When she’d run screaming at Officer Hopes- just Hopes now, actually, he’d forfeited his position the moment he stabbed the ship’s Navigator- Captain Ashby had caught him by surprise. His crouched body slammed against the wall, his cheekbone shattering against Ashby’s knee before he could react. His knife tumbled away.
Still furious, she threw him to the ground next to Officer Pagani’s body, showing him what he’d done. His hand dipped into the dead man’s blood. Anointing him with his own sins. She went after him again, to drive his face into the floor, but he suddenly kicked out at her, catching her in the stomach.
Ashby stumbled backward, most of the wind knocked out of her. He took the opportunity to jump to his feet, surprisingly agile for his build, then grabbed her by her legs and pulled her feet out from under her. Her back hit the floor hard. She heard Oberlander cursing at her attacker, but there was little else he could do with his hands tied behind his back.
Hopes searched for his knife, trying to figure out where it had gone when it fell. He let out an angry grunt when he couldn’t find it. Instead, Hopes dropped to his knees on Ashby’s chest, pinning her to the floor, and wrapped his fingers around her neck. His hands slick with Pagani’s still-warm blood, he began to choke her, his eyes crazed, riddled with capillaries.
The Bridge, already dark, was going darker. Shadows closed in on Jennifer Ashby like water down a drain.
Hopes’ head violently snapped to the left as if suddenly possessed. Through the haze of semi-consciousness, Ashby saw his eyes roll back. His body went limp and he slumped off her, crumpling to the floor.
It took a moment for Ashby to regain her focus. When she did, she saw Oberlander standing above her.
Oberlander carefully helped her sit up when she was able. Somehow her First Officer had fumbled to his feet when she and Hopes weren’t paying attention and, his hands still tied behind his back, kicked Hopes across his traitorous face. The act had saved her life, and as Captain Ashby caught her breath, she realized she should thank him. “Good work,” was all she could muster. Oberlander nodded, seeming to understand the emotional extent of her words.
Returning the favor, she untied Oberlander’s hands. “What should we do about him,” he asked, nodding to the deceiver on the floor. He was breathing strangely, a half-snore mixed with a wheeze. She handed Oberlander the rope she’d just removed from his wrists.
“It only seems fair,” she replied.
As Oberlander happily tied up Hopes, she made her way over to a length of wall she hadn’t visited in a very long time, in particular a panel roughly three feet off the floor. She slid the panel aside, exposing the grid of nine, identical metal tiles, and pressed them in the exact order as given to her by the former Captain. On the final press, a section of wall to her right moved forward just enough to offer a peek at the darkness behind. Ashby placed her hand in the open section and pulled it forward. With one, final click, the door opened for the first time in years.
She stepped inside.
Activating the personal light on her chest revealed the truth of the hidden room. The four walls of the Armory were lined with guns of various sizes. Most of them were designed to avoid penetrating the hull, like the Denial Rifle, which she grabbed, as well as the twin Gyres, what they used to refer to as Ghost Guns, which she also took. But a few at the back were somewhat more traditional firearms, hermetically sealed in plastic to keep the ammunition fresh. She left those alone for the time being, hoping it wouldn’t come to that.
Oberlander stood at the door, looking wide-eyed at the Armory. “I didn’t know,” he said quietly. He had Hopes’ fallen knife in hand, and had already cleaned Pagani’s blood from the blade.
“No one does except me and J.B. Douglas,” Ashby said, “and he’s dead.”
“Keep it a secret?” She glanced back. “Because this was supposed to be a mission of peace.” She handed Oberlander his own Denial Rifle, which he took hesitantly. “But peaceful doesn’t mean stupid.”
She exited the Armory and sealed it up. After briefly explaining the functions of the Denial Rifle to Oberlander, which he had only read about, she announced she was heading down into the ship.
“I can’t stop you,” Oberlander said, implying he wished he could. She made her way to the elevator and began to work the manual release on the side of the door.
“I need you to stay here and figure out why the lights went out, see if you can get them back up.”
