The airlock doors closed with a thunderous boom that reverberated through Mining. The sound was carried through every metal surface of the deck, even despite the lack of air. A series of locks slammed into place and armed, followed by the click and hiss of ventilation systems reengaging at full capacity.
It was going to take some time for the pressure and oxygen levels to become stabilized in such a large space. Desanto, Gunnar, Doctor Hannigan and Frank Peabody had no choice but to sit quietly in the Driller and wait for the life-support systems to do their job before they could safely exit the vehicle.
Not all of them were quiet. Gunnar hadn’t shut up, as usual, and it was giving Hannigan even more of a headache than she already had. She was happy to be alive, but she wasn’t exactly in fighting shape after her brush with the vacuum of space.
“We need to take back this ship,” Gunnar said angrily. “After all this time, I’m not letting a few creeps take us down.”
“Which creeps are you talking about,” Desanto asked, “the Cultists or the other ones?”
“Any of them. All of them. We have some serious work ahead of us. We need to circle the wagons and kick some ass.” He raised his Combitool defiantly. Then he turned to Desanto and added, “Maybe it shouldn’t be you leading the charge, though. I mean, Svarog worships your ass, and even he bailed on you.”
Desanto nodded, sadly agreeing. What it meant, Hannigan didn’t know, but they’d clearly had an eventive day.
The makeshift bandage on Peabody’s hand had soaked through, and as a result was starting to unravel. Hannigan smacked his good hand away from fidgeting with it and adjusted the cloth properly.
“Tell me, Doc- will I ever play the piano again,” Peabody joked.
“Probably not. But you still have plenty of options for picking your nose.” She smiled at the older man, and he smiled back.
“There’s always a silver lining if you know where to look.”
Finally the Driller’s atmospheric instruments showed normal readings outside of the vehicle. Peabody engaged the exit, wincing from the pain of accidentally using his bad hand. They all climbed out single-file, leaving behind several blood-stained seats.
As Desanto and Gunnar peeled off their spacesuits, revealing the yellow uniforms underneath, Hannigan’s head buzzed with a thousand questions, half of which she doubted they had the answers to. The other half sounded so ridiculous she didn’t want to ask them. But before she had the chance to broach any of the surreal topics on her mind, Desanto threw his suit aside and addressed the group.
“The bad news is there’s still two bombs left, and anyone we run into might be a Cultist.”
“Not to mention Blackwood’s monsters running around,” Gunnar said.
Hannigan’s ears perked up. “Blackwood? What does he have to do with this?”
“We don’t know,” Desanto said.
“Somewhere between nothing and everything,” Gunnar added. Hannigan scoffed.
“Well that’s great.”
Desanto shrugged at her, his eyes heavy. “The important thing is, we need to make this right before more people die.” He paused. “Gunnar is right, no one will listen to me. Which is why we need to get Captain Ashby.”
Gunnar scoffed at the idea the moment it left Desanto’s lips. “Good luck reaching the bridge, buddy. Even under normal circumstances no one can get up there.”
“Well we still have to try. She’s the only one has the resources and the pull to do bring everyone together.”
“Then we do it on our own,” Gunnar shrugged.
“We’ve tried the cowboy act. It didn’t work, did it?”
Gunnar’s face fell. “Kukhuvud,” he mumbled. Peabody looked up from his wrist.
“I’ve been trying to call the Bridge for the last few minutes. They ain’t picking up.”
“So there’s no way up there.”
“We’ll have to figure it out on the way,” Desanto said. “There’s four of us, we’ll think of something.”
“About that,” Peabody interrupted. “Sorry to say it, boys, but you can count me out of your little rescue mission. I have a husband to find.”
“You’d just slow us down anyway,” Gunnar offered.
Peabody grunted. “Well thank you very much for being so understanding.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Doctor Hannigan waved a finger at the older man. “When this is over, you come see me about that hand.”
“You got it, Doc.” Peabody nodded at everyone in turn, then left them to it. Gunnar watched the older man exit before turning back to the slightly smaller group. “Fine. Let’s say by some miracle we reach the Bridge- we don’t even know if the Captain’s even there still! The old guy just said they’re not answering. For all we know she’s in the life raft, jettisoning away from the ship.” Desanto agreed, nodding gravely. The two men were silent, their heads bowed in thought.
