30. Chrysallidem

030chrysallidem

 

Ness Ashby was in the corner, not just unconscious but bound and sedated by the tentacles of a shapeless creature pumping neurotoxins into her system via hollow tubules needled under her skin. The emergency bioluminescence in the ceiling betrayed the truth of her condition. No longer hidden by holographic lighting, her skin was completely covered in interlocking patterns of red and white blotches.

“Is that…?”

“Titanaviridae,” Blackwood replied. “It’s truly a mystery how she came to carry the virus so far from Earth. Then again, the Gods do work in mysterious ways.”

Desanto had only seen the effects of the virus in old footage from Earth. It was shocking to see such clear evidence of it here, on the Ark, so far from where it belonged. Following the Cultists, the creatures and the very alive, very modified, very not-frozen Doctor standing in front of him, the presence of the virus that had doomed the Earth to die felt like a fourth and final kick to the ribs.

The sound of a phlegm-slick snarl drew his attention from the sick woman to the hyena-thing at Blackwood’s side. Desanto’s eyes wandered over its snakelike body, the thick mass of it shuffling with the undulations of millipede legs. “Why doesn’t it attack,” he asked.

“They beasts are mine to control.”

“But how?”

Doctor Blackwood pet the creature. The sound it made was somewhere between a laugh and a purr. “Come now, Erick, you ask questions to which you already know the answer.”

Desanto was about to argue when it struck him. “Engineered pheromones,” he said before he could stop himself. “Insect chemosensory receptors modified for mammal biology.”

How did he know that? And why did Blackwood look proud?

“That’s correct. The Ancient Ones pulled themselves apart to make our world, you see. I’m putting us back together.” Desanto’s knees wanted to give out under the weight of the man’s words. His head felt as if it would crack open. “I need to prove myself to them. I need to show them I can take my place among the Gods. I can only do that by speaking their language, the language of blood. My work is rudimentary compared to what they’re capable of, yet there’s beauty in my tributes.”

Desanto’s chest was on fire. “I didn’t see anything beautiful in what you did to that man,” he managed to choke out.

“Then you weren’t looking closely enough. Did you see the fine interweaving, the way I binded the hydrostatic and skeletal muscles?”

Somehow, he had.

“Da Vinci had his paint brush. I have chemical signals. Mozart had his piano. I have stem cells and blood vessels, an entire orchestra of tissue and nerve, all alive with new purpose.”

“That’s not what I saw,” Desanto said. “I saw an innocent man. A man in pain.”

Blackwood grinned. “As I said- mysterious ways.”

 

\^/

 

Imani pulled Cornelia’s leg from the tangle of pipes and ceiling that had trapped her beneath, careful not to hurt her friend any more than she already had been.

Cornelia’s leg bled from just below the knee, a deep scratch from sharp metal. Imani helped Cornelia to her feet and brushed the dust from her hair. “That was stupid of you,” she said. “Very stupid, but very brave.”

“I’ve had plenty of practice at the one- I figured I’d give the other a try.”

Imani smiled. She always liked when people surprised her.

The two women continued along the half-lit hallways of Deck Eleven. Soon they came to the ship’s Secondary Medbay, which as they found was mostly empty. It looked as if someone had been through very recently raiding the place for medical supplies.

“C’mon,” Imani motioned. “Let’s get you fixed up.” She closed the door behind them. There was no need risking an unwanted guest joining them. As she wrapped Cornelia’s leg with the last bit of Nanogauze in the place, she glanced up and noticed her friend was staring into the distance. “You okay,” she asked.

“Hmm?” Cornelia blinked, caught in a thought. “Sorry. I was just thinking about Leo,” she said, then added, “Officer Nicolai.”

“What about him?”

“I wish he was here. He’s good at keeping people safe. He could really help us with the farm.”

“Uh huh.”

Cornelia frowned. “What does that mean?”

“It means you still don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

Imani stood. “Don’t think I don’t see the looks you give him. You have it bad for that boy.”

Cornelia laughed. “You’re crazy.”

“No, you’ve just been involved with that psycho ex of yours for so long, you forget what it’s like to actually be interested in someone.”

“Leo’s a good friend,” Cornelia assured her.

“Right. A friend you wouldn’t mind hopping into a shower pod with.”

Cornelia opened her mouth to argue, then stopped and tilted her head. “Well…if I had to,” she said.

It was Imani’s turn to laugh. She couldn’t help herself. Soon both of them were laughing, the two women clutching their sides as they tried not to make too much noise. The truth was they both needed this, a moment to break up all the darkness they’d been through. They allowed themselves to feel good, if even for a second.

When they were done laughing and felt sufficiently rested to continue their journey, they stuffed their pockets with pill packets, armed themselves with scalpels, and exited the Medbay.

“Jesus!” Imani screamed, face-to-face with a dark shape in the shadowy hallway. She nearly fell backward into Cornelia. She gripped the scalpel tight, prepared to use it.

“Nice to see you, too,” the stranger said. It was a woman’s voice. Not just a woman’s voice, in fact- Abigail’s. Imani sighed, her body flooded with relief.

“Sweet lord, am I glad it’s you,” she said. “Are you alright?”

“Just peachy. What are you two doing?”

“Wrapping up my leg,” Cornelia replied, showing the bandage. “We were heading to the farm and ran into…something,” she summarized.

“Yeah, there’s a whole lot of somethings running around today.” Abigail held up a knife she’d clearly taken from a Cultist. Then she turned and looked back the way she’d come. “Oh, crap,” she sighed.

“What’s wrong,” Imani asked.

“There was a kid with me a second ago.”

Cornelia squinted. “What kid?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t get his name.”

“He wouldn’t give it to you?”

“I didn’t ask.” She glanced at Imani. “Don’t look at me like that. I had more important things to worry about than exchanging pleasantries with some kid in a backpack.”

Imani shook her head. There was a moment’s pause, then Cornelia asked: “Was it red?”

“Good guess.”

She already knew where this was going. “Did he have dark hair and light eyes,” Cornelia continued. Abigail’s eyebrows raised up on her face.

“Oh, so you know him. Do me a favor, next time you see him, tell him he’s welcome for the thankless escort mission.”

Cornelia looked at Imani. There were tears in the woman’s eyes. Imani raised a concerned hand. “Cornelia,” she said, “don’t do this.”

With no further warning Cornelia suddenly broke into a run, heading the way Abigail had come. Her shoes padded off into the darkness until the shadows swallowed her up. “What the fuck was that about,” Abigail asked, looking completely confused.

“She thinks it’s Thomas,” Imani sighed.

“Who’s Thomas?”

“Her son,” Imani replied, turning to Abigail. “Her dead son.”

 

\^/

 

Zane stared into the shadows. The shadows stared back.

There were things there, fattened things, slippery from the blood of their kill. Whatever the corpse belonged to, man, woman, child or animal, it was too much of a mess to properly identify. That didn’t stop the abnormal ones from enjoying it. Chewing it. Rolling around in its gore. Falling asleep lazily in it like a warm, blasphemous nest.

Zane had locked eyes with the one conscious abnormal one as he came around the corner. The group had made good time on their way toward the Computer Room, but this jeopardized everything. Zane put his hand out to stop the rest of the men and women trailing behind him, and they listened.

The monster’s eyes stabbed into him. Willing him to drop his guard. He had enough sense and instinct to know the moment he broke eye contact or, God forbid, turned his back, the demon would rush forward and use- what were those, mantis talons? Bone scythes?- on his weak flesh. He motioned for the group to continue past him, which they did, slowly and one at a time. When the woman who’d questioned his orders passed by, his hand shot out and grabbed her by the arm.

“Stay with me,” he said, his voice at a near-whisper. He motioned for Colton and the others to continue on. They would catch up in a few minutes. When they were alone, just him, the woman, and the pair of black, blinking eyes watching him from atop the defiled corpse, he asked for her name.

“Evelyn,” she said cautiously.

“Evelyn. What a beautiful name. Do you know why Captain Douglas made me his successor, Evelyn? Do you understand why he anointed me Keeper of the Word?” He kept his voice down to keep from alarming the abnormal one less than ten feet away. It worked. The monster’s eyes blinked heavy, growing sleepy like the others.

“You were the strongest believer,” Evelyn replied. There was resentment there. She was barely breathing.

“That’s what we tell the others. Do you know the real reason?” She shook her head. “Because, Evelyn, I have the least attachment to bodily flesh. I’m the only one strong enough to make the necessary sacrifices for the good of the Children. And I proved that when I killed Captain Douglas.”

She blinked. “What?”

“A little poison in a man’s morning coffee does wonders. I really recommend it. You can sit by their bedside and watch them die, and in the end they’ll actually thank you for your loyalty.” Evelyn’s face had frozen in a look of fully-realized horror. “See that look in your eye,” Zane asked. “That’s what tells me you don’t have what it takes to make the sacrifices.”

“You’re…you’re a…”

“Monster? Murderer? No. I’m the strongest believer, Evelyn, you said it yourself, just not the things you believe in. Much more, and much bigger. My greatest belief, in fact, is this…”

Evelyn pulled the ceremonial knife from her belt, rushing to use it on him before he could draw his. He grabbed her by her wrist, stopping the tip of the blade from piercing his belly. He quickly overpowered her and turned the blade back on her. With a hard push of her wrist he drove the blade deep into her own gut.

“If you can’t make the sacrifices,” Zane said calmly, “you become one.”

The abnormal one watched them with drowsy interest as Evelyn gasped for breath, blood bubbling up from her throat when she tried to curse Zane’s name. More blood-coated monsters were beginning to wake. Evelyn’s death rattle was their alarm clock.

Before she slipped away completely, Zane pushed her to the waiting abnormal ones. A peace offering of sorts. They started in on her as he ran. He felt reassured that they would be occupied for some time.

Zane rejoined his people, the loyal Children of Eden, in the ship’s Computer Room, a place that gave him the feeling of being a tiny and insignificant byte of data lost inside a vast network. The group was gathered near the back, by the main server that carried Sunn’s code. It was also where one of their people had planted the Mining Charge just hours earlier.

“Where’s Evelyn,” Colton was the first to ask. Zane placed a consoling hand on the man’s tree of an arm.

“She sacrificed herself. For us.” Colton nodded grimly. “So, did you manage to stop the timer?” Colton opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t.

“We can’t,” someone spoke for him.

“Why not?” Zane scowled, shoving his way through the crowd before the man could answer. Where there should have been a black case, there was nothing. No case. No Mining Charge. Nothing but servers.

Their bomb was gone.

 

\^/

 

“I must admit, the teacher was more of an example than true work,” Blackwood said, petting the hyena-thing at his side. “You could say the teacher became the lesson. Ecce agnus Dei.”

“Behold the lamb of God,” Desanto said automatically. He still didn’t know how he understood Latin. Blackwood seemed to have an affinity for it as well. “Why him? What did Baptiste do to deserve that?”

Blackwood stopped stroking the long-faced creature. He stared into Desanto like the beam of an electron microscope. “The reason, if you must have one, is that he was sniffing around in my files, and I don’t take the prying of eyes lightly. You’ll find I’m a man who enjoys every aspect of his freedom.” He made his way over to Ness as he spoke, gently touching the unconscious woman’s face. “It’s incredible, you know. What one can do, the things he can accomplish given enough freedom. That’s precisely what I’ve discovered all the way out here. The freedom to do my life’s work. The unrestrained, unhindered opportunity to explore the inherent possibilities that lie within our biologies.”

“Aren’t you afraid of contracting the virus,” Desanto asked.

“I’m not afraid of anything.” Blackwood pushed Ness’ face away, approaching the glass. “Do you know what the greatest freedom of all is, Erick?”

“Insanity?”

Blackwood smiled. “Time. Time has been the greatest boon to me. All this time, while the others have slept and dreamed their simple dreams, I’ve been awake, doing my work. I haven’t closed my eyes in a hundred years, because I don’t require it anymore. I refuse it.”

“No. That’s not possible. I saw your body in the Cryopod.”

Blackwood laughed, a sinister sound if Desanto had ever heard one. “What you saw was a lie- not unlike yourself.”

“What are you talking about?”

Blackwood placed the palm of his patchwork hand on the quarantine glass. The flesh was both human and inhuman, as if taken from a thousand different donors. The good Doctor lowered his gaze, staring into Desanto. “Come now, Erick- don’t pretend you haven’t figured out what you are.”

 

\^/

 

Will Miller knew very little about Officer Wolfe, but he did know this: the man scared the hell out of him.

In the last fifteen minutes, Will had seen Officer Wolfe dispatch enough monsters to fill a Brothers Grimm book. Not only was he good at it, he seemed to enjoy the act as well.

“Jump in whenever you want,” Officer Wolfe ribbed him.

“You’re doing fine on your own.”

Will was thankful they’d somehow ended up on the same side for the time being. Watching Officer Wolfe’s almost gleeful dance of death, he had grown more and more convinced that he should never, under any circumstances, share the truth of his Edenist affiliations with the Officer.

And yet, as they approached the hallway that would take Will to his quarters, where he hoped his family would be waiting for him, Will knew he never would have made the journey without the help of the man. He’d been lucky earlier. Cautious, but lucky. There was no doubt in his mind that within the last fifteen minutes, that luck would have run out. The two men rounded the final corner, mere yards from their destination.

The abnormal one was one he’d come across before. That same, waxen skeleton erupting with moth wings that trembled and shook was now perched on the chair in front of his doorway. It twitched away, perhaps cleaning its bony claws. This wasn’t just the same species as the one he’d seen earlier, no, it was the exact same specimen. Will had a trained eye for markings. It was what he did, who he was. The patterns on the wings were identical. “That is one ugly mother-fucker,” Officer Wolfe commented. Will tried to shush him but the abnormal one fluttered, turning its torso like a bag of shifting bones to see them.

That was when Will Miller saw it, what had the skeletal moth so busy. First he saw the woman’s arms, arms that had held him through long nights of self-doubt, with hands that had touched his face and patted his baby boy’s back. Then he saw the face. The barbed proboscis extending from the moth-creature’s face dripped blood. Not just any blood. Rebecca’s blood.

His wife’s blood.

Will didn’t remember running at the thing, but the next he knew it was gone and he found himself scooping Rebecca into his arms, trying to cover the hole in her neck with his trembling hand. Those eyes, eyes he’d fallen in and out of love with countless times, they looked up at him helplessly while her mouth, a mouth he hadn’t kissed in months, tried to speak. Only wet sounds came from there, and from the bleeding, hissing spaces between his fingers pressed against her throat.

When she was gone he still held her awhile. He pressed his head hard against hers, not wanting to pull away and look at her. Somehow that would make it real. Not looking at her, he could pretend there was still time to make things better. Still time to talk about their problems. Time to fix them. Eventually the blood stopped flowing and he let her go, resting her head peacefully against the back of the chair.

Will felt a numbness wash over him. This wasn’t what Zane had promised him, what the Children of Eden told him it would be like. His wife was dead and not coming back. He knew that now. It wasn’t the glorious thing they’d spoken of, it was painful and stark and brutal. It was permanent and cold.

The fine layer of dust covering her caught the emergency light, shimmering faintly. Officer Wolfe said something about being sorry. Will tried to think of what to say in return. All that came out was, “She waited for me.”

 

\^/

 

“Tell me, how much do you know about the cubes?”

Desanto blinked. “Gunnar mentioned them. He said they were a mystery.”

Blackwood bared his teeth. “Those idiots have been looking at them the wrong way. Geologists banging on them with little hammers. They treat them like rocks, when they are so, so much more. They are pieces of a map, Erick, left behind like breadcrumbs across space.”

“Left behind?” Desanto echoed.

“How often do perfect squares occur in nature?”

“They don’t. Gold has a cubic crystal form, so does sodium chloride, but not they’re perfect squares. Those don’t exist in nature. They’re…mathematical constructs.”

Blackwood nodded, pleased with the answer. “My work took a massive leap forward when those cubes were brought onto the ship. When I held one for myself, when I understood what it was I touched, my hands shook. These were the signs I’d been seeking. Why I’d received the divine communications calling me out to the stars. Humans mapped their genome long ago, you see, determined the sequence of nucleotide base pairs that made up their DNA. Then they did the same for every plant and animal on Earth. But what those cubes did, what they held inside them for anyone who looked closely enough, was the secret to life itself. Creating it. Joining it together. Just as the Ancient Ones intended.” The hyena-snake at the Doctor’s side yawned, offering Desanto a glimpse at the sleeping thing deep inside.

“That doesn’t explain what all this has to do with me,” Desanto said.

“Still asking questions to which you already know the answers. I know you hear it, Erick. The word that whispers in your dreams, that crawls through your veins when you listen close enough.”

“No.”

“Say it, boy. Say the word.”

Desanto shook his head, not wanting to comply. “Vessel,” he said.

Blackwood’s lips peeled back. “Ahh, but a vessel for what,” he asked. All the creatures present, at his side and restraining the woman, shivered in delight.

 

\^/

 

“Dad!”

A voice came from the distance, pulling Will out of the fog. For a moment he thought he’d imagined it, but he was amazed to see Theo, his beautiful boy, standing at the far end of the hallway. He was dirty, his shirt torn, but he was alive. Will turned to Officer Wolfe to ask if he saw the boy, too, but the man was already signaling for Will to go to his son. “I wouldn’t let him see this,” Officer Wolfe said, nodding to Rebecca.

The man had a point. A dozen thoughts went through Will’s mind at once, whether it might help the boy to process her death to see her, but he decided it might be too much too soon. Grief was one thing- trauma was quite another.

“Dad,” Theo shouted again, this time with greater urgency. Will ran to him, to his son, knowing a hard conversation was in their future, but that didn’t matter now. All that mattered was they would be together again. They could hurt together. Heal together. Rebuild together. No, they’d never had enough, never shared something substantial enough to rebuild. They would have to build something new together.

As Will got closer to Theo, passing door after door of his dead neighbors, the boy still stood in the same place, without any effort to meet him halfway. Will thought it was odd, wondering why he didn’t want to come forward, to reunite with his father that much quicker. Then he noticed there was something resting on his son’s foot. A wet tube of some kind. Not just resting. Moving around. Poking at him, as if to test him.

They were antennae, and they were attached to the largest Arthropod Will had ever seen, or possibly even a Panarthropod. It appeared at first to be a Velvet Worm, it’s purple-red flesh covered in millions of small bumps, yet from its rows of stubby feet there extended human hands of the same, purplish flesh. The hands undulated in unison, carrying the massive worm up Theo’s leg. Some kind of milky-white slime dripped from its oral papillae, a sight that brought the entire scene together for Will.

Theo, his boy, was covered in strands of something viscous. They criss-crossed his body, connecting him to the walls and floor by ropes of hardened slime. Theo struggled against them, but their hold was too strong for him to break free.

Theo hadn’t moved, not because he didn’t want to, but because he couldn’t.

Will ran toward him, toward them both, but before he could reach them the massive worm had folded and extended its body until it completely enveloped Theo where he stood. Theo shouted as the human hands revealed their retractable, chitinous double-claws.

Will reached them as the claws sunk into Theo’s helpless body. Theo screamed. Will threw himself on the two, trying with all his strength to pry them apart. The worm-thing drew more of itself up Theo until the boy collapsed to the floor, wrapped up tightly in the barbed, fleshy cocoon, and Will fell with them.

His boy, his screaming boy, called for his help. The worm’s surface was covered not in bumps but half-developed toes and fingers that acted as secretory vesicles. The more Will attempted to fight the worm, to pry it off his son, the more they excreted a slimy mucous that made its flesh impossible to grip. His hands found no traction. Desperate, Will wedged his fingers between the worm and his son, trying to achieve some kind of leverage to pull them apart.

Pain seared his hand. Will jerked it back, staring at his fingers. They sizzled and peeled before his eyes, chemical burns melting the skin. Then Theo screamed, louder than ever, desperate and suffering. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. Will reeled in horror as he realized Theo, his boy, was burning the way Will’s fingers were.

The worm was digesting him alive.

Officer Wolfe appeared at Will’s side, shouting something Will couldn’t make out. He jammed his Peace Stick into the worm’s sticky flesh, discharging the weapon. It had no effect. Some distant part of Will’s brain was fascinated by this, the insulating properties of the worm’s mucous, but he was too scared to pay it any attention. Theo was dying. His son was dying. And there was nothing he could do about it.