“It shouldn’t be too hard. The power didn’t go completely, which makes me think someone shut them off manually.” He paused, something heavy on his mind. “Captain,” he said, “what in God’s name was that thing? Did the Edenists do that?”
Ashby stopped what she was doing. It was a good question, one she’d been avoiding. The monster in Engineering had been disturbing to say the least. “Did you see the look on Zane’s face? He was terrified.” She added, “It wasn’t one of his.” Then she gave the manual door release one, final turn. With a click the elevator doors parted to bleed out their darkness.
“Then where did it come from?”
Ashby sniffed. “I have a few theories.” The doors now fully open, the empty elevator shaft was laid bare. Ashby peeked over the edge, down into darkness where the light from her chest barely penetrated. A set of stairs would have been helpful, but the Bridge was designed to have only one way in or out, for the sake of security. She turned back to her First Officer, the young man still waiting for answers she didn’t have. Yet. “Close this behind me,” she ordered, “and don’t let anyone in who isn’t me. Even then, be careful.”
“What about Hopes?” Oberlander nodded to Hopes, still unconscious on the floor a few feet from the man he’d killed in cold blood. “What do I do if he tries to escape?”
Ashby looked from Oberlander to Hopes, then back. “Blood has already been spilled on my Bridge,” she said, “a little more wouldn’t hurt.” Oberlander looked uncomfortable, but he seemed to understand, touching the knife tucked into his belt. Captain Ashby knew he would do what needed to be done and nothing more. He may have been young and naive, but there existed in him an unshakable moral core. He reminded her so little of herself. Carefully she climbed out onto the recessed ladder, feeling gravity’s dark pull beneath her.
“So which one are you going after first,” Oberlander asked. She knew the names on his mind without him saying them. They were the two most prominent in her own thoughts.
Which one first indeed: Zane, or Ness?
Like with most things, Doctor Hannigan had found, reading about rapid decompression and experiencing it were two very different things. You could throw around words like ebullism, hypoxia and hypocapnia all day if you wanted, but at the moment, Cybele just felt like her intestines were being pulled out of her ass.
The Doctor’s eyes swelled inside her skull, and her heart felt like it wanted to tear itself free of her body. And yet, despite it all, she knew she was lucky- if the decompression were happening any faster, the pressure exchange any more severe, she and the others on the Mining deck would experience very sudden, very violent pulmonary barotrauma- quite simply, their lungs would burst inside their chests, and they would suffocate choking on their own blood and deflated lungs.
So yes. She was thankful.
However, Mining had become an absolute chaos. The deck was a vortex of pressure fog, dissipating air and painful screams. One Cultist was pushed along the ground, clawing and grasping at Hannigan before being tossed out into space. Knives, handheld equipment and other small items tumbled through the air toward the open airlock, each one a potential injury or death. Through it all, Hannigan held on. With her arms locked she squeezed tightly onto the connection hook of a loading rig, her legs tucked behind the control arm.
Just as bad as the decompression, the Baptiste-thing was still attacking any man or woman that got in its way. It roared slowly across the deck, the octopus-like suckers on its mangled feet keeping it firmly on the ground. What was left of Crick had flown screaming out into space, and the Baptiste-thing had watched him go, letting out a high-pitched, almost sorrowful cry. Hannigan had wondered if it was saddened to see the Allcleric go so soon, or if it was simply disappointed it hadn’t gotten to finish murdering the man. Each reason was disturbing in its own right.
Ignoring the voice inside her that screamed to keep her head down, to shut tight her swollen and tear-streaked eyes, Hannigan allowed herself a look at the airlock, hoping to catch sight of that prick Zane Nolan being pushed out into space along with his followers, those doomed men and women spilling out the airlock. And although the medical texts may not have done it justice, they did at least prepare her for what she saw there.
Ten seconds. That’s how long the Cultists stayed conscious. Ten seconds before the lower pressure outside their bodies caused rapid deoxygenation of their blood. After that came the generalized convulsions and paralysis. After that came the water vapor forming inside their soft tissues and venous blood.
