Zane felt good. The holy day was going just as planned, and the thought made him smile the smile of the righteous, the warmth filling up his eyes and seeping under his skin. He felt indestructible, his bones reinforced with purpose and truth. Thanks to the boy, their genius, their secret weapon only a few men knew about, his smile was being broadcast from his wrist to every corner of the Ark, on every available screen and Holo.
“Greetings, fellow Ark Passengers,” he said, “and a Happy Reclamation Day to you.”
He took a deep breath, savoring the moment. Captain Ashby seized the opportunity to rudely interrupt him, shouting through the Holo to be heard. He called for her to be muted but not cut off, because he wanted her to see this. “As I was saying, I’m Zane Nolan, and I’m here to welcome you to your new life with us, your new friends and saviors- the Children of Eden.”
The others in Mining buzzed with excitement, as the rest throughout the ship would be doing. He continued. “By now you’ve surely seen some things, things which have given you some…concerns regarding the current events of this ship, as well as your place on it. You’ve noticed my fellow Children rounding up every man, woman and child on the Ark, and it worries you. If nothing else, I’m here to tell you this: you have nothing to worry about. In fact, you should be excited for the days to follow. We’re standing right now on the edge of a new era, a time of renewed faith and hope on the Ark. I have no doubt that you’re feeling confused. Lost. But then you’ve been lost for years, haven’t you?” His eyes stung with the welling of angry tears. “We all have, thanks to the people who threw us out into space all those years ago, and more recently, people like Captain Ashby here,” he pointed to her muted Holo, “who have blindly followed the orders of those long-dead men and women, taking us further and further from the touch of God’s divine light. We’ve suffered alongside you. We’ve endured the cold and the hunger with you, and it has taken its toll on us.”
At this point Peabody began to sway on his feet from blood loss. It reminded Zane of an important point, and he was thankful for the reminder. He showed the man to the people of the Ark. “On the other hand,” his voice shifted, becoming cold, “do not confuse our suffering for weakness. We welcome you by our sides, yes, but only by our sides. If you’re not next to us, you’re most certainly across from us- and that is a place I do not recommend standing.”
He smiled again. “All this is to say: hang on. Endure the cold just a little longer. The coming days will be difficult, yes. They’ll scare and bewilder you, and at times you’ll wish for your old life back, but my promise to you is this: if you stay with me, if you give me, give us, a chance, you’ll soon know peace like you’ve never known it before.”
Zane cut the line. His fellow Children cheered and applauded, satisfied by his speech. A moment later he unmuted the Captain’s Holo.
“Do you honestly think the people of this ship will just roll over and accept your command,” she asked.
“I suspect there will be some losses. Resistance is a part of human nature.” He looked over at Peabody, then back to the Captain. “But eventually they’ll come to see what we offer. In the end they’ll thank us for what we did today.”
“And what exactly do you offer?”
“The true path.”
Ashby scoffed. “To death, maybe.”
He grinned. “No, Captain- to eternity.”
On that true and final word, the lights in Mining went out. The expansive deck was plunged into darkness, lit only by strips and panels of emergency bioluminescence.
It was a blackout, not all power but most of it. The ambient light on Captain Ashby’s holographic face dimmed, proving the Bridge to be affected as well. “Why are you turning off the lights,” she asked him.
Zane replied, “I’m not.”
Given their previous experience with elevators, Nicolai and Kash decided to take the stairs.
It would be a long haul from Deck Fourteen all the way up to the Medbay on Three- especially without the aid of an elevator- but fortunately there was a Secondary Medbay on Eleven for just such emergencies. They needed to reach it before Monika went into shock, or worse. Nicolai had tried calling into the station to inform them of their emergency, but no one had picked up the call. Strange, but he could only imagine how many fires- both figurative and literal- the other Officers were currently dealing with.
Kash carried the woman in his arms. He was the smaller of the two men, but he’d insisted. Nicolai looked at the burnt woman in his partner’s arms. “We have to call her husband,” he said.
“The hell we do. We don’t have time for that.”
“He needs to know what’s going on. You would want to know.”
Kash frowned. “You do it then. I don’t want to talk to that loser.”
If Nicolai didn’t know better, he’d say there was a tinge of jealousy there. Nicolai called Dez, who picked up before a name was able to pop up on the display. “Monika?” His voice was strained, panicked.
“It’s Nicolai, but I have Monika.”
“Oh, thank God,” Dez said. “I haven’t been able to get through to her. I woke up and everything was crazy. It-”
“Dez,” Nicolai stopped the man. “She’s hurt.”
