed, like an animal being hunted. In the years he’d known Desanto, the time they’d spent both at work and on down time, he’d never seen the man that way. After Desanto had been neutralized and taken away by the Peace Officers, and Gunnar ordered to go to his quarters, not to follow under any circumstances, he’d asked Sunn why Desanto had been thawed out early. He was given a generic response about Cryosleep cycles being adjusted according to the needs of the community as well as the individual. Which was a fancy way of saying mind your fucking business.

As Oberlander started to ramble on about an upcoming asteroid mining expedition, Gunnar noticed a familiar face in the crowd, a man lurking just at the threshold. It was Desanto. He made eye contact with Gunnar, then made his way over without hesitation. “Your name is Gunnar,” Desanto said.

“That’s what they tell me.” Desanto nodded, seeming to take the choice of words to heart. Gunnar was surprised to find Desanto reaching out to shake his hand.

“I hear you got yourself in trouble trying to help me with the Officers.”

“Who, Kash? That’s no Officer, that’s a glorified hall monitor. Anyway I don’t need an excuse to go after that dumfan. He’s just lucky Dez talked me down.” Gunnar shifted, looking his friend in the eye. “So it’s true, huh? About the memory?”

“I wish I was faking it. To be honest, you’re the only one I kind of remember.”

Desanto grinned. “Damn right. Who could forget this pretty face?”

“And now for everyone’s favorite part of the gathering,” Oberlander raised his voice, “the welcoming of this week’s thaws.” He paused. “Revivals,” he corrected himself. A few passengers laughed. Others cheered.

Gunnar nudged Desanto. “That means you. Get ready to smile and wave,” he said. Desanto looked unhappy about the upcoming attention.

“We have only three passengers rejoining us this week, but as the Captain always says, quality first, quantity last. So with that in mind, Ark One is happy to welcome back…” Oberlander glanced at the screen in his hands. “Beli Corrick, Master Sculptor and Potter.” He motioned to the crowd, looking for the woman. Gunnar had never crossed cycles with the surprisingly sexy woman who waved to the crowd. He made a mental note to talk to her about art lessons at some point. Someone in the crowd whooped and she smiled back at them, happy to be back.

Oberlander continued. “Yes. Um. We’re also happy to welcome back a man who- I’m told- needs no introduction down on Deck Eight, Chemist Charles Sorcier!” A wrinkled man with a long, dark beard waved to the crowd, shouting something about not being retired yet. It prompted a round of cheers from the Scientists and a raising of test tubes. Gunnar rolled his eyes at the strange ways they showed their enthusiasm.

“And, um, last but not least, we have…” Oberlander looked once more at his screen. He seemed to pause a moment, as if recognizing the name. “Erick Desanto,” he said. “Level One Mechanic.”

The crowd went mostly quiet, with a scattering of claps and nods. Gunnar crossed his arms, annoyed at the mixed reception his friend was receiving. Meanwhile Desanto waved awkwardly at the crowd. As Gunnar looked around, he noticed how people stared at the two of them, their expressions ranging from creepy delight to barely-contained disgust. It was a confusing sight for Gunnar, so he could only imagine how Desanto felt on the receiving end.

“Come on,” he said, leading his friend through the crowd and away from the slowly recovering gathering. Oberlander continued to talk about things which didn’t matter. Desanto glanced back as they walked toward the elevated tram.

“Have I always gotten such a mixed reaction,” he asked.

“Don’t mind them. Those skitstövels are probably just scared from your little show in the cafeteria. The smart ones remember how you saved their asses on more than one occasion.”

“It’s a bit unfair that everyone knows me but I don’t know any of them. I feel like I’m walking around blindfolded.”

“I’ll give you a bit of advice- it helps if you read people’s files.” Desanto raised an eyebrow at him. “No one can remember ten thousand names. We all cheat. Or we just don’t bother. It’s your choice.”

“I can access personal information?”

“You can access any information. All files are open-source on the Ark, it’s supposed to allow for unrestricted collaboration and progress. But most people just use it to stick their noses in each other’s business.” They passed a small candy shop. Gunnar paused in front of the counter. “If you feel weird about it, start with your own.” Gunnar negotiated with a young kid no more than twelve-years-old over the price of a couple of candied apples. The kid didn’t budge on the price- two trade credits each, the little rat- so he only bought one for himself. “Sorry,” he said to Desanto as he took a massive, cracking bite through the red, candied shell. Desanto didn’t seem to notice.

“Can I ask you a question without insulting you?”

“Are you kidding, that’s my all-time favorite conversation starter,” Gunnar replied through a mouthful of melting sugar and apple meat.

