Desanto’s eyes opened. Two words echoed in his skull as he sat up. He tried to get his bearings, but the room was dark, only a single light ebbing in his blurry vision. As his eyes adjusted, he began to remember getting ready for sleep, a distant memory of nighttime routines. Then it came to him. He was safe. The darkened room, his bedroom. With the echoing words subsided, he could hear an intermittent tone coming from across the room, timed to the ebbing light.
It was the screen on his wall.
“Enough moping, time to work.” Gunnar’s image filled the screen. He took a gulp of coffee from a metal mug and wiped his mouth.
“Forget Hannigan. I just spoke to Dubicki, she gave you the all-clear. Are you gonna be a fittnylle about this?”
Desanto remembered Hannigan’s warning. She’d told him to be careful despite Dubicki’s prognosis. The more he thought back on his interview with the Psych Doctor, the more he’d gotten the impression she was pushing him, testing him not for his own good, but out of some professional curiosity. On the other side, Hannigan seemed to have his best interests at heart. But then again, maybe he just felt some attachment to her, some affinity because she’d literally brought him back to life. It didn’t hurt that she was easy on the eyes.
Desanto rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Alright,” he said. Warning or no, he didn’t plan on sitting around his quarters all day.
“Good man. I’ll meet you in the cafeteria in thirty.” The screen went dark, Gunnar’s face faded into the void.
Desanto got dressed in his uniform, foregoing a shower to give himself plenty of time to reach the cafeteria. He was still unfamiliar with the layout of the Ark, and therefore there was still a chance of getting lost. Granted he could always ask Sunn to show him the way, but it was too early to deal with that self-important ghost of a man. He took a last look around. Desanto had gotten in the habit of committing his quarters to memory, making sure nothing was out of place when he returned. Satisfied, he opened the door to head out.
And found a dark-haired woman standing in his way.
“I wanted to be there when you thawed.” Her voice had more than a hint of anger. If Desanto had to guess, she was in her early forties, though what that meant anymore he had no idea. She was tall and lean, having the fit body of a runner or perhaps a swimmer, her eyes deep with familiarity and something else. Accusation, was it? “Just imagine my surprise when Oberlander called your name at the gathering.” The lean woman suddenly moved past him, entering his quarters uninvited.
“They woke me up early,” Desanto replied. He wanted to keeping her talking while he figured out how she knew him.
“Still, you should have told me.” She opened the refrigerator and had a look inside.
“I really didn’t have much say in the matter. Can I help you find something?” He looked harder at her, trying to stir up some recollection, a name, even. He found nothing. The stranger closed his empty refrigerator and met his gaze. Recognizing the searching look on his face, she frowned at him.
“I don’t believe you. You don’t remember me.”
“Don’t be insulted, I don’t even remember myself.” Her eyebrow raised, needing further explanation. “The, uh, the short version is I had cancer. That was until Sunn cut me up and took it out. But I lost most of my memories in the process.”
The woman smiled, taking some sick amusement from his predicament. She walked slowly toward him, staring him down with dark eyes. “Well then,” she said, “maybe I can help you get a few back.”
She put her lips forcefully on his. Desanto was taken by surprise. He didn’t fully return the kiss, but he didn’t fight it, either. When she drew back, there was a look on her face that said she hadn’t entirely believed his story. Not until that very moment.
Whatever she’d been looking for in the kiss, she hadn’t found it. Desanto cleared his throat. “I, uh, take it we’re…”
“We were. That seems like a long time ago now.” She took a step back.
“I’m sorry, it has nothing to do with you. I’m sure with time-”
“Don’t do that,” she cut him off. “Don’t feel sorry for me.”
He searched for what to say, how to make things right. He drew a blank.
She paced his quarters, thinking things over. “So you don’t remember the last time we spoke, what we talked about.” Desanto was starting to notice her questions came out more like statements, as if she couldn’t admit there was something she didn’t know.
“I don’t even remember my own mother.”
She scoffed. “It must be nice to forget everything. You can start over, leave everyone behind without feeling a drop of guilt. It sounds more convenient than anything.”
