14. Praeceptor

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Baptiste’s eyes opened.

As his lids fluttered, his eyes rolling forward in his throbbing head, he became aware of a blinding spotlight shining down on him. It was as if a heavenly fire had discovered him, singled him out in the dark and stared down on him from the very brink of creation. His body felt heavy. Wrong. Thick blood pumped through him, veins like steel sewage pipes. His skin slipped between phases of shivering cold and white hot panic. Something was in his system, chemicals that numbed and slowed him, compounds that left behind clinical throat-tastes; green and purple smells at the back of the sinuses.

He was on a Medbed, but how long had he been there? How many hours had he lay on the slab? He faintly recalled being attacked. A thundering of legs. After a few, lethargic minutes, when he’d regained enough of his mind to believe the words he thought would reach his mouth unchanged, he tried to call for help. His tongue was swollen and cold, like a slug that had crawled into his mouth and died, but he managed to call out, shouting up to the flaming heavens.

“Help,” he rasped. “Someone, please.”

A primordial wall of sounds answered him. Screams and barking, whooping and snarling, laughter and coughing and chirping and hacking, a cacophony of indescribable nature noise. Assaulted by horrific voices and wordless utterances, Baptiste began to choke. His throat collapsed, the airway blocked by irritated flesh, and he turned his head to the side, his body seizing and lurching until he nearly vomited. Stars danced in his vision until they fell and died.

The bed beneath him appeared to be an ancient operating table. It was nothing like the ones found in the Medbay, closer to the operating theaters of the early 1900s he’d seen in old medical texts. He was naked against the harsh kiss of its cold, metal surface, and his ankles, he noticed, were bound by some kind of restraint, made of a material completely unknown to him. It was thick, rounded and black, and possessing an unusual texture unlike metal or plastic. The more he shifted, the tighter it drew against his ankles. Meanwhile the primordial sounds still rattled in his skull, the screams from the darkness multi-layered and never-ending.

Deciding it was time to leave, wherever he was, Baptiste tried to sit up. He felt wrong. Unbalanced. His body only half-responded to his commands, making the strain to rise up from the operating table a sweaty, fumbling challenge. The ankle restraint tightened around him, responding to his struggling legs. It cut into his circulation. He tried to reach down and remove it, to let the blood back into his feet, but the result was uneven at best. His nerves were still deadened, limbs cold. He wiggled his fingers and toes to will some dexterity back into them, but his mind screamed back at him that something was off.

Closer to the truth, something was missing. Wiggling bluish fingers in front of his own face, he counted to five before he gave up. He started over. Five again. Then he looked down at his naked torso, inspecting it from left to right, and found not all was as it should have been.

His arm. It was gone. Cut off above the elbow and sewed back up, the limb ended in an anti-climactic mound of skin. His mind tried to make sense of it but couldn’t. Baptiste felt like throwing up. Pressure built up in his head. He screamed into the darkness, and the darkness screamed back. He thanked God his body couldn’t feel the agony his brain was experiencing.

He cried and cursed until he couldn’t anymore. Then he calmed himself down and studied the place where his right arm had been. Someone had patched him up expertly, the cuts clean and precise. Whatever they’d used to stitch him up, nanothread or possibly even genpolymer scaffolds, the work was invisible to his eyes. Remarkably, the wound was nearly healed.

Either he’d been on that table longer than he thought, or whoever had patched him up was an incredible surgeon. An absolute artist of the flesh.

The full memory of the spider creature came back to him. Those terrible legs stomping at him. Twitching, twisting antennae-hair, inhuman eyes on a human face. Those terrible sounds still surrounded him, anger and pain and hunger, and it all added up to something malevolent. Baptiste didn’t know what was going on, but it pointed to hellish futures, possibilities he needed to warn the others about, to do everything necessary to prevent.

He tried again to look past the spotlight, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness beyond, and began to pick out details of a laboratory; tables of surgical tools; viewing instruments; some kind of fabrication engine bearing customized alterations and modular additions. The only thing he knew for sure was that he’d never seen this part of the ship, and he doubted anyone else had.

Then, all at once, all the screaming and crying, the growling and snorting and moaning, all fell silent. It was as if a dark presence had entered the room, something so dangerous it scared them silent- like a forest at nighttime in which the apex predator had entered.

Ecce agnus Dei,” a terrible voice came. “Behold the lamb of God.”

