The door was open. Beyond it the fires burned.
As Nicolai and Kash’s boots pounded the metal, both men running at top speed down the long corridor, the door alarm at the far end began to blare. It was the sound of an imminent emergency lockdown, leaving them little time before the heavy blast door would slam into place, cutting them off from Engineering- along with whomever might still be alive in there.
The gravity in Engineering was going, that they could already see. As they closed in, each hard step taking them closer, they could see a handful of stiff passengers, either dead or unconscious, lifted up off the ground. They were all drifting the same direction, some of their fingers dragging along the floor. As they got within twenty feet of the open door, its alarm shouting warnings in their ears, they saw the reason for the body drift at the far end of the large room ahead.
Where there should have been an airlock, there was a gaping darkness. The open cavity was surrounded by gnarled and splintered nanometal, like broken fingers twisted into bony shapes. Where once stood a wall, there was an unencumbered view into the black eye of space.
“Dear God,” Nicolai whispered. For the first time in its history, the Ark was compromised.
At their moment of realization, the door closed in front of them. The blast door shot down from above, six-inch thick metal that fell into place and armed with such force they felt the rush of air on their sweating faces from five feet away. They ran straight into the door, slamming their bodies to a stop with all four hands. Their feet lifted slightly, wanting to leave the ground where the two gravity zones had met. Gravity versus dying gravity.
Their feet settled back into place, the screen next to them bleeding the word LOCKDOWN. Nicolai wanted to curse the Gods, but his partner spoke first.
“Sunn, can you open the door?”
The hologram appeared behind them. “Emergency lockdown has been engaged for the safety of-”
“You can’t just let them die,” Nicolai cut him off.
Sunn almost looked insulted by the interruption. “The order comes directly from Captain Ashby.”
She finally shows up. And just in time to give an order that doomed a handful of the passengers in her care. He would have to take that up with her the next time he saw her. In the meantime, he needed to reach the people on the other side of that door. He was certain some of them had to be alive.
They had to at least try.
“Let us help them,” he pleaded with the hologram.
“I am afraid not. The risk to the Ark is too great.”
“One minute. That’s all I’m asking. Minimal risk to save lives, the lives of the people you were made to protect.”
Sunn’s eyes ran the risk analysis. “I can temporarily override the lockdown, however when life support levels drop to critical levels, the door will automatically-”
“We know the drill, asshole,” Kash said. “Just open it and let us do our job.”
Sunn nodded. With a beep the screen to their right turned green. A decompressive hiss later, the blast door rose.
A horrible face appeared in the open doorway. Red and black flesh with glaring white eyes lurched out at them, cracked hands reaching for Nicolai’s face. He took a step back, a cry stuck in his closed throat.
“Monika,” Kash shouted. He rushed forward and grabbed her just as she toppled forward into the hallway’s struggling gravity. He brought her down to the ground carefully, laying her on her back.
Nicolai blinked, shaking off the terror that had seized him. The woman on the floor was badly burned. He only knew her in passing. It surprised him that Kash knew her by first name, but he faintly remembered a conversation they’d once had. Kash and Monika were in some of the same classes before their paths diverged toward different Vocations.
She was struggling to lift her head, her neck strained as she tried to speak. “Don’t talk,” Kash told her.
“Ph…Phoebe,” she managed to croak. She’d run out of strength. The burnt tendons in her neck relaxed as she let her head fall back to the floor, blacking out from the pain. Kash looked up at Nicolai, then Sunn, looking lost.
“Her life signs are unstable,” Sunn replied, and worry spread across Kash’s face.
Something caught Nicolai’s eye inside the demolished Engineering Deck. A badly-injured man, a Mechanic by the name of Seth, was ten feet up- crawling on the ceiling.
Amid the gnarled wreckage of what had once been Engineering, the sight was utterly surreal. Nicolai went to the open door- not open for much longer- where the gravity from the hall was losing to the now non-existent gravity in Engineering. It was an unsettling feeling, as if the laws of physics were battling inside his body. He felt the swim of nausea in his eardrums as he called out to Seth, shouting the man’s name, but Seth was shell-shocked, his world quite literally turned upside down as he crawled along the ceiling like a child looking for a toy.
A toy, Nicolai realized, was the man’s missing eye.
“Seth! Over here!” He called out to the Mechanic, but the sound struggled on the air. The Mechanic continued his confused crawl. Meanwhile, precious air moved past Nicolai, blowing past his sweat-slick skin as the oxygen was pulled through the door, into Engineering and out the airlock. It wasn’t the kind of explosive decompression the movies used to show, but it was plenty to worry about, a steady and irreversible tide. Behind him, he heard Kash ask Sunn what Monika’s chances were for survival.
“The odds of her life functions continuing are low-to-moderate. They will decrease with each minute she does not receive medical attention.” Sunn had never been much of a source of comfort, only unfeeling information. Kash left the woman behind to join Nicolai at the door, both men holding the door frame to keep from floating away. They both looked out at the crawling mechanic ten feet up and thirty away.
“You know you can’t go out there,” Kash said.