No. Not nothing. Will drew the knife from his belt and began to stab down on the massive, purple-red worm’s body. To both his horror and delight it squealed like a pig at each puncture. The edges of its grip on the boy began to lift up, and together, sweating and straining, Officer Wolfe using his Peace Stick as leverage and Will ignoring the pain of his burning hands, they pried the slimy, writhing creature off the boy.

As Wolfe wrestled it away and struggled to restrain it, Will dropped the knife and scooped his son up into his arms. The boy was still burning, still bleeding. No amount of prayer or help was going to stop that. Theo tried to speak. What eventually came out was, “I-I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Will whispered, rocking his son in his arms. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“I j-just…w-wanted to look at it,” Theo stuttered. His body began to shake, convulsions coming more violently as Will tried to still him, to comfort him somehow as the boy slipped into shock. Theo kicked, once, twice, then gasped as his body went stiff.

“Theo?”

Theo exhaled, the boy’s body relaxing in Will’s arms.

“Theo! Theo!”

The boy was gone. Will collapsed onto the boy, deep sobs taking his body as they never had before. He had never cried before that he could remember, not even when he should have. Will had never lost himself to the moment. It wasn’t in him, perhaps even now. And so he was still aware, even if only distantly, when Officer Wolfe approached, pausing for a moment before he picked up the knife Will had dropped.

 

\^/

 

Guilt wasn’t something Gunnar was used to feeling.

He’d tricked his best friend. After repeatedly saving each other’s asses, he had broken the trust between them when he’d handed Desanto the Comms device. “Microphone’s not functional, but the tracker still works,” he’d said, which of course was a lie. Both were working perfectly. The entire time Desanto had been in Captain Ashby’s quarters, while Doctor Hannigan paced nervously up and down the hall, Gunnar had been listening in on the conversation intently.

“Hello, Erick. My name is Doctor Howard Blackwood. I’ve been looking forward to this moment.”

Those words had nearly knocked Gunnar off his feet. They were preposterous, and yet he’d watched enough archival footage of Blackwood to know the man’s voice. It sounded different, strangely layered, which could have been blamed on a malfunctioning Comms device or perhaps a bad connection, if it weren’t for the fact that when Desanto eventually spoke, his voice broadcast perfectly.

Gunnar followed the conversation as it jumped from the Titan Virus of all things to the creatures running around on the Ark. It was ridiculous. Impossible. Blackwood couldn’t be walking around, the Doctor himself had demanded not to be thawed until the Ark reached the Trappist system, which meant even attempting to wake him up would have set off eighteen different kinds of alarms.

Gunnar shook himself from the thought, paying attention to the conversation in his ear. Blackwood seemed to be taking credit for the monsters, not just releasing them but creating them. If that was true, Creator or not, Desanto should have knocked the man’s teeth down his throat. Yet there they were, maintaining a civil conversation. Gunnar thought back to Desanto’s curiosity about Blackwood. The attack he’d had after seeing the Doctor’s Cryopod. What was it Desanto had said to him?

We’re all dead, and we just don’t know it yet.

“What are you doing,” Doctor Hannigan asked him. She’d noticed the look on his face.

“Nothing,” Gunnar waved her off. She frowned at him.

“You know something you’re not telling me.”

“Would you leave me alone? I’m thinking.”

“Don’t hurt yourself.”

Gunnar grumbled. “Here, take this and keep a lookout.” He removed the Combitool from his arm and handed it to the Doctor, who clumsily fitted it to her arm. He watched her walk away, testing the bionic arm, and shook his head. He didn’t want to miss anything important happening in the next room. Sure enough, when he pressed his finger to his ear, he caught the tail end of something Blackwood had just said.

“…Without me, your life has no purpose.”

Din kuksugar hora,” Gunnar cursed.

Movement caught his eye, and he glanced up. Captain Ashby stood ten feet in front of him, looking more determined and pissed off than normal. Not only was he surprised to see her, he was shocked to see what she had in her hands.

A gun. An actual gun. It looked like a Denial Rifle.

“Captain, where the helveta did you get that?”

“What are you doing here,” she asked, ignoring the question. She glanced suspiciously from him to the door, then back. Gunnar felt a little like a man standing between a grizzly bear and her cub.

“Keeping watch.”

Ashby nodded. “I appreciate that,” she said, moving to walk past him and into her quarters. He sucked in regretful air as he stepped into her way, blocking the path.

“Not for you. Sorry, Cap.”

Ashby looked at him incredulously. “Who’s in there?”

“Can’t tell you.”

She squinted at him. “Excuse me?”

“It’s Desanto,” Doctor Hannigan said. “Erick Desanto.”

“Desanto?” Ashby scoffed. “Tell me something, have you all lost your minds?”

“I actually hope so. It would explain a lot.”

Gunnar understood the Captain’s anger, but he’d also made a promise to Desanto not to let anyone in. Even though after what he’d heard through the Comms, he didn’t know how much to trust the guy. “He just needs a minute,” Gunnar offered, trying to bargain with the Captain.

“Step aside, Gunnar,” Ashby ordered.

He tried to put an understanding hand on her shoulder, but she knocked it away. Gunnar stepped back and showed her the palms of his hands. “Listen. With all due respect, ma’am, it’s been a while since I’ve hit a woman. I’d really like to keep the streak going if it’s alright with you.”

Captain Ashby struck him across the face with the butt of her rifle. Gunnar’s head jerked to the side, then slowly, slowly turned back to face her. “Maybe we should start over,” he offered with one last smile.

“If you don’t step aside by the count of three, you’ll be spending the rest of your journey in Cryo,” Ashby growled, “and that’s if I don’t throw you out the fucking airlock myself.”

Gunnar sighed. “Okay,” he said. Then he punched her square in the center of her face.

 

\^/

 

First Officer Oberlander did what he was told. He always did as he was told. One day the Ark was going to be his. Even if Captain Ashby was still Captain when they reached their destination- which until very recently was the likely outcome, now everything, even their survival, was in doubt- the plan was to continue to operate the landed ship under the standard tree of command. Even as their society was built up and around the Ark, it would need a leader to make sure all went smoothly, because it wouldn’t just be a ship anymore- it would be the heart of their new world.

His orders were to secure the Bridge, and that’s just what he did. Rifle at his side, he checked every inch of the Bridge to make sure there were no weak points, no Comms devices listening in or weapons hidden by Hopes.

Speaking of Hopes, the former Officer had long ago regained consciousness. Propped awkwardly against the wall, his hands tied up, his face was a mask of dark and drying blood. Oberlander had to fight the urge to help the man up or clean his mouth. It was in his nature to help. But anytime he felt a pang of guilt for not tending to the man’s needs, he simply looked over at Pagani’s corpse and remembered that Hopes deserved any ounce of discomfort he felt.

“You can’t hide forever,” Hopes said through gummy, red-black lips.

“I’m securing the bridge. And I don’t have to do it forever, just long enough for Captain Ashby to regain control.”

“Regain control?” Hopes laughed, flecks of blood spraying his own uniform. “The Children of Eden have taken your ship from you. Even if we fail, the abnormal ones will slaughter us all. There’s no coming back.”

“I’m not having this conversation with you.”

“Then have it with yourself, Oberlander, it’s happening.”

“Shut up.”

“There’s still time to join us. There’s still time to save your soul.”

Oberlander raised his gun. “I said shut up!”

A noise came just then, drawing the attention of both men. It seemed to be coming from behind the closed elevator door. It started with a bang, then a low, drawn out hissing sound from deep within the elevator shaft.

“They’re coming,” Hopes said with a smile. As much as Oberlander didn’t want to admit it, he knew the man was right. Someone was coming. The question was who, or what, it was. “I told you, you can’t hide forever,” Hopes wheezed, laughing again.

As the hissing sound grew louder, it became clear to Oberlander just what it was: someone was cutting through metal. Cutting their way in.

Oberlander picked out a spot with some cover, just behind the Captain’s chair. He trained his rifle on the elevator door, steadied it as best he could, and waited.

 

\^/

 

Doctor Hannigan stood back and let Gunnar and Captain Ashby fight it out. It wasn’t easy to stay out of their way. Their brawl took them all over, against the wall, down a bit, then back. Gunnar made sure to keep the Captain away from the door, as well as the gun she’d dropped at the start of the fight. Hannigan had expected for Gunnar to hold back on account of Ashby being a woman, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Gunnar’s fists didn’t seem to discriminate.

Captain Ashby had experience on her side, not just extra years but hours in the gym. Hannigan had seen the woman plenty of times hitting the bag between stints on the treadmill. She was in good form, whereas Gunnar had natural size and the muscles that came from working with one’s hands all day.

In the end, experience and training won out. Ashby knocked Gunnar on his ass with a knee to the solar plexus followed by a strike across his face. Gunnar crumpled, went limp. Captain Ashby stood over him catching her breath.

When she stepped past him, to resume her way into her quarters, she found one Doctor Cybele Hannigan standing in her way- the Combitool on her arm powered on.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” she said, “but it’s like Gunnar told you: we need you to wait.”

Captain Ashby sighed. “You’re disappointing me, Doctor Hannigan.”

“There’s a lot of that going around.” She glanced at Gunnar. Still out cold. She just needed to buy some time until he came to, a minute at most. Captain Ashby took a step forward. Hannigan raised the Combitool defensively, stopping the woman, and Ashby scowled at her.

“What’s your play here, Hannigan? Why are you siding with these two?”

“Erick saved my life, and I owe him for that. I don’t know whatever the hell is going on around here, but I do know that.”

“I see. Well here’s what I know: my wife is in there,” she pointed to the door, “and no one, especially not some snot-nosed Doctor, is going to stop me from reaching her.”

The Captain suddenly advanced on Hannigan, moving fast. Hannigan tried to fight back, to swing the heavy arm tool at her, but Ashby caught it before it made contact. With a quick press of a button Ashby disengaged the Combitool, then ripped it off the Doctor’s arm.

“Two lessons. One: don’t hold a weapon unless you know how to use it,” Ashby said, throwing the disengaged tool to the side. “And two: don’t ever raise one to me again.”

 

\^/

 

Kash couldn’t believe his luck. He and Dez- still a loser- had managed to carry Monika all the way down to the lowest level of the ship, where the map on Dez’s wrist had led them, without running into a single demon spawn. They’d heard plenty of things, sure, screams and whispers and crawling, but not one creature had come close or tried to attack. If Kash was the superstitious type- which he wasn’t- he’d be tempted to say someone above was looking out for them. A guardian angel of sorts, clearing the path to aid in their mission.

The problem was, the lowest level on the Ark was nothing but Storage last he checked. He looked up at the massive stacks on either side of them, lit by strips of Bioluminescence and the light coming from Kash’s chest, and wondered why they’d been brought there. Dez still kept a fast pace ahead of him, even with Monika in his arms weighing him down. He was desperate to get help for his wife, and it showed. Kash cleared his throat to say what had to be said.

“So these definitely aren’t the Genlabs.”

Dez glanced at the screen on his wrist. “Map shows something ahead.”

“Okay, but what?”

“I don’t know,” Dez admitted. “It’s just a little further.” The man was stubborn, blind even, not able to see the truth in front of him. Yet Kash would be the same way in his shoes, even if he would never, under any circumstances, up to and including torture, say it aloud.

They walked further on, trudging through the dark canyons of Storage, until they reached the end. The blank wall ahead of them held no doors, no buttons, yet when Dez checked again he found it was exactly where the map had led them. It made no sense. Either Sunn had malfunctioned, or he’d deliberately sent them on a fruitless mission.

“Now what,” Kash asked.

Dez looked like he was going to cry or scream, and possibly both. Instead he gathered himself and called out, “We’re here!”

Only silence answered him. At first. Then a series of clicks and whirs stirred from deep within the wall. The two men stepped back as a door formed and opened, revealing a large set of stairs that went down, down into the dark.

Kash looked over at Dez. “What is this?”

“A door,” Dez replied.

“Fuck off, I mean what’s going on here?”

“We’re helping Monika.”

“Wherever this goes, I’ve never seen it before.”

As Kash watched, Monika’s eyes fluttered open. She looked up into her husband’s face. “Desmond,” she said weakly.

“I’m here, baby. I’m here.”

“Phoebe. She-”

“I told you I’ll find her. That’s a promise.”

“She did this.”

“Did what?”

Monika’s eyes rolled back in her head. Her face went slack, losing the rest of its color. Dez shook her, shouting her name, but she didn’t stir, didn’t respond. Kash pressed a finger to her burnt neck and counted.

“Her pulse is slipping.”

“We have to do something quick,” Dez said, panic constricting his voice. They both looked to the open door ahead of them. “It’s now or never,” Dez added.

“You call those choices?”

“I don’t think there ever was a choice.”

Kash was silent a moment. Then he said, “God damn it.”

The two men slowly moved forward, past the threshold and to the top of the stairs, where strange noises drifted up to them from the shadows. It didn’t sound like any Genlab Kash had ever set foot in. Every muscle in his tired body wanted to turn around and run from that place, but the simple truth was Monika was dying. Her only hope was with Sunn and his promise to fix her. And yet there was still something about that promise, the message back in the Medlab, that bothered him.

Before he could give it any more thought, the door shut behind them, closing off the way back.

 

\^/

 

After retrieving her gun, Captain Ashby finally opened the door to her quarters.

It was dark inside. Quiet. She entered slowly, her gun at the ready, listening for any sign of Desanto or her wife. She turned on her light to help her see.

“Ness?” She called out to the dark. No response came.

Ashby turned left, toward the quarantined area. She approached the room with only her chest light to see by, jagged shadows lurching ahead of her, including the barrel of her rifle.

Strange sounds slipped through the shadows. Shifting and shuffling. She raised her gun , again called out to her wife. Again there was no response.

She turned the corner. Something came at her. Fast. A shape. A man. She squeezed the trigger. “Wait!” Someone shouted as the weapon went off. A discharge of energy.

The man crumpled to the floor at her feet. She backed up, held the gun tight, her light shining down on whoever she’d hit. Energy crackled on the air.

Erick Desanto lay on the floor. His eyes were still, staring up into nothing. He had no weapons on him. Ashby turned to check the quarantine, her light playing across the glass.

She gasped at the sight. Her finger loosened on the rifle’s trigger, the weapon nearly falling from her grasp.

Her wife was gone.

Ness was gone.

 

\^/

 

As Erick Desanto fell into the void, the words of Doctor Howard Blackwood pulled him down like a vacuum.

“Without me you don’t exist. Without me your life has no purpose.”

Erick had sought the truth, because the truth was supposed to be everything. It was supposed to set him free. But it didn’t feel like freedom. It felt like opening a cage to reveal an even larger cage.

The truth felt like squeezing fingers around his heart.

“You act as if you and I are enemies, Erick, but that couldn’t be further from reality. We are one, you and I. I am your past, as you are my future.”

Distant, ghostly, like a movie projected on the surface of a long-dead ocean, he watched the face of a heartbroken woman let out a scream so primal he felt it in his poisoned blood, blood that wasn’t his own.

“You want to know what you’re a vessel for, Erick? The answer is me.”

Colder and colder, slipping back to the darkness that had borne him.

“The answer has always been me.”

29. Occursum

029occursum

 

As the last of the tremors from the second explosion died down, Zane checked the screen on his wrist. “Right on time,” he said to himself.

Zane and Drew Colton, the largest Child of Eden but certainly not the brightest, had just managed to get out of the Mining level before it locked down. Now they were rounding up all the fellow Children they could find, which after some thirty minutes had amounted to exactly six men and three women. They found a secure room to gather themselves in, deciding they needed to rest for a few minutes and gather their strength.

Ever since the Founder himself had been blessed with the vision that drove him to form the Children of Eden, they had been working toward this day. Praying for it. Working toward it. It was the day they made their intentions clear to God, their way of saying to him they no longer wished to follow this false path, a way of asking him to pluck them from the eternal emptiness and cast them into the purifying light of Eden. A unified goal, that was the gift given to them by the Founder, though others knew him by a different name.

J.B. Douglas, Former Captain of Ark One.

Captain Douglas had been working toward the Reclamation when he fell ill, forcing him to retire not only from his post as Captain, but that of Keeper of the Word. His First Officer had been a promising, young woman named Jennifer Ashby who, try as he might, never showed any interest in allowing the word of God into her heart. The great disappointment of J.B. Douglas’ life had been that of dying before Ashby could be turned into a believer, leaving his believed Ark to the heretics. His final instructions to Zane, his second in command not on the ship but with the Children of Eden, his last words as he lay dying on a Medbed, were to continue trying to win over the new Captain.

“And if that didn’t work,” he said, “take the damn ship from her.”

Douglas had even recorded a video documenting his wishes for the future of Ark One. Zane had been planning to play it for the passengers once he had them rounded up and calmed down. That was until everything fell apart. Before the abnormal ones surfaced. Then everything had changed.

The other Children didn’t understand how Howard Blackwood was leading the abnormal ones from his Cryopod. To them it spoke to the true evil of the man that he was capable of such things, that he could command an army of demons even while frozen in Cryosleep. But Zane knew the truth about Blackwood. He knew how the man came and went, how he operated in the shadows, but he let the others have their superstitions about the man.

It served his purposes just fine.

The new struggle the Children of Eden faced was two-fold: not only did they have to overcome the resistance of the Ark’s passengers to their dream of the Reclamation, now they had to survive the onslaught of hungry creatures currently spreading through the ship. Luckily, before Captain Douglas died he’d told Zane all about the Bridge’s little secret. How there was an Armory hidden in its walls. An Armory Zane very much planned to seize.

“The Reclamation,” one of the Children finally spoke, an incredible sadness weighing down his voice. “It’s ruined.”

“This wasn’t how it was written,” another said.

One of the women in the group turned to Zane. “What now? What do we do?”

Zane looked at the small group, all of them staring at him, waiting for his next command. “To be completely honest with you,” he said, “I’m deeply troubled. I’m troubled because I know exactly what we have to do, but I’m not sure you all have the resolve to see it through.”

The group began to plead with him. Zane tried not to smile. It felt good to be needed. To be needed was to be loved.

He looked each of them in the eye and said, quite simply, “We need to save the ship.”

They murmured, caught off-guard. “What do you mean save it,” the same woman asked.

Zane stood before them. This was the day he’d been born for. “Our holy day has been interrupted, that’s true, but it’s not over yet. We can still lead the passengers of this ship back to the true path. Don’t you see they need us? Their souls need saving, now more than ever.” He looked around the room. “God has shown us the way, fellow Children. If we save the Ark from the abnormal ones, if we stop Blackwood’s evil plan, the passengers of this ship will see us for the saviors we are.”

They all talked at once, excited. Then the woman said, “What about the ones who don’t see us that way? We just set off two Mining charges, some of them won’t forget so easily.”

Zane smiled. “Simple- they’ll be the first sacrifices.” The others nodded and smiled, though the woman didn’t seem convinced.

Already a plan was forming in Zane’s mind. There was one more charge on the ship, the bomb that would take out the Ark’s brain, permanently deleting Sunn from existence. At the time it had been necessary to ensure the Ark would never again resume its fruitless journey, but now, now they needed to reach the charge before it went off, not just to buy themselves time, but to put it to better use.

“The Ark needs to die, yes, but not like this. Not crawling with abnormal ones. It was meant to rot on the wind, not choke to death riddled with cancer. Come, join me, Children- let us be its saviors.”

Rejuvenated, they prepared for the journey. Officer Hopes’ mission had been to secure the Bridge and access the Armory, but Hopes had failed to check in before the second Mining Charge took out the comms system. Zane ordered three Children to travel up to the Bridge and ensure the Armory’s capture. Then he, Drew Colton and the rest of the group headed toward Deck Three to see about the bomb.

As they traveled, slowly and with knives ready, Zane eyed the woman who had questioned him. She was whispering something to one of the other Children, who had an unsure look on his face.

Something would have to be done about her.

 

\^/

 

Cornelia and Imani tried not to think about the things they’d seen. The monsters crawling toward them. The fellow passengers torn to bloody shreds. If they were going to survive the day, if they were going to keep their sanity about them, they agreed it would only be by serving a purpose, by focusing all their energy on one thought, and one mission. That mission would be to secure the farm. Protect the animals, they decided, to protect the future.

