21. Ejectus

021ejectus

 

Part Three.

 

Captain Ashby had been staring at the elm tree sculpture on her shelf far longer than she would care to admit. Lately she’d been ignoring her reports, spending most of her office time lost in thought while conversations with Ness and Hannigan played on loop inside her head.

You need to make a decision soon.

Ashby didn’t want to outright say she regretted going through with the pregnancy Ness had so passionately asked for, but she would have postponed the fertilization treatments if she’d known what was coming around the corner. Ness was in the second trimester now, her belly just starting to show.

The baby won’t survive the freeze.

What had they gotten themselves into? How had she let this happen? Instead of family life being an escape from her Vocation, the Vocation had become her escape from her family life. And now she wasn’t very good at either, sitting alone and getting nothing done.

As she stared at the sculpture its branches began to shake, faintly at first, making her think it was in her head. But then the movement became more obvious, the heavy base rattling against the shelf. A moment later the groan of stressed metal moved through the room, as if the walls themselves were about to split open and dump Ashby out like the yolk of an egg. Before she could call the bridge and check if they’d experienced the same phenomenon, the emergency alarm began to blare overhead.

Level One emergency.

Ashby jumped up from her chair without hesitation and ran for the door. She burst from her office and ascended the stairs to the bridge, where she was met with a crowd of more alarms, their lights shining down on a roomful of concerned faces. “What was that,” she asked First Officer Oberlander. He was standing behind Officer Hopes, looking over the Communication Officer’s shoulder at the man’s workstation screen.

“An explosion of some kind. We’re reading a loss of pressure on Fourteen,” Oberlander said. His eyes were hollow, his voice monotone as he added, “We’re showing fire alarms in Engineering.”

Engineering had been in the middle of a spacewalk the last she checked. That was the reason for their engine all-stop. Perhaps something had gone wrong, though what could go wrong with a standard repairs spacewalk that would cause an explosion she didn’t know. “Which section is showing a fire?”

Oberlander looked up at her. “All of them.”

“Show me.” Ashby rushed to the front of the bridge as a vidfeed came to life on the large screen. Of the eight camera angles on the grid, only two were functional, the others dead and black, with a third feed barely more than a wall of dark static. It was enough to see that Engineering had been thrown into absolute chaos. Fires burned amid terrible wreckage, an explosion of some kind having torn the place apart. The deck had sustained extreme damage. Equipment was scattered and broken, the walls scarred by flame and impact. Even the fire countermeasures seemed to have been taken out, leaving the fires to burn uncontrollably.

The people, the ones left alive, were screaming.

“Oh my God,” Ashby gasped. The floor and ceiling were charred and warped from the explosion but the bulkheads inside them had held, containing the blast to Deck Fourteen. It was a godsend for the rest of the ship, but for those on Deck Fourteen the effect was akin to standing inside a garbage pail as someone dropped a stick of dynamite in with them.

Equally worrying was the fact that the smaller pieces of wreckage including, God help them, the body parts, were beginning to lift off the ground. The smaller bits floated at first, then successfully heavier pieces. The gravity loss in itself wasn’t the worst of it, though, a broken Graviton Drive the likely cause- it was that everything in the air was all drifting the same way. Like an undertow pulling it all out to sea.

Ashby took a step closer to the big screen. She knew the third camera feed, the badly damaged one that was barely visible, to be the one facing the airlock. She pointed to it and said, “Enlarge that one.”

The half-broken feed expanded to fill the empty space taken up by the dead ones, leaving the two working feeds still visible. Once enlarged the image didn’t become clearer, but it did allow Ashby and the others to get a better look at what it was showing them. The wall of dark static wasn’t made up of video noise, it was something else, something obscured by the distorted picture transmitted to them through broken equipment.

It was full of stars.

The airlock was wide open. The undertow, all those larger and larger pieces of metal and corpse drifting in the same direction, were floating toward open space.

“Shut that airlock,” Ashby shouted. The Officers frantically went to work, pulling up systems and subsystems, but nothing on the screen changed. “What’s the problem,” she asked impatiently, wanting nothing more than to close the wound in her ship.

Oberlander looked up from his screen, his eyes haunted. “There is no airlock,” he said. “It’s gone.” Ashby looked back at the screen in time to see a large piece of airborne equipment gain enough momentum to smash one of the cameras, obliterating the feed from the screen. There was only one fully-working feed left, and it was looking directly at an open exit door- a door that lead to the rest of the ship.

“Should we send help,” Officer Oberlander asked. Ashby looked at the faces of her crew staring back at her, waiting for her orders.

“No,” she replied. “I want all doors on that deck locked down. Seal it down.” As she said the words, she was already praying for forgiveness.

 

\^/

 

Nicolai and Kash were in an elevator heading down to Engineering. Their goal was to ask the about the possibility of fabricating some weapons, to defend themselves against whatever was crawling around the ship. That was the only thing they were concerned with.

Right until everything went to shit.

One second they were discussing what kind of weapons would be most effective without posing a risk of hull puncture, and the next the world was shaking all around them. The elevator knocked around inside the shaft as a concussive blast rocked the car from bottom to top. Nicolai and Kash were tossed around like a pair of Bohap dice, Nicolai banging his back and elbow against the wall and Kash dropping hard to one knee, nearly twisting his wrist in the process of stopping himself.

When the shaking subsided, the elevator stopped dead. Its emergency brakes had engaged. The control screen still functioned, the word LOCKDOWN flashing at them in a deep shade of red.

Kash got to his feet. “What the hell was that,” he asked. Nicolai shrugged, knowing no more than his partner. He decided to ask someone who might.

“Sunn.”

“Yes, Officer Nicolai,” Sunn’s voice replied.

“What’s going on out there? Why did we stop?”

“There has been a sudden release of energy caused by high temperatures and gas expansion on Deck Fourteen.”

Kash scoffed. “What does that mean?”

“An explosion,” Nicolai said morosely.

“Correct,” Sunn said.

Kash sobered up. “Caused by what?”

“That is currently unknown.”

The Officers exchanged an uneasy look. “Any chance you can get this thing going again and get us out of here?”

“I am afraid not. Although there is sufficient power to operate this unit, it has sustained sufficient damage to render its operation unsafe. Were the emergency brakes to fail, the elevator car could plummet all the way down to the bottom, where the resulting sudden stop would cause catastrophic-”

“That’s quite enough detail, Sunn, thank you,” Nicolai cut him off.

“It is always my intent to offer a complete answer.”

Kash took a deep breath and let it out. “I guess we’re climbing out,” he sighed.

“Looks like it. Sunn, engage emergency exit protocols.” The two men readied themselves for a climb, checking that their peace sticks were secured tightly on their belts.

“Would you like to proceed up or down,” Sunn asked.

Nicolai looked at Kash, waiting to hear his partner’s choice. Did he want to retreat from the problem or go forward and investigate? Without hesitation, Kash said, “Down.”
The guy may have been a prick, but he did his job. Nicolai nodded at his partner, agreeing with the choice.

“Please step back,” Sunn urged. A moment later a panel in the floor slid open, revealing a view of the long drop down the dark elevator shaft that ended, not at the unseen bottom, but at a fire that gushed and billowed two levels down. Flames spewed forth from the door to Engineering, the very door their car had been descending toward. The two men looked at each other, both realizing the same, chilling fact: had they left the station even thirty seconds earlier, they would have been killed in the blast.

Nicolai knelt at the precipice, giving the raging fire below one last look. He slapped a button on the side of the open panel and a ladder extended from the bottom of the elevator car. Then he tapped his name tag. It lit up, throwing light ahead of himself while keeping his hands clear to work, a genius little invention that had come in handy more than once, but never more than today.

He climbed down into the dark elevator shaft, the walls lit by faint bioluminescent patterns and the flicker of fire. Heat rose from below, bringing with it thick smoke that stung his nose and lungs. As he descended the eight-foot ladder, he could only pray it held under his weight. To his knowledge it had never been used, at least not in a long time. If he made it out of there alive, he intended to pay closer attention to the Maintenance inspection logs.

As Nicolai climbed down the ladder, looking to the sides of the shaft for the nearest access panel, Kash poked his head down through the open panel above. They’d agreed to take the ladder one at a time as to not put too much weight on it at once. His partner craned his head, as if listening for something. “What’s wrong,” Nicolai asked.

“Do you hear something?”

Nicolai stopped his descent and focused. The roaring of the fire below was most prominent, filling the space with its hungry growl, but he knew that wasn’t what Kash had meant. The more he concentrated on the sounds reaching his ears, letting all other senses fade to the background, the more he began to pick up what his partner was talking about.

Under the fire was an all-too familiar drag-scrape. That dry-wet sound he hoped he’d never hear again.

“What is that,” Kash asked, his eyes wrinkled as he followed the tell-tale echo.

“You don’t want to know,” Nicolai replied.

 

\^/

 

Desanto and Gunnar had been trying to communicate with the Ark for the last few minutes. No response whatsoever had come through their helmets, leaving them on their own.

After making a few adjustments they’d been able to speak to each other perfectly, as well as with their newest friend. However the man Gunnar knew as Svarog wasn’t exactly all there for the conversation. He’d been babbling to himself the entire time about The Reclamation, half of it in words Gunnar had never even heard before, the other half in words he didn’t want to hear. Not ever, and certainly not out there.

Gunnar switched frequencies on his wrist panel and tried again to reach out to anyone on the ship who might be listening. “Are they ignoring us,” Desanto asked, frustration bleeding through the comms.

“They have bigger problems to deal with,” Gunnar replied. He didn’t like to think they were expendable, but if the explosion was any indicator some very bad things were happening on the Ark. The blast had come from Engineering, way too close to home for comfort. He didn’t want to think about what that meant for all his friends and co-workers on the inside.

But at the moment he had bigger problems to deal with, too, namely the crazy guy spouting louder and louder religious ramblings in his ear. “The Reclamation is coming,” Svarog yelped, reaching out to grab onto Gunnar. “The day of glory approaches! We can’t be left behind! We can’t be shunned from the rejuvenating light of God’s eye!”

Gunnar shoved the man back, pressing him against the hull of the ship. “I’m about to reclaim your face if you don’t shut the fuck up,” he said. The Combitool on his right arm was raised high to illustrate his point. Svarog seemed to get it, not going entirely quiet but lowering his psycho chatter to an ignorable whisper.

Desanto looked around, as if suddenly realizing something was missing. “Where did they go,” he asked.

Gunnar looked around, too, wondering what his friend meant. Then he figured it out- their miniature fleet of drones had disappeared. “Ahh, fittjävel!” He pounded on the hull, realizing what was going on. He was about to lose it, though no matter how hard he banged on the ship it made no sound. “Helvete jävlas fan!

“What happened?”

Gunnar took a deep breath, feeling the pain through his gloves. “They lost the goddamn signal. When they lose the control beacon they default back to starting positions.” He punched the Ark once more for good measure.

“They’re back inside,” Desanto clarified.

“Some fucking pack of dogs. One little explosion and they all get spooked.”

“Now we’re really on our own.”

Gunnar glanced uncomfortably at Svarog. The man was lost inside his own head, his whispers occasionally barking loud enough to be made out. He caught the words flesh and sluice. “And yet still not alone enough,” Gunnar added.

They plotted their course back to Engineering, following the holographic line in their displays back through open space and toward the field of debris spreading out from the airlock. With a rebreather but no propulsion hooked up to his back, Svarog was forced to go along for the ride. Gunnar held the man in front of him- conveniently right where he could see him- and propelled them both.

Along the way the men had to navigate all kinds of debris, from hunks of plastic and metal to shards of glass that threatened to tear their suits and expose them to the death vacuum of space. They used their tools to deflect, push or otherwise render the scraps harmless- until they came to some debris they couldn’t ignore.

The body belonged to a fellow passenger, a woman from first glance, one of the people Gunnar had worked side-by-side with. It floated toward them, one of the legs partially burnt, the flesh charred and blistered away by the intense heat of the blast. The body was swollen with ebullism, the skin like a road map drawn with broken vessels, the eyes blood-red orbs boiling in her head. As Gunnar approached, he recognized the beautiful woman hiding beneath the collection of hemorrhages.

It was Carrie. The woman he’d had his eye on in the locker room, who he’d had a good talk with at the Floating Bottle, she floated past him. Like an ice cube in the drink they’d shared. Her slender face was serene.

“Come on,” Desanto called out to him.

“We can’t leave her out here.”

“We have to.”

Gunnar glared at his friend, the anger rising in his throat. “I don’t have to do shit, you hear me? I have no problem leaving this asshole behind and taking her instead,” he motioned to Svarog, who for the moment had wisely fallen silent.

“And what about the others,” Desanto asked.

Gunnar was about to spit back another response when he stopped himself. He’d been so focused on the one body, the dead woman he knew, that he’d failed to notice the others. Four, five corpses floated around them in total, and not all of them complete. Engineers and Mechanics with swollen faces and boiling tongues twisting through the vacuum. Noiseless portraits of blast injury and asphyxiation.

“They’re gone,” Gunnar mumbled.

“They will drift off into the dark, away from the kiss of Eden,” Svarog whispered. “They will never decompose, never rot under the watchful eye of the all-accepting and the all-restoring.” The way he said it, Gunnar knew he meant it as an insult. A dig at the people Svarog believed to be heretics deserving of their fate. And yet Gunnar liked the sound of it. He liked the idea of Carrie and the others never changing, never aging, their perfectly preserved bodies like statues erected in their own memory. If he got the chance, if he survived what was to come, he promised he would swing back for them and give them a proper burial. Until then the infinite would be their grave.

Gunnar and Desanto headed once again toward Engineering, dragging their whispering salvage with them.

Dreading what more they would find.

 

\^/

 

Once Nicolai had transferred over to the wall of the elevator shaft, taking his weight off the emergency ladder, Kash joined his partner down in the hole.

He found a firm hold on the first metal rung before he began his descent and left the elevator behind. The strange noise he’d heard had stopped, though he was no less worried about it. Nicolai’s short and vague response could only mean two things: that he knew exactly what was making those sounds, and that the answer scared him.

The fire below had already died out, leaving the light from Kash’s name tag to cast shadows of the ladder on the opposite wall some ten feet away. Ghostly images of bars rose and rose as he descended wordlessly.

There it was. The noises had started again, but this time closer. He couldn’t tell which way they came from, whether above or below or from the side. The elevator shaft acted like an echo chamber, effectively disguising the direction of the sounds. Even the rubbing of Nicolai’s uniform against metal as he descended the wall below, a noise Kash knew came from ten feet down, sounded as if it could just as easily been coming from above.