Hannigan stepped away, taking in the damage Mining had sustained in Baptiste’s attack and the decompression that followed. Much of the equipment was gone, tossed into space like so much garbage. Even some of the larger machinery had slid or toppled over from where it sat. Puddles of blood on the floor streaked like watercolor paintings toward the airlock. The air was fresh, free of the stink of death, though signs of it still remained.
Something was wedged between two Ore Processors that had slid together. As Doctor Hannigan moved closer, she made out the shape of a body. The woman had been pinned between the two, several-ton machines during the rapid decompression. Hannigan knelt and checked the woman’s pulse, even though she knew she wouldn’t find one.
A thought came to her. She stood up and turned back to the others, the two men busy converting their Dornier drones to standard operation mode.
“I know where Ashby is,” she announced.
Ness was scared.
She’d been sitting in her favorite chair, quietly reading when she’d heard a distant boom from within the ship. The tremors that followed reminded her of a distant memory, of growing up in California with her father. She’d wanted to call Jennifer to see what was going on, but she knew better than to interrupt the Captain when she was almost certainly busy being the Captain.
“Sunn,” she said, getting to her aching feet, “what’s going on out there?”
“Can you be more specific,” Sunn’s voice replied. She frowned. Sunn was always so difficult.
“It felt like we hit something,” she said impatiently.
“There has been an explosion on Deck Fourteen.”
Ness gasped. “Is everyone alright?”
She’d wanted to press Sunn for further details but she knew there wouldn’t be much. Her head was fuzzy, her skin painful. The floor pitched and she sat back down before she fainted. When the vertigo subsided she thought she should return to her reading, since worrying wouldn’t change anything, but she was too distracted to focus on the words on the page. Ness sat like that for some time, not doing anything except pretending to read. When the lights went out, she turned on her portable light and continued to pretend under its yellow glow.
Then came the sounds. At first there was just one of them, a galloping down the hallway like an animal had escaped from one of the environments. A boy screamed. She felt it in her belly, the fearfulness in his young voice, the sense of panic. Soon there were more screams, more animal sounds, though animal didn’t quite cover it. They were much stranger than that. More…alien. By the time she asked Sunn what was happening, he’d stopped answering.
For the first time since she’d gotten sick, she didn’t feel like a prisoner in her own home- she felt like a mouse in a cage.
Through the reinforced glass of the quarantine, she heard the front door open.
Only she and Jennifer could open that door. She put her book down and listened for her wife’s voice, but it didn’t come, only the sound of footsteps slowly approaching. Ness knew by their sound that they didn’t belong to Jennifer. Plus there was another sound that went with them. An accompanying click-shuffle she couldn’t pin down.
“Who is that,” she called out. “Who’s there?”
A silhouette appeared in the doorway. From the size it appeared to be a man, but the features were too dark to make out. “You’re not allowed in here,” Ness said, trying to sound confident as she ignored the icy feeling in her toes.
“Nothing on this ship is off-limits to me,” the dark man replied. His voice was calm, cold. Something moved at his feet. It was like a dog but worse.
“Well these are the Captain’s quarters. When she finds out about this-”
The animal lunged forward, snapping its teeth at the quarantine glass. Ness fell back into her chair. The portable light illuminated just enough of the animal for her to know it was no dog. When it laughed, Ness thought she heard the sound of a baby crying. The dark man called it back and it obeyed, melting back into the shadows with a quiver.
“M-my name is Ness Ashby,” Ness tried to push forward, sound strong, “I’m Captain Ashby’s wife, and I’m telling you to leave here now.”
The dark man smiled, his wet teeth shining in the dark. Ness noticed for the first time that something was terribly wrong with his skin. For some reason, she thought of the quilt her grandmother had made for her when Ness was just a baby.
“Believe me, Mrs. Ashby, there is absolutely no need for you to introduce yourself,” he said with great pleasure. “I already know all about you.”
Meanwhile, one level down and halfway across the ship, Will Miller was hiding in the toilets.
Earlier, when he’d been rounding up passengers with his fellow Children, his family had been the farthest thing from his mind. He’d told them to stay home today- or at least he was fairly certain he had- and he’d easily pushed them out of his head in favor of more important endeavors.