The two women had been slowly making their way down the Ark, ducking from room to room and stairway to stairway for what felt like hours, when they finally reached Deck Eleven. They still had a ways to go, the Farm located on the opposite end of the deck. They decided to take a shortcut through Food Processing despite that section’s apparent lack of working emergency lights.

It was a decision they quickly regretted. Even with the Bio-Flashlight they’d found in a cleaning closet, the Food Processing area was too cluttered to offer a clear view to the other side. The wide open room was fitted with dozens of specialized machines that, on any given day, were responsible for the mincing, macerating, liquefaction, emulsification, cooking, pickling, pasteurizing and preserving of every ingredient harvested from the Farms, Water Environments and even the Genlabs on board. Now it was little more than a sea of shadows and brushed metal hiding spots for monsters both real and imagined.

As the women slowly weaved through the processing machines, Imani in front wielding the Bio-flashlight like a hopeful weapon, they noticed the ceiling ahead had collapsed in places, wires and light fixtures hanging loose. “That second blast must have been right above us,” Cornelia said.

“There’s nothing above us but Environments.” Imani swept the light across the badly damaged Deck, looking for the exit.

“Then what could have done this?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. The only thing that matters right now is getting back to the farm.”

“Yeah, before we buy the farm,” Cornelia joked under her breath. The flashlight flickered, the Bioluminescence dying out. Imani slapped it against her palm.

“This is why no one uses these anymore,” she sighed.

“Give it to me, I know the trick,” Cornelia said, and Imani turned to hand over the light. As she did, the beam of fading light shone onto Cornelia’s shoulder for just a moment.

There was something on it. A shape. Imani jerked the light back to see. A cockroach the size of her fist rested on Cornelia’s shoulder, though it was no kind she’d seen before. Its shell looked more like scabbed over skin. It winced at the light, the hairs raising up on its fleshy back.

Just before the light cut out, plunging them into darkness, the cockroach spread its wings, hissing at Imani with a mouthful of human teeth.

 

\^/

 

Gunnar, Desanto and Doctor Hannigan made good progress from Deck Eight to the Living Quarters on Five with the help of their new friends. Dornier units Newton and Schrodinger, formerly fitted with modular oxygen and propellant attachments, flew ahead of them on silent mode, checking that the path was clear. The views from their eyes fed directly to Gunnar’s wrist, and he watched them carefully for any signs of danger.

The hallways were eerily quiet, free of passengers and creatures alike, though the three of them passed by plenty evidence that people had been there very recently. Their blood told incomplete stories, stories occasionally completed by corpses.

Desanto watched Gunnar carefully for reactions to his wrist feed. Only once did Gunnar stop and signal for them to turn around, silently as to not draw the attention of whatever he’d spotted up ahead. When they were far enough away, Desanto asked him what he’d seen.

“I’d really rather not talk about it,” Gunnar replied gravely. A lack of humor from him wasn’t just rare, it was downright unsettling.

Somewhere in the middle of Deck Six, the whispering started up again. Desanto knew by now the voices were coming from inside himself, and yet the effect of hearing his name drift from the lips of a half-eaten corpse was no less disturbing. As usual he continued on, pretending not to hear anything, both for the sake of company as well as his own sanity.

As if refusing to be ignored, the whispers became screams. The screams became white-hot light that shot through his eyes and lit up his brain like overloaded circuitry. His vision shattered into a kaleidoscope of images, crystalline horrors that assaulted his senses. Human eyes on snail antennae. Black, loosely-hinged jaws slipping through dark water. Blood moving through an opaque proboscis. Black tendrils tearing open flesh. The crack of a sternum and the wet puncture of a rib through lungs. And through it all, weaved into the visions like capillary vines, a terrible voice boomed, a thousand ancient sounds condensed into one, solitary nightmare.

“Hyaenidae Infitu Diplopoda,” the voice said. “Don’t be frightened of him, my dear.”

In a blink Desanto was back in the dark hallways. He glanced over at Doctor Hannigan, who looked back at him with her usual expression of concern.

“Are you alright,” the Doctor asked quietly.

“Absolutely not,” he replied.

 

\^/

 

Cornelia had felt something on her neck, but she’d dismissed it as nothing more than paranoia, a case of the creeps brought on by that dark place. After what they’d seen she wasn’t too hard on herself for letting her imagination run wild.

That was before Imani had shone the light on her, revealing the hissing ball of nightmares an inch from her face. A flash of teeth snapped at her, but with a scream and a wild slap she managed to knock the Mouthroach thing away, horrified by the weight of it on her hand.

The two of them ran in the dark, tripping and fumbling through the Food Processing Plant as they desperately sought the way out. Imani must have dropped the Bio-flashlight in the midst of panic. A beam of light spun behind them, the drop knocking a little more use out of it. Cornelia glanced back at the spinning light and saw, by the gaze of its rotation, the swarm of Mouthroaches pouring out of the half-crumbled ceiling. It was like a wound gushing infected blood.

The blackened room was a maze of metal and hissing and buzzing and, God help them, high-pitched grunts and cries. They navigated their own private death trap, chomping teeth following them all the way. The only comforting thought was that the insects couldn’t see them either, or at least Cornelia hoped.

She quickly became turned around and found herself separated from Imani, the thought of which sent a wave of panic through her body. She could hear Imani calling out to her in the dark, but she was too disoriented to determine the direction of the voice and how to reach it.

Cornelia slammed into a wall at full force. She saw lights, though not the helpful kind. Pain radiated through her bones. Feeling along the cold wall, sensing the air of nearby wings on her neck, her fingers found a control screen that blinked on at her touch. She pounded on the screen frantically, hoping one of the buttons would turn on the lights. Their only chance of staying alive would be to find the way out, and yet neither of them knew the place well enough to navigate it blind.

Instead of the lights, a mincing machine came to life less than twenty feet away. Then a second, this one across the room. The red and green warning lights of the machines were barely enough to see by, but they were something. Even better, the noise of their gears and motors starting seemed to attract the attention of the Mouthroaches. Most of the swarm had shifted focus, the chattering cloud descending on the machines.

Something large came at Cornelia from the darkness. She froze, expecting death to follow. Instead it was that beautiful face she’d never grown tired of seeing.

“Come on,” Imani whispered, “I think I found the way out.” She turned to lead the way, stepping back into the shadows. Cornelia breathed relief, ready to follow her friend into Hell itself. But first she glanced to her left, and she was thankful she had. A damp mop leaned against the wall next to a broken floor-cleaning drone. She left the drone but grabbed the mop, holding it with both hands in front of her, a fighting staff that stunk of black mold and stale disinfectant.

Imani and Cornelia crept between the machines, doing everything they could to stay silent. The swarm of Mouthroaches had nearly covered the two mincers, their fat, little bodies obscuring what little light was there. The sound of the insects grew angry as they must have realized the machines had no food for them. If Cornelia and Imani were lucky, at the pace they were going, they would be long gone by the time the Mouthroaches returned to their previous hunt.

But the machines had other plans. The entire assembly line of food processing equipment fired up now, a roomful of equipment chugging to life. Whether it was a Mouthroach that set them off or a program Cornelia had started wasn’t clear, yet it didn’t matter. The effect was the same. The room became a cacophony of lights and sounds, one that didn’t go unnoticed for long.

A set of swinging doors that led to the next processing area slammed open, causing the Mouthroaches to shriek and scatter into the air. A terrible silhouette appeared in the open doorway. It was a wide-faced, hairless man with bulging eyes on top of his head. Cornelia had never seen such a vile and slime-slick sight in all her time.

The misshapen creature hunched down on thick, muscular hind legs, blinking with two sets of translucent eyelids. It appeared to follow the wing-motion of the startled Mouthroaches. In a half-hop, half-run that unnerved Imani and Cornelia, the creature chased after the scattering roaches, using its darting bubble gum tongue to eat as many as it could. Cornelia’s skin crawled at the crunch of teeth and flesh as the amphibious creature devoured one fat roach after the other, its bulbous eyes depressing into its skull to help force its food down.

Something touched Cornelia’s arm. She nearly cried out, before realizing it was Imani reaching out to pull her along. The two snuck past the sickening sight of one monster devouring countless more, neither woman daring to make a sound even as they stared unbelieving at the amphibious man’s translucent skin. Soft intestine and bone could be seen through it’s slick, semi-clear flesh, sickening peeks at what made it tick.

So distracted were they by its anatomy, they hadn’t noticed the second creature entering the room. By the time Cornelia turned to see the second frog-thing coming toward them, the creature was close enough that she could see the inner workings beneath its translucent skin. This one was clearly female, and even her breasts translucent, the fatty tissue visible beneath their oily surface.

Acting on instinct, Cornelia lashed out with the mop. The business end connected with the amphibian woman’s face, driving her back on her webbed feet. The creature flailed and nearly fell.

Cornelia felt a swell of pride as she realized her attack had drawn blood, but the sense of victory didn’t last long. Even over the screaming and crunching of Mouthroaches, the dull snap of breaking bone echoed in Cornelia’s ears. It wasn’t any of Cornelia’s bones snapping, however, nor was it Imani’s. The frog-woman, if it could be called that, twitched and stretched her oily arms until the violent muscular contractions forced naked bone through her fingertips, exposing bloody, jagged claws ready to be used.

“Hit it again,” Imani cried out. The creature was already on the attack. It leapt forward, bringing Cornelia to the ground under all of its slimy and corpulent weight. The mop knocked free from her hands, leaving Cornelia defenseless as the pungent creature assailed her with its blood-slick claws. The first cuts it inflicted tore cloth. The next tore skin. Cornelia struggled to cover her face, only mostly succeeding.

A cry spilled from the frog-woman’s thick lips, and Cornelia uncovered her face long enough to see what had happened. Apparently Imani had recovered the mop and driven its stick end into the frog-woman’s bulbous eye. The creature trembled on thick legs, blinking with all its eyelids at the snapped-off bit of wood sticking out from its bleeding eye. Imani helped Cornelia to her feet as a great, roaring croak-scream tore through the room.

The female creature’s squeals of pain had drawn the attention of the male, which no longer cared about its feast of Mouthroaches. Again came the sick crack of bones, this time louder, thicker. The male bared its wet finger-claws, easily double the length of the female’s.

Imani and Cornelia ran. They ran for their lives as the hopping, running, croaking force tore after them, knocking down everything in its way. Imani led the way, mop in hand, toward the door at the far end which Cornelia noticed was just past the worst section of ceiling yet, wires and pipes hanging so low they looked like nerves ripped from their body, like bone pushed through skin.

They ducked under the collapsing ceiling, the vibrations of their footsteps threatening to bring the whole mess down on their heads. Finally they reached the door, more darkness waiting in the hallway beyond, but hopefully a safer kind. And yet the door wouldn’t close. Wouldn’t budge. The raging creature with thick eyes, razor-like bone claws and see-through skin was nearly on them, ready to pay back what they’d done to his mate tenfold.

To Cornelia’s surprise, Imani turned to head back. “What are you doing,” Cornelia screamed.

Imani didn’t bother to answer. She swung and smashed and beat on the half-dead ceiling, trying to bring it down. If it worked their way back would be cut off, but so would any chance of the creature reaching them. It was the only way, Cornelia knew. She went back to help her friend.

“Get back,” Imani shouted, the ceiling starting to give, but it wasn’t happening quickly enough. The creature was already shoving its way under, waddle-twitching and swiping at them with new claws. As always, Cornelia knew exactly what had to be done to solve the problem.

But for the first time in her life, she actually did it.

Cornelia pulled Imani out of the way, surprising her so much she nearly tossed the woman to the floor. She glanced back at her friend, then to the slimy creature now only a foot away. She reached up, grabbed onto the largest length of water pipe she could find, and pulled.

 

\^/

 

After a grueling journey, in which Gunnar only had to use his Combitool once, to fend off a catlike creature with black tendrils peering at them from an air vent, he, Doctor Hannigan and Desanto finally reached Captain Ashby’s quarters. The Dorniers were already in standby mode when the three travelers arrived, two floating guard dogs awaiting orders.

The closer the three of them had gotten to their destination, the stronger the visions and voices had torn at Desanto’s mind. They were positively screaming now. He took a minute to kneel and breathe and close his eyes. The more he focused, the clearer the pictures became. Yet that wasn’t much better. The pictures were of pain and death. The victims were his friends. Gunnar’s blood became a shower. Doctor Hannigan’s crushed and decapitated head gave way to the real Hannigan checking his eyes for signs of brain trauma. She held her finger up in front of his face and asked him to follow it.

“What’s wrong with him,” Gunnar asked.

“Can’t be sure. It looks like he’s suffered a break from reality.”

Gunnar snorted. “Reality is suffering a break from reality.” He checked a side hallway, making sure it was clear. Doctor Hannigan continued to check him for signs he was okay.

“I need to go in there alone,” told her. Hannigan only frowned. Gunnar returned to his friend’s side, having overheard what Desanto had said.

“And why would you need to do that?”

“It’s just something I have to do.” He looked from Gunnar to Hannigan and back to Gunnar. To say the words aloud wouldn’t just sound crazy, it was inviting them to come true. “I can’t explain it,” he concluded.

“I guess that’s not any weirder than anything else today.”

“Wait. He shouldn’t go by himself,” Hannigan said, turning back. “You can’t. You’re not well.”

“You don’t look so hot yourself,” Desanto said.

“This isn’t a joke, Erick. Forget the monsters, you can have an aneurysm or a stroke with no one to help you. You could fall and split your head open.”

Desanto nodded. “I know. But I need you to trust me on this.”

Hannigan seemed to wrestle with the thought, looking to Gunnar for backup. The big oaf just shrugged at her and said, “Fuck it. Right? I need some answers soon. I don’t know about you.”

“Alright,” Hannigan sighed, pointing in Desanto’s face. “But only because I owe you one, you hear me? After this you have to follow strict Doctor’s orders.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Desanto said, attempting a smile. He stood up tall, feeling dizzy, nauseous, tired, confused and drained, but otherwise great.

“Take this,” Gunnar said, holding out a small comms device. Apparently he’d ripped the thing out of his spacesuit’s helmet back in Mining. “Microphone’s not functional, but the tracker still works.”

“I’ll be twenty feet away,” Desanto noted.

“Yeah, sure. And everything else has gone exactly to plan.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Desanto took the device and slipped it into his uniform’s breast pocket. “Don’t let anyone in,” Desanto said. “And I mean anyone.” He looked at Doctor Hannigan to make his point clear.

“Yes, ma’am,” Gunnar echoed. He turned to stand guard, a third watchdog, this one only briefly glancing over his shoulder as Desanto opened the door.

Desanto stood at the open doorway, taking another moment to focus his thoughts. He was on the verge of something, and he knew it. Every step he’d taken had lead him here. Every voice and vision. Every question and dream. Where it went he didn’t know, but at least it was forward.

The moment he entered the quarters, strange lights filled his vision. He was fairly certain they weren’t a product of his own mind. With each step he took the strange lights grew in intensity, until he rounded the corner and found their source.

A man stood on the other side of the reinforced quarantine glass. He appeared calm, in control. He faced Desanto, patiently waiting for him to come forward. Even from across the room, even in the half-dark, Desanto could see the man’s skin was a patchwork of color and texture. Shadows and light moved around him, living tendrils of alternating darkness and bioluminescence.

“Hello, Erick,” the man said. His voice was the voice. The voice from Desanto’s nightmares. “My name is Doctor Howard Blackwood,” he smiled. “I’ve been looking forward to this moment.”

28. Advena

028advena

 

The airlock doors closed with a thunderous boom that reverberated through Mining. The sound was carried through every metal surface of the deck, even despite the lack of air. A series of locks slammed into place and armed, followed by the click and hiss of ventilation systems reengaging at full capacity.

It was going to take some time for the pressure and oxygen levels to become stabilized in such a large space. Desanto, Gunnar, Doctor Hannigan and Frank Peabody had no choice but to sit quietly in the Driller and wait for the life-support systems to do their job before they could safely exit the vehicle.

Not all of them were quiet. Gunnar hadn’t shut up, as usual, and it was giving Hannigan even more of a headache than she already had. She was happy to be alive, but she wasn’t exactly in fighting shape after her brush with the vacuum of space.

“We need to take back this ship,” Gunnar said angrily. “After all this time, I’m not letting a few creeps take us down.”

“Which creeps are you talking about,” Desanto asked, “the Cultists or the other ones?”

“Any of them. All of them. We have some serious work ahead of us. We need to circle the wagons and kick some ass.” He raised his Combitool defiantly. Then he turned to Desanto and added, “Maybe it shouldn’t be you leading the charge, though. I mean, Svarog worships your ass, and even he bailed on you.”

Desanto nodded, sadly agreeing. What it meant, Hannigan didn’t know, but they’d clearly had an eventive day.

The makeshift bandage on Peabody’s hand had soaked through, and as a result was starting to unravel. Hannigan smacked his good hand away from fidgeting with it and adjusted the cloth properly.

“Tell me, Doc- will I ever play the piano again,” Peabody joked.

“Probably not. But you still have plenty of options for picking your nose.” She smiled at the older man, and he smiled back.

“There’s always a silver lining if you know where to look.”

Finally the Driller’s atmospheric instruments showed normal readings outside of the vehicle. Peabody engaged the exit, wincing from the pain of accidentally using his bad hand. They all climbed out single-file, leaving behind several blood-stained seats.

As Desanto and Gunnar peeled off their spacesuits, revealing the yellow uniforms underneath, Hannigan’s head buzzed with a thousand questions, half of which she doubted they had the answers to. The other half sounded so ridiculous she didn’t want to ask them. But before she had the chance to broach any of the surreal topics on her mind, Desanto threw his suit aside and addressed the group.

“The bad news is there’s still two bombs left, and anyone we run into might be a Cultist.”

“Not to mention Blackwood’s monsters running around,” Gunnar said.
Hannigan’s ears perked up. “Blackwood? What does he have to do with this?”

“We don’t know,” Desanto said.

“Somewhere between nothing and everything,” Gunnar added. Hannigan scoffed.

“Well that’s great.”

Desanto shrugged at her, his eyes heavy. “The important thing is, we need to make this right before more people die.” He paused. “Gunnar is right, no one will listen to me. Which is why we need to get Captain Ashby.”
Gunnar scoffed at the idea the moment it left Desanto’s lips. “Good luck reaching the bridge, buddy. Even under normal circumstances no one can get up there.”

“Well we still have to try. She’s the only one has the resources and the pull to do bring everyone together.”

“Then we do it on our own,” Gunnar shrugged.

“We’ve tried the cowboy act. It didn’t work, did it?”

Gunnar’s face fell. “Kukhuvud,” he mumbled. Peabody looked up from his wrist.

“I’ve been trying to call the Bridge for the last few minutes. They ain’t picking up.”

“So there’s no way up there.”

“We’ll have to figure it out on the way,” Desanto said. “There’s four of us, we’ll think of something.”

“About that,” Peabody interrupted. “Sorry to say it, boys, but you can count me out of your little rescue mission. I have a husband to find.”

“You’d just slow us down anyway,” Gunnar offered.

Peabody grunted. “Well thank you very much for being so understanding.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Doctor Hannigan waved a finger at the older man. “When this is over, you come see me about that hand.”

“You got it, Doc.” Peabody nodded at everyone in turn, then left them to it. Gunnar watched the older man exit before turning back to the slightly smaller group. “Fine. Let’s say by some miracle we reach the Bridge- we don’t even know if the Captain’s even there still! The old guy just said they’re not answering. For all we know she’s in the life raft, jettisoning away from the ship.” Desanto agreed, nodding gravely. The two men were silent, their heads bowed in thought.

Hannigan stepped away, taking in the damage Mining had sustained in Baptiste’s attack and the decompression that followed. Much of the equipment was gone, tossed into space like so much garbage. Even some of the larger machinery had slid or toppled over from where it sat. Puddles of blood on the floor streaked like watercolor paintings toward the airlock. The air was fresh, free of the stink of death, though signs of it still remained.

Something was wedged between two Ore Processors that had slid together. As Doctor Hannigan moved closer, she made out the shape of a body. The woman had been pinned between the two, several-ton machines during the rapid decompression. Hannigan knelt and checked the woman’s pulse, even though she knew she wouldn’t find one.

A thought came to her. She stood up and turned back to the others, the two men busy converting their Dornier drones to standard operation mode.

