As the last of the tremors from the second explosion died down, Zane checked the screen on his wrist. “Right on time,” he said to himself.
Zane and Drew Colton, the largest Child of Eden but certainly not the brightest, had just managed to get out of the Mining level before it locked down. Now they were rounding up all the fellow Children they could find, which after some thirty minutes had amounted to exactly six men and three women. They found a secure room to gather themselves in, deciding they needed to rest for a few minutes and gather their strength.
Ever since the Founder himself had been blessed with the vision that drove him to form the Children of Eden, they had been working toward this day. Praying for it. Working toward it. It was the day they made their intentions clear to God, their way of saying to him they no longer wished to follow this false path, a way of asking him to pluck them from the eternal emptiness and cast them into the purifying light of Eden. A unified goal, that was the gift given to them by the Founder, though others knew him by a different name.
J.B. Douglas, Former Captain of Ark One.
Captain Douglas had been working toward the Reclamation when he fell ill, forcing him to retire not only from his post as Captain, but that of Keeper of the Word. His First Officer had been a promising, young woman named Jennifer Ashby who, try as he might, never showed any interest in allowing the word of God into her heart. The great disappointment of J.B. Douglas’ life had been that of dying before Ashby could be turned into a believer, leaving his believed Ark to the heretics. His final instructions to Zane, his second in command not on the ship but with the Children of Eden, his last words as he lay dying on a Medbed, were to continue trying to win over the new Captain.
“And if that didn’t work,” he said, “take the damn ship from her.”
Douglas had even recorded a video documenting his wishes for the future of Ark One. Zane had been planning to play it for the passengers once he had them rounded up and calmed down. That was until everything fell apart. Before the abnormal ones surfaced. Then everything had changed.
The other Children didn’t understand how Howard Blackwood was leading the abnormal ones from his Cryopod. To them it spoke to the true evil of the man that he was capable of such things, that he could command an army of demons even while frozen in Cryosleep. But Zane knew the truth about Blackwood. He knew how the man came and went, how he operated in the shadows, but he let the others have their superstitions about the man.
It served his purposes just fine.
The new struggle the Children of Eden faced was two-fold: not only did they have to overcome the resistance of the Ark’s passengers to their dream of the Reclamation, now they had to survive the onslaught of hungry creatures currently spreading through the ship. Luckily, before Captain Douglas died he’d told Zane all about the Bridge’s little secret. How there was an Armory hidden in its walls. An Armory Zane very much planned to seize.
“The Reclamation,” one of the Children finally spoke, an incredible sadness weighing down his voice. “It’s ruined.”
“This wasn’t how it was written,” another said.
One of the women in the group turned to Zane. “What now? What do we do?”
Zane looked at the small group, all of them staring at him, waiting for his next command. “To be completely honest with you,” he said, “I’m deeply troubled. I’m troubled because I know exactly what we have to do, but I’m not sure you all have the resolve to see it through.”
The group began to plead with him. Zane tried not to smile. It felt good to be needed. To be needed was to be loved.
He looked each of them in the eye and said, quite simply, “We need to save the ship.”
They murmured, caught off-guard. “What do you mean save it,” the same woman asked.
Zane stood before them. This was the day he’d been born for. “Our holy day has been interrupted, that’s true, but it’s not over yet. We can still lead the passengers of this ship back to the true path. Don’t you see they need us? Their souls need saving, now more than ever.” He looked around the room. “God has shown us the way, fellow Children. If we save the Ark from the abnormal ones, if we stop Blackwood’s evil plan, the passengers of this ship will see us for the saviors we are.”
They all talked at once, excited. Then the woman said, “What about the ones who don’t see us that way? We just set off two Mining charges, some of them won’t forget so easily.”
Zane smiled. “Simple- they’ll be the first sacrifices.” The others nodded and smiled, though the woman didn’t seem convinced.
Already a plan was forming in Zane’s mind. There was one more charge on the ship, the bomb that would take out the Ark’s brain, permanently deleting Sunn from existence. At the time it had been necessary to ensure the Ark would never again resume its fruitless journey, but now, now they needed to reach the charge before it went off, not just to buy themselves time, but to put it to better use.