But then, when the abnormal ones came and he’d run for his life…well, to be fair he still hadn’t given them much thought, as he was busy running for his life. Later, though, once he’d found a bathroom to hide in, tucked in behind the furthest toilet and managed to calm down a bit, his thoughts began turning to matters of the home.
Rebecca had been bugging him for months to be home more, to help raise their son and keep him out of trouble, and it only got worse when the teacher disappeared. He never spoke to her about his work with the Children of Eden once she’d made it clear that she would never join them. She seemed to understand that he needed his faith, just as he understood she wouldn’t see the light until it was just about blinding her.
But now. Now that the abnormal ones had surfaced, turning their holiest of days into an unfolding Armageddon, now he knew he would have to drag his wife and son kicking and screaming onto the true path.
That was why he needed to go to them. Not just to save them, but to save them.
Staying low to the ground, Will snuck out of the bathrooms, making his way cautiously along the gore-stained hallways of Deck Six. He stepped over the body of Archie Colton, a fellow Child of Eden, though he couldn’t say he liked him much. Screams of pain and fear echoed through the corridors, along with the gnashing of impossible teeth.
Rounding a corner, he came upon the sight of a woman lying on the metal floor. Her arms and legs were splayed out. The abnormal one on top of her had her pinned with its thick, articulated bone-claws.
Will moved in closer to look, the same as he would back in the Grasslands. Observation, nothing more. The monster shivering above her looked like a human skeleton dipped in cartilage, almost like a sufferer of Fibrodysplasia in which the muscle had turned to bone. Its torso was atrophied and useless, and wore the dust-covered wings of a moth. The woman whimpered as the moth-monster’s proboscis unraveled from its skull-like face, a long, semi-transparent tube with a barbed tip that moved toward her neck in twitching anticipation.
The woman saw Will. She reached out for him. Her crying eyes pleading for help.
Will turned back. He would find a different path. It might take him twenty minutes to cover what should take two this way, but at least he would arrive at his destination with a two legs, a beating heart and all his blood exactly where it belonged. Behind him, he heard the woman’s scream cut short.
Mitsuko Maeda wished she’d been stuck with someone, anyone, but Kenneth Rees.
They’d been at work in Genlab 12, as usual, when the woman with the strange knife burst in and shouted for them to come with her. Rees had resisted at first, since it was in his nature to be difficult about pretty much everything, but he came around quickly when she started sticking the knife in his face.
Soon they found themselves marched through the hallways with other, confused Ark Passengers, all of them being led upstairs. From the whispers and shouts all around her, Mitsuko ascertained that the people with the knives were Cultists, and that for some reason they wanted everyone on-board rounded up and brought somewhere they could be watched. For most of them, Mitsuko and Rees included, that meant the public space on Deck Two. They’d joined the crowd of scared and angry faces near Central Park, kept under the watchful eyes of Cultists manning the available high ground, including the elevated transport.
Of course, it all went to shit the moment the sun died.
When the artificial sun went out, the public space became screaming and shuffling, all those rounded-up passengers scrambling to get away from their captors. Mitsuko saw a man stabbed by one of the strange knives. Then she saw Rees running the opposite direction of the exits and decided, for once, that he’d had a good idea. Even if the elevators were working, the exits would quickly become jammed up with the bodies of panicked people.
It wasn’t so much what she’d seen next that scared her, though- it was what she’d heard. Things were moving through the crowd, things that sounded awfully similar to what Officer Nicolai had described to them when they’d pulled him out of the Emergency Decon. A wet-dry shuffle, like invertebrate tendrils armed with claws. She saw a passenger taken down by a blur of black. Then another.
Then the screaming changed.
In the midst of the terror, someone grabbed her hand. She flinched, pulled back, ready to strike, until she realized it was Rees. He was pulling her somewhere and she was just dizzy enough to follow. A few, dark, bloody minutes later, she found herself wedging her body as far under the bar of The Floating Bottle as she was physically capable.
Now, all this time later, she and Rees were still there. Still hiding. She looked at Rees, the man she despised working for, who had possibly saved her life, and he looked back at her.
“This is your fault,” he whispered.
Mitsuko blinked. “Excuse me?”
“I told you to leave that girl in Decon.”