There was a pause on the line. “What happened?”
“Not really sure. There was an explosion in Engineering, that’s all we know.”
“It’s these Edenist assholes. I’ll kill every damn one of them if she-” He stopped himself this time. “How bad is it?”
“Bad. But Sunn says if we can get her help, she has a chance. We’re heading to the Secondary Medbay on Eleven.” He considered showing Dez his wife on Holo but decided it would only further panic the guy.
“Alright. I’ll head there now. All I can say is you’d better make it.”
“We’ll make it.” Nicolai prepared to end the call. “And Dez,” he added, “how do you know it was the Edenists who set it off?”
Another pause. “You don’t know?”
Nicolai glanced up at Kash, who was busy pretending he wasn’t listening to the conversation. “Know what?”
“The bastards are taking over the ship.”
After he’d hung up, Nicolai returned to his partner’s side. Kash looked up from the dying woman in his arms. “He’s still a loser,” Kash concluded.
The men continued their climb, both noticing they hadn’t run into anyone along the way. It appeared no one wanted to go toward the massive explosion, a choice that didn’t surprise them in the least.
They’d only gotten as far as Deck Thirteen when the lights went out.
“What the hell is this now,” Kash sighed in the darkened stairway.
“Good thing we didn’t take the elevator. The explosion must have caused more damage than we thought.” Nicolai turned on his light. At the next landing he checked a darkened door panel, finding the lock to be on manual-only mode.
Kash shook his head. “So do we call it in?”
“I’m sure they already know what’s going on. And if they don’t,” he added, “they will soon.”
James Crick knew peace. As an Allcleric he carried not just one God in his heart, but many. He brought their life-saving words through the cosmos, a torch-bearer of the highest order. Crick welcomed with open arms all that allowed themselves to be illuminated by the transformative power of belief.
It had been many years since he’d first heard of the Children of Eden, mentioned in passing during a conversation with a passenger. His initial doubt gave way to curiosity about the new ways religion could form in deep space, so far from their original home. What he imagined at first would be akin to mold growing in a dark, damp basement turned out to be a personal awakening for Crick, the second in his life and the most powerful by far. Zane Nolan, practically a teenager then, had impressed in him a deep love for God, in a way that felt new and fresh. In their faith he found all that he’d been seeking, the purpose of his life brought further into focus than it had ever been. Here was belief existing not against science, not in spite of it, not even alongside it, but because of it, intertwined with it until they were indistinguishable from one another. Here was faith not in theory but in fact, in living and breathing form.
Here was God in the flesh.
Over time he’d won over all but the most analytical of his fellow Allclerics, those few who didn’t allow the love of God past their minds and into their hearts. Their doubt became especially pronounced once the Children began to waiver in their worship of the all-knowing Blackwood and his foretold vessel. They took the shift in doctrine as a sign of insecurity, yet where they saw flaws and cracks, Crick saw evolution. This faith was young and fruitful, and an apple still growing was subject to rapid change and transfiguration.
Those few, the doubters among them, would likely have to die in the coming times. It seemed a waste of perfectly good people, but then there was always need for sacrifices.
Now darkness had seized the Ark, not so much a total loss of power- the kind poor Captain Ashby was currently being subjected to- as it was a shutdown of several, main systems by an unknown party. Several of their fellow Children had been eagerly trying to turn the lights back on for the past few minutes. Apparently, according to the men who knew such things, it was shipwide, a rolling failure that had spread across the entire ship. Even with the boy genius on their side, they’d been unable to recover the lights.
Whispers rose up from the shadows. Men gasping and praying. Crick heard Zane ask what was the matter but heard no reply. They were all entranced by a dark form approaching from the far end of the deck.
It moved in twitches and slides, uneven amounts of a man twisting toward them in growling motion. A man twice Crick’s size shouted something about the prophecies, the ones they all knew and feared even as they swore not to, and yet as the shape moved closer, revealing itself to them, this entwined column of man and something more, Crick knew, as the others did, that it could be nothing other than the very thing they’d long feared and denied.
“The abnormal ones,” Crick joined in their whispers.
The thing spasming toward them was naked, not just of clothes but mostly of skin as well, with one arm three times the size of the other. Not just an arm, an undulating tentacle like those of a cephalopod, complete with circular, bowl-shaped suckers covering the bottom half. The suckers showed up elsewhere on the creatures body, bursting forth like cancerous polyps from the angry flesh of its legs and belly and along other, indescribable formations.
