17. Deductorium

017deductorium

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it a different painting?

“What about them?”

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

“Clean,” Desanto replied.

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

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

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

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

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

 

\^/

 

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

Mind your damn business.

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

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

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

Because she minded her damn business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

\^/

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We live as we dream- alone.

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

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

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

16. Ferox

016ferox

 

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

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

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

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

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

Just like the people.

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

“Miller. Will Miller.”

“Have you had any escapes, Will Miller?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baptiste Marlow.”

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

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

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

“From the markings it looks like an attack.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can be a little nicer about it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others needed to know about this.

 

\^/

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

\^/

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Way too interesting.”

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

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

She shook her head. “That’s awful.”

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

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

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

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

Nicolai chuckled. “Thanks.”

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

“We think an animal attacked Baptiste.”

Her eyes widened. “What?”

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

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

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

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

“How so?”

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

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

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

“You don’t seem convinced.”

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

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

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

“He came to see you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Admorsus

015admorsus

 

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

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

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

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

“It was his day off.”

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

“A drunk.”

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

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

“I wonder if he’s-”

“-Definitely dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s on your mind, son?”

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

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

“That someone wanted us to find it.”

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

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

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

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

“There’s something I left out.”

“I’m listening.”

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

 

\^/

 

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“You didn’t do it.”

Desanto paused. “What are you talking about?”

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

“But I remember-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about one that isn’t on board?”

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

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

He processed the inquiry. “Inconclusive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t everyone on board your patient?”

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

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

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

“I’m told work isn’t everything.”

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

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

“I do not understand the question.”

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

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

“Yes. Hopefully under better circumstances.”

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

14. Praeceptor

014praeceptor.jpg

Baptiste’s eyes opened.

As his lids fluttered, his eyes rolling forward in his throbbing head, he became aware of a blinding spotlight shining down on him. It was as if a heavenly fire had discovered him, singled him out in the dark and stared down on him from the very brink of creation. His body felt heavy. Wrong. Thick blood pumped through him, veins like steel sewage pipes. His skin slipped between phases of shivering cold and white hot panic. Something was in his system, chemicals that numbed and slowed him, compounds that left behind clinical throat-tastes; green and purple smells at the back of the sinuses.

He was on a Medbed, but how long had he been there? How many hours had he lay on the slab? He faintly recalled being attacked. A thundering of legs. After a few, lethargic minutes, when he’d regained enough of his mind to believe the words he thought would reach his mouth unchanged, he tried to call for help. His tongue was swollen and cold, like a slug that had crawled into his mouth and died, but he managed to call out, shouting up to the flaming heavens.

“Help,” he rasped. “Someone, please.”

A primordial wall of sounds answered him. Screams and barking, whooping and snarling, laughter and coughing and chirping and hacking, a cacophony of indescribable nature noise. Assaulted by horrific voices and wordless utterances, Baptiste began to choke. His throat collapsed, the airway blocked by irritated flesh, and he turned his head to the side, his body seizing and lurching until he nearly vomited. Stars danced in his vision until they fell and died.

The bed beneath him appeared to be an ancient operating table. It was nothing like the ones found in the Medbay, closer to the operating theaters of the early 1900s he’d seen in old medical texts. He was naked against the harsh kiss of its cold, metal surface, and his ankles, he noticed, were bound by some kind of restraint, made of a material completely unknown to him. It was thick, rounded and black, and possessing an unusual texture unlike metal or plastic. The more he shifted, the tighter it drew against his ankles. Meanwhile the primordial sounds still rattled in his skull, the screams from the darkness multi-layered and never-ending.

Deciding it was time to leave, wherever he was, Baptiste tried to sit up. He felt wrong. Unbalanced. His body only half-responded to his commands, making the strain to rise up from the operating table a sweaty, fumbling challenge. The ankle restraint tightened around him, responding to his struggling legs. It cut into his circulation. He tried to reach down and remove it, to let the blood back into his feet, but the result was uneven at best. His nerves were still deadened, limbs cold. He wiggled his fingers and toes to will some dexterity back into them, but his mind screamed back at him that something was off.

Closer to the truth, something was missing. Wiggling bluish fingers in front of his own face, he counted to five before he gave up. He started over. Five again. Then he looked down at his naked torso, inspecting it from left to right, and found not all was as it should have been.

His arm. It was gone. Cut off above the elbow and sewed back up, the limb ended in an anti-climactic mound of skin. His mind tried to make sense of it but couldn’t. Baptiste felt like throwing up. Pressure built up in his head. He screamed into the darkness, and the darkness screamed back. He thanked God his body couldn’t feel the agony his brain was experiencing.

He cried and cursed until he couldn’t anymore. Then he calmed himself down and studied the place where his right arm had been. Someone had patched him up expertly, the cuts clean and precise. Whatever they’d used to stitch him up, nanothread or possibly even genpolymer scaffolds, the work was invisible to his eyes. Remarkably, the wound was nearly healed.

Either he’d been on that table longer than he thought, or whoever had patched him up was an incredible surgeon. An absolute artist of the flesh.

The full memory of the spider creature came back to him. Those terrible legs stomping at him. Twitching, twisting antennae-hair, inhuman eyes on a human face. Those terrible sounds still surrounded him, anger and pain and hunger, and it all added up to something malevolent. Baptiste didn’t know what was going on, but it pointed to hellish futures, possibilities he needed to warn the others about, to do everything necessary to prevent.

He tried again to look past the spotlight, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness beyond, and began to pick out details of a laboratory; tables of surgical tools; viewing instruments; some kind of fabrication engine bearing customized alterations and modular additions. The only thing he knew for sure was that he’d never seen this part of the ship, and he doubted anyone else had.

Then, all at once, all the screaming and crying, the growling and snorting and moaning, all fell silent. It was as if a dark presence had entered the room, something so dangerous it scared them silent- like a forest at nighttime in which the apex predator had entered.

Ecce agnus Dei,” a terrible voice came. “Behold the lamb of God.”

Baptiste’s stomach twisted at the almost inhumanly cold sound. It was as if death itself had found its frequency in the register of a man’s voice. To his surprise the restraint suddenly slipped free of his legs, revealing itself to be a living thing, a snake-like appendage that retreated from the table and slithered away into the dark. Baptiste pulled his legs away, horrified by how long the thing had been on him, touching his skin. A thin film had been left behind, a layer of mucus on his naked legs.

Between that and the voice, it was enough for him. He swung his legs over the side of the operating table and jumped off, his bare feet finding the floor. He was too weak, though, too drugged and disoriented, and his legs failed to support his weight. Baptiste crashed to the floor a pile of naked pain. His head smacked against the ground and he cried out, cockroaches and other, unidentifiable insects spreading out along the floor from the impact. Baptiste blinked and shook his nausea-thick head as the teeming layer of bugs skittered away.

That wasn’t the worst of it. It was that the terrible voice, the voice of the man responsible for all this, was laughing at him, a sound somehow devoid of all feeling. “Such weak constructs,” the voice said. Baptiste turned over onto his back, propping himself up on his remaining elbow.

“Who are you?” He strained to see, but the man was hidden in the darkness beyond the spotlight, still nothing more than a disembodied voice.

“Simply a man, a man who wanted to be more.” Something stirred in Baptiste’s vision. A shadow within a shadow. The more he concentrated, the more he believed it to be in the shape of a man. But then he’d been fooled before. “You may return to the table now,” the voice added nonchalantly.

