Ness Ashby was in the corner, not just unconscious but bound and sedated by the tentacles of a shapeless creature pumping neurotoxins into her system via hollow tubules needled under her skin. The emergency bioluminescence in the ceiling betrayed the truth of her condition. No longer hidden by holographic lighting, her skin was completely covered in interlocking patterns of red and white blotches.
“Titanaviridae,” Blackwood replied. “It’s truly a mystery how she came to carry the virus so far from Earth. Then again, the Gods do work in mysterious ways.”
Desanto had only seen the effects of the virus in old footage from Earth. It was shocking to see such clear evidence of it here, on the Ark, so far from where it belonged. Following the Cultists, the creatures and the very alive, very modified, very not-frozen Doctor standing in front of him, the presence of the virus that had doomed the Earth to die felt like a fourth and final kick to the ribs.
The sound of a phlegm-slick snarl drew his attention from the sick woman to the hyena-thing at Blackwood’s side. Desanto’s eyes wandered over its snakelike body, the thick mass of it shuffling with the undulations of millipede legs. “Why doesn’t it attack,” he asked.
“The beasts are mine to control.”
Doctor Blackwood pet the creature. The sound it made was somewhere between a laugh and a purr. “Come now, Erick, you ask questions to which you already know the answer.”
Desanto was about to argue when it struck him. “Engineered pheromones,” he said before he could stop himself. “Insect chemosensory receptors modified for mammal biology.”
How did he know that? And why did Blackwood look proud?
“That’s correct. The Ancient Ones pulled themselves apart to make our world, you see. I’m putting us back together.” Desanto’s knees wanted to give out under the weight of the man’s words. His head felt as if it would crack open. “I need to prove myself to them. I need to show them I can take my place among the Gods. I can only do that by speaking their language, the language of blood. My work is rudimentary compared to what they’re capable of, yet there’s beauty in my tributes.”
Desanto’s chest was on fire. “I didn’t see anything beautiful in what you did to that man,” he managed to choke out.
“Then you weren’t looking closely enough. Did you see the fine interweaving, the way I binded the hydrostatic and skeletal muscles?”
Somehow, he had.
“Da Vinci had his paint brush. I have chemical signals. Mozart had his piano. I have stem cells and blood vessels, an entire orchestra of tissue and nerve, all alive with new purpose.”
“That’s not what I saw,” Desanto said. “I saw an innocent man. A man in pain.”
Blackwood grinned. “As I said- mysterious ways.”
Imani pulled Cornelia’s leg from the tangle of pipes and ceiling that had trapped her beneath, careful not to hurt her friend any more than she already had been.
Cornelia’s leg bled from just below the knee, a deep scratch from sharp metal. Imani helped Cornelia to her feet and brushed the dust from her hair. “That was stupid of you,” she said. “Very stupid, but very brave.”
“I’ve had plenty of practice at the one- I figured I’d give the other a try.”
Imani smiled. She always liked when people surprised her.
The two women continued along the half-lit hallways of Deck Eleven. Soon they came to the ship’s Secondary Medbay, which as they found was mostly empty. It looked as if someone had been through very recently raiding the place for medical supplies.
“C’mon,” Imani motioned. “Let’s get you fixed up.” She closed the door behind them. There was no need risking an unwanted guest joining them. As she wrapped Cornelia’s leg with the last bit of Nanogauze in the place, she glanced up and noticed her friend was staring into the distance. “You okay,” she asked.
“Hmm?” Cornelia blinked, caught in a thought. “Sorry. I was just thinking about Leo,” she said, then added, “Officer Nicolai.”
“What about him?”
“I wish he was here. He’s good at keeping people safe. He could really help us with the farm.”
Cornelia frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means you still don’t get it.”
Imani stood. “Don’t think I don’t see the looks you give him. You have it bad for that boy.”
Cornelia laughed. “You’re crazy.”
“No, you’ve just been involved with that psycho ex of yours for so long, you forget what it’s like to actually be interested in someone.”
“Leo’s a good friend,” Cornelia assured her.
“Right. A friend you wouldn’t mind hopping into a shower pod with.”
Cornelia opened her mouth to argue, then stopped and tilted her head. “Well…if I had to,” she said.
It was Imani’s turn to laugh. She couldn’t help herself. Soon both of them were laughing, the two women clutching their sides as they tried not to make too much noise. The truth was they both needed this, a moment to break up all the darkness they’d been through. They allowed themselves to feel good, if even for a second.