The shadow bars on the opposite wall rose faster. And faster.

Kash wasted no time transferring over to the wall when the ladder ran out of rungs. The noise, that crackling, moist shuffle, was moving directly at him now. The light from Nicolai’s tag below him had stopped descending, and he could see his partner’s hands working the controls of an access panel in its glow. “Faster,” is the only word Kash’s mouth could form as he descended that dark place. His fingers fumbled for each hold cut directly into the wall. “Faster, faster!”

The sweet sound of the access panel opening met his ears. He was so eager to get through it he nearly lost his grip. Kash felt his weight tilt backward, his body swaying into open space, but he managed to hold on and shift his weight back toward the wall. He’d nearly tumbled down into the darkness, a long scream with a quick stop.

The noise was close, and getting faster. Whatever it was had picked up his scent.

Nicolai had already climbed through the open access panel, which was good because it meant Kash didn’t have to shove him through. He reached the open panel himself and scrambled inside, joining his partner in the five-foot long, three-feet wide crawlspace. At the end was a second panel they would have to open as well to exit. The worst part, Kash knew, was that he couldn’t close the panel behind him. Not in time. The horrible noise, whatever was making it, was nearly on him. His only chance was to get to the other side and out before it reached him.

As he crawled behind Nicolai, going so fast it stung his knees, something heavy plopped down behind him. “Faster, faster,” he shouted, the two of them scrambling through the tin deathtrap as the unseen creature slapped and slipped after them.

Nicolai reached the end of the crawlspace ahead. He frantically worked on opening the second panel as Kash closed the distance.

Something brushed against his leg. It felt like a tentacle snaking up his foot. An image went through his head, the young girl who’d been attacked in the Labs, the one who was still lying sedated on a Medbed. Panicked, he kicked the tentacle-thing, kicked it with everything he had before it could sting him, too. He felt his boot connect with it. Not bothering to glance back, he rushed forward on screaming knees and pulled himself through the open access panel where his partner had crawled free just a second earlier.
Kash fell into the open hallway, tumbling a few feet before hitting the floor hard. Nicolai was already on his feet and closing the access panel behind them. It locked with a satisfying hiss.

“Fucking hell,” Kash shouted as he jumped to his feet and brushed his legs. “What was that?” He could still feel the solid weight of it as his boot had connected with the creature. A solid yet squishing weight. “Was that the same thing you saw?”

“I think so,” Nicolai replied.

Kash checked the bottom of his boot. There was a faint trace of mucus on one of the grips. “What the hell is going on here, man,” he shouted. “How did those things get in here? What are they? Freaking aliens or something?” His chest heaved up and down, lungs straining for air.

Nicolai drew a long breath. “I honestly don’t know. But we have another problem.”

Kash noticed how hard it was to catch his breath. He’d chalked it up to the fear, adrenaline making his breath short, but he was starting to realize it was more than that. That it wasn’t just him. It was Deck Fourteen itself. “The air is thin in here,” he said.

They looked at each other a moment, then ran toward Engineering.

Toward the screams.

20. Crepitus

020crepitus

 

The suit was a bit claustrophobic, but it fit like a glove. There was a module on its back for what looked like a mechanical connection of some kind, and a screen built into the left wrist that powered on the moment Desanto slid the suit on. He looked inside the helmet in his hands and noticed the tiny communication device in the seam.

Gunnar, already suited up, grabbed a combitool from one of the equipment lockers. It was two feet long and had various jaws and blades designed for spreading, cutting, squeezing and pulling metal as well as other hard materials. He attached it to his right arm, slipping his hand into the control strap. Then he moved his arm around, testing the claw mechanism by clamping it open and shut. Desanto thought it made Gunnar look like a deranged, robotic crab fending off an attacking seagull.

Next Gunnar grabbed a level two multiwrench and handed it to Desanto. It was larger than the level one he was used to, and had additional features including a cold-welder head. Desanto had read up on his newfound/former vocation, and he recognized the tools from his research. But reading and real life were very different things, and he stared down at the tool in his hand, wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into.

“Just keep your mouth shut and follow my lead,” Gunnar said, obviously sensing his friend’s apprehension.

They left the locker room behind. With helmets and tools in hand, the two men made their way toward the airlock. They received a briefing on the way, the other Mechanics and Fabricators buzzing about to either give them pointers or wish them a good walk. Gunnar pointed to the woman they’d seen in the locker room in her underwear and said, “Her name’s Carrie, by the way. That’s what you miss when you don’t come out.”

Desanto shook off the comment, too preoccupied with the approaching spacewalk to think about anything else. Matthews, a black man Desanto was told was in his seventies even though he looked like he’d been born a fifty-year old and never bothered to age, met them near the far end of Deck Fourteen, just past the Fabrication Engines and only a few yards from the door to the airlock. He was the Senior Mechanic on duty, which put him and his partner- who was nearby, ordering a couple of apprentice-levels to secure some equipment- in charge of the spacewalk. “Alright, sweethearts, are you ready for a little extravehicular activity,” Matthews asked, chewing on a cigar he never lit.

“Always,” Gunnar replied.

“Good, because the sensor array is still jammed to shit. Before you even think about getting in close, make sure you send the Dorniers in to sniff around and see what you’re dealing with. I don’t need you two snowflakes coming back a tangle of assholes and elbows.”

Gunnar rolled his eyes. “Yes, dad. I know how repair walks work.”

“Of course you do, you volunteer for every damn cowboy mission that comes along.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Gunnar turned to Desanto. “Ready to saddle up, partner?”

Confused, Desanto said, “What about the Y-Plus th-”

With a motion of his glove Gunnar waved him off, clearly wanting him to shut up before he ruined something. Now Desanto really had to wonder what he’d gotten himself into. Matthews either didn’t notice or didn’t care, continuing the briefing while Desanto tried to absorb every word. It was difficult to concentrate with the pounding in his head, a fresh headache settling into the back of his skull.

“Any questions,” Matthews asked as Gunnar slipped his helmet on.

“Yeah, is your mom embarrassed by how ugly you turned out?” Gunnar’s voice was muffled by the thick layers of plastic and glass in front of his mouth.

“Next time I swing by Earth I’ll be sure to dig her up and ask.” Matthews turned his attention to Desanto. “And you? You ready for this, son?”

Desanto swallowed. “I would say something clever, but I’m just trying not to shit in my suit.”

“Good. At least one of you takes this seriously.” He patted Desanto on the shoulder. “Just keep Billy the Kid here safe and you’ll be fine.”

Desanto nodded. Then Matthews turned to address the room at large, his voice booming across the Engineering deck. “Alright, people, it’s go time. Now hustle up and clear the area. And someone tell the bridge we’re ready to cut the engine.”

As the others moved away, Desanto leaned closer to Gunnar. “I get the feeling you’re lying to one of us.”

Gunnar shook his head while once again testing his robotic combitool arm. “Our official mission is to knock loose whatever space junk is fucking up one of the arrays, but unofficially we’re going to have a look around, see if we can’t account for the extra nanometal while we’re out there. We’ll do what they need, and we’ll do what we need, get it?”

“That’s why you always volunteer for walks, so you can snoop around.”

Gunnar chuckled. “Well it’s certainly not my sense of civic duty.”

The airlock door hissed, the two sides sliding apart with a deep, hydraulic whine. Desanto slipped his helmet on over his head, easily finding the seals to lock it to the neck ring. It was as natural as tying a shoe, and at least that small part gave him some comfort, as if he’d done all of this before and just had to trust his muscle memory. The moment the seal was made between the helmet and the suit, visual data popped up in front of his eyes, holographic data projected between layers of reinforced glass. Relevant text tracked with his eyesight perfectly. He looked over at his partner and noticed the name “Gunnar Larsen” hovering over the man’s head.

“After you,” Gunnar said, motioning to the waiting doors.

Desanto entered the airlock, a space large enough to fit eight men at most. It wasn’t men waiting for them, though, but half a dozen Dornier drones in power-save mode resting on the floor. The units sensed the men, their lights and motors coming to life. Desanto saw names over them, too, unit designations chosen after famous scientists. The doors immediately shut behind them. As Desanto looked around at the metal walls of the airlock, bare metal except for some equipment hooks and a screen displaying oxygen and pressure data, Matthews’ voice came over their comm systems.

“Larsen, Desanto, the bridge was nice enough to inform us that engines are at full stop. Are you ready?”

“Take my breath away,” Gunnar replied.

“Roger that, cowboy. Engaging airlock.”

The walls began to hiss as the air was sucked out of the room, the pressure quickly approaching zero. Meanwhile, Gunnar addressed two drones that were larger than the others via some modular attachments. “Newton, you’re on Desanto. Schrodinger, you’re with me.” Desanto was about to ask what he’d meant when the two units rose up, flying around the back of them and attaching to the backs of their suits. They tucked in, becoming more compact as they changed flight modes. A message lit up on Desanto’s helmet that read, Dornier Unit Newton found. Oxygen feed engaged. Propellant engaged. Battery at one-hundred percent.

“Can we trust these things,” Desanto asked, trying to glance back at the drone hugging his spine.

“Sure, I guess.”

“You guess?”

Gunnar snorted. “We can’t walk without them, so get used to it. If it helps just think of them as sled dogs. The Call of the Wild and all that.”

Desanto frowned. “The people usually die in those books.”

“Seriously? You barely know who I am, but that you remember?”

“I guess books are more interesting,” Desanto said with a shrug.

“Yeah, well I guess sug min kuk.”

“Knock it off, Larsen,” Matthews’ voice warned. “We’re disengaging the Graviton Drive.” A few seconds later the artificial gravity turned off. Desanto felt the strange sensation of his boots rising up off the floor. In a moment he was airborne, floating alongside the Dorniers, who began to engage their counter-balances. Newton and Schrodinger did the same on the men’s backs, keeping them upright and even-keeled. Without their help, Desanto imagined he’d be bumping and floating his way around the airlock right about then. Gunnar, two feet off the ground, showed him how to move. He leaned the way he wanted to go and the Dornier unit on his back picked up the movements and did the rest, engaging thrust as necessary.

“Now just picture this,” Gunnar said, “with a naked woman.” As he began to mime vulgar sex acts in mid-air, Desanto turned to the Dornier on his right.

“Humans,” he said. The drone, named Volta, simply tilted itself slightly and beeped back at him, not understanding his command. “Never mind,” Desanto mumbled. Matthews’ voice came over the comm again, informing them that he was opening the door for them. Desanto turned to face the massive door ahead as its pressure locks disarmed in a series of whirs and clicks.

Slowly, like a curtain opening onto an endless stage, the door opened until all of space was laid bare before them. A black void of mostly nothing dotted by a hundred billion burning stars. “You boys are clear to exit,” Matthews said into their ears. “We’ll leave a light on for you. Now go kick some.”

Gunnar nodded to Desanto. “Come on, partner. Into the breach.” The two men propelled forward, leaving the Ark behind with tools in hand, surrounded by their pack of drones.

 

\^/

 

Nicolai was still shaken by what he’d seen in the lab. The Vanessa girl was covered in bruises. She also had a hairline fracture in one of her ribs from when she’d been striking herself, trying to kill whatever was in her contamination suit. But at least she was alive. Sunn had run a full analysis on her and concluded she was in perfect health, despite some small fluctuations in her t-cell activity, which he accredited to the sting they’d found on her skin. Doctor Hannigan was playing it safe and keeping the girl in quarantine under heavy sedation until, in her words, all uncertainties became certainties. Nicolai fully agreed with the doctor’s decision, as did Officer Brigham, who had thanked Nicolai for saving her sister before barraging him with a thousand questions about the incident. Nicolai didn’t blame her. He would have done the same thing in her shoes- possibly without the thanks.

Sunn had also done a full scan on Nicolai, but the tests came back clean. Considering he hadn’t come into contact with anything, Hannigan agreed with the results and cleared him for general population. The Chief Inspector had ordered him to get a Psych Eval before he could return to duty, but so far he had ignored that order. He didn’t need some Psych Doctor digging around in his head, trying to drudge up all his bad feelings about an obviously bad thing.

But the truth was, he couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen in that Decon Room. The black, arterial tentacles scrape-oozing across the ceiling. That greenish-yellow cat’s eye watching him through a slender, black slit. Rees and Mitsuko hadn’t seen it, but that didn’t surprise him. From their limited angle they couldn’t see much, and the thing moved so fast he’d only caught a glimpse of it by pure luck. It was still out there somewhere, escaped without a scratch into the ventilation system. It didn’t feel like a coincidence that it was the same ship’s system into which Baptiste had disappeared, even if it was a different part of the Ark. Based on what he saw the thing could easily squeeze through tight spaces, which meant it could travel to pretty much every area of the ship. It had attacked one person already for certain, seemingly unprovoked, and in all likelihood had before, and would again.

Then there was a possibility Nicolai didn’t even want to consider: that there could be more than one of them. Considering a full-grown man had been dragged away into the vents, that was very likely. It was either that or the creature was exceptionally strong for its size. Both choices were frightening. And then there was a third possibility: that there were more things out there, things other than the one Nicolai had seen. Bigger things.

He didn’t like that choice, either.

That thing was all he could think about. What was it, and where did it come from? Could they have picked up an alien life form in their travels? In all their time in space they’d never recovered anything beyond anecdotal evidence of life, the strongest of which were just perfectly square rocks that confused a few Scientists, yet what if something had gotten onto the ship? It could have started as bacteria tracked in on someone’s boot, something the Decon scanners missed. He didn’t know enough to discredit the idea, but his instincts told him it wasn’t the answer. Something about the events on the Ark over the last week or so felt orchestrated, like someone was pulling the strings. The most twisted, isolated puppet show of all time. He couldn’t begin to imagine who that could be or what their goal was, but he certainly didn’t like the fact that Captain Ashby had barely been seen in the last few days. Either she was in on the plot or she was standing by and letting it happen. Neither one sat well with him. And yet he didn’t dare accuse the Captain of something like that until he had irrefutable proof of her wrongdoing. For now she was just one more person, one more factor to keep an eye on, just as he was doing with Zane.