“I know where Ashby is,” she announced.

 

\^/

 

Ness was scared.

She’d been sitting in her favorite chair, quietly reading when she’d heard a distant boom from within the ship. The tremors that followed reminded her of a distant memory, of growing up in California with her father. She’d wanted to call Jennifer to see what was going on, but she knew better than to interrupt the Captain when she was almost certainly busy being the Captain.

“Sunn,” she said, getting to her aching feet, “what’s going on out there?”

“Can you be more specific,” Sunn’s voice replied. She frowned. Sunn was always so difficult.

“It felt like we hit something,” she said impatiently.

“There has been an explosion on Deck Fourteen.”

Ness gasped. “Is everyone alright?”

“Unknown.”

She’d wanted to press Sunn for further details but she knew there wouldn’t be much. Her head was fuzzy, her skin painful. The floor pitched and she sat back down before she fainted. When the vertigo subsided she thought she should return to her reading, since worrying wouldn’t change anything, but she was too distracted to focus on the words on the page. Ness sat like that for some time, not doing anything except pretending to read. When the lights went out, she turned on her portable light and continued to pretend under its yellow glow.

Then came the sounds. At first there was just one of them, a galloping down the hallway like an animal had escaped from one of the environments. A boy screamed. She felt it in her belly, the fearfulness in his young voice, the sense of panic. Soon there were more screams, more animal sounds, though animal didn’t quite cover it. They were much stranger than that. More…alien. By the time she asked Sunn what was happening, he’d stopped answering.

For the first time since she’d gotten sick, she didn’t feel like a prisoner in her own home- she felt like a mouse in a cage.

Through the reinforced glass of the quarantine, she heard the front door open.

Only she and Jennifer could open that door. She put her book down and listened for her wife’s voice, but it didn’t come, only the sound of footsteps slowly approaching. Ness knew by their sound that they didn’t belong to Jennifer. Plus there was another sound that went with them. An accompanying click-shuffle she couldn’t pin down.

“Who is that,” she called out. “Who’s there?”

A silhouette appeared in the doorway. From the size it appeared to be a man, but the features were too dark to make out. “You’re not allowed in here,” Ness said, trying to sound confident as she ignored the icy feeling in her toes.

“Nothing on this ship is off-limits to me,” the dark man replied. His voice was calm, cold. Something moved at his feet. It was like a dog but worse.

“Well these are the Captain’s quarters. When she finds out about this-”

The animal lunged forward, snapping its teeth at the quarantine glass. Ness fell back into her chair. The portable light illuminated just enough of the animal for her to know it was no dog. When it laughed, Ness thought she heard the sound of a baby crying. The dark man called it back and it obeyed, melting back into the shadows with a quiver.

“M-my name is Ness Ashby,” Ness tried to push forward, sound strong, “I’m Captain Ashby’s wife, and I’m telling you to leave here now.”

The dark man smiled, his wet teeth shining in the dark. Ness noticed for the first time that something was terribly wrong with his skin. For some reason, she thought of the quilt her grandmother had made for her when Ness was just a baby.

“Believe me, Mrs. Ashby, there is absolutely no need for you to introduce yourself,” he said with great pleasure. “I already know all about you.”

 

\^/

 

Meanwhile, one level down and halfway across the ship, Will Miller was hiding in the toilets.

Earlier, when he’d been rounding up passengers with his fellow Children, his family had been the farthest thing from his mind. He’d told them to stay home today- or at least he was fairly certain he had- and he’d easily pushed them out of his head in favor of more important endeavors.

But then, when the abnormal ones came and he’d run for his life…well, to be fair he still hadn’t given them much thought, as he was busy running for his life. Later, though, once he’d found a bathroom to hide in, tucked in behind the furthest toilet and managed to calm down a bit, his thoughts began turning to matters of the home.

Rebecca had been bugging him for months to be home more, to help raise their son and keep him out of trouble, and it only got worse when the teacher disappeared. He never spoke to her about his work with the Children of Eden once she’d made it clear that she would never join them. She seemed to understand that he needed his faith, just as he understood she wouldn’t see the light until it was just about blinding her.

But now. Now that the abnormal ones had surfaced, turning their holiest of days into an unfolding Armageddon, now he knew he would have to drag his wife and son kicking and screaming onto the true path.

That was why he needed to go to them. Not just to save them, but to save them.

Staying low to the ground, Will snuck out of the bathrooms, making his way cautiously along the gore-stained hallways of Deck Six. He stepped over the body of Archie Colton, a fellow Child of Eden, though he couldn’t say he liked him much. Screams of pain and fear echoed through the corridors, along with the gnashing of impossible teeth.

Rounding a corner, he came upon the sight of a woman lying on the metal floor. Her arms and legs were splayed out. The abnormal one on top of her had her pinned with its thick, articulated bone-claws.

Will moved in closer to look, the same as he would back in the Grasslands. Observation, nothing more. The monster shivering above her looked like a human skeleton dipped in cartilage, almost like a sufferer of Fibrodysplasia in which the muscle had turned to bone. Its torso was atrophied and useless, and wore the dust-covered wings of a moth. The woman whimpered as the moth-monster’s proboscis unraveled from its skull-like face, a long, semi-transparent tube with a barbed tip that moved toward her neck in twitching anticipation.

The woman saw Will. She reached out for him. Her crying eyes pleading for help.

Will turned back. He would find a different path. It might take him twenty minutes to cover what should take two this way, but at least he would arrive at his destination with a two legs, a beating heart and all his blood exactly where it belonged. Behind him, he heard the woman’s scream cut short.

 

\^/

 

Mitsuko Maeda wished she’d been stuck with someone, anyone, but Kenneth Rees.

They’d been at work in Genlab 12, as usual, when the woman with the strange knife burst in and shouted for them to come with her. Rees had resisted at first, since it was in his nature to be difficult about pretty much everything, but he came around quickly when she started sticking the knife in his face.

Soon they found themselves marched through the hallways with other, confused Ark Passengers, all of them being led upstairs. From the whispers and shouts all around her, Mitsuko ascertained that the people with the knives were Cultists, and that for some reason they wanted everyone on-board rounded up and brought somewhere they could be watched. For most of them, Mitsuko and Rees included, that meant the public space on Deck Two. They’d joined the crowd of scared and angry faces near Central Park, kept under the watchful eyes of Cultists manning the available high ground, including the elevated transport.

Of course, it all went to shit the moment the sun died.

When the artificial sun went out, the public space became screaming and shuffling, all those rounded-up passengers scrambling to get away from their captors. Mitsuko saw a man stabbed by one of the strange knives. Then she saw Rees running the opposite direction of the exits and decided, for once, that he’d had a good idea. Even if the elevators were working, the exits would quickly become jammed up with the bodies of panicked people.

It wasn’t so much what she’d seen next that scared her, though- it was what she’d heard. Things were moving through the crowd, things that sounded awfully similar to what Officer Nicolai had described to them when they’d pulled him out of the Emergency Decon. A wet-dry shuffle, like invertebrate tendrils armed with claws. She saw a passenger taken down by a blur of black. Then another.

Then the screaming changed.

In the midst of the terror, someone grabbed her hand. She flinched, pulled back, ready to strike, until she realized it was Rees. He was pulling her somewhere and she was just dizzy enough to follow. A few, dark, bloody minutes later, she found herself wedging her body as far under the bar of The Floating Bottle as she was physically capable.

Now, all this time later, she and Rees were still there. Still hiding. She looked at Rees, the man she despised working for, who had possibly saved her life, and he looked back at her.

“This is your fault,” he whispered.

Mitsuko blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I told you to leave that girl in Decon.”

She felt a scream rise up in her throat. “That girl?

“Don’t deflect the issue,” he huffed.

“That girl has a name. It’s Vanessa. And how dare you accuse me of endangering the ship?”

“Because that’s precisely what you did. Quarantines exist for a reason. That creature Officer Nicolai encountered-”

“You mean the one you didn’t believe existed?”

Rees shook his head. “It should have died in Decon. Now it’s running around the Ark, killing people.”

“Shut up.”

Rees’ eyes widened. “I won’t be talked to like-”

“I said shut up,” she whisper-shouted. She’d heard something a moment earlier, and as she concentrated on it, Rees got the hint and listened with her.

Thoom. Thoom. Thoom.

They were footsteps, cutting across the public space in a thundering line.

Thoom. Thoom.

Whatever it was, it was big. The bottles and glasses on the bar above them rattled and shook.

Thoom. Thoom.

Whatever it was, it was getting closer.

Thoom.

The footsteps stopped. Mitsuko and Rees stared at each other, neither of them speaking a word, yet their eyes both said the exact, same thing: whatever it was, it wasn’t the same creature Officer Nicolai had crossed paths with.

It was much worse.

 

\^/

 

Will Miller was trapped. He’d made one bad turn after another, and soon he found himself with his back to the wall, with nowhere to run on either side, and a half-aborted hell-spawn shuffling directly toward him.

Separated from the fear washing through his bloodstream, the Zoologist in him was fascinated by the specimen he saw before him. About the size of a Black Bear, its body was highly reminiscent of the Giant Waterbug once found in ponds and streams of Australia, East Asia and the Americas. It approached on thickened, raptorial front legs and middle and hind legs coated with bristles of swimming hair. Where this specimen differed, however, was that instead of two, tiny eyes at the center of its head-mass, it had an elongated human face, the mouth of which hung with a dozen loose tongues like dead intestines. Its legs were nearly as long as a newborn Giraffe, yet still bent at an insectoid angle.

As it drew near, the stink of the creature filling Will’s nose, he pressed his back into the wall and slid down until he was sitting on the ground clutching his knees. He begged for forgiveness then. With his eyes shut tight he prayed he and his family would find each other again in Eden, so that he could tell them how sorry he was. How he’d wasted so much time on things that weren’t important.

It was close now. The insect. He could feel its dead tongues reaching out for him. Reaching out like that woman had. Reaching out for his face.

“Hey.”

Will’s eyes opened. Had the insect spoken?

The insect’s elongated face, so human and yet so alien, turned to the right. Will followed the movement, trying to see what had distracted the creature.

A very large Peace Officer stood two feet away from them. In his very large hands, he held a very large Peace Stick.

The Officer jammed the Peace Stick into the Waterbug creature’s semi-human face. A high-pitched screech came from the insect as the Officer discharged the weapon on full-strength. When it stopped screeching, the Officer disengaged the weapon.

The insect swayed on its giraffe-like legs, then collapsed to the ground in so much dead weight. The Officer approached rapidly, his face so angry that Will scrambled out of his way, thinking perhaps he was going to meet the same fate as the insect, being with the Children of Eden as he was. Instead, the Officer jammed his boot into the insect’s side with such force he cracked the exoskeleton on the first try. Not satisfied, he moved around to the head, where he boot-stomped the thing’s face so many times that Will lost count. When he was done, the head resembled a jar of mint jelly more than it did a human.

The very large Officer turned to Will, and Will winced. “That was one ugly motherfucker,” he said. The man was barely out of breath.

Will pulled himself off the floor. The large Officer stood over the vile, leaking corpse of the Waterbug creature, looking down at the devil’s handiwork. Will joined him. Just like the Giant Waterbug, the creature had a collection of eggs glued to its wide back. But unlike a Waterbug, the semi-transparent sacs were filled with gestating humanoid faces. Both men stared at the sight, not a word between them.

The Officer moved in closer to nudge the creature with his boot, cursing at the stink coming out of it, but Will stopped him. “I wouldn’t do that,” he warned.

“Why not?”

“Waterbugs. They’re known to play dead. They emit a fluid from their anus to simulate the stink of death.”

The Officer grimaced. “That’s disgusting,” he said. The human faces, soft and waterlogged inside the eggs on its back, had begun to cry out. Perhaps they sensed their host’s death. Will preferred to think of the dead creature as their host as opposed to their mother, or in the case of Giant Waterbugs, as the case may have been, their father.

One of the faces stirred. Biting at the egg that encased it, it tried to break free and hatch. But the Officer was quick with his weapon, jamming the Peace Stick into the egg and discharging the remainder of its battery. The head boiled and popped inside its own egg.

“Thank you, Officer Wolfe,” Will managed, reading his nametag. The Officer looked up at him.

“Don’t thank me, just help me.”

Will Miller squinted. “Help you do what?”

Officer Wolfe scoffed. “Fight back, what else?”

“Fight back,” Will echoed.

“You do know how to fight, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Cultist,” Officer Wolfe said, and Will blinked. “Mutant. Pick one, pick both, I don’t care. Just kill one.”

“Is that the official policy? Kill on sight?”

“It’s my policy. Nothing official about it.”

Will Miller nodded. The Officer didn’t know who Will was, where his allegiances lay. If he knew, if he even had a clue, he certainly wouldn’t want his help. Will noticed for the first time that the Officer’s hand was drenched with something sticky red. “You’re bleeding,” he pointed out.

“It’s not mine,” Officer Wolfe replied. Will noticed the Officer was holding a name tag in his hand, yet was still wearing his own. He caught a quick glimpse of the name on the tag before Wolfe tucked it into his front pocket: Officer Gadhavi.

“Be that as it may, you still need to wash it off. Whatever else these abnormal-” he caught himself, “…things are, they’re still animals, and animals track the scent of blood.”

Officer Wolfe sniffed. “Good,” he replied, recharging his Peace Stick with a hard press. “I want them to find me.”

 

\^/

 

Officer Nicolai’s journey to the Peace Officer Station took twice as long as it should have. Just a day before, traveling those seven levels up would have taken about two minutes in an elevator, then another five minutes’ walk. But today’s Ark was quite different than yesterday’s.

Between avoiding darker stretches of corridor and helping a few passengers caught up in trouble, Nicolai couldn’t stop thinking about Sunn’s message, the one on the wall back in Secondary Medbay. It had dangled just enough hope in front of Kash and Dez for them to run off with Monika- working together, no less, a downright miracle- and yet something about the words felt off. If he had more than thirty seconds at a time to think about it, he might even figure out what that was.

He finally reached the Station, a sigh of relief leaving his lips. And yet, it wasn’t the Station he’d wanted to find. Instead of a room filled with the bustle of Peace Officers formulating a plan to regain the ship, Inspector Raymond barking orders to his team, he found a mostly dark, completely empty room waiting for him.

Nicolai crossed to the front desk and checked the screen, finding it had been smashed to pieces. Drops of blood dotted the desk. It appeared human, insomuch as it wasn’t green and melting through the metal.

“Where is everyone,” Nicolai whispered to himself.

A dim light was visible through the shaded window to Inspector Raymond’s office. Nicolai approached the door slowly and knocked, keeping to the side.

“Who’s there,” a voice called out. It was the Inspector.

“Nicolai, sir.” There was a shuffle inside as the man crossed to the door and manually unlocked it. The door opened an inch, the Inspector’s wrinkled eye appearing briefly before the door swung open the rest of the way.

“What are you waiting for, come in,” the older man growled. Nicolai entered, closing and locking the door behind him as told. Inspector Raymond took his seat behind his large desk. Lying on top of it was his prized antique musket, taken down from its usual display on the wall. Nicolai had seen the man take apart and clean it more times than he could remember. “So? What did you see?”

“Too much to explain,” Nicolai summed up.

“Yes. It appears that monsters are real, doesn’t it?”

“Seems that way.”

Inspector Raymond shook his head, glancing away. “What a mess. Whatever those unnatural things are, they’re not part of the uprising, that much I know. The Children of Eden may have a few bombs at their disposal, but they certainly don’t command demons.”

“A few bombs?”

Inspector Raymond looked back at him. “We have to assume they built more than one.”

“I suppose you’re right, sir.” Nicolai watched the Inspector’s fingers drum the desk. They were just inches from the musket’s trigger. “Sir, where are the other Officers?”

“I sent them out to assist the passengers. People are dying.”

“But you stayed behind.”

Raymond straightened up in his chair. “I don’t like your tone, Officer. Are you implying something?”

“No, sir.”

“I chose to remain here and maintain command, yes. I have no delusions as to my physical abilities. Here is where I’m most useful. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir. I meant nothing by it.” After a tense moment, the Inspector nodded.

“Fine. Fine. Where’s your partner?”

“Escorting a wounded passenger to one of the Genlabs.”

“What on Earth for?”
Nicolai paused. That was an old saying. Nicolai didn’t hear it much, usually only by old-timers who had actually known Earth. “Long story. Monika Jacobs was injured in the explosion on Engineering Deck. Sunn thinks he can help her. Her husband Desmond was there, too.”

Raymond raised an eyebrow. “Sunn is functional?”

“Partially,” Nicolai replied. “Possibly. It’s a long-shot they were willing to take.”

“What a mess,” Raymond echoed himself from earlier.

“What about here, sir? What happened to the screen at the front desk?”

The Inspector huffed. “That. One of those things got in here. I managed to hurt it, scare it off, but I got this for my troubles.” He pulled down his sleeve to show Nicolai a clean field dressing on his forearm.

“So the blood was yours.”

Raymond lowered his sleeve. “I didn’t have time to do forensics, but yes, I’m sure it was.”

Nicolai was believing his superior less and less by the second. Who had gotten to the Inspector he didn’t know, but he had his suspicions. “Well I’d better be heading back out,” he said, his breath tight in his chest. “Passengers still need my help.”

“Dismissed,” Raymond said with a nod.

“Thank you.” Nicolai turned to undo the manual lock on the door. As he turned it, he heard the squeak of Raymond’s chair being pushed out from the desk, along with the slide of metal and wood.

“You didn’t say ‘sir’,” Raymond said.

Nicolai dove to the side as the musket round exploded into the door. His ears ringing, he scrambled to his feet in time to see Raymond toss the weapon onto his desk and wrench the top drawer to his desk open.

Nicolai ran at the man, catching him off-guard. He collided with man, knocking him into his chair and pulling the drawer clean out of the desk. Its contents flew into the air as both men toppled over the chair. Raymond shouted as he landed on his side, a loud crack telling him something had broken, and Nicolai fell on top of him.

Nicolai had no sympathy for the older man. He pulled back and punched Raymond directly in his goateed mouth. Raymond’s eyes glazed over. One more punch and the man’s lights went out.

After stumbling to his feet, Nicolai saw the contents of Raymond’s top drawer scattered across the floor. One of them was a knife with unique carvings he only assumed could be attributed to the Edenists. He searched the unconscious man’s desk further and hit a particularly troubling jackpot.

The Peace Sticks and name badges of his fellow Officers.

Nicolai handcuffed Raymond, then removed the knife, the musket and anything else the man might use. Hoping for the best, yet prepared for the worst, Nicolai left Raymond’s office and searched the rest of the Station. There were a few things out of place, one upended chairs, but otherwise everything appeared normal.

Almost as an afterthought, he checked the Station’s single holding area. Rarely used, the small room had seen more drunks than anything else. In fact, that was all it had seen to his recollection. He undid the lock and opened the door, praying he didn’t find a cache of dead bodies.

Nicolai laughed. Officers Song, Eckstein, Trent and Nakajima, in tank tops and underwear, had been handcuffed, gagged and crammed into the small room large enough for one person. Trent in particular looked like he’d put up a good fight.

“Looking good, Officers,” Nicolai beamed.

After helping them out and uncuffing them, Officer Trent checked on their former Inspector. “They won’t get away with this,” Song said, rubbing the back of her head.

“No,” Nicolai said, “they won’t.”

His eyes widened as he had a sudden realization about the message back in Medbay . Yes, but it won’t save her. Sunn never used contractions when he spoke. It’s not that he couldn’t, more like he refused.

Whoever they’d been talking to in Medbay, it wasn’t Sunn.

Nicolai needed to call Kash and Dez and warn them. The moment he raised the screen on his wrist to his mouth, another explosion rocked the Ark. It was close, maybe only a few decks down. The Officers all looked at each other with concern.

When the tremors had died down, Nicolai returned to his wrist screen, immediately cursing at what he saw there.

“What is it,” Officer Song asked.

Nicolai looked up from the screen. “Comms,” he sighed. “They took out Comms.

27. Ostium

027ostium

 

If Desanto didn’t catch Doctor Hannigan, she was dead. Like two trapeze artists without a net, or rather a net that suffocated anyone that fell into it, their outreached hands strained to find each other, to bridge the connection and defy the physics of death.
The vessel is here.