When they were done laughing and felt sufficiently rested to continue their journey, they stuffed their pockets with pill packets, armed themselves with scalpels, and exited the Medbay.
“Jesus!” Imani screamed, face-to-face with a dark shape in the shadowy hallway. She nearly fell backward into Cornelia. She gripped the scalpel tight, prepared to use it.
“Nice to see you, too,” the stranger said. It was a woman’s voice. Not just a woman’s voice, in fact- Abigail’s. Imani sighed, her body flooded with relief.
“Sweet lord, am I glad it’s you,” she said. “Are you alright?”
“Just peachy. What are you two doing?”
“Wrapping up my leg,” Cornelia replied, showing the bandage. “We were heading to the farm and ran into…something,” she summarized.
“Yeah, there’s a whole lot of somethings running around today.” Abigail held up a knife she’d clearly taken from a Cultist. Then she turned and looked back the way she’d come. “Oh, crap,” she sighed.
“What’s wrong,” Imani asked.
“There was a kid with me a second ago.”
Cornelia squinted. “What kid?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t get his name.”
“He wouldn’t give it to you?”
“I didn’t ask.” She glanced at Imani. “Don’t look at me like that. I had more important things to worry about than exchanging pleasantries with some kid in a backpack.”
Imani shook her head. There was a moment’s pause, then Cornelia asked: “Was it red?”
She already knew where this was going. “Did he have dark hair and light eyes,” Cornelia continued. Abigail’s eyebrows raised up on her face.
“Oh, so you know him. Do me a favor, next time you see him, tell him he’s welcome for the thankless escort mission.”
Cornelia looked at Imani. There were tears in the woman’s eyes. Imani raised a concerned hand. “Cornelia,” she said, “don’t do this.”
With no further warning Cornelia suddenly broke into a run, heading the way Abigail had come. Her shoes padded off into the darkness until the shadows swallowed her up. “What the fuck was that about,” Abigail asked, looking completely confused.
“She thinks it’s Thomas,” Imani sighed.
“Her son,” Imani replied, turning to Abigail. “Her dead son.”
Zane stared into the shadows. The shadows stared back.
There were things there, fattened things, slippery from the blood of their kill. Whatever the corpse belonged to, man, woman, child or animal, it was too much of a mess to properly identify. That didn’t stop the abnormal ones from enjoying it. Chewing it. Rolling around in its gore. Falling asleep lazily in it like a warm, blasphemous nest.
Zane had locked eyes with the one conscious abnormal one as he came around the corner. The group had made good time on their way toward the Computer Room, but this jeopardized everything. Zane put his hand out to stop the rest of the men and women trailing behind him, and they listened.
The monster’s eyes stabbed into him. Willing him to drop his guard. He had enough sense and instinct to know the moment he broke eye contact or, God forbid, turned his back, the demon would rush forward and use- what were those, mantis talons? Bone scythes?- on his weak flesh. He motioned for the group to continue past him, which they did, slowly and one at a time. When the woman who’d questioned his orders passed by, his hand shot out and grabbed her by the arm.
“Stay with me,” he said, his voice at a near-whisper. He motioned for Colton and the others to continue on. They would catch up in a few minutes. When they were alone, just him, the woman, and the pair of black, blinking eyes watching him from atop the defiled corpse, he asked for her name.
“Evelyn,” she said cautiously.
“Evelyn. What a beautiful name. Do you know why Captain Douglas made me his successor, Evelyn? Do you understand why he anointed me Keeper of the Word?” He kept his voice down to keep from alarming the abnormal one less than ten feet away. It worked. The monster’s eyes blinked heavy, growing sleepy like the others.
“You were the strongest believer,” Evelyn replied. There was resentment there. She was barely breathing.
“That’s what we tell the others. Do you know the real reason?” She shook her head. “Because, Evelyn, I have the least attachment to bodily flesh. I’m the only one strong enough to make the necessary sacrifices for the good of the Children. And I proved that when I killed Captain Douglas.”
She blinked. “What?”
“A little poison in a man’s morning coffee does wonders. I really recommend it. You can sit by their bedside and watch them die, and in the end they’ll actually thank you for your loyalty.” Evelyn’s face had frozen in a look of fully-realized horror. “See that look in your eye,” Zane asked. “That’s what tells me you don’t have what it takes to make the sacrifices.”