Zane. That psycho was high on his list of suspects, if not the top spot then certainly near it. He’d been watching Zane as closely as he could without being too obvious, him and a few other Peace Officers taking turns on surveillance, but as crazy as Zane was he was smart, and he seemed to have caught on. At first he’d been meeting openly with his fellow kooks, but recently he’d been more and more secretive, choosing to gather behind locked doors, to the point where just before the incident in the lab, Zane had disappeared altogether. Could the attacks be what Cornelia had warned him about? Was this how he was going to open people’s minds?

With all those questions in the air, there was only one thing Nicolai knew with absolute certainty: the Ark was in trouble, and as of that moment, they were completely unprepared for whatever was coming.

He decided it was time to talk to his partner.

Nicolai found Kash at his desk, filing a report on an Environment Caretaker who had collapsed at work. “Nothing interesting,” Kash said, sounding disappointed. “Doctors are sure it was exhaustion.”

“Did they check for stings or bite marks?”

“I asked. They said no, just severe lack of sleep.”

“The nightmares,” Nicolai concluded. There must have been something in his voice that betrayed him, because his partner suddenly looked up at him with a rare look of concern on his face.

“What about you,” Kash asked.

“What about me?”

Kash frowned. He wasn’t good at interpersonal, human interaction. In fact he probably concerned himself less with it than Sunn did. At least Sunn was trying to come across as human. “Don’t make me drag it out of you,” he said. Nicolai glanced around the station, making sure no one was listening in.

“Not good. Not good at all.”

Kash picked up on his partner’s vibe and leaned over his desk, lowering his voice. “What’s up?”

“No one’s taking my report seriously. Inspector thinks I’m exaggerating, that my recollection is clouded.” He took a deep breath. As much as Nicolai knew what they needed to do, no matter how much he cared about the safety of his fellow passengers, he also hoped he wasn’t about to hand a bowie knife to a toddler. “I think we should talk to someone about those weapons of yours,” he said. Kash was silent a few moments. Then a smile spread across his face.

“It’s about goddamn time,” he replied.

 

\^/

 

“Goddamn it,” Abigail whispered.

She was, in no uncertain terms, in big fucking trouble. After kneeing James Crick in the balls, and striking another cultist across his sweaty face, a whole swarm of creeps had overpowered her. They dragged her to the center of the room, past that disgusting vat of holy whatever-the-shit they’d been dancing and fucking around, and tied her up to a steam pipe with her hands behind her back. They creeps had been unnervingly quiet at first, but now they were positively buzzing about something happening in another part of the ship. She didn’t understand what they were talking about, mainly due to their whispering and the strange way they talked to each other. Furthermore, she was still way, way too hungover to be dealing with life, let alone anything like this.

Zane was busy talking to another man, but not the one from before. That one seemed to have slipped away in the chaos of Abigail being discovered. He’d disappeared before she got a chance to see his face, though she swore she’d made out the shape of a Deck Officer’s uniform. “Even if they find the heretic it will be too late to save him,” she heard Zane say. She didn’t know who he was talking about, but she hoped it wasn’t Gunnar. She needed to move things along, figure out a way to get out of there and warn the others. Whatever the creeps were up to, it didn’t sound pleasant.

“I know who you are, by the way,” she said loud enough for Zane to hear. He ignored her, continuing to talk to his fellow weirdo. “I’ve heard all about you. You’re the ones who worship Howard Blackwood, right?”

Zane turned at the mere mention of Blackwood’s name, his eyes laser-focused on her.

“Hey, it’s fine. I’m down with Blackwood,” she said. She needed to keep his attention on her. Maybe he could be reasoned with, or at least tricked. Blind belief made for the best suckers she’d always found. “I don’t think he’s a god like you do, but he’s a cool guy. A bit of a personal hero, if I might say.”

With only a look Zane dismissed the one he was talking to. He approached her slowly, and she kept the talking going. “Maybe you can let me go and we can chat all about him, like a couple of teenagers talking about their first crushes.”

Zane oozed across the dark room, studying her up and down. It wasn’t the usual way guys looked at her, though. His intentions were much worse. “What is it you like about Blackwood,” he asked calmly.

“Well, he’s a genius, obviously. He created all this. The Ark, our way of life. We owe him everything.” She squinted, pulling on her ropes. “I can’t say he would appreciate what you’re doing here, though. In fact, stop me if I’m overstepping but I say we thaw him out right now and see what he has to say about your little club.”

Zane stopped within a foot of Abigail. “We owe him everything,” he echoed with a smile.

“Exactly.”

“He put us on the path to Eden.”

“I…yeah, I guess he-”

“The false path.” His face twisted into a carving of deep hatred. “Blackwood isn’t a god, he’s a failure.”

Well, shit. She’d played the wrong hand on this one.

“He spreads liars among us. Sends false prophets to test our faith in The Reclamation.”

Abigail strained a smile. “I was just kidding, you know, about liking him. He’s always been a bit overrated to me.”

Zane reached into his pocket and pulled something out, showing it to her. It was a knife. It looked hand-made, with strange writing carved into the handle. One symbol repeatedly showed up, a dissected V with a small arrow, like a wedge, in the center. “Do you believe in it,” he asked, “do you trust in the power of The Reclamation?”

“I…I’m sure with time I could-”

He moved closer, coming within inches of her, and brought the knife up toward her face. She drew a breath in as he pressed the blade to her cheek. “Liar,” he spit. “Another heretic in a den of heretics. You’ll say whatever you need to just to continue your lost, little lives.” The tip of the blade touched the bottom of her eyelid, and she held her breath. “I used to hate people like you, you know. I was angry that so many undeserving people had been given the chance to give themselves over, to be Reclaimed on the day of glory.” Now he began to trail a line with the blade, moving it slowly down her cheek and over the edge of her jaw, down to her neck. Abigail froze. One fast move on either of their parts and her throat would be cut. “Over time,” he continued,” I came to appreciate the heretics. Do you know why?”

She tried to speak but the words didn’t come. Instead she shook her head, just barely enough to say no. He smiled, his eyes shiny with tears.

“Because we must love our sacrifices.”

He jerked the blade. Abigail gasped, dreading the moment the knife would penetrate her throat. Instead, Zane brought the blade to his other hand and made a cut in the thick pad of his thumb right in front of her face, so she could see. As Abigail half-laughed, half-cried from relief, she watched the blood rise up from the cut and spill down his thumb. Zane’s eyes never once slipped out of focus, his face never losing control or betraying the pain as he brought the bloody thumb to her face and began to paint on her forehead. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but it felt like he was drawing the symbol from his knife on her skin, the dissected V.

“You say you want to thaw him out, to see what he has to say,” Zane said, drawing his thumb away. “I couldn’t agree more. We intend to revive Blackwood, to make him answer for his blasphemies.” He stepped away from her, cleaned the blade on his pants and slipped it back into his pocket. “I was going to kill you, Abigail, but now I think I’ll keep you around. I want you to see what becomes of your hero.”

 

\^/

 

Once Desanto got past the idea of something going wrong, leaving him to drift off into space and slowly suffocate in the unending void, the spacewalk was actually kind of nice.

The sensation of weightlessness was unlike anything he’d ever experienced, or rather remembered experiencing. It was like dancing on air, with the stars his stage. The Dorniers, meanwhile, had spread out around him and Gunnar, their instruments scanning and taking in data at incredible speeds, beaming the relevant stuff to the men’s displays.

“Work on controlling your breathing,” Gunnar said. “We only have about five minutes of air.”

Desanto froze. “What,” he asked in a panic.

Gunnar burst out laughing. “Just fucking with you,” he said, tapping the modified Dornier on his back. “Rebreathers. We’re good for a few hours.” He started laughing again, saying he wished Desanto could see his own face. In his other ear, Matthews was bitching that they needed to stop screwing around and get on with it.

Anything he said only made Gunnar laugh harder, so Desanto decided to let him laugh it off while he took in the sights. Slowly, he spun around to look at the Ark. Seeing the ship that way, all at once from a distance, it was an impressive feat of technology and human ingenuity. It stretched on for a hulking mile of twisting, gray metal and sealed windows, blinking lights and instruments peering out into the darkness. Seeing it altogether like that, a contained city floating through space, he realized that somewhere in the back of his mind, he’d never quite believed where he was, that it was actually a spaceship. Somehow the sight of it spread out before him was comforting. Being able to trust his own eyes was a rare treat.

Gunnar was done laughing, which meant they could get on with the mission. Their helmet displays showed a trail of holographic light toward their target, a faint line leading to the sensor array on the bottom of the Ark, and they leaned forward to propel along the highlighted flight path. When they’d gotten within ten meters of the array, which was larger than Desanto had first thought and hinged to move and track, Gunnar sent in two Dorniers to check the area. “Einstein, Curie, search the sensor array for a blockage,” he said. They zoomed off, like hunting dogs running toward a foxhole.

Desanto was having a little difficulty realigning his sense of up and down now that they were under the ship and facing it straight-on. He imagined all the people inside standing sideways to his current orientation, and his brain didn’t appreciate it. As he tried to ignore the instinct to reach out and stop himself from falling, which he’d been told would fade over time, he heard the unmistakable sound of a man whispering in his ear.

Not now, he thought. Not out here. The last place he needed the visions to return was out on a spacewalk. He hoped the whispering could be explained, but turning his comm line to Matthews off and on had no effect, the whispers continuing. As subtle as he could be, he propelled to a position where he could see Gunnar’s face. His friend, who was watching the Dorniers’ progress, clearly wasn’t moving his lips. Desanto tried to ignore the whispers, to pretend he was only concerned with a simple repair, but he doubted he was doing a good job of covering his fear.

“What the hell is that,” Gunnar asked.

Desanto’s jaw nearly hit the glass. “You…you heard it, too?”

“How could I not,” Gunnar scoffed, “it’s creepy as shit.” Desanto couldn’t believe it. For the first time, someone else had heard what he’d heard. “Hey Matthews, did you guys pick up any weird whispering just now?”

“That’s a big negative. You could be picking up an overlapping radio frequency,” Michaels replied.

“I really, really hope so.” Before they could discuss it further, an alarm suddenly began beeping. It was the sound of an excited drone talking to them over the comm, and the other agreeing with it. “Sounds like the Dorniers found something,” Gunnar noted.

Whatever they’d discovered was wedged between the ship and the sensor array. The two men moved in closer, trying to see the bit of debris that was jamming up the instrument and keeping it from normal operations. All they could see of it was a bit of white material caught in the Dornier’s light, a small shape floating in the shadows.

As they got closer, they made out the shape of a boot.

 

\^/

 

Monika left her husband napping in their quarters, taking a trip down to Engineering while he was snoring away on the couch. The first person she ran into in Engineering was Carrie Colton, a Mechanic Monika noticed Gunnar had taken some interest in lately. From her expression, Carrie was surprised to see her. “I thought you and Dez were off today,” she said.

“We are. Wy food recycler’s broken, I just wanted to pop in and grab a few tools.”

“A Mechanic’s work is never done,” Carrie said with a smile.

“Call it Vocation security.” Monika looked around, not noticing as much activity as she’d expected. “Isn’t there a spacewalk going on today?”

Carrie nodded. “You missed the exit by about twenty minutes. It’s a quick one if you want to stick around for reentry.”

“That’s alright.” Monika quickly shelved the idea, wanting to get back before Dez woke up. “Who’s out there anyway, full crew?”

“Just two. Desanto and Gunnar.”

Monika’s eyebrow shot up. “Gunnar, huh?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Nothing. Just, you know, watch out for him,” Monika smiled. Carrie clucked her tongue.

“Woman, what are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s a great guy, and he’s cute, but he’s a ladies man. I see he’s set his sights on you.”

“Actually, believe it or not he wouldn’t shut up about some woman in Recycling. April, or something.”

“I don’t believe it.” Monika had never seen Gunnar focus his attention on one woman for more than a week or two.

“It’s true,” Carrie shrugged. “I think he’s trying to set me up with Desanto.”

“Interesting.” Monika leaned in. “He’s cute, too. A little weird, but cute.”

“Anyway, enough about that- I see Phoebe made up her mind.”

Monika frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Just that I saw her a little while ago. She was by the Fabrication Engines. I guess Dez won this one, huh? You have a future Fabricator on your hands. It’s a shame, but I know she’ll be great at it, especially with-”

Monika waved for Carrie to stop. “Hold on, I’m sorry- Phoebe was here?”

“Yeah, she was with a guy I’ve never seen before. But don’t worry, it didn’t look like they were together or anything, just showing him around.”

Something wasn’t right. Phoebe had said she would be with her friends on a nature hike on Deck Ten. In fact, Phoebe had asked twice if her and Dez were working today. She seemed overly concerned by it, even if she’d feigned teenage detachment over the whole issue. Monika’s stomach started to tie itself in knots as the pieces of a very bad puzzle began to come together. Monika said her goodbyes to Carrie, then went off toward the Fabrication Engines to look for her daughter.

She peeked in on Fabrication, but she didn’t see her daughter anywhere, which was somewhat of a relief. Just as she was about to move on, possibly call up her daughter’s screen and interrogate her on why she was showing up to Engineering with strange men, she found something that didn’t belong. A metal storage case was tucked behind one of the Fabrication Engines, in the corner where most people passing by would never see it. Her stomach was tying itself even tighter now, and she was wishing she hadn’t stopped into work.

Carefully, one latch at a time, Monika opened the storage case. Inside she found what appeared to be a mining charge, the kind they used to blast apart meteors.

It was hooked up to a timer.

 

\^/

 

“Matthews, we have a problem.”

Gunnar stared at the boot sticking out from the point where the sensor array met the ship. Illuminated by Dornier lights, he could see the leg of a spacesuit attached to the boot, and nothing more. It was a fine fucking how-do-you-do for Desanto’s first spacewalk after coming back, and Gunnar wasn’t enjoying it, either.

“Roger that, I’m seeing it on your vidfeed. We’re all a bit confused in here,” Michaels said.

“Are there any suits unaccounted for,” Desanto asked. It was a damn good question.

“Someone’s checking now.” There was a pause on the line as Matthews muted his microphone and screamed out a few orders to the others. Then he came back. “Alright, uh, can you tell if it’s empty?”

Just the question Gunnar had been wrestling with for the last minute or so. The suit leg wasn’t wrinkled or deflated, which meant something inside was keeping it properly filled. “All I can tell you is, it doesn’t look like it from here,” he summed up.

“I’m afraid we need better than that, Larsen.”

