Captain Ashby had been staring at the elm tree sculpture on her shelf far longer than she would care to admit. Lately she’d been ignoring her reports, spending most of her office time lost in thought while conversations with Ness and Hannigan played on loop inside her head.
You need to make a decision soon.
Ashby didn’t want to outright say she regretted going through with the pregnancy Ness had so passionately asked for, but she would have postponed the fertilization treatments if she’d known what was coming around the corner. Ness was in the second trimester now, her belly just starting to show.
The baby won’t survive the freeze.
What had they gotten themselves into? How had she let this happen? Instead of family life being an escape from her Vocation, the Vocation had become her escape from her family life. And now she wasn’t very good at either, sitting alone and getting nothing done.
As she stared at the sculpture its branches began to shake, faintly at first, making her think it was in her head. But then the movement became more obvious, the heavy base rattling against the shelf. A moment later the groan of stressed metal moved through the room, as if the walls themselves were about to split open and dump Ashby out like the yolk of an egg. Before she could call the bridge and check if they’d experienced the same phenomenon, the emergency alarm began to blare overhead.
Level One emergency.
Ashby jumped up from her chair without hesitation and ran for the door. She burst from her office and ascended the stairs to the bridge, where she was met with a crowd of more alarms, their lights shining down on a roomful of concerned faces. “What was that,” she asked First Officer Oberlander. He was standing behind Officer Hopes, looking over the Communication Officer’s shoulder at the man’s workstation screen.
“An explosion of some kind. We’re reading a loss of pressure on Fourteen,” Oberlander said. His eyes were hollow, his voice monotone as he added, “We’re showing fire alarms in Engineering.”
Engineering had been in the middle of a spacewalk the last she checked. That was the reason for their engine all-stop. Perhaps something had gone wrong, though what could go wrong with a standard repairs spacewalk that would cause an explosion she didn’t know. “Which section is showing a fire?”
Oberlander looked up at her. “All of them.”
“Show me.” Ashby rushed to the front of the bridge as a vidfeed came to life on the large screen. Of the eight camera angles on the grid, only two were functional, the others dead and black, with a third feed barely more than a wall of dark static. It was enough to see that Engineering had been thrown into absolute chaos. Fires burned amid terrible wreckage, an explosion of some kind having torn the place apart. The deck had sustained extreme damage. Equipment was scattered and broken, the walls scarred by flame and impact. Even the fire countermeasures seemed to have been taken out, leaving the fires to burn uncontrollably.
The people, the ones left alive, were screaming.
“Oh my God,” Ashby gasped. The floor and ceiling were charred and warped from the explosion but the bulkheads inside them had held, containing the blast to Deck Fourteen. It was a godsend for the rest of the ship, but for those on Deck Fourteen the effect was akin to standing inside a garbage pail as someone dropped a stick of dynamite in with them.
Equally worrying was the fact that the smaller pieces of wreckage including, God help them, the body parts, were beginning to lift off the ground. The smaller bits floated at first, then successfully heavier pieces. The gravity loss in itself wasn’t the worst of it, though, a broken Graviton Drive the likely cause- it was that everything in the air was all drifting the same way. Like an undertow pulling it all out to sea.
Ashby took a step closer to the big screen. She knew the third camera feed, the badly damaged one that was barely visible, to be the one facing the airlock. She pointed to it and said, “Enlarge that one.”
The half-broken feed expanded to fill the empty space taken up by the dead ones, leaving the two working feeds still visible. Once enlarged the image didn’t become clearer, but it did allow Ashby and the others to get a better look at what it was showing them. The wall of dark static wasn’t made up of video noise, it was something else, something obscured by the distorted picture transmitted to them through broken equipment.
It was full of stars.
The airlock was wide open. The undertow, all those larger and larger pieces of metal and corpse drifting in the same direction, were floating toward open space.
“Shut that airlock,” Ashby shouted. The Officers frantically went to work, pulling up systems and subsystems, but nothing on the screen changed. “What’s the problem,” she asked impatiently, wanting nothing more than to close the wound in her ship.
Oberlander looked up from his screen, his eyes haunted. “There is no airlock,” he said. “It’s gone.” Ashby looked back at the screen in time to see a large piece of airborne equipment gain enough momentum to smash one of the cameras, obliterating the feed from the screen. There was only one fully-working feed left, and it was looking directly at an open exit door- a door that lead to the rest of the ship.
“Should we send help,” Officer Oberlander asked. Ashby looked at the faces of her crew staring back at her, waiting for her orders.
