Desanto had noticed something strange about Svarog, aside from the obvious. Sure, he whispered violent things to himself, and his eyes darted around inside his skull like two roaches trying to free themselves from a glue trap, but neither of those bothered him.
The strange thing was, the man hadn’t said a word to him. It had been some time now since they’d discovered him wedged between the ship and the sensor array, yet he’d only directly addressed Gunnar. He occasionally looked Desanto’s way, but he did it with a strange smile, one that betrayed an extreme nervousness. Did Desanto frighten him? And if so, why? For now he’d decided to leave it alone, concentrating on following that damned holographic line through space. The thin rail of light led back to the airlock, now much larger thanks to the explosion that had ripped it wide open.
The voyage was slow. There was so much floating debris to avoid, some of it metal, some of it bone, but all of it could tear their suits open if they weren’t careful. They were sure to move as slowly as possible, only leaning forward enough to engage their Dornier thrusters at five or six percent.
With some hesitation they reached the airlock. They propelled through the Ark’s black wound, continuing into Engineering- or what remained of it.
The large room had become a steel catacomb, a monument to violent death delivered by sudden, uncaring physics. Great, big broken machines tumbled through the space, knocking into walls and dragging across the floor. A thick blood bubble floated past them. They made every move necessary to stay well out of its way.
“There’s our pack of deserters,” Gunnar said, pointing to the charging station in the next room. “You’re cowards, every one of you,” he called out to the Dorniers docked there, though it was doubtful they could hear him.
Desanto found a camera and tried waving to it before realizing its lens had been shattered to pieces. Every camera he checked, it was the same story, burnt out or blown up. Svarog, left to float on his own at the center of Engineering, looked around at the demolished Engineering deck with an expression that couldn’t be read. Sadness didn’t cover it. Desanto checked the nearest door, though he already knew what he’d find.
“Lockdown,” he confirmed. Gunnar shook his head.
“Which means there’s no way we’re getting it open.”
“Are we screwed?”
Gunnar snorted. “Oh, we’re most definitely screwed. But if we’re the right combination of quick, smart and lucky, we might not be the dead kind.”
Desanto liked the sound of that. And also didn’t. “What are you thinking?”
Gunnar looked around, formulating a plan. “I’m thinking we can make our way up to Mining on Eight.”
“Outside the Ark?”
“There’s a second spacewalk, that would be our best chance at getting back inside. But,” he added, “if the Ark is completely locked down, even the manual overrides won’t work. At least…not from…the…”
Gunnar trailed off, his eyes wide as his attention shifted elsewhere, to something far above Desanto. Desanto turned to discover what had his partner looking that way. When he saw what it was, a feeling like sharp ice stabbed his gut.
A massive, gray-white ball was stuck up in the corner, embedded where the deck’s wall met the ceiling. It was a large mass of material, tacky and proteinaceous, and appeared to be the kind of thick webbing produced by a spider’s spinnerets. Yet it was far too large an amount for a single spider to produce. Not even a thousand spiders working in concert could achieve those results. As the three men stared up at the mass of organic silk, there was one fact they couldn’t ignore.
It was the size of a man.
Zane smiled, for today was a holy day.
He and his fellow Children had taken over the Mining Deck with relative ease, with not one Miner losing his or her life in the process. It was important to him that the Ark sustained only necessary loss of life during the takeover, a philosophy he’d been sure to instill in his brothers and sisters before the operation was underway. It wasn’t that he suffered any particular attachment to those people, but there was no point in frightening the herd and causing a panic if it could be avoided. In fact, if all went right, if the Gods smiled on his actions this day, he might even be given the chance to save a few souls along the way. Turning the wicked people of that ship into believers, that could be the ultimate test of his faith.
Peabody, the old man in charge of the Mining Deck, had surprised Zane by putting up the most fight out of everyone. When Zane and his fellow Children had descended on that place, knives in hand ready to do the good work, Peabody’s shouts had been the loudest, his fists the most aggressive. After he’d outright refused to be led out with the others and brought to a safe holding place. The other Miners, a skeleton crew of three, as there was currently no mining operation underway, followed his example and began to put up a fight.
Zane understood this. He appreciated their loyalty to their leader. But he also knew it couldn’t be allowed to bloom. A spark like that could become a flame in no time at all. In the end Peabody only had to lose two fingers to the blade to fall in line. The others quickly followed.
Talking to Ashby, Zane addressed a floating Holo of the Captain’s scowling face and tense body, backed up by three, smaller Holos of the remaining Bridge Officers. “You’ve become lost,” he told the simulation of her anger, “and you’ve dragged us all along with you.”