“Monster? Murderer? No. I’m the strongest believer, Evelyn, you said it yourself, just not the things you believe in. Much more, and much bigger. My greatest belief, in fact, is this…”
Evelyn pulled the ceremonial knife from her belt, rushing to use it on him before he could draw his. He grabbed her by her wrist, stopping the tip of the blade from piercing his belly. He quickly overpowered her and turned the blade back on her. With a hard push of her wrist he drove the blade deep into her own gut.
“If you can’t make the sacrifices,” Zane said calmly, “you become one.”
The abnormal one watched them with drowsy interest as Evelyn gasped for breath, blood bubbling up from her throat when she tried to curse Zane’s name. More blood-coated monsters were beginning to wake. Evelyn’s death rattle was their alarm clock.
Before she slipped away completely, Zane pushed her to the waiting abnormal ones. A peace offering of sorts. They started in on her as he ran. He felt reassured that they would be occupied for some time.
Zane rejoined his people, the loyal Children of Eden, in the ship’s Computer Room, a place that gave him the feeling of being a tiny and insignificant byte of data lost inside a vast network. The group was gathered near the back, by the main server that carried Sunn’s code. It was also where one of their people had planted the Mining Charge just hours earlier.
“Where’s Evelyn,” Colton was the first to ask. Zane placed a consoling hand on the man’s tree of an arm.
“She sacrificed herself. For us.” Colton nodded grimly. “So, did you manage to stop the timer?” Colton opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t.
“We can’t,” someone spoke for him.
“Why not?” Zane scowled, shoving his way through the crowd before the man could answer. Where there should have been a black case, there was nothing. No case. No Mining Charge. Nothing but servers.
Their bomb was gone.
“I must admit, the teacher was more of an example than true work,” Blackwood said, petting the hyena-thing at his side. “You could say the teacher became the lesson. Ecce agnus Dei.”
“Behold the lamb of God,” Desanto said automatically. He still didn’t know how he understood Latin. Blackwood seemed to have an affinity for it as well. “Why him? What did Baptiste do to deserve that?”
Blackwood stopped stroking the long-faced creature. He stared into Desanto like the beam of an electron microscope. “The reason, if you must have one, is that he was sniffing around in my files, and I don’t take the prying of eyes lightly. You’ll find I’m a man who enjoys every aspect of his freedom.” He made his way over to Ness as he spoke, gently touching the unconscious woman’s face. “It’s incredible, you know. What one can do, the things he can accomplish given enough freedom. That’s precisely what I’ve discovered all the way out here. The freedom to do my life’s work. The unrestrained, unhindered opportunity to explore the inherent possibilities that lie within our biologies.”
“Aren’t you afraid of contracting the virus,” Desanto asked.
“I’m not afraid of anything.” Blackwood pushed Ness’ face away, approaching the glass. “Do you know what the greatest freedom of all is, Erick?”
Blackwood smiled. “Time. Time has been the greatest boon to me. All this time, while the others have slept and dreamed their simple dreams, I’ve been awake, doing my work. I haven’t closed my eyes in a hundred years, because I don’t require it anymore. I refuse it.”
“No. That’s not possible. I saw your body in the Cryopod.”
Blackwood laughed, a sinister sound if Desanto had ever heard one. “What you saw was a lie- not unlike yourself.”
“What are you talking about?”
Blackwood placed the palm of his patchwork hand on the quarantine glass. The flesh was both human and inhuman, as if taken from a thousand different donors. The good Doctor lowered his gaze, staring into Desanto. “Come now, Erick- don’t pretend you haven’t figured out what you are.”
Will Miller knew very little about Officer Wolfe, but he did know this: the man scared the hell out of him.
In the last fifteen minutes, Will had seen Officer Wolfe dispatch enough monsters to fill a Brothers Grimm book. Not only was he good at it, he seemed to enjoy the act as well.
“Jump in whenever you want,” Officer Wolfe ribbed him.
“You’re doing fine on your own.”
Will was thankful they’d somehow ended up on the same side for the time being. Watching Officer Wolfe’s almost gleeful dance of death, he had grown more and more convinced that he should never, under any circumstances, share the truth of his Edenist affiliations with the Officer.
And yet, as they approached the hallway that would take Will to his quarters, where he hoped his family would be waiting for him, Will knew he never would have made the journey without the help of the man. He’d been lucky earlier. Cautious, but lucky. There was no doubt in his mind that within the last fifteen minutes, that luck would have run out. The two men rounded the final corner, mere yards from their destination.