“How do I know you?”

“Oh. They told you you’re a Mechanic, right?” Desanto nodded as Gunnar took another loud, sloppy bite. “Well on the Ark we always work in pairs. It helps keep the communication clear with the whole freeze-and-thaw schedule. Anyway you and I are a team. You’re the Mechanic, I’m the Fabricator.”

“Is that like an engineer?”

“A kind, yeah. Standard routine is to pair up a Mechanic and a Fabricator. Simplest way to explain it is, you fix ‘em, I replace ‘em.”

Desanto seemed to understand, possibly even remember in a distant way, like hearing an echo of an echo. “So if you’re an engineer, maybe you can tell me who built all this.”

Gunnar’s mouth opened, revealing a mouthful of red slop. “Seriously? You don’t even remember the creator?” Desanto shrugged. “Blackwood. Doctor Howard Blackwood. He was one of the most brilliant minds on Earth. None of us, and I mean none of us would be here if it wasn’t for him. It’s a long story, though. Most people don’t appreciate the finer points.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Gunnar smiled. It was good to have Desanto back, even if he was acting differently. Desanto was one of the only guys Gunnar knew who actually had patience for his shit. “Alright…” He took the last bite of candied apple and threw the stick into a recycler. “They gave you the history lesson, right? About the forty years it took to build the ship?”

“Sunn said something about that.”

“Well let me tell you what he didn’t- they wasted the first ten of those years not knowing their arsel from their balle. There were lots of false starts, and I mean lots. Tons of failed simulations, an entire decade wasted where they were practically at zero. The Ark project didn’t really start until Blackwood joined. He came in and saved the entire project with his groundbreaking ideas.”

“Sounds like an engineer’s hero.”

Gunnar nodded. “And the amazing thing is, he wasn’t even an engineer.” He suddenly had a thought. He looked at his friend with a big grin spreading across his face.

“What,” Desanto asked, slightly concerned.

Gunnar slapped him across the chest. “C’mon,” he said, “let’s go see him.”

 

\^/

 

“Take my word for it, zero-G sex is a mind-opener.”

Desanto was starting to figure out why he and Gunnar had gotten along so well: the guy didn’t stop talking long enough for things like disembodied whispering to get a word in edgewise. But if he was honest, it was more than that. Instead of telling him he was safe among friends, Gunnar simply treated him as one. Rather than try to make Desanto feel comfortable the way the others had, by assuring him he wasn’t in danger, everything was fine, he was a hard slap of truth across the face. Gunnar was an open book- a book entitled, All These People are Kind of Dicks.

After the rush of taking the elevated tram across a long stretch of Deck Two, followed by a head-squeezing, thirteen-level freight elevator drop, the two men arrived at Deck Fifteen. Gunnar was saying something about the Graviton Drive keeping them enslaved to live out antiquated Earthbound sexual practices rather than allowing them to explore the final frontier the way nature had intended, when they stepped out onto the main walkway. Desanto found himself at the center of a massive, tunnel-like deck that, at first glance, had the appearance of a metallic honeycomb, but upon further inspection felt more like standing at the center of an incredible engine that had ground to a halt on frozen ball bearings.

Thousands of metal pods lined the circular walls, from ceiling to floor all the way around the walkway. They were stacked two or three deep, held by the same rail system that suspended the now sleeping artificial sun on Deck Two. The pods were oblong, and bore no features other than some simple, numerical printing around their middles.

But most importantly, they were human-sized.

Gunnar, realizing his friend was no longer paying attention to the conversation, stopped and looked out on the sight beside him. “Cryo,” he said. “The ultimate equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a king or a criminal, in here you’re just a frozen meatball. Amazing, right?”

Ten thousand human lives. It was the confirmation Desanto had both needed and feared.

“It’s…a little overwhelming.” Desanto walked to the railing to look at the nearest pod. Up close, fine delineations were visible in its surface, indications of panel separations. The number printed on it, in the same typeface as the storage case still sitting back in Desanto’s quarters, read “61825161.” There was no other indication whatsoever in regards to what the pod contained. He pressed his palm to its metal surface and found it no colder than any other metal felt on the skin. Even the temperature of the room around them, that massive tunnel, ran a bit cool but otherwise gave no clue to the room’s purpose.

As Gunnar went to a control screen, he explained that each unit was chemically refrigerated and insulated to a margin of energy loss nearing zero. He called up the pod by punching its indicator number into the screen, then pressed the top portion of its diagram. A panel on the pod slid aside to reveal what it held inside: a naked man, wrapped in plastic. His skin was blue and crystalline, his eyes open, staring and lifeless not at Desanto but through him. “This guy’s a Botanist,” Gunnar read off the screen. “With high cholesterol.”