A voice came to him, joining him inside his helmet. Whether it came through his Comms system he couldn’t say. Whether it was human or not, he couldn’t say.
The vessel is us.

He ignored the voice, blocked it out, destroyed the sound. Doctor Hannigan was coming at him fast and gaining momentum as she went. Fifteen feet. She was drifting too far out. Thirteen feet. He shifted, readjusted his propellant. Ten feet. He was almost in the right place. Three. The fear filled her eyes.

One.

With only one chance, Desanto reached out, thrusting his hand into hers. He clamped down hard, enough to hurt her, because a broken hand was better than a boiling tongue and radiation burns. He squeezed her hand tight, feeling the solidity, the muscle and bone that said she was real, not another voice whispering in his ear but a living person. He squeezed her hand tight to tell her he was there, that she was safe, that he wouldn’t let go- and she squeezed back.

Her momentum wanted to pull them both toward the yawning airlock, but Desanto leaned hard and engaged his propellant at nearly full strength. The countermeasure worked. They wobbled in midair, pushed back a few feet toward open space, but then his adjustments brought them back to almost where they’d begun.

“Sunn, shut the doors,” Desanto called out. Sunn’s programming wouldn’t let him open the doors, but surely they would allow him to close them. Sunn had been silent since they’d reentered the Ark, though, and he stayed that way now. Desanto wondered if the Edenists’ mystery hacker had managed to finally wipe Sunn out for good. He didn’t like Sunn, per se, but he needed him, and the idea of being snuffed out at the press of a button terrified him in cold and indifferent ways.

Partly because he was distracted, Doctor Hannigan started to slip from his grip. She was proving to be a fighter, though, and she pulled herself up until she was hanging from the arm of his spacesuit, making sure to keep her legs out of the blast zone of his Dornier pack which was still working to keep him in place.

Without either Sunn’s help or an act of God, there was no way to shut the airlock doors and release the lockdown that was keeping them confined to Mining. Hannigan would suffocate, and the rest would follow. Even Gunnar seemed to be gone from Desanto’s sight. After dealing with a few Edenists he’d all but disappeared, leaving Desanto to deal with the situation alone.

“Sunn,” Desanto shouted again, blood-angry as he turned to look for the hologram, for Gunnar, for anyone who could help him and the woman struggling to breathe who was dangling from his arm. “Someone shut the goddamn-”

Desanto’s voice cut out. He was face to snarling face with what Baptiste had become.

 

\^/

 

As Gunnar worked the controls of the all-consuming hellmouth howling at his back, Sunn materialized to his right. The hologram’s placid face contrasted deeply with the pandemonium occurring all around him.

“Well look who decides to show up,” Gunnar said. “Can you fucking help me with this shit?”

“I do not have much time,” Sunn replied.

“Neither do we, make it fast.” The pressure differential between Mining and the outside of the ship was beginning to level out- great for not getting sucked out into space, not great for anyone out of a spacesuit who valued breathing.

“There is something I must tell you about Erick Desanto,” Sunn said.

“I know he’s in danger. We’re all in danger.” Impatient, Gunnar returned his attention to the controls.

“It is much more than that.” Gunnar looked up from the controls to see the look on Sunn’s hollow face. “Erick Desanto is the danger,” Sunn said. His voice echoed strangely, like he was speaking through a tin can. Then a ripple spread across his face, sine waves disturbing the surface of a digital pool. For a moment, Gunnar forgot all about closing the airlock.

“What are you talking about?”

“He…” Sunn’s body began to deteriorate, a wire-frame model unraveling at the seams. “…is…” Still he tried to speak, as a cascading failure of cohesion pulled him apart pixel by pixel, his voice pattern shredding into infinite slices of waveform confusion. “…the…” In one final burst of light and sound, Sunn screamed apart, ripped axis from axis until his very atoms dissipated like bonfire sparks on the night. His pain, if it could be called that, became an echo frequency dissolving into dead air.

When Gunnar’s eyes refocused to a point further out, he saw Desanto and Doctor Hannigan were in even more trouble than he’d thought. Desanto was ten feet off the ground, trying to pull Hannigan to a safe distance from the half-man, half-octopus-demon-thing reaching up for them. But the half-man, half-octopus-demon-thing had its tentacle-arm wrapped around the good Doctor’s ankle and was trying to pull them back down. Judging by Hannigan’s screams, the creature wasn’t using a delicate touch.

Gunnar needed to get in there and help them before it was too late. Yet what was it Sunn had said? Erick Desanto is the danger? What if Erick was the real one to be feared? What if he was somehow responsible for all the death and destruction on the Ark? What if saving him doomed the rest of the passengers? His head buzzing with questions, he turned back to the control screen and read the final prompt in the program sequence.

Are you sure?

Gunnar frowned. “Fuck Sunn and fuck you.” He pressed the yes command to complete the airlock program before turning away to help his friend.

“Fucking machines,” he added.

Gunnar propelled toward Desanto and Hannigan. Desanto had managed to pull Hannigan out of the creature’s grasp, and was setting her down a few feet away before turning to face the creature. She was officially out of air, which meant the clock was ticking on her lungs. As Gunnar closed in, hoping he wouldn’t be a second too slow in preventing his friend’s death at the mismatched hands of the monster ahead, he saw something curious in the creature’s behavior, an idiosyncrasy just as it was about to strike. The move was so slight, anyone not watching closely could have missed it.
It paused. Just a moment’s hesitation, yet miles beyond any mercy it had shown for the half dozen people it had just eviscerated. What was that look on its face, Gunnar thought. Recognition? Was that what was stopping it from attacking Desanto, a sense of familiarity? Or was it something more? Were Desanto and the creature somehow connected, even on the same side?

Gunnar decided it didn’t matter. The thing had to die either way.
Just as he got within a few feet of the creature, his Dornier working at full strength, it turned. It must have sensed an imminent attack by the way it bristled and shook. Not wanting to disappoint such a pretty-looking thing, Gunnar swung at it with his Combitool.

Crack. He hit the octopus-demon across its thick face. The creature stumbled back on suckered feet. Before it cold regain fully Gunnar landed, planting his feet on the ground, and struck it again. As he pulled back to strike a third time, Gunnar heard a loud, mechanical noise over the roaring chaos. He recognized the sound immediately, having helped in the repair and replacement of more than his share of units.

It was a Driller powering up. Sure enough, not ten feet to his left, a Driller rumbled to life. Its row of six headlamps illuminated its metal-toothed drill getting up to speed. Gunnar couldn’t see through the triple-reinforced windshield to see who was behind the controls, but he hoped they were thinking what he was thinking. As the drill spun faster and faster in its module, whoever the operator was flashed the headlamps twice at Gunnar.

He grinned.

The octopus-demon had recovered from the blows, coming back at Gunnar. Thick, dark blood ran down from its misshapen forehead to coat its face.

“Come here, you ugly motherfucker.”

Gunnar dove forward and shoved the Combitool into the thing’s neck, opening the claw as wide as it would go. The tool found its mark, pinching the creature around its throat. A thick crunch and a squeal followed as Gunnar pushed the creature. He strained with all his strength to move it back, back, to the left and back. Its feet flailed and failed to regain their grip, tentacle arm whipping in air. Just before it made contact with the tip of the drill, it glanced over its mutated shoulder at the whining drill, the metal teeth just a blur now, then back at Gunnar.

“N-no,” it croaked.

Gunnar’s eyes widened. His mouth fell open. But it was too late, the creature’s back made contact with the drill. Gunnar released the claw and stumbled back as a sound like hamburger and teeth thrown into a blender came to his ears.

The octopus-demon howled. Gunnar was disgusted to realize he could hear the man’s voice mixed in there, too, a man caught in the throes of unimaginable pain. Its chest swelled until it burst like a balloon of blood and viscera, the tip of the gore-tangled drill piercing through. Flecks of red skin hit Gunnar’s helmet and stuck to the glass. A moment later the creature’s howling stopped. It’s legs gave out, the light in its vile eyes snuffed. It fell to the ground, splitting all the way down until what fell to the floor was nothing more than a floppy H of godless flesh, a head on top.

Gunnar didn’t hear the drill stop, but it must have, because someone was yelling at him and he could actually hear them. From the comms speaker mounted on the Driller, a voice shouted, “Get in!”

Desanto was already dragging an unconscious Doctor Hannigan into the open door of the Driller. Gunnar moved to join them, carried on wobbling legs to the Driller, where he found a helmeted Peabody behind the controls. Less than a minute later, everyone secure inside the small vehicle’s cockpit, they’d sealed the Driller and established enough pressure and oxygen that Doctor Hannigan began to stir on her own.

Peabody removed his helmet. “You got blood on my seats,” he said with a frown. Gunnar took off his helmet as well, relieved to be out of the claustrophobic bubble.

“Sorry about that,” he said, not feeling particularly jokey. They watched the airlock doors begin to finally close. Once Doctor Hannigan had fully come around, Desanto took off his helmet and tossed it aside. He looked around, a thought dawning on him.

“What is it,” Gunnar asked.Desanto looked across the Driller’s cockpit at Gunnar and said, “Where’s Svarog?”

 

\^/

 

Svarog bore witness to monsters.

After seeing the abomination the teacher had become, he fled in a state of utter panic. The sound and fog of his own explosive breath filled his helmet as he ran as best he could in that damned spacesuit, the cocoon he’d been forced into against his will, then shoved out an airlock by people he’d once stood beside.

Not even the vessel crossed his mind as he left Mining behind, only the thought that he needed to get away from that place.

The rest of Deck Eight, he soon found, was in no better shape. Lit only by emergency bioluminescence, the Genlabs crawled with things killing and things dying. He stopped running and stuck to the walls, hugging the vines and overgrowth. He willed his heart to slow and his breath to silence. Something jumped out and touched his leg, something with long fingers, and he beat it to death before realizing it had the face of a child. In an unused Scilab, he hid under a desk until the crying stopped.

Svarog saw now the true power of the Creator. He’d always heard the whispers of the Abnormal Ones, the myths of the Creator’s other creations. There were more rumors about the Abnormal Ones than there were Children of Eden speaking them. Some said they were experiments gone wrong, mistakes that Blackwood kept alive out of pity. Others said they were more tests from the Creator, trials designed to determine their worthiness of Eden.

But the whispers didn’t come close to the truth. Not even the apocrypha could have guessed the extent to which the horrors extended, and the depths to which they sunk. Seeing the Abnormal Ones in the terrible flesh, the rumors fell away as the truth came into focus. They were deliberate monstrosities. Their godless forms were planned and precise, constructed with joy by their mad maker. Whoever was capable of this was capable of nothing but death.

Not by a Creator. By a Destroyer.

When he hadn’t heard footsteps in some time, human or otherwise, Svarog snuck from the Scilab to the nearest set of stairs. Halfway up, not hearing any danger in the dark, he stopped to finally remove the suit he’d been imprisoned in for far too long. It stuck to him painfully, his skin a field of sweaty sores and radiation scabs. Removing the suit was like removing layers of dead skin. He left it in a pile in one corner of the stairwell, a deflated corpse that smelled of sour fear.

One level up, the halls of Deck Seven were infested with more than just students. Rats ran between Svarog’s naked feet, chased by insects the likes of which he’d never seen before. They regarded him with owlish eyes, paying him only passing interest before continuing their hunt on tumorous legs.

He heard something. Something larger. It came from behind, uneven footsteps in the dark, and possibly more than one set. Svarog moved as quietly as he could to the overgrowth between two classrooms. He shoved his body into the thicket of Buckthorn and Maple, their tiny sticks cutting into his already broken skin.

Svarog could hear, along with its odd footsteps, the creature sniffing at the floor. It was tracking him, following his scent. The smell of Japanese Honeysuckle was sweet in his nose as he tried desperately to control his breathing, and he hoped it was enough to cover the stink of his sweat.

It appeared. The abomination had not one but two, elongated bodies, its eight spindly legs working in concert to support a single, skeletal head. Svarog heard crying, but he wasn’t sure whether it was him or the the strangely graceful beast now sniffing at the floor he’d stood on just seconds ago. Svarog clamped his eyes shut. If death was coming for him, he didn’t wish to look it in the eyes. The huffing of air through bony nostrils came closer and closer. The monster’s excitement grew. Then:

“No.” A woman’s voice, close-by.

Svarog opened his eyes. The monster’s face was less than a foot away. Its long snout, covered by a layer of jellied flesh, was very nearly penetrating the thicket of brush. Yet its lidless eyes weren’t on him.

“No. No, no, no, not you, please no.” The nearby woman spouted fearful words, yet she didn’t run. Even as the abomination turned and galloped at her with all eight of its gangling appendages, Svarog heard no footsteps from the woman, no retreat. It was as if, despite her words of refusal, her body had been long resigned to the form of its end.
Tears streamed down Svarog’s shaking face as he listened to the wet, screaming sounds of the woman being ripped apart by the abomination. As the woman’s voice grew weaker, the sad truth tore at Svarog’s heart. Blackwood wasn’t a mixture of Jesus and Satan- he was evil itself. Svarog still believed in the power of the vessel. The vessel had saved him, perhaps so he could continue on to serve his purpose, and for that he should live. But the others, the disciples of Blackwood, they had to die.

And when all of them were dead, Blackwood himself would follow.

A long time later, when the abomination had finally moved on, Svarog emerged from the scraping overgrowth. He went to the woman and looked at her, beheld the beauty of her death. The abomination had fed on her, leaving her splayed and opened like the carcass of a sacrificial lamb. As he took in the image of her face, Svarog realized he knew this woman. Not closely, but he remembered her from one of the recent gatherings, perhaps the last time he’d stood among the other passengers.

She was a Sculptor. Beli Corrick was her name. Her innards spilled forth from her like unfired clay.

Blackwood needed to answer for his sins. The problem was, Svarog didn’t know where to find Blackwood. He didn’t know where evil itself lived- but he did know where one of its disciples did, perhaps the most devoted of all.

Doctor Rina Dubicki, the Psych Doctor. She would be the first to die.

 

\^/

 

Monika’s condition was deteriorating. She had begun to suffer episodes of tremors, her burnt body spasming in Kash’s arms. Kash tried to keep her still and ensure she didn’t hurt herself. His worried expression had gone from intermittent to semi-permanent. Her pained groans had grown weaker level by level, until her voice was barely a whisper. The very life was leaving her as they watched. And yet, that wasn’t the worst part about their climb toward the Secondary Medbay.

The worst part: something was stalking them.

For the last few minutes they’d been aware of something following them up the stairs. It wasn’t so much a sound that gave it away but the lack thereof. A dark silence bubbling up after them, along with a smell like moldy wiring mixed with rotten meat. They doubled their pace, exiting the stairwell to find another way up.

“Where are these things coming from,” Kash asked as they slid around a corner, watching a corpse for movement.

“If I had to guess,” Nicolai replied, “I’d say Hell.”

They crisscrossed decks, obscuring their trail and avoiding telltale screams. The maneuvers left them feeling guilty, ignoring as they were the cries for help, yet both men understood the severity of Monika’s injuries, and time was truly of the essence. Pick your battles, Nicolai kept telling himself. Finally, they reached the Medbay. Nicolai opened the door manually and let Kash go first with the woman, then followed him inside and resealed it before anything could join them.

The Medbay was deserted. “You gotta be fucking me,” Kash growled.

“It was always a possibility. Set her down over here.” Nicolai led his partner to the nearest Medbed. Kash set Monika down gently, but not enough to keep her arm from spilling over the other side and swinging limply. Kash pulled it back up, placing it by her side. She barely protested. The screen on the wall next to her blinked to life, displaying her weak vitals. Nicolai tried to access the Medbed’s functions but found himself locked out. “We need a Doctor,” Nicolai sighed.

“So what do we do?”

Nicolai thought for a moment. “Sunn,” he said, projecting his voice. If anything the hologram could walk them through whatever they needed to do to help her. His brain contained the sum of all human knowledge, after all, something as simple as burn trauma was easily within his skillset. With any luck he’d tell them to throw her in a pod and take care of the rest.

But Sunn didn’t appear. Nicolai frowned. “Sunn, talk to me.” Instead, Monika began going into convulsions, an attack far worse than any she’d suffered on the way there. Her head bounced on the Medbed a few times. Then, just as suddenly, she went stiff. The stats on the wall flatlined, accompanied by a long and mournful beep.

“Shit, shit, shit,” Kash said. “What do we do?”

Nicolai hurried to Monika’s side. As he was pressing on her chest, trying to get her heart started again, he yelled for Kash to go to one of the Medscreens. Kash did as he was told and pulled up the interface.

“Thank God, it let me in,” Kash sighed. Nicolai began to administer mouth-to-mouth to Monika. “So you’re a Doctor now,” Kash asked, his sarcasm betrayed by the nervousness in his voice.

“I took six classes on emergency first-aid,” Nicolai said, holding her nose, “how many did you take?”

Kash nodded. “Alright, just tell me what to do.”

Monika’s heart was beating again, but her pulse was too weak and erratic. While he located a good vein, Nicolai had Kash navigate to the medication menu, where he had the computer synthesize a shot of epinephrine.

“Nasal? Nebulizer? Topical?” Kash read off a series of words he was only passingly familiar with.

“Injection.”

Kash frowned and complete the command. With each second that passed, waiting for the synthesis to finish, Monika’s readout slipped back toward flatline. One, breathless minute later the Dispensary across the room lit up. Kash ran to it, retrieved the needle and returned to Nicolai.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Kash said, handing it over.

“I don’t,” Nicolai said, and slipped the needle into Monika’s arm. He pulled the plunger up, mixing some of her blood with the epinephrine, then depressed it to push the liquid into her bloodstream. He removed the needle carefully, tossing it to the side, and stood back to watch the screen. A tense moment passed.

Kash said, “How long does it-”

Monika’s eyes shot open. At the same time, the screen on the wall came alive with a dozen overloaded readouts. High blood pressure. High heart rate. High brain activity. High stress levels. Nicolai could relate to every one of them. Monika’s eyes darted around the room, searching for answers.

“It’s okay,” Nicolai reassured her. “You’re safe.”

Monika tried to speak with great difficulty. “Don’t strain yourself,” Kash said, his hand softly on her arm.

“D…” She pushed herself. “Dez.”

“Monika!” A shout came from the direction of the door. Both men jumped, startled by the newcomer. Distracted by Monika, they hadn’t even heard the door open, a dangerous oversight considering the current situation. Dez ran to his wife’s side. Kash removed his hand from her arm, retreating. Nicolai quickly resealed the door.

“Ph…Phoebe,” Monika croaked through burnt lips.

“We’ll find her,” Dez said, stroking her hair.

Monika shook her head, tears slipping from her eyes. “N-no.”

“I will. I swear I will.” Nicolai felt awkward, the moment too personal. Kash was across the room.

“Listen to me,” Monika said, pulling Dez closer by his collar. “It…was her.” Then she passed out again. Her vitals were strong, though, and Nicolai knew, or at least thought, that she would be okay for the time being. Dez and Kash wasted no time arguing about what to do. If one said stay put and wait for help, the other said go out and find it. Their argument quickly elevated to a heated fight, the two men shouting at each other over Monika’s unconscious body. Nicolai spotted something on the Medscreen, walking over to take a closer look. He tried to interrupt the two shouting men but they couldn’t hear him.

“Shut up,” Nicolai screamed. Both men went silent, turning his way. “Look.”
On the Medscreen, hovering over Monika’s vitals, four words glowed in white.

I can help her.

Dez all but gasped. “It’s Sunn.”

“Obviously,” Kash said.

Nicolai addressed the screen directly. “Can you unlock the Medbed?”

Yes, but it won’t save her.

“Then how,” Dez asked.

Not here.

“I’ll take her anywhere, just show me where. Please,” he pleaded. Instead of more words on the wall, the answer came in the form of the screen on Dez’s wrist lighting up. He checked it, then looked up at the others. “It’s a map.”

A few minutes later, after each man had gathered some medical supplies and stuffed them into their uniforms, Nicolai carefully opened the door and peeked out into the hallway. The immediate area appeared to be safe, but there was no way to know for sure.
He looked back at Dez and Kash. Dez now carried his wife in his arms, with Kash just behind him, Peace Stick in hand. Nicolai wasn’t sure that Kash could be trusted not to use it on Dez before the day was through. “Alright, stay in contact. Update me every five minutes,” Nicolai said.