Crick’s eyes moved up the creature, dragging along the exposed musculature that rose up its neck and hatched like devil’s finger fungus to become the staging of a human face. But it wasn’t just any face. Everyone not living in a Cryopod knew it. That face had been everywhere the last week, on screens all over the ship and at every public gathering. But Crick knew it more intimately than that. Just a few weeks earlier, he himself had spoken to the man that owned that face.
Somewhere nearby, a man began to scream.
Captain Ashby had been watching the feed in horror. The mutiny had been more than enough to deal with, complicated only slightly further by the sudden loss of lighting systems. But now, standing on a Bridge faintly lit by yellow-green bioluminescence, she stared at what details she could pick out from the monstrous figure stomping through the shadows of the Mining Deck, that thing slink-stepping toward the men and women trying to take her ship from her. As she watched the way its octopoidal limb slither-slapped against its own reddened flesh, there was just one thing she knew with certainty.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t human. Not entirely.
Ashby glanced back at the others sharing the darkened Bridge with her. First Officer Oberlander seemed to have briefly forgotten his hands were tied behind his back as he stared wide-eyed at the scene playing out via her screen. Hopes, too, that traitorous leech, was entranced by what he saw in the Holo. Side-by-side, sharing in the same terror, it was easy to forget that moments ago they were cursing and shouting at one another, two men on either side of a power grab.
Until she looked lower, closer, at the young man on the floor. The bloodflow from his stomach had stopped, the color gone from his skin. His eyes were unfocused and his chest, the one bearing the nametag she herself had affixed to his uniform on his first day of service, had sunken in and gone still.
Officer Pagani was gone. Murdered at the hands of a man he’d trusted.
Murdered by Hopes.
Ashby felt a tug deep inside her gut. Like the explosion that had taken out her Engineering Deck, it detonated, radiating outward until it had consumed every inch of her, incinerating all in its path.
With a pressure building in her chest she ran at Hopes the liar, Hopes the betrayer, Hopes the murderer, screaming all the way.
One minute Doctor Hannigan had been following Sunn’s instructions to open the launch door controls- pull the panel forward, extend the manual override knob, spin to charge- and the next complete chaos erupted on Deck Eight.
From where she was tucked away, in the corner nearest the massive airlock doors, Hannigan’s greatest worry was being seen by the Edenists. But then came the screaming, the shouts and scuffling echoing in the dark as machinery and storage devices were knocked into and over. In seconds men and women were reduced to children, appropriate considering their group’s self-chosen name, but disconcerting nonetheless, and she wanted to know why.
Her first thought was that someone was fighting back against the Edenists, Peace Officers or just concerned passengers taking it upon themselves to stop the uprising. But that didn’t explain the tone of their voices. The superstitious fear mixed with primal panic. Nor did it explain the growling and slurping.
Then Hannigan saw it. It walked upright like a man, yet from there the design deviated severely. It stumbled out of the shadows, its balance off-center due to its uneven anatomy. Like a crab with one larger, weaponized arm, its slimy, cancerous organ danced on the air.
“Dear God,” she uttered, “what is that?”
“I must insist that you focus on the task at hand,” Sunn said, as if she could brush off such a thing. Meanwhile one of the braver Edenists had stepped forward to try and stop the creature, but he was unceremoniously knocked out of the way. His head connected with the ground in such a way that it caused a sick thump. The man convulsed twice, his legs flopping against the metallic ground, then stopped.
Was this the animal responsible for the arm in her Medbay, the one that killed Baptiste Marlow?
“Doctor,” Sunn urged.
“Okay. Shit. Okay.” She returned her attention to the panel but found her hands shook when she tried to work the controls. She cursed them. “Can’t you do this,” she asked Sunn.
“I cannot. You are doing a sufficient job.”
It’s always been my goal to be sufficient, she thought. As the shouting and running continued, she followed Sunn’s instructions. First she powered up the screen, then navigated its dim menus as told by the invisible man in her ear. Menu to submenu, routine to subroutine, she became the conduit for Sunn’s violations against his own human protection laws.
Over her shoulder she witnessed a second Edenist try and fail to stop the monster. This man, too, was knocked aside like an unwanted doll. As she continued to follow the instructions spoken to her by Sunn, she felt a sudden throbbing in her temples, a sensation like someone was trying to push her eyeballs into her skull. “Why is my head pounding,” she asked. Before Sunn could answer, she checked the readout on the screen in front of her. “Hold on- the air pressure is increasing.”