Baptiste carefully rose to his feet, but not to get back on the table. He planned on running straight at the sick bastard, on throwing all his weight at the man and beating him to the ground, on not stopping even after the man had ceased moving, or breathing. But before he could make his move, something at the shadowy man’s side growled at him. It was a grunting and snarling sound, like those of a hyena mixed with the sucking air sounds of a snake’s hiss.

“Were you thinking of doing something bold,” the voice asked. “I don’t like that, Professor, not at all, and when I’m upset, my pets are upset.”

Baptiste was growing angrier by the second. Clinging to the operating table, chastised by the man who had abducted and maimed him. With his senses returning, the rage had been allowed to grow, his belly like a furnace running on full. “Screw you. Show me your face, you coward,” he said through gritted teeth.

“So that you may touch it?”

The familiar words snapped Baptiste from the focus of his rage. “What?”

“Up, up the long, delirious burning blue, I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace, where never lark, or ever eagle flew. And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod, the high untrespassed sanctity of space…” he trailed off before the end, allowing for Baptiste to take the rest.

“Put out my hand, and touched the face of God,” Baptiste finished. He added, “You’re insane.”

“I don’t like that word. It stifles all meaningful discussion.”

“What is this place,” Baptiste asked. He was feeling weak. The poem, it had been a favorite of his mother’s. John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an aviator in World War II, had written it just months before dying in a mid-air collision. Baptiste glanced around, noticing glints of what looked like the bars of cages in the distance.

“This? This is where death delights in helping life.”

Baptiste knew those words, too. They came from a Latin phrase, a motto used by many morgues, as well as other places dealing in anatomical pathology. If this was a morgue then he was addressing the mortician. He could only take that information one way: that his captor didn’t intend to let him live. “I don’t know who you are or what those things are,” he motioned to the darkness, “but whatever you’re doing here is wrong. I promise you, you will be stopped. Maybe not by me, and maybe not today, but this will come to an end. I’ll see to that, you sick fuck.”

The voice paused. The head shook. “Please, Professor, don’t stoop to the level of lesser, more violent men. These threats of yours aren’t just ugly, they’re empty as well.”

Baptiste ran at the man. He had every intention of stooping to the level of lesser, more violent men. He may have been weak but his anger was atomic. But before he could make it even to the end of the operating table, a dark vine of flesh shot out at him. He felt something strike his knee, and then his feet were pulled out from under him. The next thing he felt was the harsh hug of the floor on his naked back, bits of skin scraping free.

The air temporarily knocked out of his lungs, Baptiste squeezed his eyes shut and watched fireworks explode against the movie screens of his eyelids. The cacophony of primal screams rose once again in his roaring eardrums, and when he opened them again, when his eyes looked up to the light once more, this time it was blocked out by the sight of snarling teeth holding back a wormy, trembling tongue.

“Tell me, Professor, as a devout believer in science, do you believe homo sapiens to be superior?” The voice spoke from somewhere past the creature growling in his face. Baptiste was too afraid to answer, too afraid to say anything while the long, rattish face snapped its fangs at him, and yet his eyes, though terrified of what else they might find, were drawn further down, down the creature’s body, where it became a tube of muscle not unlike a snake, yet crawling with a hundred sets of millipede legs and other, unimaginable adaptations. “You will respond to my questioning, or you will not like the consequences,” the voice added.

The creature drooling sick-smelling spit onto Baptiste’s face opened its mouth wide. Baptiste braced for the inevitable closing of teeth, like a sprung bear trap about to clamp down on his skull, but the bite didn’t come. Instead he peered down the dark gullet of the reptilian hyena, where deep down, past the needle-tipped teeth, past the ridges of pink and black mouthflesh, something, some inner thing looked back at him. It was like a fattened, half-swallowed fetus, sleepily awaiting its feeding in a bed of throat.

“I can appreciate your delicate state, Professor, so in the sake of fairness I’ll repeat the question once, and only once: do you believe the species homo sapiens to be superior?”

The throat-fetus yawned, bathing lazily in a lake of stinking spittle as its host closed its mouth, plunging it back into darkness. “S-superior to what,” Baptiste asked.

“Do not feign naivete for the semblance of morality. Is the human being superior to all other species found on Earth? Or shall I say, formerly found on Earth,” he added with a hint of amusement.

“Just…just the…just the brains.”

“Please do speak in full sentences, Professor. I was hoping to have a half-way decent conversation.”

The creature licked its scarred and pocked lips, its millipede legs shivering in hungered, undulating patterns. The price of failure was clear to all present. “W-we’re not better in every way. Just our b-brains.”

“I see. Do humans possess the largest brains?”

“No.”

“Do they have the highest brain-to-body ratio?”

The man in the shadows was referring to humans in the third person, a choice that seemed to stretch beyond the current line questioning. It was as if he considered himself outside of the human race. “No,” Baptiste answered.

“You’re still not speaking properly, Professor, and it’s beginning to upset me.” On cue, the hyena-thing bristled and snapped, the teeth mere centimeters from Baptiste’s nose.

“Please, please, okay.” Baptiste dug himself into the ground, as if he could push his body down into it. He took a breath, trying to clear his mind and answer the question. Thinking clearly while scared wasn’t easy, not while self-preservation was the only thing that mattered. “We…we don’t have the largest brains, what we have are the most complex brains. A highly-developed consciousness.”

“Ahh, consciousness. Man is superior because he holds the forbidden knowledge, the knowledge of all creation. He seeks to understand it, and thus himself.” Seemingly satisfied, the man made a sound, emitted deep within his throat, at which the reptilian hyena creature backed up immediately. Baptiste took a deep breath, that much further from a bloodied, screaming death.

“I…yes, I suppose. We’re the universe trying to understand itself.”

“Now you’re speaking like a Professor. Newton told us that nature is exceedingly simple and harmonious with itself, those famous words that defined the foundation of all modern sciences, and yet humans still haven’t mastered nature. So tell me, how superior can they truly be?” The hyena-thing slipped back into the shadows, rejoining its master. Other things danced in the dark all around them. Slinking dark spots and lumbering masses.

“What the hell are those things,” Baptiste finally asked.

“They are the future. They are the old flesh wrought new.”

Baptiste suddenly recalled Crick’s speech about the cults. A mixture of science and religion in a way that destroys both. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? The cult that worships Blackwood.” His question was met with laughter. “What’s so funny?”

Barba crescit caput nescit. The beard grows, but the head grows no wiser. Those fools don’t wish to understand the universe. They look for mirrors to confirm their beliefs, whereas I look to those who know all and see all. I look to please those who offer knowledge of all things, the Ancient Ones, the ones who are both gate and key. The others seek control through knowledge. They seek dominion over death, whereas I seek to work alongside it.” The sounds from the darkness grew loud again. Labored breathing and half-words that echoed of aeon-dead horrors.

“You attacked me, abducted me, sent your things to pin me to the ground,” Baptiste said. “You can’t put a man in a cage and then turn around and talk about control.”

“Soon enough you’ll discover that here, in this theater, I can do anything I want. You won’t be in the cage for very long, just enough that you’ll stop wishing to be free of it. When you leave this place, you’ll leave it better than before. You really have such wonderful things awaiting you. One could say I almost envy you.”

Baptiste pulled his limbs close to his body- the ones that were left. “What are you planning to do to me,” he asked.

The man in the shadows moved closer, just enough for the light to catch. Baptiste caught sight of the awful structure of his face, a patchwork of flesh surrounding eyes like twin caves. “Why, professor,” he said, “what all loving Gods do- I’m going to share my knowledge with you.”