She felt a scream rise up in her throat. “That girl?”
“Don’t deflect the issue,” he huffed.
“That girl has a name. It’s Vanessa. And how dare you accuse me of endangering the ship?”
“Because that’s precisely what you did. Quarantines exist for a reason. That creature Officer Nicolai encountered-”
“You mean the one you didn’t believe existed?”
Rees shook his head. “It should have died in Decon. Now it’s running around the Ark, killing people.”
Rees’ eyes widened. “I won’t be talked to like-”
“I said shut up,” she whisper-shouted. She’d heard something a moment earlier, and as she concentrated on it, Rees got the hint and listened with her.
Thoom. Thoom. Thoom.
They were footsteps, cutting across the public space in a thundering line.
Whatever it was, it was big. The bottles and glasses on the bar above them rattled and shook.
Whatever it was, it was getting closer.
The footsteps stopped. Mitsuko and Rees stared at each other, neither of them speaking a word, yet their eyes both said the exact, same thing: whatever it was, it wasn’t the same creature Officer Nicolai had crossed paths with.
It was much worse.
Will Miller was trapped. He’d made one bad turn after another, and soon he found himself with his back to the wall, with nowhere to run on either side, and a half-aborted hell-spawn shuffling directly toward him.
Separated from the fear washing through his bloodstream, the Zoologist in him was fascinated by the specimen he saw before him. About the size of a Black Bear, its body was highly reminiscent of the Giant Waterbug once found in ponds and streams of Australia, East Asia and the Americas. It approached on thickened, raptorial front legs and middle and hind legs coated with bristles of swimming hair. Where this specimen differed, however, was that instead of two, tiny eyes at the center of its head-mass, it had an elongated human face, the mouth of which hung with a dozen loose tongues like dead intestines. Its legs were nearly as long as a newborn Giraffe, yet still bent at an insectoid angle.
As it drew near, the stink of the creature filling Will’s nose, he pressed his back into the wall and slid down until he was sitting on the ground clutching his knees. He begged for forgiveness then. With his eyes shut tight he prayed he and his family would find each other again in Eden, so that he could tell them how sorry he was. How he’d wasted so much time on things that weren’t important.
It was close now. The insect. He could feel its dead tongues reaching out for him. Reaching out like that woman had. Reaching out for his face.
Will’s eyes opened. Had the insect spoken?
The insect’s elongated face, so human and yet so alien, turned to the right. Will followed the movement, trying to see what had distracted the creature.
A very large Peace Officer stood two feet away from them. In his very large hands, he held a very large Peace Stick.
The Officer jammed the Peace Stick into the Waterbug creature’s semi-human face. A high-pitched screech came from the insect as the Officer discharged the weapon on full-strength. When it stopped screeching, the Officer disengaged the weapon.
The insect swayed on its giraffe-like legs, then collapsed to the ground in so much dead weight. The Officer approached rapidly, his face so angry that Will scrambled out of his way, thinking perhaps he was going to meet the same fate as the insect, being with the Children of Eden as he was. Instead, the Officer jammed his boot into the insect’s side with such force he cracked the exoskeleton on the first try. Not satisfied, he moved around to the head, where he boot-stomped the thing’s face so many times that Will lost count. When he was done, the head resembled a jar of mint jelly more than it did a human.
The very large Officer turned to Will, and Will winced. “That was one ugly motherfucker,” he said. The man was barely out of breath.
Will pulled himself off the floor. The large Officer stood over the vile, leaking corpse of the Waterbug creature, looking down at the devil’s handiwork. Will joined him. Just like the Giant Waterbug, the creature had a collection of eggs glued to its wide back. But unlike a Waterbug, the semi-transparent sacs were filled with gestating humanoid faces. Both men stared at the sight, not a word between them.
The Officer moved in closer to nudge the creature with his boot, cursing at the stink coming out of it, but Will stopped him. “I wouldn’t do that,” he warned.
“Waterbugs. They’re known to play dead. They emit a fluid from their anus to simulate the stink of death.”
The Officer grimaced. “That’s disgusting,” he said. The human faces, soft and waterlogged inside the eggs on its back, had begun to cry out. Perhaps they sensed their host’s death. Will preferred to think of the dead creature as their host as opposed to their mother, or in the case of Giant Waterbugs, as the case may have been, their father.
