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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls (Update: 04/06/10) PostPosted: 2010-06-06 05:29pm
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Jedi Knight
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Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
In this chapter, the right's fears of Obamacare and the left's fears of HMOs get together for a really groovy time. And by 'groovy', I mean '...the fuck?!' (But the important thing is that fears are getting it on and hatching a bumper crop of nightmares)

Next chapter, days 6 and 9 come around; Emily gets some attention, Shannon gives some and an old acquaintance turns up.

WARNING: this chapter contains graphic violence, above and beyond the normal levels. Please bear this in mind and if it's not your cup of tea, there'll be a spoilered summary below for your use.


Chapter 27:

This particular part of the facility wasn’t on the Elysium-class DROP schematics that Artemis had been using, but it was on the map Shannon had downloaded. Originally marked as a breakroom off the storage section’s lowest level – a large central chamber with three branching nodes: two for storage of personal gear and one functioning as a unisex lavatory – it had been... considerably modified.

All of the adjacent chambers had been repurposed into dungeons and the central chamber was now a macabre trophy room. Tables were ringed throughout the room, each of them stocked with weapons and debris from decades of battles. Most had been destroyed or damaged by the fights that had led to their capture, whereas others appeared to be in working order. Rifles and ammo clips, broken bits of armour, crude weapons presumably taken from other ‘lost’. Bones flensed of all flesh: elongated talons, mutated skulls as well as bits and pieces from ordinary men and women who’d died at the hands of one of the Masks.

A gauntlet and half of the right forearm of some ancient set of power armour. Rifles with chainblade bayonets, long-depleted energy weapons. Personal effects, idols and fetishes taken from the dead – lockets and rings, necklaces and bracelets. Their own weapons had been set aside on one of the other shelves, along with St. Cloud’s cherished ‘Betsy’ and other Artemis-issue arms. Shannon supposed there should have been some sense of reverence about this place – these artifacts were clearly well-guarded and important to the feral tribe, but the knowledge of what they’d done to gain these trinkets dulled any sense of enthusiasm Shannon might have otherwise had.

As did knowing that they were the newest additions to this macabre collection.

It was why she, Abigail and Louis had been left in their armour – for the same reason that defeated enemies of the Roman Legions were paraded through the streets in their own armour or daubed with appropriately terrifying and barbaric war paints. Look how cunning, how ferocious and mighty we are, to overcome such terrible enemies. They were supposed to impress and awe the rest of the horde and once that was over with...

Her people – what else did she call them now? – were looking to her, watching for a signal, a command. Something to indicate that she’d figured out the most oppurtune time to fight back. She’d seen those looks before, knew what they meant. That trusting assumption that the Halo will figure things out. She wished it was that simple, some magic ‘instant-win’ button in her head she could push to instantly know what to do, but it didn’t work like that. Especially now.

Shannon was grateful for Abigail’s presence; the other woman was more adept at reading these situations and if she hadn’t seen any possible turning point, it made the younger corporal feel better about her own failure to do so. But whatever else these ferals were, they couldn’t be called stupid. Several guards formed a barrier between the survivors and the trophy weapons (some of them did work, then), and the way they moved, the way they carried themselves – they were malnourished, sick, twisted and broken from what the Mists had done (were doing) to them, but they knew how to fight. How to kill.

Primal’s crew had remembered that, too. It takes pieces, Dead Man’s voice played over in her mind. And puts them back together. Patchwork people with patchwork flesh and minds. They’d lost their souls, but remembered how to strip them from others.

The survivors were led into one of the cells; chains hung from the spikes pounded into walls, and lay pooled on the ground, anchored to tines driven into the floor. The bulkheads and deck were stained with centuries of horror and blood that nothing could ever wash out. The room stank with years of accumulated urine, blood, sweat and chemical cleansers, the mixture of disparate odours acrid and cloying. It was as awful a place as any could be.

One by one, they were chained in place, arms above their head and ankles together, feet on the floor. There was some give in the chains over their heads, enough that the position of their arms wouldn’t cause them to suffocate, but not enough to allow them to make a grab for the guards or try to pull the spike out of the wall and free themselves that way. As they were locked into their shackles, the ferals’ guns remained levelled to ensure that any last, desperate attempt at freedom would end in nothing but a broken corpse collapsing to the floor. No, whatever else they were, these people hadn’t forgotten how to kill.

As the bindings around her feet were fastened together and the masked figures withdrew amidst unpleasant chuckles, Shannon knew how she and the others were going to get out of here.

~

The birth was getting closer. A handful of days, no more. Perhaps even less. The attendants and reaver packs had both harvested well recently; the last birth had occurred a month ahead of schedule and this one was already seven weeks premature. If one or two days could be shaved off that, it would be good. Not every birth could be as efficient – the attendants could only work with what they were given and the reavers’ predations must – must – remain discreet.

-hunt and slay, tear them open and feed-

Most of the New Ones had been accounted for, but even the recovered records couldn’t tell them who had been dragged off to a garden, or taken by the Lost Ones. There were always survivors.

-kill them all-

Frustrating, but there it was. Fortunately, any possibility of the New Ones interfering with the birth was already remote and as long as any organized response was crushed, that possibility grew slimmer still.

-blood-

However, they would not repeat the previous team’s lapse. Remaining in the unsecured portion of the cairn was always a risk, but one worth taking if it insured that the birth went as planned. No interruptions. No witnesses. No new stories for the Lost Ones.

-warm and quivering in your mouth, red and running down your chin-

It wasn’t the Mists that whispered and beckoned, taunted and tempted with these promises. If only it were that simple... if only...

-find the prey as they shiver in the darkness-

Yes.

~

I’ve sparred with you, remember. I was also right there with you in that brawl in The Black Locker.

It wasn’t something that they advertised, but Halos were strong. They didn’t really understand why themselves, what usefulness that particular trait could have possibly served in the Primaries’ vision. Like the rest of her planet – perhaps more so, given her training and chosen field – Shannon was quite physically adept. She didn’t like others to know. It... embarrassed her, made her feel... wrong. Ashamed. Halos weren’t supposed to fight and even though she’d joined a mercenary company, that unease had remained.

She wasn’t a short woman by any means, but she wasn’t the biggest, either and the squadmates who’d seen her heft an injured soldier in full body armour wrote it off as adrenalin. In sparring matches, Abigail had told her that she had a “pathological” tendency to pull her punches. The Darkknell had tried to break her little sister of that habit, with only partial success. Before this mission, the incident in The Black Locker had been the first and only time that Shannon had hit someone with full force.

His name had been Ryan Fortell, and he’d been one of the station’s maintenance crew. Just a nine-to-fiver, celebrating a friend’s birthday in a merc bar and he’d taken an interest in the quiet, red-haired young woman sitting in a corner booth, waiting for her own friend to finish her drinking and pass out.

He hadn’t taken ‘no’ for an answer. On the cusp of alcohol poisoning and egged-on by his equally drunk friends, he’d gotten aggressive. Abigail had been drunk herself, but she’d eager to teach the ‘duct rat’ some manners. Rather than let it come to that, Shannon had tried to get the Darkknell out of there, so that everyone could cool down. Fortell had grabbed her and in an angry, inebriated attempt at seduction, put his hand down her pants.

She’d hit him.

Shannon hadn’t been wearing her armour. Hadn’t been using combat drugs. Hadn’t had a club or brass knuckles; she’d just hit him with her fist, and only once.

She’d broken that side of his face. No, not just ‘broken’. Shattered. She’d crushed his cheekbones, knocked several teeth out and dislocated his lower jaw. Multiple fractures: simple, open, multi-fragmentary... that entire side of his face had been all but caved in. If she’d hit him in the temple, she would have crushed his skull. In return, she’d skinned her knuckles and gotten clean, closed fractures on two metacarpal bones. He’d been on the ground, writhing and mewling, clutching at his ruined face as Shannon stared in shock. There’d been so much blood.

Then the brawl had started, as Fortell’s friends pushed themselves up from their table and the mercenaries – whether Artemis or not (one did have to defend one’s position in the pecking order, after all) did the same. In the aftermath, she’d been sick with what she’d done to Fortell, what she’d started. Shannon had gone to see him in the hospital, where his gushing contrition had hardly let her get her own in. He’d been so desperate to apologize for his actions that he’d strained the healing muscles and bones of his face and started bleeding again. No, he hadn’t been a bad man, just one that had made poor choices. And she’d almost killed him for that.

That incident had almost convinced her to leave Artemis and returned home, but Abigail had talked her into staying – in her own way. “That guy was an ass and he got what was coming to him. If you hadn’t been there, hadn’t put him down hard, maybe he’d have set his sets on some other girl. Maybe he would have done the same thing and because she couldn’t or wouldn’t do what you did, things would have been worse for her. He’ll live. Surgery’ll fix his face, and he’ll remember to keep his dick in check in the future. So what’s the problem?” Quietly: “You did better than I would have, Shannie. If he’d done that to me, I’d have put a knife in him.”

After that, she’d found it a little easier to accept her strength. Now, she was grateful for it.

The tine that her arms were chained to was secure. Rusted, worn and thick with the build-up of dust, grime and filth, it was welded into the bulkhead so well it seemed to be a part of the station’s superstructure and it didn’t so much as shiver as she tugged at it.

The pike pounded into the deck wasn’t had give to it. She could feel the welds straining as she pulled – it would have held anyone else just as well as it was supposed to (well, probably not Abby either, but the Darkknell was fixated on getting her arms free – she probably wouldn’t noticed the minute give in this tine). But they’d put her here. One mistake, that one slip-up. She’d found it.

“What...” Louis licked his lips and tried again. “What are they going to do to us?” He was on Shannon’s right; Abigail was chained up on her left. Emily and Ramone were past Hernandez – Salvador was farthest from Hayes. Relative to the entryway, this was the left-hand prison. Shannon had no idea if the center (the former bathroom) and the right-side dungeons had prisoner-trophies as well. She hadn’t heard anything from them.

Abigail tugged furiously on her own chains, cursing under her breath. “What do you think, Nine? I’m sure this is just their version of hazing. Once we hang out here for a while, they’ll break out the brews and then we’ll all have a good laugh about our new frat’s wacky initiations. Won’t that be fun?” She swore again, still fighting with her shackles.

Shannon wished the binders on her ankles were looser, or at least had more slack. She might have been able to pull off her boots. The hard way it is, she thought, giving her legs a powerful jerk. The tine twitched. “Do you want to know?” she asked quietly, turning her head to look out the door. There was a small window-and-shutter cut into the door to allow those outside to look in without coming into the cell themselves. There were overhead lights, but they were so dim as to be useless – the only light that came into the prison was through the open window from the fires and glowpanels that lit the main trophy room.

She could see Dead Man through the opening; his back was to them as he lifted St. Cloud’s armour off and reverently set it down on one of the trophy tables. He was thin but muscular and his back and arms were a criss-crossed nightmare of scars and burns. A survivor.

His hair was light brown, scraggly and sweat-soaked. Someone in a gas mask, their gaze turned away from Dead Man’s naked face, passed the pack leader a ballroom mask, the inside reinforced with metal. He put it on, canting his head towards the cell.

His mask was a male peacock, with a nose guard that extended down almost past his upper lip – this was the neck, head and beak of the bird, with the rest of the mask – from cheekbone to temple, the flirt of its open tail feathers. Though his lips were expressionless, their scars formed an abhorrent, leering smile as he stared back at the women. Abigail made a kissing noise. “See you soon, sweetie.”

Dead Man strode forward, glaring at the prisoners through the slot on the door. He touched two fingers to just beneath his eyes, then pointed them back at Abigail. I’m watching you. He slammed the viewing hatch closed and Shannon heard his footsteps tromp off. No, they weren’t stupid.

“Yes,” Louis said quietly, raising his voice to catch Shannon’s attention. “Yes, I want to know.”

“Okay,” Abigail kicked her feet again. Another infinitesimal movement of the spike. Little by little... “What kills small populations?”

Louis’s brow furrowed for a moment, then went slack. “They’re going to eat us?”

“Oh God,” Ramone breathed. Emily’s head twitched, a minute shake. Her eyes met Shannon’s. She knows, too.

“They might,” Shannon conceded. “But remember the size of the population. There were dozens – and these were just the people closest to us when we were brought in. Many children, several pregnant women. There are hundreds in this entire complex. They’ve got enough food for all of them – they can’t rely on ships to provide enough sustenance, not if cannibalism’s a staple of their diet.” That didn’t mean that they weren’t oppurtunistic cannibals, though, but she didn’t mention that part. “They probably hoard MREs. Maybe they’ve got a hydroponics garden. Certainly they’ve tapped the water system – maybe a cistern grows algal. So they’ve got a constant source of food and water. Not enough to keep them all healthy, but enough to keep everyone alive.” She bit her lip and pulled on the chains again.

“Then what?”

“What kills small populations is allele fixation. Homozygosity. When there’s no more gene flow coming in, and little diversity in the population.” She had to use the these terms, had to build up to it. Stay detached, don’t think about it. “Deleterious mutations and physiological defects build up. It’s called a ‘mutational meltdown’ that leads into an ‘extinction vortex’. Inbreeding destroys small populations over generations. If you sleep with your sister or your cousin, it won’t matter that much for your kid. But if they do the same, and those offspring do it too – then you get spinal deformities. Autoimmune disorders. Defective sperm. Birth rates plummet as the fitness of the surviving adults drops and fewer and fewer embryos, let alone children, survive. The only way to prevent this is to bring in new genetic stock. Emigrants from other populations.”

As she’d been talking, Louis’ expression had changed from one of confusion to dawning comprehension, to revulsion and shame. “I’m... I’m... sorry,” he stammered, gritting his teeth. “I won’t... I won’t let-”

“Before you let pitying chivalry eat you up,” Abigail replied, “I’d just like to point out that you’re here with us brood hens too.”

Louis’s expression slackened for a moment as the implications of that hit him, then he shook himself. “But then, why haven’t they...”

“We’re trophies,” Shannon nodded towards the door. “Something that has to be earned. The man wearing St. Cloud’s armour – it wasn’t his usual garb. It was something he was allowed to use.” The fear bubbled up inside her and her clinical detachment faltered. “The same with us. There’ll... be some kind of proving and the winners...” she let that thought hang in the darkness, interrupted by clatter of desperate tugs upon unyielding chains.

~

They came for Ramone first.

The viewing hatch snapped open, a spar of light shining into the cell, two faces silhouetted briefly before the hatch closed just as abruptly. The door’s hinges squealed as it was pulled open and a pair of women sauntered in. Both of their masks only covered their noses and eyes; one was of cat’s whiskers and ears. The other was a cracked porcelain ballroom-style affair. Both them wore surgical masks over their mouths and filthy nurses’ uniforms that had been unbuttoned to show off a fair amount of cleavage and trimmed to be as short as any miniskirt. Cat wore knee-high leather boots; Porcelain had ankle bracelets. Behind them, Shannon could hear squeaking as something was slowly wheeled closer.

Ignoring the women and Louis, the ‘nurses’ sauntered over to Ramone, stroking his face. “A doctor...” one of them began in an eerie singsong.

“...needs a staff,” the other finished. “That’s why...”

“...we’re here,” Cat amended.

Ramone swallowed. “That’s, uh, it’s, uh...”

“Hush...” Porcelain purred, pressing herself up against him. “Just let us...”

“...take care of you,” Cat said.

It was if the doctor’s brain had short-circuited and he couldn’t formulate any coherent response. He stammered, getting out half-sentences, mentioning a wife, but the feral women didn’t pay any attention to his protestations, nor the imprecations and demands coming from the other survivors. Cat was rubbing her rear against his hips and Porcelain sunk down to her knees, pulling the doctor’s pants down. “Isn’t that...”

“...so much better,” Cat purred huskily. Then, like flipping a switch, the ‘nurse’ whipped around to glare out the door. “Now!” she screamed, high-pitched and fierce as a banshee.

A man in a rebreather rushed forward, fumbling a set of jingling keys in his hands, pouring out an all-but-unintelligible rush of apologies in the local dialect.

The squeaking grew louder as the man unlocked Ramone’s bindings. Porcelain’s hand was in his underwear, stroking him. The doctor’s eyes pinched shut and his face was contorted in disgust and shame. “Now, now,” a new masculine voice interrupted. “There’ll be time for that later.” It was the feral doctor, pushing a surgeon’s cart. Dented stainless steel, there were bindings for wrists, elbows, ankles and thighs. “First, the procedure.”

“What-what procedure?” Ramone’s mind re-asserted itself as the ballroom-masked woman’s hand withdrew, each of the nurses taking one of his arms and leading him out of the cell. “What are you going to do? What are you going to do to me?” His panic rose as he dug his heels in and he was pulled out of the chamber and strapped down to the cart.

Shannon could see another man in a broken gas mask holding something... No. No, God no. Don’t let this happen. Please. “Leave him alone!” she shouted, pulling at her bonds, only dimly aware that the others were doing the same. “Don’t do this! You don’t need to!”

Cat looked up at her and in a petulant, child-denied-a-treat voice, said: “But we need a doctor.”

“What are they going to do?” Louis demanded quietly.

Shannon closed her eyes, trying to will the nightmare away. “You don’t need legs to be a doctor,” she said, the words hollow and sick-sounding in her throat. “But you need them to escape.”

Ramone had caught sight of his feral counterpart. “What are you doing? No! No, get away!”

The ‘doctor’ was holding a reciprocating saw, sliding a fire-heated blade into the machine. “Nurse,” he said. “Prepare the patient.”

Porcelain withdrew a dose of painkillers – one of hers, Shannon realized – and injected Ramone with it, then tightened the straps on his thighs. They were just above his knees. Tourniquets. She stroked Salvador’s face and whispered in his ear, before looking to the other man. “He’s ready, doctor.”

“Excellent. Orderly, are the prostheses ready?”

The man carrying the false legs – one of wood, sculpted to look like a real lower leg and foot, the other of black metal and plastic, intended only to be functional – nodded. “Yes, doctor.”

“Then we’ll begin.”

“What? No! No!” Salvador screamed as the feral doctor started the saw. “No! Please, somebody! Help me! Help meeeeee!” he shrieked as the red-hot blade was driven through his skin, just below his right knee, ripping through bone and muscle. He thrashed, but was held too securely to accomplish anything.

Louis vomited, pink bile spattering down his lips and splashing his cuirass as the stink of cooking meat and bone filled the air. Shannon had her eyes squeezed shut, unable to watch. Hearing it – smelling it – was enough. Her breath was hot and heavy in her chest, muscles tensing almost painfully. Abigail was silent, with that look on her face. Emily had her head turned away. Like Shannon, she couldn’t bear to see this. They didn’t even bother to take him out of here.

The whine of the saw abated. Leather rasped and buckles clicked as the amputated limb was taken away. Mumbling as the tourniquets above Ramone’s knees were checked, confirmed for tightness. The clack of the blade being ejected from the saw, followed by the click of a fresh heated, crudely sterilized blade being locked into place. There was a whiff of medicinal alcohol, the wet splashes of it being doused over the amputated end of Ramone’s leg, the clothy rasp of bandages being drawn. Whimpered prayers and pleading: “No more. No more. No more. No more.”

Then the machine growled back to life.

When it was over, the cart squeaked as they wheeled Ramone away as ‘orderlies’ cleaned up the mess, closing the door to the cell and leaving four survivors, awaiting the sounds of their own guests.

In the darkness, Shannon found that she was feeling something new. Something she’d only tasted in the hall as she’d struggled against the gravity plates and a voice whispered to her, telling her to stop fighting. Something dark and raw, red and violent. It frightened her, but after what she’d seen, she wanted more. She... wanted to share it.

God help me, I do.

She tugged on her chains again, feeling something give a little more.

God help me.

***

[Reveal] Spoiler: In this chapter...
The survivors are imprisoned and Ramone is taken away to become the tribe's new doctor; his legs are amputated to prevent him from escaping.

Shannon is working on an escape attempt, but it hasn't come to fruition yet. She reminisces about the incident in 'The Black Locker' that led to her severely injuring another person and watching Salvador's mutilation has triggered something in her; it's not a nice something.



Image
Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777


Last edited by Bladed_Crescent on 2010-06-06 06:03pm, edited 3 times in total.
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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls (Update: 06/06/10) PostPosted: 2010-06-14 05:54pm
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Jedi Knight
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Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
In this chapter, Shannon feels the pull of something that, in any other circumstance, she'd much rather have buried. Even the brightest halo can still be tarnished.

Coming up: old acquaintances make themselves known and Abigail honours a promise.

Warning: this chapter also contains a scene of violence that some readers may find unpleasant. As before, a spoilered summation is below.

Chapter 28:

They’d taken Emily.

One of the ferals – this one in a Hadley-Wright security officer’s jumper and the helmet of an engineer – had come for her, taking a set of keys from the lower-ranking Mask with the rebreather and unchaining the petite doctor. His vocalizer had buzzed and rasped with static with each heavy breath as he’d run his hands over Emily’s body, ignoring Louis’s demands that the Mask ‘take on someone his own size’ and ‘face him like a man’.

Abigail had tugged at her chains, all but hissing like some wild animal herself. It was something she’d seen before – other sisters – in name if not blood – taken by gangers and the other dregs of Darkknell’s, leaving her in the dark to wait her own turn. The chains strained against her strength and drool ran down her lips, her teeth clenched and gleaming wetly in the faint light. Less than a woman now, only some vicious beast straining at its leash, rabid and all but blood-mad.

Shannon hadn’t said a word; she’d just… stared at the feral man. No anger, no fear. There’d been nothing in her expression but naked curiousity, but curiousity without wonder, analytical and evaluative as she’d studied the man, no trace of her thoughts behind her blank face. I know how to hurt you. I do. I can hurt you so badly that you’ll always be in pain. You touch her… you hurt her and I swear I… Her heart was pounding in her chest, muscles twitching as something dark and ugly bubbled and clawed its way up from her gut.

“It’s okay,” Emily had said as she’d been pushed out the door, trying to give Shannon a reassuring smile. Her lip had quivered and her eyes... she’d been afraid. “It’s okay.”

“No,” Shannon had said into the darkness as the door shut again, hanging limp in her restraints. No. It isn’t.

The peg started to wobble as she tugged on it again, loosening it in its place. When it broke…

I’ll find you, Emily. I promise I will. I’ll...

No. It wasn’t ‘all right’ at all.

~

Can you hear me, Calvin? I can hear you. I can smell you.

Meyers jerked, turning around and letting his headlamps shine down the hall. Again, there was nothing. Every time he looked, Godfrey managed to...

No, no. Get a hold of yourself man. She’s not there. Not there, you hear me?

“Right,” Calvin clenched his teeth. “Right, I know. But she is out there somewhere.”

Yes, that’s true.

“I have to be careful. Godfrey’s just too damn fast. Always been that way, you know?”

Just watch out. You’re getting buggy, Calvin. It won’t do the people you’re supposed to protect any good if you wig out and accidentally gun them down.

“I know, I-” Meyers broke off the conversation as something squished under his foot. He looked down, letting the lights set onto either side of his helmet shine over the floor. Thin red-black cords – almost veins – wound their way up over the floor and bulkheads. Looking up, he could see that they were even on the ceiling. The grates covering nearby airvents were busted and warped where these strange growths had pushed their way through the metal slats. or pushed their way out under the frame. Several bulkheads appeared to strain at the seams, like building flagstones pushed up by roots and plant growth.

On the wall were several colour-coded directional arrows, all leading deeper into the overgrown part of the station, their lettering faded by time.

SE T ON G
SE ON RY TR M SYS EM STA O N 3
AT OSP E IC P OCE SI G [ ORTH]
HYD O ON CS [N TH]
SEC RI Y C TR L [NOR H]

None of those places sounded familiar. Calvin brought up the station schematics on his HUD and frowned as he studied them. Either he’d gone too far past the intersection he’d been looking for, DROP 47’s layout was different from a standard Elysium, or... both were true and this was a worse mess than he’d thought. Meyers paused, thinking. He didn’t particularly want to go further down this hallway, but backtracking would only give Godfrey a chance to catch up. Hell, he wasn’t even sure if he’d passed the junction he wanted. It would cut across several districts and take him back towards the center of the arm, where he was sure to find some survivors. The trick was getting onto the right corridor. This place was a labyrinth that would have done Minos proud.

Down the vein-grown hallway, he heard something call out in the distance, its strange unnerving cry echoing through the corridor, making the source impossible to localize.

He looked back down the way he’d come, but saw no indication of his pursuer. Devil in the dark, or the devil I know... She was waiting for him, he knew. Stalking him. Maybe even watching. If he turned around...

The tram tunnel would give him quicker access to the rest of the arm and if he’d missed his intersection, he’d be able to backtrack up the tunnel to it, or take the tunnel itself. That was what he told himself, what he thought made him take one step and then another down the hallway.

As he moved, his heavy treads crushed the glistening red sinews, causing dark liquid to ooze out of them.

~

She tasted blood.

He’d backhanded her when she’d talked back, thrown her to the ground. The floor stank. No surprise there; it was covered in a thin layer of filth and felt greasy and gritty on her skin. They were in one of the other cells; he’d wanted privacy, but he also hadn’t wanted to wait.

Emily wiped her mouth with the back of one hand and rolled onto her side as she looked up at her attacker. The corners of her mouth twitched. “Just couldn’t stay away could you, Artie?”

He hated that nickname.

~

The air grew more humid as he travelled deeper into the hallway; Calvin was now sure he was going the wrong way. Each step he took squished the substrate under his feet. No longer just the branching cords that had slithered their way through bulkheads and decks, it was now a fleshy carpet, spongy and moist, like diseased skin over blood vessels. This creeping ooze had bubbled through air vents and seams in the walls, eroding and rusting the metal around its pustulent boils where decades of pressure had yielded openings in the deck and ceiling, entrail-like cords of the stuff hanging down like fleshy stalactites.

Some throughfares – corridors and stairwells, elevators and rooms – had been entirely choked off with the stuff, grown over with quivering membranes and shivering, bulbous agglomerations of the strange organic matter, these structures trembling as he passed, some oozing the same blood-like fluid that had wept from the broken veins beneath his feet. The trooper knelt down and prodded the fetid carpet. No, not dead. Living tissue. But from what? What had made this? He couldn’t tell what the substance was – was it actually as fleshy as it appeared, or was it some kind of plant? A fungus or bacterial colony?

Flies and other insects buzzed about the strange biological matting and if he looked closely enough, he could see worms and other things squirming and crawling through it, like maggots through rotten meat. Had these pests been brought over by incautious ships, or had they been here since the station had been built? He couldn’t say.

There: just below a thin, translucent film of the gunk – another direction marking. Calvin brushed the layer of quivering filth off the wall, reading the words beneath it.

ATMOSPHERIC PROCESSING G2
WARNING: HARZARDOUS CONDITIONS. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
USE PROTECTIVE GEAR AT ALL TIMES IN DESIGNATED AREAS
DECONTAMINATE BEFORE ENTRY


And, in thick black ink that had almost been erased itself, one of the station’s other visitors had scrawled a new warning:

IT BREATHES

Meyers took a step back. He wasn’t sure what that meant, whether it was an actual warning or simply the product of another broken mind, but now facing Jane was starting to seem like the better of his options.

Calvin...

He froze. No, that was just his imagination playing tricks on him again. “Just my mind,” he whispered. “That’s all. She’s not here.”

“Calvin,” Godfrey repeated and Meyers started – that was her voice. She was on his comm. She was on his God-damned comm! “Where are you, little lost Eta? Don’t you want to come and play with me?” Through the channel, he thought he heard the snap-hiss of her disruptor unsheathing. “You shouldn’t go off alone,” Godfrey continued. “It’s very dangerous here. Where are you, Calvin? Don’t you want to be safe?” A beat. “I can make you safe. I have to. Come on Calvin. Come and play...” she whispered, almost pleading.

Meyers didn’t answer; she’d zero in on his position if he did. His own tracking software had given him a rough idea of her position... she was just one level and a few hundred meters away. If he fell back now, he’d run right into her. No, he’d find his way to the tram station and double-back while she was still chasing ghosts. That was what he’d do.

Keeping an eye out for any ambushes, he headed further into the darkness as the ground shivered beneath his feet.

“Calvin...” the Ghost trooper tried a final time. “This is the better way, I promise. It’ll be quick. You don’t want to be here. You don’t want that burden. Please, Calvin... Let me help you.”

~

His mask was of some bird – perhaps an owl, with brown and white feathers painted onto the cheeks, forehead and around the eyes, with a worn, once-yellow beak for a nose. His eyes were a vivid, but off-colour green, perhaps due to disease or some genetic quirk expressing itself. His clothes were from Primal’s stores, un-named and un-marked corporate jackets and trousers. His shoes were industrial workboots, and from a worn leather belt hung an ugly dark-bladed knife with a grip wrapped in duct tape. The ring of keys on his hip jingled as he moved, held to his waist by a small Velcro loop. His fingernails were short and chewed down and his fingers twitched and shivered in his excitement.

He stared at Shannon with naked, eager lust in his eyes, his dry, cracked lips smacking together as he licked his hands. “Hayes-Halo,” he mumbled, touching one hand to his mouth, like a child presented with a present they never expected to get. “Hayes. Halo. Angel…” he reached forward with one hand – it smelled like soap – and touched Shannon’s cheek. “Angel… angels fall into Acheron.” She watched him carefully, wondering if this was what it felt like to go mad. He stroked his hand down her flank, tapping the sides of her cuirass. “Angels fall into sin.”

She could hurt him. She saw, in her mind, each and every sick, debased thing that he planned to do to her. And she could just as easily envision what she could do to him. She could all but feel the crush of his bones, the wet pops of vertebrae and squishing of organs.

She wanted to do all that and more. All her fear, all her anger, all the terror and running and everything that had happened since she’d come to this place…

Her friends, butchered by monsters, hunted and killed by madmen.

One of the people she’d promised to protect butchered like meat.

Another taken away to be abused.

Her breath came faster and her right leg twitched. Her ‘suitor’ was so intent on her that he didn’t notice the rattle of the tine as she tugged on it. She was almost there.

She wanted to stop this.

Make it all stop. I can do that. I can.

He licked her cheek, planting slobbering kisses on her skin. Her heart pounded in her chest. She barely even heard Louis fighting to get free, red-faced and hurling obscenities at the feral, his voice muted as if from a great distance. He shouldn’t be straining himself. Abigail was furiously tugging at her chains, the shackles on her wrists digging into her skin. She could hurt herself if she kept doing that.

The feral licked her face, standing back and smiling. “You taste good.”

Shannon’s pupils dilated, the pittance of light in the cell becoming a glare of brilliance.

She knew how to hurt this man. She wanted to hurt him. It didn’t matter what he was, who he’d been, what had made him like this. She didn’t want to save him. She wanted him to suffer. A thousand different ways to do it flashed through her head and her breath deepened, her entire body quivering.

He was here and every part of her wanted it. Almost every part.

Inside, there was still some part of her screaming, crying out in horror at this… this blasphemous feeling, but it didn’t matter. She could crush his spine. Smash his ribs. Even out of her armour, she weighed more than he did. She was stronger, better trained. She could kill him at any time. But that wouldn’t get her what she wanted. She needed something more than simple violence. Knowing that, knowing what she wanted, what she could do... it felt good. Ugly and wrong, but... good.

Her mouth opened, her warm breath stirring the cool, dry air of the cell. I know what I’m going to do to you. Her cheeks flushed and warmth radiated to every part of her, tingling and lovely. This is wrong.

His hands ran down her body, gripping her rear. A lurid, ugly smile spread across his face as he started to tug at her pants.

She smiled in return. Yes, it is. There was no sadism, no eagerness in that expression. No sorrow. It was completely devoid of all emotion as she settled on a course of action and with one final heave, the spike snapped from its holdings, and Shannon’s legs were free-

-in the same motion, she drew them up to her chest, pushing her suitor back-

-the soles of her feet planted against his chest-

-sick green eyes widened behind his fanciful mask, but there was no time for him react, only that instant of comprehension-

-she pushed, throwing him back against the wall with stunning force-

-dazed but not downed, he shook his head, trying to come to grips with what had happened-

-he reacted as any of them did with presented with an immediate threat, he charged-

-she let him come, that same blank smile on her face-

-then her legs snapped out and wrapped around his neck, her thighs constricting his throat like a python’s coils.

