The first week of classes was done, and Baptiste felt good. The kids had been responsive to the material, his flashy dissections and vivid simulations paying off with at least two students seriously eyeing a Vocation in the sciences.
He’d capped off the week with a primer on cloning, starting with fragmentation and ligation, moving through transfection, and finally to screening and selection. The Ark had extensive files on cloning, of course, and Baptiste had to admit to getting carried away in the research phase of the lesson plan. He’d delved pretty deep into the archives, some files having not been accessed in over two hundred years, while others had surprisingly recent time stamps given their experimental nature. A few were even obscured behind a false folder or two; most likely one or more scientists on board were quietly working on a pet project and didn’t want anyone to know. Ark Files were open access, but if you dug around too much, someone usually ended up pissed off. Anyway the files were no use to him. The research in them was too experimental, too difficult to understand to serve any use to his students.
Baptiste zipped up his jacket. The forest was a bit cooler than usual today, and a chill had settled into him along his walk. The Deciduous forest was his favorite part of Deck Ten, and possibly of the entire Ark, the crunch of twigs and fallen leaves underfoot appeasing some primal instinct in him. These walks put him in an almost trance-like state that helped take his mind off the usual stresses, a mood only occasionally broken by bumping into another passenger out for a stroll, or into one of the Caretakers who roamed the environments looking for things to tend to.
He found the elm tree. It was, not surprisingly, where he’d left it the day before. But today the leaves were brighter, the green chlorophyll further broken down to reveal the yellow and orange pigments underneath. He looked around at the beautiful, fiery spectrum on display, noting that the Ark’s simulated autumn was coming along nicely. He kneeled under the elm and brushed a few leaves off the plaque at its base.
Olivia Marlow. His mother’s name was carved into the plaque. Some of her ashes had been used as a base material to clone an elm tree seed, an elm which now stood eighty feet high above him, nearly touching the artificial sky. It was someone’s idea long before he was born to create a memorial in the forest. Because of that, all seventy-six people who had ever died on the ark stood around Baptiste in the form of elm trees, as well as some maples, oaks and beeches. He could imagine their branching arms reaching out to hold him as he passed them by. Nearby, maybe a hundred feet away, was a smaller, much younger tree bearing the name Thomas, where he’d seen a woman from the farm crying once.
The accuracy of using deciduous trees as tributes was uncomfortably effective that time of year. The word deciduous meant “falling away after its purpose is finished.” It was a word that was used for animals, too, to describe the parts of themselves they shed, like deer antlers. Baby teeth were called deciduous teeth for that very reason.
They were things, quite literally, defined by their deaths.
Baptiste sat on the cold ground and put his back against the tree. He pulled out his screen and began going over his notes for the next week’s lesson plan. He was happy to note how many kids in his class had shown real promise, the surprising contender being Sarah, who had screamed when she’d first seen the Great White swimming in class. Of all the students she’d asked the most questions that first day, and by the third day he’d even gotten her to stand inside the vein of a blue whale to demonstrate how massive they were. She squirmed and made little crying sounds, but afterward she was a bundle of questions. Fear was often the first step toward learning, he’d found. Baptiste himself had been afraid of getting up in front of a class and talking for hours, but he’d done it anyway, and already he could see how much he loved it.
If everything went just right- if the stars aligned, so to speak- sharing his knowledge with the next generation of Ark passengers would be his life’s blood.
He glanced at the plaque to his left. Once, when he was thirteen, Baptiste had been caught putting itching powder in the Mining crew’s space suits. His friends had put him up to it once he said he could do it. He’d made the itching powder himself at home, showing it off during class. On a dare he snuck down to Deck Eight after school let out and sprinkled it into the helmets and gloves hanging in the locker room. His friends thought it was hilarious- that was, until the Peace Officers told them someone was almost killed having an allergic reaction on the morning’s spacewalk. Then they didn’t want anything to do with him.
Then they weren’t his friends.