“Correct,” Sunn said as if addressing his prize student. “This program was designed for situations requiring emergency elimination of contaminated materials.” Then, perhaps sensing that Hannigan didn’t fully grasp the situation, added, “The program engages rapid decompression of the launch zone.”
“Oh,” Hannigan said. Then: “Shit.”
“When activation is complete, I would warn you to find something sturdy to hold onto.”
She scoffed. “Now you warn me,” she said, not caring if Sunn couldn’t process sarcasm very well. A few seconds later she reached the final command.
Hannigan looked at the screen under her hovering finger. It flashed three words at her, the same three words again and again followed by a question mark. Normally it was the most banal and harmless of questions, but just then it felt like the hardest question she’d ever been asked.
Are you sure?
She heard a man begging shamelessly for his life. Drawn to the panicked voice, she looked up in time to see the half-invertebrate monster rip Allcleric Crick’s arm out of its socket, uniform and all. A scream erupted from the man as he fell to the floor, full of the most gut-wrenching pain imaginable. Even for a Doctor with emergency training, it was a wretched and guttural sound the likes of which she’d never heard.
As the creature descended on Crick, intent on finishing the job, Doctor Hannigan caught sight of what passed for its face. In that half-second, that momentary glimpse, everything changed. This wasn’t the beast responsible for what had become of the teacher, Baptiste Marlow.
It was Baptiste Marlow.
Without hesitation, Hannigan turned back to the screen and pressed yes. As she turned to run, to find something sturdy to hold onto, the door override alarm began to reverberate like a hammer inside her skull.
Gunnar was tired of waiting. After listening to Svarog mumble nonsense to himself for countless minutes, he wanted nothing more than to get back inside the ship, take his boots off and stick his foot directly up the ass of whichever Cultist had stuck Gunnar out there with the lunatic.
Floating next to the control panel, he had already completed his half of the emergency decompression sequence. All that was left was to wait for Doctor Hannigan to do her half. Sunn had told them his plan, which at this point was their only hope. Gunnar admitted to some disappointment when he heard who was to be their co-conspirator on the inside. Just because she was a brilliant Doctor didn’t mean she could do what they needed her to do, any more than Gunnar being the best Fabricator on the Ark meant he could paint a landscape. This little job was way outside her lane, and even Desanto, who seemed to have a soft spot for the Doctor, didn’t look thrilled when he found out whose face was on the card up Sunn’s sleeve.
There went Svarog again. Babbling Cultist nonsense with his eyes shut tight. “He came to me. Came to me in my sleep. In a dream, a waking dream. The Creator told me, he told me, he and the vessel will lead us there. Holy light and holy flesh. Recycled and reused.”
“Why me,” Desanto suddenly asked Svarog. Svarog’s eyes shot open, the pupils dilated like an open door.
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“Why am I the vessel? What makes me so different from anyone else on the Ark?” Desanto seemed to be growing tired of the games.
“I…don’t know,” Svarog replied in a confessional tone.
Desanto’s eyes widened. “You don’t know? You can’t do the things you’ve done without understanding why.” His voice was like boiling water about to spill over.
“I can if I have faith,” Svarog replied. “Without faith I have nothing. Without faith I am nothing.”
At that Desanto’s features loosened. Whether he understood or pitied the man, Gunnar was unsure. “Actiones secundum fidei,” Desanto said, more to himself than anyone else. Desanto didn’t notice Svarog go pale at the words, but Gunnar did. The man looked as if he’d heard those words before. Gunnar was about to press the matter when he was interrupted- for once by something good.
The door override alarm. The sound of it died before it was born, but the beacon light shone bright.
“Ten points to Hannigan,” Gunnar shouted. He’d never doubted her for a second.
“Stay clear of debris,” Sunn warned, “including bodies.”
Gunnar frowned. “And just like that I’m no longer excited.”
Slowly, like a lumbering titan, the doors began to open. Gunnar looked one last time onto the vast sea of stars all around them, trying to remember when he felt something for them. The truth was, aside from the obvious trepidation about what lay ahead, Gunnar was also curious what made Desanto so special in the eyes of the Cultists. “Who would know,” he asked Svarog. Svarog blinked. “Who would know why he’s the vessel?” He looked at Desanto, who nodded, perhaps appreciating his taking the situation seriously.
Svarog stared at both of them in turn. “The Creator, of course. And possibly Zane. He’s the keeper, the keeper of the word. If any of us knows it’s him.”
“Well then let’s go talk to him,” Gunnar said. Then he leaned forward, propelling hard against the air flow trying to hold him back.