One of the faces stirred. Biting at the egg that encased it, it tried to break free and hatch. But the Officer was quick with his weapon, jamming the Peace Stick into the egg and discharging the remainder of its battery. The head boiled and popped inside its own egg.
“Thank you, Officer Wolfe,” Will managed, reading his nametag. The Officer looked up at him.
“Don’t thank me, just help me.”
Will Miller squinted. “Help you do what?”
Officer Wolfe scoffed. “Fight back, what else?”
“Fight back,” Will echoed.
“You do know how to fight, right?”
“Cultist,” Officer Wolfe said, and Will blinked. “Mutant. Pick one, pick both, I don’t care. Just kill one.”
“Is that the official policy? Kill on sight?”
“It’s my policy. Nothing official about it.”
Will Miller nodded. The Officer didn’t know who Will was, where his allegiances lay. If he knew, if he even had a clue, he certainly wouldn’t want his help. Will noticed for the first time that the Officer’s hand was drenched with something sticky red. “You’re bleeding,” he pointed out.
“It’s not mine,” Officer Wolfe replied. Will noticed the Officer was holding a name tag in his hand, yet was still wearing his own. He caught a quick glimpse of the name on the tag before Wolfe tucked it into his front pocket: Officer Gadhavi.
“Be that as it may, you still need to wash it off. Whatever else these abnormal-” he caught himself, “…things are, they’re still animals, and animals track the scent of blood.”
Officer Wolfe sniffed. “Good,” he replied, recharging his Peace Stick with a hard press. “I want them to find me.”
Officer Nicolai’s journey to the Peace Officer Station took twice as long as it should have. Just a day before, traveling those seven levels up would have taken about two minutes in an elevator, then another five minutes’ walk. But today’s Ark was quite different than yesterday’s.
Between avoiding darker stretches of corridor and helping a few passengers caught up in trouble, Nicolai couldn’t stop thinking about Sunn’s message, the one on the wall back in Secondary Medbay. It had dangled just enough hope in front of Kash and Dez for them to run off with Monika- working together, no less, a downright miracle- and yet something about the words felt off. If he had more than thirty seconds at a time to think about it, he might even figure out what that was.
He finally reached the Station, a sigh of relief leaving his lips. And yet, it wasn’t the Station he’d wanted to find. Instead of a room filled with the bustle of Peace Officers formulating a plan to regain the ship, Inspector Raymond barking orders to his team, he found a mostly dark, completely empty room waiting for him.
Nicolai crossed to the front desk and checked the screen, finding it had been smashed to pieces. Drops of blood dotted the desk. It appeared human, insomuch as it wasn’t green and melting through the metal.
“Where is everyone,” Nicolai whispered to himself.
A dim light was visible through the shaded window to Inspector Raymond’s office. Nicolai approached the door slowly and knocked, keeping to the side.
“Who’s there,” a voice called out. It was the Inspector.
“Nicolai, sir.” There was a shuffle inside as the man crossed to the door and manually unlocked it. The door opened an inch, the Inspector’s wrinkled eye appearing briefly before the door swung open the rest of the way.
“What are you waiting for, come in,” the older man growled. Nicolai entered, closing and locking the door behind him as told. Inspector Raymond took his seat behind his large desk. Lying on top of it was his prized antique musket, taken down from its usual display on the wall. Nicolai had seen the man take apart and clean it more times than he could remember. “So? What did you see?”
“Too much to explain,” Nicolai summed up.
“Yes. It appears that monsters are real, doesn’t it?”
“Seems that way.”
Inspector Raymond shook his head, glancing away. “What a mess. Whatever those unnatural things are, they’re not part of the uprising, that much I know. The Children of Eden may have a few bombs at their disposal, but they certainly don’t command demons.”
“A few bombs?”
Inspector Raymond looked back at him. “We have to assume they built more than one.”
“I suppose you’re right, sir.” Nicolai watched the Inspector’s fingers drum the desk. They were just inches from the musket’s trigger. “Sir, where are the other Officers?”
“I sent them out to assist the passengers. People are dying.”
“But you stayed behind.”
Raymond straightened up in his chair. “I don’t like your tone, Officer. Are you implying something?”