“That’s not exactly true.”
“No, I suppose you have to keep smiling at people. Awkwardly pretending to care while you wait for them to get the hint and move on.”
“It’s not all bad. Occasionally a woman shows up and kisses you on the mouth.”
She appeared disarmed for a moment. Then her shield shot back into place. “I should go,” she said. “There’s no point in people talking if there’s nothing for them to talk about.” The door dilated. She paused in the open doorway, addressing him with her back turned. “It’s because you never knew her.”
“Your mother. You never met her. That’s why you can’t remember.” She glanced back. “It was nice seeing you, Erick.” With that she left, the door closing moments later. Desanto stood once again alone, feeling like he’d been run over by a truck hauling pheromones and lipstick.
“Who the hell was that,” he asked no one in particular.
Gunnar had been waiting in the cafeteria close to forty minutes for Desanto, watching the same, two fish circle each other behind glass. It was starting to feel like a metaphor for his life. That was always how he knew he’d been staring at fish too long- when he started gleaning some higher meaning out of a goddamn fish.
“A strange woman came to my quarters,” Desanto replied.
“Oh, then you’re right on time.” Gunnar slapped his friend on the back and chuckled. “You work fast. Anyone I know?”
Desanto threw him a look.
“She didn’t give me her name, but I got the strong impression we have history.”
Gunnar grunted. “I’m willing to bet it’s Victoria. She’s been throwing her arsel at you since I can remember.” He headed toward the cafeteria line and Desanto followed. The first cup of coffee hadn’t been nearly enough to start his day.
“Listen, if you and I are going to be partners, you have to learn to curse in Swedish.”
“I’ll work on it,” Desanto replied. They hit the food line and grabbed coffee and something to eat, then headed right out.
After they’d gotten to Engineering and clocked in, Gunnar showed his friend around. It was a strange feeling to be treating Desanto like the new guy. Desanto was particularly taken by the Fabrication Engines, watching in awe as the two dozen, twenty-foot-high printers pushed out everything from toilets to biochips to med tools. One Engine spit out long sheets of nanometal from its wide, fish-like mouth, while the unit next to it gave birth to a batch of Dornier Drones. When Desanto had seen enough, Gunnar reintroduced him to a few of the Mechanics and Fabricators on duty. He’d already told them all about Desanto’s memory loss, asking them not to make a big deal out of it- unless of course it was to make fun of the guy, and then anything was fair game.
“This is Desmond, the second best Fabricator on the Ark,” Gunnar said as the two shook hands.
“Dez,” Desanto said. “You’re the one who talked Gunnar out of fighting Kash.”
“It wasn’t the first time I’ve saved him from doing something stupid.” His Irish eyes glinted with a smile.
“Thanks. But next time, maybe just give him a minute.” Dez and Gunnar laughed as a woman joined them. She went to Dez’s side.
“What trouble are you boys getting into,” she asked.
“Ahh, and this is his partner and wife, Monika,” Gunnar said. “She’s the prettiest little Mechanic this side of Deck Fourteen, though she talks too much- even for a woman.”
She leaned in and shook Desanto’s hand. “That makes two of us, Gunnar.”
“No reason to throw insults. Where’s Phoebe?”
The couple frowned at each other. Dez cleared his throat. “Our beautiful daughter hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to apprentice as a Mechanic or a Fabricator.”
“So you killed her. Smart choice.”
Monika smiled, her Indonesian roots shining through. “We thought about it. But we gave her the week off so she can figure it out. You know, come to her senses about which Vocation is clearly better.”
“Good luck with that,” Gunnar said.
“Anyway we gotta go. Something big broke on Seventeen and it’s Priority One.” She pulled on her husband’s arm. “Oh, and Erick,” she added over her shoulder.
“Don’t sweat that run-in with Kash- nobody likes him anyway.”
Desanto nodded. “Thanks,” he said with a slight smile.