Kash squinted at him. “Where the hell are you going?”

Nicolai snorted. “Me? I’m going to the station to see about some goddamn backup.”

 

\^/

 

The vat of unspeakable liquids churned and frothed, a greenish, brownish sludge of decomposition and rot with a layer of yellow fat on top for good measure. A single, greasy bubble formed at the surface, growing in size and instability until, its skin too thin to support itself, it popped, sending bits of decay dancing into the air.

The surface began to swirl and crack, disturbed from underneath as something rose up from its depths. A round object appeared, coated in a thick layer of putrefaction. It continued to rise, slowly revealing itself to be a human head, the mouth gasping for breath. Lastly a pair of hands shot up, breaking the surface to fumble blindly for the edge of the vat.

Abigail pulled herself out of the pit, landing on the floor in one, soupy, gagging mess. She managed to struggle to her hands and knees before vomiting.

“I should have let the bastards kill me,” Abigail muttered.

Speaking of the bastards- human and otherwise- she suddenly remembered that she hadn’t checked if the coast was clear. She wiped the slop from her eyes as best she could, glancing around the dark room. She half-expected to see some nightmare closing in.
She was alone. No tentacle-cats, no spiders except the standard-issue types making their homes in the webs and pipes above. Saam was gone, too, as was the Young Edenist she’d knocked out not once but twice. Two, bloody trails led from where she’d seen them last to the place just beneath the broken vent. On the floor there was a pair of Bohap dice, landed on double-two’s. She wanted to say something witty to mark the occasion, but all of her focus was on not throwing up again.

On her feet, Abigail stomped around the room trying to wipe herself clean. Then she had an idea. She found a clean water pipe about eye-level and loosened the connecting valve enough for the water to gush out. She pushed her head under the makeshift shower. The water was freezing cold, yet she’d never felt anything better in her life. She stayed under it until all the muck was gone, then just a little bit longer.

When she opened her eyes, a young boy was staring at her.

“Jesus,” she said, jumping back. The boy was small, huddled against the far wall. He looked no older than ten, with light eyes that deeply contrasted with his dark hair. He wore a large backpack. “How the fuck did you get here,” she asked.

The boy shrugged. She smoothed her wet hair over her head.

“What are you doing in here?”

In a small voice he said, “Hiding.”

Abigail went to the door, making sure it was still closed. “I don’t want to go into details, kid, but this isn’t the best place to hide,” she said. The door was closed. She opened it, peeking out into the hallway. Only pulsing emergency lights lit the way out.

The small voice came again from behind: “Can I come with you?”

She winced. “On second thought, it’s probably pretty safe in here.”

Looking out again at the dark passageways, she remembered the horrible silhouettes of the creatures that had taken Saam and the other. Guilt pulled at her gut. She looked back at the kid, his backpack practically bigger than he was.

“I’m not holding your hand,” she said. The kid nodded. “Alright. C’mon then.”

She left with the boy, yellow lights in her eyes. Edenist knife in hand.

26. Tripudio

026tripudio.jpg

 

When she’d run screaming at Officer Hopes- just Hopes now, actually, he’d forfeited his position the moment he stabbed the ship’s Navigator- Captain Ashby had caught him by surprise. His crouched body slammed against the wall, his cheekbone shattering against Ashby’s knee before he could react. His knife tumbled away.

Still furious, she threw him to the ground next to Officer Pagani’s body, showing him what he’d done. His hand dipped into the dead man’s blood. Anointing him with his own sins. She went after him again, to drive his face into the floor, but he suddenly kicked out at her, catching her in the stomach.

Ashby stumbled backward, most of the wind knocked out of her. He took the opportunity to jump to his feet, surprisingly agile for his build, then grabbed her by her legs and pulled her feet out from under her. Her back hit the floor hard. She heard Oberlander cursing at her attacker, but there was little else he could do with his hands tied behind his back.

Hopes searched for his knife, trying to figure out where it had gone when it fell. He let out an angry grunt when he couldn’t find it. Instead, Hopes dropped to his knees on Ashby’s chest, pinning her to the floor, and wrapped his fingers around her neck. His hands slick with Pagani’s still-warm blood, he began to choke her, his eyes crazed, riddled with capillaries.

The Bridge, already dark, was going darker. Shadows closed in on Jennifer Ashby like water down a drain.

Hopes’ head violently snapped to the left as if suddenly possessed. Through the haze of semi-consciousness, Ashby saw his eyes roll back. His body went limp and he slumped off her, crumpling to the floor.

It took a moment for Ashby to regain her focus. When she did, she saw Oberlander standing above her.

Oberlander carefully helped her sit up when she was able. Somehow her First Officer had fumbled to his feet when she and Hopes weren’t paying attention and, his hands still tied behind his back, kicked Hopes across his traitorous face. The act had saved her life, and as Captain Ashby caught her breath, she realized she should thank him. “Good work,” was all she could muster. Oberlander nodded, seeming to understand the emotional extent of her words.

Returning the favor, she untied Oberlander’s hands. “What should we do about him,” he asked, nodding to the deceiver on the floor. He was breathing strangely, a half-snore mixed with a wheeze. She handed Oberlander the rope she’d just removed from his wrists.

“It only seems fair,” she replied.

As Oberlander happily tied up Hopes, she made her way over to a length of wall she hadn’t visited in a very long time, in particular a panel roughly three feet off the floor. She slid the panel aside, exposing the grid of nine, identical metal tiles, and pressed them in the exact order as given to her by the former Captain. On the final press, a section of wall to her right moved forward just enough to offer a peek at the darkness behind. Ashby placed her hand in the open section and pulled it forward. With one, final click, the door opened for the first time in years.

She stepped inside.

Activating the personal light on her chest revealed the truth of the hidden room. The four walls of the Armory were lined with guns of various sizes. Most of them were designed to avoid penetrating the hull, like the Denial Rifle, which she grabbed, as well as the twin Gyres, what they used to refer to as Ghost Guns, which she also took. But a few at the back were somewhat more traditional firearms, hermetically sealed in plastic to keep the ammunition fresh. She left those alone for the time being, hoping it wouldn’t come to that.

Oberlander stood at the door, looking wide-eyed at the Armory. “I didn’t know,” he said quietly. He had Hopes’ fallen knife in hand, and had already cleaned Pagani’s blood from the blade.

“No one does except me and J.B. Douglas,” Ashby said, “and he’s dead.”

“But why-”

“Keep it a secret?” She glanced back. “Because this was supposed to be a mission of peace.” She handed Oberlander his own Denial Rifle, which he took hesitantly. “But peaceful doesn’t mean stupid.”

She exited the Armory and sealed it up. After briefly explaining the functions of the Denial Rifle to Oberlander, which he had only read about, she announced she was heading down into the ship.

“I can’t stop you,” Oberlander said, implying he wished he could. She made her way to the elevator and began to work the manual release on the side of the door.

“I need you to stay here and figure out why the lights went out, see if you can get them back up.”

“It shouldn’t be too hard. The power didn’t go completely, which makes me think someone shut them off manually.” He paused, something heavy on his mind. “Captain,” he said, “what in God’s name was that thing? Did the Edenists do that?”

Ashby stopped what she was doing. It was a good question, one she’d been avoiding. The monster in Engineering had been disturbing to say the least. “Did you see the look on Zane’s face? He was terrified.” She added, “It wasn’t one of his.” Then she gave the manual door release one, final turn. With a click the elevator doors parted to bleed out their darkness.

“Then where did it come from?”

Ashby sniffed. “I have a few theories.” The doors now fully open, the empty elevator shaft was laid bare. Ashby peeked over the edge, down into darkness where the light from her chest barely penetrated. A set of stairs would have been helpful, but the Bridge was designed to have only one way in or out, for the sake of security. She turned back to her First Officer, the young man still waiting for answers she didn’t have. Yet. “Close this behind me,” she ordered, “and don’t let anyone in who isn’t me. Even then, be careful.”

“What about Hopes?” Oberlander nodded to Hopes, still unconscious on the floor a few feet from the man he’d killed in cold blood. “What do I do if he tries to escape?”

Ashby looked from Oberlander to Hopes, then back. “Blood has already been spilled on my Bridge,” she said, “a little more wouldn’t hurt.” Oberlander looked uncomfortable, but he seemed to understand, touching the knife tucked into his belt. Captain Ashby knew he would do what needed to be done and nothing more. He may have been young and naive, but there existed in him an unshakable moral core. He reminded her so little of herself. Carefully she climbed out onto the recessed ladder, feeling gravity’s dark pull beneath her.

“So which one are you going after first,” Oberlander asked. She knew the names on his mind without him saying them. They were the two most prominent in her own thoughts.

Which one first indeed: Zane, or Ness?

 

\^/

 

Like with most things, Doctor Hannigan had found, reading about rapid decompression and experiencing it were two very different things. You could throw around words like ebullism, hypoxia and hypocapnia all day if you wanted, but at the moment, Cybele just felt like her intestines were being pulled out of her ass.

The Doctor’s eyes swelled inside her skull, and her heart felt like it wanted to tear itself free of her body. And yet, despite it all, she knew she was lucky- if the decompression were happening any faster, the pressure exchange any more severe, she and the others on the Mining deck would experience very sudden, very violent pulmonary barotrauma- quite simply, their lungs would burst inside their chests, and they would suffocate choking on their own blood and deflated lungs.

So yes. She was thankful.

However, Mining had become an absolute chaos. The deck was a vortex of pressure fog, dissipating air and painful screams. One Cultist was pushed along the ground, clawing and grasping at Hannigan before being tossed out into space. Knives, handheld equipment and other small items tumbled through the air toward the open airlock, each one a potential injury or death. Through it all, Hannigan held on. With her arms locked she squeezed tightly onto the connection hook of a loading rig, her legs tucked behind the control arm.

Just as bad as the decompression, the Baptiste-thing was still attacking any man or woman that got in its way. It roared slowly across the deck, the octopus-like suckers on its mangled feet keeping it firmly on the ground. What was left of Crick had flown screaming out into space, and the Baptiste-thing had watched him go, letting out a high-pitched, almost sorrowful cry. Hannigan had wondered if it was saddened to see the Allcleric go so soon, or if it was simply disappointed it hadn’t gotten to finish murdering the man. Each reason was disturbing in its own right.

Ignoring the voice inside her that screamed to keep her head down, to shut tight her swollen and tear-streaked eyes, Hannigan allowed herself a look at the airlock, hoping to catch sight of that prick Zane Nolan being pushed out into space along with his followers, those doomed men and women spilling out the airlock. And although the medical texts may not have done it justice, they did at least prepare her for what she saw there.

Ten seconds. That’s how long the Cultists stayed conscious. Ten seconds before the lower pressure outside their bodies caused rapid deoxygenation of their blood. After that came the generalized convulsions and paralysis. After that came the water vapor forming inside their soft tissues and venous blood.

She watched their unprotected bodies swell, knowing their heart rates and blood pressure would rise first before going into freefall, until the circulation of blood inside their bodies seized altogether. An initial rush of gas from the lungs, then gas and water vapor would continue to flow outward through the airways. That meant that, as they died, their mouths and noses would freeze first. The rest of the body would slowly cool, all life functions fading and fading until, a short time later, a few minutes at most, death would occur.

And so, as she watched the dying Cultists dance, their convulsing bodies ringed by stars and their panicking eyes filling with hemorrhage, she nearly laughed with joy when she saw Erick Desanto appear between the airlock doors.

Desanto and two others- one, the larger of them, she assumed was a Mechanic on account of the tool attached to his arm, and the other she didn’t have a clue- had barely cleared the doors when they were brought crashing down by the Mining Deck’s struggling gravity.

A roar, far too close. Still gripping the metal connection hook, Hannigan turned to see the last thing she wanted to see in that moment, a sight even worse than the dancing corpses outside.

The Baptiste-thing was not only coming closer by the second, it was coming directly for her. Although she didn’t recognize the humanity behind its eyes, she understood too well the insanity she found there. For whatever reason, hatred or hunger or some ancient bloodlust extending back through the aeons, it had set its focus on her.

Back by the massive airlock doors, Desanto had gotten to his feet and was struggling against the airflow using his suit’s propellant. He was twenty feet out from her, if not more, yet he was close enough that she saw the moment when his gaze shifted from her to the Baptiste-thing, then back.

Wordlessly, both from terror and diminishing air, she pleaded with him. She had nowhere to go. No way to save herself. Desanto was her only hope, and Desanto knew it. He knew she had no other way out of the tightening death trap, stuck between a rock and a cold place. And so with only a second’s thought, he made a gesture that said everything Doctor Hannigan needed to know, yet nothing she wanted to hear.

He simply put his hand out.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she whispered into the dying air. If he missed her hand she would be flung out into space to bubble and convulse with the others. Left with ebullism, hypoxia and hypocapnia. Left to go cold and die.

And yet it was getting harder and harder to breathe. The air grew thinner with each cubic foot of oxygen dumped into a void with no use for it. She knew he was right, and when her mind was made up, she tried very hard to let go, to will her fingers to loosen around the metal hook. But they wouldn’t. With each second, the Baptiste-thing was closer, and closer, and closer, rows of rubbery suction cups attaching and detaching and attaching toward her.

 

\^/

 

After the lights had gone out, most of the Edenists in the rancid-smelling ritual room had run off to investigate the cause of the blackout, leaving only one of them to keep an eye on Abigail. He was a younger man, no older than nineteen, and with a look on his smooth face that cried for the approval of his peers. The only thing a boy his age might value more than validation could easily be used against him, and Abigail wasn’t opposed to exploiting that particular weakness, it just might take too long. Plus the way her head was still pounding, she didn’t feel much like seducing an idiot.

Instead, she started to choke.

Her hands still tied behind her, ass on the cold, metal floor, Abigail began to gag and cough. Her feet flailed out in front of her as her coughs grew in intensity and violence. The young Cultist took a few hesitant steps toward her. Still on the other side of the vile sacrificial pit, he called out to her, first asking her to stop, then telling her to.
Abigail let out one, final cough, then slumped over.

“Hey.” The young Cultist walked around the pit, hand on the knife on his side. “Hey, are you okay?” When she didn’t respond he got close enough to nudge her with his shoe.

“Cut it out,” he said, “I’m not kidding.”

Nothing from her. He sighed, mumbling to himself about what Zane would say. Then he bent down to feel for her pulse.

Abigail’s legs shot out before even her eyes opened. She wrapped her ankles around his neck, wrenching him forward. He fell to his knees wide-eyed as she pulled him in further, locking her thighs around his bulging neck, and began to squeeze. He fought it, punching and clawing at her legs, but she held on tight like a cowgirl at the rodeo. No more than ten seconds later, she felt him go limp.

“Some people would pay good money for that,” Abigail said, pushing him off her. She used her foot to knock his knife loose from his belt, then slid it over and worked it into her hand. It took far too long. She had only seconds to free herself before he came to, thirty at most. Careful not to cut her own wrist, she began to saw at the rope.
She was halfway done when the door on the other end of the room opened.

Any hope that it might be a friendly face come to help her died when she recognized the orange uniform and dark eyes of Saam peering through the door. “Aww, are you checking on me,” she asked. “Thanks for the concern, but I’m not scared of the dark.” From his angle he wouldn’t be able to see the unconscious young man to her right, and she very much wanted to keep it that way.

“You’ve always been a bitch,” Saam said.

“And they say we have nothing in common.”

He laughed, opening the door another inch. “Careful, woman. I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to watch the life drain from a person’s eyes.”

She smiled. “That should be easy for you- just talk to them for five minutes.” Abigail bit her tongue. Her mouth was going to get her in trouble. Worse, the young Cultist was starting to wake up. She tried to press her foot down on his neck without being obvious about it, but she ended up nearly shoving her boot into the guy’s mouth.

“What are you doing there,” Saam asked, opening the door further, squinting into the shadows and bioluminescence.

“Nothing. Just, you know…” She squirmed. “I have to pee.” It was a lame attempt. Just as Saam leaned far enough into the dark room to see what she was really up to, the young Cultist under her foot let out the deep moan of a person waking up with a head full of hurt.

Harum zadeh,” Saam said. He’d seen, and was already rushing into the room.
“Ahh, shit,” Abigail replied. She kicked the young Cultist across his face, knocking him out again just as Saam reached her. Light flashed in her vision as Saam struck her, hard, then did it again.

“I told them to kill you and be done with it,” he hissed.

“That’s…” She winced at the cold air on her split lip. “…the only smart thing you’ve ever said.”

He hit her again. She made no attempt to avoid it, not because she didn’t want him to, but because she was almost done. The knife hidden behind her, which he’d have found if he cared half as much about searching her as he did making her spit blood, had cut almost completely through the rope. Each blow he landed only insured that when the blade was done with its current task, it would be quickly reassigned another. She heard a rattle in her ears, like a couple of screws being tossed into a toolbox, and hoped it wasn’t anything important in her skull coming loose.

Then, just as suddenly as the attack had started, it stopped. Saam stumbled away from her out of breath.

“Where are you going,” she asked, her lips numb. There was the rattle again, perhaps some bone in her middle ear shifting. “This was just getting good.”

An insane grin spread across his sweat-slick face. “Don’t worry, my dear- I only want to get my tools and finish the job properly.” The rattle sounded a third time, and louder.
This time Saam heard it, too. He stopped, looked up at the vent above him.

Madar sag,” he muttered.

What came next happened so fast, the image so surreal, that for a moment Abigail thought Saam had knocked loose something in her skull more important than a middle ear bone. A nightmare flash of mucous meat crashed through the rusted vent, half a dozen shapes falling on Saam quicker than a seizure. Whatever they were they were small, and teeming with impossibly black tentacles. They moved cold and catlike over Saam, injecting the screaming man with stingers that dripped thick venom.

When the momentary shock had worn off, Abigail returned to sawing the rope around her wrists with the knife. The younger Cultist was still unconscious, and if he had any sense at all he’d stay that way. She was nearly through the rope now, her sawing desperate and messy. Twice the blade nearly cut her skin.

A kind of gurgling caught her attention. Saam’s face was puffy and swollen, the effects of the venom from the cat-sized creatures taking quick effect. Saam choked for air, his throat closing up. Gone was the insane grin, replaced by panicked desperation. He fell to his knees trying in vain to swat the stinging creatures off.

Most troubling, though, was the eyeball over Saam’s shoulder. Perched atop one of the black tentacles, it looked back at Abigail with an uncomfortable intelligence. As the creature dismounted Saam and click-slid around the vile piss-and-shit-pit, its fingernails tap-tapping on the metal floor with each placement of a hard-nailed tentacle, there was no doubt in Abigail’s mind that she was the creature’s target.

The rope finally gave. Abigail pulled her hands free with a triumphant stretch, aiming the Cultist blade at the eight-pound bag of veins crawling toward her. “Come get it, you little fucker,” she spit.

Heavy footsteps entered the room from the far left, signaling the arrival of something big. Even the scraping cat-creatures took notice, the one coming at her and the one’s overpowering Saam, who was now laid out on the floor and quickly going over purple and blue. All of them stopped to turn their attention to the newcomer.

Eight, jointed legs held up its thick-shelled torso, a half-human, half-spider nightmare that opened its jaws wide to reveal the dark things inside. All of its eyes, some human and some not, were on the dying man across the room, all but ignoring Abigail. She had never been more thankful for anything in her entire life.

The scraping-tentacle things were less enthusiastic. Their black appendages bristled with protectiveness for their prey, and they hissed and coughed at the new threat, making their intentions clear: they would defend their kill at all costs. The spider creature, its ten foot span spilling forth from the side hallway, seemed unfazed as it reared up into a gesticulating attack pose.

The Scrapers charged forward and leapt on the spider, attempting to overwhelm it the way they had Saam. Even the one coming toward Abigail changed its trajectory and attacked the new monster. But their stingers couldn’t penetrate the spider’s carapace, leaving their attacks ineffective. One by one they were crushed and beaten back by exoskeletal arms, splatted and squished under clawed foot. Yet they pressed on, crawling around and finding weak points to insert their dripping stingers, hoping to find a way in.
Abigail snapped out of her daze. She looked around, assessed her chances at survival. There were only two possible exits, the one she’d come through and the one the massive spider creature had. Both were blocked by some form of creature.