“I chose to remain here and maintain command, yes. I have no delusions as to my physical abilities. Here is where I’m most useful. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir. I meant nothing by it.” After a tense moment, the Inspector nodded.
“Fine. Fine. Where’s your partner?”
“Escorting a wounded passenger to one of the Genlabs.”
“What on Earth for?”
Nicolai paused. That was an old saying. Nicolai didn’t hear it much, usually only by old-timers who had actually known Earth. “Long story. Monika Jacobs was injured in the explosion on Engineering Deck. Sunn thinks he can help her. Her husband Desmond was there, too.”
Raymond raised an eyebrow. “Sunn is functional?”
“Partially,” Nicolai replied. “Possibly. It’s a long-shot they were willing to take.”
“What a mess,” Raymond echoed himself from earlier.
“What about here, sir? What happened to the screen at the front desk?”
The Inspector huffed. “That. One of those things got in here. I managed to hurt it, scare it off, but I got this for my troubles.” He pulled down his sleeve to show Nicolai a clean field dressing on his forearm.
“So the blood was yours.”
Raymond lowered his sleeve. “I didn’t have time to do forensics, but yes, I’m sure it was.”
Nicolai was believing his superior less and less by the second. Who had gotten to the Inspector he didn’t know, but he had his suspicions. “Well I’d better be heading back out,” he said, his breath tight in his chest. “Passengers still need my help.”
“Dismissed,” Raymond said with a nod.
“Thank you.” Nicolai turned to undo the manual lock on the door. As he turned it, he heard the squeak of Raymond’s chair being pushed out from the desk, along with the slide of metal and wood.
“You didn’t say ‘sir’,” Raymond said.
Nicolai dove to the side as the musket round exploded into the door. His ears ringing, he scrambled to his feet in time to see Raymond toss the weapon onto his desk and wrench the top drawer to his desk open.
Nicolai ran at the man, catching him off-guard. He collided with man, knocking him into his chair and pulling the drawer clean out of the desk. Its contents flew into the air as both men toppled over the chair. Raymond shouted as he landed on his side, a loud crack telling him something had broken, and Nicolai fell on top of him.
Nicolai had no sympathy for the older man. He pulled back and punched Raymond directly in his goateed mouth. Raymond’s eyes glazed over. One more punch and the man’s lights went out.
After stumbling to his feet, Nicolai saw the contents of Raymond’s top drawer scattered across the floor. One of them was a knife with unique carvings he only assumed could be attributed to the Edenists. He searched the unconscious man’s desk further and hit a particularly troubling jackpot.
The Peace Sticks and name badges of his fellow Officers.
Nicolai handcuffed Raymond, then removed the knife, the musket and anything else the man might use. Hoping for the best, yet prepared for the worst, Nicolai left Raymond’s office and searched the rest of the Station. There were a few things out of place, one upended chairs, but otherwise everything appeared normal.
Almost as an afterthought, he checked the Station’s single holding area. Rarely used, the small room had seen more drunks than anything else. In fact, that was all it had seen to his recollection. He undid the lock and opened the door, praying he didn’t find a cache of dead bodies.
Nicolai laughed. Officers Song, Eckstein, Trent and Nakajima, in tank tops and underwear, had been handcuffed, gagged and crammed into the small room large enough for one person. Trent in particular looked like he’d put up a good fight.
“Looking good, Officers,” Nicolai beamed.
After helping them out and uncuffing them, Officer Trent checked on their former Inspector. “They won’t get away with this,” Song said, rubbing the back of her head.
“No,” Nicolai said, “they won’t.”
His eyes widened as he had a sudden realization about the message back in Medbay . Yes, but it won’t save her. Sunn never used contractions when he spoke. It’s not that he couldn’t, more like he refused.
Whoever they’d been talking to in Medbay, it wasn’t Sunn.
Nicolai needed to call Kash and Dez and warn them. The moment he raised the screen on his wrist to his mouth, another explosion rocked the Ark. It was close, maybe only a few decks down. The Officers all looked at each other with concern.
When the tremors had died down, Nicolai returned to his wrist screen, immediately cursing at what he saw there.
“What is it,” Officer Song asked.
Nicolai looked up from the screen. “Comms,” he sighed. “They took out Comms.