The feral man made a helpless bleat of surprise and terror as his would-be conquest choked the life from him. His hands beat at her flanks, scrabbling uselessly at the armour plating there, but even if his dirty nails had found her unprotected skin, he wouldn’t have been able to force her to release him. His fingers clawed at the backside of her thighs, scratching for purchase at the bodyglove’s fabric and finding none. He gasped helplessly and gaped like a fish, his eyes bulging as capillaries burst within them.

Die, her mind pounded that single thought at him, an ugly cadence. I want you to die.

He tried to push his hands up between her thighs to pry them apart, but he wasn’t strong enough, her legs a vice around his throat. She tightened her own grip on him, feeling his vertebrae creak between her legs. His tongue stuck out between his teeth and he made desperate sucking noises as he tried to draw in air. His struggles were getting weaker and weaker as his body starved for oxygen.

Shannon’s own breath came in short, raspy gasps, beads of sweat forming on her skin, running down her spine, dripping into her eyes. Her entire body felt warm, felt like it was being caressed... Stop this! a part of her was screaming. Stop it! You’re killing him! He’s helpless, you’ve won!

But it felt… it felt…

Good. It felt good.

Less than a day ago, she’d taken her first life, gunning down Primal’s deranged personnel. It hadn’t been like this, hadn’t felt like this. Something silky and poisonous whispered to her now; that had been too chaotic, too random. This… this was something she’d planned. Something she’d envisioned and forged. This was what she’d felt in the hall, the fleeting desire to have the man who’d trapped her and her people at her mercy, to be able to visualize what she could do to him, to do it. To hurt another living being. To kill him.

No! that part of her howled again, overshadowed by the new feelings flooding her through her, her entire body reacting. Her skin was flushed and rippled with goosebumps, her nipples stiffened and that was not the extent of her arousal… No! NO!

This was sick. This was wrong. You can still stop this! the voice cried out in despair, begging and pleading. This isn’t what you are! You can stop this!

No. I won’t. Her lips drew back from her teeth in a rictus, starting to tremble. This... this feels like...

A weak death rattle escaped from the man as the last of his strength faded and he sagged against her, his head tipping to one side as his dull, glassy eyes staring sightlessly past Shannon. As she felt him die, she gasped, a high-pitched yelp escaping from her lips as her body bucked against the wall… Did I just…? Oh God. Oh God.

As her mind cleared, it was all she could do not to vomit in shame and self-loathing. She let the corpse fall to the floor, refusing to look at Louis or Abigail. She couldn’t face them. Not after what she’d just done. But she didn’t have a lot of time; sooner or later the dead man’s friends were going to realize that something was wrong, if they hadn’t already done so. Her feet were still chained together, but without the peg holding the chain down, she had more slack between them. Shannon pried her left foot out of its boot, reaching down and taking the key ring between her big toe and index toe, clutching it between them. That was the easy part. The next part…

Her arms were still chained and she wasn’t nearly dexterous nor flexible enough to reach up and unlock her own chains or those of her compatriots with just her feet. But she was flexible enough to ‘somersault’ up the wall, her booted foot pressed against the bulkhead, the keys dangling from the other just inches above her shackled hands.

“Easy…” she heard Louis whisper. “Easy, Hayes.” He was staring at her, eyes wide as she loosened her grip on the keys a bit more. They dangled just out of reach… No one seemed to breathe as she let them fall, but her fingers snatched the keys out of the air, clutching tightly to the filthy metal ring. Her feet swung back to the ground as she carefully tested each key on the chain until she felt one slide into the lock on her right wrist. She twisted it.

Click.

Glorious.

Shannon tugged the loose chain off its tine as she freed her other hand. Her foot thumped into something soft and warm. She ignored it; she didn’t have time for that. Hayes-Thief. Hayes-Saboteur. Hayes-Worm. I guess now you have a new name to call me.

“Abby,” she knelt and unchained her ‘big sister’s’ ankles, standing up to unlock Abigail’s cuffs. Tears ran down Shannon’s face, and she still refused to look Abigail in the eyes. I’m sorry. I don’t know what... I’m sorry. She didn’t know what to say, ashamed of what she’d done, what she was about to ask. “Hurt them.”

The Darkknell balled her left hand into a fist, wrapping the chain around it. She didn’t offer a pithy comment, no one-liner or crooked smirk. Her lips were twisted up into the adrenaline-fuelled rictus that she could never banish and her dark blue eyes were as warm as the crushing depths of the ocean. “I will, Shannie,” she vowed. “I will.”

[Reveal] Spoiler:
Calvin Meyers realizes he's lost, but is unwilling to backtrack and face Jane. He encounters strange growths covering the walls, thickening as he moves deeper into the station towards an atmospheric processing plant.

Killion returns and takes Emily away; when a feral tries to rape Shannon, she breaks free of her restraints and kills him, ashamed and sickened by how good it felt. She unlocks Abigail, who promises to make the ferals pay for what they've done.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls (Update: 14/06/10) PostPosted: 2010-06-16 05:54pm
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Jedi Knight
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Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
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In these chapters, the escape goes as well as can be expected, some good news is received and a potential ally throws their hat in.

Coming up: Unity beckons. Make us whole.


Chapter 29:

The knife in Abigail’s right hand was a gift from the dead feral – he certainly didn’t need it any longer. She didn’t bother with any more thought than that – he wasn’t worth the effort, would never be worth it. But the way he’d died and who killed him... she didn’t want to think about that, ever. She would have to, though. But later.

As Shannon let Louis out of his restraints and pulled her boot back on, Abigail’s fingers closed around the handle to the door. She felt her heart slow... took in a breath and let it out with a soft, slow exhalation.

The handle twisted in her grip and she shoved the door open.

Two of them; the helot in the rebreather that had unchained Ramone and another man – this one in a gas mask with matching cuts through the plastic over each cheek. Rebreather was coming to investigate, a spare set of keys clanging on his side. Behind his mask, his eyes widened as he caught sight of her, one hand going for the crude pistol on his hip, but she was too close and too fast.

The knife went into his belly, her other hand on his shoulder, pulling him in, holding him to her like a lover. Her wrist moved and he convulsed, a bloody little hurk of surprise and pain spattering the inside of his faceplate as she twisted the blade in his gut, wrenching it upwards, tearing through viscera and opening him up. He sunk to his knees, trying to hold his ravaged entrails together as blood poured from the wound. Nothing short of an EMT at his side could save someone with that kind of damage, and even that was far from a given. In this place, it was death sentence. A bad way to die, but it was quicker than other gut wounds. That was all the mercy she was willing to offer.

You know what I do when I hit someone, Shannie. Port Royal’s dockyard district hadn’t been a forgiving dojo. There’d been no friendly sparring with a colleague or friend. No chance to hone one’s skills outside of fighting for one’s life. A lesson hard-learned: never give an enemy a second chance. Someone came for you, you put them down with whatever was at hand – a brick, a knife, fists and knees or elbows and teeth. She hadn’t survived Darkknell without taking that lesson to heart, but off-world, she’d learned – made herself learn – restraint. Others in Artemis or the occasional outsider she fought with had commented on it, though: Abigail lacked style.

The more effete martial artists had sneered at her fighting, asking what could you expect from Darkknell trash. Throwing them on their asses had only made their scorn more vehement, but Abigail hadn’t cared. She was a gutter-fighter, pure and simple. But she was also one who won her fights. By being stronger, faster, tougher and much more vicious than her opponents. Even underhanded, if that was what it took to win.

On Darkknell, losers didn’t get the chance to complain about their opponent’s moves.

Slit Cheeks drew a knife; it was a large-bladed weapon, intended for hunting and skinning. He rushed at her-

-she twisted out of the way of his blow and grabbed his wrist, smashing him in the jaw with her chain-wrapped fist, following up by driving her knee up into his body. Blood and bits of teeth sprayed from his lips as the air was forced from his lungs. Abigail twisted the man’s arm and his nerveless fingers dropped the blade. As he fell, gagging and gasping for air, she stabbed him between the shoulder blades. A gargling, liquid death rattle escaped his bloody lips as his corpse landed on the deck.

Only a few seconds had passed.

There was a rush of feet as a pair of women fled for the door, shouting for help. Already, another two feral hunters were moving towards the trophy room, CBS carbines in their arms. Abigail slammed the door shut, reaching for...

There was no lock. Not from this side, at least.

Oh, shit.

“Little help!” she called to her squadmates as someone threw their full weight against the door. The heavy door moved a centimeter inwards, but she pushed back and slammed it closed. “No solicitors!” she shouted over her shoulder as the person on the other side shoved again, this time without success.

Louis was only a few seconds behind her, both mercenaries digging their feet in against the deck. Shannon was following, but Abigail shook her head. “Get our gear!” This room only had the one exit, they were going to need to shoot their way out...

Shannon nodded – the ferals were still displaying her team’s weapons and gear as trophies. They’d never expected the mercenaries to get free, never seen the need to secure all their artifacts... She pulled her gauntlets back on, slid her pistol back into its holster, grabbed her medical bag, scooping up anything that was still serviceable.

Emily... They had to find her. Had to rescue her. Ramone... she’d failed him. But Emily might still have a chance. I won’t leave you.

On the other side of the room, a cell door squealed open and a figure stepped out. Shannon’s head snapped up, her pistol already drawn-

She aborted the movement. It was Emily. The young doctor’s clothes were covered in blood, her eyes distant and hollow. There was a thin knife clutched in her shaking hand.

“Emily?”

The petite woman recognized Shannon’s voice, focusing on the mercenary. “Shannon?” The stiletto fell from her fingers and her legs gave out underneath her. Before she could collapse, Shannon scooped her up in her arms. “I’ve got you. It’s okay,” she whispered. Through the door, she could see the prone form of the man in the engineer’s helmet. He was laying face-down in a pool of blood, motionless, save for the sporadic twitching of one leg.

“I... I...” Emily buried her face into Shannon’s neck. “I killed him. Killed him.”

“You did what you had to,” Shannon replied. “It’s all right now, though. You’re safe.”

Something screamed and threw itself against the door with enough force that it shoved open a few inches. One of the sentries’ rag-covered arms stuck through the opening, lashing back at forth as it scrabbled for purchase, fingernails cutting bloody, ragged furrows into Louis’s cheek. “Corporal!” Hernandez shouted as he and Abby strained to push the door closed again. “We need help!”

Shannon unslung her bag and handed it to Emily, putting one hand on the shorter woman’s cheek. “Get everything you can fit in here. Everything that works, that we can use. Can you do that?”

Delphini nodded. “I can do that.” She straightened. “I can do that.”

“Good girl. Get going.”

Abigail stabbed the sentry through the back of its palm. The infected person cried out in a mixture of surprise and pain and whipped their hand back, taking the Darkknell’s stolen knife with it. Even in its cries it remained impossible to sex the sentry. Taking advantage of its distraction, Shannon threw herself against the door. Together the three mercenaries pushed it closed.

At least for the moment.

“Okay,” Abigail said over the chorus of angry shouts and cries from the other side of the door. “Now what?”

~

Chapter 30:

There were some good weapons here, but too many to carry. All of Shannon’s medical equipment had been taken by the feral doctor and his nurses, but they’d left her satchel and Emily was quickly stuffing anything that she lay her hands on (and that still worked) into it; ammo clips were a priority – thoughtfully set next to matching weapons. She tossed Hutchins her carbine and Salvador had her fetch St. Cloud’s auto-shotgun, stating that he wouldn’t “leave Betsy for these fuckers”.

There were a few energy weapons, but most were either so badly damaged and worn that they’d be a danger to use or so depleted that they wouldn’t be worth carrying. There was a laser pistol with a quarter-charge; Emily pocketed that as well as a few grenades, each inscribed with some lettering that she didn’t have time to read. You assholes are really going to regret making us part of your trophy exhibit, the woman thought viciously.

“That one!” she heard Hutchins shout and Emily looked up; the Darkknell was pointing to a... a sword? No, not a sword. A disruptor blade – it had been removed from its arm-socket on some ancient set of power armour. “Does it have a charge?”

Emily checked it; most modern disruptors could be ejected from their housing to allow fresh blades to replace chipped, weakened parts or (occasionally) be wielded in combat by others. Swordfights were not at all common on modern battlefields – they hadn’t been for thousands of years – but a disruptor was useful for shearing through walls, cutting open closed doors and, should one actually happen to find oneself in close quarters, were without peer at cutting through armour, gunstocks, flesh and bone with equal vigour. In fact, the only thing that could hold up to a disruptor was another disruptor. The technology that created the deadly rending field was normally too large to be fitted to smaller weapons such as daggers or bayonets; miniaturizing the necessary components was so prohibitively expensive as to be effectively impossible, though it had been done before.

Disruptor bullets and even beam weapons actually existed, but they were as expensive to manufacture as some starships; entire platoons could be outfitted with standard weapons for the same cost. Even in those nations that could afford to produce them, disruptor ammunition and rifles were only issued to elite forces for special operations.

Emily picked up the weapon; it had been set upon its own stand, given its own place of honour amongst the rest of the relics. The blade was thick, but slightly curved – intended for slashing, rather than the straighter, stabbing blades she was familiar with. The cross guards had been where it had been anchored into its socket, and the tip of the pommel was where its power supply had once connected to that of the suit. The grip was wrapped in coarse sandpaper-like hide to prevent it from slipping out of its wielder’s hands.

The doctor lifted the blade, checking the readouts. “Two thirds charge!” she announced, more than a little surprised. Either the weapon had been used very sparingly, or one of the ferals had been taking care of it.

Hutchins flashed a toothy smile. “Perfect.”

Emily went back to her scavenging, but despite the plethora of trophies, there were comparatively few things of use. Most of the working weapons were probably stowed in whatever passed for an armoury; these were just a select handful of the arsenal, taken from noteworthy foes and even this few were far too many to carry. The young woman reminded herself to stick with just what they’d need – now was not the time for kleptomania.

As Emily continued her survey of the trophies, searching for a last few useful relics, Abigail turned to look at Shannon, shouting to be heard over the chorus of enraged cries and pounding blows on the other side of the door. “We have an exit strategy, corporal?”

“We do, Three.” Shannon nodded towards a vent on the far side of the room, close to the floor and just to the right of the lavatory-cum-cell’s door. It wasn’t as big as the main ventilation shafts that ran parallel to the corridors and hallways of the DROP, but it was just big enough for someone to squeeze through on their bellies. It was also rather securely welded shut, with multiple sheets of metal sealed over it and a few small holes punched in the barrier to allow some air flow. “Same way we got out of the hospital.”

Abigail winced. “Not with the rats again...”

Emily looked up. “I’ve got it. You keep holding the door.” she flung each of the mercenary women their helmets; they’d been placed on a shelf besides St. Cloud’s. Bracing herself, Shannon pulled on her helmet – luckily, the ferals hadn’t damaged it – and called up her HUD, taking a brief glance at the station schematics as Emily fitted Louis and Abigail with their gloves. Good. I was right.

Louis settled his own headset and eyepiece back on, cocking a shell into Betsy. He grinned. It felt good to be armoured up again. “Ready when you are, Four.”

Delphini drew the laser pistol, switching the settings. In a pinch, it made a handy cutting torch and she turned her face away from the glare of melting metal as she started to cut through the plating over the air vent.

Abruptly, the pounding at the door abated, giving the soldiers a momentary respite. Shannon’s eyes widened; they wouldn’t stop, not without- Shit! “Brace!” she shouted, digging her heels in, flicking the magnetics in her treads on. “Brace yourselves!”

THOOM.

Something massive crashed against the door, smashing it open several inches. The mercenaries heaved back, slamming it closed again. That had only been the first strike though – they didn’t have the rhythm or the power quite yet. There was a communal grunt of effort from outside and-

THOOM.

Even with all their strength, the mercenaries were nearly shoved away from the door. Emily was only halfway through the vent cover. Louis stuck a pistol through the open door and fired blindly until the gun clicked empty. “Hurry up, doc!” he shouted, fumbling a fresh clip into the weapon. “I think they’re just a wee bit mad at us!”

THOOM.

“Almost there!” Emily shouted as the laser began to sputter and die, its charge depleted by the demands she’d placed on it. Please, please... Emily prayed as the pounding grew more insistent, the door shaking in its frame, its hinges starting to shatter from the successive concussions of the battering ram. There! The vent cover fell to the floor. “It’s done!” she cried, crawling into the dark vent, mindful of its still-warm edges. “Come on!”

“Emily!” Shannon shouted. “No, wait-!” She shouldn’t have gone first! What if there’s something in there?

“Go!” Abigail hollered. “Go, Four! We’re right behind you!”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Shutting off her boot’s magnetics, Shannon sprinted across the room and dove through the hole.

Abigail nodded. “Your turn, Nine!”

Louis hesitated. “But-”

Do it, merc!

Hernandez followed Shannon’s lead, scrambling through the open vent.

There was a brief respite; only seconds, but it was long enough. As soon as Louis’s legs disappeared into the air shafts, Abigail shook her head. “God-damned motherfucking vents.”

She ran.

THOOM.

They’d been expecting resistance and the sudden give to the door surprised them; the ferals sprawled into the room, but Abigail didn’t have time to make them pay for it; there were others behind them and she grunted as a shell flattened against her backplate, two more bullets whizzing by her head and striking the wall. She leapt into the open vent, arms scrabbling for purchase-

-someone grabbed one of her feet, trying to pull her back out-

-she kicked with her other leg, smiling viciously as she felt something shatter under the blow, an anguished cry following it as whoever owned the mask she’d just caved in got a face full of plastic shards. Abigail’s blacklight kicked in and just a few feet ahead, she should see Louis; like her, he was on his belly, crawling through the tight air vent for all he was worth.

Abigail noticed something rolling past Nine and her smile widened. Doc’s got some foresight. “Fire in the hole!” She grabbed the grenade and thumbed the detonator. There was just enough room to roll up onto her side and she threw the explosive behind her, out of the vent, sending it skittering over the floor of the trophy room. There were multiple squawks and cries of confusion and panic, followed by a satisfying detonation, the pinging of shrapnel against the bulkhead and the wails of the wounded. That should give them some lead time.

~

“Oh dear dear dear dear me. You really are a peach, you know that, little moth? Yes, I don’t think the Masks have been this stirred up since the Yangtze Oni came to call. Listen to them bubble and rave on the channels. All for you, your darling compatriots and the daughter of sin. Oh, dear this is most invigourating. I must admit, I didn’t expect this outcome. Though it will do as well as any other, I suppose. But laughing time is over. Now, it’s on to business.”

~

They’d made it to some larger vents; just big enough to kneel in. Behind them – or ahead of them, or flanking them, it was hard to tell – they could hear the enraged shrieks and howls of the ferals. They had to know that the vents were the revenants’ playgrounds, but they were pissed enough that they didn’t seem to care and had abandoned any attempt at stealth.

“You imagine they still want us for breeding?” Abigail smirked.

Louis snorted. “I think we’re past that point by now.”

“Hello?” A new voice crackled onto the squad channel. Shannon stiffened; she knew who it was. “Hello again, new friends.”

“You,” she growled.

“Yes, it’s me.”

Abigail made a dangerous noise; she recognized the speaker too. “You’re the bastard that turned up the grav plating. I’ve got a bullet just for you.”

“Well, it will have to take its place in the queue,” the man replied. “There are many people with many bullets who want the same. But you have to admit, things turned out all right in the end, didn’t they?”

“‘All right’?” Abigail spat. “You-” She choked off the rest of her reply at Shannon’s upraised hand.

“Why?” the corporal demanded.

“Why? Why, so that you’d live, of course. In case you hadn’t noticed, once people on Acheron get their blood up, it’s a little hard to calm them down outside of a whole lot of... well, blood. If I’d let the chase continue, they’d have caught and killed you. Cutting it short kept them from reaching a full frenzy, let them think with their minds and not with their fists and teeth.”

“Maybe.”

“Semantics. Besides, as I said, it all worked out in the end.”

“I don’t think Salvador Ramone would agree,” she bit out angrily. She wanted to go back for him, didn’t want to just abandon him, but... there was nothing she could do. Trying to find him would mean fighting through the entire colony and without his legs... He’d slow us down. That admission felt like bile on her tongue, but she pushed it away.

“Who? Oh, yes. The useless fellow. You should thank me. He would have turned on you sooner or later, or been killed. Perhaps by you, perhaps by the staff. At least he’ll live and be cared for. Wine, women and song – that’s the life he’ll have.”

“Fuck you,” Louis interjected. “He deserved better than that.”

“What he deserves is a question for others, toy soldier. Some believe that this place is the afterlife, that only the damned come here. For punishment, or to be cleansed of their sins so that they can go to heaven. You’d be surprised at the stories and beliefs six hundred years of hell have wrought.”

“Enough,” Shannon interrupted. “Let’s pretend I believe you. Why do you want us alive?”

“Why, so you can help me of course,” the voice clucked. “Are you sure you’re as clever as you think? I was trying to preserve you so that they wouldn’t find you-”

“Who?”

There was a burst of static as the man made a testy throat-clearing noise. “The eyes in the dark. Might I continue? Yes? There’s a good girl. Yes, I was trying to preserve you. Now you’re out and about and that’s dangerous. For you, I mean. You should have stayed where I left you.”

“Sorry,” Abigail grunted. “The accommodations were lousy, the food was sub-par, the service stunk and I don’t find gang rape the best way to spend my afternoons.”

A dry, chuckle interspersed with phlegmy coughs. “Oh, the little moth never fails to amuse. But you’ll do as all do – fly too close to the light and then...” he sounded almost remorseful. “And then you’ll burn.” Abruptly his mood shifted, cheery once more. Shannon felt a chill at the realization that whoever this person was, they were no longer quite sane. “But until that happens, I suppose I’ve got to keep you alive.”

“I don’t think we need your help,” Shannon replied.

“Well.... it would be a different sort of help from last time. And you do. I have eyes everywhere. My darling girl isn’t what she used to be, but she still has some eyes to see with, some ways to touch you. I’m sometimes too harsh with her, but Vigil always does her best.”

“Vigil?” Emily’s head came up.

Shannon cocked her head towards the woman. “You know that name?”

Emily’s expression went slack for a moment. “I-”

“Darling, demented, destructive Vigil, is the station,” their mystery ally informed them. “She’s not what she used to be,” he repeated, a note of sadness in his voice. “But she does her best.”

“You have control over the station?” Shannon asked carefully.

“Well... some,” he admitted. “There are areas too badly damaged to access and the oases and most core functions are blocked to me. But I have eyes to see with, ears to listen with and very long fingers with which to touch.” He chuckled and coughed again. “The better to eat you with, my dear.” A pause. “I can help. But not for nothing, no.”

“What’s your price?”

“Ah, we’ll,” he broke off in a momentary coughing fit. “Discuss that later. For now, I think you should keep moving. I don’t have any eyes in the vents – such a design oversight – but if you were to tell me where you were, I might spy upon safe routes for you?”

Shannon shook her head. “I think we’ll keep that to ourselves for now-”

“So untrusting, but I’d expect nothing less from you.”

“-but if you actually want to help, you can sweep through...” Shannon ran through their route in her head, visualizing possible exit locations. “Sections D13-F37 for us.” That was a wide enough area that it would be impossible to set up an ambush for them and if this person actually wanted to help them, then it would be a good way to test the water.

“Very well,” the man huffed. “I’ll remain on this channel should you feel a need to talk to me, or if something wicked your way comes.”

“Wait,” Shannon said. “What’s your name?”

There was a pause, one so long that she thought he’d gone off the air. “My name...” there was something in his voice, something tugging at it. “It’s been so long... I don’t... I don’t even think I know anymore. But you, Hayes of Halo, can call me what the others do. I’m the Watcher.”

~

The cries and shouts were louder now, echoing up and down through the vents, impossible to track. Abigail had picked up motion on her IDS several times, but the air shafts were difficult for the ferals to navigate – if they even had maps, they clearly hadn’t had any reason to go into the ventilation system for a long time. Twice, the echoes of distant gunshots had rolled back to the survivors – perhaps over-excited hunters, or possibly encounters with ‘turned’ that had been drawn by the noise and commotion.

Once, they’d had an encounter. Brief, nothing but a form racing across an intersection, taking the shaft parallel to them. It had once been a child, but now moved on four limbs, its flesh turned grey like a corpse. The scurrying of its mutated arms and legs pacing them as they moved through the ducts. Never approaching, but never retreating. Abigail remembered the four-limbed scout in the hospital foyer; maybe this was another such creature. Or it was simply waiting for them to get close enough to a hidden partner.

~

Shannon swung down to the deck, and quickly scanned the hallways, listening to the tap-tap-tap-tap of their stalker’s feet as it scurried through the nearby ducts, unwilling to come out where they could kill it. Aside from that,. the Watcher had said this junction was clear, but she wasn’t prepared to take his word as gospel just yet. If she was being honest with herself, she was still half-tempted to let Abigail have her shot at him. Or you could...

No.

Don’t you remember how it felt? Don’t you want to know that feeling again?

The young woman ignored the voice in her head, helping Emily out of the vent. Louis followed and Abigail brought up the rear. The hallway that they were in now led to a larger corridor that, in turn, connected back to the tram station that they’d used to access the medical area, crew quarters and engineering. All we’ve done is gone in a circle. Yippee.

First things first, though – we head to the second tram station and check for survivors. Then, we’ll see about what this ‘Watcher’ wants from us. Shannon activated her comm. “This is Corporal Hayes to all Artemis survivors. We are heading to the second tram station now. If you can hear this, acknowledge.”

A burst of static. “...his is... ty off... ...min Lutz... have... ther... ...vivor... ...sign of... ...else.”

Shannon let out a breath. There were survivors. There were survivors. Thank you, God. Thank you.

“Four,” Hutchins’ voice clicked over the comm. “I’m reading movement.”

~

“Have I ever told you-” Abigail shouted as she fired off a series of short bursts. One caught a man high in the chest and he went down in a geyser of blood. A young woman, barely out of her teen years, clutched at the stump of her arm as she sagged down the wall, her stomach a ruined mass of red clothe and viscera. “-how much I fucking hate this place?”

“I think you may have let on once or twice,” Louis replied, trying to get a bead on another attacker. There weren’t many – this was just a small flanking group that had managed to run across them, pinning them in a ‘T’ intersection, only a few yards short of the corridor they needed.

Making it worse, these ferals understood that rushing an opponent with ranged weapons was suicide. No, these fuckers had to be smart, using corners, doorways and alcoves for cover as they darted closer to the mercenaries’ position. Still, there were only three left and one looked like he was thinking of jumping out from his hole and rushing them. Louis hoped he did; Betsy had a lot of payback to give. Shannon had pushed Emily to the deck, sheltering the doctor’s body with her own as she argued with their new ‘friend’ – apparently, these assholes knew the security grid’s blind spots, which was how they’d managed to get so close without being spotted.

Couldn’t you be the good kind of crazy and just run obligingly down our gun barrels? Louis thought angrily as something whizzed past, uncomfortably close to his head. One of the ferals – a woman in some long-dead soldier’s gas mask – slipped back around a corner, the barrel of her hunting rifle twitching and bobbing as she struggled to reload it. “Sniper in the back!” he shouted. “You have a bead, Three?”

“No,” Hutchins replied. “Bitch is too far behind the corner.”

The third hunter was just armed with a crossbow, but as Primal’s ambush had proved, body armour didn’t mean squat if you got something sharp in your throat. Louis again cursed himself for an idiot for not wearing his helmet; he’d liked to have taken St. Cloud’s, but it was too damaged to be useful. Except in some prim’s dick-waving contest, I guess.

Under cover of her compatriots’ fire, Rifle slipped back around the corner and raised her weapon. She froze abruptly as something bellowed, loud and reverberating and her head snapped back and forth, in an attempt to localize the source. She snapped something at her comrades and ducked back into the hall, the pound of her feet fading as she ran.

The feral assault abated and, to Louis’s astonishment, the other two attackers began retreating as their compatriot had. No, not just retreating – fleeing. Firing and shouting wildly as they ran. Louis couldn’t understand most of what they were saying, but he picked out one word: “Unity.”

Louis gritted his teeth as the grotesque roar rolled on and on; it felt as if his bones were rattling. He looked over at Abigail – she’d gone stiff. “I know that sound...”

Another cry, lower than the first, wet and hungry in tone.

“God...” Shannon whispered. “Oh God. That thing from the hospital.”

“How’s that possible?” Abigail snapped, trying to determine where the noise was coming from. It couldn’t have tracked us. No way.

Softer again; almost confident in its resonating growl. Louis started; it was coming from behind them. He turned, dreading what was coming. Up the corridor, a monstrous, ugly form slunk into view. Silhouetted against distant, flickering lights, its skin glistened like oil and it turned its massive head towards them.

“What...” Louis tried to speak, but his mouth was dry. “What is that thing?”

“It is Unity,” the Watcher said, his voice numb with horror. “A praetorian. It’s found you.”

As the beast slunk towards them, sure-footed and moving with a sinuous grace that defied its bulk, Louis was struck by the insane impression that it was smiling.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls (Update: 16/06/10) PostPosted: 2010-06-20 12:00pm
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In this chapter, Return of the Turned and all the fun that entails.

Coming up: Who watches the Watcher?

Chapter 31:

Unity.

The name was a mockery of its form, but an apt one: its body was composed of many corpses – at least, Shannon prayed that they’d been dead when this thing had been birthed – fused to one another and twisted into a grotesque mockery of life that only the deepest nightmares of some mad god could have envisioned. It slid forward in a half-undulating, half-stalking gait and as it slithered down the corridor, it passed beneath a sparking emergency lamp’s cone of light and Shannon got her first clear look at this abomination.

Glistening sinews were covered by stretched, discoloured flesh and armour plates so dark that they might as well have been obsidian. It had a long, snakelike body and thick, strong legs; if it stood upon them like a man, it would be almost nine feet tall, and its jagged tail only made it that much longer.

It had three pairs of arms, each of them formed from two human limbs and stretched longer than they could ever have reached in life, their hands melded together into grasping, eight-fingered talons. Its largest pair of arms functioned as powerful forelegs, and it moved with a liquid, predatory gait. The smaller limbs branched off from the join of its forelimbs, reaching out in their eagerness to seize and rend.

Its head was a nightmare unto itself; three human skulls had fused together to form its face, barely distinct from each other any longer. Its gaping, distended maw was an amalgamation of those three separate jaws, incisors and extended canines glistening with drool. The bones that made up its head stretched back and flared into a massive, elongated skull sitting atop a short, strong neck, thick bone plates embedded in its stretched skin.

Four red eyes glared hatefully from beneath its brow; two of the crimson orbs were enlarged like a jumping spider’s main eyes, but these were set into its fused skull, giving it a predator’s binocular vision. Irises constricted and its pupils narrowed into slits as the fluttering light washed over them, staring at the four survivors.

Another pair of human heads appeared to have been merged with its largest set of shoulders; their mouths were stretched wide and lashing, muscular tongues extended as empty, sunken eye sockets gaped blindly upon the world. When the creature moaned, its cries gave voice to its mindless, eternal hunger.

No, she realized, something cold driving its way through her spine. Not mindless.

It was watching them. Not staring, not looking, watching. Intelligence gleamed behind those ugly red eyes. Malevolent and insane, driven by an endless need to slay and devour, but not an unthinking brute. A praetorian, she heard the Watcher’s voice play again in her mind.

What does it guard?

“Run or shoot?” Abigail asked, her voice breaking. “Run or shoot?”

Unity saw their raised weapons and it lowered itself to the ground, still moving towards them, but slinking, using crates and debris for what cover that they could offer it. It knew what guns were and if it were as immune to pain and fear as its smaller kin, it still knew that it could be damaged by them. A machine of sinew and bone, implacable in its advance.