She watched their unprotected bodies swell, knowing their heart rates and blood pressure would rise first before going into freefall, until the circulation of blood inside their bodies seized altogether. An initial rush of gas from the lungs, then gas and water vapor would continue to flow outward through the airways. That meant that, as they died, their mouths and noses would freeze first. The rest of the body would slowly cool, all life functions fading and fading until, a short time later, a few minutes at most, death would occur.
And so, as she watched the dying Cultists dance, their convulsing bodies ringed by stars and their panicking eyes filling with hemorrhage, she nearly laughed with joy when she saw Erick Desanto appear between the airlock doors.
Desanto and two others- one, the larger of them, she assumed was a Mechanic on account of the tool attached to his arm, and the other she didn’t have a clue- had barely cleared the doors when they were brought crashing down by the Mining Deck’s struggling gravity.
A roar, far too close. Still gripping the metal connection hook, Hannigan turned to see the last thing she wanted to see in that moment, a sight even worse than the dancing corpses outside.
The Baptiste-thing was not only coming closer by the second, it was coming directly for her. Although she didn’t recognize the humanity behind its eyes, she understood too well the insanity she found there. For whatever reason, hatred or hunger or some ancient bloodlust extending back through the aeons, it had set its focus on her.
Back by the massive airlock doors, Desanto had gotten to his feet and was struggling against the airflow using his suit’s propellant. He was twenty feet out from her, if not more, yet he was close enough that she saw the moment when his gaze shifted from her to the Baptiste-thing, then back.
Wordlessly, both from terror and diminishing air, she pleaded with him. She had nowhere to go. No way to save herself. Desanto was her only hope, and Desanto knew it. He knew she had no other way out of the tightening death trap, stuck between a rock and a cold place. And so with only a second’s thought, he made a gesture that said everything Doctor Hannigan needed to know, yet nothing she wanted to hear.
He simply put his hand out.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she whispered into the dying air. If he missed her hand she would be flung out into space to bubble and convulse with the others. Left with ebullism, hypoxia and hypocapnia. Left to go cold and die.
And yet it was getting harder and harder to breathe. The air grew thinner with each cubic foot of oxygen dumped into a void with no use for it. She knew he was right, and when her mind was made up, she tried very hard to let go, to will her fingers to loosen around the metal hook. But they wouldn’t. With each second, the Baptiste-thing was closer, and closer, and closer, rows of rubbery suction cups attaching and detaching and attaching toward her.
After the lights had gone out, most of the Edenists in the rancid-smelling ritual room had run off to investigate the cause of the blackout, leaving only one of them to keep an eye on Abigail. He was a younger man, no older than nineteen, and with a look on his smooth face that cried for the approval of his peers. The only thing a boy his age might value more than validation could easily be used against him, and Abigail wasn’t opposed to exploiting that particular weakness, it just might take too long. Plus the way her head was still pounding, she didn’t feel much like seducing an idiot.
Instead, she started to choke.
Her hands still tied behind her, ass on the cold, metal floor, Abigail began to gag and cough. Her feet flailed out in front of her as her coughs grew in intensity and violence. The young Cultist took a few hesitant steps toward her. Still on the other side of the vile sacrificial pit, he called out to her, first asking her to stop, then telling her to.
Abigail let out one, final cough, then slumped over.
“Hey.” The young Cultist walked around the pit, hand on the knife on his side. “Hey, are you okay?” When she didn’t respond he got close enough to nudge her with his shoe.
“Cut it out,” he said, “I’m not kidding.”
Nothing from her. He sighed, mumbling to himself about what Zane would say. Then he bent down to feel for her pulse.
Abigail’s legs shot out before even her eyes opened. She wrapped her ankles around his neck, wrenching him forward. He fell to his knees wide-eyed as she pulled him in further, locking her thighs around his bulging neck, and began to squeeze. He fought it, punching and clawing at her legs, but she held on tight like a cowgirl at the rodeo. No more than ten seconds later, she felt him go limp.
