If Desanto didn’t catch Doctor Hannigan, she was dead. Like two trapeze artists without a net, or rather a net that suffocated anyone that fell into it, their outreached hands strained to find each other, to bridge the connection and defy the physics of death.
The vessel is here.
A voice came to him, joining him inside his helmet. Whether it came through his Comms system he couldn’t say. Whether it was human or not, he couldn’t say.
The vessel is us.
He ignored the voice, blocked it out, destroyed the sound. Doctor Hannigan was coming at him fast and gaining momentum as she went. Fifteen feet. She was drifting too far out. Thirteen feet. He shifted, readjusted his propellant. Ten feet. He was almost in the right place. Three. The fear filled her eyes.
With only one chance, Desanto reached out, thrusting his hand into hers. He clamped down hard, enough to hurt her, because a broken hand was better than a boiling tongue and radiation burns. He squeezed her hand tight, feeling the solidity, the muscle and bone that said she was real, not another voice whispering in his ear but a living person. He squeezed her hand tight to tell her he was there, that she was safe, that he wouldn’t let go- and she squeezed back.
Her momentum wanted to pull them both toward the yawning airlock, but Desanto leaned hard and engaged his propellant at nearly full strength. The countermeasure worked. They wobbled in midair, pushed back a few feet toward open space, but then his adjustments brought them back to almost where they’d begun.
“Sunn, shut the doors,” Desanto called out. Sunn’s programming wouldn’t let him open the doors, but surely they would allow him to close them. Sunn had been silent since they’d reentered the Ark, though, and he stayed that way now. Desanto wondered if the Edenists’ mystery hacker had managed to finally wipe Sunn out for good. He didn’t like Sunn, per se, but he needed him, and the idea of being snuffed out at the press of a button terrified him in cold and indifferent ways.
Partly because he was distracted, Doctor Hannigan started to slip from his grip. She was proving to be a fighter, though, and she pulled herself up until she was hanging from the arm of his spacesuit, making sure to keep her legs out of the blast zone of his Dornier pack which was still working to keep him in place.
Without either Sunn’s help or an act of God, there was no way to shut the airlock doors and release the lockdown that was keeping them confined to Mining. Hannigan would suffocate, and the rest would follow. Even Gunnar seemed to be gone from Desanto’s sight. After dealing with a few Edenists he’d all but disappeared, leaving Desanto to deal with the situation alone.
“Sunn,” Desanto shouted again, blood-angry as he turned to look for the hologram, for Gunnar, for anyone who could help him and the woman struggling to breathe who was dangling from his arm. “Someone shut the goddamn-”
Desanto’s voice cut out. He was face to snarling face with what Baptiste had become.
As Gunnar worked the controls of the all-consuming hellmouth howling at his back, Sunn materialized to his right. The hologram’s placid face contrasted deeply with the pandemonium occurring all around him.
“Well look who decides to show up,” Gunnar said. “Can you fucking help me with this shit?”
“I do not have much time,” Sunn replied.
“Neither do we, make it fast.” The pressure differential between Mining and the outside of the ship was beginning to level out- great for not getting sucked out into space, not great for anyone out of a spacesuit who valued breathing.
“There is something I must tell you about Erick Desanto,” Sunn said.
“I know he’s in danger. We’re all in danger.” Impatient, Gunnar returned his attention to the controls.
“It is much more than that.” Gunnar looked up from the controls to see the look on Sunn’s hollow face. “Erick Desanto is the danger,” Sunn said. His voice echoed strangely, like he was speaking through a tin can. Then a ripple spread across his face, sine waves disturbing the surface of a digital pool. For a moment, Gunnar forgot all about closing the airlock.
“What are you talking about?”
“He…” Sunn’s body began to deteriorate, a wire-frame model unraveling at the seams. “…is…” Still he tried to speak, as a cascading failure of cohesion pulled him apart pixel by pixel, his voice pattern shredding into infinite slices of waveform confusion. “…the…” In one final burst of light and sound, Sunn screamed apart, ripped axis from axis until his very atoms dissipated like bonfire sparks on the night. His pain, if it could be called that, became an echo frequency dissolving into dead air.