“The Ark needs to die, yes, but not like this. Not crawling with abnormal ones. It was meant to rot on the wind, not choke to death riddled with cancer. Come, join me, Children- let us be its saviors.”
Rejuvenated, they prepared for the journey. Officer Hopes’ mission had been to secure the Bridge and access the Armory, but Hopes had failed to check in before the second Mining Charge took out the comms system. Zane ordered three Children to travel up to the Bridge and ensure the Armory’s capture. Then he, Drew Colton and the rest of the group headed toward Deck Three to see about the bomb.
As they traveled, slowly and with knives ready, Zane eyed the woman who had questioned him. She was whispering something to one of the other Children, who had an unsure look on his face.
Something would have to be done about her.
Cornelia and Imani tried not to think about the things they’d seen. The monsters crawling toward them. The fellow passengers torn to bloody shreds. If they were going to survive the day, if they were going to keep their sanity about them, they agreed it would only be by serving a purpose, by focusing all their energy on one thought, and one mission. That mission would be to secure the farm. Protect the animals, they decided, to protect the future.
The two women had been slowly making their way down the Ark, ducking from room to room and stairway to stairway for what felt like hours, when they finally reached Deck Eleven. They still had a ways to go, the Farm located on the opposite end of the deck. They decided to take a shortcut through Food Processing despite that section’s apparent lack of working emergency lights.
It was a decision they quickly regretted. Even with the Bio-Flashlight they’d found in a cleaning closet, the Food Processing area was too cluttered to offer a clear view to the other side. The wide open room was fitted with dozens of specialized machines that, on any given day, were responsible for the mincing, macerating, liquefaction, emulsification, cooking, pickling, pasteurizing and preserving of every ingredient harvested from the Farms, Water Environments and even the Genlabs on board. Now it was little more than a sea of shadows and brushed metal hiding spots for monsters both real and imagined.
As the women slowly weaved through the processing machines, Imani in front wielding the Bio-flashlight like a hopeful weapon, they noticed the ceiling ahead had collapsed in places, wires and light fixtures hanging loose. “That second blast must have been right above us,” Cornelia said.
“There’s nothing above us but Environments.” Imani swept the light across the badly damaged Deck, looking for the exit.
“Then what could have done this?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. The only thing that matters right now is getting back to the farm.”
“Yeah, before we buy the farm,” Cornelia joked under her breath. The flashlight flickered, the Bioluminescence dying out. Imani slapped it against her palm.
“This is why no one uses these anymore,” she sighed.
“Give it to me, I know the trick,” Cornelia said, and Imani turned to hand over the light. As she did, the beam of fading light shone onto Cornelia’s shoulder for just a moment.
There was something on it. A shape. Imani jerked the light back to see. A cockroach the size of her fist rested on Cornelia’s shoulder, though it was no kind she’d seen before. Its shell looked more like scabbed over skin. It winced at the light, the hairs raising up on its fleshy back.
Just before the light cut out, plunging them into darkness, the cockroach spread its wings, hissing at Imani with a mouthful of human teeth.
Gunnar, Desanto and Doctor Hannigan made good progress from Deck Eight to the Living Quarters on Five with the help of their new friends. Dornier units Newton and Schrodinger, formerly fitted with modular oxygen and propellant attachments, flew ahead of them on silent mode, checking that the path was clear. The views from their eyes fed directly to Gunnar’s wrist, and he watched them carefully for any signs of danger.
The hallways were eerily quiet, free of passengers and creatures alike, though the three of them passed by plenty evidence that people had been there very recently. Their blood told incomplete stories, stories occasionally completed by corpses.
Desanto watched Gunnar carefully for reactions to his wrist feed. Only once did Gunnar stop and signal for them to turn around, silently as to not draw the attention of whatever he’d spotted up ahead. When they were far enough away, Desanto asked him what he’d seen.
“I’d really rather not talk about it,” Gunnar replied gravely. A lack of humor from him wasn’t just rare, it was downright unsettling.
Somewhere in the middle of Deck Six, the whispering started up again. Desanto knew by now the voices were coming from inside himself, and yet the effect of hearing his name drift from the lips of a half-eaten corpse was no less disturbing. As usual he continued on, pretending not to hear anything, both for the sake of company as well as his own sanity.