When the Peace Officers handed Baptiste over to his mother, she’d apologized to the men and thanked them for being so understanding. When they were gone she asked Baptiste where he’d gotten the powder. He told her he made it himself from dried roses, though she didn’t believe him at first. “It was easy,” he told her, “I just dried out the flowers, then I used scissors to cut up the rose hips.” He explained how inside the rose hips was a cotton-like substance known as cythilicus that caused irritation. After that it was just a matter of steaming the cythilicus, drying it out and crushing it into a powder. She listened to his explanation in silence, then asked him a single question.
“What good are you?” Before Baptiste could give a smart-ass answer, she added, “No, I mean it. A lot of people ask that question, but they’re not really looking for an answer, they just want to make you feel little. Look at what you did. Look at all the effort you put into this, for what? To impress a bunch of fools?” He shrugged at that. “You’re a smart boy,” she said, “so I want you to ask yourself, and I want you to think of an honest answer: what good are you? What purpose if any will your life serve?”
The next day he’d gone to his mother and told her he had the answer to her question. “The answer is for you, not me,” she said, but he insisted, so she listened.
“I want to be a teacher,” he told her.
“Why,” she asked, “why do you want to help children?”
His response was, “Because dad couldn’t.”
The screen in Baptiste’s hands blinked, shaking him from the memory. He had a message waiting for him, text only. Urgent information about one of your students, the message read. Meet me on Deck Seventeen. Stack 32-12.
He read the message a second time. Seventeen was only used for storage, which meant no one went down there except the occasional Sanitation worker, and then only to sweep up. That meant Seventeen was more than private- it was downright isolated. It wasn’t a smart idea to go down there alone, and besides, there were channels they could do this through, steps to take with the courts if a child was endangered. Then again threatening to go to the Ship’s Courts might scare off whoever was reaching out to him. If one of his kids was in trouble, he needed to know about it. He had a responsibility to them. He needed to look out for them when others didn’t, or couldn’t.
Otherwise what good was he?
Baptiste stepped off the elevator. Deck Seventeen was kept mostly dark except for some ambient bioluminescence and a few motion lights. Combined with the two Cryo decks above, that part of the ship made up what they lovingly called the “life raft.” But walking in near dark, it didn’t feel much like a life raft. It was more like a crypt, its deep silence broken up only by the Dorniers buzzing overhead, that small fleet of drones tending to the twenty-foot-high stacks like honeybees caring for their nest. A large machine sat off to one side, a vertical stack-loader of some sort, taller than it was wide. Baptiste followed the numbers printed on the floor, meeting not a single person along the way, nor, for that matter, anyone once he reached 32-12.
“Are you there,” he called out. After a minute in the dark he shook his head, wondering if he’d been the victim of a joke. It would serve him right considering what he’d done as a kid. Still, it was annoying if he’d wasted his time coming all the way down to the middle of Seventeen for nothing. After a minute he tried to pull up the message that had brought him there, just to double-check the stack number before he gave up and left. But it was gone.
“What the hell?” He checked again. There was nothing in his inbox, nothing deleted. It was as if the message had never been there at all.
Then he heard it. Heavy footsteps came from the shadows ahead, made by more than one pair of feet. “I know you’re there,” he said to the darkness, but the darkness didn’t reply, at least not in so many words. A silhouette of a man who hadn’t been there a moment before stood at the center of the next row of stacks, his large size nearly obscured by his crooked posture.
“What did you want to tell me,” Baptiste asked. The hidden man swayed strangely in the dark, staring back at him silently. He took a peculiar step forward, floating as if carried on the shoulders of shadows. Baptiste was suddenly worried about the man’s intentions for bringing him down there, realizing he hadn’t told a single person where he would be, not even his father, who wouldn’t have been much help but could have at least vouched for his whereabouts. Baptiste cleared his throat, trying to put on his best teacher’s voice. “You brought me all the way down here, you can at least look me in the eye.”