“Some people would pay good money for that,” Abigail said, pushing him off her. She used her foot to knock his knife loose from his belt, then slid it over and worked it into her hand. It took far too long. She had only seconds to free herself before he came to, thirty at most. Careful not to cut her own wrist, she began to saw at the rope.
She was halfway done when the door on the other end of the room opened.
Any hope that it might be a friendly face come to help her died when she recognized the orange uniform and dark eyes of Saam peering through the door. “Aww, are you checking on me,” she asked. “Thanks for the concern, but I’m not scared of the dark.” From his angle he wouldn’t be able to see the unconscious young man to her right, and she very much wanted to keep it that way.
“You’ve always been a bitch,” Saam said.
“And they say we have nothing in common.”
He laughed, opening the door another inch. “Careful, woman. I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to watch the life drain from a person’s eyes.”
She smiled. “That should be easy for you- just talk to them for five minutes.” Abigail bit her tongue. Her mouth was going to get her in trouble. Worse, the young Cultist was starting to wake up. She tried to press her foot down on his neck without being obvious about it, but she ended up nearly shoving her boot into the guy’s mouth.
“What are you doing there,” Saam asked, opening the door further, squinting into the shadows and bioluminescence.
“Nothing. Just, you know…” She squirmed. “I have to pee.” It was a lame attempt. Just as Saam leaned far enough into the dark room to see what she was really up to, the young Cultist under her foot let out the deep moan of a person waking up with a head full of hurt.
“Harum zadeh,” Saam said. He’d seen, and was already rushing into the room.
“Ahh, shit,” Abigail replied. She kicked the young Cultist across his face, knocking him out again just as Saam reached her. Light flashed in her vision as Saam struck her, hard, then did it again.
“I told them to kill you and be done with it,” he hissed.
“That’s…” She winced at the cold air on her split lip. “…the only smart thing you’ve ever said.”
He hit her again. She made no attempt to avoid it, not because she didn’t want him to, but because she was almost done. The knife hidden behind her, which he’d have found if he cared half as much about searching her as he did making her spit blood, had cut almost completely through the rope. Each blow he landed only insured that when the blade was done with its current task, it would be quickly reassigned another. She heard a rattle in her ears, like a couple of screws being tossed into a toolbox, and hoped it wasn’t anything important in her skull coming loose.
Then, just as suddenly as the attack had started, it stopped. Saam stumbled away from her out of breath.
“Where are you going,” she asked, her lips numb. There was the rattle again, perhaps some bone in her middle ear shifting. “This was just getting good.”
An insane grin spread across his sweat-slick face. “Don’t worry, my dear- I only want to get my tools and finish the job properly.” The rattle sounded a third time, and louder.
This time Saam heard it, too. He stopped, looked up at the vent above him.
“Madar sag,” he muttered.
What came next happened so fast, the image so surreal, that for a moment Abigail thought Saam had knocked loose something in her skull more important than a middle ear bone. A nightmare flash of mucous meat crashed through the rusted vent, half a dozen shapes falling on Saam quicker than a seizure. Whatever they were they were small, and teeming with impossibly black tentacles. They moved cold and catlike over Saam, injecting the screaming man with stingers that dripped thick venom.
When the momentary shock had worn off, Abigail returned to sawing the rope around her wrists with the knife. The younger Cultist was still unconscious, and if he had any sense at all he’d stay that way. She was nearly through the rope now, her sawing desperate and messy. Twice the blade nearly cut her skin.
A kind of gurgling caught her attention. Saam’s face was puffy and swollen, the effects of the venom from the cat-sized creatures taking quick effect. Saam choked for air, his throat closing up. Gone was the insane grin, replaced by panicked desperation. He fell to his knees trying in vain to swat the stinging creatures off.