As if refusing to be ignored, the whispers became screams. The screams became white-hot light that shot through his eyes and lit up his brain like overloaded circuitry. His vision shattered into a kaleidoscope of images, crystalline horrors that assaulted his senses. Human eyes on snail antennae. Black, loosely-hinged jaws slipping through dark water. Blood moving through an opaque proboscis. Black tendrils tearing open flesh. The crack of a sternum and the wet puncture of a rib through lungs. And through it all, weaved into the visions like capillary vines, a terrible voice boomed, a thousand ancient sounds condensed into one, solitary nightmare.
“Hyaenidae Infitu Diplopoda,” the voice said. “Don’t be frightened of him, my dear.”
In a blink Desanto was back in the dark hallways. He glanced over at Doctor Hannigan, who looked back at him with her usual expression of concern.
“Are you alright,” the Doctor asked quietly.
“Absolutely not,” he replied.
Cornelia had felt something on her neck, but she’d dismissed it as nothing more than paranoia, a case of the creeps brought on by that dark place. After what they’d seen she wasn’t too hard on herself for letting her imagination run wild.
That was before Imani had shone the light on her, revealing the hissing ball of nightmares an inch from her face. A flash of teeth snapped at her, but with a scream and a wild slap she managed to knock the Mouthroach thing away, horrified by the weight of it on her hand.
The two of them ran in the dark, tripping and fumbling through the Food Processing Plant as they desperately sought the way out. Imani must have dropped the Bio-flashlight in the midst of panic. A beam of light spun behind them, the drop knocking a little more use out of it. Cornelia glanced back at the spinning light and saw, by the gaze of its rotation, the swarm of Mouthroaches pouring out of the half-crumbled ceiling. It was like a wound gushing infected blood.
The blackened room was a maze of metal and hissing and buzzing and, God help them, high-pitched grunts and cries. They navigated their own private death trap, chomping teeth following them all the way. The only comforting thought was that the insects couldn’t see them either, or at least Cornelia hoped.
She quickly became turned around and found herself separated from Imani, the thought of which sent a wave of panic through her body. She could hear Imani calling out to her in the dark, but she was too disoriented to determine the direction of the voice and how to reach it.
Cornelia slammed into a wall at full force. She saw lights, though not the helpful kind. Pain radiated through her bones. Feeling along the cold wall, sensing the air of nearby wings on her neck, her fingers found a control screen that blinked on at her touch. She pounded on the screen frantically, hoping one of the buttons would turn on the lights. Their only chance of staying alive would be to find the way out, and yet neither of them knew the place well enough to navigate it blind.
Instead of the lights, a mincing machine came to life less than twenty feet away. Then a second, this one across the room. The red and green warning lights of the machines were barely enough to see by, but they were something. Even better, the noise of their gears and motors starting seemed to attract the attention of the Mouthroaches. Most of the swarm had shifted focus, the chattering cloud descending on the machines.
Something large came at Cornelia from the darkness. She froze, expecting death to follow. Instead it was that beautiful face she’d never grown tired of seeing.
“Come on,” Imani whispered, “I think I found the way out.” She turned to lead the way, stepping back into the shadows. Cornelia breathed relief, ready to follow her friend into Hell itself. But first she glanced to her left, and she was thankful she had. A damp mop leaned against the wall next to a broken floor-cleaning drone. She left the drone but grabbed the mop, holding it with both hands in front of her, a fighting staff that stunk of black mold and stale disinfectant.
Imani and Cornelia crept between the machines, doing everything they could to stay silent. The swarm of Mouthroaches had nearly covered the two mincers, their fat, little bodies obscuring what little light was there. The sound of the insects grew angry as they must have realized the machines had no food for them. If Cornelia and Imani were lucky, at the pace they were going, they would be long gone by the time the Mouthroaches returned to their previous hunt.
But the machines had other plans. The entire assembly line of food processing equipment fired up now, a roomful of equipment chugging to life. Whether it was a Mouthroach that set them off or a program Cornelia had started wasn’t clear, yet it didn’t matter. The effect was the same. The room became a cacophony of lights and sounds, one that didn’t go unnoticed for long.