Desanto turned away from the pod, a chill in his back. “Close it up,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, it’s a little creepy.” Gunnar pressed the screen again, shutting the pod. “Would it help you to know there’s another deck just like it under our feet?”

Desanto swallowed. “Exactly how would that help?”

“It wouldn’t. I just wanted to freak you out,” Gunnar said with a grin. Desanto didn’t turn around until the panel had been long silent. When he did, the frozen face was thankfully gone, replaced by the smooth, rounded panel of cool metal. He exhaled.

“So you were just kidding, right? There’s not another deck like this?”

“Oh, no, there is.” Gunnar looked around. “It’s actually a little bigger, too.” He glanced back at Desanto and chuckled. “C’mon,” he said before pulling his friend along.

Together the two men walked the long walkway of Deck Fifteen, surrounded on all sides by pod after pod suspended on the elaborate rail system that, at times, snaked through various tunnels cut through the walls and ceiling leading to high-speed delivery lifts. At some point they passed under an inscription engraved into a main support far above their heads. It read: Per Aspera Ad Astra.

“Through hardships to the stars,” Desanto said nonchalantly. Gunnar looked at him with no lack of surprise.

“I didn’t know you spoke Latin.”

“Me, either.” The translation had come automatically, the words leaving his lips before he could think to hold them back. Gunnar squinted down at him like he was studying an unusual and slightly-broken toy.

“Sunn sliced you up good, huh?”

“Yeah. But apparently I’m just supposed to be grateful he saved my life.”

Gunnar chewed on it. After a moment he shook his head. “No, fuck that. You’re allowed to be pissed. It’s your right to be pissed.”

Desanto wanted to say more, but all he could drum up in return was, “Thanks.”

After a while more they reached the end of the extensive walkway and all those floating, frozen souls. In front of them was a secured door leading to a separate, private Cryo room. Important passengers were kept inside, Gunnar explained. No one was supposed to go into that room, but they did anyway, sneaking quick visits to check on that most important cargo: representatives from every country on Earth, chosen to embody the strength of Earth’s diversity, and, as Gunnar put it, some rich pricks thrown in for good measure. Gunnar used his Vocation clearance to disarm the door and they slipped inside unnoticed, reengaging the security protocols behind them.

The private room was eerily quiet, cut off as it was from the main bulk of the Deck and the mechanical sounds that went along with it. Each Cryopod stood separate on its own mount, yet altogether they formed a united web, the architecture of which naturally led to the very center pod. Gunnar motioned to it with a great, dramatic sweep of his bear paw of a hand, smiling proudly.

“I give you Doctor Howard Blackwood, Master Geneticist turned Ship’s Designer. It took a lot of people to build Ark One, but it all started with him, in that beautiful brain.”

Desanto carefully approached the sealed Cryopod. If there were any security alarms present he didn’t want to set them off. “He couldn’t have been the only one up to the task.”

“Well others tried, sure, but the simulations never lasted past a few hundred years. That was the problem, the length of the trip, keeping a ship functional for so long. Supposedly they stopped the Ark One simulation at the eleven-thousand year mark. It was still operating at ninety-eight percent functionality, with all humans accounted for, and then some. Can you believe that?” Gunnar shook his head, smiling at the brilliance of his hero.

“So what made his design so much better?”

“Entropy. All the other designers were so caught up in preventing the ship’s natural breakdown, but not Blackwood. He understood that decay was a necessary part of life. That things have to fall apart and be put back together again.”

“Die before they’re reborn.”

“Exactly. Life is flux. Entropy is the basic law of the universe, you can’t just bypass something that fundamental, you have to embrace it. Blackwood imagined a ship as its own, living world. A planet seeking a planet, with all the disgusting cycles of life contained inside.”

Desanto thought on all he’d heard. “If the Ark is as strong as you say, I don’t see why they didn’t just stay in orbit around Earth. Or land on the moon. Set up a colony there, rather than risk all this.”

“They considered it.”

“And?”

“Two things. One, they feared an attack.” Desanto threw a confused look his friend’s way. “Let’s just say some people didn’t exactly agree with the Ark project. They said it was a waste of money, that it should be spent on saving Earth- even though by that point Earth was way beyond saving. Others, well, they were just pissed they weren’t chosen to go.”

“The other reason?”