The crooked man moved forward once more, nearly at the head of the next stack now. He had long, stringy hair, that much Baptiste could see. But the man’s footsteps on the metal floor were what he noticed most. The sound was all wrong. It was as if there were three other men with him, yet Baptiste couldn’t make out anyone else in the shadows, no heads at least but maybe the movement of one or two people crouched next to him. The man reached out with one of his surprisingly long arms, placing a hand on the corner of the stack that was lit from above, just where Baptiste could see it.
The hand was shaped like a man’s, but the flesh was something else, something chitinous and black and lacking warmth. The fingers that gripped the stack were jointed and hard. They had the appearance of an insect’s carapace, yet they possessed far too much dexterity. The hand was oil-black, and thick with thatches of bristled hairs. Baptiste felt his blood run cold as the man moved into the harsh glow of the spotlight.
Two black orbs sat on top of its misshapen head along with two, full sets of smaller eyes set widely beneath those. These smaller eyes appeared more human-like, with tiny, black pupils that studied Baptiste from the center of glistening white sclera. Baptiste felt a lump in his throat as the creature unfolded its jaws to reveal a human tongue inside a void-like mouth of spiral teeth. Then, black, vertical fangs extended down from its mouthparts, like twin pickaxes folding into place, their hollow tips glistening with a viscous fluid that wasn’t saliva.
“Dear God,” he gasped. Horrified by whatever monstrosity Hell had coughed up at him, Baptiste took a step back on trembling legs. The creature took notice. It unfolded its multi-hinged mouth even further, exposing the inner workings of its black, gaping maw, and let out a cry, a kind of half-hiss, half-scream that stunk of pheromones and liquefied death.
Baptiste turned and ran. He went the way he’d come, fleeing between the tall stacks. The spidery creature scream-hissed once more before chasing after him, the sound of its footsteps like a stampede on Baptiste’s heels. His only hope was to reach the elevator before that thing caught up to him. Running faster than he ever had in his life, Baptiste glanced back only once to see the crawling chaos pursuing him on eight, branch-like legs. Their span must have been ten feet, shaped like those of the Huntsman spider, yet extending from a near-human torso of hardened, exoskeletal shell and ending in black finger-toes. Some part of Baptiste was fascinated with the creature, the part that needed to know how it could possibly exist, for evolution to have moved so quickly and in such nightmarish fashion. But that part of him was hidden beneath a thousand layers of fear and a burning will to live. And so the stacks became a dark blur as he crashed and weaved between them, praying he could outrun the monster that stomped and screamed after him but knowing his chances were low, so low, in fact, that given the distance to the elevator, it was probably impossible.
Barely having time to think, he scanned the darkness for something that might help him. Twenty feet up the Dorniers were going about their business, scanning storage cases and pulling them in response to requisitions. Even though they were probably just strong enough to carry his weight and lift him to safety, he had no immediate way to control them. Given some time he could likely figure out some use for them, but just then, in the heat of the moment, he drew a blank.
Baptiste spotted something up ahead and to the left. The vertical stack-loader sat near the far wall, the fifteen-foot tall, crane-like machinery appearing to be out of order. One of its hydraulic arms dangled useless where it must have tipped over and fallen, a fact backed up the bandage of caution tape it wore on one of its front support legs. The vertical loader was a manual back-up to the Dorniers, and appeared to have been sitting in a state of dangerous disrepair for some time. It almost seemed hard to believe until Baptiste remembered that people rarely came down to Storage. Out of sight, out of mind, they say. If he was lucky, the oversight could very well have saved his life.
He ran toward the stack-loader, crossing out into open space. Unencumbered by the turns and tight spaces Baptiste had been using toward his advantage, the spider creature began gaining on him. The pounding of its hideous hand-legs grew closer and closer until Baptiste swore he could hear its fangs clicking together with each gallop. Then, with its rancid breath on his neck, the creature reared back on its legs and jumped.
Baptiste dropped hard. Carried by his running momentum he tumbled along the floor, his arms and legs slapping against the metal like a painful ragdoll. He was only faintly aware of the mass of legs and hissing mouthparts passing over him as the creature missed him completely and landed a few feet ahead, crashing into one of the storage stacks. The creature was stunned, briefly just a pile of legs and storage cases it had knocked loose from the shelves. Realizing he had little time before the thing regained itself, Baptiste pulled himself to his feet and ran again for the stack-loader. He reached it, squeezing his body between it and the wall, making himself as small as possible.