He knew that. He knew the risk was too great, and as much as he was willing to sacrifice himself for his fellow passengers, he had to be smart about it. If he died saving one man, he wouldn’t be able to help anyone else. It was a numbers game, one even Sunn could appreciate.
Speaking of Sunn, the hollow man himself had disappeared from the hallway. Nicolai picked him out across the large room. He was standing at what was left of the airlock, unaffected by the loss of gravity as he inexplicably stared out into space. The Holosystem, damaged in the blast, was struggling to keep him together. He was fading at the edges, lines of code bleeding out of him. Nicolai watched with fascination as Sunn looked down at his own, deteriorating hand, contemplating it with cold detachment.
A screaming alarm snapped Nicolai back to reality. The blast door alert was sounding again, warning of an imminent seal.
Time was running out to save the one-eyed man crawling on the ceiling.
Meanwhile, thirteen decks up, all four Bridge Officers had been watching the two men from the relative safety of the Ark’s bridge. They’d been observing the actions of the Peace Officers breathlessly. Staring at the screen most intensely of all was Captain Ashby, who at first had been furious at the Officers directly disobeying her lockdown order. But then, seeing one, burned woman pulled from the brink, then watching them struggle to reach a second passenger out of the camera’s view, she began to feel somewhat optimistic. She grew hopeful that a few diamonds could be mined from the black coal that was their lost Engineering deck.
As the two men on the screen called out to the unseen passenger, something jostled the camera. The view twisted violently askew before cutting to black. Captain Ashby turned away from the now completely dead vidscreen. “What was that?”
“Something took out the last camera.”
She stormed to her chair, pulling up the control screen. “I need eyes. Give me anything.”
Oberlander tried but shook his head gravely. “All the feeds are dead, Captain. Every one.”
Ashby turned to Comms Officer Hopes. “Are you picking up any communications outside the ship? Distress signals?”
“Negative,” he replied calmly. “No signals.”
She looked to Officer Pagani, hoping Navigation had some good news for her. “What do you see out there?”
Pagani worked his screen with amazing speed. “Sensors are tracking all kind of movement out there. It’s hard to sort it all out. Most of it is debris, but-” He stiffened, looking over at her in horror.
“What is it?”
“A few have active trackers.”
She swallowed. “How many?”
“Five. Maybe six.”
It was even worse than she imagined. Two of the trackers could have belonged to the space-walkers, but if no distress signals were being picked up that meant they’d been injured in the blast, or even killed. With each passing second of indecision and inaction, those people out there suffocated and boiled inside their own skin.
Even if she couldn’t save them, by God she would make sure they weren’t left behind.
She sat up in her chair, the new mission her only concern. “We need to get every one of those people back inside. Alive or dead, understand me?” Every head on the deck nodded at her at once. “Call all Med staff for emergency assist. And get me someone from Mining.”
Doctor Hannigan had been heading to see Ashby when it happened. She was on her way to deliver her ultimatum to the Captain- tell the passengers about Ness or she would- when a loud boom moved through the ship. People gasped, cried out, stopped walking as the floor shook under them. Concerned voices questioned each other about what it could have been. A few of them approached her. Some of the passengers looked to her as an authority figure, though she did her best not to foster that feeling. A minute later the screens on everyone’s wrists all went off at once.
All medical personnel report immediately to Deck Eight, Mining. Non-essential passengers return to quarters and await further instructions.
Was that where the explosion had come from? Mining level? Her instincts told her it was further away than that, but there was no time to second-guess orders. It didn’t sound like there was time to do much of anything except haul ass to Deck Eight.
She was too far from the Medlabs now to double back and gather supplies. Luckily the Mining area, like all high-risk zones on the Ark, was equipped with medical kiosks. They didn’t boast the most extensive collection of instruments and medicines, but they had the basics, enough to treat the most common injuries.
As she rounded a corner, she nearly collided with a man twice her age. She jumped, startled by his presence, then nearly groaned when she saw who it was.
James Crick. The Allcleric. “My apologies,” he said for scaring her.
“It’s alright. I’m in a rush.”
“Yes, I know. What the devil is going on,” he asked her.
“I know as much as you do. If you’ll excuse me.” She moved past him, continuing on her way. She was annoyed to see him turn and follow her, joining her by her side and keeping pace.
“You’re going to Mining, yes?”
“I’m heading that way. I’ll go with you.”
If he was going the same way, why had she almost ran head-first into him going the opposite direction? But it didn’t matter. Not just then. She had more important things to worry about. “They told passengers to go to their quarters,” she attempted.
“Non-essential passengers,” Crick clarified. “If people are dying, I would say I’m quite essential.”
“As you wish.” She didn’t feel comfortable around him in the best of conditions, and these were anything but. Still, there was little point in arguing with him. So long as he didn’t slow her down, she could hardly stop him from walking the same direction. She just didn’t have to like it.
There was something about him she’d never trusted.
“Hey! Over here!”
With the oxygen level on the Engineering deck plummeting, Nicolai was not only growing more anxious by the second, he was feeling lightheaded. If soon he couldn’t get the attention of Seth, the disoriented Mechanic crawling around on the ceiling, the man would be lost forever.
