Everyone was tired. No one was talking about the nightmares.
Doctor Hannigan grabbed a cup of yogurt and an apple from the cafeteria line, then poured herself some coffee and took a chair away from the aquarium glass. She never could eat with fish staring at her. All those blank stares and gaping mouths.
The other passengers around her looked even more exhausted than usual. Sagging faces, purple lines under their eyes, they clearly weren’t sleeping well. Hannigan had talked to enough patients in the last few days to know that sleep disorders had been rampant lately. An unexplained rash of violent dreams had beset the Ark, children and adults alike waking up screaming from dark visions they could barely recollect or explain. As for Hannigan’s recent sleep patterns, she almost never usually drank coffee- and that was all she needed to say on the matter.
But then she had enough reasons to worry without bad dreams. Vanessa Brigham, the Genlab worker who’d been attacked the day before, had been stung by something unknown. Hannigan and her team had nearly missed the entry point when they’d examined her less than an hour after the incident, the tiny wound only discovered through a combination of high-res scans and a Nurse’s keen eye. Three hours later the wound was nearly gone. It had healed shockingly fast, as if whatever stung her had somehow helped the healing process. It reminded her of how mosquito saliva acted as an anesthetic, so their prey wouldn’t feel the bite. Yet mosquito saliva also contained an anti-coagulant to keep the blood flowing, whereas this was the exact opposite, as if the desire was to close up the wound as quickly as possible. Vanessa’s condition had stabilized, apart from some spikes in her blood pressure and slightly-raised cortisone levels, but they’d decided to keep her sedated until they had more answers.
Then there was the matter of Officer Nicolai’s report. The man had been vague about what he’d seen, and what he’d seen didn’t make sense. There was talk of an animal with black tendrils that crawled up walls and moved lightning-fast, but there was little to back up the man’s story, other than some black residue found inside Vanessa’s helmet. The lab results on the recovered specimens were still in process.
Ark One had become a hotbed of activity in a short time. It had only been a few days since the gruesome discovery down in Storage. People were returning somewhat to normal, though the mood was still tense. Peace Officers had searched extensively for Baptiste, including a full scan of the ventilation system, without turning up so much as a hair. Sunn had a fleet of Dornier Drones on constant watch, and their buzzing had become ubiquitous in the air in and around the ship, but there was a sense that people were already giving up on ever finding the man, whether alive or dead. With so much going on, Sunn’s algorithms had triggered three times the normal amount of Revivals. Some of them were Doctors and Nurses themselves, meaning once they were awake and up to speed they were assisting in further revivals. Others were Peace Officers, Sanitation workers, Cafeteria crew, and at least one Teacher, all tasked with carrying the extra workload.
In short, the Ark was becoming a lot more crowded.
Cybele finished her yogurt, deciding to save the apple for the walk back. She got up from her table and left the cafeteria behind, taking a stroll past Central Park, where far more passengers than normal were crowded into the area. Soon she saw why: a few of the Allclerics were working people up into a frenzy, spouting apocryphal nonsense to anyone who would listen. They talked of coming plagues and other tribulations. The group was led by James Crick, one of the more outspoken Allclerics Cybele had ever had the opportunity to treat and subsequently avoid. He had hellfire in his eyes, and she could almost swear he was getting off on all the talk of suffering and pain. Crick was a man with a taste for brimstone, and a man like that thrived on panic and uncertainty.
As she watched from the outside of the crowd, careful not to be drawn into the discussion, a few Peace Officers pushed past her to deal with the situation. One of them was extremely muscular, a brick of a man who began to disperse the crowd while his partner explained to the Allclerics that if they wanted to hold a theological debate on the ship, there were entire sections designated for such discussions.
That was the nice version, anyway. The way it came out was more like, “Take this bullshit back down to Four.”
James Crick simply smiled the smile of the righteous. “We want no trouble, my son. We’re here to save your souls.”