The abnormal one was one he’d come across before. That same, waxen skeleton erupting with moth wings that trembled and shook was now perched on the chair in front of his doorway. It twitched away, perhaps cleaning its bony claws. This wasn’t just the same species as the one he’d seen earlier, no, it was the exact same specimen. Will had a trained eye for markings. It was what he did, who he was. The patterns on the wings were identical. “That is one ugly mother-fucker,” Officer Wolfe commented. Will tried to shush him but the abnormal one fluttered, turning its torso like a bag of shifting bones to see them.
That was when Will Miller saw it, what had the skeletal moth so busy. First he saw the woman’s arms, arms that had held him through long nights of self-doubt, with hands that had touched his face and patted his baby boy’s back. Then he saw the face. The barbed proboscis extending from the moth-creature’s face dripped blood. Not just any blood. Rebecca’s blood.
His wife’s blood.
Will didn’t remember running at the thing, but the next he knew it was gone and he found himself scooping Rebecca into his arms, trying to cover the hole in her neck with his trembling hand. Those eyes, eyes he’d fallen in and out of love with countless times, they looked up at him helplessly while her mouth, a mouth he hadn’t kissed in months, tried to speak. Only wet sounds came from there, and from the bleeding, hissing spaces between his fingers pressed against her throat.
When she was gone he still held her awhile. He pressed his head hard against hers, not wanting to pull away and look at her. Somehow that would make it real. Not looking at her, he could pretend there was still time to make things better. Still time to talk about their problems. Time to fix them. Eventually the blood stopped flowing and he let her go, resting her head peacefully against the back of the chair.
Will felt a numbness wash over him. This wasn’t what Zane had promised him, what the Children of Eden told him it would be like. His wife was dead and not coming back. He knew that now. It wasn’t the glorious thing they’d spoken of, it was painful and stark and brutal. It was permanent and cold.
The fine layer of dust covering her caught the emergency light, shimmering faintly. Officer Wolfe said something about being sorry. Will tried to think of what to say in return. All that came out was, “She waited for me.”
“Tell me, how much do you know about the cubes?”
Desanto blinked. “Gunnar mentioned them. He said they were a mystery.”
Blackwood bared his teeth. “Those idiots have been looking at them the wrong way. Geologists banging on them with little hammers. They treat them like rocks, when they are so, so much more. They are pieces of a map, Erick, left behind like breadcrumbs across space.”
“Left behind?” Desanto echoed.
“How often do perfect squares occur in nature?”
“They don’t. Gold has a cubic crystal form, so does sodium chloride, but not they’re perfect squares. Those don’t exist in nature. They’re…mathematical constructs.”
Blackwood nodded, pleased with the answer. “My work took a massive leap forward when those cubes were brought onto the ship. When I held one for myself, when I understood what it was I touched, my hands shook. These were the signs I’d been seeking. Why I’d received the divine communications calling me out to the stars. Humans mapped their genome long ago, you see, determined the sequence of nucleotide base pairs that made up their DNA. Then they did the same for every plant and animal on Earth. But what those cubes did, what they held inside them for anyone who looked closely enough, was the secret to life itself. Creating it. Joining it together. Just as the Ancient Ones intended.” The hyena-snake at the Doctor’s side yawned, offering Desanto a glimpse at the sleeping thing deep inside.
“That doesn’t explain what all this has to do with me,” Desanto said.
“Still asking questions to which you already know the answers. I know you hear it, Erick. The word that whispers in your dreams, that crawls through your veins when you listen close enough.”
“Say it, boy. Say the word.”
Desanto shook his head, not wanting to comply. “Vessel,” he said.
Blackwood’s lips peeled back. “Ahh, but a vessel for what,” he asked. All the creatures present, at his side and restraining the woman, shivered in delight.
A voice came from the distance, pulling Will out of the fog. For a moment he thought he’d imagined it, but he was amazed to see Theo, his beautiful boy, standing at the far end of the hallway. He was dirty, his shirt torn, but he was alive. Will turned to Officer Wolfe to ask if he saw the boy, too, but the man was already signaling for Will to go to his son. “I wouldn’t let him see this,” Officer Wolfe said, nodding to Rebecca.
The man had a point. A dozen thoughts went through Will’s mind at once, whether it might help the boy to process her death to see her, but he decided it might be too much too soon. Grief was one thing- trauma was quite another.
“Dad,” Theo shouted again, this time with greater urgency. Will ran to him, to his son, knowing a hard conversation was in their future, but that didn’t matter now. All that mattered was they would be together again. They could hurt together. Heal together. Rebuild together. No, they’d never had enough, never shared something substantial enough to rebuild. They would have to build something new together.