13. Vitae

013vitae

 

“The vessel.”

Desanto’s eyes opened. Two words echoed in his skull as he sat up. He tried to get his bearings, but the room was dark, only a single light ebbing in his blurry vision. As his eyes adjusted, he began to remember getting ready for sleep, a distant memory of nighttime routines. Then it came to him. He was safe. The darkened room, his bedroom. With the echoing words subsided, he could hear an intermittent tone coming from across the room, timed to the ebbing light.

It was the screen on his wall.

“Enough moping, time to work.” Gunnar’s image filled the screen. He took a gulp of coffee from a metal mug and wiped his mouth.

“Doctor Hannigan-”

“Forget Hannigan. I just spoke to Dubicki, she gave you the all-clear. Are you gonna be a fittnylle about this?”

Desanto remembered Hannigan’s warning. She’d told him to be careful despite Dubicki’s prognosis. The more he thought back on his interview with the Psych Doctor, the more he’d gotten the impression she was pushing him, testing him not for his own good, but out of some professional curiosity. On the other side, Hannigan seemed to have his best interests at heart. But then again, maybe he just felt some attachment to her, some affinity because she’d literally brought him back to life. It didn’t hurt that she was easy on the eyes.

Desanto rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Alright,” he said. Warning or no, he didn’t plan on sitting around his quarters all day.

“Good man. I’ll meet you in the cafeteria in thirty.” The screen went dark, Gunnar’s face faded into the void.

Desanto got dressed in his uniform, foregoing a shower to give himself plenty of time to reach the cafeteria. He was still unfamiliar with the layout of the Ark, and therefore there was still a chance of getting lost. Granted he could always ask Sunn to show him the way, but it was too early to deal with that self-important ghost of a man. He took a last look around. Desanto had gotten in the habit of committing his quarters to memory, making sure nothing was out of place when he returned. Satisfied, he opened the door to head out.

And found a dark-haired woman standing in his way.

“I wanted to be there when you thawed.” Her voice had more than a hint of anger. If Desanto had to guess, she was in her early forties, though what that meant anymore he had no idea. She was tall and lean, having the fit body of a runner or perhaps a swimmer, her eyes deep with familiarity and something else. Accusation, was it? “Just imagine my surprise when Oberlander called your name at the gathering.” The lean woman suddenly moved past him, entering his quarters uninvited.

“They woke me up early,” Desanto replied. He wanted to keeping her talking while he figured out how she knew him.

“Still, you should have told me.” She opened the refrigerator and had a look inside.

“I really didn’t have much say in the matter. Can I help you find something?” He looked harder at her, trying to stir up some recollection, a name, even. He found nothing. The stranger closed his empty refrigerator and met his gaze. Recognizing the searching look on his face, she frowned at him.

“I don’t believe you. You don’t remember me.”

“Don’t be insulted, I don’t even remember myself.” Her eyebrow raised, needing further explanation. “The, uh, the short version is I had cancer. That was until Sunn cut me up and took it out. But I lost most of my memories in the process.”

The woman smiled, taking some sick amusement from his predicament. She walked slowly toward him, staring him down with dark eyes. “Well then,” she said, “maybe I can help you get a few back.”

She put her lips forcefully on his. Desanto was taken by surprise. He didn’t fully return the kiss, but he didn’t fight it, either. When she drew back, there was a look on her face that said she hadn’t entirely believed his story. Not until that very moment.

Whatever she’d been looking for in the kiss, she hadn’t found it. Desanto cleared his throat. “I, uh, take it we’re…”

“We were. That seems like a long time ago now.” She took a step back.

“I’m sorry, it has nothing to do with you. I’m sure with time-”

“Don’t do that,” she cut him off. “Don’t feel sorry for me.”

He searched for what to say, how to make things right. He drew a blank.

She paced his quarters, thinking things over. “So you don’t remember the last time we spoke, what we talked about.” Desanto was starting to notice her questions came out more like statements, as if she couldn’t admit there was something she didn’t know.

“I don’t even remember my own mother.”

She scoffed. “It must be nice to forget everything. You can start over, leave everyone behind without feeling a drop of guilt. It sounds more convenient than anything.”

“That’s not exactly true.”

“No, I suppose you have to keep smiling at people. Awkwardly pretending to care while you wait for them to get the hint and move on.”

“It’s not all bad. Occasionally a woman shows up and kisses you on the mouth.”

She appeared disarmed for a moment. Then her shield shot back into place. “I should go,” she said. “There’s no point in people talking if there’s nothing for them to talk about.” The door dilated. She paused in the open doorway, addressing him with her back turned. “It’s because you never knew her.”

“Who?”

“Your mother. You never met her. That’s why you can’t remember.” She glanced back. “It was nice seeing you, Erick.” With that she left, the door closing moments later. Desanto stood once again alone, feeling like he’d been run over by a truck hauling pheromones and lipstick.

“Who the hell was that,” he asked no one in particular.

\^/

“You’re late.”

Gunnar had been waiting in the cafeteria close to forty minutes for Desanto, watching the same, two fish circle each other behind glass. It was starting to feel like a metaphor for his life. That was always how he knew he’d been staring at fish too long- when he started gleaning some higher meaning out of a goddamn fish.

“A strange woman came to my quarters,” Desanto replied.

“Oh, then you’re right on time.” Gunnar slapped his friend on the back and chuckled. “You work fast. Anyone I know?”

Desanto threw him a look.

“Right. Sorry.”

“She didn’t give me her name, but I got the strong impression we have history.”

Gunnar grunted. “I’m willing to bet it’s Victoria. She’s been throwing her arsel at you since I can remember.” He headed toward the cafeteria line and Desanto followed. The first cup of coffee hadn’t been nearly enough to start his day.

“Her what?”

“Listen, if you and I are going to be partners, you have to learn to curse in Swedish.”

“I’ll work on it,” Desanto replied. They hit the food line and grabbed coffee and something to eat, then headed right out.

After they’d gotten to Engineering and clocked in, Gunnar showed his friend around. It was a strange feeling to be treating Desanto like the new guy. Desanto was particularly taken by the Fabrication Engines, watching in awe as the two dozen, twenty-foot-high printers pushed out everything from toilets to biochips to med tools. One Engine spit out long sheets of nanometal from its wide, fish-like mouth, while the unit next to it gave birth to a batch of Dornier Drones. When Desanto had seen enough, Gunnar reintroduced him to a few of the Mechanics and Fabricators on duty. He’d already told them all about Desanto’s memory loss, asking them not to make a big deal out of it- unless of course it was to make fun of the guy, and then anything was fair game.

“This is Desmond, the second best Fabricator on the Ark,” Gunnar said as the two shook hands.

“Dez,” Desanto said. “You’re the one who talked Gunnar out of fighting Kash.”

“It wasn’t the first time I’ve saved him from doing something stupid.” His Irish eyes glinted with a smile.

“Thanks. But next time, maybe just give him a minute.” Dez and Gunnar laughed as a woman joined them. She went to Dez’s side.

“What trouble are you boys getting into,” she asked.

“Ahh, and this is his partner and wife, Monika,” Gunnar said. “She’s the prettiest little Mechanic this side of Deck Fourteen, though she talks too much- even for a woman.”

She leaned in and shook Desanto’s hand. “That makes two of us, Gunnar.”

“No reason to throw insults. Where’s Phoebe?”

The couple frowned at each other. Dez cleared his throat. “Our beautiful daughter hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to apprentice as a Mechanic or a Fabricator.”

“So you killed her. Smart choice.”