“The only thing you need to save is your breath. Now move it.” The Officers started getting forceful in their methods of breaking up the crowd. A few passengers put up a fuss, but the truth was most of them were only there for the free show. Cybele backed up a few feet, giving them all plenty of room to maneuver. As she did, she noticed a third uniform had joined the scene, this one the color of a Deck Officer. It was First Officer Oberlander.
“Everyone needs to calm down and go about their business,” he said, doing his best to project the sense of an authority figure. He added, “Captain Ashby’s orders.”
“Oh, yeah? Then where is she,” someone shouted. The voice was a bit too loud and sloppy for what had preceded it. The crowd parted to seek out the owner of the voice, finding within their numbers a man most of them knew, and none of them wanted to look in the eye: Randal Marlow.
He was drunker than usual, and screaming at the Officers about their part in his son’s disappearance. “What’re you doing about this,” he shouted, nearly in tears. “What’re you doing about my boy? Where the fuck is our Captain when we need her?”
Cybele couldn’t blame the man for his anger. After he’d lost his wife, his son was all he’d had. Now Baptiste was gone, too, and without something to live for, traveling became meaningless. Everything became meaningless.
The Officers continued dispersing the crowd, who were now more receptive to leaving the area, while Oberlander tried to calm down Randal. The young Officer was covering for the Captain once again. People wanted to know where Ashby was, what she had to say about the state of affairs. They looked to her for guidance, and she hadn’t shown her face in days, though only Cybele knew why.
As much as she felt for Ashby, the Captain should have been there.
Cybele left the scene behind, heading toward the elevators. Ness wasn’t getting any better, she knew that, and with so much going on the last thing the Ark needed was a pandemic. The Doctor had woken up with a question in mind, and that question had just been answered. She would go to Captain Ashby, today, and give her one last chance. One chance to come clean to everyone on the Ark about her wife’s illness.
She took a bite of her apple. Looking down at it, she saw a squirming worm sticking up from the bite she’d taken. She’d nearly bitten the worm in half, missing it by mere centimeters.
One day. That’s what she was going to give Ashby. One day to tell the truth. If the Captain wouldn’t do it, she would. Cybele threw out the apple, worm and all.
Abigail woke up feeling every bit of her newest hangover. It was her fifth in a row, brought on by another long night at the Bottle. For anyone keeping score, it must have looked like she was going for some kind of record, and at this rate she was heading for a strong finish to the week. She liked to think that she was just having a bit of fun, but deep down she understood it was the only way she knew how to fend off the unhappiness that had crept into her day-to-day life. God forbid she talk to someone about it. Somewhere along the way, and despite her best efforts, she’d become her mother.
After a quick shower, Abigail threw on her cleanest uniform and headed out, thinking of nothing but filling her stomach with all the bread and coffee she could find. Not even a minute later she came across one of her top five reasons for drinking.
“Gunnar Larsen, what the fuck are you doing on Deck Five,” she prodded. “I thought you lived on Six with all the other second-class citizens.”
He shook his head, that handsome fuck. “Deckism is an ugly trait,” he replied.
“Yeah? So is jealousy.”
Gunnar snorted. “What happened to you? You look like shit.”
“Thanks. We can’t all wake up beauty queens like you.”
“Now who’s jealous?”
She punched his chest. “You still haven’t told me what you’re doing on my deck.” Had he come to see her? Was that something he would do?
“Just picking up Desanto,” Gunnar said. Of course he wouldn’t come for her, she thought. Why would he do that? One of these days she was just going to have to hit him over the head and drag him back to her quarters. “We have a big day ahead of us,” Gunnar added.
“Finally picking out those matching wedding dresses.”
“That’s next week. Today I’m taking him on the walk.”
“That’s a big step. I didn’t think he was ready for that.”
“Only one way to find out.”
She nodded. “I guess. What about his memory?”
“It’s been better the past few days. The Vocation’s coming back to him, but not much else.”
“Is there anything else?”
Gunnar shrugged. “Fucked if I know.”
They parted ways a minute later, though she got the feeling something was being left unsaid. At work Abigail started her day the usual way, by checking the sensor readings on the analyzers over a giant mug of black coffee. There was an unusual spike in water pressure in section C3, so she downed the rest of her coffee and headed over that way, just to make sure there weren’t any visible issues. Two lefts and a right down the dark, humid passages, tunnels she knew like the inside of a bottle of scotch, and she reached C3.