“No,” she replied. “I want all doors on that deck locked down. Seal it down.” As she said the words, she was already praying for forgiveness.
Nicolai and Kash were in an elevator heading down to Engineering. Their goal was to ask the about the possibility of fabricating some weapons, to defend themselves against whatever was crawling around the ship. That was the only thing they were concerned with.
Right until everything went to shit.
One second they were discussing what kind of weapons would be most effective without posing a risk of hull puncture, and the next the world was shaking all around them. The elevator knocked around inside the shaft as a concussive blast rocked the car from bottom to top. Nicolai and Kash were tossed around like a pair of Bohap dice, Nicolai banging his back and elbow against the wall and Kash dropping hard to one knee, nearly twisting his wrist in the process of stopping himself.
When the shaking subsided, the elevator stopped dead. Its emergency brakes had engaged. The control screen still functioned, the word LOCKDOWN flashing at them in a deep shade of red.
Kash got to his feet. “What the hell was that,” he asked. Nicolai shrugged, knowing no more than his partner. He decided to ask someone who might.
“Yes, Officer Nicolai,” Sunn’s voice replied.
“What’s going on out there? Why did we stop?”
“There has been a sudden release of energy caused by high temperatures and gas expansion on Deck Fourteen.”
Kash scoffed. “What does that mean?”
“An explosion,” Nicolai said morosely.
“Correct,” Sunn said.
Kash sobered up. “Caused by what?”
“That is currently unknown.”
The Officers exchanged an uneasy look. “Any chance you can get this thing going again and get us out of here?”
“I am afraid not. Although there is sufficient power to operate this unit, it has sustained sufficient damage to render its operation unsafe. Were the emergency brakes to fail, the elevator car could plummet all the way down to the bottom, where the resulting sudden stop would cause catastrophic-”
“That’s quite enough detail, Sunn, thank you,” Nicolai cut him off.
“It is always my intent to offer a complete answer.”
Kash took a deep breath and let it out. “I guess we’re climbing out,” he sighed.
“Looks like it. Sunn, engage emergency exit protocols.” The two men readied themselves for a climb, checking that their peace sticks were secured tightly on their belts.
“Would you like to proceed up or down,” Sunn asked.
Nicolai looked at Kash, waiting to hear his partner’s choice. Did he want to retreat from the problem or go forward and investigate? Without hesitation, Kash said, “Down.”
The guy may have been a prick, but he did his job. Nicolai nodded at his partner, agreeing with the choice.
“Please step back,” Sunn urged. A moment later a panel in the floor slid open, revealing a view of the long drop down the dark elevator shaft that ended, not at the unseen bottom, but at a fire that gushed and billowed two levels down. Flames spewed forth from the door to Engineering, the very door their car had been descending toward. The two men looked at each other, both realizing the same, chilling fact: had they left the station even thirty seconds earlier, they would have been killed in the blast.
Nicolai knelt at the precipice, giving the raging fire below one last look. He slapped a button on the side of the open panel and a ladder extended from the bottom of the elevator car. Then he tapped his name tag. It lit up, throwing light ahead of himself while keeping his hands clear to work, a genius little invention that had come in handy more than once, but never more than today.
He climbed down into the dark elevator shaft, the walls lit by faint bioluminescent patterns and the flicker of fire. Heat rose from below, bringing with it thick smoke that stung his nose and lungs. As he descended the eight-foot ladder, he could only pray it held under his weight. To his knowledge it had never been used, at least not in a long time. If he made it out of there alive, he intended to pay closer attention to the Maintenance inspection logs.
As Nicolai climbed down the ladder, looking to the sides of the shaft for the nearest access panel, Kash poked his head down through the open panel above. They’d agreed to take the ladder one at a time as to not put too much weight on it at once. His partner craned his head, as if listening for something. “What’s wrong,” Nicolai asked.
“Do you hear something?”
Nicolai stopped his descent and focused. The roaring of the fire below was most prominent, filling the space with its hungry growl, but he knew that wasn’t what Kash had meant. The more he concentrated on the sounds reaching his ears, letting all other senses fade to the background, the more he began to pick up what his partner was talking about.
Under the fire was an all-too familiar drag-scrape. That dry-wet sound he hoped he’d never hear again.
“What is that,” Kash asked, his eyes wrinkled as he followed the tell-tale echo.
“You don’t want to know,” Nicolai replied.