Knowing what he knew about spiders, combined with what he could see with his own, unblinking eyes, Baptiste knew he couldn’t hide from that thing. He couldn’t outrun, out-climb or out-fight it, either. Compared to traditional arachnids, humans were soft-bodied and weak, and whatever that thing was, it was far beyond traditional. He had to make some kind of stand using what tools he had available and leave the rest up to luck.
As he watched, the spidery creature shook its terrible body, rising to its feet. Without pause it charged, thundering directly toward him. He braced for impact as it slammed into the loader, nearly crushing him up against the wall. Baptiste heard a scream and realized it was his own. The creature reached around the machinery with its front legs, those insect fingers grasping out to pull on his clothes, shiny, black fingers trying to rip him from his hiding place.
“Get away from me, you ugly bastard,” Baptiste shouted. It paused for a moment as the long hairs on its head bristled, revealing themselves to be hundreds if not thousands of individual antennae, thin and wiry like the long-horned caddisfly, yet repurposed as living, human hair that swooped and twitched over its waxen head. The creature was frustrated, angry with its prey, and it reared back and slammed its horrific body against the stack-loader repeatedly. Again and again it crashed like an angry sea of exoskeletal flesh against the machinery until a loud crunch of metal came from its front.
It was just the sound Baptiste had been hoping to hear: the broken support leg, finally giving out.
The stack-loader started to tip, its tall, uneven weight swaying up above them. Baptiste braced himself against the wall and pushed with everything he had, helping it to fall. The machinery toppled forward, coming directly down on the creature.
In a display of twitching, insectoid instincts, it leapt back out of the way just as the toppling equipment crashed to the ground in a deafening pile of metal. The loader missed crushing the creature, but its one, working arm managed to pin the thing by one leg. Not ready to celebrate just yet, Baptiste ran to the nearest stack and slid a heavy storage case free from the shelf, returning to the squirming and squealing beast ready to crush it.
Standing above the creature, storage case in hand, he got a better look at the thing that had so recently hunted him like a frightened mouse. Its abdomen was sectioned and striped, with pronounced prolegs like a caterpillar, yet with wriggling, human fingertips emerging from the shell. It looked up at him, and fear briefly flashed across its human eyes. It was a look that almost horrified Baptiste more than anything else on its freakish anatomy. This went beyond some evolutionary mishap, beyond unforeseen effects of long-term space travel.
Someone on board was playing God.
Baptiste didn’t pity the thing, but he no longer felt the urge to snuff it out, either, not that he was even sure he could. He dropped the case and set his mind back on reaching the elevator, on getting away from that dark place, barely concerning himself with where.
A minute later he reached the elevator, but found the door was closed. The door lock had engaged for some reason and wouldn’t accept his commands. Elevator doors typically locked in cases of emergency, such as a hull breaches or extreme containment issues. Try as he might, he couldn’t override the failsafe function. As he fought with the screen he could hear the spider creature still struggling to free itself from the fallen machinery. But more than that, he heard some noises coming from the opposite direction, off to his left where he hadn’t gone. The noises started small at first, far off in the distance, but they quickly grew louder and closer until there was no mistaking what they were.
More footsteps. And not human ones.
Baptiste began pounding and pulling on the elevator door. It wouldn’t open, wouldn’t even budge. Behind and to his right, the creature that had hunted him was almost free of its metallic trap. To his left, getting closer all the time, something else was approaching. Something big. A few of them, in fact. In a panic he checked the elevator’s screen again for some sign that it had come to its senses and would accept his command, that it would let him go free before Hell closed in from both sides. He found instead, not elevator controls at all, but a black screen with four, simple words displayed on its face.
I am truly sorry.
As he stared at the words, he felt the rush of air from something lunging at him, then the sensation of teeth sinking into his leg. Baptiste was dragged away screaming; fallen away before his purpose had finished.