Gunnar nodded to the center Crypod. “Blackwood. He convinced them our future was out there, waiting for us in the stars. Call it Manifest Destiny, Version 2.0.”

Desanto had a lot to think about. Gunnar said they should get moving before someone found them where they didn’t belong, but Desanto asked for another minute. “Let me see his face,” he insisted.

“Why?”

“You talk so highly about him, I just want to see what he looks like.”

Gunnar argued briefly, saying they weren’t even allowed to be in that room let alone touch anything, let alone Howard Blackwood’s Cryopod, but he had to admit to doing the same thing himself once. He used the control screen to open the face panel on the pod, keeping one eye on the door they’d come through. Meanwhile Desanto stepped closer, staring at the frozen, plastic-wrapped face of Howard Blackwood as it was revealed. This was a man who, for all purposes, was to blame for Desanto’s current state. The man looked to be about sixty years of age, with stark, weathered features and a rigid jaw. Ice crystals stuck to the his closed eyelids and formed along the ridges of his deep-set eyes. “When is he scheduled to thaw,” Desanto asked.

“Not until we get there.” Desanto glanced back, surprised at the answer. “He’s supposed to oversee the development of our new home. That was his one and only stipulation. Blackwood is a complicated man. Not all of his theories went over as well as his ship designs.”

“Like what?”

Gunnar shifted his weight. “Alright, so, Trappist-1, what do you know about it?”

“Not much other than it’s where we’re going.”

“It’s a solar system, seven planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star. But Blackwood, well…he claimed there was an eighth planet. One we couldn’t see.”

“What proof did he give?”

Gunnar exhaled. “Nothing physical. There was some talk of divine communication via hyper-stimulated neurotransmitters. But like a lot of what Blackwood said, the details were impossible to understand.”

Desanto glanced at the frozen man separated from him by half-an-inch of tempered glass. “He said God told him.”

“Gods, specifically. He called them Ancient Ones. Like I said, not all of his theories were popular. But he got enough right for people to look past the rest.”

“I guess geniuses are given a little extra breathing room on the sanity spectrum.”

Deciding they’d been there long enough, Gunnar closed the pod and shut down the control screen. Desanto stepped away from the pod and rejoined his friend.

“Floating through space on the dream of a crazy man,” he summed up.

“Sure, but I mean, how else would you do it?”

Desanto couldn’t argue with that. They were ready to leave, both thankful they hadn’t been discovered. They’d nearly gotten to the door when a flash of images attacked Desanto, threatening to pitch him to the floor. He steadied himself against a Cryopod as a cascade of phantoms washed over his mind. Skulls poured over his eyes, x-rayed visions of screaming souls and bursts of blood splashing into his face, all presided over by the presence of a man whose ethereal, distorted voice shook the walls, words slipping from his terrible lips, echoing like the lost mantra of some ancient and time-torn dimension.

“Contra vim mortis non crescit herba in hortis.”

Red fingers in front of Desanto’s eyes, their flesh bubbling on the bone like heated wax. Fingernails oozing, muscle tightening, blood coagulating under the boom of that monstrous voice.

“I once was what you are. You will be what I am.”

He looked down at himself, his body a perversion of anatomy, so much gelatinous tissue wrapped around stark bone. And in that moment, seeing his naked heart beating in his rib cage like a screaming rat in a trap, somehow sensing the darkness that lived there, he knew what he had to do. With his malformed hands, he reached down inside his own chest, fingers slipping between the ribs. He seized that black heart and squeezed it as hard as he could as pain exploded outward through a tangle of exposed nerves.

“Tell me, why do you welcome death?”

All was pain and screaming and the cold, angry grip of suffering in his chest, and then a familiar voice was calling his name, asking if he was alright, a firm hand on his shoulder that brought back the physical realm and wiped the phantoms free.

Desanto took a deep, gasping breath. He was on his knees somehow, his forehead resting on the cold floor. He lifted his head and found he was back in the private Cryo, Gunnar standing over him with a worried look on his face. “I’m okay,” he said. His friend helped him to his shaking feet.

“What the hell was that,” Gunnar asked.

“These…memories keep coming back. They hurt like hell.”

“Yeah, that’s not how memories work.”

“Tell that to the knives in the back of my eyes.” Gunnar gave him a look that went beyond concern. “Don’t look at me like that. I know I must look crazy to you.”

“I mean, yeah,” Gunnar said.

“I just…I have a bad feeling.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know. I can’t shake the feeling that this ship, you, me, everyone on it…” He took a breath, finally ready to say what had been at the back of his mind all day. “We’re dead, Gunnar. We’re all dead, and we just don’t know it yet.”

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