“And just who the hell are you,” Ashby asked.
Zane scoffed. “What a shame this is to see. You don’t even recognize your own people, Captain, how do you expect to lead us if you don’t know us?”
“There are thousands of passengers on board,” she defended. “Now answer the question.”
“Very well. My name is Zane Nolan. I am the chosen leader of the Children of Eden.” The others nodded all around him, lending him their silent allegiance. He drew power from the purity of their belief, as he always had. “You know us, yes?”
“Cultists,” Ashby replied. Zane could only smile.
“We’ve heard all the names before. Those labels serve as proof of your fear.”
“Well, Zane Nolan, aside from the power of prayer, tell me how you plan to mount a mutiny from all the way down there?” He saw her glance down, presumably at a screen.
“I could start killing people until you came down from your ivory tower.” He motioned to Peabody, currently under the watch of one of Zane’s sisters. Zane had decided to keep Peabody behind as proof of control. The man had his uniform shirt wrapped around his bleeding hand, a layer of sweat broken out on his brow. “There’s an easier way, though, and I’m not the monster you think I am. You see, what happened in Engineering was regrettable, but it was a necessary sacrifice. Those people gave their lives so that their brothers and sisters would know an eternity in Eden.”
Ashby looked back up. “You didn’t give them a choice,” she spit.
Zane smiled once more. “You’re right about one thing, Captain. There are thousands of passengers here, on this Ark. How many would you guess have the faith?”
“If you mean Cultists, our last estimate was two percent.”
He laughed. “Your last estimate was wrong. For one thing the number is far too modest. For another, there’s something your cold statistic doesn’t take into consideration.”
“And what’s that,” she asked, squinting at him.
And he replied, “Placement.”
On cue, the Holo of Officer Hopes moved forward, brandishing a blade, the very one Zane had given him the day he’d been accepted into the fold.
It was the blade all Children carried.
With the efficiency of a butcher, Hopes drove the blade into Pagani’s belly. The man cried out and collapsed to the floor as the Bridge fell to screaming and crying. Then Hopes, the blade still wet with Officer Pagani’s blood, aimed it at Captain Ashby.
Zane was proud.
“We have believers on every deck, Captain, in every Vocation. Quality first, as you always say,” he said.
Ashby restrained herself, holding back some serious words by the look of her. “You bastard,” she fumed, and again Zane could only smile.
“We are all bastards, Captain. Forgotten sons and daughters of a dead planet. Too long has this Ark been on the path of the false garden. Howard Blackwood made many mistakes, but one above all: he placed his creation in the hands of the heretics and the non-believers. That is a mistake that ends today.”
“Now what the fucking fuck is that,” Gunnar asked. They stared up at the heavy bundle far above their heads, waiting in vain for it to move.
“I think it’s a body,” Desanto replied.
“Yeah, I know that, but what did it?”
Desanto shook his head, not because he didn’t know, but because he was afraid he did. As his eyes moved over the mass above, he thought of the dreams. The hunters, the ones that attacked Baptiste and dragged him away while Desanto watched through their eyes, only they could have done something like this.
“It was the abnormal ones,” Svarog said quietly. He’d drifted over while they were distracted. Desanto cursed himself for letting his guard down around the obviously disturbed man.
“What did you just say,” Gunnar asked.
“Abnormal ones. The prophesied poison children of the Creator. They are the product of his perversions.” Svarog glanced at them in twitches. “The abnormal ones, they want above all to stop the Reclamation. They want to feed on us, to consume and digest our physical shells to keep us from Eden’s kiss.”
“Oh, okay.” Gunnar looked at Desanto. “Psykopat.”
Maybe the man was insane, but there was some truth to what he was spouting. At least the doomsayers like Svarog were prepared for the worst when it came along. It was a better choice than keeping one’s head in the sand and waiting for the bad things to go away. Which, the more Desanto thought about it, the more he realized was exactly what he’d been doing the last few weeks. Keeping his head down. Waiting for the voices to stop. Praying for a normal life to find him and take him under its arm.
As he looked back at the poor soul cocooned above, Desanto made a choice. He chose to move forward, and not away. He chose to fight and not to hide. He’d propelled halfway to the ceiling when Gunnar cried out, “Whoa, whoa! What are you doing?!”
“I have to see who it is.”
“No, you don’t,” Gunnar cried out. “Has everyone gone crazy around here? How did I become the voice of reason?”