Gunnar sighed. He ordered the Curie unit to get in there and retrieve the suit. The drone flew in closer, extending its arms before grabbing a hold of the boot by the ankle. Then the unit reversed its thrusters, trying to pull the suit back with it, but it was met with strong resistance. “Is any of this oddly fucking familiar to you,” Gunnar asked Desanto. Desanto just nodded back with that same, haunted look in his eyes he’d gotten used to seeing on his buddy. Two bodies in a week. Two fucking bodies in one fucking week. And not just another body, but practically the same scenario, with him and Desanto being the ones to discover and drag it out. What were the odds of history repeating itself so soon?

Not likely. Not goddamn likely. He didn’t care if being an active volunteer, a cowboy as Michaels put it, made him more prone to run into bad situations when they came up, this went well beyond a simple law of averages. This was some blatant bullshit.

Curie beeped a sound of resignation. The data on their helmets said she was unable to clear the blockage.

“Balle,” Gunnar cursed. “We’ll have to go in manually.”

“I’ll go,” Desanto offered.

“No. We’ll both go.”

“There’s no reason both of us need to take the risk.”

“Yeah, there is. Where you go, I go, get it? No lone wolf hero shit out here. Partners.” He stared at Desanto, his eyes dead serious.

Desanto nodded inside his helmet. “Alright. Partners,” he said.

Gunnar and Desanto leaned forward, propelling together toward the ship. As they approached the mechanical joint, they noticed no name was displayed in their helmets, nothing projected over the suit, which they hesitantly took as a good sign that it wasn’t actually a body.

The two of them slowed down as they drew within a few feet of the sensor array. From their viewpoint they couldn’t see the face of the helmet at the top of the suit, even with one of the Dorniers still illuminating the area. Gunnar ordered the unit to back off. As it did, it managed to bump into Gunnar’s shoulder, pushing him off-balance. “Watch it, Einstein,” he warned.

They drew with a few feet of the suit. Gunnar reached in with his combitool and carefully grabbed a hold of its arm. It felt solid, not giving under the light pressure, and the two men exchanged a look. Then he turned it over so they could look inside the helmet. Both men prayed they’d only found a lost suit, some decommissioned equipment that had somehow skipped Recycling and been ejected from the ship.

No such luck. A man’s face was behind the glass. He had thin eyes, the lids shut. His skin was pale and mottled with bruising and radiation exposure, and he didn’t appear to be breathing.

“Dead,” Gunnar concluded.

“Whoever he was, he didn’t have a tracker,” Desanto pointed out.

Gunnar got a closer look at the man’s face. He had black stubble and an old scar under his eye. “Hold on, I know this guy. Svarog I think his name was.” Gunnar remembered approaching him at some point, on account of being a fellow Swede, but he’d quickly given up all ideas of befriending the man after a few minutes of conversation with him. The guy was too weird, even for Gunnar.

“How long do you think he’s been out here,” Desanto asked.

“No clue.” As Gunnar studied the man’s face, the eyes suddenly opened. Gunnar shouted, his arms flailing a bit. Svarog, apparently very much alive, looked back at them with wide-eyed wonder, as if he were at heaven’s gate, looking in.

“The vessel is here,” the man said, his smile full of pure worship and glory. Gunnar felt a chill wash over him. A moment later, their ears were filled with screams, the sound of panic and fear coming over the comm.

The screams were cut short by a deafening blast.

An explosion rocked the ship, emanating from somewhere within Engineering. The men turned to see fire and light and debris burst from the airlock they’d floated free of just minutes earlier, light that was quickly snuffed out by the uncaring vacuum of space. Shrapnel and ash spread out in all directions as the airlock vomited out the contents of its belly.

The comm in their helmets went dead, and with it all sound.

 

To be continued…

19. Ritus

019ritus

 

Everyone was tired. No one was talking about the nightmares.

Doctor Hannigan grabbed a cup of yogurt and an apple from the cafeteria line, then poured herself some coffee and took a chair away from the aquarium glass. She never could eat with fish staring at her. All those blank stares and gaping mouths.

The other passengers around her looked even more exhausted than usual. Sagging faces, purple lines under their eyes, they clearly weren’t sleeping well. Hannigan had talked to enough patients in the last few days to know that sleep disorders had been rampant lately. An unexplained rash of violent dreams had beset the Ark, children and adults alike waking up screaming from dark visions they could barely recollect or explain. As for Hannigan’s recent sleep patterns, she almost never usually drank coffee- and that was all she needed to say on the matter.

But then she had enough reasons to worry without bad dreams. Vanessa Brigham, the Genlab worker who’d been attacked the day before, had been stung by something unknown. Hannigan and her team had nearly missed the entry point when they’d examined her less than an hour after the incident, the tiny wound only discovered through a combination of high-res scans and a Nurse’s keen eye. Three hours later the wound was nearly gone. It had healed shockingly fast, as if whatever stung her had somehow helped the healing process. It reminded her of how mosquito saliva acted as an anesthetic, so their prey wouldn’t feel the bite. Yet mosquito saliva also contained an anti-coagulant to keep the blood flowing, whereas this was the exact opposite, as if the desire was to close up the wound as quickly as possible. Vanessa’s condition had stabilized, apart from some spikes in her blood pressure and slightly-raised cortisone levels, but they’d decided to keep her sedated until they had more answers.

Then there was the matter of Officer Nicolai’s report. The man had been vague about what he’d seen, and what he’d seen didn’t make sense. There was talk of an animal with black tendrils that crawled up walls and moved lightning-fast, but there was little to back up the man’s story, other than some black residue found inside Vanessa’s helmet. The lab results on the recovered specimens were still in process.

Ark One had become a hotbed of activity in a short time. It had only been a few days since the gruesome discovery down in Storage. People were returning somewhat to normal, though the mood was still tense. Peace Officers had searched extensively for Baptiste, including a full scan of the ventilation system, without turning up so much as a hair. Sunn had a fleet of Dornier Drones on constant watch, and their buzzing had become ubiquitous in the air in and around the ship, but there was a sense that people were already giving up on ever finding the man, whether alive or dead. With so much going on, Sunn’s algorithms had triggered three times the normal amount of Revivals. Some of them were Doctors and Nurses themselves, meaning once they were awake and up to speed they were assisting in further revivals. Others were Peace Officers, Sanitation workers, Cafeteria crew, and at least one Teacher, all tasked with carrying the extra workload.

In short, the Ark was becoming a lot more crowded.

Cybele finished her yogurt, deciding to save the apple for the walk back. She got up from her table and left the cafeteria behind, taking a stroll past Central Park, where far more passengers than normal were crowded into the area. Soon she saw why: a few of the Allclerics were working people up into a frenzy, spouting apocryphal nonsense to anyone who would listen. They talked of coming plagues and other tribulations. The group was led by James Crick, one of the more outspoken Allclerics Cybele had ever had the opportunity to treat and subsequently avoid. He had hellfire in his eyes, and she could almost swear he was getting off on all the talk of suffering and pain. Crick was a man with a taste for brimstone, and a man like that thrived on panic and uncertainty.

As she watched from the outside of the crowd, careful not to be drawn into the discussion, a few Peace Officers pushed past her to deal with the situation. One of them was extremely muscular, a brick of a man who began to disperse the crowd while his partner explained to the Allclerics that if they wanted to hold a theological debate on the ship, there were entire sections designated for such discussions.

That was the nice version, anyway. The way it came out was more like, “Take this bullshit back down to Four.”

James Crick simply smiled the smile of the righteous. “We want no trouble, my son. We’re here to save your souls.”

“The only thing you need to save is your breath. Now move it.” The Officers started getting forceful in their methods of breaking up the crowd. A few passengers put up a fuss, but the truth was most of them were only there for the free show. Cybele backed up a few feet, giving them all plenty of room to maneuver. As she did, she noticed a third uniform had joined the scene, this one the color of a Deck Officer. It was First Officer Oberlander.

“Everyone needs to calm down and go about their business,” he said, doing his best to project the sense of an authority figure. He added, “Captain Ashby’s orders.”

“Oh, yeah? Then where is she,” someone shouted. The voice was a bit too loud and sloppy for what had preceded it. The crowd parted to seek out the owner of the voice, finding within their numbers a man most of them knew, and none of them wanted to look in the eye: Randal Marlow.

Baptiste’s father.

He was drunker than usual, and screaming at the Officers about their part in his son’s disappearance. “What’re you doing about this,” he shouted, nearly in tears. “What’re you doing about my boy? Where the fuck is our Captain when we need her?”

Cybele couldn’t blame the man for his anger. After he’d lost his wife, his son was all he’d had. Now Baptiste was gone, too, and without something to live for, traveling became meaningless. Everything became meaningless.

The Officers continued dispersing the crowd, who were now more receptive to leaving the area, while Oberlander tried to calm down Randal. The young Officer was covering for the Captain once again. People wanted to know where Ashby was, what she had to say about the state of affairs. They looked to her for guidance, and she hadn’t shown her face in days, though only Cybele knew why.

As much as she felt for Ashby, the Captain should have been there.

Cybele left the scene behind, heading toward the elevators. Ness wasn’t getting any better, she knew that, and with so much going on the last thing the Ark needed was a pandemic. The Doctor had woken up with a question in mind, and that question had just been answered. She would go to Captain Ashby, today, and give her one last chance. One chance to come clean to everyone on the Ark about her wife’s illness.

She took a bite of her apple. Looking down at it, she saw a squirming worm sticking up from the bite she’d taken. She’d nearly bitten the worm in half, missing it by mere centimeters.

One day. That’s what she was going to give Ashby. One day to tell the truth. If the Captain wouldn’t do it, she would. Cybele threw out the apple, worm and all.

 

\^/

 

Abigail woke up feeling every bit of her newest hangover. It was her fifth in a row, brought on by another long night at the Bottle. For anyone keeping score, it must have looked like she was going for some kind of record, and at this rate she was heading for a strong finish to the week. She liked to think that she was just having a bit of fun, but deep down she understood it was the only way she knew how to fend off the unhappiness that had crept into her day-to-day life. God forbid she talk to someone about it. Somewhere along the way, and despite her best efforts, she’d become her mother.

After a quick shower, Abigail threw on her cleanest uniform and headed out, thinking of nothing but filling her stomach with all the bread and coffee she could find. Not even a minute later she came across one of her top five reasons for drinking.

“Gunnar Larsen, what the fuck are you doing on Deck Five,” she prodded. “I thought you lived on Six with all the other second-class citizens.”

He shook his head, that handsome fuck. “Deckism is an ugly trait,” he replied.

“Yeah? So is jealousy.”

Gunnar snorted. “What happened to you? You look like shit.”

“Thanks. We can’t all wake up beauty queens like you.”

“Now who’s jealous?”

She punched his chest. “You still haven’t told me what you’re doing on my deck.” Had he come to see her? Was that something he would do?

“Just picking up Desanto,” Gunnar said. Of course he wouldn’t come for her, she thought. Why would he do that? One of these days she was just going to have to hit him over the head and drag him back to her quarters. “We have a big day ahead of us,” Gunnar added.

“Finally picking out those matching wedding dresses.”

“That’s next week. Today I’m taking him on the walk.”

“That’s a big step. I didn’t think he was ready for that.”

“Only one way to find out.”

She nodded. “I guess. What about his memory?”

“It’s been better the past few days. The Vocation’s coming back to him, but not much else.”

“Is there anything else?”

Gunnar shrugged. “Fucked if I know.”

They parted ways a minute later, though she got the feeling something was being left unsaid. At work Abigail started her day the usual way, by checking the sensor readings on the analyzers over a giant mug of black coffee. There was an unusual spike in water pressure in section C3, so she downed the rest of her coffee and headed over that way, just to make sure there weren’t any visible issues. Two lefts and a right down the dark, humid passages, tunnels she knew like the inside of a bottle of scotch, and she reached C3.

There was nothing obviously wrong that she could see, but she tightened all the valves and screws with her multiwrench just to be sure. Better to rule out the easy fixes first before escalating the issue to a service call. Just as she was about to leave, Abigail heard whispering around the corner.

She paused to listen, quickly realizing it was two Orange Suits who had snuck off from their posts. She could only make out a few words, the strangest of which was the phrase, “The abnormal ones.” Abigail found herself inching closer to hear better when she remembered her mantra. Mind your damn business, Abigail. It was the one thing that ensured she wasn’t completely like her nosy, meddling, drama-inducing mother.

As she was going to leave, to head back to her station and check the sensor readouts again, see if things had cleared up, she heard one final word, one name whispered from the mouth of one of the two Orange Suits around the corner that made her stop.

“Gunnar.”

Abigail couldn’t ignore it anymore- now it was her damn business.

 

\^/

 

“Come on,” Gunnar said, a hint of impatience in his voice. Desanto barely had time to slip on his shoes before his friend pushed him out the door of his quarters.

“What’s the rush,” Erick asked.

“We’re on a timetable.”

“For what?”

“We’re going for a walk,” is all Gunnar replied.

Desanto was a little confused by his partner’s sudden interest in promptness, but he chalked it up to a time sensitive service call. On the way to Engineering, Gunnar explained to him that it was more of a pet project than an initiated call. More specifically, it was an issue that Gunnar had been trying to address for years without success, an issue he’d nicknamed, ‘Y-Plus.’

“See this,” Gunnar asked, pulling a strip of thin but strong-looking metal from his uniform pocket. He’d even brought along some visual aids to help with the explanation. “Do you know what this is?”

“Nanometal, I think.” It had the telltale gray sheen of nanomaterial.

“Good. So what’s so special about nanometal?”

“It’s a self-repairing material, which means it’s resistant to breakdown.”

“Very good. And considering how expensive it is to manufacture, so to speak, what do we mostly use it for?”

Desanto had to think about that one for a second. They had reached Engineering and were heading toward a different locker room than usual, at the far end of the deck. There was a sense of urgency in the air, the other Fabricators and Mechanics nodding solemnly to the pair. “For the hull,” Desanto remembered.

“Extra points to the man with half a missing brain! That’s right. Between the radiation, the debris, the micrometeorites and the extreme temperature changes, the outside of the ship is put through hell. It’s not as much of a problem for shorter trips, but for long-term travel, all those dings and dents become a big fucking problem. Enter nanometal, the self-fixing wonderstuff that’s half as thick as aluminum, five times as strong as Kevlar and lasts twenty times longer than both. Even still, the stresses of deep space are so bad that we have to replace it entirely on a thirty year rotation. Following so far?”

“More or less.”