When Gunnar’s eyes refocused to a point further out, he saw Desanto and Doctor Hannigan were in even more trouble than he’d thought. Desanto was ten feet off the ground, trying to pull Hannigan to a safe distance from the half-man, half-octopus-demon-thing reaching up for them. But the half-man, half-octopus-demon-thing had its tentacle-arm wrapped around the good Doctor’s ankle and was trying to pull them back down. Judging by Hannigan’s screams, the creature wasn’t using a delicate touch.
Gunnar needed to get in there and help them before it was too late. Yet what was it Sunn had said? Erick Desanto is the danger? What if Erick was the real one to be feared? What if he was somehow responsible for all the death and destruction on the Ark? What if saving him doomed the rest of the passengers? His head buzzing with questions, he turned back to the control screen and read the final prompt in the program sequence.
Are you sure?
Gunnar frowned. “Fuck Sunn and fuck you.” He pressed the yes command to complete the airlock program before turning away to help his friend.
“Fucking machines,” he added.
Gunnar propelled toward Desanto and Hannigan. Desanto had managed to pull Hannigan out of the creature’s grasp, and was setting her down a few feet away before turning to face the creature. She was officially out of air, which meant the clock was ticking on her lungs. As Gunnar closed in, hoping he wouldn’t be a second too slow in preventing his friend’s death at the mismatched hands of the monster ahead, he saw something curious in the creature’s behavior, an idiosyncrasy just as it was about to strike. The move was so slight, anyone not watching closely could have missed it.
It paused. Just a moment’s hesitation, yet miles beyond any mercy it had shown for the half dozen people it had just eviscerated. What was that look on its face, Gunnar thought. Recognition? Was that what was stopping it from attacking Desanto, a sense of familiarity? Or was it something more? Were Desanto and the creature somehow connected, even on the same side?
Gunnar decided it didn’t matter. The thing had to die either way.
Just as he got within a few feet of the creature, his Dornier working at full strength, it turned. It must have sensed an imminent attack by the way it bristled and shook. Not wanting to disappoint such a pretty-looking thing, Gunnar swung at it with his Combitool.
Crack. He hit the octopus-demon across its thick face. The creature stumbled back on suckered feet. Before it cold regain fully Gunnar landed, planting his feet on the ground, and struck it again. As he pulled back to strike a third time, Gunnar heard a loud, mechanical noise over the roaring chaos. He recognized the sound immediately, having helped in the repair and replacement of more than his share of units.
It was a Driller powering up. Sure enough, not ten feet to his left, a Driller rumbled to life. Its row of six headlamps illuminated its metal-toothed drill getting up to speed. Gunnar couldn’t see through the triple-reinforced windshield to see who was behind the controls, but he hoped they were thinking what he was thinking. As the drill spun faster and faster in its module, whoever the operator was flashed the headlamps twice at Gunnar.
The octopus-demon had recovered from the blows, coming back at Gunnar. Thick, dark blood ran down from its misshapen forehead to coat its face.
“Come here, you ugly motherfucker.”
Gunnar dove forward and shoved the Combitool into the thing’s neck, opening the claw as wide as it would go. The tool found its mark, pinching the creature around its throat. A thick crunch and a squeal followed as Gunnar pushed the creature. He strained with all his strength to move it back, back, to the left and back. Its feet flailed and failed to regain their grip, tentacle arm whipping in air. Just before it made contact with the tip of the drill, it glanced over its mutated shoulder at the whining drill, the metal teeth just a blur now, then back at Gunnar.
“N-no,” it croaked.
Gunnar’s eyes widened. His mouth fell open. But it was too late, the creature’s back made contact with the drill. Gunnar released the claw and stumbled back as a sound like hamburger and teeth thrown into a blender came to his ears.