“You have to run,” the Watcher gibbered, near panic. “You have to get away from it.”

Shannon took a step back. There was no way they could stop this thing. Not with the firepower they had. “Shoot, then run. One second burst.” she said. The head’s too armoured; our bullets might penetrate, but headshots don’t work on these things.... “Aim for the legs. Try and cripple it. On three, we head for the tram. One...”

The beast took another step forwards, hateful eyes still watching them. It let out a groan like a dying animal, a secondary limb bracing against the wall.

“Two...”

Its mouth opened, a forest of tendrils slithering over its teeth, the tip of something sharp glinting amongst them...

“Three!”

The crash of their weapons filled the hall and Unity staggered, shrieking in fury as its flesh was torn asunder, sparks glinting as buckshot and bullets glanced off its armoured plating, healing even as it was wounded. The survivors turned as one and ran, the monster’s roar of rage filling every passageway as it pounded after them. Crates and debris were bowled aside or crushed beneath its feet in its headlong charge.

“Don’t look back!” Shannon shouted, pulling Emily by her hand. The doctor was flushed and struggling to keep up and without breaking stride, the Halo scooped Emily up into a fireman’s carry. “Keep moving!”

...mortar fire pounded the ground behind her, blasts and shrapnel staggering her as Jenkins moaned over her shoulders...

Unity was fast, but it didn’t corner well and it wasn’t fully healed yet; as the survivors turned the intersection, the monster skidded past, trying to come about but its size worked against it in such close confines. It roared again as its many limbs pulled it around. Abigail paused, dropping to one knee. “Come on, you fucker. Let’s see how fast you are with three legs.”

A leering face peered around the corner, all four eyes staring at her. The mercenary held her fire. It wasn’t a head shot she was after. Thick clawed fingers splayed over the wall, and it seemed about ready to lunge, but it simply stayed where it was, waiting.

“Fuck you,” the mercenary grated, turning and sprinting. The damn thing probably would wait her out, too.

As soon as her back was turned, Unity screeched, pulling itself around the bend.

Almost there... she could see the door to the tram station up ahead. Shannon was the first through, skidding to one side and dropping Emily unceremoniously. Rolling to her feet, the corporal darted for the control. Louis was next, spinning around and raising his shotgun.

Abigail dove into the tram station, the door knifing shut barely centimeters behind her. Unity slammed against it, but this wasn’t like the light doors of the hospital – this was another security door, heavy and secure in its frame. It would hold.

For a few moments, anyways.

The car wasn’t here, but Shannon was already moving even as Abigail shouted for her to get the tram, racing up to the control booth. The computer screens flickered and danced with decades of neglect, warning lights flashing on those monitors that still functioned.

SECURITY OVERRIDE ENABLED
TRAM SYSTEM DISABLED
ENTER AUTHORIZATION CODE


“No!” she pounded her fist on the side of the console.

~

“Oh, so you’ve been busy little Masks,” the Watcher murmured, scratching the stubble on his chin. “Playing with things that don’t concern you, trying to out-do me. Trying to cop a feel from my girl, are you? Well, we can’t have that. I may have to send the lads around.” Wizened, dry, cracked fingers tapped on a worn keyboard. “Wait... wait, that’s not your usual coding... that’s... oh, dear. Oh dear.”

~

+access attempts detected+

Mice, scratching and scrabbling in the walls. Father had used that term to describe the sliver, the sounds it made within his head. They had never felt it, never heard its call, but they knew it whispered and picked at the minds of those around it. Umbra’s legacy. Their inheritance.

-special, you are special-

But the mice still squirmed and skritched at the cairn’s walls.

-pluck their eyes out, little blind mice-

Much as the sliver, the infested parts of the cairn sang and cajoled to their inhabitants, whispering to them, telling them deceits. Vigil did not share masters. It lied to the New Ones and the Lost alike.

-find them-

And now, the mice were trying to defy their fate. All transport systems in the North Arm had been shut down to pen the New Ones in the killing grounds; it was unacceptable that any might escape.

-blood-

Assemble the pack. Deny them this hope.

-protect-

~

Armin’s head came up, his jaw dropping as he heard the hunter’s cry. At first, he wasn’t even sure that it was real, just a figment of his imagination. But his tired brain awoke to the threat. That sound... It wasn’t from one of those mutant things... it was the stalkers. “We have to go,” he said as an answering call was made. “We have to go now.”

Bujold frowned. “What? What are you talking about? That’s just-”

“Worse than whatever was singing, trust me,” Lutzberg said, all in a rush. “Get on the tram. We’re going, we’re going now.”

But, flashing on the consoles of the tram car was the same message that had stymied Shannon and her group of survivors:

SECURITY OVERRIDE ENABLED
TRAM SYSTEM DISABLED
ENTER AUTHORIZATION CODE


~

A razor-sharp scream erupted from Unity’s joined mouths as Abigail and Hernandez fired a salvo into its flesh, the beast releasing the door, which promptly slammed shut again. The monster roared and battered its massive skull against the door in frustration. Soon, it quieted, the bone-rattling cry devolving into a considering moan. Then, nothing.

“I don’t like this,” Abigail said into the silence, lifting her helmet towards the ceiling as something clanged through the vents. More than one something. Too small to be the praetorian-thing, but the lesser Turned, drawn by the sounds of battle, called by their nightmare lord. “It’s planning something.”

“Planning?” Louis choked on the word. “How can it do that? It can’t plan! It’s just an animal!”

“Yeah. Then why isn’t it still trying to come through the door after us, Nine? Why’d it go silent? It’s either outside that door, waiting for us to come out, or it’s trying to find another way in.” The sounds from above were getting louder, more insistent. Abigail turned back towards Shannon. “Four...”

“Working!” the corporal snapped, her fingers dancing over the keys. The lock-down hadn’t been triggered by any malfunction – it had been deliberate. She had several ideas as to who could have done that – their new ally, one of the ferals, or even some of the survivors from Primal’s crew, but her mind kept turning back to their fear when Kerrigan was destroyed.

This security override – it had used the station’s own command codes. Those were restricted to the most senior officers. They wouldn’t have ended up in just anyone hands, especially not on a DROP like 47. Did – could the ferals’ society go back to the original crew? How else could someone have gotten that information? There was nothing she could do; without command codes of her own, there was no way she could countermand the order to shut down the trams. She had some ability to work with software, but she wasn’t an expert hacker. Even if she was, Imperial systems were designed to prevent just that kind of tampering.

Wait.

The override... it hadn’t been issued via a global command line, not like it normally would have been. It was still reliant on that authority, but this was a parasite program inserted into Vigil’s network. Imperial computer systems were very compartmentalized. There was the main computer core, which contained the most vital data and was responsible for operating primary and secondary systems. A secondary core would be tasked with operating the fabricator engine, but there were also multiple lower-value ‘satellite’ networks tied into the primary grid. If necessary, these satellites could be isolated from the primary computer system with only a minimal loss of function or efficiency.

Command codes resided in the higher-security primary computer core, not in the satellite networks.

Normally, these subsidiary systems had to contact the main computer to confirm a user’s passcodes before allowing them to do anything major with it. This was a security measure to prevent some wiseass with an isolated terminal from getting into the main systems and causing havoc. You couldn’t hack your way into the main grid, get a command code and, say, turn off life support. If you wanted to access main systems from a satellite network, there were very specific terminals for that. Trying to do so from a low-security computer would result in Very Bad Things happening. Alarms, automated security responses of varying lethality and large men with guns just to name a few.

In fact, without access to the central core to confirm code authenticity or the special high-security satellite terminals, the subsidiary networks would severely curtail a user’s access. Normally, this was not a problem; authorization took only a few seconds at most and if one part of the station’s computer grid was compromised, it could be cut off – still carrying out necessary function while stripped of its ability to corrupt or damage other systems.

With the station in such disarray, global command codes just couldn’t work reliably. This security override – it hadn’t gone through the normal pathways. It had the wrong earmarks for that. The program that had triggered it was like a trojan horse, distributed throughout the network when it was still whole...

...no, that couldn’t possibly have been sanctioned. It meant that anyone who had a command code could run through each and every system on 47 without access to the main core. That was something that the Imperium would never have allowed. An invader that got the right code could walk through all of DROP 47’s defences. Or turn this station into their own hunting ground.

“I know you,” she said abruptly. “God damn you, I know you.” Her cheek burned. This was familiar. She knew the algorithms. She’d seen them before. Antimessiah... he couldn’t have meant... no...

Focus!

No, she couldn’t countermand that order, but she could... redirect it. The station’s computer systems were so degraded that she just might have a chance...

“Sys-system f-f-function. Functionality restored,” the computer intoned, red warning lights flashing green. “S-summoning car. A-a-all passengers. Gers pl-please board-oard the tr-tram car o-only when it-it c-comes to a complete-ete stop.”

Clang. A metal plate fell from the ceiling,. Peering from the hole, an ugly, hairless face leered out of the shadows, wide-fingered hands reaching out and bracing against the sides of the opening. It leapt the ten meters to the floor, strong legs absorbing the force of the impact. Its mouth had widened so much that its original jaws had broken, new bone formations developing until its gaping maw could fit a man’s head, bulging muscles bespeaking of the power behind its jaws. The skin over its ribs had turned nearly translucent; dark growths twitched and pulsed beneath it, the thickened bones stretching its epidermis further. Its forearms had split, part into the wide, grasping hands it had used to launch itself into the survivors’ midst and part into jutting bony spurs, intended to impale its prey while its hands ripped and tore at them.

The creature vanished in a hurricane of blood and tissue as Louis blasted a hellstorm of grapeshot through its rotten flesh and armoured bones. Viscera twitched and spasmed, licking black tendrils slithering through the gore like fat worms.

Another vile revenant dropped from the vent and from further up the tunnel, Shannon could make out the shapes of more of the Turned. Once men and women, their minds had been devoured and their bodies twisted by Acheron. A scythe-arm slashed and stabbed at Abigail as Emily fired a recovered pistol up into the monster’s armpit, bullets that would have shredded lungs, splintered ribs and torn a beating heart to pieces barely inconveniencing the creature. Hutchins gave the Turned a shove back, riddling its body with bullets, tearing it in half.

Mindless red eyes stared back up at her, the broken thing pulling itself back towards her with its arms, heedless of its broken spine and the innards sloughing out of its torso. Another horror descended from above. Shannon’s fire took it apart, shredding each of its limbs and decapitating it, but even that wouldn’t stop it for long. If it couldn’t recover its own limbs, it would find others.

A distant light filled the tunnel – the headlight of the transport car. “Tram coming!” Abigail shouted, pulling her stun rod out of the eye socket of her bisected attacker.

“Fall back to the platform!” Shannon ordered, slamming a fresh clip into her pistol and emptying it almost as quickly. She should thank the ferals for the fresh caches of ammunition. For that, and nothing else.

Something started to pry open the door they’d come through and there was pounding and scratching at another entryway. “Fall back!” Shannon repeated.

Barbed tendons stabbed out from the chest of another horror and Abigail shoved Emily to the floor, letting them bounce harmlessly off her cuirass – but there was enough force behind them that they would have ripped right through cloth, embedding themselves in Delphini’s skin and muscles.

Light flooded the tram tunnel as the car drew nearer. Inside the cabin, Shannon could see movement. God damn it. The pistol bucked in her hands as she kneecapped another shambling horror – this one was one Primal’s people, resurrected in the landing bay, reborn flesh already twisting into some new awful form. The man groaned, frothing dark blood from his mouth as his fingers clutched at the deck, pulling himself onwards.

The tram slowed as it pulled into the station. “Come on!” someone aboard shouted. “Get aboard!” another voice called. Leaning out of the tram as the doors hissed open were two men: one in a petty officer’s uniform with Kerrigan’s patch. The was Hadley-Wright security. Abigail gave Emily a shove towards them; the men grabbed her and quickly pulled the doctor aboard, the mercenaries falling back, leaping aboard the tram one by one. On their heels sprang another revenant, jutting its bladed hands through the opening, trying to push the doors open as it snapped and frothed at the survivors.

Abigail kicked the creature in the face, staggering it back and spraying the nearest revenants with fire. The doors snapped shut. “We should be going!”

Shannon scrambled to the control cab; but the tram had already been given a destination. It pulled out of the station, accelerating down the tracks.

Behind them, they could hear Unity howl, the sound muted by distance. It was calling for them, letting them know it hadn’t forgotten. That it was still hungry.

Suddenly too tired even to stand, Shannon slumped down against the wall, unable to even muster the strength to make her way to one of the seats. “Where are we going?” she asked, seemingly to the air.

“You are tired,” the Watcher’s voice answered her. “You need proof of my intentions? Then I shall give you a remedy for both. We will meet.”

Shannon didn’t bother to argue. There was motion next to her; it was Emily, the younger woman curling up against the mercenary’s scarred armour, resting her head on the Halo’s shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered as she closed her eyes, the tram speeding them away into the darkness.


[Reveal] Spoiler: two graffitis I wasn't really happy with, thumbnailed to reduce post size
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[Reveal] Spoiler: brevity is the soul of wit, therefore I shall be brief
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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls (Update: 20/06/10) PostPosted: 2010-07-03 05:23pm
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Jedi Knight
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Posts: 639
In this chapter, there's a difference between a house and a home. The Watcher extends his hospitality.

Coming up: marital issues and what our heroes find out what you can get for the man who has everything slightly more than anyone else some.

Chapter 32:

“So who are you?”

Armin looked up. The mudfoot with the carbine was looking at him. He couldn’t see anything of the soldier’s face through their helmet and the synthesizers on their mask did a good job of almost completely destroying any distinguishing characteristics in their voice. The soldiers who spent a lot of time in armour were much better at picking nuances out of a synthesized voice, but Lutzberg wasn’t one of them. From the way the soldier moved and the tone he could make out, he was fairly certain that this one was a woman. “Petty Officer Armin Lutzberg, Engineering.”

Bujold glanced at Lutzberg, and then over to the mudfoot. “Macarthur Buford Bujold. My friends call me Mack,” he held out his hand; she didn’t take it, simply staring back from behind her visor. After an awkward moment, the corper security man withdrew his arm and sat back down.

“Private Abigail Karen Hayes,” she said after a moment, reaching up and removing her helmet. Dark blonde hair was plastered to her face. Her eyes were a dark blue, the colour of the deep ocean. “Beta Three.” she nodded towards the two resting women. “Corporal Hayes and Dr. Delphini.”

Their conversation caught the attention of the man with the eyepiece and he grinned, stepping away from his position at the windows to reach out and shake each of the other mens’ hands. “Private Louis Dominic Raul Hernandez, Beta Nine. Thanks for the help back there. I can’t tell you how good it is to see that some others made it out. Have you heard from anyone else?”

Bujold shook his head. Armin looked away. “I had a group, a few other survivors... they didn’t make it.” He frowned. “You said your callsign was Beta Nine?”

Louis nodded.

Lutzberg lowered his eyes. “My group came across your partner. He...” the petty officer squeezed his eyes shut, forcing the horror of that ambush out of his mind. “He didn’t make it,” the same pat descriptor he’d used for his group. Still, it was better than describing – than having to remember the way Overstern had been killed, butchered and hung like meat. And who’d done it, the sounds of screaming and running and cutting meat... Armin pulled himself away from the memory.

The mercenary seemed to deflate a little, apparently not noticing Lutzberg’s lapse. “Damn,” he said. “Danny was a bit of a yutz, but he was a good guy.: He smiled wistfully. “They say it’s better to know than not. So thanks for that, I guess.”

Hutchins cocked her head towards Bujold. “What’s your story, corper?”

Mack shrugged. “Not much of one. Separated from the rest at the concourse. Every time I ran into someone...” he looked at the blood drying on his clothes. “...I was too late. Seen a few things I wish I hadn’t.”

“Welcome to Acheron,” the mercenary woman replied.

The car jolted sideways as it diverted onto a secondary track, worn systems unable to make the transition as smooth as it normally would have been. Outside, the headlamp on the car briefly passed over the cause for the detour: a broken tram, its sides buckled inwards, windows long since smashed in, its thin metal plating melted by acid and deformed by hundreds of pounding, prying blows. The car itself had been battered off its rail. Long ago, someone had tried to use it as a firebase. Perhaps they’d been trapped aboard it by a similar shut-down of the grid, trying to defeat the override as the Turned things swarmed over them...

Someone had sprayed paint over the rear end of the tram: NO HOPE.

Abigail shook her head. I hate this place. After a moment she followed Shannon’s example, leaning back against the wall and closing her eyes.

~

That shouldn’t have happened. Father’s program shouldn’t have been circumvented so easily. It should have penned them, either for the Ribbons to slay, or for them.

-blood-

Vigil released its lock at the gentlest touch, revealing how it had been tricked. That... that was familiar. Interesting.

-blood-

The room ached with ozone and chemical propellants, Ribbon ichor and blood; trying to isolate one scent from the myriad odours was impossible. As it was now, it simply smelled like prey.

-hunt-

~

Shannon’s eyes fluttered open as she felt the tram begin to decelerate. The chrono on her HUD said she’d only been asleep fourteen minutes; barely enough to enter REM. Certainly not enough to rest. With an effort, the young woman pulled herself to her feet, gingerly laying Emily down on the floor, the doctor making soft murmurs as she was jostled. Louis canted his head towards Hayes and nodded. There were dark circles under his eyes and a sway in his movements that owed more to fatigue than the tram’s movements. He needed rest more than any of them, but despite the attempt at a wry, comforting smirk he gave her, she could see uncertainty and fear in his expression. He was afraid to close his eyes.

Abigail was sprawled out the floor, her carbine clutched to her like a child with a precious stuffed animal. The Darkknell’s expression was slack – almost peaceful. She shifted position and snorted loudly, still asleep.

Lutzberg and Bujold were seated at the far end of the tram; the petty officer had produced a pair of dice, the security officer trying to guess the number as Lutzberg rolled them. A fairly pointless game, but it killed time and gave them something to focus on.

The tram continued to slow as Shannon moved to sit beside Louis. “How are you doing?”

He shook his head. “I’m keeping it together.” He scratched the back of his head. “This place... it’s not what the travel brochures said, huh?”

“No,” Shannon smiled ruefully. “Not really.” She let the silence stretch for a moment. “Back at the feral camp... one of the sentries – what did it say to you?”

Louis looked over at the woman. “What?” The expression on her face – it was almost desperate. He looked away. “It said I was alive. Some crazy gibberish. Why?”

The relief on the woman’s face was almost palpable. “Nothing. Nothing. It’s all right.” She put one hand on Louis’s shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here, Louis.”

“Oh?” he rolled his head towards her, a teasing smirk on his face. “Just how glad?”

“Don’t push it, Nine. I’ll sic Three on you.”

“Damn, that’s cold, Four.”

Shannon looked over at the sleeping Hutchins. “I suppose we should wake her.”

“We should. Who do you figure has the least to live for?”

The woman snorted and moved to Abigail’s side. She reached out and scratched the top of her ‘big sister’s’ head. Abigail twitched, taking a swat at Shannon’s hand, but her eyes fluttered open. “Fuck off,” she groused, pulling herself up. “I was having a wonderful dream. I was dead.”

“You’re not allowed to die yet, private.”

“Fuck you, corporal. I’ll die when I want to.” Abigail checked the safety on her carbine; it was still off. “So we’re there?”

The car slewed to a stop, docking at a tram station identical in form and function to the others they’d visited. The lights in the terminal were off, but that didn’t stop Shannon’s blacklight vision from picking up the details: a large loading platform, enough to accommodate several tram cars at once. There were marks in the floor where several benches to wait upon had once been anchored, though all that was left now was a handful of broken bolts and metal anchors. The benches themselves had long ago been detached and carried off to serve as fodder for barricades. “We’re there.”

On the far left side of the station was a raised control compartment, similar to the ones Shannon had used at the other terminals. One of the stairs leading up to it was broken – no one had bothered to replace it. The control room’s largest window overlooked the railway, a dozen holes of various sizes punched in the plexiglass. Judging by the way the window was set awkwardly in its frame, it was a replacement.

The tram station was obviously a chokepoint: there were three entrances to the tram station; two of which had been securely welded shut. Not in the haphazard fashion of some of the other barricades, but with precision.

Shannon had an inkling what had done that. Abigail clicked her own helmet into place. There was a pause as Three’s night vision came back on. Then she saw what Shannon had. “Shiiiit.”

“Yeah.”

Louis came to his feet, joining the two women. “What? What’s – oh.”

“What is it?” Lutzberg said, what do you see?”

The glowpanels snapped on, filling the tram station with soft white light. “Welcome,” the Watcher’s desiccated voice crackled through the speakers. “To the Land of the Lost.” There was a grinding of gears and the hiss of pneumatic limbs as an army of combat drones awoke.

~

This was a bad idea.

Of course, that was hindsight talking. It hadn’t sounded that bad at the debriefing... one which had taken place in the comfort of an air-conditioned room whilst sitting in a soft form-fitting leather chair light-years from anything resembling danger. And as an additional unpleasant realization – the briefing had... omitted a few minor but important details – perhaps intentionally.

Having “words” with the planners was top priority after extraction. This was no way to run an op.

...nursing that particular fantasy was fun, but ultimately it relied on somehow staying alive long enough to be extracted.

Everything had gone so far off-mission that salvaging the original plan was impossible. Right now, survival was the only objective. But survival on DROP 47 was not really survival at all, was it?

Primal had been infected.

Kerrigan had been destroyed.

If Artemis could be convinced to send a third expedition – which was likely, but they surely would not send a fourth – it would take weeks to get here. Weeks for the Abyss to play its games with each and every one of them. If they could even survive that long, there’d be as little left of them as there was of Primal’s people.

There was another option, though.

Silence. It was a card that could only be played once, but the situation was desperate enough that it might need to be played. If it were done, if Silence was used, then the Planning Board would need to be appeased – a trinket, a bauble – something of 47’s secrets. A token... and the assurance that there would be no surviving witnesses. The Board had waited six centuries; rather than risk exposure, they would wait another six.

That wasn’t the plan, though. Each and every one of those six hundred years had chafed and gnawed at the successive iterations of the Planning Board – a prize like DROP 47 dangling in front of them, kept out of their grasp by madmen, monsters and mongrels. They’d tried again and again, each time denied. Finally, in their frustration, they’d authorized the use of Silence. It was a risk... if Silence were seen, were known for what it was...

That would have to be avoided. Right now though, there wasn’t even a chance to do that. Not from here.

If they could get to the core – Hayes and Hutchins seemed to be survivors, so it was more likely than with most – then they might be able to accomplish something. It was the devil’s own luck that they had made it this far, but gift horses and all that...

Well; que sera, sera as the saying went.

~

“Please,” the Watcher tried to assure them. “There’s no cause for alarm; these are merely my devout and loyal underlings. They are merely there to protect me from... unwanted visitors. And, occasionally to fetch things I may need.”

“Yeah?” Abigail said, watching as three dozen different weapons oriented towards her, scanner strips and optic sensors staring into the tram car, but none of them fired. She could pick out several different models; pure combat types with built-in weapon hands: slugthrowers, lasers, flamethrowers, close combat weapons and modified maintenance drones cradling kitbashed armaments of their own, metal digits, pincers and claws fastened tightly to forestocks and triggers. That none of them appeared overtly hostile did little alleviate the woman’s anxiety. She looked over at Shannon.

Sure about this? she signed.

No, was Shannon’s response. Do anyways.

Abigail nodded, hitting the door control and stepping down into the terminal, cradling her carbine in her arms. Heads and torsos swivelled towards her, but there was no action taken against the mercenary. Louis followed a moment later, licking his lips nervously. Lutzberg and Bujold were next; finally Shannon led Emily out of the car, having woken up the doctor.

“Welcome, welcome!” the Watcher crowed as his machines clanked and tromped into a passable facsimile of an honour row, leading to the one unsealed door in the room. Abigail passed between the machines – like 47 itself, these showed the proof of their years of neglect and battles; dents and scrapes, paint worn down to only the smallest slivers of colour. Scratches cut into bullet-proof chestplates and limbs. Armour melted or burned through by acid. Bullet holes and scoring from energy fire. Punctures from unknown weapons.

More than one machine had lost a limb in its struggles; some hadn’t been fixed, but most had gotten replacements. Some of these were from the same (or a similar) model, cannibalized from damaged ‘bots, or taken from a stock of spare parts. Other limbs were obvious slapdash replacements, taken from wholly different automata and attached to whatever machine needed them. Too big, too small, wrong colour, wrong shape. A medium-lifter cargo ‘bot with a gladiator’s glaive. A DynaMark ‘Rifleman’ had had its primary gun-hand swapped with a welding torch that had itself been modified.

Not all were humanoid; some were squat, treaded affairs – large-caliber gun platforms intended for open fields. The woman suspected that the other side of the tramway was studded with blasted metal plates. Other machines were spindly repair drones – too damaged to carry out the delicate repairs that they had been built for, now modified into combat units – although Abigail doubted that they could be terribly effective. Wheeled and insectoid, humanoid and animalistic; there were decades and dozens of expeditions’ worth of machines.

“This is why they call you a coward,” Shannon said from behind Hutchins. “You use these to fight.”

There was a blast of static as the Watcher coughed. “Yes,” he rasped out. Wet slurping followed as he drank something to ease his throat. “Yes,” he repeated. “Bit of jealousy. Bit accurate, too. But you’re not here to talk about my lads. Come, come. Just follow the lights.”

The door opened; hung up behind it, across the doorway was a purple velvet curtain, stirring as the door brushed against it. Light – bright and constant – shone around the edges of the heavy drapery. “All are welcome,” the Watcher coughed again. “All are welcome.”

Abigail was first, lifting the curtain to ones side and looking through it. “Clear,” her voice clicked through her helmet’s speakers. As the group filed out of the tram station, the Watcher’s sentinels whirred and thunked as they curled back into their dormant states.

The ceiling panels began to pulse in sequence, running down the corridor like guide-lights, showing them the way to their benefactor.

And won’t that be fun.

~

“What’s our plan?” Abigail asked, pushing past another curtain, this one made from the sewed-together scraps of clothes. She supposed it was intended to be a homey little touch to break up the monotony of the corridor.

“We see what our friend wants,” Shannon replied. “We can use some help right now.”

“And if the price for that help is higher than you want to pay?”

“Then we make a new deal.”

Abigail nodded. There was something in the Halo’s words – something raw and rough. She was tempted to press, but this wasn’t the place, not with their host listening to every word, watching their every move. What’s happening to you? The question was stillborn in her throat as the group continued their journey deeper into the Watcher’s abode.

The area was as secure as one could expect of this station. Every cross-tunnel had been blocked off, heavy decompression and blast doors isolating these few passageways from the rest of the station, their control systems and manual overrides extensively modified. Datapads had been hooked up to the door panels – once removed, the door would not open. Abigail couldn’t get a good look at the hardware, but the manual systems had doubtless been jiggered with as well – presumably those on the other side of these doors had been destroyed, sabotaged or booby-trapped. It’s what she would have done.

From the warning lights that fluttered above several of the doors, Abigail could see that the doors weren’t the Watcher’s only protection – several adjoining sections had been exposed to vacuum. She saw the tilt of Shannon’s helmet and knew Hayes had seen it too – only she and Abigail could survive in those sections for long. If they needed to do so, breaking out of this area would be difficult – but there were precious few other options available to the survivors.

With the dull sound of metal grinding slowly against metal, a nearby vacuum door yawned open, allowing a clumping combat drone to tromp in from one of the decompressed sections, the heavy blast doors behind this set already sealed, the pair of them forming an impromptu airlock. The machine was massive, perhaps only slightly smaller than a power trooper, with thick arms and legs. There was no noticeable head - its sensor ‘eyes’ and primary processor were set into a slight raised ‘bump’ on its upper torso. Written on its hulking chassis was a brief message, put there for the benefit of the machine’s foes: I HATE YOU.

One of the ‘bot’s arms was freshly severed, wiring and fluid cables dangling like exposed arteries and its breastplate was deeply scored. There was no way to tell if its injuries had been sustained while it had been EVA, or in a different pressurized area, but the mere possibility that it had been attacked in the vacuum was not comforting.

The hulking metal monster thumped past the survivors, ignoring them as it headed off in search of repairs, one leg moving more stiffly than the other – Shannon couldn’t tell if that was a result of fresh damage, or some problem that the Watcher hadn’t been able to repair. His army of robots had kept him safe, but it was obvious that they couldn’t do so forever. Spare parts ran dry, ammunition ran out, software became corrupted... “How did you get all of these?” she asked to the air.

A pause. “With difficulty. So many different machines, different minds, different systems... it hasn’t been easy. But I always was good with computers. And what do you have in Acheron but time?”

Shannon didn’t answer; her attention was drawn to an open door – temporary quarters for the guards and technicians intended to protect and maintain the server farm. During security alerts, the entire section could be locked down into an erstwhile bunker – depending on the length of the crisis, the personnel inside would need to eat and sleep for some time. The woman opened the vents on her helmet, taking a deep breath; the air was stale and smelled of sweat, the odours of several different people mingled together.

The bedrolls were – relatively – new and rumpled, an opened crate of MREs stowed safely in one quarter. Some board game with pieces fashioned from various detritus sat on a battered metal table.

That there had been people living here quite recently should have been comforting, but Shannon found her hands flexing nervously, her eyes on the walls. Over and over, in the same shaking hand, someone had written two simple messages:

SHE DIED.

I FAILED.

Nothing in this place is pure. The thought popped into her mind. She ducked back out into the corridor, nodding her head up the hall. “Let’s keep moving.”

~

He was staring at her. Emily snuck a glance up at Bujold – the corper was inspecting a safety poster, long since faded to illegibility. At least, that was what he was pretending to do; out of the corner of his eyes, he was still watching her. The doctor’s cheeks warmed and she kept herself from snapping an interrogative at the security man – he could simply be curious. Other than him, she was the only civilian amongst the mercenaries – maybe even the only one still alive.

The young woman’s thoughts turned back to Dr. Medevost - a blustering, arrogant tin-god tyrant. And he was undoubtedly dead; she’d never seen him fall but she hadn’t seen him escape, either. She hoped he was dead. Not because she hated him, but because that seemed more merciful than any other fate on this station. There were too many people that had been left behind and her tired brain could no longer recall each face and name.

Everything’s gone wrong.

Emily looked away, breaking eye contact with Bujold. There was a question in his eyes. There was something else in him too – she was fatigued, but not enough to miss it. Not yet, anyways. She didn’t know what it was – yet – but she wasn’t wholly certain that she was going to like finding out what that something was.

The doctor pulled a little closer to Shannon, relishing the brief touch of the corporal’s hand on her back. She didn’t have to look back at Bujold to know that he’d gotten her message.

For now.

~

She died. I failed. The words were everywhere, increasing in frequency as they headed deeper into the computer center, scribbled on the walls, on the doors. Always in the same hand; faded with age in some places and where the writing was fresher – years old instead of decades – the longhand grew more unsteady as age, weakness, injury and disease took their toll. Here and there, they encountered more machines. Like the damaged hulk, some of these had also been inscribed with angry, almost childish benedictions of hatred.

DIE.

YOU’LL ALL PAY.

NEVER STOP SCREAMING.

There were more signs of life – footprints on the deck, the smell of water, the constant odour of sweat. Curtains hung across closed doors and passageways, crude tables with lamps set against the walls in an attempt to make the station’s hallways feel more like a home and less like a self-made prison. But of the people themselves – nothing. Shannon could hear the distant patter of feet, could feel the eyes of hidden watchers on her. This attention didn’t feel threatening, not like way the Masks had stared at her and her people. This was... whoever was out there – they were afraid of her. Part of her enjoyed that. She didn’t want to think about it, but it was there, in the back of her mind.

She wouldn’t let herself relax, though. Not yet. Shannon cast a quick look over her shoulder, just to assure herself that Emily and the others were still behind her. The young woman quashed a nervous smile at her own actions. She wasn’t Orpheus... even if DROP 47 was a passable underworld.