A set of swinging doors that led to the next processing area slammed open, causing the Mouthroaches to shriek and scatter into the air. A terrible silhouette appeared in the open doorway. It was a wide-faced, hairless man with bulging eyes on top of his head. Cornelia had never seen such a vile and slime-slick sight in all her time.
The misshapen creature hunched down on thick, muscular hind legs, blinking with two sets of translucent eyelids. It appeared to follow the wing-motion of the startled Mouthroaches. In a half-hop, half-run that unnerved Imani and Cornelia, the creature chased after the scattering roaches, using its darting bubble gum tongue to eat as many as it could. Cornelia’s skin crawled at the crunch of teeth and flesh as the amphibious creature devoured one fat roach after the other, its bulbous eyes depressing into its skull to help force its food down.
Something touched Cornelia’s arm. She nearly cried out, before realizing it was Imani reaching out to pull her along. The two snuck past the sickening sight of one monster devouring countless more, neither woman daring to make a sound even as they stared unbelieving at the amphibious man’s translucent skin. Soft intestine and bone could be seen through it’s slick, semi-clear flesh, sickening peeks at what made it tick.
So distracted were they by its anatomy, they hadn’t noticed the second creature entering the room. By the time Cornelia turned to see the second frog-thing coming toward them, the creature was close enough that she could see the inner workings beneath its translucent skin. This one was clearly female, and even her breasts translucent, the fatty tissue visible beneath their oily surface.
Acting on instinct, Cornelia lashed out with the mop. The business end connected with the amphibian woman’s face, driving her back on her webbed feet. The creature flailed and nearly fell.
Cornelia felt a swell of pride as she realized her attack had drawn blood, but the sense of victory didn’t last long. Even over the screaming and crunching of Mouthroaches, the dull snap of breaking bone echoed in Cornelia’s ears. It wasn’t any of Cornelia’s bones snapping, however, nor was it Imani’s. The frog-woman, if it could be called that, twitched and stretched her oily arms until the violent muscular contractions forced naked bone through her fingertips, exposing bloody, jagged claws ready to be used.
“Hit it again,” Imani cried out. The creature was already on the attack. It leapt forward, bringing Cornelia to the ground under all of its slimy and corpulent weight. The mop knocked free from her hands, leaving Cornelia defenseless as the pungent creature assailed her with its blood-slick claws. The first cuts it inflicted tore cloth. The next tore skin. Cornelia struggled to cover her face, only mostly succeeding.
A cry spilled from the frog-woman’s thick lips, and Cornelia uncovered her face long enough to see what had happened. Apparently Imani had recovered the mop and driven its stick end into the frog-woman’s bulbous eye. The creature trembled on thick legs, blinking with all its eyelids at the snapped-off bit of wood sticking out from its bleeding eye. Imani helped Cornelia to her feet as a great, roaring croak-scream tore through the room.
The female creature’s squeals of pain had drawn the attention of the male, which no longer cared about its feast of Mouthroaches. Again came the sick crack of bones, this time louder, thicker. The male bared its wet finger-claws, easily double the length of the female’s.
Imani and Cornelia ran. They ran for their lives as the hopping, running, croaking force tore after them, knocking down everything in its way. Imani led the way, mop in hand, toward the door at the far end which Cornelia noticed was just past the worst section of ceiling yet, wires and pipes hanging so low they looked like nerves ripped from their body, like bone pushed through skin.
They ducked under the collapsing ceiling, the vibrations of their footsteps threatening to bring the whole mess down on their heads. Finally they reached the door, more darkness waiting in the hallway beyond, but hopefully a safer kind. And yet the door wouldn’t close. Wouldn’t budge. The raging creature with thick eyes, razor-like bone claws and see-through skin was nearly on them, ready to pay back what they’d done to his mate tenfold.
To Cornelia’s surprise, Imani turned to head back. “What are you doing,” Cornelia screamed.
Imani didn’t bother to answer. She swung and smashed and beat on the half-dead ceiling, trying to bring it down. If it worked their way back would be cut off, but so would any chance of the creature reaching them. It was the only way, Cornelia knew. She went back to help her friend.
“Get back,” Imani shouted, the ceiling starting to give, but it wasn’t happening quickly enough. The creature was already shoving its way under, waddle-twitching and swiping at them with new claws. As always, Cornelia knew exactly what had to be done to solve the problem.