Monika smiled, her Indonesian roots shining through. “We thought about it. But we gave her the week off so she can figure it out. You know, come to her senses about which Vocation is clearly better.”

“Good luck with that,” Gunnar said.

“Anyway we gotta go. Something big broke on Seventeen and it’s Priority One.” She pulled on her husband’s arm. “Oh, and Erick,” she added over her shoulder.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t sweat that run-in with Kash- nobody likes him anyway.”

Desanto nodded. “Thanks,” he said with a slight smile.

Dez and Monika left for their shift, restarting the argument about whose side their daughter was going to pick. Gunnar shook his head. “C’mon, I need to grab something from my locker,” he said. They crossed the Engineering deck, Desanto peeking in on a few side rooms where various projects were underway. They paid a quick visit to the locker room where, as usual, men and women were walking around in various states of undress. Desanto seemed surprised by the unisex locker room, blinking away the sight of a middle-aged guy’s naked ass.

“So what do we do, walk around looking for things to fix,” Desanto asked, trying to get his mind off what he’d just seen.

“It’s easier to read the calls.” Gunnar threw him his screen. “Service calls,” he clarified, “some auto-generated, some filed by passengers.” He showed Desanto where to call up the day’s list of work orders. “They’re sorted by level of importance, assigned to us based on the estimated size of the job and the team’s skill-set. On a typical day we work through that list until it’s done. You fix it, or I replace it. Sometimes a combination of the two. Then we drink.”

“I still don’t know what I’m doing,” Desanto admitted. Gunnar shrugged it off.

“Fake it until you do, that’s what everyone else does.”

Desanto nodded. He looked at the top of the screen. “Why does it say ‘Seth-Gunnar?’”

“That’s just a glitch.” Gunnar took the screen back and refreshed the list. “Looks like we’re on that machinery call on Seventeen.”

A particularly gorgeous woman walked by in her underwear, smiling at the two. When she’d passed out of earshot, Desanto leaned in and lowered his voice. “Do you ever get used to that,” he asked.

Gunnar watched her go. “Yeah,” he said. “When you’re dead.”

\^/

The Storage deck felt familiar somehow. Desanto looked around at the rows and rows of tall stacks, each one lined with storage cases tended to by hovering drones. It gave him a distinct impression, the feeling that he’d been there before. Could it be a memory coming back, an actual detail from his past life that didn’t involve fear or pain or general unpleasantness?

“It stinks in here,” Gunnar spit. “I’m seriously starting to feel like I’m riding around on a goddamn garbage disposal.”

“There’s probably a malfunction in the air purifier unit,” Desanto said. The words coming out of his mouth surprised even himself, coming as automatic as they did. Gunnar smiled and punched him in the arm.

“See that? Things are looking better already.” Desanto rubbed his arm, already bruised from the last time Gunnar had punched it. Still, he couldn’t help but smile.

They rounded a corner and came into sight of the other Mechanics and Fabricators. Three pairs of them had responded to the call, Erick and Gunnar, Dez and Monika, and a third team Gunnar said were brand new but apparently not very good. How he knew that he didn’t say. They were crowded around a large piece of machinery that had apparently fallen sometime in the night. It had been discovered by an early Janitorial crew who cleaned up what they could and reported the rest. Gunnar had explained to him that it was some kind of shelf loader, a back-up system to the drones currently zipping around overhead.

One of the teams was busy turning the long machine onto its side to assess the damage. As it shifted, the wrenching sound of the metal scraping along the floor struck Desanto with the most intense feeling of déjà vu he’d ever experienced. Then the others backed up, giving the loader room to turn. The sight of it lying there was like a reagent, a chemical that set off a chain reaction of images, smells and sounds, a hundred-thousand sensations bombarding Desanto at once. And then he was somewhere else, there but not there, himself but not himself, with a small, weak man standing terrified before him.

The small man tried to run. The smell of his fear was intoxicating, his heartbeat a beacon to the voice of the hunger, a pulsing echo that lit up the darkness in waves of blood-sound. He was small and slow, but he was also tricky. He managed to stay ahead of the hunter, just out of reach. The hunter jumped on the man, ready to end the hunt, but the man fumbled and fell and hid as the hunter regained. The small man braced from the attack, the smashing of fury and body into the man’s hiding place, and the small man, he screamed and cried as the world shook around him. Then he pushed, he pushed and crashed and pained and pinned and doubted and feared and fled, his heartbeat a retreating light that flickered off into the dark, the smell of his fear lingering on the air like a lover’s kiss. But then came the stench, the thick waft of panic. The small man was trapped.

“No,” Desanto whispered. In a daze he had followed the memory away from the others, tracking the path of the hunt and panic-smell that still lingered on the air, until he came into sight of an elevator. Echoes thumped dully in his eardrums- the tribal drum sound of fists pounding. “Please, no,” he said.

But the hunter was somewhere closer now, somewhere that was many, a hundred dozen eyes all over, all focused on the panicking man clawing to be free. The hunter descended on the man a cloud of death, enveloping him in welcoming arms. The man cried out in anguish as his leg-flesh burst open and the blood, the blood smelled so sweet, so strong and so sweet and so full of fear, and the hunter, he dragged the small, screaming man away, but some part of him, some part stayed behind and licked the blood from the cold, metal floor, lapped it up with a darting tongue that drank and covered the trail, while the rest of him, the rest of the hunter pulled the small, struggling man through the dark and up the wall and into a hole, pulled him somewhere even darker, a place where the voice of the hunger itself echoed through the tight walls. And the hunger, it spoke in the head whispers of chemicals. And the hunger, it asked things of the hunter, asked him to hunt but not to kill, not yet, because the hunger had plans for the hunter, had plans for all the hunters as well as the others, the small men and the small women. Plans for their children. Plans for it all. And the hunger, when it spoke its truths as it did now, it spoke of a name, a name that was both man and hunter, a name that shook the walls of that dark place, a name that promised to bring about the new age, the age of hunters, the age of the new blood and the ancient flesh. And the walls, the darkness itself, vibrated with the name, the name of the promised one, the voice of the hunger beckoning the hunter forth, to bring with him his trophy, his prize, the hunger saying it now, speaking it now, thundering it now:

“The vessel.”

“There you are,” he heard Gunnar say behind him, but he ignored the man and his questions. He continued following the trail, the echoes of screams and the wet, lapping sounds of a tongue licking thick, dark liquid from the floor. He walked past the stacks, stumbling at times, until he came to a wall.

There was an air vent high above, ten feet up on the wall. Its face was broken and hung loose. “What are you doing,” Gunnar asked. Desanto pointed to the vent.

“We need to look in there.” Gunnar squinted, inspecting the vent above with his hands on his hips.

“No wonder it stinks, we probably have an infestation. Give me a minute.” Gunnar left, on a mission now. Desanto stared up at the broken vent, both wanting to know and not wanting to know what waited inside.

Gunnar came back after a minute with a Dornier in tow. The drone hovered a few feet back, dutifully following its new master. “C’mere,” Gunnar said, urging the unit forward. When it inched close enough he grabbed it by its arm and read the serial number printed on its belly. With a few taps Gunnar synced up his screen to the Dornier’s vidfeed. His own face popped up on the screen in his hands. He pointed to the vent above their heads. “You see that vent,” he asked, and the vidfeed focused on it. “I want you to go in there and see what you see. Understand?”

The Dornier’s headlamp turned on.