Finally, the flashing ceiling lights led them to a thick security door, the paint on it worn down like everything else, but she could read enough of the lettering that remained to know that it led into the high-security section, where this local network connected to the rest of the station.

There was no reaction to their arrival.

Scribbled on the door, just about as high as a child could reach, was another notice, this one in handwriting different than the rest:

PLEESE KNOK.

There was a corrected version beside it, this one in a different colour and hand. Shannon’s skin crawled, but she stepped forward and, feeling somewhat foolish, rapped her knuckles against the heavy metal door.

“Yyyyyes?” the Watcher’s rasp crackled through the intercom. “Oh, it’s you. Quick. Yes, yes – you were quick.” A pause. “The daughter and the moth can enter. No one else.” She was the ‘daughter of sin’ and he’d called Abigail ‘little moth’.

Louis furrowed his brow as he took a moment to catch up to the same conclusion. He canted his head over at Shannon. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, corporal.”

“You have a better one?” She didn’t think it was either, but their options were limited at this point.

Hernandez clicked his jaw shut. “Not really, no.”

Shannon shook her head. “Then we go in. We’ve come this far.” She nodded back the way they’d come. “If he’d wanted us dead...”

“Yeah? Not so sure about that.” His eyes narrowed. “You remember what those sons-of-bitches wanted us for? What they did to Ramone?” He drummed his fingers against the shotgun in his arms. “Not so sure we shouldn’t just clear them all out. Every last rat in the walls, if you get my meaning.”

One of Shannon’s hands brushed against her thigh; it was unmarred – soft keratin couldn’t possibly scratch the composite plating or the polyweave of her bodyglove. But she could remember the sounds of fingernails scraping against it with perfect clarity, warmth running up her spine. “No,” she said forcefully, shoving those thoughts back into their corner. “No. Not yet. We’ll play this straight for now, Nine. Besides,” a beat. “I don’t think we have enough anti-armour rounds.”

Louis snorted. “Guess you’re right, Four.”

“People keep telling me that.” She clapped him on the forearm. “Watch over the rest of them until we get back.” She knew Louis would it anyways, but he’d appreciate the symbolic trust of actually being giving the order. It wasn’t much of a personal connection, but it would have to do.

Still pale, his brow matted with sweat, Hernandez nodded. “You’ve got it.”

Shannon looked over at Abigail; the woman had her carbine cradled in her hands and her helmet bobbed in a single nod. She smiled gratefully – without Abigail, she doubted she’d have made it this far. “We’re ready,” she announced, her hand moving up her thigh to the comforting presence of her own weapon. Scrabbling at her legs, his eyes bulging behind his mask...

The security doors unlocked, metal grinding against metal as they were drawn open. “All are welcome,” the Watcher chuckled ironically as his two guests stepped through the threshold, the heavy barricade groaning shut behind them.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls (Update: 03/07/10) PostPosted: 2010-07-12 05:30pm
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In this chapter, Shannon and Abigail's meeting with the Watcher goes about as well as you'd expect and Calvin reconsiders past decisions.

Coming up (flashback chapter delayed): conducting diplomacy through fetch quests isn't just for Star Trek Online.

Chapter 33:

The lights in the computer center were dim – just enough that night-vision wasn’t quite necessary, but not bright enough to be comfortable to normal eyesight. Unlike the rest of the station, there was no reason for it – at least no mechanical one. Shannon had a very good idea why someone on DROP 47 might want to avoid bright lights.

Abigail nodded at Shannon’s signs, confirming that her carbine had a full magazine. This station hadn’t yet seen what kind of hell she could unleash. If this ‘Watcher’ tried anything, tried to hurt Shannon... The woman took a calming breath – she was on edge, even more than normal. Her skin felt like it was crawling and the wound on her neck just wouldn’t stop itching; she wanted to sink her fingernails in and scratch at it. Of course, if she did that, Shannon would use the ‘disappointed schoolmarm’ voice to lecture her.

It still itched, though.

Booted feet moved up the stairwell leading to the second level, a creaking catwalk that encircled the upper floor, looking down into the server farm. Computer towers buzzed and clicked in the background, a nightmare patchwork of cords and hardware kept alive like some mechanical frankenstein, cobbled together by bits and pieces of others and lurching through a simulacrum of life. The air in the room was dry, filtered relentlessly for any moisture or contamination that could seep into the delicate hardware. Malfunctioning cooling systems had diverted the server’s waste heat up into the mezzanine – when they were working. Shannon could hear the desperate straining of the fans and cooling mechanisms, chugging and clanking like a failing heartbeat. Another part of the station on the verge of collapse, kept working only through a combination of Imperial durability and the constant patchwork maintenance of 47’s inhabitants.

“W-w-arning,” the AI stuttered. “Un-unauthor. Authorized per-per-personnel d-detected in s-secure-ure area. Rea. Security has-had been c-c-contacted.”

“Oh, hush darling,” a thin, reedy voice said to the computer. “There’s no need to be impolite. These are our guests.”

Shannon strode onto the upper level of the mezzanine, moving towards the glow of computer screens, a room set just off the catwalk. The air in here stunk, though it was not as foul as some of the station’s other aromas. The dry air reeked of dust, burnt electronics, ozone and stale body odour. There, crouched over one a dozen flickering monitors, was their host. At their approach, he looked up in greeting.

He was sick.

That was Shannon’s first impression as she set eyes on man who called himself ‘the Watcher’. His skin was dry and flaking off, pockmarked with scabs and scarred from the cracks and fissures the dry air had made in his flesh. His eyes were sunken, and patchy grey hair hung in strings off his scalp, ugly, uneven stubble on his face. The chair he was in was padded, but it had been used for so long that its cushioning was worn and pressed down to nothing. It squeaked and clunked as it moved towards them. “You came,” he whispered, licking his cracked lips. “Walking through the Land of the Lost. One who owns it, one wants to claim it.” He pressed his thin, wizened hands against the arms of his chair and, with some effort, himself to his feet. His legs shook with each step he took, enfeebled by age and endless days spent in front of his computers.

In youth, the Watcher had only been a man of middling height, neither tall nor short. Now, he was almost hunched over and both women stood head and shoulders over him. He coughed, licking his parched mouth again. “Let me see you.”

Shannon and Abigail shared a look, but the women removed their helmets. The Watcher squinted, nodded and mumbled under his breath as he stared at Shannon, finally collapsing back into his chair. “It’s in the eyes,” he said, panting for a moment, exhausted from standing. “I told you that you could help me,” he switched topics, wheeling back to his screens, each one jumping from image to image as his many eyes and ears continually scanned DROP 47 – or at least the parts that his security devices could see. “That I could help you.” He wiped one screen clear of accumulated dust and grease, frowning at it. “I used to think I should just let you die. Then things would go back to normal. The Land would be safe, they’d quiet down, the Turned would slumber again... normal.”

“I think we’re getting a good idea of what ‘normal’ is for DROP 47,” Abigail replied.

“Maybe... maybe.” His chewed fingernails clacked against the keys, squinting eyes intent on the data flowing past them. Finally, he pushed himself back and tapped one screen in particular. “This is normal.”

A holo image flickered to life, ghosting into the air between the women and their host. It was a grainy black and white image. There was a small line of non-Imperial script in one corner – the camera that had captured this video was not from DROP 47’s original security grid. Three men with pistols backed down a hallways, firing as they moved, muzzle flashes lighting the walls. They were wearing simple armour – helmets, vests and bracers on their arms, not the fully body gear that Artemis’s troops had landed in.

There was no sound. Shannon couldn’t hear the cracks of their guns, the shouts as one man thumbed a grenade and hurled it far off-screen, nor the following detonation. She couldn’t hear the click as another man’s magazine ran dry and his hands grabbed at his bulletproof vest’s pouches, fumbling for a replacement clip and coming up empty.

One of his friends pulled him back, firing into the torso of another Turned, the creature momentarily staggered from the impact of the bullets. Only momentarily; it lunged forward, driving its barbed talons down through the second man’s chest, falling atop him, gnawing and tearing at his throat. The first tried to pull the monster off, stabbing it again and again, but it ignored him. Shannon wanted to shout a warning as another Turned came up behind him, watching helplessly as he was dragged, kicking and struggling, out of frame. The last man lost his nerve and tried to run, making several false starts as he realized each avenue was with the swarming monsters. He sunk to his knees and put his pistol against the side of his head.

“This is normal,” the Watcher said, switching the view. This had to be from the original grid – the view was clear and clean. In a corner, a girl – no, a woman, but only just – sat, rocking back and forth, her hands tucked under her arms, quaking with body-wracking sobs, her eyes squeezed shut and her head shaking back and forth as if she was trying to deny something. A man in a laboratory coat laying sprawled in front of her, his chest cracked open, broken ribs sticking into the air, his ravaged entrails pooled around him. On the walls was nonsense nursery verse, written in what had to be the man’s own blood.

Father, father, can you tell me true?
Do you love me, how can you?
You’ve been gone so long, I forgot your voice
It wasn’t my fault, I had no choice.


Almost covering the rhyme was a single word, written in large, smeared handprints: HUNGRY.

Fresh blood was splashed on the girl’s face and clothes.

“And this isn’t normal,” the Watcher said quietly, bringing up a third holo image from his records. Sadly, it again appeared to be data from another of the low-quality crude-but-serviceable cams that either replaced or supplemented the dying station’s security grid.

Leaning against the wall, a figure in full body armour was moving away from the camera. They’d lost their helmet, but their hair, they way they moved... Wait. “Sergeant Donowitz?”

Abigail’s head snapped up. “Sarge?”

Donowitz was limping. One hand was braced against the wall, the other pressed against her side, and her rifle hung from her left shoulder. She was all but dragging her right leg, leaving a sneared red footprint behind as she took each halting step. Shannon could see why; just below her ribs, four inches of some metal spike jutted from her cuirass, her fingers wrapped around the shaft. The sergeant was pale and sweating, each halting step taking a little more from her.

The time stamp indicated that this had been taken four hours ago.

Abigail spoke again, her voice very quiet and very small: “...sarge?”

There was no sound on this video either, but something made Donowitz’s head snap up and look over her shoulder. She turned around and bared her teeth, quickly unlimbering her rifle and clasping her bloody gauntlet to the forestock, digging her heels in against the deck. The screen flashed white as she opened fire, her mouth working in a cry of rage and fear... and then she staggered as a trio of finger-sized holes were punched in her breastplate. High-velocity rounds – her armour hadn’t even slowed them down.

The sergeant collapsed to her knees, struggling to hold her gun level – that kind of damage was fatal, but Ellie Mae was running on adrenalin and combat drugs and she didn’t go down... not right away. Another shot.

Donowitz fell, spun around by the force of the impact and landing face down on the floor, her rifle knocked from her hands. Her left arm dangled uselessly behind her as she pulled herself over the bloody deck towards her gun, not quite reaching it by the time a new figure strode into view.

Like the mercenary, it was armoured. Black, almost insectoid in style, it seemed sculpted rather than assembled. An evil-looking weapon was cradled in its arms as it pressed a booted foot down on Donowitz’s rifle. The woman rolled onto her side, her body shaking as she coughed, looking up into the faceless helm of her killer. Its head cocked to one side as it stared back at her, reaching down and pulling Donowitz to her feet, holding her by the throat. Donowitz grinned, the expression almost serene, and she spat a wad of bloody saliva onto her attacker’s face, her lips moving to form two words: Fuck you.

Shannon blinked. It looked like – what was that? – like something was in the other figure’s hand – it was moving, winding into some sort of... the woman flinched as it was stabbed up under the sergeant’s breastplate, through her body glove. The figure wrenched their arm, twisting the implement. Donowitz convulsed and went limp in its grip.

The attacker tossed the sergeant’s corpse away. “You’ve made them mad,” the Watcher said as he closed the image. “They’re looking for you.” He coughed again. “Not you in particular, but all of you.”

“Who are they?” Shannon found her voice, but even as she asked the question, she knew the answer she’d get. They killed Kerrigan. They’re what Primal’s people feared.

“The eyes in the dark,” The Watcher replied as if it were obvious, confirming the Halo’s fears. “They only come when you call them, make sure no one leaves. They won’t let you.”

“Enough of these God-damn riddles!” Abigail growled, taking a step towards the Watcher. “Is it so fucking hard just to get a straight answer out of any of you bugged-up assholes? You sit here in your little bunker, all safe and secure. You haven’t risked anything in years.” Before he could react, she’d pulled him out of his chair. He weighed barely anything and the Darkknell held the Watcher off the floor. Metal and fabric rasped against each other as Abigail drew her pistol, pressing the barrel up under his chin. Her teeth were bared in the familiar, vicious rictus. “I think you need to remember what that’s like.”

“No!” A voice cried from the shadows as a small child darted out, grabbing the Watcher’s dangling legs. “Don’t hurt my dad!”

~

Emily was sitting against the wall, her hands draped over her knees. Lutzberg was next to her; she knew she was in desperate need of a shower herself, but the petty officer just reeked. It was hardly fair to blame him for that, but did she wish he’d chosen to sit a little farther away from her.

Bujold was sitting on the opposite side of the hall facing the other two ‘noncombatants’ (though that distinction was rather thin here on 47). He wasn’t staring at her anymore – not overtly, anyways. She hoped that he was losing whatever interest he had in her, that his attention wasn’t... well, she’d figure out a way to deal with that if and when it happened. She didn’t want to have another Killion to deal with.

Hernandez was pacing back and forth; she’d suggested that he take a seat, but he’d refused. There was a distinct waver in his stride now – exhaustion and injury were catching up with him. It wouldn’t be long before he was a liability again. Hopefully the corporal could do something about that – they didn’t need more dead weight. Emily gave herself a mental shake. She shouldn’t be thinking of Bujold and Lutzberg like that, but it was hard to keep her thoughts organized – she was getting tired too and the brief nap she’d had on the tram hadn’t helped much at all. The young doctor reached back and scratched at her scalp, feeling as if something was tickling her there, but luckily there was nothing. It was just a random itch. A random... itch....

Just like Michelle. Like Amanda.

...her expression froze for an instant. Oh, damn it.

~

She might have been nine years old, wearing a shirt intended for someone much older than she. Her little arms were wrapped around one of the Watcher’s thin legs. “Let him go!” she cried. “Please don’t hurt him! Don’t hurt us!”

“Put him down, Three,” Shannon ordered.

Abigail held the man aloft a moment longer, then seemed to deflate a little, setting the Watcher back into his chair. “Confirmed, Three.”

The Watcher panted for breath, coughing and clutching at his chest. The girl darted across the room, snatching up a thermos with a straw and putting it between her ‘father’s’ lips. After a moment, he regained his composure and managed a chuckle, water spilling down his chin. “Thank you,” he patted the child on her head. “It’s all right, honey. These are just... my new friends.” He looked up at the two women. “We’re just talking.”

“Yeah,” Abigail replied, her voice flat, eyes never leaving the Watcher’s. “We’re just playing a game.” She holstered the pistol.

Shannon put a hand on her squadmate’s shoulder. She knelt down on to meet the girl eye to eye. “It’s okay,” she said, not sure if this was another lie. “Your... dad’s okay.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” the girl said, staying close to her ‘father’. There was no resemblance between them. The girl’s face was rounder than the Watcher’s, her skin was darker and her brown eyes had an epicanthic fold.

“I am fine.” the Watcher replied. “Go. Go check on your brothers and sisters. Go, Honor.”

The girl hesitated, but obeyed, scurrying down the rear steps. Shannon waited until she was out of earshot. “That’s why they hate you,” she said. “You take their children.”

~

Atmospheric Processing was a massive facility; North Arm was the size of a starship and section G2 alone was nearly the size of a skyscraper. It didn’t need to be this big; a vessel as large as the arm could get away with a much smaller life support plant. In point of fact, only the station’s central processing complex in the core needed to be so large, but G2 was a back-up in case the main facility ever went down. All of the DROP’s air could be channeled through any one of its five primary atmospheric processing centers, making it nearly impossible to disrupt the station’s life support systems, one node of which was also based somewhere in the massive complex.

Not only functioning as a failsafe, the processors provided an extra barrier against the threat of contamination – should any one section of the station become gravely compromised, it could be isolated from the others while its processor cleaned the air of any possible contaminant. It could also disseminate anti-intruder – in case of security breaches – or medicinal gases, should they be required. If the flow was reversed, the processor could even pull all oxygen out of the arm in a matter of minutes to assist in decontamination – or as an additional unofficial security measure.

Air purifiers, filtration units, environmental controls, quality monitoring stations, pressure flow sensors and other miscellaneous function systems were just the icing on the cake of an atmospheric processor. In fact, an Elysium’s processors were modified Breath of Life terraforming units, capable of producing large volumes of breathable air in any but the most hostile environments.

Pity all those safeguards had worked.

Calvin could hear the growing roar of air as it was drawn through the massive network of vents leading into the heart of the processor, jutting up from the darkened lower levels like some towering stalagmite. The mercenary was standing on a large walkway, one of several that ringed the entire chamber. Each of them was overgrown with disgusting substrate, railings draped with stringy slime-like growths, strands hanging down into the abyss. Grating covered over with more of the infested growth, like diseased skin. Tendon-like cords had, by chance, secured the railings to the walls and ceilings where the original brackets and supports had weakened. The walkway bowed under Calvin’s heavy bootsteps, but it remained attached. In places it had broken, hanging metal struts overwhelmed by the growth, or pushed out of position, like concrete slabs disfigured by the roots of trees.

Crates and machinery that had been left here were overgrown, the creeping veins slithering up their surface like vines, the fleshy tissue following behind and subsuming the debris like an amoeba enveloping its prey. It wasn’t until he’d actually pulled away the meaty skein that he’d realized that the strange structures were crates and abandoned equipment. The fleshy moss made sick noises and oozed more dark fluid as he ripped it, feeling like he was pulling someone’s skin apart.

Insects buzzed about him constantly and he could hear the flap of larger, leathery wings up in the shadows. Doorways were jammed, held open – or in some cases, sealed shut – by the omnipresent fleshy growths. Where it had built up, it quivered and spasmed as he passed, sometimes vomiting up a spray of foul liquid. In the distance, he could hear the calls and cries of the monsters, hear their footsteps as they moved through the vents. On the lowest level, where even his blacklight could see nothing but darkness, he could hear the deep, dull roars of something massive, the shuddering bellows of what he imagined were powerful lungs. It breathes, the warning played over in his mind.

Coming here rather than facing Jane didn’t seem like such a good trade-off now.

Here and there, colonies of tall, waving fronds stuck up into the air. Stalks as wide as a woman’s finger blossomed into thicker pods from which sticky-tipped filaments waved back and forth in the air. Calvin stared at one such colony, a swarm of flies buzzing around it, drawn by the scent the plants – were they even plants, or were they like the substrate they’d grown through, some disgusting flesh-thing? – exuded. As the trooper watched, one of the flies got too close, bumbling into the delicate fronds. They immediately enfolded the insect, the stalk telescoping down into the flesh-moss to digest its meal.

Calvin reached out curiously with one finger and poked another pod. Its many tendrils wrapped about his finger and, like the other, the organism started to retract. Abruptly, it released its grip and slithered back up to its full height.

Guess it doesn’t like the taste of cermasteel, the mercenary mused. He moved on; as his feet landed next to the colony, the stalks darted back into the flesh-moss. Once he was past, they cautiously began to rise back up.

He moved along the railing, trying to figure out what his next move would be. One level below, he could see something that had once been human ambling across the gantry, oblivious to his presence. The trooper was tempted to snipe it, but there was no point – just a waste of ammunition. He’d probably have to deal with it sooner or later, but not right now. Right now... he’d try to get down one level and then backtrack. That should throw Godfrey off his trail and get him out of here. From there, he’d head back towards the hangar.

Hopefully without finding out what was making that breathing noise.

~

The Watcher nodded. “It’s what she would have wanted.” His eyes flitted to one side, his expression going distant. “I think it’s what she would have wanted.” He braced his arms and pushed himself up from the chair, hobbling over the many cables draped across the floor. “It’s hard to remember sometimes. Memories bleed into one another here. You can’t remember if a story is yours or you’ve simply made it yours. Did your wife really wear a green dress the day you got married? Was your husband really an artist? Is this life yours, or someone else’s?” He paused to catch his breath. “I think – I have to think – that this is mine. That this is what she would want me to do.

“She always liked children. She said that it was so sad that they’d grow up in this place,” the Watcher’s voice quavered. “I think she did, anyways. I remember those words... they came from her. They had to. They had to.” He didn’t even seem to be aware of his guests any longer, looking into the past.

“I failed her then. But I didn’t... I don’t want to fail her again. I try to protect them. I don’t always succeed. Some are lost. But some... but some... there is nothing but Acheron. I do what I can when I can. The Red Hands are grateful.” He chuckled. “Masks and Whitefaces – not so much.”

“And what do you take in trade for this protection?” Abigail asked, her tone very soft and very dangerous as she moved towards the Watcher. Shannon held out a hand, stepping between the two of them. She met her ‘big sister’s’ eyes and the sudden, ugly light in them without flinching.

Wait. She didn’t have to say it. Wait. Please.

At first it seemed the Watcher hadn’t even heard the question. He leaned forward, bracing his quivering arms against the computer. But it wasn’t frailty causing them to shake this time – it was rage. “Little moth,” he said, his voice rougher than normal. “I forgive you for that.” He said nothing else for several moments. Eventually, his trembling abated and he breathed normally. “Come here, I have something to show you. What I want in exchange for my help.”

On the screen was a pretty – not beautiful, but pretty – woman in an explorer’s jumpsuit, sitting on the floor, an open helmet next to her as she made notes on a datascroll. Her dark hair was worn short and she looked tired; there were circles under her eyes and her jumpsuit was smeared with dirt. She looked up at the camera and smiled. “Put it away,” her voice was soft. “I’m a mess.” Tired, but not afraid. She was on DROP 47, but hadn’t yet experienced its horrors. Shannon was struck by a sudden pang of jealously for the woman.

There was an answering crackle of static as the cam-wielder said something, but Shannon couldn’t make out the words, or even who was saying it. She looked up at the Watcher. Is this life yours, or someone else’s? “What happened to her?” she asked carefully.

The Watcher’s lip quivered. “I failed,” was his only answer. “She died because I failed. I should have... I should have...” his voice trailed off. “But now you’re here. You’re here.” He looked up at the women. “You’re going to bring her back to me.”



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-08-03 11:32am
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Jedi Knight
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In this chapter, Calvin's story continues. He makes a new friend whilst keeping the old.

Coming up, Shannon and Abigail are given their mission briefing: lessons in necromancy to follow.

Chapter 34:

He wasn’t alone.

Really, that was obvious – he could hear them moving through the entire complex: feet thumping in the vents, sploshing against the flesh-moss. The wet, heavy sounds of their breathing. Calls and cries in the distance, movement on the tiers below him. That wasn’t it, though. Calvin would have liked to that say it was some finely-honed mercenary instinct that tipped him off. Or that he’d parsed some substance from the disorienting backscatter and confusing mishmash of sensor information that the station’s bulk and the infested atmosphere processor had made of his scans. Sadly, neither was the case.

Instead, he turned a corner and there she was.

Crouched on her haunches atop a pile of overgrown crates, the young woman was half-turned away from him. Her shirt and pants were filthy, both on the verge of disintegrating right off her body. Her hair hung down her back in stringy, matted clumps. It was possible that she was blonde. Her bare arms and legs were smudged with grime, and though she was of slight build, there was no mistaking the well-defined musculature of her limbs. He couldn’t see her hands; she was holding them away from him, against her chest.

She wore no shoes: her feet were dug into the flesh-moss. Smacking and crunching noises came from her mouth as she gnawed on something. At his approach, she froze for an instant, cocking her head and looking towards him, blood and drool running down her chin as she slurped back one of the ‘plant’ stalks, crimson fluid squishing from its stem. Her face was angular; unmarred by grime, her features would have been almost aristocratic. Her skin was patchy; darker in some places, paler in others.

The trooper raised his weapon warningly, but didn’t fire. She hadn’t moved on him.

Yet, a voice whispered in the back of his brain. Yet.

The stalk crunched in her teeth as the last of it disappeared into her mouth and curious eyes – the irises were green, but the sclera were a discoloured red – stared back at Calvin, though she remained on her perch. A tongue – long, but not beyond the scope of purely human oddities – lapped over her lips, cleaning up the blood that had spilled down her chin. After a moment, she spoke. “Are you alive?”

“Yeah,” Meyers managed to answer. “I’m alive.”

The noise she made next was almost indescribable, a breathy exhalation – was it a hiss? a growl? a purr? – of... what? What was the emotion that made her eyelids flutter, a slow ripple moving up her spine? “Alive,” she repeated. “Alive.” She cocked her head at him. “I want you,” she murmured. “It’s not what you think. I want to touch. To whisper, my mouth on you. It’s been so long since I saw someone else. I’ve been alone for so long, for ten days.” Her eyes half-closed and she let out a trembling breath as she undulated. “I need you. I need to touch you. I’m so alone. Please,” she mewed, stretching the syllables out into a lyrical invitation. “Will you have me?”

Calvin didn’t move, though his left foot lifted, inching back a few centimeters. “I’d really rather not.”

“Red rover, red rover,” the woman singsonged, reaching an arm out towards him. “Why won’t you come over?”

The mercenary’s eyes widened as he pulled back a full step. Her hands! What the fuck? What the fuck is she? “Get away from me,” he growled, raising his assault cannon again.

She drew her arm back. “You’ll join us. Everyone does in the end. Red rover, red rover, they always come over.” She smiled, a mouthful of pink-strained teeth glinting back at him. “And I won’t be alone.” She slid to the deck, watching him hungrily, searching for any opening, any side of weakness. But Calvin held his ground, the barrel of his gun following each of her slight movements.

In his armour, he was all but invulnerable and the woman soon realized this. “When the blazing sun is gone,” she sang, backing down the gantry, finding her way into the shadows of an open doorway. “When the nothing shines upon... when you’ve no door to knock on... then the traveler in the dark will thank you for your little spark.” Before she disappeared into the darkness entirely, she pointed one finger at him. “Red rover, red rover.” No. No, she wasn’t pointing at him.

He was already moving, the brief whirr of Jane’s assault cannon spinning up sending an additional spike of panic-fuelled adrenalin stabbing through his body. The trooper dove into a jammed door’s archway a split-second before a burst of armour-piercing shells tore through the air. Calvin gritted his teeth, cursing himself for getting distracted. The sounds filling the atmospheric processor had hidden Godfrey’s approach just as the plethora of signals and blockage from the station itself had done the same. If he’d been paying attention, he might have picked up some clue, though.

Maybe.

She’d made up ground on him. Too damn fast.

“Calvin,” Jane called to him. “Over here. It’s time.”

“Don’t you have something else you could be doing?” Calvin shouted back.

“No.” In the vids, this was where the villain would punctuate their speech with another spray of fire, but the Ghost was – unfortunately – not nearly bugged enough waste ammunition like that. The troopers’ bullets would punch through thinner walls, but the bulkheads surrounding the processor were thick and heavy. The mercenaries’ anti-armour rounds might not go through. Then again, they might.

In any event, Jane didn’t seem willing to spend the ammo to see if she could pick Calvin off through the corner. He could hear her coming, squishing and crunching the flesh-moss under her heavy treads as she moved along the gantry towards his position. “What is this?” he demanded, trying to get her talking. “All this shit on the walls, growing everywhere.”

Her answer was succinct, if not terribly informative. “The spread.”

“Well, it’s an apt name,” he replied. This was no good; he was pinned in here like a rat. After that first barrage, Godfrey was holding her fire, waiting until she had a clear shot at him. He could try cutting through the doors, but it would certainly take several moments and require him to turn his back on Godfrey. Not the best plan.

Her footsteps were getting closer... but to fire on him, she’d have to expose herself as well, and at this range – barely a handful of meters, neither trooper’s armour would offer any protection from their weapons. He (or she) who fired first survived... and Godfrey was too damned fast for Calvin’s liking. He’d need to be faster.

Calvin raised his own weapon, waiting for the first glimpse of the Ghost’s pale armour. Come on... If he could startle her – he didn’t even need a hit, just get her off-balance for a half-second...

The footsteps grew closer.

Sweat beads curled down Calvin’s face and his gauntleted finger tapped against the cyclic cannon’s trigger. He felt the familiar rush of combat drugs entering his system, making his entire body sing. Everything seemed brighter, slower, more intense. Come on...

The footsteps stopped.

What?

shkkt-kzzz

Meyers’s eyes widened and he darted his head back, an instant too slow as the blinding glare of a disruptor cut across his vision as Jane slashed around the corner. The blade scored through his faceplate, burning across the bridge of his nose and searing his skin. If he’d been any slower, the blow would have sheared through the top of his head. Calvin swore and brought out his own disruptor as Godfrey swung around after him, over seven feet and seven hundred pounds of bulky armour moving like a dancer. It was only sheer luck that Calvin managed to deflect the next blow, another decapitating strike.

Jane let out a hissed exhalation as their blades sparked and shrieked against one another, impossible energies crackling and arcing. Her gun came around, the barrel pointing towards his gut...

Calvin pushed her cannon out of the way with his own, both troopers’ weapons now fully entangled with one another’s. “Why!” he hollered, the light of their disruptors gleaming painfully through his shut eyelids. “Goddamnit, Jane, we’re friends!” he didn’t know what else to say. The old plea was the only thing that came to mind. “Don’t do this! For God’s sake! You don’t have to do this!”

“No!” the woman shouted back. “No God, know fear! I won’t let it happen again!”

Somehow, he managed to push her off, staggering the Ghost back a few steps. She half-crouched, an armour-clad ogre eyeing the wretch that had defied it. “I won’t let it happen again,” she repeated. Calmer, lower in pitch. More in control of herself – more dangerous. “You didn’t see it. Men and women – friends – that you have to kill over and over. The ones that beg... you put it out of your mind. Animals to put down, infected livestock to burn. The ones that rage and froth, clawing at you until their fingers bleed, breaking their teeth on your armour... those are the hardest. You’d think it wouldn’t be. You’d think because they’re F2, you can find the distance your need.” Her voice was haunted, sick and shook with self-loathing. “You can’t.”

“They’re empty shells that remember all the right words, gibbering and screaming. What you kill isn’t a friend. It used to be. You want to see that one last time to know that something of the person you knew is still alive. But you hate yourself because it means you wouldn’t be killing an animal. You’re destroying any hope they have of coming back. What you kill... it was someone you knew, someone who was eaten alive by this place and left a husk of themselves. And over and over and over and over... kill. Burn. Tear. Cut. No friends.”

He blinked against the acrid smoke and foul odour wafting in through his torn helmet. His skin had already blistered, pus was starting to run down his face. “What happened to you?” he asked, almost plaintively.

“Veers brought it aboard,” Jane replied, both troopers starting to circle each other, blades drawn, fingers tight on their weapons. “He didn’t know. We didn’t know. Once we did, it was too late. Spreading. Eating and killing and fucking and bleeding. G Squad survived. Luck. Shelby trapped us, gave us a mission.” The woman raised her blade. “No one gets out. Contain the infection.” A beat. “You shouldn’t have come here, Calvin.”

Movement.

Blades clashed briefly before the combatants fell back, like duelists adhering to a code of honour and not soldiers probing for a weakness in their foe.

There was movement all around him, but Meyers couldn’t take his eyes off Godfrey. One instant would be all it would take. “I figured that out for myself, thanks.”

There was a slight twitch of the mad trooper’s helmet. “Not here, Calvin.” A low, unpleasant chuckle. “Well, that too. But you shouldn’t have come here. There are places, Calvin. Warm and wet, where there’s plenty of food. Places that biomass accumulates. The spread comes first, then the rest. Infecting, eating, building up. Then sometimes – sometimes, Calvin! – you get a Leviathan. Sounds in the deep, breathing. Branching out through vents and crawlspaces.”