“I’ll skip the math in the next part, just know that I’ve done it. Repeatedly.” Gunnar explained that the Fabrication Engines manufactured X amount of nanometal per year, which was exactly enough of the material to cover Y amount of the Ark’s surface area, no more and no less. The problem, Gunnar said, was that they were always coming up short. “The amount of nanometal we produce over a thirty-year period isn’t enough to cover the ship. It’s as if X and Y aren’t equal,” he summed up.

“Y-plus.”

“You got it. My theory- and it’s not a popular one- is that the actual size of the ship is larger than we think.”

Desanto chewed on his friend’s theory. Meanwhile, the locker room they’d entered had a more industrial, utilitarian feel than the gymnasium vibe of the one they normally used. Rather than sinks and shower pods it was outfitted with equipment storage closets and repair bays. More tellingly, no one else was in the room other than the two men. “How much are the two numbers off by,” he asked.

“About four thousand square meters. Give or take.”

“That’s significant.”

“I know, and yet I can’t get anybody to listen. Every time I bring it up they just run the numbers past Sunn. Sunn says it’s okay, so they say it’s okay. But it’s not okay. Something’s fucked. Something’s super-fucked, I just don’t know what.” Gunnar pressed the button on two adjacent lockers, both of which were twice as wide as a standard locker. The doors opened to reveal a pair of spacesuits, complete with full-faced helmets.

Desanto suddenly had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. “What are we doing,” he asked.

“I told you,” Gunnar said with a grin, “we’re going for a walk.”

 

\^/

 

Abigail heard the sound of boots on metal as the Orange Suits retreated down the passageway. They had talked about not wanting to be late, though she could only guess what for. She’d known for a long time that her fellow Recyclers got up to some pretty weird shit- something about spending their lives in the steamy bowels of the Ark, their hands up to the wrists in dirty water and other, unmentionable things, steered their predilections toward stranger fare. But this, this was something else.

She quietly followed the Orange Suits to a secluded area, one she rarely went to, partially because it had nothing to do with Wastewater Processing and partially because she often saw workers sneaking off there and didn’t want to get involved. She started closing the distance between her and the two men, knowing they were likely heading for one of several doors she had no clearance for, and sure enough she rounded the corner just in time to see them disappearing through one such controlled-access door. Abigail crept up to the closing door and slipped her fingers in, stopping it just before it had a chance to close and relock. With a guarded peek, she carefully followed the men inside.

Though she’d never been in that area before, Abigail knew something was wrong the moment she set foot in the room. The air was heavy with the stink of death and rot. She covered her nose as she nearly gagged on the foul smells invading her nostrils. Even Recyclers had their limits, and this went far beyond them. Equally concerning was the strange chanting echoing off rusted pipes, swirling about her until she felt dizzy from their disorienting effects. And even still, with the smells and sounds of ancient death assailing her, she wasn’t prepared for the sights she saw when finally she peeked out from that shadowy place.

As Abigail watched in horror, a crowd of men and women performed a ritual the likes of which she had not only ever seen, but had neither heard of nor imagined. Some clothes, other semi-naked except for ceremonial robes and painted skin, they gathered around a vat of the most disgusting combinations possible. Dead animals mixed with spoiled food and soupy flesh in a pool of sluice and pulp. Circled around, some speaking in tongues, their chants rose and fell to the rhythm of synchronized sacrifice and bloodletting. The words to their mad singing took the form of no language Abigail knew, though occasionally they seemed to be rooted in the terminology used in Recycling. Elsewhere in the vast room, assorted individuals performed twisted seances and blood rituals. With her terror and disgust mounting, several of what she could only assume were cultists began to engage in sex acts, their painted flesh undulating in patterns that invoked images of death and rebirth, while the others circled them and redoubled their ominous chants and invocations.

At some point, when Abigail decided she’d seen enough to fill ten reports to the Captain and the Peace Officers and anyone else who would listen, she heard the hushed voices of two men holding a discussion off to the side. They had an authoritarian tone that made Abigail believe they were in charge of the vile ritual.

“That Peace Officer has been poking his head in my business. She must have told him something,” one said.

“Your feelings for her have only caused you trouble,” the other said.

“Every Adam needs his Eve.”

She inched closer, trying to see their faces while remaining hidden from both them and the others.

“The time approaches, brother. Our friend says all is ready.”

“You pulled all our people out?”

“Of course. There should be minimal losses on our side.”

Inching out just a bit more, she made out the face of one of the men. It was Zane, a man of which she’d heard plenty of cultist rumors. She’d only spoken to him a few times on account of how much he creeped her out, a feeling more than one person had confirmed in conversation. Now she could see why, though she couldn’t see who he was speaking with. Seeing the second man’s face wasn’t worth the risk of being caught, however, and so she decided she had stayed long enough. Abigail backed away, retreating back into the shadows of that forsaken dungeon of sex and sacrifice.

When she turned to leave, she found herself face-to-face with an older man. She nearly cried out from the surprise, and for a moment she prayed that, like her, he had only followed his curiosity there, that he was an outsider witnessing more than he’d bargained for. But her prayer died a quick death when the man, an Allcleric she recognized as going by the name of James Crick, smiled at her in a way that sent a shiver through her.

“Brothers, sisters,” he called out to the others, “our sacred day has been blessed with a visitor.”

18. Strangulo

018strangulo

 

After a quick stop in Fabrication, Nicolai hit the Genlabs early. He went alone, without Kash, because he didn’t want to hear any more of his partner’s bitching. Kash was continuing to follow the cult angle, and after what Cornelia had told him about Zane’s behavior, he didn’t think it was such a bad idea. Nicolai knew Zane was involved with the cults. One only had to talk to the man for five minutes before he brought up the glory of the Reclamation, which as far as Nicolai understood was their version of Judgment Day, though not as bright and cheery.

It was a good idea to cover as many angles of this thing as possible, he’d decided. They had no time for pride. And then there was the fact that maybe, just maybe, both Officers were right. Just because an animal attacked Baptiste didn’t mean Zane couldn’t have been behind it.

Nicolai had always found the Genlabs a bit creepy for his tastes. Just getting in required going through one of the Decon Rooms, a twenty foot space with benches and lockers and contamination suits hanging in small alcoves like deflated corpses. Once inside, the place was wall-to-wall cloning vats and dissection tables. The work they did was obviously important, and of great use to the Ark, but the way they went about it didn’t make for comfortable viewing.

There were three Geneticists that day in Genlab 12, two young women working side-by-side in contamination suits, and an older, pony-tailed man with his eye buried in a microscope. He first approached the two young women, hoping to ask them a few questions, but quickly backed off when he saw they were pulling newly-cloned worms from a plastic tray. He approached the older man instead, patiently waiting for him to finish what he was doing. He didn’t want to piss off the Scientist the way they’d done to Will Miller. After a few minutes of silence, the man became aware of a presence behind him and turned to see.

“I need to ask you a few questions,” Nicolai said.

“Oh, God. Haz didn’t send you, did he?”

That was the second time in two days someone had mentioned Abdul Haz. “Is he giving you problems?”

“He’s relentless. I don’t know what this book of his is about, but he asks the most bizarre questions, and too many of them.” His lab coat said his name was Rees. He began to prepare a new slide. “I told him I didn’t have time for his nonsense and he threatened to come back with the proper authorities, which you appear to be.”

“That I am, but I assure you Haz didn’t send me.”

The older man’s features relaxed. “Well thank God for that.”

“Actually, I came here to ask your opinion about this.” Nicolai took out the model of the claw he’d had fabricated and handed it to the man. Holograms were helpful, but sometimes a person needed to hold an object in their hands to really understand it. Nicolai himself had been bothered by the sight of the fabrication when he’d picked it up. Something about seeing it rendered physical made it all the more real. The scientist turned the model over in his hands, fascinated with its anatomy.

“Where did you get this?”

“Sunn reconstructed it, from wounds we found on a man’s arm.”

The Scientist wrinkled his face. “I find it doubtful that any man could survive an attack from something like this.”

“Yes, well, the arm wasn’t attached to the man at the time.”

The older man’s demeanor quickly changed. Unlike Will Miller, his shock was genuine. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Who was he?”

“His name is Baptiste,” Nicolai replied, making sure to use the present tense until he knew otherwise. “He’s the new science teacher. You haven’t heard about this?”

“I’m not very good at following current events.”

Someone needed to get out of the lab more. “An arm was discovered, badly damaged, with tooth and claw marks made by whatever this belongs to. As of now we don’t know where the rest of him is, or what condition he’s in.”

Rees looked at the fabrication again, this time closer. “I can tell you it looks insectoid, possibly arachnid, but much too large. It certainly doesn’t look like any animal I’ve seen.” He seemed suddenly uncomfortable.

“What about one you haven’t seen?” Nicolai received a confused look in return. “The DNA we carry on board, everything we took from Earth, some of it comes from extinct animals, yes?”

“Well…yes. Most of them by this point.”

“Could someone have cloned some long-forgotten creature?”

The man scoffed. “If you’re suggesting that a dinosaur is running around the Ark…”

“Well, maybe not a dinosaur, but something old. Something none of us have seen.”

“Cloning of that nature isn’t just illegal, it’s extremely unlikely.” Rees handed the fabricated claw back to Nicolai, seemingly done with it.

“True, but I have an extremely unlikely arm in the Medbay. You’ll have to forgive me if it seems like I’m reaching, but I’m not looking for likely here, I’m looking for possible.”

“Well, then yes. I suppose it’s possible. It could be something old. It could also be something entirely new. Either way I’m afraid we won’t be much help to you here. You’ll have to check with the Archives.”

 

\^/

 

The Archives. Every plant and animal on Earth existed there in miniature, its DNA floating in glass tubes, filed away in massive freezer rooms. Samples here were remotely accessed by robotic pickers and sent directly to the appropriate lab for either cloning or research. Rees had a good point sending him there. The only way someone could have engaged in illegal cloning on the Ark would have been by accessing the Archives- and you couldn’t do that without leaving a trail of time-stamps.

The woman running the show was a slender, dark-haired woman by the name of Victoria. Nicolai found her to be a confusing individual, flirtatious one moment and downright hostile the next. When he explained the situation to her, briefing her on the investigation he was conducting, she insisted on an official injunction from the ship’s court office before she would even allow him to set foot in the room that contained the Archive’s computer system.

“That’s not how it works,” he informed her.

“Well, it’s how I work,” she replied, “and that’s what really matters here.” Over her shoulder, eight mechanical arms moved behind cold glass, carefully making their predetermined selections.

“Do you want to be the one who tells the Chief Inspector you’re impeding an official investigation, or would you rather I make the call?”

“I’d love to,” she replied. Without hesitation she brought up the ship’s communication system on her screen and called the Peace Officer station, asking to speak to the Inspector. That was a first, Nicolai thought. After a few transfers he heard the sound of Inspector Raymond’s voice on the other end. She made her formal complaint to the Inspector, who thankfully shut her down quickly, explaining the overriding jurisdiction of the Peace Officers to her. She fumed at Nicolai during the conversation, which clearly didn’t go the direction she wanted.

“Fine,” she said after disconnecting. “Follow me.”

She let him into the protected room, but not before having him sign his name on a series of releases that said he was responsible for any loss of data incurred during his stay. He assured her he only wanted to look at the access logs, not copy or erase them, but she ignored his words and continued to show him where to sign. Then she walked him to the room that housed the computer in question, used her clearance to let him in, and walked away without another word.

He had to hand it to her, the woman was passionate about what she did.

Nicolai spent several hours in the protected room going over the access logs. He saw the same ten or twelve names repeated over and over, and all on samples no more dangerous than a coyote. From there he delved into some of the other files, including current experiments, and was surprised to find that some of the entries were inaccessible. After his third attempt to open a blocked file, he asked Sunn for help.

“The files you listed are blocked,” Sunn’s voice replied.

Nicolai frowned. “I thought all files on the Ark were open access.”

“Personal files are open access, however many files pertaining to the science and operations of the ship are available only to relevant persons.”

Nicolai’s eyebrow raised. “I’m a Peace Officer conducting a potential murder investigation.”

“Yes. You are not a relevant person.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. “So I would need to be a Scientist to view these files?”

“Not just a Scientist-”

“A Geneticist.”

“Correct.”

“Can anyone else see them?”

“Ship’s Captain has full access, as well as Members of the Archives staff.”

“You mean the ice queen out there.”

“I do not understand the question.”

“Never mind. And don’t repeat what I just said.”

“I will not tell Victoria you called her the ice queen.”

“Thank you.” He thought about Rees, the Scientist who had sent him there. The man had seemed helpful, and maybe he would help Nicolai access the files, but he had a feeling it would be a dead end. The unavoidable truth was that anyone smart enough to dabble in Genetics would be smart enough to cover their tracks. Still, seeing the trail through to its end could yield some helpful bit of information. It might also have the added side-effect of rattling some guilty nerves enough to get someone running.

If you’re looking for bugs, you have to pick up a few rocks.

The alarm on his wrist sounded. It was the code for a medical emergency, Level One. He was surprised to see how close it was, just up the hall in one of the Genlabs.

Not just any lab, in fact- Genlab 12.

 

\^/

 

“It’s starting, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“How many will die?”

“As many as are needed.”

“The will of the cenancestors. That’s what you promised.”

“Of course, my dear. They speak in blood, can’t you hear them?”

“I don’t care if I die, just make me better.”

“You’re already so much better. But soon, my dear, soon, you’ll be perfect.”

 

\^/

 

Nicolai ran out of the Archives with Victoria shouting after him to log out. He ignored her and ran as hard as he could, reaching the Genlab in less than a minute. The shouting and screaming were what he found first. Rees and one of the women were at the far end of the lab, in front of a sealed door. It led to the Emergency Decon, a higher grade of decontamination room for spills and other emergencies. The woman was still in her contamination suit, her helmet thrown to the floor. She was arguing with Rees in panicked, angry words, waving a small device in his face.

“She’ll die,” the woman shouted. Without her helmet Nicolai recognized her as Mitsuko. He’d once escorted her to the Medbay when she broke an arm rock-climbing in the gymnasium.

“She knows the risks. So do you,” Rees replied. His voice was loud, but much calmer than hers.

“Please! She needs our help!” Nicolai reached them in seconds. He asked them what was happening. “She’s hurt,” the woman replied, turning to look through the observation window. Nicolai joined her, seeing now the second woman was on her back on the Decon Room’s floor. She was fully suited, helmet and all, and suffering some kind of attack. She twitched and writhed on the floor, smashing her gloved fists against her chest so hard she looked as if she was trying to crack her own ribs. The room’s contaminant alarm was sounding, bathing the woman in cleansing, blue light. “There’s something wrong with her,” Mitsuko cried.