As Will got closer to Theo, passing door after door of his dead neighbors, the boy still stood in the same place, without any effort to meet him halfway. Will thought it was odd, wondering why he didn’t want to come forward, to reunite with his father that much quicker. Then he noticed there was something resting on his son’s foot. A wet tube of some kind. Not just resting. Moving around. Poking at him, as if to test him.
They were antennae, and they were attached to the largest Arthropod Will had ever seen, or possibly even a Panarthropod. It appeared at first to be a Velvet Worm, it’s purple-red flesh covered in millions of small bumps, yet from its rows of stubby feet there extended human hands of the same, purplish flesh. The hands undulated in unison, carrying the massive worm up Theo’s leg. Some kind of milky-white slime dripped from its oral papillae, a sight that brought the entire scene together for Will.
Theo, his boy, was covered in strands of something viscous. They criss-crossed his body, connecting him to the walls and floor by ropes of hardened slime. Theo struggled against them, but their hold was too strong for him to break free.
Theo hadn’t moved, not because he didn’t want to, but because he couldn’t.
Will ran toward him, toward them both, but before he could reach them the massive worm had folded and extended its body until it completely enveloped Theo where he stood. Theo shouted as the human hands revealed their retractable, chitinous double-claws.
Will reached them as the claws sunk into Theo’s helpless body. Theo screamed. Will threw himself on the two, trying with all his strength to pry them apart. The worm-thing drew more of itself up Theo until the boy collapsed to the floor, wrapped up tightly in the barbed, fleshy cocoon, and Will fell with them.
His boy, his screaming boy, called for his help. The worm’s surface was covered not in bumps but half-developed toes and fingers that acted as secretory vesicles. The more Will attempted to fight the worm, to pry it off his son, the more they excreted a slimy mucous that made its flesh impossible to grip. His hands found no traction. Desperate, Will wedged his fingers between the worm and his son, trying to achieve some kind of leverage to pull them apart.
Pain seared his hand. Will jerked it back, staring at his fingers. They sizzled and peeled before his eyes, chemical burns melting the skin. Then Theo screamed, louder than ever, desperate and suffering. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. Will reeled in horror as he realized Theo, his boy, was burning the way Will’s fingers were.
The worm was digesting him alive.
Officer Wolfe appeared at Will’s side, shouting something Will couldn’t make out. He jammed his Peace Stick into the worm’s sticky flesh, discharging the weapon. It had no effect. Some distant part of Will’s brain was fascinated by this, the insulating properties of the worm’s mucous, but he was too scared to pay it any attention. Theo was dying. His son was dying. And there was nothing he could do about it.
No. Not nothing. Will drew the knife from his belt and began to stab down on the massive, purple-red worm’s body. To both his horror and delight it squealed like a pig at each puncture. The edges of its grip on the boy began to lift up, and together, sweating and straining, Officer Wolfe using his Peace Stick as leverage and Will ignoring the pain of his burning hands, they pried the slimy, writhing creature off the boy.
As Wolfe wrestled it away and struggled to restrain it, Will dropped the knife and scooped his son up into his arms. The boy was still burning, still bleeding. No amount of prayer or help was going to stop that. Theo tried to speak. What eventually came out was, “I-I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Will whispered, rocking his son in his arms. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
“I j-just…w-wanted to look at it,” Theo stuttered. His body began to shake, convulsions coming more violently as Will tried to still him, to comfort him somehow as the boy slipped into shock. Theo kicked, once, twice, then gasped as his body went stiff.
Theo exhaled, the boy’s body relaxing in Will’s arms.
The boy was gone. Will collapsed onto the boy, deep sobs taking his body as they never had before. He had never cried before that he could remember, not even when he should have. Will had never lost himself to the moment. It wasn’t in him, perhaps even now. And so he was still aware, even if only distantly, when Officer Wolfe approached, pausing for a moment before he picked up the knife Will had dropped.
Guilt wasn’t something Gunnar was used to feeling.
He’d tricked his best friend. After repeatedly saving each other’s asses, he had broken the trust between them when he’d handed Desanto the Comms device. “Microphone’s not functional, but the tracker still works,” he’d said, which of course was a lie. Both were working perfectly. The entire time Desanto had been in Captain Ashby’s quarters, while Doctor Hannigan paced nervously up and down the hall, Gunnar had been listening in on the conversation intently.
“Hello, Erick. My name is Doctor Howard Blackwood. I’ve been looking forward to this moment.”