“Good boy.” The drone flew up to the vent, using its arms to delicately move the broken vent cover out of its way. Gunnar and Desanto crowded around the screen, watching the images it sent back in real-time. “I bet it’s a rat. Did I tell you about the time an eagle got loose in the Ark?”

“An eagle didn’t do this.”

“You’re right, I think it was a hawk.”

A faint object popped up on the screen, all the way down at the far end of the lightless ventilation shaft. “There’s something down there,” Desanto said, pointing it out. Gunnar gave the Dornier a retrieve command and it responded, navigating the dark tunnel, its headlamp creating stark shadows. The two men stopped breathing as they waited to see what it would bring them. The vidfeed was dark and hazy, but the outline of what the drone grabbed onto was unmistakable.

“What the…” Gunnar uttered.

“No,” Desanto said. “No, no, no.” The unit began to drag its find out of the shadows, like a hellish version of a carnival crane game. A few, breathless seconds later the drone reemerged from the vent. It flew back down to the men, heavier than before, and dropped the retrieved object at their feet. It made a dull, wet sound as it hit the floor in front of their shoes, both men backing up in horror.

It wasn’t a rat. It wasn’t an eagle or a hawk or anything of the sort.

It was an arm.

12. Gestator

012Gestator

 

As Doctor Hannigan checked the new data uploading to her screen, Ness waited patiently. The soft-faced woman was seated in the bench across from her, her hands in her lap and a calm smile on her face. Cybele noted how her spirits never fluctuated, never wavered, even in the face of all she was dealing with. It was no wonder the Captain thought so highly of her.

The numbers finished compiling, and they were bad. Lymphocyte apoptosis wasn’t exactly irreversible just yet, but T-Cell counts were steadily dropping by the day. “How does it look,” Ness asked, her curiosity finally winning out.

“It says here you’re faking it.”

Ness laughed, a sound like wind-chimes dancing in the spring. “That would be so lovely if true.”

Doctor Hannigan smiled. “It’s about what I expected.” She put down the screen for the time being. “What about you, how are you sleeping?”

“In small doses. I’ve been having some intense dreams.”

“Anything fun?”

Ness’ skin shimmered, betraying the light beneath. “Doctor Hannigan, that’s a very personal question,” she fake-scolded. “But no, just nightmares. I wish I had the energy to go into the studio, I’ve had enough inspiration to last a lifetime.”

“And your skin?”

Ness tried to smile. “Still hurts.”

“We’ll up the dosage on your painkillers, there’s no reason for you to be uncomfortable.” Doctor Hannigan leaned over and made a note on her screen.

“I’m sure my wife hasn’t thought to thank you,” Ness said. The Doctor looked up from her notes, caught off-guard by the statement. “We both appreciate everything you’re doing.”

Captain Ashby had been confrontational lately, even more-so than usual. Cybele preferred to spend her energies on treating her patients rather than fighting with their spouses. It was no coincidence that she scheduled her house calls when she knew the Captain wouldn’t be home. “Well, she’s a busy woman,” Hannigan offered.

“Whereas I have nothing but time on my hands. I always wanted to be a kept woman, but I never meant like this.”

“Ahh, be careful what you wish for.” Hannigan smiled. “Anyway you can thank me when your tests come back clean. Then we’ll share a drink and celebrate.”

“God, a drink sounds great,” Ness sighed. Doctor Hannigan noticed a tinge of resignation in her voice, like she didn’t believe it would ever happen. It was the first time she’d noticed a slip of confidence in Ness, which led her to believe the pain was worse than the woman was letting on. She gathered up her screen.

“I’ll let you get some rest, but I’ll be back in two days for the next checkup. Anything you want to add before I go, any new symptoms I should know about?”

“No, nothing new, I just…” The woman’s face suddenly looked like a crystal chandelier about to fall apart. “I want you to know, regardless of what Jennifer says-”

“It won’t come to that.”

“But if it does, no matter what she tells you, I’m the third most important part of this equation, okay? Not first, not second. That’s my decision.” Her eyes glinted with all the things she wanted to say but couldn’t.

Cybele nodded. “Okay, Ness. Okay.”

Ness nodded back, a pained smile on her otherwise smooth face.

“Sunn, that’ll be all,” Doctor Hannigan said. With that Ness dissolved, the hologram deconstructing and fading away, leaving an empty bench behind. Doctor Hannigan stood and moved to the recently-installed window, where Ness waved from the quarantined half of the quarters. She was, as usual, surrounded by medical equipment and dog-eared books and everything else she’d been using to pass the time. Sunn stood next to her. He watched Ness wave, then repeated the gesture with yellow light still shining from eyes set to repeat mode. How Ness managed to sit through their visits with Sunn looking at her like that, his eyes two, glowing cameras, Hannigan didn’t know. Sunn had always made her a bit uneasy to begin with, let alone staring void-like.

“Is this quarantine still necessary,” a voice suddenly asked. Doctor Hannigan turned to find Captain Ashby in the doorway, still in full uniform. There was no telling how long she’d been there, or what she’d heard. Doctor Hannigan pulled her screen tight to her chest, like a shield.

“As long as she’s showing symptoms, absolutely,” she replied. The Captain frowned at her.

“There hasn’t been a living mosquito in a thousand years.”

“Yes, I know. We wiped them out. It didn’t help if you remember.”

“That’s because it was too late. That was a much later stage, as you’ve explained to me so many times.”

Cybele shook her head. “That’s not the point.”

“Oh? And what is the point, Doctor?”

“That viruses can and very often do mutate. It was mostly vector-borne back then, but who knows about now? I’ve asked you this before but I need to bring in more people on this. At the very least let me talk to someone with advanced knowledge of Virology or-”

“No. No one else.” The Captain was immovable when she wanted to be- and she always wanted to be. Doctor Hannigan had to change her approach, lest she find herself crushed under the woman’s will.

“She’s getting worse,” Hannigan said.

“You think I don’t know that?”

“I know you do. It’s obvious. Listen, I’ve kept this quiet out of respect for you and Ness, but rumors are spreading through the ship.”

The Captain scoffed. “People will always whisper, there’s nothing I can do about that.”

“No. I’m sorry, Captain, but you can’t just brush them off like that. Those people are your responsibility.”

“Thank you, Doctor, I’m quite aware of the lives that have been placed in my hands, and what Ness- what this- means for them.” The Captain moved past her, peeking in on her wife.

“Then you understand that I have to do what’s necessary to protect them.” Cybele paused. “Jennifer,” she said, softening her voice. The woman turned to face her. “What I’m saying is, you need to make a decision soon.”

The woman’s eyes drifted to some far-off place. “How long?”

“As soon as possible. A week at most.”

The Captain was silent a moment. She nodded almost imperceptibly, then offered to show the Doctor out. Halfway to the door she suddenly turned back. “I still don’t understand how that fucking virus got on the Ark,” she suddenly blurted. “We were supposed to all be clear of it, or we weren’t allowed on board.”

Doctor Hannigan knew why the Captain was upset, other than the obvious. She’d read the woman’s file, knew how she came to be on the Ark- and more importantly how her parents hadn’t. “It’s possible the scans just missed it. These things can start very small, a single bacterium hiding in the spinal fluid is enough to be a carrier, then one day for whatever reason it begins to divide, and soon-”

“Can it be stopped?”

Cybele exhaled. “Part of why we left Earth was because it couldn’t, and we haven’t learned much about it since.”

“A thousand years and we’ve made no progress whatsoever.”