“How did this start,” Nicolai asked. Mitsuko took a breath, trying to compose herself.

“She took a break. Not even ten minutes. When she came back she started screaming, making these awful sounds.” She turned to Rees, her face turning into a scowl. “He panicked and pushed her into Decon.”

“I didn’t panic, I was following protocol,” Rees replied coolly. As the lead Scientist he had final say on all quarantines, and only his authorization would open the door.

Nicolai took in all the information. He knew action needed to be taken quickly. Seconds counted in medical emergencies, yet there was no denying the sensitive nature of the work done in the Genlabs. The Geneticists routinely worked with infectious diseases, researching ways to engineer them into extinction. If Rees was concerned, that said something. And yet that didn’t change the fact that a woman was dying on the floor just a few feet from where Nicolai stood, and that didn’t sit well with him. “Alright,” he said, “you did the right thing. Now let me in and let me handle this.”

Mitsuko sighed, relieved to hear it, but Rees shook his head. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

“I recognize your concerns here, Doctor, but we have a responsibility to that woman.”

“My responsibility is to the ship. The needs of the many.”

Nicolai took a step closer. “Noted. But now I’m telling you to let me in that room.”

“And I’m telling you I can’t. What’s the point of a quarantine if we make exceptions? We have no way of knowing what’s doing that to her, or how fast it could spread.” He turned to Mitsuko and added, “I’m sorry. You know it’s true.”

A new, horrifying sound came from the Emergency Decon as the woman inside began to choke. With her air passages closing up the woman would be dead in minutes, maybe seconds. Nicolai was done fucking around. He rushed at Rees, pushing the older man against the wall. “If you don’t let me in there, I’ll make sure you never see the inside of a lab again,” he growled into the man’s face.

Rees hesitated, but he pushed his thumb against the control pad, speaking his override command. As the door opened, he looked back at Nicolai. “It’s all of our funerals if you’re wrong.”

“Just lock it behind me,” Nicolai replied. He pulled the door the rest of the way open and rushed into the Decon Room. Just before it closed again, Mitsuko threw him the device she’d been waving at Rees. A second later the two Scientists resealed the door, locking Nicolai inside with the convulsing woman.

He looked down at the device in his hand- it was an epinephrine pen. Awash in disinfecting blue light, Nicolai dropped to his knees next to the woman. He wasted no time undoing the locks on her helmet and throwing it to the side, where it clattered and banged into the wall. He took only a moment to study her face before he hit her with the epinephrine, jamming the pen into her bulging neck. There was a slight hiss from the pen as it did its work. He could only pray it was enough, and in time.

After a few, excruciating seconds, the choking subsided. As she gasped for breath, Nicolai realized he knew the girl. She was Peace Officer Luisa Brigham’s younger sister, though he didn’t know her first name. He’d made the right choice, he knew that now. If he’d have let her die, Brigham would have been devastated. And yet, what if by doing so he’d infected himself with whatever the girl had? There was only one epinephrine pen between them, and it was already empty. He doubted Rees would open the door a second time.

The Brigham girl was trying to speak. “Th…there w-” Her voice cut out, still weak.

“Just relax,” he told her, “don’t try to talk.” But she was determined to get the words out.

“s-something in my…suit,” she finished.

As the warning settled into Nicolai’s ears, he heard something else: the sound of something skittering across the floor.

Nicolai spun on his knees to look behind himself. There was nothing there. The helmet by the wall wasn’t moving, but from where he was he couldn’t see inside it. When he turned back to get more information out of the Brigham girl, he realized she’d already passed out. Likely she’d exerted herself and lost consciousness. He took a quick check of her pulse and found one, though it was erratic at best.

Nicolai was on his own. He rose to his feet, pulling the Peace Stick from his belt. He armed the weapon and set it to full-strength.

Like the other Decon Rooms he’d been in, this one had multiple alcoves, each with rows of contamination suits hanging on hooks. There were also a few shower pods and an eye flush station scattered around, along with medical instruments and bottles of chemical wash.

In other words, plenty of room for something to hide.

First he checked the girl’s helmet, giving it a light kick with his boot. It tipped over, seemingly empty. He noticed a few black marks on the plastic inside. If he survived the next few minutes, he would have to go back and check them out closer.

More skittering. This time it sounded like something running up a wall. The half-wet, half-dry noise made Nicolai’s skin crawl, but he pushed the feeling away and ran toward the source of the sound, determined to root out whatever had attacked the girl. He found another row of contamination suits, this one rocking slightly, as if something had brushed against them just seconds earlier.

He charged the Peace Stick with his thumb, feeling the familiar hum of electricity in his palm, and jammed its end into the first suit. It had no effect as the stick discharged its electricity into dead plastic. It was going to be like this then. Flushing out some animal trapped with its back against the wall. He wasn’t going to know what he was dealing with until he either incapacitated the thing or it jumped out screaming at him.

Nicolai moved to the second suit in the row. He readied the Peace Stick again, letting it reach full charge, and jammed it into the suit.

Nothing again.

That wet-dry skitter at his back. Something ran behind him, a hurried retreat. The animal was getting away.

Nicolai spun and ran after the unseen prey, already recharging his Peace Stick a third time. It only took two steps for his efforts to be sabotaged. His boot hit something slick and he slipped, his feet coming out from beneath him. The floor rushed up at him and a moment later he hit it hard, the wind knocked out of him and light flashing behind his eyes.

Pure luck and training had saved his ass. He’d just barely managed to hold onto the Peace Stick. A few more inches to the left and he would have discharged the weapon into his own arm. Set to full-strength, he could have been incapacitated for hours. He rolled onto his back, catching his breath.

He was just in time to see a mass of black tendrils recede into the gas vent in the ceiling. They were like dead veins dragging across the ceiling, water-logged branches that made the same, wet-dry sound he’d been chasing. A mixture of tentacles and fingernails. He stared at the tendrils drawing out of sight, seeing that some of them had clusters of growths at their tips, like cancerous nodules of grayish-pink flesh, and one of them, just one, the last to slip away into the vent, in fact, formed a perfect cat’s eye that watched him, watched him coldly until it disappeared into the vent and out of sight.

17. Deductorium

017deductorium

 

A day hadn’t helped the rumor mill any. After the fourth or fifth suspicious look from a fellow passenger, Desanto decided to take Hannigan’s advice and go see Doctor Dubicki.

Dubicki watched him from across her desk, waiting for him to begin talking first. It was an old trick. Shrinks were like martial artists in a way- whoever made the first move put themselves at a disadvantage. He didn’t want to say anything that would make him appear anything less than sane.

“Do you think I’m crazy,” he finally asked.

The Psych Doctor smiled, pleased with her win. “I would never use that word,” she replied.

“That’s not a no.” Something was different. What was it?

“Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you, Erick?”

He squirmed in his seat. Desanto didn’t trust the woman across from him. He was already regretting his decision to come to her. At the same time, he needed help dealing with all the thoughts bottled up in his head. “You know about the teacher, the one that disappeared.”

“Of course. People are understandably shaken. I’m told you were one of the first on the scene.”

“I’m the one who found it.” Was it her desk that was different?

She clucked her tongue. “That must have been difficult for you.”

“Finding it wasn’t the worst part. It was that I dreamt about it.” The color of the walls?

Dubicki made a note on her screen. “We often process traumatic events in our dreams.”

Desanto sat forward, his elbows on his knees. “Before it happened,” he added, and she looked up from her notes.

“I see. What do you think that means?”

“What it means? I’m really hoping it doesn’t mean I did something terrible.”

“Ripping out a man’s arm doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you would forget.”

“You know me- I’m good at forgetting.” He paused, looking off into nothing. “I don’t know, my mind, it’s…I still don’t trust it. That’s probably a bad thing to tell a Psych Doctor, but if I was in any way responsible for this…” His voice cut out as he remembered the screaming from his dream. He’d looked up Baptiste in the ship’s computer, of course. The face in his dream was blurry and incomplete, but he still recognized it. Knew his eyes as the home of that terrified look he couldn’t shake from his memory. “What are the odds of having that dream the night before he-?”

“Probably higher than you think,” she offered. He looked back at her. “There are only around two hundred faces walking around the Ark right now, and at the moment they’re the only faces you know. That’s not exactly a large pool for your mind to draw from.”

“But it was so specific, so visceral. I felt…I felt the blood on my hands. The warmth, the stickiness between my fingers. I tasted it.”

“It sounds like a very vivid dream, but you have to look at this logically- if you’d had Baptiste’s blood on you, don’t you think you would have been seen leaving the scene covered in it? Wouldn’t there be handprints? Footprints? A whole pile of evidence leading from the Storage Deck to your doorstep? And what about your quarters?”

Was it a different painting?

“What about them?”

“That much evidence would be difficult to make disappear under the best of circumstances, let alone in the kind of fugue state you’re describing. So, how were they?”

“Clean,” Desanto replied.

“Then your conscience should be as well.” It was her turn to lean forward. “You’re going through a confusing time, Erick, and now you’ve been confronted with some very traumatizing imagery. Just because your mind is struggling to deal with it, doesn’t make you responsible. And it certainly doesn’t make you crazy.”

He nodded, wanting to believe her. But he knew what was different now.

It was Dubicki herself. Her eyes had been dark brown the first time they’d met, but this time they were a lighter shade of brown, with slightly different patterns in the irises. To most people the difference would be indistinguishable, but to Desanto, who studied everyone he met, judging if he could trust them, it was as if she had someone else’s eyes entirely. “I guess I’m having a hard time letting go of the guilt,” he said.

She smiled, showing her teeth. “If you’d like, I can schedule you an appointment with an Allcleric.”

“No, thanks. I can burn in Hell just fine on my own.”

 

\^/

 

Abigail had one rule. It was a good rule, because it had brought her this far in life, further than some of her friends.

Mind your damn business.

It didn’t matter what was going on on the Ark, Abigail kept her head down and stuck to her Vocation. Water Processing wasn’t glamorous or fun, and she certainly wasn’t winning any awards by doing it, but she didn’t hate what she did. It was honest work with visible results. People needed her, yet she didn’t have to look them in their faces and be nice to them. Just keep the machines running, keep the water clean, and when it was time to go home she could leave the Vocation behind and not think about it until she showed up the next day.

Speaking of which, it was nineteen-hundred hours, Standard Ark Time. The next shift had just shown up, which meant it was time to clock out and get the hell out of there, maybe drum up a little trouble before she had to go to sleep and did it all over again.

Abigail walked the walkways, wiping the sweat from her forehead as she decided how she was going to spend her night. She liked to pretend she had so many options. On her way out she saw Saam and a few of the other Recyclers sneaking down one of the side tunnels, a handful of fellow orange-suits going off on one of their little secret excursions. A more curious person might be interested to know where they were always going off to, maybe even invite herself along, but not Abigail. And why?

Because she minded her damn business.

The other Recyclers bored her anyway. If she had to guess, they were going off to play something a little more risky than Bohap. Maybe bet on fighting cockroaches or some shit. Who knew. She clocked out and left without looking back.

Back in her quarters, after a shower and a change of clothes, she decided to hit The Bottle.

People said that for quite a few years after launch, the Ark had been a dry ship. Those were the days when the high of jettisoning into space was enough to keep people excited and focused. But as the years wore on, boredom set in. Passengers began brewing their own beer and concocting spirits from potatoes and such. After some time a speakeasy opened up, a hidden backroom at the furthest edges of Deck Two. It went by the name of The Floating Bottle, and it was an instant, if secret, hit. There was a bit of back-and-forth from the Allclerics and ship’s Captain once the truth of it came to light, but eventually the speakeasy was allowed to open as a legitimate establishment- permitting a few rules, of course.

Twenty years of age was the decided on minimum age, though the fuzzy nature of age on board the Ark made it complicated to enforce. More of an honor system. Patrons were expected to control themselves. No lewd behavior or excessive sexuality. Though, according to the rumors, after three a.m. the stripper holograms were activated and The Floating Bottle became a very different place. But those were just whispers.

Abigail strolled into The Floating Bottle and was surprised to find the bar was packed. Nearly every conversation she overheard, people were buzzing about the teacher who’d gotten hurt. Not that Abigail didn’t care, but she was on a mission, and that mission was to drink just enough that she didn’t have to worry about what was happening on the Ark, but just shy of alcohol poisoning setting in. It was a delicate balance.

She signaled to the bartender as she cozied up to the bar. “Two snipers,” she said over the noise.

“At this point you can just say the usual. ” Travis’ deft hands were already pouring the two shots. She couldn’t remember what his day Vocation was. Something in Computing.

“And admit I have a problem? No, thank you.” Travis snorted and slid her the small glasses. She placed her thumb on the screen and paid the man his Trade Credits, plus tip.

All the regulars were in attendance, except for the guy who was usually face-down in the corner table by now. Now that she thought about it, he might have had the same last name as the teacher everyone was discussing. There were a bunch of new faces as well, folks who wanted to meet in public and talk about the only thing apparently worth talking about. As her eyes passed over the scene, they stopped on a familiar face.

Gunnar Larsen, that generous stack of yellow-suited smart-ass. To no one’s surprise he was currently hitting on a woman. She was pretty, and wearing the came color uniform as he was. If she knew him the way she thought she did, Gunnar was following up on some groundwork he’d laid down earlier in the workday. That was how he operated: first he set them up, then he walked away, and later, just when the woman thought she was in the clear, he moved back in and sealed the deal. Yet no matter how many times he’d hit Abigail with steps one and two, he never came back in for three.

“There was a time you punched a guy and he knew what it meant,” she said to herself. Then she raised a customary glass to the bottle mounted over the bar, the message inside no one but The Floating Bottle’s founder had read, and threw it back. A woman sat down in the vacant stool next to her. Abigail was about to make a comment about the seat being reserved when she saw who it was. “Well if it isn’t my favorite farmer,” she said.

Imani settled into the seat. “So? Are you going to go over to him?”

“Who?”

“Oh, please. You’re eye-fucking him so hard, I think he’s already pregnant.”

Abigail laughed, nearly spilling her second shot. “Just because I’m window shopping doesn’t mean I’m ready to buy.”

“Well, if you want to cry about it I have time. The boy I had my eye on just went home with the other boy I had my eye on.”