Desanto approached the silky mass, stopping himself with one, thickly-gloved hand on the ceiling. With barely a breath taken, he studied the bundle in front of him. The individual strands of silk that made up the sac were thicker than a normal spider’s webbing, which stood to reason given the scaled-up size of whatever had made them, though the visible detail of the webbing made him uneasy. They glistened in the way only recently-dried liquids do.
He grabbed a handful of the stuff where it appeared loose- about where a man’s neck should fall- and pulled. The webbing didn’t want to give, and took considerable force to tear it free. Desanto couldn’t hear a sound of it, but he imagined the fibrous tearing of the protein strands as they separated from one another, and the thought alone crept through his mind like a virus. The substance stuck to his gloves, tangling between the fingers, but he kept pulling at it until he’d made a hole large enough to see through.
When he was done, he found a face. The man was burnt and missing an eye. Half-dried blood covered the cheek beneath the empty socket and gathered in the folds of his nose. Desanto was almost relieved that the man was dead rather than suffer the pain of all he’d endured. He moved to the side so Gunnar could get a look at the man.
“Well, shit,” Gunnar said.
“Who was he?”
Gunnar sighed. “Seth. His name was Seth.”
Desanto knew the name. After seeing it on Gunnar’s screen, Desanto had asked someone about it. Seth was a Mechanic, and apparently Gunnar’s partner in Desanto’s absence. Although Gunnar didn’t seem to like him, it was clear he hadn’t wished bad things on the guy. Perhaps he was thinking just what Desanto was: that it could have just as easily been one of them up there, in Seth’s place. They were silent as they contemplated the dead man.
Gunnar was the one who finally spoke. “Listen, this is sad and all but we need to hightail it before whatever did this comes back and does it again.”
“No worries, brother. We will survive this,” Svarog said.
“Forgive me if your crazy words don’t comfort me.”
“You need to have faith in the vessel. Only the vessel has the power to save us. To save us all.” Svarog was raising his voice, becoming upset. He still wasn’t looking at Desanto.
“What are you going on about now,” Gunnar asked the man whose eyes were filling with tears.
“I was like the others. I believed the vessel to be a false prophet, the demon spawn sent to lead us away from the true path of The Reclamation.”
Vessel. Every time Svarog said the word, Desanto had flashes of all the times he’d heard it. Down hallways. From sinks. In gore-soaked nightmares.
“But then,” Svarog said, “then the Creator, he came to me. He came to me as I slept and he told me the vessel’s true purpose. That he’s a man of divine blood sent not to lead us astray, but to save us. To take us to the garden in new, better forms.” Svarog was openly crying now, tears streaming down his face. “I tried to tell the others, to stop what we’d started, but only a few believed me. The rest, they called me a heretic. They cast me out and they made me bait.”
“Hold up- bait for what,” Gunnar asked.
“For you. For this,” Svarog shrugged. “We knew you’d volunteer for the walk. You always do.”
Gunnar paused. “Are you telling me this explosion was intentional?”
“Of course,” the man sniffed.
“And you were a part of it?”
“Part of it? It was my idea.” He glanced Desanto’s way, that same nervous smile making another appearance. “I knew the mining charge would work perfectly. The bulkheads contained the blast, but the airlock, that was a weak point. That was my plan, you see? Set off the charge. Take out the Engineers. Take away their ability to heal.”
The Fabrication Engines, Desanto thought. Without warning Gunnar leaned forward, propelling toward Svarog. He grabbed the man, pushing him through the air until he slammed him into the nearest wall. With his left hand he pinned Svarog to the wall, while with the other he raised the Combitool up next to his face.
“I’m gonna bash his fucking helmet in,” Gunnar growled through grinding teeth. Desanto, too far away to break it up, slowly descended to the floor. He was somewhat relieved to be away from the cocooned corpse.
“Don’t raise hands against me, brother,” Svarog warned. “The vessel watches us.”
Gunnar’s Combitool shook, his hand trembling in anger. “You killed good people, you freak.”
“Sacrifices! We need to prove ourselves! We need to show him we’re worthy of the Reclamation!”
As Desanto propelled across the room, slowly as to not startle his seething friend, he thought he caught glimpse of a ghost nearby. It took on the vague shape of a man before fading away- gone as quickly as it had come.
Gunnar pulled Svarog closer. If not for their helmets, his spit would be hitting the man in his face. “That woman out there? Her name was Carrie. She’s dead because of you. Because of your sick fucking beliefs. You want more names? More people you sacrificed?”