Those words had nearly knocked Gunnar off his feet. They were preposterous, and yet he’d watched enough archival footage of Blackwood to know the man’s voice. It sounded different, strangely layered, which could have been blamed on a malfunctioning Comms device or perhaps a bad connection, if it weren’t for the fact that when Desanto eventually spoke, his voice broadcast perfectly.
Gunnar followed the conversation as it jumped from the Titan Virus of all things to the creatures running around on the Ark. It was ridiculous. Impossible. Blackwood couldn’t be walking around, the Doctor himself had demanded not to be thawed until the Ark reached the Trappist system, which meant even attempting to wake him up would have set off eighteen different kinds of alarms.
Gunnar shook himself from the thought, paying attention to the conversation in his ear. Blackwood seemed to be taking credit for the monsters, not just releasing them but creating them. If that was true, Creator or not, Desanto should have knocked the man’s teeth down his throat. Yet there they were, maintaining a civil conversation. Gunnar thought back to Desanto’s curiosity about Blackwood. The attack he’d had after seeing the Doctor’s Cryopod. What was it Desanto had said to him?
We’re all dead, and we just don’t know it yet.
“What are you doing,” Doctor Hannigan asked him. She’d noticed the look on his face.
“Nothing,” Gunnar waved her off. She frowned at him.
“You know something you’re not telling me.”
“Would you leave me alone? I’m thinking.”
“Don’t hurt yourself.”
Gunnar grumbled. “Here, take this and keep a lookout.” He removed the Combitool from his arm and handed it to the Doctor, who clumsily fitted it to her arm. He watched her walk away, testing the bionic arm, and shook his head. He didn’t want to miss anything important happening in the next room. Sure enough, when he pressed his finger to his ear, he caught the tail end of something Blackwood had just said.
“…Without me, your life has no purpose.”
“Din kuksugar hora,” Gunnar cursed.
Movement caught his eye, and he glanced up. Captain Ashby stood ten feet in front of him, looking more determined and pissed off than normal. Not only was he surprised to see her, he was shocked to see what she had in her hands.
A gun. An actual gun. It looked like a Denial Rifle.
“Captain, where the helveta did you get that?”
“What are you doing here,” she asked, ignoring the question. She glanced suspiciously from him to the door, then back. Gunnar felt a little like a man standing between a grizzly bear and her cub.
Ashby nodded. “I appreciate that,” she said, moving to walk past him and into her quarters. He sucked in regretful air as he stepped into her way, blocking the path.
“Not for you. Sorry, Cap.”
Ashby looked at him incredulously. “Who’s in there?”
“Can’t tell you.”
She squinted at him. “Excuse me?”
“It’s Desanto,” Doctor Hannigan said. “Erick Desanto.”
“Desanto?” Ashby scoffed. “Tell me something, have you all lost your minds?”
“I actually hope so. It would explain a lot.”
Gunnar understood the Captain’s anger, but he’d also made a promise to Desanto not to let anyone in. Even though after what he’d heard through the Comms, he didn’t know how much to trust the guy. “He just needs a minute,” Gunnar offered, trying to bargain with the Captain.
“Step aside, Gunnar,” Ashby ordered.
He tried to put an understanding hand on her shoulder, but she knocked it away. Gunnar stepped back and showed her the palms of his hands. “Listen. With all due respect, ma’am, it’s been a while since I’ve hit a woman. I’d really like to keep the streak going if it’s alright with you.”
Captain Ashby struck him across the face with the butt of her rifle. Gunnar’s head jerked to the side, then slowly, slowly turned back to face her. “Maybe we should start over,” he offered with one last smile.
“If you don’t step aside by the count of three, you’ll be spending the rest of your journey in Cryo,” Ashby growled, “and that’s if I don’t throw you out the fucking airlock myself.”
Gunnar sighed. “Okay,” he said. Then he punched her square in the center of her face.
First Officer Oberlander did what he was told. He always did as he was told. One day the Ark was going to be his. Even if Captain Ashby was still Captain when they reached their destination- which until very recently was the likely outcome, now everything, even their survival, was in doubt- the plan was to continue to operate the landed ship under the standard tree of command. Even as their society was built up and around the Ark, it would need a leader to make sure all went smoothly, because it wouldn’t just be a ship anymore- it would be the heart of their new world.
His orders were to secure the Bridge, and that’s just what he did. Rifle at his side, he checked every inch of the Bridge to make sure there were no weak points, no Comms devices listening in or weapons hidden by Hopes.