The octopus-demon howled. Gunnar was disgusted to realize he could hear the man’s voice mixed in there, too, a man caught in the throes of unimaginable pain. Its chest swelled until it burst like a balloon of blood and viscera, the tip of the gore-tangled drill piercing through. Flecks of red skin hit Gunnar’s helmet and stuck to the glass. A moment later the creature’s howling stopped. It’s legs gave out, the light in its vile eyes snuffed. It fell to the ground, splitting all the way down until what fell to the floor was nothing more than a floppy H of godless flesh, a head on top.
Gunnar didn’t hear the drill stop, but it must have, because someone was yelling at him and he could actually hear them. From the comms speaker mounted on the Driller, a voice shouted, “Get in!”
Desanto was already dragging an unconscious Doctor Hannigan into the open door of the Driller. Gunnar moved to join them, carried on wobbling legs to the Driller, where he found a helmeted Peabody behind the controls. Less than a minute later, everyone secure inside the small vehicle’s cockpit, they’d sealed the Driller and established enough pressure and oxygen that Doctor Hannigan began to stir on her own.
Peabody removed his helmet. “You got blood on my seats,” he said with a frown. Gunnar took off his helmet as well, relieved to be out of the claustrophobic bubble.
“Sorry about that,” he said, not feeling particularly jokey. They watched the airlock doors begin to finally close. Once Doctor Hannigan had fully come around, Desanto took off his helmet and tossed it aside. He looked around, a thought dawning on him.
“What is it,” Gunnar asked.Desanto looked across the Driller’s cockpit at Gunnar and said, “Where’s Svarog?”
Svarog bore witness to monsters.
After seeing the abomination the teacher had become, he fled in a state of utter panic. The sound and fog of his own explosive breath filled his helmet as he ran as best he could in that damned spacesuit, the cocoon he’d been forced into against his will, then shoved out an airlock by people he’d once stood beside.
Not even the vessel crossed his mind as he left Mining behind, only the thought that he needed to get away from that place.
The rest of Deck Eight, he soon found, was in no better shape. Lit only by emergency bioluminescence, the Genlabs crawled with things killing and things dying. He stopped running and stuck to the walls, hugging the vines and overgrowth. He willed his heart to slow and his breath to silence. Something jumped out and touched his leg, something with long fingers, and he beat it to death before realizing it had the face of a child. In an unused Scilab, he hid under a desk until the crying stopped.
Svarog saw now the true power of the Creator. He’d always heard the whispers of the Abnormal Ones, the myths of the Creator’s other creations. There were more rumors about the Abnormal Ones than there were Children of Eden speaking them. Some said they were experiments gone wrong, mistakes that Blackwood kept alive out of pity. Others said they were more tests from the Creator, trials designed to determine their worthiness of Eden.
But the whispers didn’t come close to the truth. Not even the apocrypha could have guessed the extent to which the horrors extended, and the depths to which they sunk. Seeing the Abnormal Ones in the terrible flesh, the rumors fell away as the truth came into focus. They were deliberate monstrosities. Their godless forms were planned and precise, constructed with joy by their mad maker. Whoever was capable of this was capable of nothing but death.
Not by a Creator. By a Destroyer.
When he hadn’t heard footsteps in some time, human or otherwise, Svarog snuck from the Scilab to the nearest set of stairs. Halfway up, not hearing any danger in the dark, he stopped to finally remove the suit he’d been imprisoned in for far too long. It stuck to him painfully, his skin a field of sweaty sores and radiation scabs. Removing the suit was like removing layers of dead skin. He left it in a pile in one corner of the stairwell, a deflated corpse that smelled of sour fear.
One level up, the halls of Deck Seven were infested with more than just students. Rats ran between Svarog’s naked feet, chased by insects the likes of which he’d never seen before. They regarded him with owlish eyes, paying him only passing interest before continuing their hunt on tumorous legs.
He heard something. Something larger. It came from behind, uneven footsteps in the dark, and possibly more than one set. Svarog moved as quietly as he could to the overgrowth between two classrooms. He shoved his body into the thicket of Buckthorn and Maple, their tiny sticks cutting into his already broken skin.