Desanto and Gunnar had been trying to communicate with the Ark for the last few minutes. No response whatsoever had come through their helmets, leaving them on their own.
After making a few adjustments they’d been able to speak to each other perfectly, as well as with their newest friend. However the man Gunnar knew as Svarog wasn’t exactly all there for the conversation. He’d been babbling to himself the entire time about The Reclamation, half of it in words Gunnar had never even heard before, the other half in words he didn’t want to hear. Not ever, and certainly not out there.
Gunnar switched frequencies on his wrist panel and tried again to reach out to anyone on the ship who might be listening. “Are they ignoring us,” Desanto asked, frustration bleeding through the comms.
“They have bigger problems to deal with,” Gunnar replied. He didn’t like to think they were expendable, but if the explosion was any indicator some very bad things were happening on the Ark. The blast had come from Engineering, way too close to home for comfort. He didn’t want to think about what that meant for all his friends and co-workers on the inside.
But at the moment he had bigger problems to deal with, too, namely the crazy guy spouting louder and louder religious ramblings in his ear. “The Reclamation is coming,” Svarog yelped, reaching out to grab onto Gunnar. “The day of glory approaches! We can’t be left behind! We can’t be shunned from the rejuvenating light of God’s eye!”
Gunnar shoved the man back, pressing him against the hull of the ship. “I’m about to reclaim your face if you don’t shut the fuck up,” he said. The Combitool on his right arm was raised high to illustrate his point. Svarog seemed to get it, not going entirely quiet but lowering his psycho chatter to an ignorable whisper.
Desanto looked around, as if suddenly realizing something was missing. “Where did they go,” he asked.
Gunnar looked around, too, wondering what his friend meant. Then he figured it out- their miniature fleet of drones had disappeared. “Ahh, fittjävel!” He pounded on the hull, realizing what was going on. He was about to lose it, though no matter how hard he banged on the ship it made no sound. “Helvete jävlas fan!”
Gunnar took a deep breath, feeling the pain through his gloves. “They lost the goddamn signal. When they lose the control beacon they default back to starting positions.” He punched the Ark once more for good measure.
“They’re back inside,” Desanto clarified.
“Some fucking pack of dogs. One little explosion and they all get spooked.”
“Now we’re really on our own.”
Gunnar glanced uncomfortably at Svarog. The man was lost inside his own head, his whispers occasionally barking loud enough to be made out. He caught the words flesh and sluice. “And yet still not alone enough,” Gunnar added.
They plotted their course back to Engineering, following the holographic line in their displays back through open space and toward the field of debris spreading out from the airlock. With a rebreather but no propulsion hooked up to his back, Svarog was forced to go along for the ride. Gunnar held the man in front of him- conveniently right where he could see him- and propelled them both.
Along the way the men had to navigate all kinds of debris, from hunks of plastic and metal to shards of glass that threatened to tear their suits and expose them to the death vacuum of space. They used their tools to deflect, push or otherwise render the scraps harmless- until they came to some debris they couldn’t ignore.
The body belonged to a fellow passenger, a woman from first glance, one of the people Gunnar had worked side-by-side with. It floated toward them, one of the legs partially burnt, the flesh charred and blistered away by the intense heat of the blast. The body was swollen with ebullism, the skin like a road map drawn with broken vessels, the eyes blood-red orbs boiling in her head. As Gunnar approached, he recognized the beautiful woman hiding beneath the collection of hemorrhages.
It was Carrie. The woman he’d had his eye on in the locker room, who he’d had a good talk with at the Floating Bottle, she floated past him. Like an ice cube in the drink they’d shared. Her slender face was serene.
“Come on,” Desanto called out to him.
“We can’t leave her out here.”
“We have to.”
Gunnar glared at his friend, the anger rising in his throat. “I don’t have to do shit, you hear me? I have no problem leaving this asshole behind and taking her instead,” he motioned to Svarog, who for the moment had wisely fallen silent.
“And what about the others,” Desanto asked.
Gunnar was about to spit back another response when he stopped himself. He’d been so focused on the one body, the dead woman he knew, that he’d failed to notice the others. Four, five corpses floated around them in total, and not all of them complete. Engineers and Mechanics with swollen faces and boiling tongues twisting through the vacuum. Noiseless portraits of blast injury and asphyxiation.
“They’re gone,” Gunnar mumbled.