“No one has bothered to spend time on it because, quite frankly, we thought we’d left it behind. They didn’t even bring samples on board because it would violate the quarantine. The best thing I can tell you is, at least if Ness goes into Cryo she has a chance, which is better than she has now. That’ll give us time to study the samples, do some testing, and find a way to help her.”

The Captain glanced back toward the other room. “But that’s not what she wants.”

“No. It’s not. You do have a say in this, though.” She paused, choosing her words carefully. “You two have a lot to discuss, so I want to be perfectly clear with you: if Ness goes into Cryosleep, the baby won’t survive the freeze.”

Ashby’s face was like stone. “Thank you, Doctor,” she replied, and finished showing her guest out. Hannigan said her goodbyes and exited the room, standing back in the expansive hallway of Deck Five. The moment it shut behind her, she could hear soft crying coming from the other side of the door.

She took a deep breath, held it, and let it out. At times like these she had to remember why she’d chosen her Vocation in the first place, to ease the pain of fellow passengers, to improve their quality of life and to help as many of them as possible reach their promised destination. The oath she’d taken on her first day reminded her she wasn’t treating a disease, she was treating a person. That meant her responsibility included all the things that came with being a human being- and that included family.

Looking around, she suddenly realized just how late it had gotten. Most of Deck Five had turned in for the night, with only a few stragglers left wandering the halls. She headed to the elevator, wanting to stop by her office and check on a few things before heading back to her quarters for the night. As she walked she noticed there seemed to be some strange elements lurking about, small groups of two or three people engaging in hushed conversations that stopped as she passed them by. It was no surprise. Talk of one or more cults operating in the shadows had done much to unsettle the passengers, and the rumors about Captain Ashby locking up her sick wife didn’t help. Then there was Erick Desanto’s little performance, getting a skull full of electricity right in the middle of a crowded cafeteria, delivered to him by an overzealous Peace Officer.

Things had been interesting lately, and as the old curse went: May you live in an interesting cycle.

As she neared the elevator, her thoughts lingered on Desanto. He was a fascinating if not haunted man. There was something behind his eyes that intrigued her, an intellect beyond his years that shone through despite the memory loss. He was something of a puzzle, and she liked puzzles. It didn’t hurt that he wasn’t too harsh on the eyes, either.

When she reached the elevator she found it was on lockdown, the failsafe engaged. It was a rare sight. In fact the only other time she’d seen it happen was when a hawk escaped from one of the environments and got into the transportation ducts. It spent three days feeding on mice and evading capture until someone managed to hit it with a Tranquilizer. If this time was at all similar, someone was having a rough night- including the mice.

She glanced up, a play of light catching her attention, and noticed an intricate web had been constructed where the wall met the ceiling. A fat spider was hunched at the center with some poor insect in its clutches, wrapped-up tightly like the mummies of old. Cybele didn’t like spiders. Something about the way they moved, the unnaturally quick motions of their legs. It wasn’t quite arachnophobia, but it was close enough. The insect, probably a fly, twitched out it’s last few movements in the spider’s grip, the life leaving its doomed body.

Hawks. Spiders. It was, it seemed, a night for predators.

“Screw it,” she said, deciding to head back to her quarters. It was a long walk to the next elevator, and anything she had to do in her office could wait until the next day. She’d only gotten a few steps away, ten feet at most, when a strange, whip-like sound turned her back. It was a wet, reaching sound, like what she imagined an octopus would sound like if it hunted on land.

There was nothing behind her, just an empty hallway all the way to the next bend. She returned to the elevator, thinking it had something to do with the failsafe, some emergency she would need to report, but the elevator remained shut, the message on its screen unchanged. Before heading off, she glanced one more time at the web above, an old habit of needing to keep track of spiders. She didn’t like looking at them, but they always seemed so much worse when she couldn’t see them.

Not only was the spider gone, but so was its meal, the cocooned insect it had held to its body. The broken web floated on the air in tatters, looking like someone had walked through it or otherwise destroyed it with a violent swipe of the hand. Considering the web was eight feet off the ground, and there wasn’t another person in sight, that option didn’t seem likely. It was if some phantom presence had fallen on the spider and obliterated both it and its home in the span of a blink. She chalked it up to one of those strange, little unexplained phenomena a person witnesses throughout their life.

After all, she wasn’t going to lose any sleep over one less spider in the world.

Shaking it off, she walked to her quarters in silence. She saw only a few people along the way, and none she knew particularly well, save for Theo Miller, a teenage boy whose father she suspected of having involvement with one or more of the cults operating on the Ark. The boy had a tendency to sit on a chair outside his door and watch the people walking by. The way he looked at her had always made Cybele uncomfortable, and tonight was no exception.

Finally inside, she looked around at her quarters. It felt good to be home after a long day, especially one that involved a call to the Ashbys, and truth be told she’d barely spent any time in her quarters lately, always running from patient to patient, freeze to thaw. She poured herself a glass of water, drank it, fed her lonely fish, brushed her teeth, applied some moisturizer to her hands and face, and eventually, some time later, got undressed for bed.

Sitting in bed in her underwear, she pulled up the old files on her screen. She scrolled through photographs of skin lesions and red-stained eyes. She watched footage of men and women displaying the mental degradation that was common in the later stages, when meningitis attacked the brain and caused it to swell inside the skull. The confusion. The anger. The erratic twitches.

Oceanus pestis they called it, named after Oceanus, the Titan God whose river of fresh water stood between the habitable world and the underworld of ancient Greece. Scientists always seemed to turn into poets when they were tasked with naming a new disease. Most people had simply called it the Titan Virus.

In spite of the heavy material, Cybele had to see the humor in what she was doing: where most people would be winding down with a book or an old movie right about now, maybe even enjoying one of the newer movies made by the filmmakers on board, she was sitting in her bra and panties, watching the people of Earth die.

Earth. There was no telling what it would be like now. The oceans had risen almost sixty meters by last measure. Coastal cities, they were all but gone. The flooding had pushed people inland, where they were packed so tightly it only made the virus’ job of wiping them out that much easier. Even after the mosquitoes were eradicated, the Titan Virus had flourished. It resisted all treatment, side-stepped every vaccine. By the time the Ark’s construction was completed, Earth’s population was hovering just under three billion, and still dropping.

The oath she’d taken rang once again in her ears. I will prevent and cure disease on board whenever I can, though I will remain a passenger of the Ark, with obligations to all my fellow passengers both healthy and ill.

Having seen enough, she turned off the screen. Eleven billion people had died of that wretched virus. Eleven billion souls lost to its cruel biology. If Titan was truly back, if it was on the Ark, she had to do everything in her power to make sure it stayed confined to Ness- even if that meant it had to die with her.

11. Epistula

011epistula

Part Two.

The first week of classes was done, and Baptiste felt good. The kids had been responsive to the material, his flashy dissections and vivid simulations paying off with at least two students seriously eyeing a Vocation in the sciences.

He’d capped off the week with a primer on cloning, starting with fragmentation and ligation, moving through transfection, and finally to screening and selection. The Ark had extensive files on cloning, of course, and Baptiste had to admit to getting carried away in the research phase of the lesson plan. He’d delved pretty deep into the archives, some files having not been accessed in over two hundred years, while others had surprisingly recent time stamps given their experimental nature. A few were even obscured behind a false folder or two; most likely one or more scientists on board were quietly working on a pet project and didn’t want anyone to know. Ark Files were open access, but if you dug around too much, someone usually ended up pissed off. Anyway the files were no use to him. The research in them was too experimental, too difficult to understand to serve any use to his students.