“Figures.” She downed her second sniper. “Maybe we should just go home with each other. Then we can disappoint whoever has their eye on us. It’d be easier at least.”

Imani scoffed. “Nothing easy about it, sweetie.”

Abigail nodded to Travis. He brought the next round over and she handed the second glass to Imani. “How about this,” she said, “let’s get really, really drunk and see where the night goes. One way or the other, we’ll end up with what we deserve.”

Imani raised her glass. “As solid a plan as any I’ve heard,” she said, and they touched glasses.

 

\^/

 

Feeling restless, and not wanting to sleep, Desanto decided to take a walk. He wanted to go someplace on the Ark he hadn’t visited yet, or rather didn’t remember visiting. Letting his feet do the thinking, he walked for some time, somehow ending up on Deck Seven in the Computer Labs. Desanto stood in a sea of glowing, blue screens, the blinking of servers in the walls like cat eyes peering at him from the bushes. He walked among the rows of machines, imagining the clicking and swiping and typing of Coders that took place there during the day, their blurry fingers speaking their own, ancient language.

Gunnar had invited him out for drinks tonight, but he hadn’t been in the mood to be around people. Of course Gunnar had pushed the issue, telling him he was being a fittnylle and whatever else he thought would work, but Desanto insisted that he go on without him. And Gunnar, this man he’d for all purposes just met, actually seemed disappointed.

Gunnar was a good man. Desanto knew little else about the Ark and about life on it, but he knew that. Trust still didn’t come easy for him, though.

A short time later he left the Computer Labs behind and headed toward the Schooling Area. He found his way to the Art Department, where rooms were filled with easels and screens and all manner of supplies. There were rooms with cameras and sets and lights and costumes. A theater for putting on performances and recording them. Pencils and paints. Artwork hung everywhere, in various states of completion. Most of it was typical of students, still-life drawings of fruit and seashells, nude studies either marred or enhanced by misjudged anatomy, and enough color charts to choke Davinci. But some of them, just a few, were a bit darker, their subject matter of a more haunted nature. They seemed to hint at things beyond the skill of whomever had rendered them, yet they weren’t all rendered by the same hand. It was more an underlying pattern among the work of the students. A theme running beneath their collective skin.

In the pottery studio, Desanto was surprised to find a woman working on a sculpture. She had stayed behind long after everyone else had gone home, still huddled over her work in the half-light. Her hands were covered in clay and her eyes full of the most intense focus. As Desanto walked closer, the nature of her sculpture became apparent. It was an animal with two bodies, a skeletal thing of exaggerated proportion and no head to speak of. It was disturbing, yet somehow familiar. A horror in clay.

“What is it,” Desanto asked. The woman continued to work, not looking up or pausing her carving to speak.

“Something I saw in a dream,” she said. Desanto recognized her from the gathering. Her name was Beli Corrick, the Sculptor who’d been thawed the same day as him. She’d seemed radiant that day, excited to be awakened. Now she stared at the shapes her hands made as if watching the movements of someone else. The painting over her head, easily ten by ten foot, showed a vast field of blood-red constellations, and a man, face-down, drowning in the stars. Across the painting six words were written in thick, black lettering only visible because they blotted out portions of the star-field.

We live as we dream- alone.

Somehow he knew it was a quote by Joseph Conrad, yet he couldn’t say where he’d read it. For all he knew he’d read every classic work of literature, the history of fiction locked away inside his mind. He looked back at Beli Corrick, the woman enslaved to her work. Her eyes were bloodshot, her skin pale. She showed no sign of stopping. “Good night,” he said to her, but she didn’t respond, having already forgotten he was there.

On the way out he passed more of the Schooling Area, peeking in on the darkened Auditorium, the Gymnasium. He passed a classroom where students had left a dozen or so candles to burn out at the door, along with a single flower. Desanto knew whose room it was, but he didn’t want to think about it.

Back in his quarters, Desanto ignored the whispers coming from the bathroom sink as he washed his face. He went to sleep some time later, wondering if Coders dreamt in code.

16. Ferox

016ferox

 

Will Miller loved his family- he just loved his Vocation more.

As Lead Animal Handler in the Grasslands section of Deck Ten, Will spent endless hours tracking the breeding patterns of emus. Days passed as he monitored territory disputes between anteaters and photographed ant colonies. As the finches chirp-chirped in the trees, his wife and son waited for him to come home.

He told them not to wait, but still they did. Will felt bad about that, of course, but his place was here, standing among the tall grasses while zebras and antelopes grazed in the distance. He’d been told his boy Theo had taken to watching people pass by in the hallways, staring at them in ways that made them uncomfortable, with eyes as wide as an owl. A few of them had even asked Will to talk to the boy about his behavior, and he assured them he would, even though he had no intention of doing so.

The truth was it made him proud to know his son was following in his father’s footsteps, watching the animals.

A pair of white-tailed deer drank from the small stream that ran through the Grasslands. Like everything else on the Ark the stream was a lie, recycled water pumped in by hidden pipes and kept free of bacteria by carefully monitored levels of biochems. A dozen, interwoven systems were in place just to make sure the deer had a stream to drink from, and the only way to keep the deer happy was to make sure they never knew about any of it.

Just like the people.

As Will recorded a clip of the deer for later examination, a pair of men walked up behind him. Their movement spooked the animals and the deer ran off, bounding toward the tree line. Will stopped the screen from recording. “If Haz sent you, tell him to screw off,” he said without looking. “Right after you screw off.”

“Excuse me?”

The voice was deeper, more serious than expected. He turned to see two Peace Officers in full uniform, Nicolai and Kash, staring back at him with pissed-off looks carved into their brows. “Oh,” he muttered, not knowing what else to say.

“Is there a dispute requisition you need to file,” Officer Nicolai asked, shifting in the grass. Will cleared his throat and attempted to regain some composure.

“It’s Abdul Haz, he keeps bothering me about this book he’s writing. Anyway, what can I help you with?”

Officer Nicolai seemed to relax. Officer Kash was a different matter. “What’s your name,” he asked brusquely.

“Miller. Will Miller.”

“Have you had any escapes, Will Miller?”

“Nothing I’m aware of. Why, was an animal spotted on one of the other decks?

“Not directly,” Nicolai replied, and Will grunted.

“Let me guess, someone found droppings and freaked out. I’ll save you some trouble: it’s a mouse.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that. And a lot bigger.”

Will raised an eyebrow. “What’s this about?”

Nicolai glanced at his partner, who nodded back. “There’s been a disappearance,” he said.

“What? Who?” Will did his best to act shocked. The news of what had been discovered on Storage Deck had spread through the ship like fire in dry leaves. What actually surprised him was the Peace Officers thinking an animal might be responsible. Still, he had to keep the shock and outrage going for appearance’s sake.

“Baptiste Marlow.”

“My God. I just saw him the other day. We were talking about a field trip for the students,” he said with wide-eyed concern. “You don’t think I-”

Nicolai waved off the thought. “You’re not in trouble, we’re just trying to figure this thing out.”

“Well, good. But you think an animal did it?”

“From the markings it looks like an attack.”

He paused for dramatic effect. “I thought you said he disappeared.”

“Not all of him,” Kash replied, almost smugly.

“Holy shit,” Will gasped. When did he become such a good actor? “So this is a murder investigation.”

Nicolai and Kash glanced at each other. “It’s an inquiry.”

“There’s never been a murder on the Ark.”

“And there still hasn’t as far as we’re aware. Like we said, it looks to be an animal. Even if Baptiste is dead- which he isn’t- animals don’t commit murder last I checked.”

Will’s eyes searched the trees for answers. “But how do you know? What if we’re living with a killer?”

“We’re wasting our time.” Officer Kash, clearly growing impatient, pulled up a photo on his screen and showed it to him. In it a badly damaged human arm sat in a pool of its own blood. “Do you know what animal could have done this?”

The sight made Will gag, no acting necessary. As he spit up into the dirt, he heard Officer Nicolai chastise his partner. “He’s the animal expert, he should know what they’re capable of,” Kash shot back.

“You can be a little nicer about it.”

“It’s an inquiry, not a nice chat over tea.”

Will wiped his mouth and straightened himself up. He heard an owl hoot nearby and thought of his son. “It’s fine, you just caught me off guard.” He asked the officer to see his screen so he could get a closer look. In his hands, he studied the image closely. “Those are claw marks,” he said, genuinely surprised. “Large ones.”

Officer Nicolai nodded. “That was our theory as well. Do you have any animals that could do something like that?”

“What, here? No. No chance. Whatever did that is extremely dangerous. We wouldn’t be stupid enough to breed an animal like that.”

Officer Kash snatched his screen back. “This is an ark, isn’t it? I thought we had two of everything.”

Will wanted to tell the officer how much of an idiot he was, but decided against it. “Do you see any elephants walking around the ship,” he asked. “How about humpback whales?”

“Whales don’t walk,” Kash replied proudly. Will took a breath and steeled himself to deal with the uniformed moron.

“Ninety-nine percent of the life on board is in a glass vial,” he explained. “The environments are more for education and study than anything else. Like a museum where you occasionally get to eat the exhibits.” He turned to Officer Nicolai, the smarter of the two by a thin margin. “Which means unless someone is cloning apex predators for the fun of it, there’s no way anything capable of that is on this ship,” he said, pointing to the screen.

The taller Officer seemed to understand. “We need to check the Genlabs.”

“They’re closed right now,” Will said.

“Tomorrow then. Thank you for your time, Mister Miller.”

“Of course. Good luck catching whatever that is. I just hope that guy is okay.”

“So do we,” the Officer replied. They thanked him again and left him to his work. Will watched them go, listening to the grasshoppers play their wing songs in the fake sun. Then he took out his screen to make a call.

The others needed to know about this.

 

\^/

 

Breathe in. Breathe out. Pain in. Pain out.

Waking life had become a fever dream seen through opioid eyes, depressive respiration coupled with lethargic prayer. All those words, clearing the pathways of phlegm and blood. Fear tolerance reduction accomplished via vein scraping followed by anti-coagulant baths and physical trauma to inspire myocardial bifurcation. All those words. Hand-eye coordination via electrolocation. Local brain death embolus and revival via excitation. Blood type incantations and an end to outdated musculature. All those words. Psychotropic insufflation and toxic stimulation.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Pain in. Pain out.

Fight or flight response had surpassed surgical pain threshold. Infarction laughter successfully controlled by alternating current. Specialized distortion fields. Burst duration coders grafted to thermoreceptors. Sympathetic ossification and somatotopic remapping. Chemically-inspired genetic drift. Strongly urged polydactylism leading to manic meiosis. Violent recombination. Sacrificial rites of the cenancestors.

All those words were a thunder that shook Baptiste apart. The mind was lost but the brain lived on.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Pain in. Pain out.

 

\^/

 

Kash may have been done for the day, having lost all patience for what he considered a useless line of inquiry, but Nicolai wasn’t quite finished. There was one more opinion he wanted, one final bit of input from the live animal angle before he started looking into the Genlabs. But more importantly than that, he wanted to see an old friend.

He found her in the chicken coop, the sound of clucking and shuffling chickens echoing off the high ceiling. She was bent over an incubator, helping a hatchling break free of its egg. Cornelia had been through some rough years with all of her personal problems. She still looked good, but there was no denying the sadness that had crept into her eyes.

“Can I eat it yet,” Nicolai said of the chirping bird, and Cornelia nearly jumped. She smiled from ear to ear as she walked over, removing her gloves. “Sorry to drop in unannounced,” he added.

“Are you kidding? You’re the good kind of visitor.” There was something more there, something she didn’t say, but he didn’t push it. She gave him a hug, the kind he really needed.

“How’s Imani? I didn’t see her in the fields. There was just some young, hunky type flexing his muscles.”

“You just missed her, actually. But she’s the same. Still the undisputed queen of the farm. The guy is Aaron.”

“Aaron the farmboy. Sounds dreamy,” he teased.

“Keep it down, he’ll hear you,” she said, and the two shared a laugh. “So anyway, how’s the Vocation going?”

“Way too interesting.”

She nodded. “I heard about the teacher. Is he…?”

“We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt. Between you and me, it doesn’t look great.” He’d always told her more than he was supposed to. More than he told anyone else.

She shook her head. “That’s awful.”

“That’s actually one of the reasons I came here,” he said, and her ears perked up. “I know how good you are with all this nature stuff.”

“It’s about the only thing I’m good at.”

“I don’t know, I seem to remember you beating me at chess a few times.”

“Well, yeah, because you’re terrible at it.”

Nicolai chuckled. “Thanks.”

“Of course. So what did you need from me?”

“We think an animal attacked Baptiste.”

Her eyes widened. “What?”

“That’s the working theory, anyway, but it’s not adding up. Do you know if there have been any escapes recently, maybe something from a lab?”

“What kind of labs do you think we run here,” she asked with a frown.

“I know it’s a stretch. I just want to know if there’s been anything out of the ordinary, anything you’ve seen or heard that felt off.”

“Not really.” She threw her gloves over a monitor. “Well, the goats have been acting strange.”

“How so?”

“They’ve been agitated, more nervous than normal.”

“That’s something. Do you think they could be freaked out by something on board?”

She shrugged. “I guess there’s a chance they could sense a predator.”

“You don’t seem convinced.”

“Well, it happened down on seventeen, right?” He nodded. “Goats are smart, but the idea of them picking up the scent of an animal halfway across the ship…” She hesitated. “Are you completely sure an animal did this?” There it was again. The thing she wasn’t saying. He was going to have to get it out of her.

“I’m your friend, Cornelia, you can tell me what’s on your mind.”

She took a stilted breath. After a bit more hesitation her shoulders dropped. “It’s Zane,” she said, her voice tight in her chest.

“He came to see you?”

She nodded, suddenly looking like she would burst into tears. Nicolai was no fan of Zane’s. The man had caused Cornelia nothing but grief with his slow descent into his twisted religion, not even supporting her through the death of their child. Nicolai still felt guilty about being the one who’d introduced them at a party all those years ago. “Did he threaten you,” he asked.

“No. Not exactly. He was talking crazy, even for Zane. Spouting nonsense about heretics and opening people’s minds.”

“Sounds like he finally went off the deep end.”

“I overheard him talking to a few of his followers. It sounded like they were planning something, but I couldn’t hear what it was. I’ve been meaning to report it, but I’m always worried he’ll…” Her voice cut out as her eyes remembered things they shouldn’t have.