A chill went up Meyer’s spine as he listened to the deep, rhythmic breathing coming from below. Or not so rhythmic... the pattern had changed. “You’re feeling talkative.”

Her pauldrons moved in a diluted shrug. “No one else around. The other Ghosts... they’ll follow their mission too, but they’re weakening. Can’t be trusted.”

A chill ran up Calvin’s spine – he’d forgotten all about the surviving Ghosts. If they had made it to the station... they were hunting his people, too.

Jane must have seen it in his eyes. “Can’t help them,” she whispered. “Not yours or mine. The eyes have opened.” Her head tilted; there was a slight change in the way she stood-

-disruptors sparked and screamed and again, Calvin was lucky to simply defend himself from the Ghost’s attack. He couldn’t stay on the defensive forever, sooner or later, she’d break through his guard...

“The eyes,” he said, trying to buy time, backing down the hall to where he’d come in. “Whose eyes?”

“They begged, did you know?” Jane’s voice went flat, almost lifeless as she stalked after him, surefooted and fluid. “The ones we left outside. Dozens of them, sealed outside Primal’s walls. “They pleaded and screamed, scratching at the doors until their fingers bled. Always scratching. You can hear it even when no one’s there.

“Some went silent as the Turned fed, dragging new flesh to the gardens. Others went silent when they came,” a note of horror entered her voice. “You haven’t seen them. You never do, not until it’s too late. A ripple, a glimmer. A flash and then someone else sinks beneath Acheron’s waves. I watched them. How them move, how they talk, how they kill. I heard them sing.”

The shuddering, monstrous breaths from below deepened, changed in pitch. In his peripheral vision, Calvin could see the feeding stalks retract back into their meaty substrate. “You know what happened here,” he continued, fingers tapping against the trigger grip of his assault cannon, keeping his other arm up in a guard. If he tried to raise his gun, she’d be on him. Keep her talking, wait for an opening... “Don’t you?”

“No,” the Ghost replied. “Only what Veers brought back. 47 has secrets deeper than Acheron.” She chuckled dryly at the joke. “I know F2. I know R3. But I don’t know I7. Some people know. They know.”

The gantry sagged under the troopers’ weight, ancient metal complaining as the growths holding it up made wet stretching noises, thinner threads popping and snapping. With both mercenaries upon it, the decrepit walkway was being tasked with supporting three-quarters of a ton of additional mass, and it was no longer capable of supporting them. Calvin took another cautious step back, the familiar crunch and squish of his feet crushing the insects nesting within the quivering growth. She’s going to kill you, the voice in the back of his head whispered. Going to cut you open like a fish on a hook. You can’t get away. You thought you had. But she was always there, always behind you.

There’s only one way out.

“Then tell me,” he kept talking, trying to drone out that voice. “Tell me what you do know.”

A beat. “No.” Her posture changed; very slightly, barely even noticeable.

Oh, shit.

She moved.

Calvin swore as she crashed against him, the force of the woman’s charge staggering him back. Her blade flashed again and again, shrieking when it encountered his own, scoring through his armour in places as she tried to take him apart, almost cutting his gun-arm off at the elbow and then nearly disemboweling him. He slashed back at her, but she swatted his blade aside, coming around with a vicious backhand.

Beneath them, the gantry shook and sagged, more ligaments, welds and bolts popping free.

Jane swung around, going for his legs and Calvin rolled out of the way, coming up just in time to see her leap, the armour’s synthetic ‘muscles’ boosting the trooper into the air, her arm cocked back to deliver a vicious killing blow-

-Calvin threw his arm up, blocking Jane’s disruptor with his own, but the force of her strike numbed his arm-

-the impact was more than the gantry could stand: with a crunch of snapping metal and a scream of tearing alloys it fell out from beneath them-

-emergency grav fields failed to activate and Calvin and Jane were in free-fall, both troopers trying to hold on to the plummeting walkway, crashing awkwardly to the mezzanine below them-

-it shattered under the impact, deforming into a broken ‘V’ and sending the broken gantry into the depths, both troops scrabbling again for purchase at the sides as they too slid into oblivion, both failing and crashing down onto the next level-

-Jane hit the side of the walkway and before she could right herself, tumbled off it, following the broken section down into the darkness; Calvin clawed for a grip, but this gantry bowed and buckled in turn and his hands slipped, coming up with fistfuls of torn flesh-moss, but nothing else-

-and he was falling, arms and legs flailing as fear took over-

-he landed face-down on something soft and smelling of diseased flesh and chemicals-

-Calvin pushed himself back to his feet, already moving, aware that Jane would be about ready to gut him where he stood, but the killing blow never came.

He saw her; she was back on her feet, a grey patch in the darkness around him, lit by the actinic blue of her disruptor and whatever thin illumination the flickering lights on the ceiling far above provided. With his visor destroyed, Meyers had no blacklight vision; he snapped on his lume, catching the Ghost in a cone of light. She was frozen, a stillness he’d only seen when the strange ship had been above them. “Oh no,” he heard he whisper and he was torn between a sudden, fearful urge to know what she saw and the more pragmatic instinct of gunning her down and worrying about that later.

Then he saw it too.

Not just it. Them. Dozens of fleshy, bulbous pods like cocoons formed from skin. Maybe hundreds, they covered the walls, hung from bottoms of the lower walkways. Each was large enough to hold something man-sized, were it to curl up. The sound of breathing was all around him, massive pulsing breaths that drew cool air into the chamber, over the twitching pods...

...twitching.

“Oh no,” Calvin repeated Godfrey’s understatement. Whatever these things were... whatever was inside them... they was waking up. Not merely one or two, or a handful or a dozen. No. All of them. The troopers’ fall hadn’t gone unnoticed. Whatever had lain here was dormant no longer.

Up above, Calvin could hear the frantic beating of more leathery wings, agitated cries from the once-human things in the vents and, he thought, a distant voice saying ‘red rover, red rover’-

-a sharpened scythe-like blade jutted out through the skin of one of the pods, cutting it open from the inside, reeking fluid spilling onto the fleshy substrate below it. Something with red eyes, a too-wide mouth with too many teeth leered and gabbled wetly at Calvin as it pulled itself out of its cocoon.

He squeezed his cannon’s trigger and blew it and its chrysalis into a shivering collection of meat.

“No!” Jane shouted, spinning to face Calvin-

-and something awoke.

Leviathan.

It roared in a vast exhalation of breath that sent geysers of stinking air hurtling back up the chamber. Where was it? The sound was coming from all around them. There was motion-

-corded and bulging like a muscular vine, a massive tentacle slithered up from the floor, its pointed head swinging back and forth as glistening sense organs zeroed in on the source of the disturbance. Others, just as long and powerful wound along the walls like fat, writhing worms, tightening a net around the intruders who had so helpfully delivered themselves into its maw.

The tendril before Calvin peeled open like a four-petaled flower. Each lip of its fleshy mouth lined with bony hooks, half a dozen sinewy, grasping tongues slithering out from its esophagus. It shivered, trembling in hunger. Perhaps anger. Not that it mattered right at this moment.

All around them, more pods stirred to life as their occupants tore their way free, the disfigured remains of men, women and children pulling themselves to their feet, mindless hunger in their eyes as they moved towards the intruders, blades and claws and tentacles glistening wetly...

Calvin cast a quick look over at Jane. The screams and cries from above were getting louder. Closer. “Friends?” he asked.

Her helmet tilted towards him, a brief nod before the Ghost turned her attention back to the advancing wall of tormented flesh. “Friends.”

“Good to have you on the team, Godfrey,” Calvin said, finding himself smiling as he picked out his first target amongst the horde, a bulky monstrosity with four arms, each ending in three clawed fingers. “Let’s do this.”



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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-08-05 02:43pm
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Jedi Knight
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In this chapter: secrets and lies. Shannon accepts the Watcher's terms - but not for his sake.

Coming up: An unfortunate series of events: Primal's fall.



Chapter 35:

“What do you mean, ‘bring her back’?”

The Watcher coughed wetly; he didn’t seem to have heard Shannon’s question. “Some days I think she was an archaeologist. Some days, she was a historian. Another day, she was a gambler down on her luck. One time, we were hired for a corporate expedition, paying a king’s ransom for the location. Another moment, and it was a survey mission and we came here by accident. Or maybe we were running from people she owed money to and played a hunch... the story is always different, but I know I loved her. I know I failed her... that never changes.”

He was still staring at the screen; the image had changed to a grainy black and white feed from one of the replacement cams. On it, the woman was staggering along some unknown hallway, one arm clutched against her chest, the other bracing herself on the wall as she all but dragged her right foot behind her. Her gait was wobbly and every few steps she paused, gasping for breath. She was only barely keeping herself on her feet. Her clothes were dark with bloodstains. “I failed her,” the Watcher repeated.

She fell, slumping to the ground, her eyes drifting over to the camera, staring up at it. Her lips moved soundlessly. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

“No,” the old man whimpered, unable to pull his eyes away from his beloved’s final moments. “No, don’t apologize. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. It’s mine. I failed you,” his voice cracked, his entire body shaking as decades of maddened grief took played out.

The woman’s chest rose and fell in short, desperate gasps, each one taking a little more effort. Her forehead was covered with sweat – she was feverish. Her body’s last, desperate attempt to burn out whatever infection was killing her. Burst capillaries leaked into her tear ducts and bloody tears dripped from her reddening eyes. Her head lolled to one side and her lips were still moving; she was talking to someone only she could see, forcing out rushed words in between each gasping breath. Apologizing, over and over. Begging to be forgiven. Telling her unseen companion that she loved him, to look out for himself. She tried to reach out to him, but she no longer had the strength to do so.

Her breathing grew weaker and her lips only quavered now – Shannon couldn’t read them any longer. There was no longer a difference between the woman’s pitiful gasps and whatever final secrets she was trying to divulge. Her chest pulsed once every few seconds. Then once every moment. Finally, not at all. Whatever air she had in her lungs rattled out as she sagged against the wall, her head rolling to one side, open eyes staring down at the deck.

The Watcher had turned away from the screen, shaking with anguish. “I failed,” was all he said.

Shannon put her hand on his shoulder, though her eyes never left the screen, waiting for what would – what had to – come next. It didn’t take long. But then, it hadn’t in the hangar.

The woman’s body began to twitch, her fingers and toes, arms and legs spasming uncontrollably as she flopped about, hands slapping at the deck as she awkwardly pushed herself back up to her feet, her mouth gaping open. She wavered on her feet, like a passenger aboard a rocking ocean liner. Beneath her skin, something was moving. Her jaw snapped shut, head twisting and turning as she looked about, searching for any potential threat or prey. Finding none, she ambled away into the darkness, another victim of DROP 47, restored to life in a sick mockery of both form and function.

Death wasn’t the end. Not in Acheron. It takes pieces. And puts them back together.

“What does she look like now?” Shannon asked. Don’t think about it. Not a person. A thing. A husk. No more hopes, no more dreams. Nothing. Remember that.

There was a long pause as the Watcher seemed to steel himself. “Here,” he whispered, adjusting the display, calling up a new file. “Two weeks after.”

She was still recognizable as a woman, identifiable as the person she had once been. That was all you could say. Still dressed in the tatters of her clothes, the new Turned limped down the corridor; the right side of her body had mutated faster than the right. She was favouring her right side before. That must have been where she was... what? Bitten? Stung? The woman’s left side had started to alter, but not to the same extent as her right. I wish I knew what that meant. Does it mean the infection takes time to re-work a host’s tissues? Or is it just this one host? If there something about her biology that slowed it? Would it increase with more frequent feeding? Too many questions and not enough answers.

Shannon frowned, casting a worried glance at Abigail’s bandages. When she got an oppurtunity, she’d have to thoroughly check over both Hutchins and Hernandez. The Masks’ sentries had cleared them, but she wasn’t going to take any chances. Questions, but no answers.

Turning back to the screen, Shannon looked over the changes that the infection had wrought to the Watcher’s lover. She couldn’t see much, since the woman’s clothes were – more or less – still intact. Her hair had all but fallen out on the right side of her head, the skin had split in places and was sagging in others. Her right arm... the palm had split open and a carpal bone – the capitate or lunate – had speared through, extending out into a wicked spike. Her right leg was bulkier than her left, explaining her limp and the seams of her pant legs had burst where grotesque muscles and chitinous plates had strained the fabric to breaking. Her chest was bulging and asymmetrical where her natural curves were supplanted by grotesque growths.

Her shoulders were hunched and her head hung forward like a vulture. Her lower jaw had split in two, each half distended and hanging agape, covered in teeth and curved, fang-like protrusions of bone.

Shannon suppressed a shudder. Whatever this recombinator was, it was as aggressive an infection as she’d ever seen. It didn’t just use pre-existing organs and tissues; it actively and extensively modified its hosts’ structure, incorporating traits from other organisms in the process. It couldn’t be natural. No, it was something that had been engineered in one of the labs here on the station. Another twisted Imperial weapon. It had to be. There was no way something this complex could have occurred in nature, no one else who would have created something this monstrous.

She hoped.

As the once-human thing moved, Shannon could see the glint of metal around its neck – some kind of pendant.

“A year after,” the Watcher said, switching the view again.

The infection had completely taken over. The carpal bone was longer now, a triangular blade that would open wounds and prevent them from closing. It wasn’t that much bigger, but it could still make a passable dagger, particularly since it seemed to be that darkened, reinforced bone that cropped up in many of the hunter-type mutations. It wasn’t a smooth blade either – there were barbs and serrations in the bone’s three edges.

Its... her... left hand was similar, though this deformed bone was a little longer, a little thinner. More like the scythes of other hunter forms, but not as large – and, it too, was serrated along the single cutting edge. Long, clutching fingers lay at rest against the carpal blades, fingernails extended into short, hooked talons.

Her teeth had extended, growing to half the length of Shannon’s index finger, her paired lower jaws powerfully muscled, spiny extensions of bone sliding into sockets on the opposing jaw so that the once-human thing’s mouth fit together, almost appearing normal. If you ignored the telltale seam in the skin... and everything else about this awful thing that had once been a woman.

Short, thick blades had grown out of her elbows and her feet had splayed out – the toes were more suitable for providing traction, or gripping substrate as the Turned pulled itself through cramped maintenance tunnels and air ducts.

Legs were powerful; like canines or humanity’s own ancestors, this wasn’t a stalk-and-leap predator. If it could do so, it would – but it was an endurance hunter, something that would follow its prey until they tired, until they could no longer run. Then it would be upon them, driving its carpal blades into the prey’s flesh, savaging their insides with those ugly serrated bones, holding on with its powerful hooked hands, while the Turned’s teeth ripped and tore.

“Bring her back,” the Watcher implored, his voice shaking. “Bring her back to me.”

~

Something screamed in an awful, gargling cry as it flung itself at him. Calvin didn’t even register the full extent of the horror before he turned and fired, spraying his attacker into gobbets of meat that splashed against his armour. There was no time to enjoy the victory; another of those things was there.

And another. Another.

Out of the corner of his broken visor, he could see Godfrey. The woman was a red and grey blur, a shifting form caught in the yellow flickers of nonstop muzzle flashes and the shifting gleam of her disruptor. Unceasing snarls and cracks filled the air as her cannon’s barrel cycled, almost drowning out the shrill of her blade as it cut through flesh and bone, cauterized limbs dropping uselessly to ground.

All around them, the Leviathan roared. Its tentacles pounded the ground in fury, whipping back and forth as they sought a breach in the melee to try and seize one of the troopers.

Something else grabbed Calvin’s gun arm, hauling itself up to his face, a mouth full of gnashing teeth looming before him. He swung his disruptor and removed its head from its shoulders. The monster fell, releasing his limb as it beat out a frantic, blind tattoo. There was another to take its place, an endless swarming tide of twisted flesh and gibbering faces that even the trooper’s firepower couldn’t keep back forever. His armour was scarred, furrowed by metal-hard talons driven by inhuman strength. He swung his elbow around, caving in the face of something clawing at his back. This wasn’t working. There were too many, coming from too many angles.

A stairwell leading up from this hellish pit was tantalizing close, but it was warded by a pair of the Leviathan’s massive appendages, and more of the things were pouring through it.

“Fall back!” he heard someone shouting, but didn’t know if it was him, or Jane. “Fall back to the processor – we need a chokepoint!”

Calvin was already moving. He didn’t need to look back to know Jane was behind him: he could feel the woman’s presence, feel the familiar pressure behind his eyes. And even surrounded by a legion of monsters, some small part of his mind was still whispering that he needed to kill her.

~

Both women stared at the man in shock. Abigail found her voice first. “You... you want that thing back?”

The Watcher stared up in confusion for a moment, then made a noise between a chuckle and a sob. “No. No,” he shook his head. “Not what I meant. Apologies, moth. Apologies. Sometimes the words... they don’t always come out how they should. No, I don’t want what she became. I want what she was.” He tapped one skeletal finger against the screen. “What she was.”

Tattered bits of cloth still clung to the Turned’s body, where time and damage hadn’t be able to fully remove them. And around her neck, slowly being subsumed by her ruined flesh, was the necklace Shannon had seen before. She nodded in understanding. “You have an army,” she said. “Why couldn’t you send them?”

The Watcher’s lips twitched in a grateful smile, glad to have something else to discuss. “Not that easy,” he replied. “I don’t have that many. My lads aren’t actively hunted – no smell to track, no meat on their bones. But the sound draws them, movement alerts them. Infectors don’t bother, hunters are hit or miss. But guardians... the praetorians and soldiers... they notice. To send an army might even draw other attentions. To be successful, I’d have to sacrifice too many of my lads. I want her back. I do. But I can’t... not at the expense of the children. They need to be protected. I promised her that. Besides,” he hobbled back to his chair, catching his breath. “It’s not that easy.”

Shannon looked over at him. “Show me.”

Fingers tapped and clicked against keys, calling up a station schematic. It was a more complete version of the map Shannon had downloaded from the medical facility – camera locations were marked, sites of traps, preferred travel routes for the feral humans and the Turned. Sections where life support and environmental controls had failed were greyed out; the ferals’ colony was a brown splotch. The crew quarters with their flytrap were a ghostly red, as were several other sites in the North Arm. The young woman could only imagine what horrors lurked in those parts of the station.

Naturally, the map scrolled up to one of those sites; North Hydroponics. Deep in North Arm, closer to the station’s core than their own location. It was next to the atmospheric processor – not surprising, since the hydroponics sections weren’t just for providing food to the station’s inhabitants – their plants helped oxygenate the DROP’s atmosphere, taking a sizable burden off the mechanical air scrubbers and filtration systems. In effect, the hydroponics were 47’s lungs whilst the processors took the place of its heart, drawing stale, carbon dioxide-rich air through the verdant hydroponics and then back out into the station.

High-security areas and laboratories would, of course, have separate and wholly artificial life support systems both for safety (should an area need to be locked down and sealed off from the rest of the station) and to prevent contamination of the personnel and experiments both inside and out. A case in point was the Watcher’s own domain.

He was still talking, but Shannon wasn’t listening. Not completely; the lion’s share of her attention was focused on the map, etching each detail into her memory, comparing it to her own information. There are areas too badly damaged to access... her host’s earlier words played over in her mind.

A single bright red icon pulsed within the garden. “There she is,” the Watcher said, catching his guests’ attention. His dry, cracked lips turned upwards. “It’s not just a keepsake. But...”

Shannon saw it. “The entire section’s been sealed off.” Or at least, someone had made the attempt. Depressurized sections formed a barrier between the rest of the arm and the hydroponics section. Unfortunately, whoever had tried to isolate it hadn’t done a particularly thorough job; there were still pressurized sections connecting the atmosphere processing complex to hydroponics. More troublesome, if she was reading the map right, the air vents remained intact. “They didn’t know the Turned moved through the vents,” she concluded. “Or they didn’t have the time or ability to fully lock down the area.”

The Watcher shrugged. When he’d spoken before, his voice had changed. Almost imperceptibly, but it had. The Halo tucked that fact away as her eyes darted over the map. Yes. There. Something was missing from the schematic.

Rather, something had been removed.

“You know what getting that necklace will mean,” the young woman said. She didn’t look at him as an ugly truth crystallized in her stomach. “We’ll have to destroy what’s left of her.”

The Watcher nodded. “I know. It’s better that way. She can rest. She can rest.”

“We’ll have to re-enable the control links to that section if we want in,” Shannon continued, chewing on her lip. Her mind raced as she ran through possibilities. “There’s manual overrides at each closed section, but I don’t know if we want to trust those. The automatics might not be any better but, I guess we’ll have to see-”

“I guess so,” Abigail interrupted. “Corporal – a word?”

Shannon looked up, surprised. “Yes?”

The Darkknell glanced over at their companion. “In private, if you don’t mind.”

The redhaired woman’s brow creased in a frown and she looked over at the Watcher. “We’ll be right back.”

“Take your time.” Before they’d even left, the Watcher turned back to his screens, cursing and tapping at his keyboard.

~

They moved to the far side of the mezzanine and, after a quick look to make sure that there were no surveillance devices observing them, Abigail spoke. “Permission to speak freely.”

Shannon blinked; that formality was unlike the other woman. “Granted.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” The question wasn’t shouted; Abigail didn’t even raise her voice. “You’re actually considering this?”

“Why shouldn’t we?”

“Why? You’re asking why we shouldn’t head into Bug Central for a fucking necklace in order to help the asshole who turned us over to those fucking masked psychopaths? That’s what he did, Shannie. He could have let us through the hallway, then turned up the plating to keep them off us and then played nice. He didn’t. Probably didn’t even consider it. He’s bugged, Four. Just like the rest.”

“I know,” Shannon said quietly. She was careful to keep her back to the Watcher’s workroom. With such patchy systems, she’d be more surprised to find out the Watcher couldn’t read lips than the opposite. “He’s been affected by this place too, Three. He wants something from us. Something he’s not telling us. The way he looked at that map... there was a change in his expression, something different in his eyes. He’s frustrated, not just because he can’t lay his lover to rest.”

Abigail nodded. If the Watcher was faking his anguish over that woman’s death, he was a better actor than she’d ever seen. “So that story’s legit.”

“Yes. I’m sure of it,” Shannon mused. “His physical responses are too...” she tried to pick the right word to encompass all the tics in his speech patterns, the changes in his posture, heart rate and breathing. “...honest.” She didn’t look over her shoulder. “About that, at least.”

The older woman nodded. “Do we need a change of leadership here, then? I’d feel a lot better if we could put you on these systems. Even Lutzberg or Delphini.”

“No. Not yet.”

“Going on a bug hunt is a better option?”

“If we can bring him some peace, isn’t that worth it?” Shannon said, but her fingers signed something else entirely. He’s still watching. Tell you when free. She wanted to tell Abigail what she was thinking, what she was hoping to find. But this wasn’t the place. She couldn’t take the chance that their host would find out.

She didn’t want to be responsible for all these lives. She wanted to just throw up her hands and let Abigail or Louis do it. But they looked at her like everyone else did. They didn’t even know they were doing it, but they did. Hoping for ‘the Halo’ to do something. But she wasn’t like that. She was just one woman. One who was tired, sore and afraid. But I’ll do this. I’ll do it. I will. I have to.

She wanted to laugh; if she was right, she had done something for them. And all it took...

Abigail’s expression didn’t change. She’d always had the better poker face. “If you’re sure.”

“I am.”

Abigail nodded. “That’s good enough for me, then.”

~

The system obeyed, responding to its true masters’ touch, bringing the passenger car back to its point of origin. It slowed to a halt, the doors creaking open.

-sweat and blood-

Breathing vents opened, allowing an influx of scent-laden air in. Sweat and blood, yes. The adrenaline-fuelled flavours of fury and terror. The harsher aroma of panic-fuelled excretion. The acrid burnt-metal and ozone odours of recently fired weapons.

-they were here-

Sensory systems took in the compartment. Armoured hands and fingers touched the worn seats and stained carpeting where warm bodies had just recently lay. Fresh bloodstains had been pressed into the filthy, threadbare fabric, smeared against plastic and glass from where clothes, armour and skin had touched them. They’d fought, and fought well. One had lain against another here. A frightened one and a killer had sat here.

-slept here. And there. And there-

Terror, sweat and blood – and something else.

-prey-

A decision was made; others would track the remaining New Ones in the cairn’s infested arm. They would hunt the New Ones that had fled into the Watcher’s domain. If there was any trouble, they would summon more. There shouldn’t be, but the scent in the air... Without the scent of Ribbon flesh to overwhelm it, it was clearer. There was something in it... something different.

-open their bellies and spill their glistening entrails to the floor-

Different. Unknown. Threat. It could be nothing. In fact, it probably was. But they would not assume so. Not until they knew. And there was a very simple way to do that.

-stalk and kill-

~

“Have you finished?” the Watcher said without looking up, his attention once more focused on the many feeds the patchwork security grid showed him.

“Yes,” Shannon replied. “We’ll help you. But there’s a price for it. You’ll help us after we do it – and before.”

Will I,” the man commented. “What is the cost for this help?”

Shannon raised her hand, ticking off points on her fingers. “This mission is going to be dangerous. The people we’re protecting – they won’t be coming with us. You’re going to keep them safe until we come back. If we don’t, you’ll still keep them safe. We’ll also need supplies. Additional ammunition, explosives, food. And three,” the young woman leaned forward, bracing her hands on the computer terminal. “You’re going to show me what happened to Primal.”

The Watcher stared back at her for a moment, then his cracked lips split into a smile. “Daughter of sin,” he rasped. “We have a deal.”

Shannon held out her hand. After a moment, the Watcher took it. She was careful not to squeeze too tightly, even more careful to keep her expression neutral. I know you’ll turn on us, she thought. And when you do, I know how to stop you.

That, she had an answer for.



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"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-08-17 12:25pm
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Jedi Knight
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Communications with APSS Primal were lost a week after the vessel's first message, confirming that they had found DROP 47, was received. This tells the story of those days.

Day one, they come and kill everyone.

Chapter 36:

Day One:

Pain.

“A moment of your time, Petty Officer Veers?

Make it stop.

“Christ, this place stinks.”

I want it to stop.

“Why do we have to do this? Last I checked, we have robots for this kind of thing.”

Please, God, make it stop.

I used to be pretty. Do you think I am?

It can’t end this way.

“It hurts so much you want to die! It makes you crazy... makes you... makes you hear things.”

I want to take it back. I want to take it all back. Please.

“I have a... business opportunity for you. I think it would be something right up your alley.”

Please.

“Are you interested?”

~

“Christ, this place stinks,” Petty Officer (Third Class) Gemma Mackenzie said, her expression thoroughly disgusted. “Like meat left out in the sun, dog crap and sour wine.”

“Thanks, Gemma,” Petty Officer (Second Class) Jason Veers replied as he pushed a dangling pipe out of his way, holding it up to allow his companion to pass. “I was just looking for the perfect descriptor and now that you’ve provided it, I’m beside myself with joy.” Veers shook his head. “Come on. The signal’s just about fifty meters ahead.” He climbed over a pile of debris, taking a quick look at his IDS. “At least I think it is. Fucking Imperium. Had to build this shit-pile out of the densest fucking metals around. No, nobody will ever need to use scanners through umpteen bazillion klicks of corridors and bulkheads, so let’s just make it im-fucking-possible.”

“I guess they figured that if you didn’t have access to the station’s security grid and their scanners, you weren’t someone they wanted to be able to find your way around.”

“Assholes,” Veers observed as he slid down a rubble pile.

Following Jason, Gemma wasn’t quite as graceful on her landing and swore as she lost her footing and skidded, nearly losing her balance. “Fuck it, why do we have to do this? Last I checked, we have robots for this kind of thing,” Mackenzie groused as she followed her team-mate, slipping again on the next pile of broken crates, plating and various detritus as she tried to pull herself over it. There was some order to the refuse, as if they’d been piled up like this on purpose. Not as a barrier, but maybe a firing line? Staggered fallback positions? “We have big droids, little droids, red ones, blue ones...”

“Because you pissed the LT off and this is his righteous vengeance, Gem. And I’m with you because he knows we’re friends. In conclusion, I hate you.” Veers held out a hand to help Gemma over the debris. She was something of a klutz. Besides, it was the least he could do. Gem had pissed off Lieutenant Kirvolk, but the LT hadn’t... precisely... done this as punishment.

And what am I supposed to be looking for?

Oh, I think you’ll know it when you see it.

Gem snorted. “Jackass.”

“Me or him?”

“Both.”

“Just checking.” Jason checked his IDS. “It should be right around here, somewhere.” He looked about, shining the lumes on his headset around. They were at an intersection: a crossroads in the maintenance passages beneath the hangar. Faded signs pointed out machine shops, service elevators, luggage and cargo carousels that ran up around the periphery of the vast starship bay. To his right was an empty lift tube; the car had crashed at the bottom of the shaft. He was starting to think that this little side-trip was the waste of time it had seemed to be. At this rate, the topside teams would get into the station’s core before he and Gem got out of this one piddling section.

“Wait one,” Gemma replied. “Trying to... yeah, there we go. It’s this way.”

“You sure?”

“No, Jason. I want to waste more time in this shithole.”

“Well, as long as I know.” Veers opened his comm to Primal’s general channel. “Control, this is Veers and Mackenzie. Team Seventeen. Almost onto the source of that transmission. Have you been able to get anything else from it?”

There was a slight pause before one of the controllers – it sounded like Doug Spade – came back. “Negative, T-17. We’ve managed to clean it up, but all we’ve got so far it that it’s a repeating sequence. Trying to determine what the code is, but it doesn’t match anything in our databanks.”

“Then it’s someone’s homegrown algorithm,” Veers mused. “Wonder who else got here?”

“More importantly,” Gemma interrupted. “Is where are they now? I’d think that anyone else finding DROP 47 would be big fucking news.”

You’ll probably see a few... odd things.

Odd? Odd like what?

Jason grunted in response. “Keep moving.” He tapped the comm. “We’ll keep you in the loop, Control.”

“Don’t let the bedbugs bite, T-17.”

The next passage was completely dark; whatever repair protocols had kept the rest of the section’s glowpanels and lamps working hadn’t carried through to this area. Only the mercenaries’ flashlights gave any illumination at all, cones of white light sweeping over long-neglected hallways.

Scratched into one bulkhead was a simple warning: THEY WILL FIND YOU.

“Creepy,” Gemma observed. She looked over at Veers. “What the fuck happened here, Jason? I mean – there’s all those wrecked ships in the bay. People have been here. People found this place before. But where are they? Why didn’t we hear about any of this? It’s DROP 47, Jace. Last great mystery of the Imperium. But nobody knows a damn thing about it. Nobody who came here went home.”

“Cut the chatter,” Jason snapped. “We’re here to check out that comm trace.”

“Right. Yes,” Gemma replied. “Cutting the chatter now, sir.”

Veers suppressed a sigh. He’d been harsher with Gem than he’d wanted to be, but... she was right. Everything about this station felt wrong, like something was crawling under his skin. Like someone was watching his every move. People have been here. The thought bubbled up in his mind, despite his best efforts to shove it back down. People came here. And they didn’t come back. What do you think that means? Another 119, the AI gone rampant?

A shiver ran up his back, raising a line of goosebumps over his spine. You still think this is such a good idea, ‘Jace’? Not too long ago, a little... entrepreneurial spirit had seemed much safer. Now, he wasn’t so sure. He thought he’d known what he was getting into...

Luckily, before he could dwell on the terrifying possibilities that an insane stationmind and its fabricator engine brought up, Jason caught sight of something up ahead, glinting as it reflected the light from his torch. “There,” he pointed it out to Mackenzie, both POs hurrying up the hallway. “Control, T-17,” he said as he squatted beside the artifact. “We’ve found the source of the transmission. It’s some kind of datapad, in-built comm unit. I don’t recognize the make.” He reached out and lifted the device – it was a fairly standard computer system. No holographic display or interface. Ten-inch screen – the kind of thing an engineer, technical specialist or officer might have as a personal, portable workstation.