There was one way out from what she could tell, and it was almost worse than dying. Still, her instinct for self-preservation was apparently kicking hard. And so, quietly as she could, Abigail crawled over the side of the shit-pit. She slipped into the hot pull of liquid death-stink, sinking down into the rotten sludge until only her eyes weren’t covered, eyes that stung and burned, praying it would be enough to hide her from the horrors happening just feet away.

 

\^/

 

It had Baptiste Marlow’s face.

Desanto had spent enough time looking at Baptiste’s personal file, studying the man for clues to why he’d been attacked and dragged away down in the Storage Deck- as well as clues to why Desanto might have been involved- to know the man when he saw him. Even if they were twisted and mixed together with whatever the hell was stomping across Mining, the man’s features were there. The entire room was alive with tumbling equipment and screaming Cultist projectiles and tendrils of fog spiraling toward the vacuum of space, yet Desanto stayed transfixed on that face, transfixed on how much it had changed and yet not changed, how much the humanity in its eyes had been dulled, filed down like a bad nail.

Then there was the other face. As Desanto watched, the Baptiste-thing fumbled closer and closer to where Doctor Hannigan was hanging on for life, her eyes overflowing with fear. Desanto’s hand was still out, waiting for her to let go. He knew by the way loose tools were whipping past their heads that he was in the right place to catch her. He didn’t dare get any closer to the creature and risk a confrontation, one he would lose, and so the only choice he had left, at least the only one he could come up with, was for her to come to him, to let the decompression do the work.

The problem was, she wasn’t letting go.

“Come on, Doc,” he whispered. He heard Gunnar shout something about Edenists but he ignored it.

Only feet away from Doctor Hannigan, the Baptiste-thing raised its mutated arm-weapon to strike at her. Each cupped sucker on its surface shivered in rubbery anticipation.
Desanto held his breath. Slow motion sparks and heartbeats filled his eyes and ears.

Then, as if stretched out over an hour, a day, a year, Desanto watched the creature’s arm come down to strike the Doctor with all its undulating, hydrostatic muscle fiber.

Before it could, Hannigan finally let go.

25. Abscido

025abscido

 

Zane felt good. The holy day was going just as planned, and the thought made him smile the smile of the righteous, the warmth filling up his eyes and seeping under his skin. He felt indestructible, his bones reinforced with purpose and truth. Thanks to the boy, their genius, their secret weapon only a few men knew about, his smile was being broadcast from his wrist to every corner of the Ark, on every available screen and Holo.

“Greetings, fellow Ark Passengers,” he said, “and a Happy Reclamation Day to you.”
He took a deep breath, savoring the moment. Captain Ashby seized the opportunity to rudely interrupt him, shouting through the Holo to be heard. He called for her to be muted but not cut off, because he wanted her to see this. “As I was saying, I’m Zane Nolan, and I’m here to welcome you to your new life with us, your new friends and saviors- the Children of Eden.”

The others in Mining buzzed with excitement, as the rest throughout the ship would be doing. He continued. “By now you’ve surely seen some things, things which have given you some…concerns regarding the current events of this ship, as well as your place on it. You’ve noticed my fellow Children rounding up every man, woman and child on the Ark, and it worries you. If nothing else, I’m here to tell you this: you have nothing to worry about. In fact, you should be excited for the days to follow. We’re standing right now on the edge of a new era, a time of renewed faith and hope on the Ark. I have no doubt that you’re feeling confused. Lost. But then you’ve been lost for years, haven’t you?” His eyes stung with the welling of angry tears. “We all have, thanks to the people who threw us out into space all those years ago, and more recently, people like Captain Ashby here,” he pointed to her muted Holo, “who have blindly followed the orders of those long-dead men and women, taking us further and further from the touch of God’s divine light. We’ve suffered alongside you. We’ve endured the cold and the hunger with you, and it has taken its toll on us.”

At this point Peabody began to sway on his feet from blood loss. It reminded Zane of an important point, and he was thankful for the reminder. He showed the man to the people of the Ark. “On the other hand,” his voice shifted, becoming cold, “do not confuse our suffering for weakness. We welcome you by our sides, yes, but only by our sides. If you’re not next to us, you’re most certainly across from us- and that is a place I do not recommend standing.”

He smiled again. “All this is to say: hang on. Endure the cold just a little longer. The coming days will be difficult, yes. They’ll scare and bewilder you, and at times you’ll wish for your old life back, but my promise to you is this: if you stay with me, if you give me, give us, a chance, you’ll soon know peace like you’ve never known it before.”
Zane cut the line. His fellow Children cheered and applauded, satisfied by his speech. A moment later he unmuted the Captain’s Holo.

“Do you honestly think the people of this ship will just roll over and accept your command,” she asked.

“I suspect there will be some losses. Resistance is a part of human nature.” He looked over at Peabody, then back to the Captain. “But eventually they’ll come to see what we offer. In the end they’ll thank us for what we did today.”

“And what exactly do you offer?”

“The true path.”

Ashby scoffed. “To death, maybe.”

He grinned. “No, Captain- to eternity.”

On that true and final word, the lights in Mining went out. The expansive deck was plunged into darkness, lit only by strips and panels of emergency bioluminescence.
It was a blackout, not all power but most of it. The ambient light on Captain Ashby’s holographic face dimmed, proving the Bridge to be affected as well. “Why are you turning off the lights,” she asked him.

Zane replied, “I’m not.”

 

\^/

 

Given their previous experience with elevators, Nicolai and Kash decided to take the stairs.

It would be a long haul from Deck Fourteen all the way up to the Medbay on Three- especially without the aid of an elevator- but fortunately there was a Secondary Medbay on Eleven for just such emergencies. They needed to reach it before Monika went into shock, or worse. Nicolai had tried calling into the station to inform them of their emergency, but no one had picked up the call. Strange, but he could only imagine how many fires- both figurative and literal- the other Officers were currently dealing with.
Kash carried the woman in his arms. He was the smaller of the two men, but he’d insisted. Nicolai looked at the burnt woman in his partner’s arms. “We have to call her husband,” he said.

“The hell we do. We don’t have time for that.”

“He needs to know what’s going on. You would want to know.”

Kash frowned. “You do it then. I don’t want to talk to that loser.”

If Nicolai didn’t know better, he’d say there was a tinge of jealousy there. Nicolai called Dez, who picked up before a name was able to pop up on the display. “Monika?” His voice was strained, panicked.

“It’s Nicolai, but I have Monika.”

“Oh, thank God,” Dez said. “I haven’t been able to get through to her. I woke up and everything was crazy. It-”

“Dez,” Nicolai stopped the man. “She’s hurt.”

There was a pause on the line. “What happened?”

“Not really sure. There was an explosion in Engineering, that’s all we know.”

“It’s these Edenist assholes. I’ll kill every damn one of them if she-” He stopped himself this time. “How bad is it?”

“Bad. But Sunn says if we can get her help, she has a chance. We’re heading to the Secondary Medbay on Eleven.” He considered showing Dez his wife on Holo but decided it would only further panic the guy.

“Alright. I’ll head there now. All I can say is you’d better make it.”

“We’ll make it.” Nicolai prepared to end the call. “And Dez,” he added, “how do you know it was the Edenists who set it off?”

Another pause. “You don’t know?”

Nicolai glanced up at Kash, who was busy pretending he wasn’t listening to the conversation. “Know what?”

“The bastards are taking over the ship.”

After he’d hung up, Nicolai returned to his partner’s side. Kash looked up from the dying woman in his arms. “He’s still a loser,” Kash concluded.

The men continued their climb, both noticing they hadn’t run into anyone along the way. It appeared no one wanted to go toward the massive explosion, a choice that didn’t surprise them in the least.

They’d only gotten as far as Deck Thirteen when the lights went out.

“What the hell is this now,” Kash sighed in the darkened stairway.

“Good thing we didn’t take the elevator. The explosion must have caused more damage than we thought.” Nicolai turned on his light. At the next landing he checked a darkened door panel, finding the lock to be on manual-only mode.

Kash shook his head. “So do we call it in?”

“I’m sure they already know what’s going on. And if they don’t,” he added, “they will soon.”

 

\^/

 

James Crick knew peace. As an Allcleric he carried not just one God in his heart, but many. He brought their life-saving words through the cosmos, a torch-bearer of the highest order. Crick welcomed with open arms all that allowed themselves to be illuminated by the transformative power of belief.

It had been many years since he’d first heard of the Children of Eden, mentioned in passing during a conversation with a passenger. His initial doubt gave way to curiosity about the new ways religion could form in deep space, so far from their original home. What he imagined at first would be akin to mold growing in a dark, damp basement turned out to be a personal awakening for Crick, the second in his life and the most powerful by far. Zane Nolan, practically a teenager then, had impressed in him a deep love for God, in a way that felt new and fresh. In their faith he found all that he’d been seeking, the purpose of his life brought further into focus than it had ever been. Here was belief existing not against science, not in spite of it, not even alongside it, but because of it, intertwined with it until they were indistinguishable from one another. Here was faith not in theory but in fact, in living and breathing form.

Here was God in the flesh.

Over time he’d won over all but the most analytical of his fellow Allclerics, those few who didn’t allow the love of God past their minds and into their hearts. Their doubt became especially pronounced once the Children began to waiver in their worship of the all-knowing Blackwood and his foretold vessel. They took the shift in doctrine as a sign of insecurity, yet where they saw flaws and cracks, Crick saw evolution. This faith was young and fruitful, and an apple still growing was subject to rapid change and transfiguration.

Those few, the doubters among them, would likely have to die in the coming times. It seemed a waste of perfectly good people, but then there was always need for sacrifices.

Now darkness had seized the Ark, not so much a total loss of power- the kind poor Captain Ashby was currently being subjected to- as it was a shutdown of several, main systems by an unknown party. Several of their fellow Children had been eagerly trying to turn the lights back on for the past few minutes. Apparently, according to the men who knew such things, it was shipwide, a rolling failure that had spread across the entire ship. Even with the boy genius on their side, they’d been unable to recover the lights.

Whispers rose up from the shadows. Men gasping and praying. Crick heard Zane ask what was the matter but heard no reply. They were all entranced by a dark form approaching from the far end of the deck.

It moved in twitches and slides, uneven amounts of a man twisting toward them in growling motion. A man twice Crick’s size shouted something about the prophecies, the ones they all knew and feared even as they swore not to, and yet as the shape moved closer, revealing itself to them, this entwined column of man and something more, Crick knew, as the others did, that it could be nothing other than the very thing they’d long feared and denied.

“The abnormal ones,” Crick joined in their whispers.

The thing spasming toward them was naked, not just of clothes but mostly of skin as well, with one arm three times the size of the other. Not just an arm, an undulating tentacle like those of a cephalopod, complete with circular, bowl-shaped suckers covering the bottom half. The suckers showed up elsewhere on the creatures body, bursting forth like cancerous polyps from the angry flesh of its legs and belly and along other, indescribable formations.

Crick’s eyes moved up the creature, dragging along the exposed musculature that rose up its neck and hatched like devil’s finger fungus to become the staging of a human face. But it wasn’t just any face. Everyone not living in a Cryopod knew it. That face had been everywhere the last week, on screens all over the ship and at every public gathering. But Crick knew it more intimately than that. Just a few weeks earlier, he himself had spoken to the man that owned that face.

Somewhere nearby, a man began to scream.

 

\^/

 

Captain Ashby had been watching the feed in horror. The mutiny had been more than enough to deal with, complicated only slightly further by the sudden loss of lighting systems. But now, standing on a Bridge faintly lit by yellow-green bioluminescence, she stared at what details she could pick out from the monstrous figure stomping through the shadows of the Mining Deck, that thing slink-stepping toward the men and women trying to take her ship from her. As she watched the way its octopoidal limb slither-slapped against its own reddened flesh, there was just one thing she knew with certainty.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t human. Not entirely.

Ashby glanced back at the others sharing the darkened Bridge with her. First Officer Oberlander seemed to have briefly forgotten his hands were tied behind his back as he stared wide-eyed at the scene playing out via her screen. Hopes, too, that traitorous leech, was entranced by what he saw in the Holo. Side-by-side, sharing in the same terror, it was easy to forget that moments ago they were cursing and shouting at one another, two men on either side of a power grab.

Until she looked lower, closer, at the young man on the floor. The bloodflow from his stomach had stopped, the color gone from his skin. His eyes were unfocused and his chest, the one bearing the nametag she herself had affixed to his uniform on his first day of service, had sunken in and gone still.

Officer Pagani was gone. Murdered at the hands of a man he’d trusted.

Murdered by Hopes.

Ashby felt a tug deep inside her gut. Like the explosion that had taken out her Engineering Deck, it detonated, radiating outward until it had consumed every inch of her, incinerating all in its path.

With a pressure building in her chest she ran at Hopes the liar, Hopes the betrayer, Hopes the murderer, screaming all the way.

 

 

\^/

 

One minute Doctor Hannigan had been following Sunn’s instructions to open the launch door controls- pull the panel forward, extend the manual override knob, spin to charge- and the next complete chaos erupted on Deck Eight.

From where she was tucked away, in the corner nearest the massive airlock doors, Hannigan’s greatest worry was being seen by the Edenists. But then came the screaming, the shouts and scuffling echoing in the dark as machinery and storage devices were knocked into and over. In seconds men and women were reduced to children, appropriate considering their group’s self-chosen name, but disconcerting nonetheless, and she wanted to know why.

Her first thought was that someone was fighting back against the Edenists, Peace Officers or just concerned passengers taking it upon themselves to stop the uprising. But that didn’t explain the tone of their voices. The superstitious fear mixed with primal panic. Nor did it explain the growling and slurping.

Then Hannigan saw it. It walked upright like a man, yet from there the design deviated severely. It stumbled out of the shadows, its balance off-center due to its uneven anatomy. Like a crab with one larger, weaponized arm, its slimy, cancerous organ danced on the air.

“Dear God,” she uttered, “what is that?”

“I must insist that you focus on the task at hand,” Sunn said, as if she could brush off such a thing. Meanwhile one of the braver Edenists had stepped forward to try and stop the creature, but he was unceremoniously knocked out of the way. His head connected with the ground in such a way that it caused a sick thump. The man convulsed twice, his legs flopping against the metallic ground, then stopped.

Was this the animal responsible for the arm in her Medbay, the one that killed Baptiste Marlow?

“Doctor,” Sunn urged.

“Okay. Shit. Okay.” She returned her attention to the panel but found her hands shook when she tried to work the controls. She cursed them. “Can’t you do this,” she asked Sunn.

“I cannot. You are doing a sufficient job.”

It’s always been my goal to be sufficient, she thought. As the shouting and running continued, she followed Sunn’s instructions. First she powered up the screen, then navigated its dim menus as told by the invisible man in her ear. Menu to submenu, routine to subroutine, she became the conduit for Sunn’s violations against his own human protection laws.

Ventilation_command_lockdown.

O2_feed_command_disengage.

Barometric_control_command_6.

Over her shoulder she witnessed a second Edenist try and fail to stop the monster. This man, too, was knocked aside like an unwanted doll. As she continued to follow the instructions spoken to her by Sunn, she felt a sudden throbbing in her temples, a sensation like someone was trying to push her eyeballs into her skull. “Why is my head pounding,” she asked. Before Sunn could answer, she checked the readout on the screen in front of her. “Hold on- the air pressure is increasing.”

“Correct,” Sunn said as if addressing his prize student. “This program was designed for situations requiring emergency elimination of contaminated materials.” Then, perhaps sensing that Hannigan didn’t fully grasp the situation, added, “The program engages rapid decompression of the launch zone.”

“Oh,” Hannigan said. Then: “Shit.”

“When activation is complete, I would warn you to find something sturdy to hold onto.”

She scoffed. “Now you warn me,” she said, not caring if Sunn couldn’t process sarcasm very well. A few seconds later she reached the final command.

Hannigan looked at the screen under her hovering finger. It flashed three words at her, the same three words again and again followed by a question mark. Normally it was the most banal and harmless of questions, but just then it felt like the hardest question she’d ever been asked.

Are you sure?

She heard a man begging shamelessly for his life. Drawn to the panicked voice, she looked up in time to see the half-invertebrate monster rip Allcleric Crick’s arm out of its socket, uniform and all. A scream erupted from the man as he fell to the floor, full of the most gut-wrenching pain imaginable. Even for a Doctor with emergency training, it was a wretched and guttural sound the likes of which she’d never heard.

As the creature descended on Crick, intent on finishing the job, Doctor Hannigan caught sight of what passed for its face. In that half-second, that momentary glimpse, everything changed. This wasn’t the beast responsible for what had become of the teacher, Baptiste Marlow.

It was Baptiste Marlow.

Without hesitation, Hannigan turned back to the screen and pressed yes. As she turned to run, to find something sturdy to hold onto, the door override alarm began to reverberate like a hammer inside her skull.

 

\^/

 

Gunnar was tired of waiting. After listening to Svarog mumble nonsense to himself for countless minutes, he wanted nothing more than to get back inside the ship, take his boots off and stick his foot directly up the ass of whichever Cultist had stuck Gunnar out there with the lunatic.

Floating next to the control panel, he had already completed his half of the emergency decompression sequence. All that was left was to wait for Doctor Hannigan to do her half. Sunn had told them his plan, which at this point was their only hope. Gunnar admitted to some disappointment when he heard who was to be their co-conspirator on the inside. Just because she was a brilliant Doctor didn’t mean she could do what they needed her to do, any more than Gunnar being the best Fabricator on the Ark meant he could paint a landscape. This little job was way outside her lane, and even Desanto, who seemed to have a soft spot for the Doctor, didn’t look thrilled when he found out whose face was on the card up Sunn’s sleeve.

There went Svarog again. Babbling Cultist nonsense with his eyes shut tight. “He came to me. Came to me in my sleep. In a dream, a waking dream. The Creator told me, he told me, he and the vessel will lead us there. Holy light and holy flesh. Recycled and reused.”

“Why me,” Desanto suddenly asked Svarog. Svarog’s eyes shot open, the pupils dilated like an open door.

“Wh-what do you mean?”

“Why am I the vessel? What makes me so different from anyone else on the Ark?” Desanto seemed to be growing tired of the games.

“I…don’t know,” Svarog replied in a confessional tone.

Desanto’s eyes widened. “You don’t know? You can’t do the things you’ve done without understanding why.” His voice was like boiling water about to spill over.

“I can if I have faith,” Svarog replied. “Without faith I have nothing. Without faith I am nothing.”

At that Desanto’s features loosened. Whether he understood or pitied the man, Gunnar was unsure. “Actiones secundum fidei,” Desanto said, more to himself than anyone else. Desanto didn’t notice Svarog go pale at the words, but Gunnar did. The man looked as if he’d heard those words before. Gunnar was about to press the matter when he was interrupted- for once by something good.

The door override alarm. The sound of it died before it was born, but the beacon light shone bright.

“Ten points to Hannigan,” Gunnar shouted. He’d never doubted her for a second.

“Stay clear of debris,” Sunn warned, “including bodies.”

Gunnar frowned. “And just like that I’m no longer excited.”

Slowly, like a lumbering titan, the doors began to open. Gunnar looked one last time onto the vast sea of stars all around them, trying to remember when he felt something for them. The truth was, aside from the obvious trepidation about what lay ahead, Gunnar was also curious what made Desanto so special in the eyes of the Cultists. “Who would know,” he asked Svarog. Svarog blinked. “Who would know why he’s the vessel?” He looked at Desanto, who nodded, perhaps appreciating his taking the situation seriously.

Svarog stared at both of them in turn. “The Creator, of course. And possibly Zane. He’s the keeper, the keeper of the word. If any of us knows it’s him.”

“Well then let’s go talk to him,” Gunnar said. Then he leaned forward, propelling hard against the air flow trying to hold him back.

24. Grex

024grex

 

As he was about to leave the airlock, to propel once more out into space, Gunnar steeled himself to glance back at Engineering. That place, once a second home to him, was now a charred and hollowed-out ruin. He’d come to terms with that. All he wanted, the one thing he wished for above all else, was to look back and not see a giant goddamn spider crawling after them. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t much to ask, that the creature needed to breathe oxygen, that it abandoned its catch, as well as all other potential prey, out of self-preservation.

He looked.

And there was nothing behind him.