There was nothing obviously wrong that she could see, but she tightened all the valves and screws with her multiwrench just to be sure. Better to rule out the easy fixes first before escalating the issue to a service call. Just as she was about to leave, Abigail heard whispering around the corner.
She paused to listen, quickly realizing it was two Orange Suits who had snuck off from their posts. She could only make out a few words, the strangest of which was the phrase, “The abnormal ones.” Abigail found herself inching closer to hear better when she remembered her mantra. Mind your damn business, Abigail. It was the one thing that ensured she wasn’t completely like her nosy, meddling, drama-inducing mother.
As she was going to leave, to head back to her station and check the sensor readouts again, see if things had cleared up, she heard one final word, one name whispered from the mouth of one of the two Orange Suits around the corner that made her stop.
Abigail couldn’t ignore it anymore- now it was her damn business.
“Come on,” Gunnar said, a hint of impatience in his voice. Desanto barely had time to slip on his shoes before his friend pushed him out the door of his quarters.
“What’s the rush,” Erick asked.
“We’re on a timetable.”
“We’re going for a walk,” is all Gunnar replied.
Desanto was a little confused by his partner’s sudden interest in promptness, but he chalked it up to a time sensitive service call. On the way to Engineering, Gunnar explained to him that it was more of a pet project than an initiated call. More specifically, it was an issue that Gunnar had been trying to address for years without success, an issue he’d nicknamed, ‘Y-Plus.’
“See this,” Gunnar asked, pulling a strip of thin but strong-looking metal from his uniform pocket. He’d even brought along some visual aids to help with the explanation. “Do you know what this is?”
“Nanometal, I think.” It had the telltale gray sheen of nanomaterial.
“Good. So what’s so special about nanometal?”
“It’s a self-repairing material, which means it’s resistant to breakdown.”
“Very good. And considering how expensive it is to manufacture, so to speak, what do we mostly use it for?”
Desanto had to think about that one for a second. They had reached Engineering and were heading toward a different locker room than usual, at the far end of the deck. There was a sense of urgency in the air, the other Fabricators and Mechanics nodding solemnly to the pair. “For the hull,” Desanto remembered.
“Extra points to the man with half a missing brain! That’s right. Between the radiation, the debris, the micrometeorites and the extreme temperature changes, the outside of the ship is put through hell. It’s not as much of a problem for shorter trips, but for long-term travel, all those dings and dents become a big fucking problem. Enter nanometal, the self-fixing wonderstuff that’s half as thick as aluminum, five times as strong as Kevlar and lasts twenty times longer than both. Even still, the stresses of deep space are so bad that we have to replace it entirely on a thirty year rotation. Following so far?”
“More or less.”
“I’ll skip the math in the next part, just know that I’ve done it. Repeatedly.” Gunnar explained that the Fabrication Engines manufactured X amount of nanometal per year, which was exactly enough of the material to cover Y amount of the Ark’s surface area, no more and no less. The problem, Gunnar said, was that they were always coming up short. “The amount of nanometal we produce over a thirty-year period isn’t enough to cover the ship. It’s as if X and Y aren’t equal,” he summed up.
“You got it. My theory- and it’s not a popular one- is that the actual size of the ship is larger than we think.”
Desanto chewed on his friend’s theory. Meanwhile, the locker room they’d entered had a more industrial, utilitarian feel than the gymnasium vibe of the one they normally used. Rather than sinks and shower pods it was outfitted with equipment storage closets and repair bays. More tellingly, no one else was in the room other than the two men. “How much are the two numbers off by,” he asked.
“About four thousand square meters. Give or take.”
“I know, and yet I can’t get anybody to listen. Every time I bring it up they just run the numbers past Sunn. Sunn says it’s okay, so they say it’s okay. But it’s not okay. Something’s fucked. Something’s super-fucked, I just don’t know what.” Gunnar pressed the button on two adjacent lockers, both of which were twice as wide as a standard locker. The doors opened to reveal a pair of spacesuits, complete with full-faced helmets.