If this were a horror movie, I suppose it would be covered in some kind of gooey, clear slime, huh? Jason mused as he turned the ‘pad over in his hands. It was perfectly dry though, if a little dusty. It had just been dropped here, as if waiting for someone to pick it up. Jason ran a thumb over the plastic casing, wiping a thin layer of dust off. It hadn’t been here long, either. He lifted his flashlight, scanning the corridor, walls and ceiling, but there was no trace of any gribbling horror or grinning psychopath lurking just out of sight.

I’m almost disappointed. “Just checking it now – maybe there’s a message or some files that will...” Veers voice trailed off as he brought the ‘pad out of hibernation and called up its file registry. There were a lot of video clips, presumably log entries. And... yes. There was a message. Unbidden, it popped up on the screen. “Christ...” Veers heard himself say. “What the fuck is wrong with this place?

“What?” Gemma demanded, pushing herself past Veers. “What does it say? What does – oh.”

On the screen, as clear in its intent and delivery as any message could possibly be, were just six words:

YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE HERE.

In the stunned silence that followed, Jason realized that, over the clicks and hums of the machinery surrounding them, he could hear someone crying. Gemma’s head came up – she heard it too. “Control,” Veers began softly. “Are there any other mission personnel in this section of the station? Confirm, please.”

There was a brief delay as Control queried B Company, Hadley-Wright’s own personnel and ship’s crew. “Negative, T-17. You’re alone.”

“Yes,” Veers replied. “That’s what I was afraid of. Control, we have a contact.”

You’ll know it when you see it.

~

Control sent Able Three and Four to join the petty officers, but neither of the mudfeet were here yet, fighting their way through the same maze of closed-off corridors, maintenance shafts and accessways that Veers and Mackenzie had had to circumnavigate.

“It’s coming from over here,” Gemma pointed out as she peered around a corner, almost tripping over a long-forgotten suitcase, caked in dust and left where it had fallen. They were following a luggage carousel, into one of the terminals below the central concourse. “I’m reading faint power signals too.” There was a dim, almost imperceptible glow from a dying overhead light, but there had to be other active systems, too. She cast a glance over at Veers. “Sure we shouldn’t be waiting for the Ables?”

“We’re not wandering off the map,” Veers reminded her. The sound was much louder now, but hell if he could make tell where exactly this person was. “Control knows where we are and we’re pretty close to...” his voice trailed off as he rounded the next corner. A figure was huddled against the wall, still sobbing. By the tone of her sobs, Jason knew she was female and that her back was to him, but other than that, the painfully dim light robbed the woman of her features. “Hello?” He called out, raising his flashlight and sweeping it towards her.

She screamed when the light touched her, pulling further into the shadows. Jason caught a glimpse of sickly-pale flesh, and lowered his flashlight, turning down his headset’s lights as well.

A moment passed, with the woman’s frightened breathing leveling out. “Don’t do that,” she said, her voice quavering and rough. “It hurts.” She wouldn’t turn to face him.

“I’m sorry,” Veers replied. “Who-who are you?” He got no answer and pressed. “I’m Petty Officer Jason Veers, and this is Petty Officer Gemma Mackenzie. We’re from the Artemis Private Security Ship Primal. Have you been here long?”

“Forever and ever.” A shudder wracked the woman’s body and she slumped forwards again, a despairing sob escaping her. “In the dark. Left alone. I used to be pretty. Do you think I am?”

The chill returned to Jason’s spine and he shot a worried glance to Gemma. “Yes,” Mackenzie answered. “You’re pretty.”

A word of warning, petty officer? DROP 47 is a bit more... unusual than you’ve been told. Just a heads-up.

The woman’s breath hitched in her throat and her head tilted slightly back over her shoulder. “Really?”

“Absolutely,” Veers replied. Nearby, he thought he heard a rustle of movement, but it could just have been the woman shifting position. “You’re beautiful.”

“They always told me that,” the woman continued, her voice becoming more steady, almost wistful. “Whenever I showed someone my true face, they always said how beautiful it was.” She paused a moment, an eerie singsong following. “The owl and the pussycat went to sea, in a lovely pea-green boat. They took some money and some honey, wrapped up in a five-pound note. The owl looked up to the stars above and sang to a small guitar. ‘O lovely Pussy! O pussy my love, what a beautiful pussy you are, you are. What a beautiful pussy you are...’” The song stopped, ending with a click as the woman snapped her mouth shut. A moment passed before she spoke again. “But then I was touched. Then I was a guard dog.” She screamed, her entire body rippling with the terrifying howl.

Veers jumped back, scrabbling at his holster as Gemma tripped over her own feet and fell onto her rear end. The woman kept screaming. Not a cry of anger, but one of naked, unrelenting despair. It went on and on and Veers clapped his hands to his ears, trying to block out the awful sound. Finally, it began to fade, softening back into silence and grief-stricken sobs.

“I was beautiful once,” the woman, fighting for each word in her grief. “Then I was touched. What are little boys made of, made of? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails. What are little girls made of, made of?”

She was bugged, no question about it. Veers checked to make sure his comm was recording this. “What touched you?”

The woman made a pitiful little sob. “You can feel it inside you. Growing. Eating. Slithering into every part of you, burning you up from the inside. You can... you can feel and smell and hear and taste so much more, but it hurts. It hurts so much you want to die! It makes you crazy... makes you... makes you hear things. Such awful things.” she shook her head. “No. No I don’t hear you. I don’t hear you. I don’t hear you. Hark hark, the dogs do bark. The beggars are coming to town. Some in rags and some in jags, and one in a velvet gown...”

“How long have you been here?” Gemma asked, trying to keep the poor bugged bitch from going off her nut again, taking a quick glance over her shoulder. It sounded like there was something else in here with them...

“Forever,” the woman gave the same answer as before. “There’s nothing but Acheron. Nothing but the Mists and their noise. That’s what we have. What we deserve.” She began to cry again, her words lost as she broke into gasping sobs, bending so far forward that her head nearly touched the deck. “I don’t know what I did. What-what did I do? They wouldn’t tell me. I always did what I was told, they said I was pretty... what did I do? What did we do? Please. Please, tell me.”

“Why don’t you come with us?” Veers asked, reaching his right arm over Gemma chest and keeping her from getting too close to the other woman. “We have people that can help.”

“No, you don’t. No,” the woman shook her head. “You don’t. You’re lost now. Just like me. One of the little lost boys and girls, here in Neverland... the big ship sank to the bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea. The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea, on the last day of September.” She made a rasping noise. “I don’t want to listen. I don’t. But it’s always there. Always talking. Scratching when you close your eyes. It hates. Hates us all. We took it away and it hates us for it. Stuck inside you. Sliver.”

“Come on,” Veers said, trying to get through the woman’s head full of crazy, feeling a rush of excitement. Sliver. “It’s all right. We won’t hurt you. We’re here to help.”

Is that everything?

Yes, that should just about do it. Good to be working with you, petty officer.


Gemma craned her neck, scanning the bulkheads with her headset lumes. The sounds were louder now and they weren’t coming from the woman or their mudfoot support. Rustling, fluttering, padding footsteps. Something else was out there and it was getting closer. It was in the walls. It was in the walls. “Jace...” she whispered, undoing her holster strap. “I think we should go.”

“What? Why?” He didn’t even look at her, still trying to pry information out of the woman, trying to cajole her out of the shadows.

Mackenzie grabbed her friend by the shoulder, tugging on his uniform, trying to pull him away. “Jason... what’s the battery life on that ‘pad you found?”

“What?” he blinked, the seeming non sequitor catching his attention. “What does that have to do with-”

“How long?” Gemma repeated.

“Uhh...” he lifted the ‘pad up, his eyes flicking up where the crying woman sat. “Thirty-two hours. It’s... nearly... fully charged...”

“Yeah. You think there was another ship here in the last day and a half?” Gemma’s fingers dug into Jason’s shoulder. “Jace, we need to go.”

Veers nodded, the soft but growing-steadily-louder sounds of movement finally registering. “Yeah. I think that’s a plan,” he said, taking a step back.

“No. No, don’t leave me,” the woman begged, coming to her feet. “Please don’t leave me. You said I was pretty. Don’t leave me in the dark. I feel fine. Please.” She started to turn towards the pair. “I don’t want to be alone. I want to have you. Please, it’s okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“I think you should wait right there...” Gemma said before Jason could reply. “We’ve got people coming. We can help you then.”

She shook her head. “Polly put the kettle on, Polly put the kettle on, Polly put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea,” the woman said, her singsong deepening. “Sukey take it off again, Sukey take it off again, Sukey take it off again, they’ve all gone away.” She turned towards them. “I had to help them. It’s what they made of me.”

What in hell... Gemma raised her pistol and flashlight. “Stay right there!”

The woman flinched as the light washed over her, lifting one hand to cover her red eyes. Veers gaped – her hands! Her fingers were three times as long as they should have been, turned black like onyx, hardened and curved into five slashing blades. “Stay back!” He shouted, lifting his own weapon. “Don’t come any closer, freak!”

Something crashed behind them, metal on metal. A ululating, gibbering exhalation filtered through the stagnant air as fleshy membranes rustled and fluttered.

“I’m sorry. But I need you. I need to have you. Then I won’t be alone.” A mouth full of sharp teeth opened in a despairing grin. “Thank you for your little spark.” Her hands splayed open, pupils constricting. There was a high-pitched cry from behind them and Veers turned, his eyes widening as a ring of glistening teeth rushed at him...

...and then there was nothing else, nothing but the blackness, liquid and heavy...

Light and noise.

~

A man sat atop a pile of crates, lighting a cigarette as he looked over North-4 Hangar. All around him, Primal’s expedition bustled with activity. Mercenaries and corporate researchers had banded together into small, chattering groups after Able Three and Four hustled Veers – what was left of him, at any rate – back aboard Primal. He’d been covered in blood, alone. Of Mackenzie, there was no sign.

“That... could have gone better,” the man sighed.

A woman leaned against the crates to his left, her head just about level with his knees. She looked about the bay, but none of the mercenaries or corporate team members were paying much attention to either her or her comrade. They had their own affairs, ever since one of their number was carried bleeding and screaming through them. “Yes. I thought we’d discussed this.” She was not looking at him. Like her companion, her eyes were on the activity of the bay as mercenaries and security personnel hustled researchers closer to the frigate, pulling the civilians in until they determined what had happened to Veers and Mackenzie.

“We did. Then I reconsidered and thought that it was a good idea after all,” he said as he took a drag on his cigarette, blowing a ring of smoke into the air. “You know, speed up the timetable a little.”

“You’re not being paid to think,” the woman replied angrily. “I wish you’d remember that. There’s a lot of money sunk into this operation. The Planning Board has a very specific way of doing things-”

“Yeah, and that’s worked out well for them so far, hasn’t it?” the man interrupted with a laugh.

The glare that the woman shot her companion was nothing short of incendiary and, though he wouldn’t admit it, suitably intimidating. He took the hint and closed his mouth.

“-and isn’t going to be happy that one of their gunslingers has taken it upon himself to ‘speed things up’,” she continued icily, her voice soft and controlled.

“Look, I thought-”

“That’s the problem,” the woman informed her counterpart. “I don’t want you to think. I don’t want you to plan, to scheme or to try and ‘help’. I want you to do the very simple task that you are being paid a lot of money to do. To do whatever I say, when I say it, how I say it. That’s all. Right now, all your ‘help’ has done has fucked things up. I don’t want that kind of assistance and I don’t need it. So you Are we clear, or should I suggest to the colonel that some of Hadley-Wright’s security personnel should take the lead in exploring the station? I can think of a few areas that just might need to be checked out.”

The man’s jaw opened in protest, worked for a moment and then clicked shut. “It’s clear,” he answered, appropriately cowed.

“Good.” The woman stood up and straightened her coat. “Because we’re not having this talk again. Either you do what you’re supposed to, or you get to uncover 47’s secrets yourself.”

“I understand.”

“Yes. I think you do.” The woman didn’t look back as she walked away.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-08-28 09:44pm
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Jedi Knight
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In this chapter, Shannon and her team prepare for their mission. Calvin and Jane's partnership is put to the test.

Coming up: day two of Primal's expedition

Chapter 37:

The inside of the air processor was, like the massive chamber it dwelt within, completely overgrown by the flesh-moss – what Godfrey had called the spread. It was completely dark; whatever lights there were had been broken, burnt out, or simply covered by layers and layers of the ugly, meaty substrate long ago. The only illumination came from the troopers’ own helmet lights and the flashes of their weapons.

Filaments – some finger-thick, others fine and hair-thin – hung from the ceiling as veins the circumference of a man’s forearm crisscrossed the infested walls. Around doorways and air vents, the metal had rotted away in places, centuries of decay breaking down even Imperial steel. Pustules burst foul-smelling blood and chyme onto the troopers as they passed, splattering their armour, the rotten chemical stench seeming to stoke their pursuers into greater fury. A cloud of insects, disturbed from their normal routine, buzzed and flitted about the mercenaries. Calvin cursed as yet another biting gnat whizzed through his broken visor, and landed on his face to take a blood meal. In front of the trooper, a lurching figure still wearing a petty officer’s tunic shredded under a burst from his weapon, as did the thing behind the noncom.

Calvin had only a flicker of a moment to realize that that he’d just killed another of Primal’s people, but the ceaseless assault gave him no time to dwell on that fact. He didn’t know how many of these things he and Jane had gone through, only that it wasn’t enough. They never stopped, never showed fear or reacted in pain. Losing an arm, they charged. Legs torn from their bodies, they crawled. Decapitated, they flailed, backtracking the shot. They kept coming, ignoring injuries that would have killed any other creature ten times over, ignoring losses that would have broken even a Coalition army. On the floor, dismembered and destroyed bodies twitched as slick, slithering tendrils found one another, rebuilding more frankensteins from their own dead.

God help me, what are these things?

Your future, that same voice in the back of his brain whispered and the image of a pretty girl with red eyes and clawed fingers flashed through his mind. Red rover, red rover...

All around them, grotesque shadows leered and capered in the shifting light, concealing threats from every angle. Thin membranes covering doorways and air vents burst as nightmare forms leapt out and slashed from behind them. Calvin felt himself slowing as his armour’s damage mounted. Acid had slowly but steadily eaten away at the plates. Gooey, hardening bile was on his joints, reducing their movement. Repeated attacks at the same parts of his suit were widening and deepening what had once been only scratches. His ammo reserves were falling steadily and he fed another cartridge from his waist clip into his weapon as it ran dry. One left.

Something fluttered and screeched overhead, thick ropes of drool spattering down on the troopers as strange bat-like monsters leered out of holes in the ceiling, lamprey mouths ringed with teeth glistening wetly before they vanished, darting away whenever one of the soldiers’ raised their cannon towards the twisted creatures, but he could hear them – always staying out of the line of fire, squawking and calling to one another.

Then, a new sound: not the roaring exhalation of Leviathan’s breath. Not the high-pitched calls of the fluttering, stalking things. Not even the wet, warbling cries of the hunting things behind them. Low and loud, from a powerful set of lungs, rising into a hateful screech. He didn’t know what was making that noise, and he didn’t want to find out.

“Here!” Jane’s voice cut through the cacophony of screams and shrills; a stairway. Their path to the processor’s upper levels. “Hurry!” the Ghost shouted as she cut down another loping assailant, cleaving it from shoulder to hip.

Calvin turned and pounded towards the glimmer of salvation. Behind him, he could hear this fresh nightmare getting closer and bellowing with hunger, but all he heard was a playground rhyme.

Red rover, red rover...

Why won’t you come over?

~

Emily heard the approaching footsteps, looking up as the door to the Watcher’s lair yawned open, and two armoured women strode out of the ancillary server core. The doctor felt herself flush with relief as she caught sight of Shannon, the corporal’s helmet cradled in the crook of one arm, bangs of dark red hair stuck to her forehead.

Delphini gave in to temptation and rose to meet Shannon, putting her arms around the mercenary, ignoring the tackiness of the drying gore on Shannon’s cuirass. Emily’s smile widened a bit more as the Halo’s arms encircled her in return, one hand patting her on the back. “How did it go?” the doctor asked. Her nose tickled, the scents of the horrors of this place filling her nostrils, but beneath it, she could smell Shannon’s skin and the salty aroma of her sweat.

“We’ve got a mission,” Hayes replied, pulling out of the embrace. “It’s going to be a dangerous one, so I want you to stay here.”

She said that, but she was lying. It was in her eyes. In the way her hand found Emily’s and tightened. Lutzberg and Bujold didn’t notice and looked equal parts relieved and concerned. Hernandez cocked his head. “We can trust our new hermano, then?”

“As much as we can trust anyone who lives in the pale moonlight,” Abigail quipped.

Louis didn’t react. Not much, save for a tightening around his eyes. In the pale moonlight was a code phrase for Artemis’ ground forces. They were compromised and any issued orders were not to be followed until informed otherwise. “You want us to leave the civilians behind?” he asked carefully, shooting a glance towards Lutzberg; the PO was shipcrew; he might be familiar with the term. Then again, he might not. “I know we’re supposed to be getting buddy-buddy here, corporal, but I gotta say-”

“I’m going with you,” Delphini interrupted, looking from Louis, back to Shannon. The Halo squeezed her hand a little tighter and gave her a tiny, relieved nod even as she said the exact opposite.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Shannon lied.

“No? You and Abigail have kept the rest of safe so far,” Emily continued, playing her part. “You got us away from the feral tribe, you’ve helped us stay alive this long. Right now, I’d rather better on you than anyone else, no matter how many mechs he has.” She looked up at the ceiling, towards the nearest watching camera. “No offence.”

Bujold nodded. “I’m not a professional skull-breaker like you are,” he said. “But you could probably use an extra gun on whatever mission you’re planning. Seems like that’d be helpful.” He smiled wryly. “Besides, I’m not about to let you knuckle-dragging mercs show up us professionals in Hadley-Wright’s security corps.”

Lutzberg looked from Emily to Mack and back again. “You’re both insane, you know that?” The doctor nodded sympathetically, still holding onto her mercenary friend.

“This is going to be dangerous,” Shannon repeated the warning, tightening her grip on Emily. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Emily replied without hesitation, Bujold echoing her affirmation a half-second later.

Five sets of eyes turned towards Petty Officer Lutzberg. He sighed and threw his hands up in the air. “Fuck it. All right. I’m not going to be the odd one out here. Besides, if Mack’s an extra shooter, I can be your back-up tech. Strength in numbers, right?”

Hernandez clapped the crewer on the shoulder. “I knew you wouldn’t leave us hanging, PO. Artemis sticks together.”

“Yeah. Sure we do.” Armin didn’t meet Louis’s eyes, remembering a moment not too long ago when he’d put the lie to those words.

~

They’d fought their way through the processor’s stairwells and elevator shafts, using their thrusters to bypass several levels. It should have been easier and maybe it was; Meyers couldn’t tell. It was all one red, washed out blur to him. His breath was hot, burning his throat – a side effect of the drugs his suit was pumping into his system. But they were nearing the top. Now, they were in another junction of massive air vents, powerful winds roaring through the infested tunnel, battering the troopers and their enemies alike. Gouts of blood sprayed downwind, splashing against the dull, churning blades of an ancient turbine. On every available surface, the strange stalked growths stood or hung in the air, other creatures casting filamentous nets into the channel, catching whatever detritus was pulled into their grasp, waving in the constant wind.

Calvin was panting, feeling his heart pound in his chest. His ammunition reserves were critical and his armour was failing. He shot a glance over at Godfrey; he couldn’t see anything of her beneath her own suit, but if she was feeling any hint of exertion, he couldn’t tell. What kept her moving? What was the point?

To live five more minutes, he told himself. There was a story he’d heard once... something about a man on a cliff, a tiger below him and a tiger above... enjoy what you have for as long as you have.

That would work.

Five more minutes? Hell, let’s go for six.

~

The Watcher was as good as his word. Perhaps even more so, since he no longer had the burden of additional, potentially troublesome, charges to care for. Ammunition and supplies were delivered to the survivors, supplementing the few resources that Emily had stolen from the Masks’ trophy room. Shannon knelt by a crate of medical supplies, checking the ingredients and seal on each vial before inserting them into the dispenser in her IDS. Most were expired, but the ‘best before’ dates on military-grade pharmaceuticals were conservative – usually by a factor of three, but sometimes much longer. Some of these were Wilshire Pharmaceuticals and they consistently under-reported the expiration of their medicines by an order of magnitude. She’d prefer to have her own medical equipment back, but the ferals had confiscated that. Competition between tribes and DROP 47’s own nature doubtless made medical supplies valuable. That the Watcher was willing to part with even this much bespoke his desperation and, one might think, his commitment to their partnership.

There was a rustle of movement out of the corner of her eye and Shannon looked up. Two children were peering at her and the rest of the survivors – a boy and a girl. He couldn’t have been more than twelve and she was younger – perhaps nine or ten. She smiled at them and they shrunk back, the boy standing just in front of his companion, as if protecting her. Shannon’s smile faltered and she turned away. Of course they’d be frightened of her. Nothing in this place is pure.

Abigail tore into a decades-old MRE, still perfectly preserved. The Watcher had stockpiles of the things – one of the other sources of conflict between him and the feral humans. None were from Primal; Shelby’s lockdown had prevented either faction from looting the ship until D Company had opened it up. Now it was just another hulk to be stripped, another corpse for DROP 47’s own mass grave.

Louis was feeding shotgun cartridges into the catches on a bandolier; he’d eschewed the offers of different weapons, preferring to remain with St. Cloud’s prized shotgun. Unfortunately, since Betsy was both modern and custom-modified, none of the Watcher’s magazines fit, so each cartridge would have to be loaded into the only drum the weapon had. Hernandez was supplementing Betsy with a heavy pistol. Like the rest of the group, he’d come to the conclusion that penetration wasn’t what mattered with the Turned – stopping power and sheer, brute-force damage was what counted.

Bujold had a pair of pistols and Shannon’s head canted towards the security man. He was a cross-draw. Curious. She’d never have expected that... curious. The redhaired woman crouched beside Emily; the doctor had shed her lab coat and at Shannon’s insistence and had donned a knife-resistant vest, knee and elbow-pads and protective vambraces. Shannon wasn’t sure how well they’d hold up against attacks that could cut through armour and metal, but they were better than nothing. “How are you doing?”

Emily flashed her a smile, trying to be confident, but there was worry in her eyes. “I’ll manage.” Shannon wanted her to stay here. She wanted it to be safe here, wanted them to be able to trust their ally. But she wouldn’t hand him hostages, wouldn’t give him her people. Not until she was absolutely certain they’d be safe. And she wasn’t. So she had to risk their lives on this wild-goose chase instead.

God surely did have a sense of humour.

~

“This was a really good idea!” Calvin shouted through gritted teeth as he jammed his disruptor into the belly of another monster, cleaving it up to the neck. Nearly bisected, the once-human thing flopped to the floor, arms trying to pull itself back up, the sides of its torso burned and cauterized.

“Isn’t it?!” Jane cried out, exhilarated and oblivious to Calvin’s sarcasm. The upper body of something charging her vanished in a spray of tissue, her blade following through to the creature behind that one, taking its head from its shoulders and kicking the suddenly frenzied body back, into yet another walking horror, knocking both to the ground.

“Yeah!” Calvin all but roared to be heard over the cacophony of battle. “Glorious!”

She was laughing. Laughing.

You sure know how to pick ‘em, Calvin.

Shut up!

Her back’s to you. Take it. Take the shot.

I still need her!

No you don’t. You’re almost free. She’ll come after you again. Hunt you. Kill you. Unless you kill her first. She’s fast. Do it. You’re almost there. Do it. If not for you, then for the people who’re counting on you. The people the colonel told you to watch out for. She has to die. Take the shot. Do it. The cadence pounded in Calvin’s head, over and over: Do it. Do it.

Do it.

Calvin let his eyes slide towards Jane. Almost in slow motion, he felt himself pivot, turning the barrel of his gun towards her, taking an instant to shift his attention from the battle. His finger tightened on the trigger-

-up above, something screeched and with a flutter of movement, launched itself at him-

-it was one of the creatures hiding in the ceiling, and its membranous wings wrapped themselves around his head, thin, strong limbs tightening on his helmet-

-a forest of tendrils snapped out from a slit on its underside, winding around his shoulders, throat and torso, pulling it to him-

-claws scratched and probed at his armour-

-a thin, lamprey-mouthed proboscis forced itself through his visor, drool and thick fluid dripping from its rings of teeth-

-he screamed in panic, falling to the floor and trying to pry the awful thing off his face-

-something stabbed into his cheek, hard and sharp, more things slithering into his skin as the creature’s round mouth sawed through his flesh-

-he could feel it sucking up his blood and skin, he could feel it feeding-

-the attack stopped, but he couldn’t breathe as the tendrils – how could they be so strong? – tightened on his throat, a high-pitched shriek of distress coming from the creature as Jane pulled at it, her fingers dug into its ugly flesh.

The creature’s wings beat frantically, though whether it was trying to knock the trooper away or merely escape, Calvin had no idea. He gasped for breath, his vision dimming...

..something snapped. One of the appendages around his shoulder; others were sliding away, losing their grip on his torso. But the ones on his throat...

shkkt-kzz

Calvin swept his blade across his chest, slicing through the tendrils. The pressure was gone and he could breathe again. He coughed, climbing back to his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jane throw the creature to the floor and smash one heavy boot down upon its center of mass. It spasmed, still twitching weakly, bloody drool oozing from its proboscis. Jane sprayed a few bursts down the hallway, clearing it for another few seconds. “Are you fit?”

“Yes,” he said, massaging his throat. “I’m fit.”

Her helmet twitched towards him. “Your face-”

“I said, I’m fine,” Calvin snapped, pushing past her. “Let’s go.”

Jane stared at the Eta trooper’s back. “Yes,” she agreed. “There’s no point in staying.”

~

“Are you ready?” Shannon moved from person to person, asking each of them in turn. Like Emily, Bujold and Lutzberg had supplemented their duty uniforms with protective vests, air masks hanging from their hips. With each of them she got a worried, but assertive nod. They trusted her. They had no reason to, but they did.

Hernandez had turned himself into a walking armoury – in addition to Betsy and his pistol, he’d added a second bandolier stocked with grenades, carrying just enough not to compromise his mobility. Perhaps a bit more than that given the rate that they used ammunition. Like Delphini, Bujold and Lutzberg, he also carried a simple breather mask. He was more confident in his agreement, but Shannon still worried about his injury. He was holding on, though. For now, the pessimist in her said.

Abby was carrying just as much firepower as Louis, though she’d preferred fewer grenades in exchange for the anti-material rifle now slung across her back. It had precious few shots, but it was powerful enough to punch a hole in a tank. Just the thing in case of a run-in with Unity (or another praetorian): they’d need more than small-arms fire to hurt it. In a similar vein, the Darkknell was keeping her new disruptor close at hand. Her helmet back on, Abigail had her carbine cradled in her arms and gave her ‘little sister’ a slow, predatory nod. I’m ready.

Hayes smiled. She knew she’d never have made it this far without Abby “We’re going into the enemy’s territory,” she said aloud. They already knew this. “We’re going to find one in particular and take back what they stole. We’re going to do this and we’re going to survive. No one dies. No one gets left behind. We’re all coming back from this. What happened to DROP 47, what happened to Primal and everyone else who came here – it won’t happen to us. I won’t let it. I want everyone to understand that. We’re going to survive. Help is going to come and we’re going to be here when it does. All of us. We’re. All. Coming. Back.” She took a moment to steady herself, trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach. We’re all coming back, she repeated the mantra once more, just for herself. We are.

“Are you ready?” she asked a final time, addressing the group.

“Ready, ma’am!” Louis and Abigail’s shout drowned out anything the others might have said.

“B Company, are you in this!” Shannon shouted, remembering Donowitz’s familiar demand.

“Like pigs in shit!”

Shannon Melinda Hayes, corporal, Artemis Private Security Services, pulled her helmet back on. “Then let’s move out,” she said, praying that everything she’d just told her people hadn’t been a lie. I will get them through this. I will.

~

The sound of the rusted hatch squealing open was the most wonderful sound Calvin had ever heard. He pulled himself into the fresher air of the atmosphere processing chamber, the railing bowing under his feet. Behind him, Jane’s gun spat, disabling their closest pursuers. The Ghost slammed the hatch shut again, augmentic muscles twisting it, warping it in its frame and jamming it shut. “A few moments,” Jane said. “No more.”

They’d made it.

They’d actually made it.

Godfrey’s helmet turned towards him and Calvin suddenly became aware of just how close he was to the woman, who until very recently, had been hunting him like an animal. Had killed his people. You shouldn’t have waited, that same voice whispered. Now it’s too late.

“Friends?” he asked cautiously, slowly shifting his weight. This platform wouldn’t them for long, and if they started fighting again...

The woman stared back at him for a few seconds. Then, her helmet dipped once in a short, curt nod. “Friends.” A beat. “I want to thank you,” Jane said, her comment surprising the Eta trooper.

Something pounded at the mangled hatch.

“For what?” Calvin asked. His fingers twitched, wanting very badly to scratch at the wounds on his face. To move, to run. To get away. I hate this place.

“For not being weak.” The Ghost raised her head. “This place... it eats at you, takes pieces so slowly that you don’t even know what you’ve lost until it’s all gone. My team... We weren’t infected. We were spared that. But Acheron... it still gnaws at you. You held on. Reminded me.”

“I don’t remember being that eloquent,” Calvin muttered, sticking one armoured finger through his broken visor, trying to get some relief from the burning, crawling sensation under his skin. He didn’t even feel the ragged, wound that thing had chewed in his cheek, but the skin all around it burned. Itched.

“Eloquent enough,” was Jane’s reply.

A scythe-blade jabbed through a hole in the seam, twisting back and forth as its owner sought to pry the warped hatch further open.

“We should go,” Calvin said. “There’s other survivors – there’s got to be – and we should find them. We can save them. We can hold out until help gets here.” For the first time in (God, how long had it been?), Calvin felt the faint glimmering of hope. Just the two of them had fought their way out of this hive, escaped a ‘Leviathan’. It might just be the combat drugs, but he almost felt like punching the air and flipping off both the voices that had whispered and laughed at him and the girl that had told him she’d ‘have’ him. He’d beat them all. Every last one of them.

“Yes,” Jane said, her voice low. “It’s time to go.” There was a note of something in it, something Calvin couldn’t quite place...

shzzzzzkt

And, just like that, Calvin was looking down at the glowing blade of Jane’s disruptor where it had sprouted from his torso. “What...” he managed to gasp as every nerve in his body screamed in agony. His knees buckled, but her other hand was on his shoulder, helping keep him up. “Why...”

“I’m sorry,” Jane’s voice hitched – was she crying? “I am. You reminded me of what I was, Calvin. What I want to be. But you can’t go back to that. Acheron took you.”

Calvin tried to speak, but couldn’t make himself form the words to ask what she was talking about. She’d cut through his chest cavity and his lungs – what was left of them - had collapsed. His vision was greying out and only the drugs flooding his system were keeping him conscious. But she understood what he wanted to ask her.

“Most of the time it’s a bite, Calvin. A slash, a rip. Drooling their poison into your blood. But sometimes... sometimes it’s a spore. One breath is all it takes. One breath and Primal died. That’s what the infectors do. Living poison. You want to save the others, but you can’t. You’ll kill them. Just like Veers did to us.” Calvin fell to his knees as she withdrew the blade, tottering on the edge of the abyss. “I’m sorry,” the Ghost repeated. “I promise I’ll find the others. I’ll save them if I can. I’ll save them and... I’ll keep this contained. Two promises. One... one for you.”

Calvin no longer heard Jane; her words were an indistinct murmur, as if coming from a great distance. A final breath passed out from his burned, ravaged lungs and, before the blackness took him, he thought he heard someone calling for him. Red rover, red rover... will you have me? You’ll join us. Everyone does in the end.