“No. Only Eden matters now. Don’t you see, don’t you understand that people are meaningless?” He added, “Especially the whores.”
Gunnar raised the Combitool overhead, ready to bring it down on the man’s head and smash his helmet to pieces, let the science handle the rest. Desanto risked placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder. Gunnar jumped, looking back at him with an intensity Desanto hadn’t seen in the man. He didn’t know what to say to calm Gunnar down, and a large part of him wanted to let Gunnar finish what he’d started, to kill the Cultist directly responsible for their current situation. But he also wanted answers, answers Svarog seemed to have. He also didn’t want Gunnar to beat himself up over what happened here, to be wracked with the responsibility he’d feel for taking a life. He was a better person than Desanto, Erick felt this in his bones, and if nothing else he could help his friend hold onto that.
He didn’t know what to say that would make Gunnar understand all of that. Luckily Gunnar read it on his face. The much larger man’s face softened as he understood what his friend wanted to say. He let go of Svarog and tore away from him, propelling a good distance away.
Desanto exhaled. He turned to Svarog, whose wild, darting expression didn’t seem to understand how close he’d come to dying. “Who is this vessel you keep talking about,” Desanto asked. The man’s eyes suddenly shot back, regarding him with wonder and surprise.
“You really don’t know?” He was crying again, tears flowing down his inflamed cheeks.
Svarog showed his teeth, an ear-to-ear smile slitting his wet face. “It’s you, brother- you are the vessel.”
Doctor Hannigan wanted more than anything to ditch Crick. Aside from generally creeping her out, the man simply didn’t shut up.
“That was quite the boom,” Crick said once they’d settled into the elevator. “What do you think it could have been?”
“Whatever it is, it isn’t good.”
“Certainly not, or we wouldn’t have been called to help.”
Hannigan glanced at the man. “Technically you weren’t.”
“I knew tragedy was coming, you know. It’s been on the horizon for some time. As inevitable as death itself.” Crick shook his head.
“What do you mean?” According to the screen the elevator passed Deck Five. Three more levels to go.
The man sniffed. “Don’t be naive now, Doctor. The Ark has been on a downhill slide for years. Failure of this kind always starts at the top.”
“If you mean the Captain, she’s doing her best.”
“She’s been too distracted to deliver her best, we both know that. I believe her personal life is receiving the better part of her attention these days.”
She couldn’t argue there, yet she wasn’t about to agree with Crick. She shifted on her feet rather than answering. Deck Six. Two more to go.
“You’re their Doctor, aren’t you? Captain Ashby and her wife?”
“I’m everyone’s Doctor.”
“Yes, of course, but you’ve been assisting with their pregnancy. I’ve seen you visiting their quarters at all hours. Making house calls, as it were. A darkened hallway is no place for a woman.”
The elevator car had never felt so small. “It’s part of the Vocation, and I can handle myself.”
“I’m sure. Is the Captain’s wife doing well?”
She frowned at him. “You know I can’t discuss the status of my patients, any more than you can repeat what was told to you in the safety of a confessional.”
“If it endangered the lives of other passengers, I might.”
“Well, I’ll keep that in mind if I ever come see you.”
“My door is always open to you. I consider you to be one of the finest people on this ship. It’s important that you stay on the path to righteousness.”
Seven. One deck to go. “The only path I’m worried about is the one that leads to Mining.”
At that Crick smiled. “Well, Doctor, you might find them to be one and the same.”
The elevator finally reached Deck Eight. Hannigan barely waited for the doors to open before she rushed out, practically running toward Mining. But as she neared the end of the hall, the entrance to Mining appearing up ahead through the thick brush of an unkempt passageway, she slowed down.
There was some kind of trouble, a different kind than the one she’d expected to find. A small group of people- not Miners- were crowded between the machinery, while Zane Nolan stood at the center addressing the Holo of a worried-looking Captain Ashby.
Nothing about the scene felt right. She stopped just short of stepping through the doorway.
“What’s wrong,” Crick asked, passing her by.
“There’s…something wrong,” she managed to say, her eyes on the next room.
“They need your help.”
She looked from the Allcleric to the group ahead. She began to back away.
“Where are you going,” Crick asked. “Doctor Hannigan?”
She ignored him, but the next moment she felt something on her wrist. She looked down to find Crick had grabbed her by the arm, his spotty hand rough on her skin.
“You’re not listening to me,” he said calmly. “I said they need your help.” She pulled her hand away, shrinking from his touch. “Come now,” he smiled, “we would be honored if you joined us on this holy day.”