Speaking of Hopes, the former Officer had long ago regained consciousness. Propped awkwardly against the wall, his hands tied up, his face was a mask of dark and drying blood. Oberlander had to fight the urge to help the man up or clean his mouth. It was in his nature to help. But anytime he felt a pang of guilt for not tending to the man’s needs, he simply looked over at Pagani’s corpse and remembered that Hopes deserved any ounce of discomfort he felt.
“You can’t hide forever,” Hopes said through gummy, red-black lips.
“I’m securing the bridge. And I don’t have to do it forever, just long enough for Captain Ashby to regain control.”
“Regain control?” Hopes laughed, flecks of blood spraying his own uniform. “The Children of Eden have taken your ship from you. Even if we fail, the abnormal ones will slaughter us all. There’s no coming back.”
“I’m not having this conversation with you.”
“Then have it with yourself, Oberlander, it’s happening.”
“There’s still time to join us. There’s still time to save your soul.”
Oberlander raised his gun. “I said shut up!”
A noise came just then, drawing the attention of both men. It seemed to be coming from behind the closed elevator door. It started with a bang, then a low, drawn out hissing sound from deep within the elevator shaft.
“They’re coming,” Hopes said with a smile. As much as Oberlander didn’t want to admit it, he knew the man was right. Someone was coming. The question was who, or what, it was. “I told you, you can’t hide forever,” Hopes wheezed, laughing again.
As the hissing sound grew louder, it became clear to Oberlander just what it was: someone was cutting through metal. Cutting their way in.
Oberlander picked out a spot with some cover, just behind the Captain’s chair. He trained his rifle on the elevator door, steadied it as best he could, and waited.
Doctor Hannigan stood back and let Gunnar and Captain Ashby fight it out. It wasn’t easy to stay out of their way. Their brawl took them all over, against the wall, down a bit, then back. Gunnar made sure to keep the Captain away from the door, as well as the gun she’d dropped at the start of the fight. Hannigan had expected for Gunnar to hold back on account of Ashby being a woman, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Gunnar’s fists didn’t seem to discriminate.
Captain Ashby had experience on her side, not just extra years but hours in the gym. Hannigan had seen the woman plenty of times hitting the bag between stints on the treadmill. She was in good form, whereas Gunnar had natural size and the muscles that came from working with one’s hands all day.
In the end, experience and training won out. Ashby knocked Gunnar on his ass with a knee to the solar plexus followed by a strike across his face. Gunnar crumpled, went limp. Captain Ashby stood over him catching her breath.
When she stepped past him, to resume her way into her quarters, she found one Doctor Cybele Hannigan standing in her way- the Combitool on her arm powered on.
“I’m sorry, Captain,” she said, “but it’s like Gunnar told you: we need you to wait.”
Captain Ashby sighed. “You’re disappointing me, Doctor Hannigan.”
“There’s a lot of that going around.” She glanced at Gunnar. Still out cold. She just needed to buy some time until he came to, a minute at most. Captain Ashby took a step forward. Hannigan raised the Combitool defensively, stopping the woman, and Ashby scowled at her.
“What’s your play here, Hannigan? Why are you siding with these two?”
“Erick saved my life, and I owe him for that. I don’t know whatever the hell is going on around here, but I do know that.”
“I see. Well here’s what I know: my wife is in there,” she pointed to the door, “and no one, especially not some snot-nosed Doctor, is going to stop me from reaching her.”
The Captain suddenly advanced on Hannigan, moving fast. Hannigan tried to fight back, to swing the heavy arm tool at her, but Ashby caught it before it made contact. With a quick press of a button Ashby disengaged the Combitool, then ripped it off the Doctor’s arm.
“Two lessons. One: don’t hold a weapon unless you know how to use it,” Ashby said, throwing the disengaged tool to the side. “And two: don’t ever raise one to me again.”
Kash couldn’t believe his luck. He and Dez- still a loser- had managed to carry Monika all the way down to the lowest level of the ship, where the map on Dez’s wrist had led them, without running into a single demon spawn. They’d heard plenty of things, sure, screams and whispers and crawling, but not one creature had come close or tried to attack. If Kash was the superstitious type- which he wasn’t- he’d be tempted to say someone above was looking out for them. A guardian angel of sorts, clearing the path to aid in their mission.
The problem was, the lowest level on the Ark was nothing but Storage last he checked. He looked up at the massive stacks on either side of them, lit by strips of Bioluminescence and the light coming from Kash’s chest, and wondered why they’d been brought there. Dez still kept a fast pace ahead of him, even with Monika in his arms weighing him down. He was desperate to get help for his wife, and it showed. Kash cleared his throat to say what had to be said.