Baptiste zipped up his jacket. The forest was a bit cooler than usual today, and a chill had settled into him along his walk. The Deciduous forest was his favorite part of Deck Ten, and possibly of the entire Ark, the crunch of twigs and fallen leaves underfoot appeasing some primal instinct in him. These walks put him in an almost trance-like state that helped take his mind off the usual stresses, a mood only occasionally broken by bumping into another passenger out for a stroll, or into one of the Caretakers who roamed the environments looking for things to tend to.

He found the elm tree. It was, not surprisingly, where he’d left it the day before. But today the leaves were brighter, the green chlorophyll further broken down to reveal the yellow and orange pigments underneath. He looked around at the beautiful, fiery spectrum on display, noting that the Ark’s simulated autumn was coming along nicely. He kneeled under the elm and brushed a few leaves off the plaque at its base.

Olivia Marlow. His mother’s name was carved into the plaque. Some of her ashes had been used as a base material to clone an elm tree seed, an elm which now stood eighty feet high above him, nearly touching the artificial sky. It was someone’s idea long before he was born to create a memorial in the forest. Because of that, all seventy-six people who had ever died on the ark stood around Baptiste in the form of elm trees, as well as some maples, oaks and beeches. He could imagine their branching arms reaching out to hold him as he passed them by. Nearby, maybe a hundred feet away, was a smaller, much younger tree bearing the name Thomas, where he’d seen a woman from the farm crying once.

The accuracy of using deciduous trees as tributes was uncomfortably effective that time of year. The word deciduous meant “falling away after its purpose is finished.” It was a word that was used for animals, too, to describe the parts of themselves they shed, like deer antlers. Baby teeth were called deciduous teeth for that very reason.

They were things, quite literally, defined by their deaths.

Baptiste sat on the cold ground and put his back against the tree. He pulled out his screen and began going over his notes for the next week’s lesson plan. He was happy to note how many kids in his class had shown real promise, the surprising contender being Sarah, who had screamed when she’d first seen the Great White swimming in class. Of all the students she’d asked the most questions that first day, and by the third day he’d even gotten her to stand inside the vein of a blue whale to demonstrate how massive they were. She squirmed and made little crying sounds, but afterward she was a bundle of questions. Fear was often the first step toward learning, he’d found. Baptiste himself had been afraid of getting up in front of a class and talking for hours, but he’d done it anyway, and already he could see how much he loved it.

If everything went just right- if the stars aligned, so to speak- sharing his knowledge with the next generation of Ark passengers would be his life’s blood.

He glanced at the plaque to his left. Once, when he was thirteen, Baptiste had been caught putting itching powder in the Mining crew’s space suits. His friends had put him up to it once he said he could do it. He’d made the itching powder himself at home, showing it off during class. On a dare he snuck down to Deck Eight after school let out and sprinkled it into the helmets and gloves hanging in the locker room. His friends thought it was hilarious- that was, until the Peace Officers told them someone was almost killed having an allergic reaction on the morning’s spacewalk. Then they didn’t want anything to do with him.

Then they weren’t his friends.

When the Peace Officers handed Baptiste over to his mother, she’d apologized to the men and thanked them for being so understanding. When they were gone she asked Baptiste where he’d gotten the powder. He told her he made it himself from dried roses, though she didn’t believe him at first. “It was easy,” he told her, “I just dried out the flowers, then I used scissors to cut up the rose hips.” He explained how inside the rose hips was a cotton-like substance known as cythilicus that caused irritation. After that it was just a matter of steaming the cythilicus, drying it out and crushing it into a powder. She listened to his explanation in silence, then asked him a single question.

“What good are you?” Before Baptiste could give a smart-ass answer, she added, “No, I mean it. A lot of people ask that question, but they’re not really looking for an answer, they just want to make you feel little. Look at what you did. Look at all the effort you put into this, for what? To impress a bunch of fools?” He shrugged at that. “You’re a smart boy,” she said, “so I want you to ask yourself, and I want you to think of an honest answer: what good are you? What purpose if any will your life serve?”

The next day he’d gone to his mother and told her he had the answer to her question. “The answer is for you, not me,” she said, but he insisted, so she listened.

“I want to be a teacher,” he told her.

“Why,” she asked, “why do you want to help children?”

His response was, “Because dad couldn’t.”

The screen in Baptiste’s hands blinked, shaking him from the memory. He had a message waiting for him, text only. Urgent information about one of your students, the message read. Meet me on Deck Seventeen. Stack 32-12.

He read the message a second time. Seventeen was only used for storage, which meant no one went down there except the occasional Sanitation worker, and then only to sweep up. That meant Seventeen was more than private- it was downright isolated. It wasn’t a smart idea to go down there alone, and besides, there were channels they could do this through, steps to take with the courts if a child was endangered. Then again threatening to go to the Ship’s Courts might scare off whoever was reaching out to him. If one of his kids was in trouble, he needed to know about it. He had a responsibility to them. He needed to look out for them when others didn’t, or couldn’t.

Otherwise what good was he?

Baptiste stepped off the elevator. Deck Seventeen was kept mostly dark except for some ambient bioluminescence and a few motion lights. Combined with the two Cryo decks above, that part of the ship made up what they lovingly called the “life raft.” But walking in near dark, it didn’t feel much like a life raft. It was more like a crypt, its deep silence broken up only by the Dorniers buzzing overhead, that small fleet of drones tending to the twenty-foot-high stacks like honeybees caring for their nest. A large machine sat off to one side, a vertical stack-loader of some sort, taller than it was wide. Baptiste followed the numbers printed on the floor, meeting not a single person along the way, nor, for that matter, anyone once he reached 32-12.

“Are you there,” he called out. After a minute in the dark he shook his head, wondering if he’d been the victim of a joke. It would serve him right considering what he’d done as a kid. Still, it was annoying if he’d wasted his time coming all the way down to the middle of Seventeen for nothing. After a minute he tried to pull up the message that had brought him there, just to double-check the stack number before he gave up and left. But it was gone.

“What the hell?” He checked again. There was nothing in his inbox, nothing deleted. It was as if the message had never been there at all.

Then he heard it. Heavy footsteps came from the shadows ahead, made by more than one pair of feet. “I know you’re there,” he said to the darkness, but the darkness didn’t reply, at least not in so many words. A silhouette of a man who hadn’t been there a moment before stood at the center of the next row of stacks, his large size nearly obscured by his crooked posture.

“What did you want to tell me,” Baptiste asked. The hidden man swayed strangely in the dark, staring back at him silently. He took a peculiar step forward, floating as if carried on the shoulders of shadows. Baptiste was suddenly worried about the man’s intentions for bringing him down there, realizing he hadn’t told a single person where he would be, not even his father, who wouldn’t have been much help but could have at least vouched for his whereabouts. Baptiste cleared his throat, trying to put on his best teacher’s voice. “You brought me all the way down here, you can at least look me in the eye.”

The crooked man moved forward once more, nearly at the head of the next stack now. He had long, stringy hair, that much Baptiste could see. But the man’s footsteps on the metal floor were what he noticed most. The sound was all wrong. It was as if there were three other men with him, yet Baptiste couldn’t make out anyone else in the shadows, no heads at least but maybe the movement of one or two people crouched next to him. The man reached out with one of his surprisingly long arms, placing a hand on the corner of the stack that was lit from above, just where Baptiste could see it.

The hand was shaped like a man’s, but the flesh was something else, something chitinous and black and lacking warmth. The fingers that gripped the stack were jointed and hard. They had the appearance of an insect’s carapace, yet they possessed far too much dexterity. The hand was oil-black, and thick with thatches of bristled hairs. Baptiste felt his blood run cold as the man moved into the harsh glow of the spotlight.