Baptiste’s stomach twisted at the almost inhumanly cold sound. It was as if death itself had found its frequency in the register of a man’s voice. To his surprise the restraint suddenly slipped free of his legs, revealing itself to be a living thing, a snake-like appendage that retreated from the table and slithered away into the dark. Baptiste pulled his legs away, horrified by how long the thing had been on him, touching his skin. A thin film had been left behind, a layer of mucus on his naked legs.

Between that and the voice, it was enough for him. He swung his legs over the side of the operating table and jumped off, his bare feet finding the floor. He was too weak, though, too drugged and disoriented, and his legs failed to support his weight. Baptiste crashed to the floor a pile of naked pain. His head smacked against the ground and he cried out, cockroaches and other, unidentifiable insects spreading out along the floor from the impact. Baptiste blinked and shook his nausea-thick head as the teeming layer of bugs skittered away.

That wasn’t the worst of it. It was that the terrible voice, the voice of the man responsible for all this, was laughing at him, a sound somehow devoid of all feeling. “Such weak constructs,” the voice said. Baptiste turned over onto his back, propping himself up on his remaining elbow.

“Who are you?” He strained to see, but the man was hidden in the darkness beyond the spotlight, still nothing more than a disembodied voice.

“Simply a man, a man who wanted to be more.” Something stirred in Baptiste’s vision. A shadow within a shadow. The more he concentrated, the more he believed it to be in the shape of a man. But then he’d been fooled before. “You may return to the table now,” the voice added nonchalantly.

Baptiste carefully rose to his feet, but not to get back on the table. He planned on running straight at the sick bastard, on throwing all his weight at the man and beating him to the ground, on not stopping even after the man had ceased moving, or breathing. But before he could make his move, something at the shadowy man’s side growled at him. It was a grunting and snarling sound, like those of a hyena mixed with the sucking air sounds of a snake’s hiss.

“Were you thinking of doing something bold,” the voice asked. “I don’t like that, Professor, not at all, and when I’m upset, my pets are upset.”

Baptiste was growing angrier by the second. Clinging to the operating table, chastised by the man who had abducted and maimed him. With his senses returning, the rage had been allowed to grow, his belly like a furnace running on full. “Screw you. Show me your face, you coward,” he said through gritted teeth.

“So that you may touch it?”

The familiar words snapped Baptiste from the focus of his rage. “What?”

“Up, up the long, delirious burning blue, I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace, where never lark, or ever eagle flew. And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod, the high untrespassed sanctity of space…” he trailed off before the end, allowing for Baptiste to take the rest.

“Put out my hand, and touched the face of God,” Baptiste finished. He added, “You’re insane.”

“I don’t like that word. It stifles all meaningful discussion.”

“What is this place,” Baptiste asked. He was feeling weak. The poem, it had been a favorite of his mother’s. John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an aviator in World War II, had written it just months before dying in a mid-air collision. Baptiste glanced around, noticing glints of what looked like the bars of cages in the distance.

“This? This is where death delights in helping life.”

Baptiste knew those words, too. They came from a Latin phrase, a motto used by many morgues, as well as other places dealing in anatomical pathology. If this was a morgue then he was addressing the mortician. He could only take that information one way: that his captor didn’t intend to let him live. “I don’t know who you are or what those things are,” he motioned to the darkness, “but whatever you’re doing here is wrong. I promise you, you will be stopped. Maybe not by me, and maybe not today, but this will come to an end. I’ll see to that, you sick fuck.”

The voice paused. The head shook. “Please, Professor, don’t stoop to the level of lesser, more violent men. These threats of yours aren’t just ugly, they’re empty as well.”

Baptiste ran at the man. He had every intention of stooping to the level of lesser, more violent men. He may have been weak but his anger was atomic. But before he could make it even to the end of the operating table, a dark vine of flesh shot out at him. He felt something strike his knee, and then his feet were pulled out from under him. The next thing he felt was the harsh hug of the floor on his naked back, bits of skin scraping free.

The air temporarily knocked out of his lungs, Baptiste squeezed his eyes shut and watched fireworks explode against the movie screens of his eyelids. The cacophony of primal screams rose once again in his roaring eardrums, and when he opened them again, when his eyes looked up to the light once more, this time it was blocked out by the sight of snarling teeth holding back a wormy, trembling tongue.

“Tell me, Professor, as a devout believer in science, do you believe homo sapiens to be superior?” The voice spoke from somewhere past the creature growling in his face. Baptiste was too afraid to answer, too afraid to say anything while the long, rattish face snapped its fangs at him, and yet his eyes, though terrified of what else they might find, were drawn further down, down the creature’s body, where it became a tube of muscle not unlike a snake, yet crawling with a hundred sets of millipede legs and other, unimaginable adaptations. “You will respond to my questioning, or you will not like the consequences,” the voice added.