Svarog could hear, along with its odd footsteps, the creature sniffing at the floor. It was tracking him, following his scent. The smell of Japanese Honeysuckle was sweet in his nose as he tried desperately to control his breathing, and he hoped it was enough to cover the stink of his sweat.
It appeared. The abomination had not one but two, elongated bodies, its eight spindly legs working in concert to support a single, skeletal head. Svarog heard crying, but he wasn’t sure whether it was him or the the strangely graceful beast now sniffing at the floor he’d stood on just seconds ago. Svarog clamped his eyes shut. If death was coming for him, he didn’t wish to look it in the eyes. The huffing of air through bony nostrils came closer and closer. The monster’s excitement grew. Then:
“No.” A woman’s voice, close-by.
Svarog opened his eyes. The monster’s face was less than a foot away. Its long snout, covered by a layer of jellied flesh, was very nearly penetrating the thicket of brush. Yet its lidless eyes weren’t on him.
“No. No, no, no, not you, please no.” The nearby woman spouted fearful words, yet she didn’t run. Even as the abomination turned and galloped at her with all eight of its gangling appendages, Svarog heard no footsteps from the woman, no retreat. It was as if, despite her words of refusal, her body had been long resigned to the form of its end.
Tears streamed down Svarog’s shaking face as he listened to the wet, screaming sounds of the woman being ripped apart by the abomination. As the woman’s voice grew weaker, the sad truth tore at Svarog’s heart. Blackwood wasn’t a mixture of Jesus and Satan- he was evil itself. Svarog still believed in the power of the vessel. The vessel had saved him, perhaps so he could continue on to serve his purpose, and for that he should live. But the others, the disciples of Blackwood, they had to die.
And when all of them were dead, Blackwood himself would follow.
A long time later, when the abomination had finally moved on, Svarog emerged from the scraping overgrowth. He went to the woman and looked at her, beheld the beauty of her death. The abomination had fed on her, leaving her splayed and opened like the carcass of a sacrificial lamb. As he took in the image of her face, Svarog realized he knew this woman. Not closely, but he remembered her from one of the recent gatherings, perhaps the last time he’d stood among the other passengers.
She was a Sculptor. Beli Corrick was her name. Her innards spilled forth from her like unfired clay.
Blackwood needed to answer for his sins. The problem was, Svarog didn’t know where to find Blackwood. He didn’t know where evil itself lived- but he did know where one of its disciples did, perhaps the most devoted of all.
Doctor Rina Dubicki, the Psych Doctor. She would be the first to die.
Monika’s condition was deteriorating. She had begun to suffer episodes of tremors, her burnt body spasming in Kash’s arms. Kash tried to keep her still and ensure she didn’t hurt herself. His worried expression had gone from intermittent to semi-permanent. Her pained groans had grown weaker level by level, until her voice was barely a whisper. The very life was leaving her as they watched. And yet, that wasn’t the worst part about their climb toward the Secondary Medbay.
The worst part: something was stalking them.
For the last few minutes they’d been aware of something following them up the stairs. It wasn’t so much a sound that gave it away but the lack thereof. A dark silence bubbling up after them, along with a smell like moldy wiring mixed with rotten meat. They doubled their pace, exiting the stairwell to find another way up.
“Where are these things coming from,” Kash asked as they slid around a corner, watching a corpse for movement.
“If I had to guess,” Nicolai replied, “I’d say Hell.”
They crisscrossed decks, obscuring their trail and avoiding telltale screams. The maneuvers left them feeling guilty, ignoring as they were the cries for help, yet both men understood the severity of Monika’s injuries, and time was truly of the essence. Pick your battles, Nicolai kept telling himself. Finally, they reached the Medbay. Nicolai opened the door manually and let Kash go first with the woman, then followed him inside and resealed it before anything could join them.
The Medbay was deserted. “You gotta be fucking me,” Kash growled.