“So these definitely aren’t the Genlabs.”
Dez glanced at the screen on his wrist. “Map shows something ahead.”
“Okay, but what?”
“I don’t know,” Dez admitted. “It’s just a little further.” The man was stubborn, blind even, not able to see the truth in front of him. Yet Kash would be the same way in his shoes, even if he would never, under any circumstances, up to and including torture, say it aloud.
They walked further on, trudging through the dark canyons of Storage, until they reached the end. The blank wall ahead of them held no doors, no buttons, yet when Dez checked again he found it was exactly where the map had led them. It made no sense. Either Sunn had malfunctioned, or he’d deliberately sent them on a fruitless mission.
“Now what,” Kash asked.
Dez looked like he was going to cry or scream, and possibly both. Instead he gathered himself and called out, “We’re here!”
Only silence answered him. At first. Then a series of clicks and whirs stirred from deep within the wall. The two men stepped back as a door formed and opened, revealing a large set of stairs that went down, down into the dark.
Kash looked over at Dez. “What is this?”
“A door,” Dez replied.
“Fuck off, I mean what’s going on here?”
“We’re helping Monika.”
“Wherever this goes, I’ve never seen it before.”
As Kash watched, Monika’s eyes fluttered open. She looked up into her husband’s face. “Desmond,” she said weakly.
“I’m here, baby. I’m here.”
“I told you I’ll find her. That’s a promise.”
“She did this.”
Monika’s eyes rolled back in her head. Her face went slack, losing the rest of its color. Dez shook her, shouting her name, but she didn’t stir, didn’t respond. Kash pressed a finger to her burnt neck and counted.
“Her pulse is slipping.”
“We have to do something quick,” Dez said, panic constricting his voice. They both looked to the open door ahead of them. “It’s now or never,” Dez added.
“You call those choices?”
“I don’t think there ever was a choice.”
Kash was silent a moment. Then he said, “God damn it.”
The two men slowly moved forward, past the threshold and to the top of the stairs, where strange noises drifted up to them from the shadows. It didn’t sound like any Genlab Kash had ever set foot in. Every muscle in his tired body wanted to turn around and run from that place, but the simple truth was Monika was dying. Her only hope was with Sunn and his promise to fix her. And yet there was still something about that promise, the message back in the Medlab, that bothered him.
Before he could give it any more thought, the door shut behind them, closing off the way back.
After retrieving her gun, Captain Ashby finally opened the door to her quarters.
It was dark inside. Quiet. She entered slowly, her gun at the ready, listening for any sign of Desanto or her wife. She turned on her light to help her see.
“Ness?” She called out to the dark. No response came.
Ashby turned left, toward the quarantined area. She approached the room with only her chest light to see by, jagged shadows lurching ahead of her, including the barrel of her rifle.
Strange sounds slipped through the shadows. Shifting and shuffling. She raised her gun , again called out to her wife. Again there was no response.
She turned the corner. Something came at her. Fast. A shape. A man. She squeezed the trigger. “Wait!” Someone shouted as the weapon went off. A discharge of energy.
The man crumpled to the floor at her feet. She backed up, held the gun tight, her light shining down on whoever she’d hit. Energy crackled on the air.
Erick Desanto lay on the floor. His eyes were still, staring up into nothing. He had no weapons on him. Ashby turned to check the quarantine, her light playing across the glass.
She gasped at the sight. Her finger loosened on the rifle’s trigger, the weapon nearly falling from her grasp.
Her wife was gone.
Ness was gone.
As Erick Desanto fell into the void, the words of Doctor Howard Blackwood pulled him down like a vacuum.
“Without me you don’t exist. Without me your life has no purpose.”
Erick had sought the truth, because the truth was supposed to be everything. It was supposed to set him free. But it didn’t feel like freedom. It felt like opening a cage to reveal an even larger cage.
The truth felt like squeezing fingers around his heart.
“You act as if you and I are enemies, Erick, but that couldn’t be further from reality. We are one, you and I. I am your past, as you are my future.”
Distant, ghostly, like a movie projected on the surface of a long-dead ocean, he watched the face of a heartbroken woman let out a scream so primal he felt it in his poisoned blood, blood that wasn’t his own.
“You want to know what you’re a vessel for, Erick? The answer is me.”
Colder and colder, slipping back to the darkness that had borne him.
“The answer has always been me.”