The creature drooling sick-smelling spit onto Baptiste’s face opened its mouth wide. Baptiste braced for the inevitable closing of teeth, like a sprung bear trap about to clamp down on his skull, but the bite didn’t come. Instead he peered down the dark gullet of the reptilian hyena, where deep down, past the needle-tipped teeth, past the ridges of pink and black mouthflesh, something, some inner thing looked back at him. It was like a fattened, half-swallowed fetus, sleepily awaiting its feeding in a bed of throat.

“I can appreciate your delicate state, Professor, so in the sake of fairness I’ll repeat the question once, and only once: do you believe the species homo sapiens to be superior?”

The throat-fetus yawned, bathing lazily in a lake of stinking spittle as its host closed its mouth, plunging it back into darkness. “S-superior to what,” Baptiste asked.

“Do not feign naivete for the semblance of morality. Is the human being superior to all other species found on Earth? Or shall I say, formerly found on Earth,” he added with a hint of amusement.

“Just…just the…just the brains.”

“Please do speak in full sentences, Professor. I was hoping to have a half-way decent conversation.”

The creature licked its scarred and pocked lips, its millipede legs shivering in hungered, undulating patterns. The price of failure was clear to all present. “W-we’re not better in every way. Just our b-brains.”

“I see. Do humans possess the largest brains?”

“No.”

“Do they have the highest brain-to-body ratio?”

The man in the shadows was referring to humans in the third person, a choice that seemed to stretch beyond the current line questioning. It was as if he considered himself outside of the human race. “No,” Baptiste answered.

“You’re still not speaking properly, Professor, and it’s beginning to upset me.” On cue, the hyena-thing bristled and snapped, the teeth mere centimeters from Baptiste’s nose.

“Please, please, okay.” Baptiste dug himself into the ground, as if he could push his body down into it. He took a breath, trying to clear his mind and answer the question. Thinking clearly while scared wasn’t easy, not while self-preservation was the only thing that mattered. “We…we don’t have the largest brains, what we have are the most complex brains. A highly-developed consciousness.”

“Ahh, consciousness. Man is superior because he holds the forbidden knowledge, the knowledge of all creation. He seeks to understand it, and thus himself.” Seemingly satisfied, the man made a sound, emitted deep within his throat, at which the reptilian hyena creature backed up immediately. Baptiste took a deep breath, that much further from a bloodied, screaming death.

“I…yes, I suppose. We’re the universe trying to understand itself.”

“Now you’re speaking like a Professor. Newton told us that nature is exceedingly simple and harmonious with itself, those famous words that defined the foundation of all modern sciences, and yet humans still haven’t mastered nature. So tell me, how superior can they truly be?” The hyena-thing slipped back into the shadows, rejoining its master. Other things danced in the dark all around them. Slinking dark spots and lumbering masses.

“What the hell are those things,” Baptiste finally asked.

“They are the future. They are the old flesh wrought new.”

Baptiste suddenly recalled Crick’s speech about the cults. A mixture of science and religion in a way that destroys both. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? The cult that worships Blackwood.” His question was met with laughter. “What’s so funny?”

Barba crescit caput nescit. The beard grows, but the head grows no wiser. Those fools don’t wish to understand the universe. They look for mirrors to confirm their beliefs, whereas I look to those who know all and see all. I look to please those who offer knowledge of all things, the Ancient Ones, the ones who are both gate and key. The others seek control through knowledge. They seek dominion over death, whereas I seek to work alongside it.” The sounds from the darkness grew loud again. Labored breathing and half-words that echoed of aeon-dead horrors.

“You attacked me, abducted me, sent your things to pin me to the ground,” Baptiste said. “You can’t put a man in a cage and then turn around and talk about control.”

“Soon enough you’ll discover that here, in this theater, I can do anything I want. You won’t be in the cage for very long, just enough that you’ll stop wishing to be free of it. When you leave this place, you’ll leave it better than before. You really have such wonderful things awaiting you. One could say I almost envy you.”

Baptiste pulled his limbs close to his body- the ones that were left. “What are you planning to do to me,” he asked.

The man in the shadows moved closer, just enough for the light to catch. Baptiste caught sight of the awful structure of his face, a patchwork of flesh surrounding eyes like twin caves. “Why, professor,” he said, “what all loving Gods do- I’m going to share my knowledge with you.”

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