Most troubling, though, was the eyeball over Saam’s shoulder. Perched atop one of the black tentacles, it looked back at Abigail with an uncomfortable intelligence. As the creature dismounted Saam and click-slid around the vile piss-and-shit-pit, its fingernails tap-tapping on the metal floor with each placement of a hard-nailed tentacle, there was no doubt in Abigail’s mind that she was the creature’s target.
The rope finally gave. Abigail pulled her hands free with a triumphant stretch, aiming the Cultist blade at the eight-pound bag of veins crawling toward her. “Come get it, you little fucker,” she spit.
Heavy footsteps entered the room from the far left, signaling the arrival of something big. Even the scraping cat-creatures took notice, the one coming at her and the one’s overpowering Saam, who was now laid out on the floor and quickly going over purple and blue. All of them stopped to turn their attention to the newcomer.
Eight, jointed legs held up its thick-shelled torso, a half-human, half-spider nightmare that opened its jaws wide to reveal the dark things inside. All of its eyes, some human and some not, were on the dying man across the room, all but ignoring Abigail. She had never been more thankful for anything in her entire life.
The scraping-tentacle things were less enthusiastic. Their black appendages bristled with protectiveness for their prey, and they hissed and coughed at the new threat, making their intentions clear: they would defend their kill at all costs. The spider creature, its ten foot span spilling forth from the side hallway, seemed unfazed as it reared up into a gesticulating attack pose.
The Scrapers charged forward and leapt on the spider, attempting to overwhelm it the way they had Saam. Even the one coming toward Abigail changed its trajectory and attacked the new monster. But their stingers couldn’t penetrate the spider’s carapace, leaving their attacks ineffective. One by one they were crushed and beaten back by exoskeletal arms, splatted and squished under clawed foot. Yet they pressed on, crawling around and finding weak points to insert their dripping stingers, hoping to find a way in.
Abigail snapped out of her daze. She looked around, assessed her chances at survival. There were only two possible exits, the one she’d come through and the one the massive spider creature had. Both were blocked by some form of creature.
There was one way out from what she could tell, and it was almost worse than dying. Still, her instinct for self-preservation was apparently kicking hard. And so, quietly as she could, Abigail crawled over the side of the shit-pit. She slipped into the hot pull of liquid death-stink, sinking down into the rotten sludge until only her eyes weren’t covered, eyes that stung and burned, praying it would be enough to hide her from the horrors happening just feet away.
It had Baptiste Marlow’s face.
Desanto had spent enough time looking at Baptiste’s personal file, studying the man for clues to why he’d been attacked and dragged away down in the Storage Deck- as well as clues to why Desanto might have been involved- to know the man when he saw him. Even if they were twisted and mixed together with whatever the hell was stomping across Mining, the man’s features were there. The entire room was alive with tumbling equipment and screaming Cultist projectiles and tendrils of fog spiraling toward the vacuum of space, yet Desanto stayed transfixed on that face, transfixed on how much it had changed and yet not changed, how much the humanity in its eyes had been dulled, filed down like a bad nail.
Then there was the other face. As Desanto watched, the Baptiste-thing fumbled closer and closer to where Doctor Hannigan was hanging on for life, her eyes overflowing with fear. Desanto’s hand was still out, waiting for her to let go. He knew by the way loose tools were whipping past their heads that he was in the right place to catch her. He didn’t dare get any closer to the creature and risk a confrontation, one he would lose, and so the only choice he had left, at least the only one he could come up with, was for her to come to him, to let the decompression do the work.
The problem was, she wasn’t letting go.
“Come on, Doc,” he whispered. He heard Gunnar shout something about Edenists but he ignored it.
Only feet away from Doctor Hannigan, the Baptiste-thing raised its mutated arm-weapon to strike at her. Each cupped sucker on its surface shivered in rubbery anticipation.
Desanto held his breath. Slow motion sparks and heartbeats filled his eyes and ears.
Then, as if stretched out over an hour, a day, a year, Desanto watched the creature’s arm come down to strike the Doctor with all its undulating, hydrostatic muscle fiber.
Before it could, Hannigan finally let go.