“I’ll have someone keep an eye on him,” he reassured her, and she tried to smile.

“Thank you, Nic. I’m sorry I didn’t come to you before.”

“Please, you have nothing to apologize for.” He hugged her once more, this time the kind she needed. “If it makes you feel any better, you can kick my ass at chess. For old-time’s sake.”

She laughed in his arms. It was good to hear her laugh.

15. Admorsus

015admorsus

 

The Peace Officer station wasn’t much to look at, just a few open-air offices and a bullpen tucked away in an otherwise forgotten corner of Deck Four. It was a deliberate choice on behalf of the ship’s creators. The Ark had been designed from the ground up to have what they called a ‘limited authority presence.’ What that meant in practical terms was the fish in the aquarium had a higher energy budget than the Peace Officers ever did.

The small group of eight men and women dispersed around the Meeting Room made up the entire, active Peace Officer crew. They were waiting for Chief Inspector Raymond to update them on everything learned about the arm found in Storage. Nothing like this had ever happened on the Ark that any of them were aware of, and the room buzzed with rumors and taut nerves.

Nicolai sat at the back of the small room, quietly listening to his fellow Officers discuss things they didn’t know anything about. The only facts they knew for certain were that the arm belonged to a teacher, Baptiste Marlow, and that no one had been able to locate the Professor.

“No one reported him missing? Not even his students?”

“It was his day off.”

“And his father isn’t the most reliable-”

“A drunk.”

“-Been through three Detoxes and he keeps going back to the tap.”

“-Supposedly investigating a broken vent, but I don’t-”

“I wonder if he’s-”

“-Definitely dead.”

Nicolai’s partner, Kash, stood up from his seat to address the room, and Nicolai winced at what he would say. His partner didn’t have many friends in that room- or any other room for that matter- on account of his blunt approach to pretty much everything. Even Nicolai didn’t completely love the guy, but he’d learned to respect the man’s passion for his Vocation- even if it was often misguided.

“No one is talking about the most important thing here,” Kash said. The others quieted down to listen. “There aren’t enough of us to deal with this.”

“There’s one body and nine of us,” Officer Brigham replied, “I think we’ll be fine.”

“Don’t you guys get it? That fucking cult did this.” A murmur spread through the room. “You know it’s true. All these years we’ve been letting them grow in the dark like a bunch of fucking moldy bread. I’m telling you, this is only just starting. Soon they’ll be coming for all of us.” He looked at Nicolai, silently asking for backup. “We need to put these pricks down before it’s too late.”

Nicolai opened his mouth to say something- exactly what he didn’t know- when he was saved by interruption. “For the last time, Kash, we’re Peace Officers, not a goddamn SWAT team.” Inspector Raymond walked purposefully through the door, crossing to his usual spot at the front of the room. He was an older man with a goatee, white-haired and a bit soft around the edges, but still sharp where it mattered.

“I know that, sir, but Peace Sticks aren’t gonna cut it if the-”

“We don’t use weapons on passengers, and we certainly don’t risk punching holes in the hull,” he replied, shutting down Kash. He tapped on his screen, throwing images to the big board. The Peace Officers settled in, including Kash, who begrudgingly took his seat.

The first image was of Baptiste Marlow, the young teacher himself. “Alright. Based on the condition of the arm, and the violent nature of its removal, Doctor Hannigan has informed us that she believes Marlow to be…deceased.” The room murmured once again. “However, until we find an actual body we are treating this as a missing persons case and nothing more. I don’t want to start a panic by making people think a murder has occurred when we have no way of knowing that. Understood?”

Everyone agreed.

“Good. Now, from what we can gather, Marlow didn’t have much in the way of close connections, so our suspect pool is a bit on the shallow side.”

“Is it safe to say his father is at the top of the list,” Officer Wolfe asked, cracking his knuckles. When it came to testosterone, Wolfe accounted for half the room’s total. He was the kind of guy whose biceps liked to breathe.

The Inspector frowned. “I’ve known Randal Marlow for years. He’s troubled, but he loves his son. Also he’s barely able to hold his head up let alone make his son disappear. Still, we can’t rule him out.”

“What I want to know is, why was Baptiste on Seventeen in the first place,” Officer Trent asked. The short black man was the newest Peace Officer in the room, still trying to prove himself.

“It’s an excellent question,” Inspector Raymond nodded, “and all I can tell you is, as of right now, we don’t know. Nakajima has been going through his personal messages. Song and Eckstein turned his quarters inside-out. So far they haven’t turned up anything.” The Officers all took turns verifying what the Inspector had said.

“What about his tracker? Maybe we can see who he was with,” Trent suggested.

“That would be very helpful, if the Privacy Laws didn’t prevent us from activating them outside of an emergency.” It wasn’t the first time the laws had gotten in the way of an investigation, but that was the price for avoiding constant location tracking. Having one’s every movement recorded and filed didn’t sit well with people. They enjoyed their privacy, even if it meant not being entirely covered by the Ark’s electronic security blanket. Inspector Raymond threw the next two images to the big board: the arm, followed by the broken vent where it had been recovered. A few Officers squirmed in their seats at the sight of the injuries to Baptiste’s arm. Deep lacerations. Severed tendons and splintered bone.

“As you can see, this was no clean removal- it was a vicious attack.”

“Whoever removed the arm didn’t want us to find the rest of him,” Officer Gadhavi suggested, and everyone nodded. That it was the arm containing Baptiste’s tracker didn’t seem like a coincidence to anyone.

“Then why remove it at all,” Nicolai finally spoke up. Everyone in the room turned around to see him. Inspector Raymond straightened up to address Nicolai.

“What’s on your mind, son?”

Nicolai paused a moment, gathering his thoughts. “It’s just…look, if someone really wanted Baptiste to disappear, why leave behind his tracker? They could have removed it. Shorted it out. Everyone on this ship knows how easy it is to destroy a tracker. Some of us have even done it by mistake, rough-housing as kids. Instead they leave it in a vent with easy access, with a trail of broken machinery leading right to it?” Nicolai looked around the room. “Even if someone hadn’t found it first, eventually Baptiste would have gone missing. We would have turned on the tracker.”

“What’s your point,” the Inspector prodded.

“That someone wanted us to find it.”

Everyone turned back to the Inspector to hear his response. “Alright. Clearly we have more questions than answers here- let’s start turning those numbers around.”

The meeting ended a few minutes later. After the Inspector had reiterated his orders to above all maintain calm on the Ark, every Peace Officer left determined to do his part in finding the missing teacher and, if necessary, punishing whoever was responsible. Nicolai headed back to his desk while reading Doctor Hannigan’s initial report. His face buried in his screen, he caught sight of someone waiting at the front desk out of the corner of his eye.

It was Erick Desanto, the Mechanic who had discovered the arm. He was also the man Nicolai and Kash had chased halfway across Deck Two before Kash decided to jam his Peace Stick in the back of the guy’s head- though to be fair, the guy was waving an electroknife. No one liked a coincidence, least of all Peace Officers with a possible murder on their hands, but enough people had vouched for Desanto’s whereabouts that he wasn’t at the top of the suspect list when it came to the case of Baptiste Marlow.

He also currently looked like shit. “You didn’t have to come in, we already took your statement,” Nicolai said as he approached the front desk. Desanto looked up at him with deep bags under his eyes, stress lines visible in the sunken sockets.

“There’s something I left out.”

“I’m listening.”

Desanto’s mouth shook as he got the words out. “I think I killed him.”

 

\^/

 

It had been a long day, and it was about to get longer.

Finding that arm had set off a five-alarm, three ring circus of people running around and panicking, calling Peace Officers, taking photos, telling each other what they’d seen and what they hadn’t seen and how they saw it and what they heard. The whole scene looked like a colony of ants that had discovered a lollipop dropped by some crying kid. At the center of it all, Desanto sat numb on a storage case and gave his statement while Gunnar promised him he wouldn’t let anyone pin it on him.

But Desanto knew the truth: somehow, in some way he wasn’t certain, he was responsible.

Desanto remembered the man sitting across from him. He was one of the two Officers who had hunted him like a dog the day he’d been thawed, though at least he had the benefit of not being the other one, Kash. Nicolai, his tag read. He seemed better than Kash, not as hostile, but Desanto still didn’t want to trust him. The Officer listened to Desanto recount his story, every bit of it, the chase, the pain, the screams, the dragging, all the things he’d stayed quiet on the first time around. At the end of the story, Nicolai simply told Sunn to stop recording and folded his hands on the desk between them. “I appreciate you coming forward with this,” he said, “there’s just one problem.”

“What?”

“You didn’t do it.”

Desanto paused. “What are you talking about?”

Officer Nicolai slid his screen across the desk. On it was a medical report, an update to an earlier one, time-stamped just a few minutes prior. “The Doctor’s analysis came in. Wounds on the arm weren’t done by any human. Those cuts you saw, the lacerations, they were tooth and claw marks.” He pointed out the corresponding sentences. Desanto caught sight of Doctor Hannigan’s name at the top of the report.

“But I remember-”

“A nightmare. We don’t punish people for bad dreams.”

Desanto read the lines again, shaking his head. “No. I’m sorry but I know I did this.” His leg was shaking now, his teeth grinding against each other.

“I’m sure it felt very real, but unless you can show me some fangs or a set of claws-”

“This isn’t a joke. You have to lock me up, if you don’t someone else will get hurt.”

Officer Nicolai took a deep breath, as if deciding what to do with Desanto. He stood from his desk and said, “Come with me.”

Desanto followed him out of the station and to the elevators. A few minutes later they were in the Medbay, in a specialized Coroner room not far from where Desanto had been thawed. Officer Kash had come along for the ride, much to Desanto’s disappointment. The shorter man had wasted no time being an irritating prick. He kept asking Desanto if he was a religious man, a fanatic, perhaps, but Desanto had no idea what he was talking about.

The Coroner facilities looked brand new, like they’d barely been used. It should have been a comforting thought to know that death rarely visited the Ark, but any comfort was fleeting considering the nature of their visit. Doctor Hannigan stood next to the specimen freezer, her red hair the only touch of color in the otherwise gunmetal room, and repeated her findings to the three men. She seemed shaken, as if her logic, her scientific thinking were being strained. Hannigan hesitated with her finger on the screen as she glanced back at the dread-filled look on Desanto’s face. “Are you sure about this,” she asked, understanding it might be difficult for him.

“It’s alright, Doc,” Nicolai urged her on.

“Nothing he hasn’t seen,” Kash added. She frowned at the inconsiderate Officer and pressed a few buttons. Desanto had spent so much of the day thinking about that arm that it had taken on a life of its own. He half-expected the limb to crawl out and come after him on leg-like fingers, so he was relieved when the specimen freezer’s drawer opened and the contents simply stayed where they were. Frozen. Dead.

“As I said initially, the nature of the injuries suggests an attack of some kind, especially the way in which it was separated from the body. It was, for the lack of a better word, messy.”

But that wasn’t the most telling aspect. Cleaned of blood, the strange markings on the arm were striking, a collection of deep, piercing cuts applied with incredible force, according to Hannigan. They were without a doubt not the result of a human attack. Desanto felt a pull of relief at the words, especially coming from Doctor Hannigan, but the truth of what he’d seen still lingered in his mind’s eye.

“What could have done this,” Officer Nicolai asked.

“I had Sunn come up with a few models based on the wounds.” Hannigan pulled up the file on her screen and projected the holograms. An incomplete picture floated between her and the men: four, massive claws, two with serrated edges and two without. They were, she explained through the light, rendered to scale.

Nicolai spun the closest claw, watching it dance in place. “Sunn,” he called, “what animal on board has claws this size?” Sunn appeared to their left. Desanto was sandwiched between his two least favorite people- though person was a bit of a stretch for either Sunn or Kash.

“There are no matching animals on board,” Sunn replied succinctly.

“What about one that isn’t on board?”

Sunn tilted his head. “I do not understand the question.”

“Regardless of the Ark’s population, what has claws like that?”

He processed the inquiry. “Inconclusive.”

Nicolai turned to Kash. “We need to check the environments,” he said. Kash shrugged, annoyed to have to do more work, especially work that seemed to follow a theory he didn’t agree with. Ready to leave, Nicolai turned to Desanto. “Are you satisfied?”

He wasn’t, but he nodded just the same.

“Not everyone would have turned themselves in. Remember that,” Nicolai said. He turned finally to Hannigan. “Thank you, Doctor,” he said, and exited with Kash. As they walked down the hall, Kash could be heard bitching about the need to arm themselves.

Doctor Hannigan smiled weakly at Desanto. “You’ve had an eventful few days.”

“Tell me about it. I keep hoping to wake up in your bed.” The moment the words left his lips, he realized what he’d said. He got flustered and added, “In the Medbay, I mean. Like it’s all a dream.”

Hannigan seemed amused by his flub. She pushed the hair over her ear and moved on, sparing him from further embarrassment. “Have any more of your memories returned?”

“Just a few flashes. Some details from work.” He paused. “Other things. Doctor Dubicki cleared me for work, so that’s good.”

“Work isn’t everything. You do have a life.”

“So I’m told. I was trying to get on with it until…” He trailed off, nodding to the frozen arm.

“Try again,” she said, “and keep seeing Dubicki. That’s Doctor’s orders.”

Desanto promised to pay a visit to the Psych Doctor, even if he doubted its usefulness. Before he left he decided to broach the subject he’d been meaning to for a week now. “I don’t know what they have in the way of drinks on this ship, but I could really use one. How about you?”

A faint blush crossed her face. “You’re my patient. It might be considered inappropriate.”

“Isn’t everyone on board your patient?”

Hannigan shifted on her feet. “Well, yes.”

“Then by that thinking you’re never allowed to do anything.”

“I took an oath to put the passengers of this ship first.”

“I’m told work isn’t everything.”

She smiled. “I’ll take a rain check. For now,” she added.

It would have to do. Suddenly Desanto realized someone else was in the room with them. They’d forgotten about Sunn, the hologram watching them silently from the other side of the room through their entire conversation. “Don’t you have a bed to hide under,” Desanto asked him.

“I do not understand the question.”

Doctor Hannigan chuckled. “That’ll be all, Sunn,” she said a little more diplomatically. Sunn faded away, glancing at Desanto one last time as he went.

It was time for Desanto to leave, too. “See you around, Doctor,” he said.

“Yes. Hopefully under better circumstances.”

“I’ll drink to that,” he replied- though he doubted better circumstances were coming any time soon.