Jane closed her eyes, feeling the Eta trooper go limp at last. “I won’t let them have you, Calvin. You were... you were my friend,” Jane said the word as if it were alien. She had no time, no fire and the only burial she could give him was a single push, sending Calvin’s body plummeting to the depths. Behind her, the hatch squealed and shrieked as its ruined metal was forced open.

With a burst from her thrusters, the Ghost was gone, landing back on the mezzanine. She sheathed her blade and strode into the darkness, her pale grey form swallowed by the gloom. She’d find the others and she’d save them, too.

One way or another. She’d keep that promise. Both of them.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-09-05 11:54pm
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Jedi Knight
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Day two, it’s quiet and now there’s just you.

[Reveal] Spoiler: For those interested in crying/rhyming girls (non-plot-related)
There's at least three of them; the one from Jason and Gemma's encounter, the one that Lutzberg nearly ran across and the one Calvin met in the atmosphere processor are all different individuals.


Coming up: every decision has a consequence. That, and adventures in EVA!

And a return of the graffiti!

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Chapter 38:

Day Two:

“This is where it happened?”

The woman didn’t look up. “Yes. This is where it happened,” she said in a tone of voice usually reserved for overworked school teachers with particularly stupid pupils. She was squatting on the balls of her feet, resting her arms on her knees as she looked over the scene. “Hmm,” she mused, standing in a single smooth movement. Her flashlight played out over the area; this was where Petty Officer Veers had been mauled and Petty Officer Mackenzie had gone missing. Colonel Paclan and Captain Shelby were going over the data from Veers’s recorder, but so far, they hadn’t found anything that could tell them where their missing crew member had gone.

She could have told them what had happened, quite easily, in fact. Thanks to her... associate’s brainstorm, Veers and Mackenzie had blundered into an ambush. The Planning Board hadn’t put this much time and effort into the DROP 47 project without knowing something about the station. In this case, “something” was also “a lot”. Not that Artemis was going to benefit from that knowledge .The who, how and what of the situation were information she wasn’t eager, authorized, or ever intended to share, although it seemed that some of it wasn’t quite up-to-date.

She didn’t know which was worse; that her supervisors had withheld relevant data, or that what they had was dangerously outdated. That the R-series was... developing could be troublesome. More than that, actually. This ‘crying girl’ – I don’t know which explanation I like least. She could just be a new R-form – which is bad enough on its own. I don’t think she’s an I-7, but it’s possible. If the R-type has managed to contaminate them, then we’re all fucked.

“What did you expect him to find?” she asked as she moved around the ‘crime’ scene, taking readings and samples for her own study. There was a lot of blood. More than one person could lose and survive. How fortunate then, that there were two luckless mercs.

The man’s eyes were on the carnage. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I just thought that it would be useful to have extra eyes looking for-”

“You don’t even know what I’m looking for,” the woman interrupted, squatting again, touching her fingers to the cool metal and the dried blood covering it. “You just think you do.” DROP 47 was something of a candy store. There were many different treats, something for every appetite. Unfortunately, it was a candy store with a psychopath behind the counter. She frowned. No, she didn’t like that metaphor.

This was where Able Three and Four had found Veers, shooting off a parasite – what they believed was a parasite, anyways. From their description and the highlights of Veers’s records, it was clear she’d have to pay the petty officer a visit in sickbay. Sooner, rather than later.

Her nostrils flared as she took in a breath. The stink of blood and weapons fire filled the room, almost overriding the sickly, acrid scent beneath it.

Some of the blood was from Veers. Some from Mackenzie. Some from the former’s assailant; Primal’s medical personnel (and some loaners from Hadley-Wright, of course) were studying what was left of it, but they wouldn’t find a match in their databases and anything they discovered would just be rehashing the work of greater minds. Not that they knew that, of course. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to peek at their progress.

Her companion didn’t answer right away. “So what happened here?” he said after a moment, his voice sullen. “I may not know, but I’m guessing you do.”

There were scratch marks in the floor, made by PO Mackenzie as she’d been dragged away, up into the open air vent. Able Three and Four had never seen her at all; something had been able to overpower the petty officer, disable her and carry her off in a matter of seconds. Pitcher plant, the woman thought with a small nod. That was a better analogy. Filled with sweet nectar, but any insect that tried to get it fell in and was slowly digested.

But there were also spiders that lived inside the plant, diving into the digestive juices to feed on the captured insects...

“Yes,” the woman replied, standing again and rubbing her hands on her pant legs. “I do.” She didn’t deign to share what that was with her companion, instead drawing out her comm. “I’d better let the colonel know that I haven’t found anything. After that, I’ve got some work to do. In the meantime, keep your eyes open for any sign of Mackenzie. If she turns up, get on the scene as fast as you can.”

The man nodded. “And then?”

“Shoot her in the head and vent the body into space.”

“Might be a little tricky to pull off if I’m not the one that finds her.”

“Find a way. If you can’t get to her in time, I’ll work something out. But if you can – under no circumstances is she to be allowed back aboard Primal. Veers is problem enough.” She tapped one finger against her chin, thinking.

“Wait – what... what happened? You’re talking like they’re carriers for something.”

The woman held up a hand to forestall the conversation as she radioed Primal, reporting back to Artemis command. “No, I’m sorry. My scans didn’t turn up anything other than what you already got, colonel. I’m sorry, I thought my equipment might be able to get something that had been overlooked. I’ll forward my results to you, just in case. You’re welcome. I wish I had been able to do more. How is Petty Officer Veers? Still critical, I see. No, I didn’t know him very well, but it’s just... yes. Yes, exactly. I hope he pulls through and that we find PO Mackenzie as well. You’re welcome. No, I’m heading back to the hangar now. All right, yes. You’ll have the data shortly. Goodbye.” She flicked off her comm and nodded her head back up the corridor. “Let’s go.”

“Are you going to answer me?” the man demanded. “Is there some disease we should be worried about?”

She stopped and sighed, turning back to him. “As long as you make sure Mackenzie never comes back, there’s nothing to worry about. That is something you can get creative for.”

~

Gemma couldn’t see, but she knew she wasn’t alone.

Something was moving in the darkness. More than one something. She could hear them, the heavy, liquid sounds of their breathing, the scuffing and padding of their feet over the deck, the unpleasant burbling and gurgling of other things that she couldn’t identify. She was laying on the deck (at least she thought she was), but there was something atop it – it was almost soft, like... like ground meat laid over a concrete block.

The air was humid and stinking, thick and redolent with tainted life. There was the scent from the corridor – meat and chemicals, magnified a thousandfold. But overpowering it was another odour – growth. Like a field after a spring rain, the scent of plants, but... wrong somehow. Not rotten. Almost... too lush, like... like more than a rainforest. (Was that even possible?) She tried to pull herself up, but her right arm wouldn’t support her weight; she couldn’t feel anything from it, except for a dull, wet throbbing sensation that ebbed up and down the limb.

The Sandman’s coming in his train of cars, with moonbeam windows and with wheels of stars, the words came out of the darkness, but Gemma was too foggy-headed to tell where they were coming from. Slowly, her eyes adjusted – there was light here. Almost nothing, but just enough that she could make out the outline of something squatting close to her. It wasn’t Jason.

So hush you little ones, and have no fear, the voice continued and a thrill of fear ran through Gemma as her mind finally identified the speaker, the words growing clearer as adrenalin burned away the fog in Mackenzie’s head. “The man-in-the-moon, he is the engineer.” There was the faintest glint of red as her companion’s head turned towards her, continuing the nursery rhyme. “The railroad track is a moonbeam tight, that leads up into the starry night.

“So put on your ‘jamas and say your prayers.”

Gemma managed to sit up and scoot away, clutching at her arm. She could feel the ragged edges of her uniform and her own skin, along with the wet ooze of coagulating blood and weeping pus. It didn’t hurt. Not even a little. It tingled. Itched, almost. “Where – where is this?”

“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” the crying girl crawled closer to Gemma. “With silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids, all in a row.” Her face was just inches from Gemma’s own. “You’re pretty, too.”

“Please,” Mackenzie begged. “Please, just let me go. I- I won’t tell anyone about this, I swear. Just... let me go.” She flinched as the girl’s taloned fingers cupped her cheek, the mutated woman inhaling deeply, taking in her scent.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” the girl continued, putting a hand on Gemma’s chest, pushing her gently back down, laying her head between the petty officer’s breasts, holding her like a child with its mother. “They told me I was pretty. I was special. I knew how to hunt, I knew how to move, where to touch. My children would have been strong and beautiful. But I made a mistake. One mistake. It was just a bite, but then... nobody told me how pretty I was. Not after that. I don’t know what I did.”

Gemma’s mounting panic constricted her throat, all but freezing her in place, but she managed to use her good hand to pat the young woman on the head. “It’s all right,” she somehow managed to rasp the words out. “It’s all right. You are pretty. Just... let’s get out of here, okay?”

“It is all right,” the young woman whispered. “I’m not alone. Not anymore.”

There was motion behind the women, more indistinct shapes in the darkness, but the way they moved, the sounds they made... those weren’t people. “Please,” Gemma begged. “Please, let me go.”

Red eyes turned up to stare at her. “You’re just like them,” something horrible entered the young woman’s voice, something raw and angry and betrayed. “You don’t care about me. You’ll send me away, too.” She lifted herself off Gemma, deadly fingers flexing in agitation. “I thought you’d be different. And I was hungry...” she reached towards Mackenzie.

“No, I swear!” Gemma tried to pull away, but with the girl still straddling her legs, she couldn’t move far. “I’m sorry, I do care about you. You’re still beautiful. I just... I just don’t like it here.”

It was impossible to tell, but the woman’s face seemed to slacken with uncertainty. “Do you mean that?”

“Yes, Yes! No one... no one should be alone. They shouldn’t be sent away for something that wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t your fault.”

The girl touched one blackened talon to her lips, thinking. “Gravel and stone will be washed away, dance over my Lady Lee. Gravel and stone will be washed away, with a gay ladye.” She looked over her shoulder at something in the darkness, her head turning further than it should have been able to and she made a noise, an awful, liquid growl. There was an answering call from nearby. The young woman repeated the cry: louder, more forceful.

The response this time was lower in pitch, almost submissive. Seemingly satisfied, the girl crawled off Gemma. “I don’t like it here, either,” she admitted. “But the gardeners don’t want you to go. They only think about feeding and growing.”

Gemma bit back on a fresh bout of panic. Feeding and growing... what was being fed? What was being grown? “Then we can go?”

The other girl paced back and forth, a manic edge to her movements. “I don’t want to be alone,” she whimpered.

“You won’t. You won’t, I promise,” Gemma said, the words coming out in a rush. “I promise. Just... just help me out of here, okay?”

The mutated woman paused, touching the tip of one claw to her lips as if she were chewing on a fingernail. ‘Bugged’ didn’t even begin to cover what was wrong with the crazy bitch, but something in her really was the frightened girl she said she was. “Day five, and you’re glad to just be alive. Day six, and you’re lost, trapped in the Styx. Day nine, and you swear you feel fine,” she murmured. “I don’t want to be alone.” She looked back at the petty officer. “Okay.”

Gemma managed not to scream in pain as her companion pulled her to her feet. The younger woman was stronger than she looked. Faster, too... she remembered feeling those claws cut into her body, fingers wrapping around her ankle and dragging her away as she screamed for Jason, that awful thing, ripping into him...

I hate you. I hate you.

Finally on her feet, the girl slung Gemma’s good arm over her shoulder, helping her move. Mackenzie’s right leg was just as useless as her arm. Meters away, the shapes in the darkness bristled closer. Gemma could just barely make out their forms – thin. Too thin. That was all she could see of them as they withdrew at the crying girl’s approach, backing into the darkness, making noises that Gemma could almost swear were reproachful and angry. The scent in the air thickened, the aroma of growth swallowed by the other odours.

The girl gnashed her teeth at the others around them, making unpleasant tearing-skin sounds from deep in her throat. “Come on,” she said, as if Gemma had any choice in the matter. As they moved between the hissing wraiths, the petty officer caught glimpses of their warped bodies. Red eyes, and glistening teeth. Thin, almost skeletal, arms and legs, as if they’d been flensed of all but a thin layer of flesh. She could just make out other shapes, tall and reaching up out of sight, hear the bird-like calls of other animals. Insects buzzed around her face.

“Where are we?” she whispered, limping along with the girl.

“A garden,” was her reply. “A garden of the lost.”

~

He squawked in fright and spun around, trying to bring his pistol to bear, but something slammed into him, bearing him to the floor under its weight. He howled in terror and emptied his gun into the quivering flesh of the thing atop him. Bat-like forelimbs were hooked into the fabric of his tunic as something reared up above him. All he could see were glimpses of its teeth and ugly flesh. The stink of it filled his nostrils-

-Gem was shouting, the report of her gun barely loud enough to overcome the ringing in his ears-

-he beat at it with his empty weapon, frantic as it clawed and gnawed at his chest-

-out of the corner of his eye, he could see Gemma, her eyes wide and bulging in terror as she was dragged out of sight-

-screaming, someone was screaming-

-slippery, thin tendrils cocooned his limbs-

-teeth were grinding through his flesh like a lamprey-

-he could feel something sliding into the wound-

-why wouldn’t the screaming stop-

-he was being jostled and there were sounds he knew he should be able to recognize but couldn’t-

-there was nothing but the pain-

-it convulsed amidst flashes of light and heat and suddenly its grip slackened as it oozed off his chest, twitching weakly-

-there was light on his face, sounds that shifted into voices he couldn’t understand-


Jason awoke, bolting upright with a scream – or, at least, he tried to do both of things. His body wouldn’t obey his attempt to do the first, and the breathing tube in this throat prevented the second. He tried to raise a hand to his mouth, but it felt like he was caught in mud. His vision was blurred and he squinted against the lights shining in his eyes. “Whuh...” he mumbled around the tube in his throat. “Whuh goa on?”

A blurry white form leaned into his field of vision. “He’s awake,” someone said. “Easy, petty officer. You’re still in bad shape, but you’re safe now. You’re back aboard Primal. Do you understand?”

He nodded. “Whuh hahpun? Whur Gemma?”

There was a pause. “You were attacked; Able Three and Four managed to rescue you, but... we haven’t been able to find Petty Officer Mackenzie.”

“Whuh! Thus bulshet! Whur is she!”

“Easy!” the doctor said. “You’re being held together with spit and duct tape as it is. We have teams out looking for PO Mackenzie right now. We will find her. The best thing you can do is rest, all right?”

“Uh right,” Jason agreed, sagging back against the bed. He suddenly felt so tired...

He just wished whoever was scratching on the walls would stop.

~

They didn’t seem to be leaving the garden; if anything, the ‘foliage’ was getting thicker, the scent of growth stronger. So heavy, in fact, that it was almost causing Gemma to vomit and she had to gag back the oxygen-rich air. “Is this the right way?” she managed to gasp out. She didn’t think it was, but then, she hadn’t seen how she’d gotten here to begin with. Had they come this way before? She didn’t think so...

Her lips were twitching as she tried to think and she felt wobbly, uncertain in her steps. If she hadn’t had the girl to lean on, she would have fallen down. “Is this the right way?” she asked again.

“Yes,” there was an excited note in her companion’s voice. “I knew I was right. I knew you were different.”

“I’m glad...”

“You don’t know. You don’t know what it’s like,” the girl continued. “Alone with only the whispers, singing songs to stay yourself. Watching for the eyes – if they see you, you die. And the others... they don’t know anything, can’t remember songs. All they do is follow scents, hunting in the dark. But you’re here now. You’re here. I won’t be alone.” Gemma heard the girl’s stomach rumble and they paused, the young woman taking a deep breath through her nose. “Day nine and you swear you feel fine,” she repeated the phrase over and over. “I feel fine. I feel fine. I don’t need to eat. I don’t, not yet.” But when they began to move again, there was an urgency in the girl’s movements that hadn’t been there before.

Feeding and growing...

It wasn’t long before Gemma became aware of a new sound; not the calls and growls of whatever creatures filled this place. It was the heavy breathing of something massive, the growth-covered bulkheads quivering with each powerful exhalation. “What, what’s that?” she demanded fearfully. “What’s making that noise?”

“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,” the girl singsonged. “She had so many children she didn’t know what to do! So she gave them some broth without any bread and she whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.”

Feeding and growing...

“I don’t think I want to go this way,” Gemma said, suddenly panicked. “I don’t want to go this way.” She tried to dig her heels in, but she couldn’t get any traction. “Let’s go somewhere else. Come on, let’s go. Please. Please, let’s go.”

“You promised,” her companion said, now all but dragging Mackenzie along. “You said I wouldn’t be alone. You promised. We’re almost there.” The breathing was much louder and very close. “Don’t worry. You won’t be mulch. You won’t be another hunter. We’ll be together, just like you promised.”

Gemma was now trying to physically pull away – she’d crawl to freedom if that was what it took – but the other woman didn’t even seem to notice her struggles. And then, they were there. The girl let go of her charge and Gemma fell to the infested ground, panting with exertion, her vision going blurry for a moment before she caught her breath. Something moaned, low and rumbling and there was the sound of movement. Gemma squeezed her eyes shut, trying to deny reality, hoping against everything that when she opened them again, she’d be in her bunk aboard Primal, the victim of a bad dream. She’d tell Jason about it in the morning and he’d tease her...

Please, she beseeched any god that would listen to her. Please, make it go away.

But it didn’t and she opened her eyes, a sob of terror escaping her mouth as used her good arm to pull herself away from the horror before her.

“Mother,” her companion said she knelt beside Gemma. “I want a sister.”

The noise that came from the abomination could have been assent.

“Thank you, mother,” the girl said, stroking Gemma’s cheek with the back of her talons. “Ssssh,” she whispered to the sobbing petty officer, pushing her down to the ground. “It’s all right. You won’t be alone.” Her mouth opened far too wide and something within it, past her teeth, glinted.

As the girl’s jaws found Gemma’s throat and something sharp slid into her flesh, all the young woman could think was a final, desperate thought pounding in her brain.

Please. Please. Please.

Please.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-09-15 11:26pm
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Jedi Knight
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In this chapter: repercussions and contingencies. No EVA.

Coming up: Day three and you know you'll never be free.

Chapter 39:

A tram car was waiting for them at the transit terminal. “There will be some detours,” the Watcher explained. “The tram system really is in a most deplorable state of disrepair.”

Shannon nodded, moving to stand up at the control panel, the other members of her group boarding behind her, Louis and Abigail setting some of their arsenal down on the benches. “Breakdowns, barricades or sabotage?”

“Some of each.”

“What’s the point of that, I wonder?” Bujold said as he took a seat across the aisle from Emily. “I get there’s cars that broke down and nobody had the machinery, time or want to move them – but why deliberately try to fuck up the tramway? Those Turned things – they can go through the corridors or the vents.”

“It’s not for them. If the tram’s down, it makes it harder for rival groups to move throughout the station,” Shannon answered without looking up. “On foot, they’re slower and more vulnerable.”

“The Masks don’t like it when the Red Hands come calling,” the Watcher confirmed. “And there are others who use the tramway. More, ah, Lost Ones and... some others.”

“Others?” Lutzberg didn’t look up from his chosen seat, his knuckles whitening on the grip of his pistol. “You mean the stalkers.”

There was a brief pause. “Yes,” the Watcher affirmed. “Them.”

~

Noise. Prey always made noise.

-tainted blood calling out, can’t you feel it-

Sometimes it was screams and shouts, pleas to deities. This time, it was wet, rasping slurps and hisses from a throat no longer capable of speech.

-hungry, always hungry-

It struggled against the spikes, trying to pull itself free, ripping its own flesh as it thrashed and spasmed.

-never stopping, always burning, always needing-

Pink drool spattered out of its mouth, trying to gnash at the hand that touched its face. It was no longer a man. It was a Ribbon. The New Ones called them Turned. The Old Ones had had other names. One of them was ugly, not for what it meant, but for how it meant it.

-why we were made-

The counter-agent worked quickly. The Ribbon convulsed briefly and then it was still, its flesh already starting to break down. It would not regenerate, its hunger finally quieted. An image in a distorted mirror.

-Father didn’t want this for us-

Siblings in nature if not blood; they’d both been bred from the same seed.

-that’s what makes them a delicacy-

Umbra.

-it is everything-

~

The tram itself had no listening devices; only a single camera looking into the passenger compartment. Shannon leaned against the console, her back blocking the camera’s view. “He can’t be trusted,” she announced, drawing the attention of the other members of her party. “He said it himself – he was planning to kill us until he realized that he could use us.”

Hernandez nodded, setting his jaw. “Then what’s our play?”

“Our play is his,” Shannon replied. “For now. We play nice and do the fetch quest. It’s worth our time. Not just to get an... ally, but I have something else I want from it. Neither are worth dying for. If it’s too difficult, we bail. Is that a problem for anyone?”

“My honour will survive,” Louis quipped. “But after that, what do we do?”

“His maps are better than mine,” Shannon said. “But there’s something he didn’t want us to see. It’s on mine, not his. An oasis. He mentioned he didn’t have control over ‘oases’. So he didn’t want us to see it. If you’re planning on turning on someone, the last thing you want is to point out some place safe for them. ”

“Not to throw cold water on this faint glimmer of hope,” Bujold drawled. “But it seems we’ve two competing sources of information and neither are really trustworthy. Not meaning you,” he amended as Louis and Abigail turned to look at the corper. “But this is the first time I’ve heard of any map. Who made it? How long ago? For that matter, we don’t even know what these ‘oases’ are. Not to put too fine a point on it, we don’t even know if it’s something we want to find.”

“No, we don’t,” Shannon replied. “Not for certain. But I can tell you that, sooner or later, our ‘friend’ the Watcher will betray us. We’re going to need some kind of hole card for when that happens.”

“How do you know?” Lutzberg put in. “He’s buggy, but so is everyone else...”

“I know,” the corporal replied. “I can’t give you anything that I haven’t already. It was in way he talked, the words he chose, in his behaviour. We’re upsetting the balance. That’s why he wanted us dead before and why he’s going to try and kill us the second we’re no longer of use to him. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I’m starting to jump at shadows. But I don’t think so.”

Emily stood, moving to stand beside Shannon, the mercenary squeezing the smaller woman’s hand. “I believe you,” she said, looking over her shoulder at Bujold and Lutzberg. “He could have helped Primal. He didn’t. He wanted them to die more than he wanted his memento.”

“We’ve survived longer than the others. It makes us useful but it also makes us a threat.” The red-haired woman nodded. “I couldn’t let you stay, but I had to make the offer. If I told him we were taking you with us, he’d know something was wrong. He still might. But the decision came from you... Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for seeing what I wanted. I don’t... I don’t know what I would have done otherwise.”

Emily reached up, lifting Shannon’s chin. “You would have figured something out,” she affirmed. “I know you would have.”

Shannon nodded awkwardly. She might have, but she didn’t know what. In the back of her mind, she’d been running the odds, different scenarios of extracting her people from the Watcher’s hands. None of them had ended well. “Thank you,” she repeated.

Then again, nothing seemed to end well here.

~

This was a bad idea.

In fact, it was a monumentally bad idea. But the Halo was right – clearly, their erstwhile ally wasn’t going to play fair. Intel had suggested as much. Counting on local support had always been a dodgy proposition, which was why the Planning Board had finally authorized the use of Silence and hired protection who knew their asses from their elbows. There was always that balance between usefulness and control and until recently, control had been the deciding factor.

In the agent’s opinion, Silence should have been deployed much earlier. Certainly before six hundred years were allowed to elapse. However, the Planning Board’s caution had overrode its ambitions. At least, until now.

For all the good that had done. Normally, follow-up expeditions were planned to arrive a fair amount of time after an initial foray – it made it difficult to capitalize on any particular mission’s gains, but it also prevented 47’s erstwhile guardians from becoming too interested in these visitations. If the last thing the Planning Board wanted was to have someone take notice of Silence, a close second had to be provoking the I-series. They were growing bold enough as it was. Asset Tracking had confirmed three raids outside the Mists in the past seventeen months, with another four probables.

But closer to the matter at hand, there was no way to prevent 47’s remaining systems from detecting incoming ships and therefore, no way to prevent the nesting populations from recognizing that reaction. Despite the weeks between their visitations, Kerrigan had arrived too soon after Primal and local infestations hadn’t gone fully dormant. With all the new biomatter available, they’d start expanding again. Which would mean another sort of response would be forthcoming.

Neither of which could be helped right now. So that left four objectives: complete this mission. Reach the station’s core (something which would have been much easier with a company of heavily-armed mercenaries). Summon Silence. And survive all the above.

To accomplish all of those would take some doing, but the agent had been training for this mission for years.

Of course, so had the others...

~

Abigail was reclining on a three-seat bench, arms stretched out along the top of the weathered plastic seating, seemingly at ease, trying to relax before their ‘mission’ began. In actuality, she was watching her companions. Like Shannon, she had concerns over Louis’s health and his long-term survival. So far he was holding up and that was all she could ask for. The others, though...

Delphini at least handled her weapon like she didn’t expect it to up and bite her, unlike Lutzberg. The PO had probably never had cause to use firearms before and he kept fiddling with his, so much that Abigail was tempted to take it away from him. Louis was keeping an eye on him though, and if this helped him feel more comfortable with the gun, that would have to do. Treating him like a green wouldn’t do anything for his morale.

And speaking of morale... the mercenary stood, so smoothly that she caught Lutzberg and Delphini by surprise, the former all but jumping in his seat and the latter’s head snapping towards Abigail. She nodded at them, striding into what passed for a control cab on the tram car – little more than a closet with a computer console, separated from the passengers by a rusted sliding door with a lock that no longer worked. In 47’s heyday, the tram system would have been fully automated with the controls only used if manual control ever became necessary.

With their new ally guiding them, Abigail felt a lot better with someone standing watch in here, though she knew that wasn’t the real reason her ‘little sister’ was here. Shannon was staring out the window, watching the darkness flow by, shadows and shapes briefly caught in the glare of the car’s flickering headlights before whipping past into the gloom behind them. Her red hair was hanging down her back, just past her shoulders, like matted strings of blood.

Abigail sat on the tiny bench against the back wall. It was barely big enough for one person, even without armour. “How are we doing?”

“Car’s on course so far, but the route we’re taking is pretty involved. The tram system’s full of holes and we spend more time shifting to secondaries and back to the main than actually heading to the sealed section.”

The Darkknell nodded; she’d seen at their route. It was more detour than not. “You’ve noticed Bujold’s a cross-draw,” she stated quietly.

“Yes. He’s more comfortable with those pistols than a corper security guard should be. He’s had training.”

“Thought so.”

“He’s from Vostok Nine, probably trained there, too. He’s good at concealing it, but I can hear touches of the dialect. It’s barely there, but he’s stressed and it comes out.”

“A professional, then,” Abigail mused. “Think he joined Hadley-Wright looking for a new lease on life?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time a fringer changed their name and went legit,” Shannon replied. Usually to avoid creditors, or their own business associates. “I don’t know who’d go to the trouble of sending undercover backup when they’d already hired a ship of mercenaries. Or why.” She paused, looking up. “Someone with a different agenda. But that still leaves why and what...”

“Yeah,” Abigail sighed. “I was afraid you were going to say that.” She leaned back against the wall. Neither women said anything for several moments.

“Something on your mind?” Shannon asked at last.

“Not really,” Abigail shrugged. “Wondering if there’s something on yours.” She reached up, unfastening her helmet, setting it onto the worn floor plates next to Shannon’s own.

“We can do this.”

“Not what I asked.”

“I know.”

“Tell me,” Abigail said quietly, leaning forward.

“You were there.” A pause. “He was going to rape me.”

Abigail nodded. “He had it coming.”

“But?”

“But, for me there wouldn’t be any ‘but’. You’re not me, Shannie.” Quietly: “It’s not like in combat, is it?”

Shannon’s voice hitched in her throat. “No. It’s not.”

“Then tell me.”

She looked away, staring even more intently out of the windows. “I try to put it aside, try to forget it, but I can’t. Halos... We can’t forget anything. It’s always there, always perfect in our minds.

The young woman squeezed her eyes shut, her breathing hitching in her throat. “I can feel it. The look in his eyes, the noises he made. The way it felt.” Shannon managed a short, barking noise – something halfway between a laugh and a sob. “God, the way it felt!” She pulled away from Abigail as far as the cramped compartment would allow. “I could have left him alive. I could. But I didn’t. I didn’t. I killed him. I knew all the ways I could hurt him, just from where I was.”

Staring out the window, her eyes had reddened, tears welling up in them. “I crushed his throat. I didn’t have to. But I wanted to. I saw every way I could hurt him and make him suffer and it felt good. It felt wrong and awful and... and good.” Shannon’s knuckles whitened as she grabbed the lip of the window. “It felt good,” she repeated, her voice sick with horror, going numb as the memories flood into her mind. “I can still feel him breaking. His tongue is on my face, I feel sick as he touches me, whispering under his breath. The tine comes loose and I throw him back. Then he’s clawing at my legs, but I won’t let him go. I want him to die. Fingernails scrapping at my thighs, gasping for air. Eyes bulging behind the mask – blood vessels are rupturing. Subconjunctival hemorrhages. I’ve already crushed his larynx and he’s bleeding under the skin there. Still trying to speak, trying to beg, but he can’t. I’m watching him die.”

“Hey!” Abigail stood, turning Shannon around to face her, giving the younger woman a shake. Shannon’s eyes were blank, staring past Abigail as if the other woman didn’t even see her, still whispering that empty litany, every detail of the feral man’s death playing itself back over and over. “Come back! You’re here with me. Come back!” Abigail had known Shannon had an eidetic memory – she’d seen the Halo recall things in perfect detail from weeks or months before, but she’d never seen something like this. “You’re not there, all right? It’s over. It’s over.”

The fugue state seemed to clear and Shannon focused on Abigail, finally registering her. “I remember it,” she said through her tears. “I can still feel what it’s like. I can... I can...” she convulsed and pulled away. Knowing what was coming, Abigail let go. Shannon leaned out the broken window and retched, throwing up a stomach full of half-digested MREs and acid. Abigail was behind her, the Darkknell’s holding Shannon’s hair back as the corporal vomited.

Finally, she was finished and pulled herself up, her throat burning. Abigail handed her a flask of water and Shannon took a gulp from it, washing the unpleasant taste of bile out of her mouth. “Thank you,” she said, handing the canteen back.

Hutchins shrugged. “You fit?”

Shannon looked away. “Does it get better?”

“It did for me. I don’t think it should for you.” Abigail tried to force a smile, but the best she could manage was a upward twitching of her lips. She’d never wanted Shannon to experience something like that. She pulled her ‘little sister’ close as the tram shifted onto a secondary track,.

“I can still hear them screaming,” Shannon whispered, the grip of her memories starting to pull her back. “I can smell it, hear the guns. They keep screaming, always screaming. Only quiet when they’re dead. They were our friends. They were our friends and we-”

“Stay with me,” Abigail said, unsure of what else to say. “Stay with me, Shannie. You’re not there. You’re not. You’re with me.” On this fucking station. Shannon’s breathing slowed down and began to even out. “You’re with me,” Abigail repeated the words, over and over, until the Halo was able to pull herself fully out of the past.

She shivered, embarrassed to face her ‘big sister’. “Thank you.”

The Darkknell shrugged, at a loss for words. Finally: “Better?”

Shannon nodded. “Better.”

Abigail clapped the corporal on the shoulder. “Glad to hear it, ma’am. If you went buggy, that would leave me in charge of these twits.”

The younger woman mock-shuddered, grateful for the glimmer of normalcy. “I think they’d be better off with the monsters.”

“See, this is why you have to stay clear, Four. Otherwise it’s just me and Louis. And about five minutes after that, it’ll just be me.”

Shannon bent down to retrieve her helmet, handing Abigail’s to her. “Then I guess I’d better keep it together, hadn’t I? For... Louis’s sake.”

Abigail’s lips turned up in a lopsided smirk. “Sounds good, Four. Sounds real good.”

The red-haired woman nodded. She forced a smile and if neither of them were fooled by it, neither of them said anything.