“It was always a possibility. Set her down over here.” Nicolai led his partner to the nearest Medbed. Kash set Monika down gently, but not enough to keep her arm from spilling over the other side and swinging limply. Kash pulled it back up, placing it by her side. She barely protested. The screen on the wall next to her blinked to life, displaying her weak vitals. Nicolai tried to access the Medbed’s functions but found himself locked out. “We need a Doctor,” Nicolai sighed.
“So what do we do?”
Nicolai thought for a moment. “Sunn,” he said, projecting his voice. If anything the hologram could walk them through whatever they needed to do to help her. His brain contained the sum of all human knowledge, after all, something as simple as burn trauma was easily within his skillset. With any luck he’d tell them to throw her in a pod and take care of the rest.
But Sunn didn’t appear. Nicolai frowned. “Sunn, talk to me.” Instead, Monika began going into convulsions, an attack far worse than any she’d suffered on the way there. Her head bounced on the Medbed a few times. Then, just as suddenly, she went stiff. The stats on the wall flatlined, accompanied by a long and mournful beep.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Kash said. “What do we do?”
Nicolai hurried to Monika’s side. As he was pressing on her chest, trying to get her heart started again, he yelled for Kash to go to one of the Medscreens. Kash did as he was told and pulled up the interface.
“Thank God, it let me in,” Kash sighed. Nicolai began to administer mouth-to-mouth to Monika. “So you’re a Doctor now,” Kash asked, his sarcasm betrayed by the nervousness in his voice.
“I took six classes on emergency first-aid,” Nicolai said, holding her nose, “how many did you take?”
Kash nodded. “Alright, just tell me what to do.”
Monika’s heart was beating again, but her pulse was too weak and erratic. While he located a good vein, Nicolai had Kash navigate to the medication menu, where he had the computer synthesize a shot of epinephrine.
“Nasal? Nebulizer? Topical?” Kash read off a series of words he was only passingly familiar with.
Kash frowned and complete the command. With each second that passed, waiting for the synthesis to finish, Monika’s readout slipped back toward flatline. One, breathless minute later the Dispensary across the room lit up. Kash ran to it, retrieved the needle and returned to Nicolai.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Kash said, handing it over.
“I don’t,” Nicolai said, and slipped the needle into Monika’s arm. He pulled the plunger up, mixing some of her blood with the epinephrine, then depressed it to push the liquid into her bloodstream. He removed the needle carefully, tossing it to the side, and stood back to watch the screen. A tense moment passed.
Kash said, “How long does it-”
Monika’s eyes shot open. At the same time, the screen on the wall came alive with a dozen overloaded readouts. High blood pressure. High heart rate. High brain activity. High stress levels. Nicolai could relate to every one of them. Monika’s eyes darted around the room, searching for answers.
“It’s okay,” Nicolai reassured her. “You’re safe.”
Monika tried to speak with great difficulty. “Don’t strain yourself,” Kash said, his hand softly on her arm.
“D…” She pushed herself. “Dez.”
“Monika!” A shout came from the direction of the door. Both men jumped, startled by the newcomer. Distracted by Monika, they hadn’t even heard the door open, a dangerous oversight considering the current situation. Dez ran to his wife’s side. Kash removed his hand from her arm, retreating. Nicolai quickly resealed the door.
“Ph…Phoebe,” Monika croaked through burnt lips.
“We’ll find her,” Dez said, stroking her hair.
Monika shook her head, tears slipping from her eyes. “N-no.”
“I will. I swear I will.” Nicolai felt awkward, the moment too personal. Kash was across the room.
“Listen to me,” Monika said, pulling Dez closer by his collar. “It…was her.” Then she passed out again. Her vitals were strong, though, and Nicolai knew, or at least thought, that she would be okay for the time being. Dez and Kash wasted no time arguing about what to do. If one said stay put and wait for help, the other said go out and find it. Their argument quickly elevated to a heated fight, the two men shouting at each other over Monika’s unconscious body. Nicolai spotted something on the Medscreen, walking over to take a closer look. He tried to interrupt the two shouting men but they couldn’t hear him.