Dez and Monika left for their shift, restarting the argument about whose side their daughter was going to pick. Gunnar shook his head. “C’mon, I need to grab something from my locker,” he said. They crossed the Engineering deck, Desanto peeking in on a few side rooms where various projects were underway. They paid a quick visit to the locker room where, as usual, men and women were walking around in various states of undress. Desanto seemed surprised by the unisex locker room, blinking away the sight of a middle-aged guy’s naked ass.
“So what do we do, walk around looking for things to fix,” Desanto asked, trying to get his mind off what he’d just seen.
“It’s easier to read the calls.” Gunnar threw him his screen. “Service calls,” he clarified, “some auto-generated, some filed by passengers.” He showed Desanto where to call up the day’s list of work orders. “They’re sorted by level of importance, assigned to us based on the estimated size of the job and the team’s skill-set. On a typical day we work through that list until it’s done. You fix it, or I replace it. Sometimes a combination of the two. Then we drink.”
“I still don’t know what I’m doing,” Desanto admitted. Gunnar shrugged it off.
“Fake it until you do, that’s what everyone else does.”
Desanto nodded. He looked at the top of the screen. “Why does it say ‘Seth-Gunnar?’”
“That’s just a glitch.” Gunnar took the screen back and refreshed the list. “Looks like we’re on that machinery call on Seventeen.”
A particularly gorgeous woman walked by in her underwear, smiling at the two. When she’d passed out of earshot, Desanto leaned in and lowered his voice. “Do you ever get used to that,” he asked.
Gunnar watched her go. “Yeah,” he said. “When you’re dead.”
The Storage deck felt familiar somehow. Desanto looked around at the rows and rows of tall stacks, each one lined with storage cases tended to by hovering drones. It gave him a distinct impression, the feeling that he’d been there before. Could it be a memory coming back, an actual detail from his past life that didn’t involve fear or pain or general unpleasantness?
“It stinks in here,” Gunnar spit. “I’m seriously starting to feel like I’m riding around on a goddamn garbage disposal.”
“There’s probably a malfunction in the air purifier unit,” Desanto said. The words coming out of his mouth surprised even himself, coming as automatic as they did. Gunnar smiled and punched him in the arm.
“See that? Things are looking better already.” Desanto rubbed his arm, already bruised from the last time Gunnar had punched it. Still, he couldn’t help but smile.
They rounded a corner and came into sight of the other Mechanics and Fabricators. Three pairs of them had responded to the call, Erick and Gunnar, Dez and Monika, and a third team Gunnar said were brand new but apparently not very good. How he knew that he didn’t say. They were crowded around a large piece of machinery that had apparently fallen sometime in the night. It had been discovered by an early Janitorial crew who cleaned up what they could and reported the rest. Gunnar had explained to him that it was some kind of shelf loader, a back-up system to the drones currently zipping around overhead.
One of the teams was busy turning the long machine onto its side to assess the damage. As it shifted, the wrenching sound of the metal scraping along the floor struck Desanto with the most intense feeling of déjà vu he’d ever experienced. Then the others backed up, giving the loader room to turn. The sight of it lying there was like a reagent, a chemical that set off a chain reaction of images, smells and sounds, a hundred-thousand sensations bombarding Desanto at once. And then he was somewhere else, there but not there, himself but not himself, with a small, weak man standing terrified before him.
The small man tried to run. The smell of his fear was intoxicating, his heartbeat a beacon to the voice of the hunger, a pulsing echo that lit up the darkness in waves of blood-sound. He was small and slow, but he was also tricky. He managed to stay ahead of the hunter, just out of reach. The hunter jumped on the man, ready to end the hunt, but the man fumbled and fell and hid as the hunter regained. The small man braced from the attack, the smashing of fury and body into the man’s hiding place, and the small man, he screamed and cried as the world shook around him. Then he pushed, he pushed and crashed and pained and pinned and doubted and feared and fled, his heartbeat a retreating light that flickered off into the dark, the smell of his fear lingering on the air like a lover’s kiss. But then came the stench, the thick waft of panic. The small man was trapped.