“They will drift off into the dark, away from the kiss of Eden,” Svarog whispered. “They will never decompose, never rot under the watchful eye of the all-accepting and the all-restoring.” The way he said it, Gunnar knew he meant it as an insult. A dig at the people Svarog believed to be heretics deserving of their fate. And yet Gunnar liked the sound of it. He liked the idea of Carrie and the others never changing, never aging, their perfectly preserved bodies like statues erected in their own memory. If he got the chance, if he survived what was to come, he promised he would swing back for them and give them a proper burial. Until then the infinite would be their grave.
Gunnar and Desanto headed once again toward Engineering, dragging their whispering salvage with them.
Dreading what more they would find.
Once Nicolai had transferred over to the wall of the elevator shaft, taking his weight off the emergency ladder, Kash joined his partner down in the hole.
He found a firm hold on the first metal rung before he began his descent and left the elevator behind. The strange noise he’d heard had stopped, though he was no less worried about it. Nicolai’s short and vague response could only mean two things: that he knew exactly what was making those sounds, and that the answer scared him.
The fire below had already died out, leaving the light from Kash’s name tag to cast shadows of the ladder on the opposite wall some ten feet away. Ghostly images of bars rose and rose as he descended wordlessly.
There it was. The noises had started again, but this time closer. He couldn’t tell which way they came from, whether above or below or from the side. The elevator shaft acted like an echo chamber, effectively disguising the direction of the sounds. Even the rubbing of Nicolai’s uniform against metal as he descended the wall below, a noise Kash knew came from ten feet down, sounded as if it could just as easily been coming from above.
The shadow bars on the opposite wall rose faster. And faster.
Kash wasted no time transferring over to the wall when the ladder ran out of rungs. The noise, that crackling, moist shuffle, was moving directly at him now. The light from Nicolai’s tag below him had stopped descending, and he could see his partner’s hands working the controls of an access panel in its glow. “Faster,” is the only word Kash’s mouth could form as he descended that dark place. His fingers fumbled for each hold cut directly into the wall. “Faster, faster!”
The sweet sound of the access panel opening met his ears. He was so eager to get through it he nearly lost his grip. Kash felt his weight tilt backward, his body swaying into open space, but he managed to hold on and shift his weight back toward the wall. He’d nearly tumbled down into the darkness, a long scream with a quick stop.
The noise was close, and getting faster. Whatever it was had picked up his scent.
Nicolai had already climbed through the open access panel, which was good because it meant Kash didn’t have to shove him through. He reached the open panel himself and scrambled inside, joining his partner in the five-foot long, three-feet wide crawlspace. At the end was a second panel they would have to open as well to exit. The worst part, Kash knew, was that he couldn’t close the panel behind him. Not in time. The horrible noise, whatever was making it, was nearly on him. His only chance was to get to the other side and out before it reached him.
As he crawled behind Nicolai, going so fast it stung his knees, something heavy plopped down behind him. “Faster, faster,” he shouted, the two of them scrambling through the tin deathtrap as the unseen creature slapped and slipped after them.
Nicolai reached the end of the crawlspace ahead. He frantically worked on opening the second panel as Kash closed the distance.
Something brushed against his leg. It felt like a tentacle snaking up his foot. An image went through his head, the young girl who’d been attacked in the Labs, the one who was still lying sedated on a Medbed. Panicked, he kicked the tentacle-thing, kicked it with everything he had before it could sting him, too. He felt his boot connect with it. Not bothering to glance back, he rushed forward on screaming knees and pulled himself through the open access panel where his partner had crawled free just a second earlier.
Kash fell into the open hallway, tumbling a few feet before hitting the floor hard. Nicolai was already on his feet and closing the access panel behind them. It locked with a satisfying hiss.
“Fucking hell,” Kash shouted as he jumped to his feet and brushed his legs. “What was that?” He could still feel the solid weight of it as his boot had connected with the creature. A solid yet squishing weight. “Was that the same thing you saw?”
“I think so,” Nicolai replied.
Kash checked the bottom of his boot. There was a faint trace of mucus on one of the grips. “What the hell is going on here, man,” he shouted. “How did those things get in here? What are they? Freaking aliens or something?” His chest heaved up and down, lungs straining for air.
Nicolai drew a long breath. “I honestly don’t know. But we have another problem.”
Kash noticed how hard it was to catch his breath. He’d chalked it up to the fear, adrenaline making his breath short, but he was starting to realize it was more than that. That it wasn’t just him. It was Deck Fourteen itself. “The air is thin in here,” he said.
They looked at each other a moment, then ran toward Engineering.
Toward the screams.