“Shut up,” Nicolai screamed. Both men went silent, turning his way. “Look.”
On the Medscreen, hovering over Monika’s vitals, four words glowed in white.
I can help her.
Dez all but gasped. “It’s Sunn.”
“Obviously,” Kash said.
Nicolai addressed the screen directly. “Can you unlock the Medbed?”
Yes, but it won’t save her.
“Then how,” Dez asked.
“I’ll take her anywhere, just show me where. Please,” he pleaded. Instead of more words on the wall, the answer came in the form of the screen on Dez’s wrist lighting up. He checked it, then looked up at the others. “It’s a map.”
A few minutes later, after each man had gathered some medical supplies and stuffed them into their uniforms, Nicolai carefully opened the door and peeked out into the hallway. The immediate area appeared to be safe, but there was no way to know for sure.
He looked back at Dez and Kash. Dez now carried his wife in his arms, with Kash just behind him, Peace Stick in hand. Nicolai wasn’t sure that Kash could be trusted not to use it on Dez before the day was through. “Alright, stay in contact. Update me every five minutes,” Nicolai said.
Kash squinted at him. “Where the hell are you going?”
Nicolai snorted. “Me? I’m going to the station to see about some goddamn backup.”
The vat of unspeakable liquids churned and frothed, a greenish, brownish sludge of decomposition and rot with a layer of yellow fat on top for good measure. A single, greasy bubble formed at the surface, growing in size and instability until, its skin too thin to support itself, it popped, sending bits of decay dancing into the air.
The surface began to swirl and crack, disturbed from underneath as something rose up from its depths. A round object appeared, coated in a thick layer of putrefaction. It continued to rise, slowly revealing itself to be a human head, the mouth gasping for breath. Lastly a pair of hands shot up, breaking the surface to fumble blindly for the edge of the vat.
Abigail pulled herself out of the pit, landing on the floor in one, soupy, gagging mess. She managed to struggle to her hands and knees before vomiting.
“I should have let the bastards kill me,” Abigail muttered.
Speaking of the bastards- human and otherwise- she suddenly remembered that she hadn’t checked if the coast was clear. She wiped the slop from her eyes as best she could, glancing around the dark room. She half-expected to see some nightmare closing in.
She was alone. No tentacle-cats, no spiders except the standard-issue types making their homes in the webs and pipes above. Saam was gone, too, as was the Young Edenist she’d knocked out not once but twice. Two, bloody trails led from where she’d seen them last to the place just beneath the broken vent. On the floor there was a pair of Bohap dice, landed on double-two’s. She wanted to say something witty to mark the occasion, but all of her focus was on not throwing up again.
On her feet, Abigail stomped around the room trying to wipe herself clean. Then she had an idea. She found a clean water pipe about eye-level and loosened the connecting valve enough for the water to gush out. She pushed her head under the makeshift shower. The water was freezing cold, yet she’d never felt anything better in her life. She stayed under it until all the muck was gone, then just a little bit longer.
When she opened her eyes, a young boy was staring at her.
“Jesus,” she said, jumping back. The boy was small, huddled against the far wall. He looked no older than ten, with light eyes that deeply contrasted with his dark hair. He wore a large backpack. “How the fuck did you get here,” she asked.
The boy shrugged. She smoothed her wet hair over her head.
“What are you doing in here?”
In a small voice he said, “Hiding.”
Abigail went to the door, making sure it was still closed. “I don’t want to go into details, kid, but this isn’t the best place to hide,” she said. The door was closed. She opened it, peeking out into the hallway. Only pulsing emergency lights lit the way out.
The small voice came again from behind: “Can I come with you?”
She winced. “On second thought, it’s probably pretty safe in here.”
Looking out again at the dark passageways, she remembered the horrible silhouettes of the creatures that had taken Saam and the other. Guilt pulled at her gut. She looked back at the kid, his backpack practically bigger than he was.
“I’m not holding your hand,” she said. The kid nodded. “Alright. C’mon then.”
She left with the boy, yellow lights in her eyes. Edenist knife in hand.