“Well thank God for small favors,” he sighed. Then he let go and drifted out into the void.
The three men made their way up and around the outside of the ship, passing level after level of the Ark starting with Deck Thirteen: Energy and Propulsion. The massive engines at the rear of the ship, driven by the Hawking Drive, were silent and cold.

They’d agreed to use as little propellant as necessary, in case their stay out there became extended. They’d tried to reactivate the Dorniers on their dead recharging station, hoping to use the drones for the task ahead, at least to get Svarog his own propellant, but the units didn’t respond to any of their commands. Even when Gunnar opened one up and tried to manually reboot the unit it failed to respond. It was as if someone had remotely deactivated the Dorniers.

Svarog and his Edenist buddies knew what they were doing- and that scared him. That was why Gunnar towed Svarog behind him, using a length of nanometal cable they’d found in Engineering. It wasn’t that he was particularly worried about saving Svarog’s life, it was that he wanted the crazy bastard and his club of lunatics to answer for their crimes.

Desanto, meanwhile, had barely said a word. Gunnar didn’t blame him. Finding out a segment of people you live with think you’re the Antichrist had to have its effects on a guy. Gunnar got the feeling Desanto had a hundred questions for their new friend, but none he wanted to ask in front of anyone. Which meant he at least partly believed that what Svarog would say was true. All that psychotic rhetoric fed right into the problems Desanto had been having. The guy was still adjusting to the hack job Sunn had done on his brain, and here he was being served a plateful of you’re-the-devil.

Gunnar needed to squash that shit before it got under Desanto’s skin. He turned to see Svarog, his passenger gripping the cable and holding on for the ride. “These abnormal ones,” Gunnar started. Just the name made Svarog visibly uncomfortable.

“Y-yes?”

“When you say they’re the Creator’s children, you’re talking about Blackwood?”

“There’s only one Creator,” Svarog shot back.

“Yeah, but someone had to create him, right?”

Svarog thought about it a moment. “You’re trying to confuse me.”

“I’m trying to wrap my head around your ideology, because it sounds pretty fucking flawed to me.”

Svarog blinked. “The Gods made the Creator. The Creator made the Ark.”

“And the abnormal ones.”

He took another long pause. “We don’t speak about that,” Svarog said.

“I get that. I wouldn’t want to, either. But I’m a little confused here- I thought you guys worshiped Blackwood, yet you’re saying he made these ‘abnormal ones’ that stop you from getting to Eden? So which is it- do you think he’s the second coming of Jesus or is he the snake tempting you with evil fruit?”

Yet another pause. “B-both, I suppose. He shows us the path with one hand and takes it away with the other. We are all rats in his maze.”

Gunnar snorted. “Pretty good for an ice pop.” They passed Deck Twelve. Gunnar thought of Abigail.

“The Creator’s power extends beyond that physical shell you see. You wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re right, I wouldn’t.” Above all, Gunnar still couldn’t believe the Edenists thought Desanto was some kind of Antichrist figure. He didn’t blame Desanto for the crazy beliefs of the Cultists- far from it- but he did wonder where they got their ideas. Most people, if they absolutely, positively had to choose an Antichrist, would choose Gunnar rather than Desanto.

He was almost offended by their choice.

“So in this maze of yours, is Desanto the cheese, or the poison,” Gunnar asked, and Desanto threw him a look.

“That depends on who you ask. Most think he’s the poison. The single greatest threat to our voyage to Eden.”

“Hence the bomb up his ass. There are easier ways to kill a guy, you know.” Desanto threw him an even stronger look. “What? I’m not saying I want them to, it just seems over-complicated.”

Svarog’s eyes had a strange, glazed look, as if he were lost in some distant past. “The death of the vessel, that was only half the reason for the attack.”

“Okay, I’ll bite- what’s the other?” Deck Eleven, Farms and Food Processing.

“To take the Ark off the false path, the path of the heretics.”

“How does setting off a mining charge in Engineering do that?”

Svarog’s eyes focused, rejoining the present time. “It doesn’t,” he said. “Not on its own.”
Desanto and Gunnar looked at each other, realizing what he meant.

“How many more bombs are there,” Desanto asked, finally breaking his silent stretch.

“First we cut off the hands, so they can’t fight back,” Svarog said. “Then we silence the mouth, so they can’t call for help. And finally, we sever the brain.”

“So they can’t think for themselves,” Desanto finished.

“If it can’t think, it can’t heal. If it can’t heal it can die. That way is the true path. The path to Eden.”

Gunnar felt the pull of fear in his gut. “Jesus Christ. Okay, so two more bombs, Communications and-”

A loud static-sound came through their comms, cutting Gunnar off and scaring all of them. It was only coming through in waves, but the static contained a definite pattern, morphing and tuning in and out until it became a clear yet hollow voice.

“Hello, Erick. Hello, Gunnar,” the voice broke through. Gunnar would have known its owner anywhere.

It was Sunn. The brain that was about to be severed.
\^/

Doctor Hannigan was angry at herself. She hadn’t followed her instincts about Allcleric Crick, and as a result she’d gotten herself into trouble, the kind she might not come back from.

“We would be honored if you joined us on this holy day,” Crick had said. In so many words the Allcleric had revealed himself to her, showing her his true self. Of all the religions he carried with him, clearly there was one he held above all- the newest, and possibly the most dangerous.

He was an Edenist.

She’d tried to run, of course, but by then a pair of Edenists had shown up to help the Allcleric. The bigger of the two had grabbed her, pinning her arms against her back as she struggled to break free of the large man’s grip. When Crick rejoined her, he had slipped a knife out from his Allcleric garb.

“Please, Doctor,” he smiled, “no fighting- not today.”

“Go to hell,” she replied.

Hannigan had been to Deck Eight plenty of times, but almost always on the opposite end, in the Science Labs. She’d only set foot in the Mining area a handful of times, usually to treat a Miner for an injury they’d sustained on an expedition. She found they were a stubborn group, who took pride in shaking off injuries and pretending it didn’t hurt. The rare times she did see a Miner, it was usually in the privacy of her Medlab, far away from the judgmental eyes of the others.

As such, the Mining Deck was still something of a new sight for her. Where Engineering had one small airlock for Mechanics to make spacewalks and service the hull, Mining was designed so that nearly half the deck would be opened up to space. That way the small fleet of seven spacecraft would be free to exit the Ark. There was one large Driller as well as two, smaller Drillers, plus three Tows for hauling materials and one Demolitions Craft. Machinery filled the deck, all of it dedicated to processing asteroids. Inside those Separators, hunks of asteroid were broken down into their valuable components for the Ark to use, including Hydrogen, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Iron and so many other industrial metals and elements.

All of this had once been explained to her by Frank Peabody, the Lead Miner who was currently bleeding fifty feet from where she stood. She pulled free of the large Cultist’s grip. “Stop touching me,” she hissed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He pointed a thick finger at her. “Be a good girl now,” he chastised.

She frowned at him. “God help you if you ever need medical attention.”

A strange grin spread across his leathery face. “The Gods are helping me.” Then he pointed to Zane Nolan, busy negotiating with the Holo of Captain Ashby.

\^/

Officer Pagani was dying.

While Captain Ashby had been speaking with Zane Nolan, leader of the Cultists, for the last few minutes, her Navigator had been bleeding out. The stab wound, delivered to his belly by her Communications Officer, was ebbing blood in slower and slower pulses. His face had gone pale, the skin sallow and sweaty. She wanted to ask Zane if she could get the man the help he needed, but she was afraid it would come at a terrible price.

Meanwhile, First Officer Oberlander was hunched over Pagani, trying his best to stop the bloodflow with his hands. They’d been trained in basic first aid, but nothing that covered this. Hopes, bloody knife in hand, kept warning Oberlander not to do or try anything funny or he would use the knife again. Ashby had never particularly liked her Communications Officer, but she didn’t imagine he was capable of this. Part of her, the cold, analytical side, was disappointed that she’d underestimated the man’s potential, how far he was willing to go for his mission.

The other half of her, the one watching one of her Bridge Officers bleed to death on the floor, couldn’t stop thinking about her wife. Ness was home alone at that moment. There was a good chance she’d heard the explosion yet was stuck behind the quarantine with no way of knowing what was going on. She hadn’t tried to call yet- that the Captain knew of, it was possible they were blocking calls- but that didn’t mean she hadn’t felt the blast.

Then there was the other thought: what if the Cultists, the so-called Children of Eden, were planning to take Ness hostage? For all she knew they could be inside her quarters that very moment, pulling Ness out by her hair while she begged them to stop, if not for her safety then for theirs, for the good of the quarantine.

And for the baby.

Ashby pushed those thoughts down, drowning them in the washbin of her rage. Not only were those deranged terrorists not going to succeed, they were going to pay for what they’d done. She glanced down at her lap before looking up again.

Zane Nolan’s smugness bled through the Holo. A second man joined him by his side, a man Ashby recognized as Allcleric Crick. By the way they nodded to each other, they were already well-acquainted. “So what will it be, Captain,” Zane asked, “can we count on your cooperation to ensure a peaceful transition?”

“There are many things you can count on in the coming days, Mister Nolan, but my cooperation is not one of them.” She glanced down again, then back up.

Zane nodded with an inevitable smile. “I knew you would be stubborn. That’s why we didn’t stop at just one.”

Ashby squinted. “What are you talking about?”

“Charges, Captain. There are more to come, set to go off in key areas of the ship. That is, unless we stop them first. So again I ask you: what will it be?”

She glanced down one, final time at the screen in her lap, pressing the button that sent the distress call she’d been activating. If the Communications channels were functioning properly, if they had any chance at squashing this thing, it was at that moment heading to the Peace Officer station.

Zane had said it himself: unless we stop them first.

\^/

On Deck Four, at the front desk of the Peace Officer station, Officer Nakajima bit her nails.

There had been an accident in Engineering, that she knew. Everyone on board who wasn’t in Cryo had felt the blast. The updates had been scarce, though, and no news was always the worst news. A few family members of Mechanics and Engineers had called in, concerned about the well-being of their husbands and wives and, in one case, the most nervous of the bunch, the girl’s mother. Nakajima could only keep her voice calm and steady and explain to them that they should wait in their quarters for further instructions.

That was fine for the passengers, but even the Peace Officers had been left on standby. Inspector Raymond had ordered them to stay put and await orders from the Captain. “If those people see us running around with our hair on fire, it’s game over,” Raymond said. As was often the case those days, Nakajima didn’t entirely agree with the Inspector’s orders.

She looked up from her screen to glance around at the small station. Song and Eckstein were both at their desks, neither of them looking too concerned. Officer Trent, so new he didn’t have a partner yet, was at the back running through training Holos. The last she knew, Officers Nicolai and Kash were out investigating the disappearance of Baptiste Marlow, while Gadhavi and Wolfe were on patrol. And that, that was the full roster of Ark One’s active Peace Officer force- except one.

Her Partner, Luisa Brigham, had taken the day off to be with her sister. She’d never seen Brigham so shaken up as when the news came in of the attack her sister Vanessa had suffered. It was still a mystery as to what had stung her in Genlab 12. That bit of strangeness, combined with the disappearance of Baptiste, and now the explosion on Fourteen, had put Nakajima and a few others on edge. Some of them hid it better than others, but she saw a lot of doubt behind the eyes of her fellow Officers.

A flashing light caught her eye. Her screen glowed red. A silent alarm had been tripped, and she opened it to see who had sent the distress signal.

It was from the Captain.

Nakajima’s pulse quickened as she read the only two words contained within the message. They appeared to have been typed quickly, with no concern for punctuation or capitalization. They were, simply, mutiny and mining.

Pushing away from the Station’s front desk, Officer Nakajima sprung to her feet and hurried to Inspector Raymond’s office, not bothering to see if Song and Eckstein had seen the distress signal. She knocked briefly before opening the door, finding the Inspector seated, as always, behind his large desk.

“Did you see it?

The man frowned. “I did.”

“What are we waiting for? The Captain needs our help.”

As Inspector Raymond stroked his white goatee, Nakajima glanced up at the ancient musket displayed on his wall. Despite his constant attempts to maintain order and peace on the Ark, the Inspector had a love for the old ways of war, and would, given the chance, speak for hours about names like Lincoln, Lee and Grant.

“Inspector,” she prodded.

“Grab my coat,” he replied.

Finally. Nakajima went to where Inspector Raymond always hung his Inspector’s coat. She slipped the coat off the hook, finding it heavier than expected. As she glanced inside, curious why it weighed so much, she spotted something peeking out from the inside pocket.

It was a knife. A knife with strange carvings in the handle. She’d heard of this kind of knife before, of what kind of people carried them. But before she could finish the thought, she felt a rush of air on the back of her neck as something came down on her.
The hum of a Peace Stick was the last sound she heard before the darkness fell.

\^/

Desanto was grateful to hear Sunn’s voice.

He hated that.

Apparently Sunn had been trying to contact them ever since the explosion. It was only by several major reroutes through underlying systems that he had managed to reach them, and even then it took thirty layers of encryption to sneak the signal out. “It appears someone is blocking me,” he explained, “removing me from the Ark one system at a time. I have been attempting to locate them with little success.”

“The boy.” Svarog looked at them in turn, another moment of clarity before he slipped back into darkness. “The most brilliant Coder I’ve ever seen. He’s the one killing your Sunn.”

Gunnar scoffed. “Seriously? The bombs weren’t enough, you had to start ripping out the plugs, too?”

Svarog shrank. “We were just being thorough.”

“Yeah, well being thorough doesn’t mean you fuck the corpse.”

“Shut up,” Desanto spoke over them. “That doesn’t matter now. The only thing that matters is stopping the Edenists before we lose the Ark.”

“Let’s not forget the abnormal ones,” Gunnar pointed.

“Speaking of which,” Desanto addressed Sunn, “Do you know about the creatures on the ship?”

“The hybrids.”

Desanto knew it. From the moment he’d met him, he hadn’t trusted Sunn. There was a saying someone had told him, someone long forgotten: the fly on the wall always has shit on its wings. “How long have you known?”

“Forgive me, but it is my suggestion that we delay this conversation until a more appropriate time. The more pressing issue is your reentry into the Ark before your life functions are put in danger.”

“I can agree with that,” Gunnar said.

“Fine. But we are talking about this the second we get a chance,” Desanto said.

“I understand.” As they made their approach, Sunn coached Desanto and Gunnar how to enter Mining by keying into an emergency access panel. The trick was- and there was always a trick- the command had to be double-confirmed from the inside.
Gunnar exhaled. “Let me guess: you don’t have access.”

“Actually, I do,” Sunn said.

“Nice!”

“However,” he added, “there is a group of passengers present on Deck Eight, and as you are no doubt aware I cannot injure or otherwise allow a passenger to come to harm.”

“Tell them to clear the area,” Desanto suggested.

“I am afraid that will not work.” Just then they rounded the final bend of the ship, a massive door becoming visible ahead. It was the oversized airlock where Mining opened up into space, allowing the craft to come and go.

“Why?”

“I have not been entirely forthcoming in regards to the situation on Mining Deck. There is currently a small group of passengers present, this is true, however not all of them would be considered friendly to the idea of helping you. In fact, they are the cause of your current predicament.”

Gunnar grunted angrily. “Edenists. How many?”

“Of the eight passengers present, six seem to be associated with the group in question. Their leader, Zane Nolan, is among them.”

It sounded like a hostage situation to Desanto, though with the current state of the Ark there were technically far more than two hostages on board. “Listen to me- I understand that you can’t put passengers in direct danger, but if we can get in there, we can save far more than eight passengers.”

“I am aware of that,” Sunn replied. “That is why there may be another way.”

\^/

A bomb. Those maniacs had set off a bomb on the Ark, and there were still more out there.

Before the information could even settle into Cybele Hannigan’s mind, a light had filled up her eyes, surrounding her in its humming glow. For a moment she thought she was having a stroke, perhaps brought on by the stress of the situation. But then a voice had spoken into her ear.

“Do not be alarmed, Doctor,” it said. “Only you can hear me. I am projecting an exact copy of yourself around you. Please nod if you understand.”

Recognizing Sunn’s voice, she nodded carefully. The light followed her movement.
“Good. At the count of three, please slowly step backward.”

Cybele Hannigan stepped back out of herself. In her place stood a perfect Holo of her. It even swayed slightly, mimicking the movements of a living human being. The feeling of looking at herself from the outside, in the third-person, was surreal to say the least. It was, quite literally, an out-of-body experience.

“Continue backward.”

The Cultists, especially the large one who had dragged her to Mining, hadn’t noticed a thing. They were paying close attention to the conversation between Zane and Ashby’s Holo, their leaders words alternately heated and chilly.

“These are people’s lives you’re playing with,” Ashby spit.

“Funny, Captain, I was about to say the same to you,” Zane replied.

Sunn’s voice filled her ears again. “Doctor, please continue to move backward. There is a Driller to your left. You can hide behind it momentarily.”

Cybele took one, slow step back at a time, straining not to make a sound or catch anyone’s attention with fast movements. Her legs shook and her mind screamed, but slowly, one inch at a time, she made her way around the craft, around its sharpened drill with its mangling, nanosteel teeth, and behind.

She ducked down just as the Large Cultist glanced back. A second later and he would have spotted her for sure. Not breathing, not blinking, she prayed he didn’t try to touch or grab her doppelganger. He’d be in for quite the surprise when his hand passed right through her.

“Now what,” she whispered to Sunn when she felt somewhat safe.

“Now there is something I must ask you to do, though the decision to do it or not must ultimately be yours.”

Well that didn’t sound great. “Okay,” she said, waiting for more.

“First, I must ask you two questions: one, what are your feelings regarding Erick Desanto? And two, would you be opposed to exposing yourself?”

Cybele paused. “Exposing myself…to Erick?”

“No, Doctor,” Sunn replied. “To the vacuum of space.”

\^/

It wasn’t just the Captains and Doctors who found themselves having to deal with the uprising. The Children of Eden, who minutes earlier had been trusted neighbors, workers and family members, had begun their coup in earnest throughout the Ark. Knives out, they gathered up unwitting passengers, people still scared and confused by the earlier explosion, and forced them into areas where they could be watched and managed.

“We don’t want to hurt anyone,” one of them said. “We’re here to save you.”
Cornelia and Imani had just been returning from the cafeteria when they heard the shouting. Before they could figure out what the issue was, they found themselves swept up in a crowd of frightened faces. They were pushed down the hall, gathered together by two men with knives who made no concessions for the young or the old. All were shoved along, pushed to move and be silent.

“Where are all the Peace Officers,” Cornelia whispered.

“Maybe they’re in on it,” Imani replied.

“They can’t be. Not all of them.”

Imani frowned. “You don’t know what people can do, especially when you-know-who gets to them.”

She hadn’t wanted to say it. Cornelia knew who was responsible for the mutiny. She knew the faces of the men and women carrying the knives. Knew who they followed.

“Not Nicolai. He would never join them.”

“Then I guess he has his own problems,” Imani said.

One of the Edenists noticed their conversation. Cornelia knew him. His name was Will Miller, he was one of the Environment Keepers. He was usually a harmless bug of a man, more interested in the job than anything else, but he looked very different with a knife in his hand. “You work the farms, don’t you,” he asked her through squinted eyes.

“Yes.”

“Then you should be better at herding.”

Imani almost jumped out at him, but Cornelia managed to hold her back, calm her down. The second Edenist noticed Will talking to them and quickly made his way over. Cornelia heard a word exchanged between them, a word that didn’t surprise her. He was warning Will about her. Telling him not to talk to her, not to touch her.

The word he used was wife.

“You should be ashamed,” she blurted. “Don’t you have a child?”

Will Miller turned back to her. Dryly he replied, “Didn’t you used to?”

She was stunned silent. The wind had been knocked out of her. With legs shaking she heard the distant sound of Imani shouting, a scuffle, then more shouting.
Then she noticed something strange. The light above her started to flicker, a feeling like moths in her eyes. Soon the next light did the same. And the next, and the next, all the way down the hall.

Red lights replaced the white. Doors contracted and locked. Screens powered down.

“Is this us,” the second Edenist asked Will.

“I don’t think so,” Will replied.

It must have been a play of light, a disturbance in the eye from the red lights, because it looked to Cornelia, really looked, like a dark mass of arms and legs and teeth was moving up the hallway.

Moving directly toward them.