But for the first time in her life, she actually did it.
Cornelia pulled Imani out of the way, surprising her so much she nearly tossed the woman to the floor. She glanced back at her friend, then to the slimy creature now only a foot away. She reached up, grabbed onto the largest length of water pipe she could find, and pulled.
After a grueling journey, in which Gunnar only had to use his Combitool once, to fend off a catlike creature with black tendrils peering at them from an air vent, he, Doctor Hannigan and Desanto finally reached Captain Ashby’s quarters. The Dorniers were already in standby mode when the three travelers arrived, two floating guard dogs awaiting orders.
The closer the three of them had gotten to their destination, the stronger the visions and voices had torn at Desanto’s mind. They were positively screaming now. He took a minute to kneel and breathe and close his eyes. The more he focused, the clearer the pictures became. Yet that wasn’t much better. The pictures were of pain and death. The victims were his friends. Gunnar’s blood became a shower. Doctor Hannigan’s crushed and decapitated head gave way to the real Hannigan checking his eyes for signs of brain trauma. She held her finger up in front of his face and asked him to follow it.
“What’s wrong with him,” Gunnar asked.
“Can’t be sure. It looks like he’s suffered a break from reality.”
Gunnar snorted. “Reality is suffering a break from reality.” He checked a side hallway, making sure it was clear. Doctor Hannigan continued to check him for signs he was okay.
“I need to go in there alone,” told her. Hannigan only frowned. Gunnar returned to his friend’s side, having overheard what Desanto had said.
“And why would you need to do that?”
“It’s just something I have to do.” He looked from Gunnar to Hannigan and back to Gunnar. To say the words aloud wouldn’t just sound crazy, it was inviting them to come true. “I can’t explain it,” he concluded.
“I guess that’s not any weirder than anything else today.”
“Wait. He shouldn’t go by himself,” Hannigan said, turning back. “You can’t. You’re not well.”
“You don’t look so hot yourself,” Desanto said.
“This isn’t a joke, Erick. Forget the monsters, you can have an aneurysm or a stroke with no one to help you. You could fall and split your head open.”
Desanto nodded. “I know. But I need you to trust me on this.”
Hannigan seemed to wrestle with the thought, looking to Gunnar for backup. The big oaf just shrugged at her and said, “Fuck it. Right? I need some answers soon. I don’t know about you.”
“Alright,” Hannigan sighed, pointing in Desanto’s face. “But only because I owe you one, you hear me? After this you have to follow strict Doctor’s orders.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Desanto said, attempting a smile. He stood up tall, feeling dizzy, nauseous, tired, confused and drained, but otherwise great.
“Take this,” Gunnar said, holding out a small comms device. Apparently he’d ripped the thing out of his spacesuit’s helmet back in Mining. “Microphone’s not functional, but the tracker still works.”
“I’ll be twenty feet away,” Desanto noted.
“Yeah, sure. And everything else has gone exactly to plan.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Desanto took the device and slipped it into his uniform’s breast pocket. “Don’t let anyone in,” Desanto said. “And I mean anyone.” He looked at Doctor Hannigan to make his point clear.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gunnar echoed. He turned to stand guard, a third watchdog, this one only briefly glancing over his shoulder as Desanto opened the door.
Desanto stood at the open doorway, taking another moment to focus his thoughts. He was on the verge of something, and he knew it. Every step he’d taken had lead him here. Every voice and vision. Every question and dream. Where it went he didn’t know, but at least it was forward.
The moment he entered the quarters, strange lights filled his vision. He was fairly certain they weren’t a product of his own mind. With each step he took the strange lights grew in intensity, until he rounded the corner and found their source.
A man stood on the other side of the reinforced quarantine glass. He appeared calm, in control. He faced Desanto, patiently waiting for him to come forward. Even from across the room, even in the half-dark, Desanto could see the man’s skin was a patchwork of color and texture. Shadows and light moved around him, living tendrils of alternating darkness and bioluminescence.
“Hello, Erick,” the man said. His voice was the voice. The voice from Desanto’s nightmares. “My name is Doctor Howard Blackwood,” he smiled. “I’ve been looking forward to this moment.”