“Hey, fuckhead,” Kash screamed.
It worked. Seth looked directly at them with his one, good eye, a moment of clarity passing over his blank expression.
Nicolai nodded to Kash, then turned back to Seth. “This blast door is about to seal any second,” he explained as loudly as he could, straining to raise his voice in the thinning air. “You need to push off as hard as you can and launch yourself at us. Understand?”
Seth nodded numbly.
“Good. Now aim directly at me, okay? I want you to give it everything you’ve got. You have one shot at this.”
The Mechanic wedged his feet against the broken light fixture behind him. Squeezing his body down, he became like a coiled spring, a container of potential energy ready to release. Around him bits of burnt metal and flesh bounced lazily off the ceiling, continuing down toward the jagged mouth that sucked it all down into its star-filled belly. Seth ignored everything, focused on the door- and the hands stretched out to catch him.
Lift-off. Seth sprang forward, pushing hard off the light fixture. The Mechanic soared through the air, floating toward them with impressive speed as debris barely missed him, eyes wide with determination and the will to live.
He missed. Hitting the wall ten feet to their left, Seth’s body crumpled as a pained shout left him.
“He has horrible aim,” Kash noted.
“He’s missing an eye,” Nicolai replied.
The lockdown alarm sounded a second warning. Any moment the blast door would shoot down, crushing whatever was in its way. The door was designed to shut regardless of potential blockages, which usually meant pieces of ship, broken metal and other wreckage, but could just as easily mean meat and bone. He glanced over at the open airlock where Sunn had been standing, hoping to plead another ten seconds from him. But the holographic man was gone.
The fires were all gone, too, the flames fizzling out from low oxygen. If he wasn’t quick about it, Seth would go the way of the flames.
Nicolai spotted a demolished control panel on the outside of the door. Praying the emergency lockdown had cut the power to the deck’s energy grid, he reached in, grabbed on tight to a bundle of optic wires and ripped them straight out of the wall, not stopping until he’d pulled out fifteen feet of the stuff. He wrapped the end of the bundle around his fist, then threw the other end to Seth. It extended past the groaning Mechanic, floating not two feet from his head.
“Take it,” Nicolai shouted. Seth looked up, disoriented, but he did as he was told. He grabbed at the wire and managed to get a good hold of it.
Nicolai pulled Seth toward the door while Kash held Nicolai by his belt, making sure he didn’t get pulled into the strange gravity, the place where burnt things bumped and floated and the fading air smelled like cooked hair.
The final alarm sounded over their heads. They had five seconds until the blast door closed again- this time for good.
“Come on, pull, goddamn it,” Nicolai yelled at the one-eyed man. All patience had left him. Between the harsh tone of Nicolai’s voice and the threatening alarm, Seth seemed to suddenly understand how close to death he was treading. His burnt and bloodied face grew determined, a fire burning in his remaining eye. He gripped the wires tighter and began to pull himself toward the men.
He was three feet away. Three feet from making it to safety, when the legs appeared.
From overhead, high above the door where they couldn’t see, two sets of insect legs as thick as branches swooped down and snatched up Seth. They moved with incredible, twitch-like speed, pulling Seth away so hard that the bundle of wires was yanked from Nicolai’s grasp. Pain seared his palms, the wires breaking skin as they slid free.
It happened so fast that Nicolai found himself staring not at the legs themselves but the image they’d left behind in his eyes. Then suddenly he was falling backwards as Kash jerked him back by his belt. The heavy metal door clamped down, missing his nose by an inch. A moment later Seth’s tortured screams cut out- not because they’d stopped, but because the blast door had blocked them out.
With the burnt-in image fading from his mind, the sight of those thick, spidery legs ending in exoskeletal hands, black hands that had pulled Seth to his shrieking death, Nicolai realized just how much trouble the Ark was in.
“They want trouble? I’ll give them trouble.”
The Bridge had been trying to reach someone from Mining for a full minute with no response. Ashby wanted to go down there, punch whoever wasn’t answering her calls and oversee the operation herself, but there were strict rules that prohibited her from leaving the Bridge during an emergency. Much the same way pilots back on Earth stayed inside a locked cockpit- before the increasing social unrest grounded flights permanently- so too were the Officers confined to the Bridge.
No one in. No one out. This was what they did. How they maintained control. Divide and thrive.
A life made possible by quarantine.
Someone from Mining finally answered the call. “Hello, Captain,” a man’s voice replied.
Ashby sat forward. “It’s about time. We have need for an immediate search and rescue, and I do mean immediate. There’s been a breach on Deck Eight with confirmed men overboard. I’m sending you every Doctor and Nurse we have, I want your people teaming up to bring them back.”
There was a moment of silence. “I’m afraid that’s impossible,” the man said calmly.
“Excuse me?” He didn’t sound like Peabody, current head of Mining, or anyone else she knew from Deck Eight for that matter. “Who is this,” Ashby asked the stranger.
“We are the Children of Eden,” he replied. “And we control the Ark now.”