Two black orbs sat on top of its misshapen head along with two, full sets of smaller eyes set widely beneath those. These smaller eyes appeared more human-like, with tiny, black pupils that studied Baptiste from the center of glistening white sclera. Baptiste felt a lump in his throat as the creature unfolded its jaws to reveal a human tongue inside a void-like mouth of spiral teeth. Then, black, vertical fangs extended down from its mouthparts, like twin pickaxes folding into place, their hollow tips glistening with a viscous fluid that wasn’t saliva.

“Dear God,” he gasped. Horrified by whatever monstrosity Hell had coughed up at him, Baptiste took a step back on trembling legs. The creature took notice. It unfolded its multi-hinged mouth even further, exposing the inner workings of its black, gaping maw, and let out a cry, a kind of half-hiss, half-scream that stunk of pheromones and liquefied death.

Baptiste turned and ran. He went the way he’d come, fleeing between the tall stacks. The spidery creature scream-hissed once more before chasing after him, the sound of its footsteps like a stampede on Baptiste’s heels. His only hope was to reach the elevator before that thing caught up to him. Running faster than he ever had in his life, Baptiste glanced back only once to see the crawling chaos pursuing him on eight, branch-like legs. Their span must have been ten feet, shaped like those of the Huntsman spider, yet extending from a near-human torso of hardened, exoskeletal shell and ending in black finger-toes. Some part of Baptiste was fascinated with the creature, the part that needed to know how it could possibly exist, for evolution to have moved so quickly and in such nightmarish fashion. But that part of him was hidden beneath a thousand layers of fear and a burning will to live. And so the stacks became a dark blur as he crashed and weaved between them, praying he could outrun the monster that stomped and screamed after him but knowing his chances were low, so low, in fact, that given the distance to the elevator, it was probably impossible.

Barely having time to think, he scanned the darkness for something that might help him. Twenty feet up the Dorniers were going about their business, scanning storage cases and pulling them in response to requisitions. Even though they were probably just strong enough to carry his weight and lift him to safety, he had no immediate way to control them. Given some time he could likely figure out some use for them, but just then, in the heat of the moment, he drew a blank.

Baptiste spotted something up ahead and to the left. The vertical stack-loader sat near the far wall, the fifteen-foot tall, crane-like machinery appearing to be out of order. One of its hydraulic arms dangled useless where it must have tipped over and fallen, a fact backed up the bandage of caution tape it wore on one of its front support legs. The vertical loader was a manual back-up to the Dorniers, and appeared to have been sitting in a state of dangerous disrepair for some time. It almost seemed hard to believe until Baptiste remembered that people rarely came down to Storage. Out of sight, out of mind, they say. If he was lucky, the oversight could very well have saved his life.

He ran toward the stack-loader, crossing out into open space. Unencumbered by the turns and tight spaces Baptiste had been using toward his advantage, the spider creature began gaining on him. The pounding of its hideous hand-legs grew closer and closer until Baptiste swore he could hear its fangs clicking together with each gallop. Then, with its rancid breath on his neck, the creature reared back on its legs and jumped.

Baptiste dropped hard. Carried by his running momentum he tumbled along the floor, his arms and legs slapping against the metal like a painful ragdoll. He was only faintly aware of the mass of legs and hissing mouthparts passing over him as the creature missed him completely and landed a few feet ahead, crashing into one of the storage stacks. The creature was stunned, briefly just a pile of legs and storage cases it had knocked loose from the shelves. Realizing he had little time before the thing regained itself, Baptiste pulled himself to his feet and ran again for the stack-loader. He reached it, squeezing his body between it and the wall, making himself as small as possible.

Knowing what he knew about spiders, combined with what he could see with his own, unblinking eyes, Baptiste knew he couldn’t hide from that thing. He couldn’t outrun, out-climb or out-fight it, either. Compared to traditional arachnids, humans were soft-bodied and weak, and whatever that thing was, it was far beyond traditional. He had to make some kind of stand using what tools he had available and leave the rest up to luck.

As he watched, the spidery creature shook its terrible body, rising to its feet. Without pause it charged, thundering directly toward him. He braced for impact as it slammed into the loader, nearly crushing him up against the wall. Baptiste heard a scream and realized it was his own. The creature reached around the machinery with its front legs, those insect fingers grasping out to pull on his clothes, shiny, black fingers trying to rip him from his hiding place.

“Get away from me, you ugly bastard,” Baptiste shouted. It paused for a moment as the long hairs on its head bristled, revealing themselves to be hundreds if not thousands of individual antennae, thin and wiry like the long-horned caddisfly, yet repurposed as living, human hair that swooped and twitched over its waxen head. The creature was frustrated, angry with its prey, and it reared back and slammed its horrific body against the stack-loader repeatedly. Again and again it crashed like an angry sea of exoskeletal flesh against the machinery until a loud crunch of metal came from its front.

It was just the sound Baptiste had been hoping to hear: the broken support leg, finally giving out.

The stack-loader started to tip, its tall, uneven weight swaying up above them. Baptiste braced himself against the wall and pushed with everything he had, helping it to fall. The machinery toppled forward, coming directly down on the creature.

In a display of twitching, insectoid instincts, it leapt back out of the way just as the toppling equipment crashed to the ground in a deafening pile of metal. The loader missed crushing the creature, but its one, working arm managed to pin the thing by one leg. Not ready to celebrate just yet, Baptiste ran to the nearest stack and slid a heavy storage case free from the shelf, returning to the squirming and squealing beast ready to crush it.

Standing above the creature, storage case in hand, he got a better look at the thing that had so recently hunted him like a frightened mouse. Its abdomen was sectioned and striped, with pronounced prolegs like a caterpillar, yet with wriggling, human fingertips emerging from the shell. It looked up at him, and fear briefly flashed across its human eyes. It was a look that almost horrified Baptiste more than anything else on its freakish anatomy. This went beyond some evolutionary mishap, beyond unforeseen effects of long-term space travel.

Someone on board was playing God.

Baptiste didn’t pity the thing, but he no longer felt the urge to snuff it out, either, not that he was even sure he could. He dropped the case and set his mind back on reaching the elevator, on getting away from that dark place, barely concerning himself with where.

A minute later he reached the elevator, but found the door was closed. The door lock had engaged for some reason and wouldn’t accept his commands. Elevator doors typically locked in cases of emergency, such as a hull breaches or extreme containment issues. Try as he might, he couldn’t override the failsafe function. As he fought with the screen he could hear the spider creature still struggling to free itself from the fallen machinery. But more than that, he heard some noises coming from the opposite direction, off to his left where he hadn’t gone. The noises started small at first, far off in the distance, but they quickly grew louder and closer until there was no mistaking what they were.

More footsteps. And not human ones.

Baptiste began pounding and pulling on the elevator door. It wouldn’t open, wouldn’t even budge. Behind and to his right, the creature that had hunted him was almost free of its metallic trap. To his left, getting closer all the time, something else was approaching. Something big. A few of them, in fact. In a panic he checked the elevator’s screen again for some sign that it had come to its senses and would accept his command, that it would let him go free before Hell closed in from both sides. He found instead, not elevator controls at all, but a black screen with four, simple words displayed on its face.

I am truly sorry.

As he stared at the words, he felt the rush of air from something lunging at him, then the sensation of teeth sinking into his leg. Baptiste was dragged away screaming; fallen away before his purpose had finished.