“No,” Desanto whispered. In a daze he had followed the memory away from the others, tracking the path of the hunt and panic-smell that still lingered on the air, until he came into sight of an elevator. Echoes thumped dully in his eardrums- the tribal drum sound of fists pounding. “Please, no,” he said.
But the hunter was somewhere closer now, somewhere that was many, a hundred dozen eyes all over, all focused on the panicking man clawing to be free. The hunter descended on the man a cloud of death, enveloping him in welcoming arms. The man cried out in anguish as his leg-flesh burst open and the blood, the blood smelled so sweet, so strong and so sweet and so full of fear, and the hunter, he dragged the small, screaming man away, but some part of him, some part stayed behind and licked the blood from the cold, metal floor, lapped it up with a darting tongue that drank and covered the trail, while the rest of him, the rest of the hunter pulled the small, struggling man through the dark and up the wall and into a hole, pulled him somewhere even darker, a place where the voice of the hunger itself echoed through the tight walls. And the hunger, it spoke in the head whispers of chemicals. And the hunger, it asked things of the hunter, asked him to hunt but not to kill, not yet, because the hunger had plans for the hunter, had plans for all the hunters as well as the others, the small men and the small women. Plans for their children. Plans for it all. And the hunger, when it spoke its truths as it did now, it spoke of a name, a name that was both man and hunter, a name that shook the walls of that dark place, a name that promised to bring about the new age, the age of hunters, the age of the new blood and the ancient flesh. And the walls, the darkness itself, vibrated with the name, the name of the promised one, the voice of the hunger beckoning the hunter forth, to bring with him his trophy, his prize, the hunger saying it now, speaking it now, thundering it now:
“There you are,” he heard Gunnar say behind him, but he ignored the man and his questions. He continued following the trail, the echoes of screams and the wet, lapping sounds of a tongue licking thick, dark liquid from the floor. He walked past the stacks, stumbling at times, until he came to a wall.
There was an air vent high above, ten feet up on the wall. Its face was broken and hung loose. “What are you doing,” Gunnar asked. Desanto pointed to the vent.
“We need to look in there.” Gunnar squinted, inspecting the vent above with his hands on his hips.
“No wonder it stinks, we probably have an infestation. Give me a minute.” Gunnar left, on a mission now. Desanto stared up at the broken vent, both wanting to know and not wanting to know what waited inside.
Gunnar came back after a minute with a Dornier in tow. The drone hovered a few feet back, dutifully following its new master. “C’mere,” Gunnar said, urging the unit forward. When it inched close enough he grabbed it by its arm and read the serial number printed on its belly. With a few taps Gunnar synced up his screen to the Dornier’s vidfeed. His own face popped up on the screen in his hands. He pointed to the vent above their heads. “You see that vent,” he asked, and the vidfeed focused on it. “I want you to go in there and see what you see. Understand?”
The Dornier’s headlamp turned on.
“Good boy.” The drone flew up to the vent, using its arms to delicately move the broken vent cover out of its way. Gunnar and Desanto crowded around the screen, watching the images it sent back in real-time. “I bet it’s a rat. Did I tell you about the time an eagle got loose in the Ark?”
“An eagle didn’t do this.”
“You’re right, I think it was a hawk.”
A faint object popped up on the screen, all the way down at the far end of the lightless ventilation shaft. “There’s something down there,” Desanto said, pointing it out. Gunnar gave the Dornier a retrieve command and it responded, navigating the dark tunnel, its headlamp creating stark shadows. The two men stopped breathing as they waited to see what it would bring them. The vidfeed was dark and hazy, but the outline of what the drone grabbed onto was unmistakable.
“What the…” Gunnar uttered.
“No,” Desanto said. “No, no, no.” The unit began to drag its find out of the shadows, like a hellish version of a carnival crane game. A few, breathless seconds later the drone reemerged from the vent. It flew back down to the men, heavier than before, and dropped the retrieved object at their feet. It made a dull, wet sound as it hit the floor in front of their shoes, both men backing up in horror.
It wasn’t a rat. It wasn’t an eagle or a hawk or anything of the sort.
It was an arm.