Desanto suddenly had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. “What are we doing,” he asked.
“I told you,” Gunnar said with a grin, “we’re going for a walk.”
Abigail heard the sound of boots on metal as the Orange Suits retreated down the passageway. They had talked about not wanting to be late, though she could only guess what for. She’d known for a long time that her fellow Recyclers got up to some pretty weird shit- something about spending their lives in the steamy bowels of the Ark, their hands up to the wrists in dirty water and other, unmentionable things, steered their predilections toward stranger fare. But this, this was something else.
She quietly followed the Orange Suits to a secluded area, one she rarely went to, partially because it had nothing to do with Wastewater Processing and partially because she often saw workers sneaking off there and didn’t want to get involved. She started closing the distance between her and the two men, knowing they were likely heading for one of several doors she had no clearance for, and sure enough she rounded the corner just in time to see them disappearing through one such controlled-access door. Abigail crept up to the closing door and slipped her fingers in, stopping it just before it had a chance to close and relock. With a guarded peek, she carefully followed the men inside.
Though she’d never been in that area before, Abigail knew something was wrong the moment she set foot in the room. The air was heavy with the stink of death and rot. She covered her nose as she nearly gagged on the foul smells invading her nostrils. Even Recyclers had their limits, and this went far beyond them. Equally concerning was the strange chanting echoing off rusted pipes, swirling about her until she felt dizzy from their disorienting effects. And even still, with the smells and sounds of ancient death assailing her, she wasn’t prepared for the sights she saw when finally she peeked out from that shadowy place.
As Abigail watched in horror, a crowd of men and women performed a ritual the likes of which she had not only ever seen, but had neither heard of nor imagined. Some clothes, other semi-naked except for ceremonial robes and painted skin, they gathered around a vat of the most disgusting combinations possible. Dead animals mixed with spoiled food and soupy flesh in a pool of sluice and pulp. Circled around, some speaking in tongues, their chants rose and fell to the rhythm of synchronized sacrifice and bloodletting. The words to their mad singing took the form of no language Abigail knew, though occasionally they seemed to be rooted in the terminology used in Recycling. Elsewhere in the vast room, assorted individuals performed twisted seances and blood rituals. With her terror and disgust mounting, several of what she could only assume were cultists began to engage in sex acts, their painted flesh undulating in patterns that invoked images of death and rebirth, while the others circled them and redoubled their ominous chants and invocations.
At some point, when Abigail decided she’d seen enough to fill ten reports to the Captain and the Peace Officers and anyone else who would listen, she heard the hushed voices of two men holding a discussion off to the side. They had an authoritarian tone that made Abigail believe they were in charge of the vile ritual.
“That Peace Officer has been poking his head in my business. She must have told him something,” one said.
“Your feelings for her have only caused you trouble,” the other said.
“Every Adam needs his Eve.”
She inched closer, trying to see their faces while remaining hidden from both them and the others.
“The time approaches, brother. Our friend says all is ready.”
“You pulled all our people out?”
“Of course. There should be minimal losses on our side.”
Inching out just a bit more, she made out the face of one of the men. It was Zane, a man of which she’d heard plenty of cultist rumors. She’d only spoken to him a few times on account of how much he creeped her out, a feeling more than one person had confirmed in conversation. Now she could see why, though she couldn’t see who he was speaking with. Seeing the second man’s face wasn’t worth the risk of being caught, however, and so she decided she had stayed long enough. Abigail backed away, retreating back into the shadows of that forsaken dungeon of sex and sacrifice.
When she turned to leave, she found herself face-to-face with an older man. She nearly cried out from the surprise, and for a moment she prayed that, like her, he had only followed his curiosity there, that he was an outsider witnessing more than he’d bargained for. But her prayer died a quick death when the man, an Allcleric she recognized as going by the name of James Crick, smiled at her in a way that sent a shiver through her.
“Brothers, sisters,” he called out to the others, “our sacred day has been blessed with a visitor.”