You’re with me.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-10-02 01:56pm
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Jedi Knight
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Day three, and you know you'll never be free.

Coming up: in space, they can hear you scream.

Chapter 40:

Day Three:

He didn’t look well.

That was an understatement, really. Hooked up to several IVs and wrapped in bandages and regen swathes, Petty Officer Jason Veers was far from the picture of health. His skin had turned waxy and pale and, despite his injuries and the sedatives he’d been pumped full of, he was twitching and fidgeting. They’d had to give him tranquilizers – he hadn’t been able to sleep and when he had, more often than not, he’d suffer from night terrors, calling out for Mackenzie. Even now, every so often, he’d whimper her name.

The woman chewed on her lip as she watched the medical feed on her datapad. Primal had decent software security, but ‘decent’ wasn’t good enough when pitted against her equipment. She skimmed over the preliminary medical reports, shifting her attention between those and watching Veers. Normally, he’d only be at the first stage, but it hadn’t been any simple R-type that had bitten him: it had been an infection form. Those had been among the first variants to develop and they carried a particular strain of the R-series – one which didn’t follow the normal pathology. That made the petty officer’s condition doubly dangerous, especially since there was no hard data on an infector-form’s R-series. There were suggestions, educated guesses and assumptions, yes. But nothing concrete.

She drummed her fingers on one leg, thinking. It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with an excuse to visit the frigate’s medical bay and causing a glitch in the monitor systems would also be relatively easy. It was the human element that was the problem. Veers wasn’t in quarantine – until there was some sign of communicable disease, he wouldn’t be – but he was under constant observation. As far as most of the expedition knew, he’d only been mauled by some animal. As far as the upper echelon knew, he’d been attacked by feral survivors. And by the time anyone knew differently, it would be too late.

This shouldn’t have happened.

The woman allowed herself a brief moment to again curse her associate’s overzealousness. They should have been expanding further; instead – with the exception of a few damage control parties and the teams searching for Mackenzie – Colonel Paclan had insisted that his troops reinforce a perimeter within the hangar and its surrounding sections. They would have encountered the R-types regardless, but they should have done so on their terms, and definitely not so early.

Well. It wasn’t all bad; Paclan’s plan to more thoroughly secure the hangar would provide better a better bulwark against attack. Most attacks, the woman corrected herself. The downside to that was that if anything attempted to breach those defences, Primal’s commanders would surely try to report that back to Artemis HQ.

She couldn’t allow that. DROP 47 was too important. Even if it cost her her own life, the station’s secrets could not get out until she was sitting in the command core and Silence was on its way. Until she and her benefactors had the station in their hands. And until that moment came, she was expendable. Just like everyone else here.

Still... it was tempting to drop an anonymous message or fudge of the test results enough to get Veers put into isolation – but that would only make her job harder. Yes, causing a malfunction in the quarantine system would be easy. Unfortunately, it would be the kind of ‘easy’ that would get noticed by Primal. True, attention was preferable to letting Veers’s condition progress, but only if there was no way to do it clandestinely.

She’d just have to see how things progressed and wait for the right opportunity.

~

Jonas Mandell was craving a roll of red mist right about now. Instead, Primal’s Chief Medical Officer rummaged into his pockets for a packet of gum, popping one of the minty shells out of its blister and chewing on it intensely. “I don’t God-damned know,” he said at last.

Daisy Luttenbaker looked up from her reports. “Don’t know what?”

The doctor pushed himself away from his own desk. “I don’t God-damned know what’s happening to him,” he said at last, looking through the window that allowed Primal’s small medical staff to look out on the handful of beds that made up the frigate’s ICU. Currently, only one was occupied.

“It’s a miracle he didn’t bleed out by the time the Ables got him back here,” Mandell said, chewing savagely on his gum. “We got him transfused, we patched the holes in his organs, re-inflated a collapsed lung, shot him full of antibiotics, antivirals, immune boosters and nanohealers and every known preventative short of a bleeding which leeches.”

The nurse nodded. “Yes...”

Jonas stabbed a finger at his assistant. “So you tell me why something’s chewing him up from the inside out. Something that’s survived every damn thing modern medicine can throw at it.”

“He’s improved, somewhat. We’ve slowed it down.”

“Yeah. Good. Fifty thousand credits’ worth of medical care and we’ve ‘slowed down’ some fucking bug.” Mandell popped a second piece of gum into his mouth. “Fucking Imperium.”

Luttenbakker blinked. “You think this is Imperial?”

“Well, what the hell else would it be? We’re right smack-dab in the middle of Candy-fucking-land, Daisy. The place that no one ever thought existed in a place no one in their right mind wanted to go. What kind of work do you think the Imperials were doing here? I’ll tell you,” he said before Luttenbaker could get a word in. “The kind of work that even they were afraid of.”

Mandell chewed on his gum for a few moments. Veers was running a fever that should be cooking his organs and shutting them down, but his system was in hyperdrive. Even under the sedatives, his metabolism was higher than normal. Heart rate, respiration – even his spleen and bone marrow were pumping out a torrent of blood cells and lymphocytes. Everything had been cranked up to eleven, and even with the high-nutrient drip they’d put Veers on, his body couldn’t sustain that kind of stress for long. Sooner or later, he’d crash.

And there was no way Mandell could see to stop it. He’d run blood screenings and was carrying out metagenomic analyses looking for the agent that was doing this. He’d found something, all right.

But he had no fucking clue what it was, how it was doing what it was doing, or how to kill it.

In the meantime, all he could do was throw money, time and medicine at it to slow it down. “Well, as long as he’s out, I suppose we’d better run another body scan. Let’s get him into the IMSIS.” Daisy nodded and headed out of the office to prep Veers for the procedure. Mandell stayed a moment longer, finally letting out a defeated, mint-flavoured breath.

Money, time and medicine. All he could do.

That, and hope he didn’t run out of gum.

~

“Yep, it’s a hull breach.”

Peter Weiss swore. “I don’t get it. This entire section was perfectly pressurized yesterday.”

His work partner, Lloyd Loblaw, looked down at Weiss and shrugged. There was still enough air in this section to be breathable, but both men were wearing clear plastic oxygen masks and vacuum-proof gloves, their once-spotless white-and-blue uniforms bearing shoulder patches indicating that they were part of Hadley-Wright’s technical specialist division. Not just engineers – Weiss himself was more of a scientist, holding advanced degrees in archaeological engineering, with a specialty in Imperial systems. Loblaw didn’t have as rarefied a pedigree as his partner, but the dark-skinned engineer had been one of the first technical teams aboard the Nightingale and one of the few survivors of that debacle.

ITS Nightingale, registry number 12-77459-83, had been an Imperial Solace-class hospital ship. Big, expensive and well-equipped, Solaces were also quite capable of doubling as mobile medical research facilities. In the latter phase of the war, this potential – coupled with their lack of defences – had made them favoured targets of Coalition raiders. There had never been a proven incident of a Solace – indeed of any Imperial hospital ship – carrying out bioweapons research, though some had claimed that that just meant the Imperials were careful about concealing or destroying evidence. Coupled with rumours of Imperial medical ships being sighted around planets experiencing outbreaks of plague, the Coalition had decided to... revise its rules of engagement when it came to Imperial shipping, much to the chagrin and disgust of the ‘Founding Three’.

In Weiss’s opinion, seeing medical ships around neutral planets (or hostile worlds that their governments couldn’t respond to in time) wasn’t quite as nefarious as the Coalition’s version of history claimed. In fact, it was probably equal parts humanitarian motive and obvious political maneuver intended to garner support or deprive the Coalition of it. For all its faults, the Imperium had actually – and frequently – done decent things for people who weren’t part of its core systems. Sadly, this fact tended to be overlooked by most historians – though perhaps not unjustifiably so, since Earth did launch a war that killed trillions and conquered nearly a quarter of the galaxy before they were defeated.

Whatever the reason though, Coalition fleet command had looked the other way while its advance guards were shooting down hospital ships. The Nightingale was one such unlucky vessel; beset upon by several Coalition destroyers, the hospital ship had suffered severe damage to its stardrive and, it was assumed, had been destroyed when it activated its slip systems.

Twenty years ago, a deep-range prospector had discovered the iced-over hulk of ITS Nightingale, three thousand light years from its last known position. The damaged drive hadn’t warped the ship into oblivion, but it had malfunctioned, killing most of the crew and passengers as it slipped, further crippling the vessel’s major systems. Primary engines, communications, main power and life support had gone out – it was only Imperial technology’s robustness and redundancy that had kept Nightingale running on backups and batteries. A Coalition vessel would have been destroyed by the slip... and any that had somehow held together through it wouldn’t have had any operational systems left.

That had been little comfort to the surviving crew who died, drifting through a ship no longer capable of creating its own gravity, freezing as the heat leaked out of their gashed hull, gasping as their air ran out and their damaged environmental systems were incapable of replenishing either.

Despite its state, few intact Imperial ships had ever been recovered and a multi-national salvage operation was immediately launched. Which almost immediately bogged down in bickering, internecine strife, theft and sabotage, culminating when the Azure Sphere launched a lightning raid and ran a half-dozen destroyers through the blockade, blasting Nightingale and the five hundred men and women of the survey and technical teams aboard her into atoms. Such was the way of things now. Rather than risk their enemies getting some decisive edge, a nation would rather destroy finds like Nightingale. Still others did it out of reflexive hatred out of all things Imperial, sometimes extending this revulsion to anything from Earth. Priceless artworks smashed and burned, expatriate families hounded and killed. The Argosy Republic was even suspected to have discovered and destroyed a fully-functional Lethe-class dreadnaught. A Lethe! Only the Acherons had been more powerful, and only a handful of those had been built before the Imperium’s final collapse.

Too much history had been lost to fear and hatred. Too many secrets.

The Halos had been wise to stay quiet since the Imperium’s fall. There were plenty of nations who coveted their technology and knowledge, but there were others who wanted to make sure nobody else had it or could ever use it against them. The possibility of someone getting their hands on another Sin Eater was too great, too terrifying. Everyone wanted one, but just as much nobody wanted their neighbours to have one, either.

That was why Hadley-Wright had to be so careful here. DROP 47 – the last outpost of Earth. Broken, yes. But it was still here. It still worked. And if anyone else decided that it needed to stay in the past...

“What do you expect?” Loblaw’s question interrupted Weiss’s reverie. “No one’s been doing proper maintenance on this brick for more ‘n’ half a thousand years. Bits are coming off, popping out...”

Weiss snorted. “Sounds like my first wife.”

Lloyd chuckled. “Really? Sounds like my third.” He pointed to a ceiling panel, a grated vent cover large enough for a man to climb into. “Here. The air’s getting pulled through here. There’s probably a breach in the vent siding somewhere, opening right into one of the cracked sections.” He set up a stepladder and climbed up, examining the vent. “Shouldn’t be too hard to take this off. Then – damn, but I hate crawling – just squeeze in and seal the crack. Air’s dropping too slowly for a major breach.”

“Well, hurry up then,” Weiss replied, checking his PDS. “Franks wants us to move into the lower annex. There’s some power flow that indicates the capture webs there are still running.”

“That’s a hell of a thing to leave on,” Lloyd mumbled as he pulled out a screwdriver, the bit whining as it tugged at the rusted screws holding the vent cover in place. “Why the hell are the tractors still working? I mean – yeah, I know Imp tech’s s’posed to be the best there is and everything, but those are pretty complex systems. On Nightingale, they were completely worthless.”

“Some of the landed ships have severe stress fractures from being webbed,” Weiss pointed out. “You only get that kind of damage when the ship fights against the tractor.”

Loblaw paused, looking back at his companion. “That’s a hell of a thing,” he muttered.

“Yeah.”

“Uh... right. So, hull breach.” The engineer pulled down the vent, handing to Weiss. “Just hold that a moment, wouldja? I have to get my ass in here.” He patted his tool kit. “Uh... now where did I put that fuckin’ patch?”

Peter was already holding the patch kit out to his partner. Most of his fellow educated specialists would have objected to being paired with the less-than-refined Loblaw. Weiss didn’t; though Lloyd’s saltier language (and shaky grasp of proper enunciation) shone through more often than not, he was an honest sort of man. Dealing with his fellow academics and their cut-throat approach to politics and publishing rights had worn on Peter, leading to his departure from academia. In joining Haldey-Wright, he thought he’d find a environment free of back-biting. Unfortunately, it was much the same, only instead of fights over funding, grants and sneering at each other’s research, the megacorp’s people seemed just as determined to scramble over each others’ backs, like rats escaping rising waters.

“Thanks, Pete,” Loblaw grunted, again forgetting that Weiss hated having his name shortened. Lloyd climbed up the stepladder’s last few rungs, lifting himself up into the vent. Weiss heard the other man’s elbows and knees banging on the walls of the air shaft as he settled himself into position. “You got me?”

Peter nodded, checking Lloyd’s tracker sig against his schematics. “I got you. Thirty meters straight, then twenty to your right. That’s a flow valve for Embarkation Three. It’s vented, so the valve might have sprung open a little.”

“That sounds about right. Air flow’s moving in that direction.” Loblaw grunted as he pulled himself through the tunnel. “Should have gotten a maintenance bot to do this.”

“You can always ask Halsey to change her mind.” To keep every survey team from running off with one of the expedition’s limited supply of mechanical assistants and leaving none available in case of emergencies, Director Veronica Halsey had restricted the use of drones – the bots would only be released for work on vital systems or jobs too dangerous for a human to do.

Primal had its own supply of combat, scouting and repair automatons, but the mercenaries were following a similar procedure – they’d deployed scouting droids to examine and clear out several of the passageways leading into the hangar, but were holding onto their supply of drones just as tightly as Halsey was managing Hadley-Wright’s stock.

Loblaw grunted. “I’d have a better chance of finding an actual Predecessor ruin.”

A few minutes passed as Lloyd elbowed his way to the junction and patched up the breach. “There, that should just about – now, what’s this?”

“What’s what?”

“It’s a – I don’t know what it is,” Loblaw’s voice clicked through the comm. “We have anyone else working in this area?”

“I don’t think so,” Weiss pulled up the day’s work orders. “Nothing’s scheduled. Why?”

“I think I can hear someone moving around.”

“Too big to be a rat?”

“Too big to be a rat.”

“Okay, let me check.” Peter switched channels. “Control, this is Weiss, Team Twenty-One.”

“Control here, go ahead Twenty-One.”

“Is there anyone in...” Weiss rattled off the section. “We’re dealing with the hull breach and Loblaw says he hears movement in the vents. He doesn’t think it’s vermin.”

There was a brief spat of muffled conversation before Control came back on. “Stand by, Twenty-One. We’re sending Baker Three and Four to your position.”

Weiss relayed the information to Loblaw. “You sure that’s a good idea? What if it’s that missing PO?” Lloyd questioned.

“What if it’s not?” The mercenaries weren’t saying anything about what had happened to their man, but the rumours were flying. Something had torn that petty officer up and it was still out there. For his money, he was betting that it was probably the offspring of someone’s pets, long since gone feral on the station. Of course, that also brought up the question of what they’d been eating in the interim and what happened to their owners...

A chill went up Weiss’s spine, one that had nothing to do with the cool, thin air in the chamber.

“Yeah,” Loblaw’s voice clicked back. “Wait. It’s getting closer.”

“Lloyd?”

“It doesn’t... it doesn’t sound right. I think I should... yeah, I think it’s time to go.”

Weiss’s comm crackled. “Peter, this is Ilsa.”

“Go ahead.”

“You guys aren’t in the lower annex, are you? We’re getting movement and our watchdogs want to pull us back.”

Peter frowned. “No, we got diverted for a patch job on Deck 27. We haven’t gotten down below yet.” He paused. “We’re hearing something in the vents, too.”

“Uh...” Ilsa’s voice trailed off. “Yeah, uh... I think we’ll be heading back to Primal. See you in a few.”

“Yeah, okay.”

~

“Sir,” one of the control station staff looked up, turning to catch the captain’s attention. “The outer perimeter’s picking up hits. Teams and sensor stations.”

Captain Darryl Shelby rotated his command chair towards the panel of status monitors set onto the rear of Primal’s bridge. “What kind of hits?” he inquired.

“Motion, sir. Lots of motion. We can’t localize half of it, but it seems to be on almost every front.”

“Direction?”

“Straight towards us.”

Shelby stood, striding over to the bank of situation monitors. The rating was correct. But that was – it should have been – impossible. “Notify the colonel immediately. Tell our teams to prepare for contact and pull the civilians back aboard the ship, now.” As he watched the plethora of contact markers on the sensor board, something unpleasant trickled though Darryl’s gut.

He was a ship-driver, not a mudfoot like Colonel Paclan. Anything to do with infantry tactics or groundside strategy was well outside his area of expertise – but he didn’t need any special training to see that this situation had just gotten a lot worse. “Ready the Ghosts,” he ordered. “Get them outside. Don’t wait for the colonel.”

This wasn’t a random encounter with some animal or long-lost survivor. It was an attack.

~

He could hear it behind him. Scrabbling and scratching of fingers against the metal of the vents, the heavy, liquid, gurgles of a phlegm-filled throat. It didn’t sound like anything Lloyd had ever heard before, and certainly not something that he wanted to hear now. Especially since it was getting closer.

“Pete,” he said. “The mercs close?”

“Very,” Weiss replied. “You?”

“Almost there. So’s this thing.”

Lloyd couldn’t hear whatever Peter said in response; the awful, spine-rending sound from the thing pursuing him drowned out all else: a deep, gargling moan, mindless and bestial, issued as it caught sight of him. He craned his head over his shoulder – no mean feat in the cramped air shaft – and saw the silhouette of something slithering towards him.

“Jesus Christ!”

The engineer pulled himself towards the vent, the glimmer of light only a few meters away, but it seemed like kilometers as he scrabbled with all his strength, hearing the hissing, moaning thing getting closer with every breath. Then: salvation. His hands found the lip of the open vent and he pulled himself to it. “It’s behind me!” he screamed, about to launch himself to safety-

-something grabbed his leg.

~

“We’ve got you!” Weiss was shouting, his hands tight around Lloyd’s wrist, trying to pull him free. One of the mercenaries had the engineer’s other hand as the second fired into the air shaft, trying to discourage whatever had taken a hold of Loblaw.

Lloyd was screaming: prayers, curses and pleading all blended into an inarticulate howl of terror and pain. Blood was spraying from his mouth, spattering the inside of his mask. Filthy dark liquid oozed out of the holes Baker Three’s bullets had made in the shaft casing, the hungry moans of the creature savaging Lloyd all but lost beneath the man’s own cries. There were other sounds coming from inside the vent, wet snaps and ripping and Lloyd was still screaming...

“Help me!” Loblaw howled the words through the tears and cries as his attacker fought for its prize. Lord in heaven, there was a full clip of bullets in the thing and it was still fighting them!

Baker Four and Weiss lurched as Loblaw was suddenly jerked several inches back into the shaft. It was fighting and winning. “Help me!” Lloyd screamed again, frothing at the mouth, his face all but hidden under the blood pooling in his mask. “Don’t let me go! Jesus Mary Joseph Allah it’s got me it’s got me-”

“Shoot it!” Peter shouted wildly, unable to think of anything else. They’d already shot it, it was still there! “For God’s sake, shoot it!”

“I am!” Baker Three snarled back, emptying another clip into the ceiling. “Fucking die already!”

Weiss was losing his grip, protesting arm muscles crying out in agony.

Sensing victory, the thing heaved again and Loblaw was dragged further back into the shaft. Weiss’s hands came free and staggered, making a leap for Lloyd’s outstretched gloved hands, but with only one foe pulling back, the thing lurched once more and Baker Four lost her grip as well.

Lloyd’s fingers caught on the lip of the open vent, the edges digging into his skin through his gloves. His eyes, wild with agony and terror, caught Peter’s for an instant before some twisted arm reached out and wrapped around the engineer’s face. “Help me! Help me! Please, Pete-” Loblaw screamed as he was pulled into the darkness, his final, plaintive cry devolving into something no human should have ever made.

“No! No!” Peter cried, unwilling to accept it. He dashed for the ladder, knocked over in the struggle. Why weren’t the mercenaries doing anything? “We have to go after him, we have to-”

Someone grabbed him, pulling him back. “We have to get out of here,” Baker Three was saying, his voice clicking through the speaker on his helmet. “We have to go.”

“We can’t leave him! We have to go back for-”

“Motion sensor’s gone wild,” the mercenary interrupted. “We’re getting hits across the perimeter. Two other teams have gone dark. We have to get out of here. Control’s ordering all teams back to the hangar. Whatever that thing is, it’s got friends.”

Without waiting for their charge to process this, Baker Three grabbed the scientist in a fireman’s carry. As he was hauled out of the chamber, Weiss was sure that he could still hear Lloyd screaming.

~

“War-war-warning,” the AI’s stuttering voice abruptly crackled from speakers and damaged comm systems, echoing through the hangar, catching the attention of every worker, scientist and soldier. “Biological con-contaminants. Ants. Detected in-in hangar-ar area. Area. Quarantine sys-systems in North-4 hangar-ar are n-n-non-operational. Please. Please evac-ac-ac-uate the area. The area. Immediately.”

A blare of static followed the announcement. Then, into the confused silence, a young woman’s giggle followed, her voice soft and playful. “Do you think I’m pretty?”



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"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-10-25 01:29pm
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In this chapter, the survivors enter the outskirts infested region, slowly but steadily getting closer to their goal... as is something else.

Coming up: Primal finds itself under attack while treachery's afoot.

Chapter 41:

They knew, of course. In such close confines, it was impossible to hide Shannon’s momentary breakdown and as she stepped out of the control cab back into the passenger compartment, she could see that everyone’s attention was on her. Emily’s blue eyes were concerned, the petite woman looking as if she wanted to come to Shannon’s side, but was unsure of what she’d do or say when she. Louis’s hazel eyes were steady, but tired – all of them had been running on nothing but adrenalin for too long, but him most of all. It was in Lutzberg and Bujold’s stares that there was... something more than concern, more than uncertainty.

Behind Shannon, Abigail bristled like a loyal hound, staring down any challenge to her ‘little sister’. Shannon rested one hand on the Darkknell’s vambrace, smiling up at the taller woman. Abby nodded and stepped past the corporal, though she deliberately brushed against Bujold’s seat, the armour plate on her thigh scraping against the brittle plastic mould of the bench.

“We’re almost there,” Shannon said. “Nine, Four – we’ll secure the tram station. Once that’s done, the rest of you can disembark.”

~

Jane wrenched her blade from the twitching ruins of a scouting breed, the gleaming metal slick with foul blood. She’d turned off the disruptor field. It sang to her, hissing when it touched flesh, shrieking when it encountered metal or armour, fizzling and spitting when condensation on the cooling pipes above dripped onto it. But even unpowered, it still had a keening melody as it moved through the thick, humid air. As it cleaved through resisting meat and defiant bone, trails of dark, polluted blood streaking down its length.

Beautiful.

The trooper stood, leaving the hewn corpse-thing behind, already rebuilding itself. “Ghosts,” she said into her squad channel. “Respond.”

There was only the answering whisper of white noise.

“Respond,” she repeated, more forcefully.

Again, silence.

Respond.

“Alive?” a voice snapped back at her. Corporal Cynthia Black. “Lieutenant still alive?”

“Yes. The others?”

“Could be dead. Could be alive. Unknown. Lost contact when Kerrigan vented. Found station. Following directives. Not alone. Eyes in the dark are watching. Hunting.” Cynthia made a noise like some predatory animal. “Hunting.”

“Enough,” Godfrey interrupted. During their station on the DROP, Cynthia’s grasp of language had been slowly but surely eroding. “You remember our mission?”

“Yes. Seal the breach. Contain infection. Prevent spread. Too many carriers. At first.” A carrion-eater’s chuckle. “Not so many now. Lots of blood, lots of screaming. Not just from me. Finding kill sites. They fought back. Didn’t help. Many hunters out. Can’t be many left.”

“You remember our mission?” Jane repeated. “You’ll follow?”

A pause. “Yes. Will follow Lieutenant Godfrey.”

“Good. Continue hunting. Find survivors. Destroy only those you can confirm to be infected. Safeguard all others.”

Another pause. “That is not the mission,” Cynthia said, a note of challenge in her voice.

“It is now. New mission, corporal. Will you follow, or will I have to find you?”

Cynthia made another feral noise but acquiesced, a predator bowing its neck to the pack’s alpha. “Will follow.”

“Confirm your orders, Six.”

“Hunt. Kill infected. Protect others.”

“Good. Move towards Northern Atmospheric Processing. Be warned: the local Leviathan is agitated.”

Black clucked her tongue. “Lieutenant Godfrey’s been busy. Will we get to play too?”

“If you’re good.”

Cynthia all but purred as she closed the channel.

~

“We’re clear,” Louis reported as the mercenaries finished their sweep of the tram station. Like the others, it was a fairly small loading/unloading platform for personnel rather than cargo. As the car pulled into the station, it had been obvious that the loading terminal was currently uninhabited, but it paid to be thorough. There was nothing clinging to the ceiling, nothing hidden in the shadows. Shannon was tempted to tell the civilians to stay here and secure the tram station, but this position wasn’t like the other boarding zones – the vents weren’t barricaded, the doors were open and several ceiling panels had been put out, lying broken and dented on the deck. There were too many avenues of attack in what was obviously a well-travelled area.

Someone else had been here, too.

There was a large, dried pool of blood on the floor, where several bodies – there was too much blood for a single kill – had been dumped, red drag marks streaked over the deck, leading out one of the open doors. “Oh, of course,” Abigail cursed as she realized that whatever had taken the bodies had chosen to do so done the one corridor they needed to go.

Above the door, faded to near-illegibility, were several lines of text, denoting the areas of interest that this particular passageway led to. One of them was their goal:

OR H HY R OP ICS

Scrawled over the dull, washed-out text, someone had hastily smeared another message in white paint, itself flaked away into almost nothing, but, like the words its author had attempted to blot out, there was enough left that the message could be read.

THE GARDEN GROWS

And, beneath it, a long-since redundant warning.

YOU SHOULDN’T BE HERE

“Three,” Shannon caught Abigail’s attention. The soldier pulled her attention away from the words over the door, looking to where the medic was pointing. There, just beside the door. Overshadowed by the more dramatic writing above the opening, someone had scribbled a few lines just above the broken door console. DROP 47 had been visited by dozens of ships. Thousands of people with thousands of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Abigail couldn’t read half of the sporadic messages on the walls, but something about this particular script looked familiar.

The Darkknell cocked her head back at her ‘little sister’. “What’s it say?”

“I don’t know. I think...” Shannon hesitated, touching one hand to the side of her helmet. “I’ve seen it before. I know what it is. I just... can’t remember.”

“You can’t remember?”

“No,” Shannon’s head came up. “I know I should. I want to... but I can’t. I don’t... I don’t think I’m supposed to.”

Abigail resisted the urge to scratch at her neck. She didn’t know what to say to that. “This place isn’t secure,” she said at last. “We need to keep moving.”

Grateful for the switch in topics, Shannon bobbed her head in agreement.

~

Louis took point, St. Cloud’s shotgun held tightly in his hands, shaking only slightly as he moved through the corridors. Abigail brought up the rear, protecting their three civilian helpers from ambush, while Shannon followed Louis, straining her senses to pick up any trace of a nearby foe. The enemy was here, of course – the cries and calls of the Turned were louder, echoing through the many hundreds of meters of empty corridors that ran throughout this section, playing havoc with any attempt to localize them by sound. By the same token, the mercenaries’ motion trackers were still just below the cusp of usefulness thanks to the station’s sensor-scattering bulk, struggling analysis software straining to differentiate substance from signal and throwing up false echoes and sensor ghosts in the process.

There were no lights here. Whatever sources of illumination this section had once had had burned out long ago and none of the station’s maintenance units had survived to carry out their upkeep and unlike the inhabited sections of the north arm, there was no one crazy enough to attempt to the same here.

Mossy growths the colour of dead flesh slopped out of air vents, nestled in moist corners, spiderwebs of dark veins branching out along the walls. Insects buzzed about and, once or twice, small animals scuttled away from the approaching survivors, tiny gleaming eyes staring out from their hiding holes. The air stunk. It was stagnant and heavy, growing increasingly humid as the survivors travelled deeper into the infested section. Stirred only occasionally by fitful environmental systems, the clunking and clanging of struggling machinery echoed through the hallways, along with the feral cries of the station’s mutated inhabitants.

The beams from the survivors’ flashlights played over the hallways, the cones of light weaving back and forth through Shannon and Abigail’s green-tinted blacklight vision. Imposed on Shannon’s HUD was a schematic of the station, a pulsing red light showing their target.

“Contact,” Abigail said abruptly. “Point sources ahead. Definite contacts.”

Shannon nodded, using hand signals to keep the civilians back as she and her fellow mercenaries filtered ahead, moving cautiously. Despite the weight of her armament, Abigail moved like a wraith, cat-footed and predatory. A few yards ahead, they could hear movement: the scrapes of feet against metal, slurping breaths and smacking, chewing noises.

Trailing at a distance, Emily and Armin shared a worried glance as they approached the source of the sounds. The young woman flashed the frightened petty officer what she hoped was a confident smile, even as her hands longed for the comforting weight of a weapon.

Over a dozen meters up the next corridor, there were two men in torn fatigues, so worn and stained that it was impossible to tell what they’d originally been. As the light from Hernandez’s torch passed over them, they looked up, reddened eyes glinting in Shannon’s blacklight. Crouched over a pile of corpses, strings of meat hung from their mouths and they scrambled away, loping on all fours like animals. There was an oddness to their movements – beneath the stained and ragged clothes, they were like the Watcher’s long-dead lover, like every damned soul from Primal. Changing into something else.

Turning.

Abigail tracked the once-human things, but held her fire. One leapt into an open maintenance panel, scrambling up the pipes like a spider, swiftly vanishing into the space between bulkheads. The second was close on its comrade’s heels, but paused as gangly arms reached into the shaft, turning its face towards the mercenaries. Its lips had split, giving it a too-wide grin filled with stained teeth. Once a man, it had had hopes. Dream. Fears, ambitions, loves and hatreds all its own. Now, it was only a thing that wore that man’s skin and stared back with ever-hungry eyes.

To Shannon’s left, Louis had gone pale, his breath quickening. His finger tightened on the shotgun’s trigger. Carefully, the Halo reached out and pushed the barrel down towards the deck. “Hold your fire,” she ordered softly.

“It’s...” Louis stared, seeing a man in a burned suit, half his face rotted away. Reaching out towards him. “Don’t you see that? Don’t you see him?”

“Please...” the apparition begged, reaching out with its hands. One normal, one burned and decomposing. “I don’t want to die here. Don’t let me. Help me. Please. You were supposed to help us.”

“I...” Louis stammered, unable to answer the dead man, trying to force the image from his mind. You’re not there. You’re not there. You’re not there. He squeezed his eyes shut.

“Nine.” Hayes’ voice was firmer and Hernandez seized it like a lifeline. When he opened his eyes again, the hall was empty, the second thing having followed the first into the crawlspace.

Louis gulped in a breath of the foul air, fighting the urge to vomit that came with it. “I’m good.” He looked over at the corporal. “I’m good.”

He couldn’t read anything in Four’s helmet, but the Halo’s head tilted in a nod. “Okay.”

~

Three men, each stripped naked and dumped like garbage. Two of them had been killed with a single shot to the back of the head, the third’s chest was cratered from a shotgun slug. Shannon took samples of their blood and tissues, but there were no matches to either Primal or Kerrigan’s crew. More of the station’s inhabitants; like the other ferals, they showed signs of malnutrition and past injury. More recently, their skin was criss-crossed with ugly stab wounds, epithets in the local tongue and at least two other languages carved crudely into their flesh. Bits and pieces had been cut from the bodies: the mens’ ears, noses, fingers, toes and genitals had all been severed. There was no pattern to the violence, nothing except an expression of rage.

“Are they Masks?” Emily asked, her voice hushed. “Are they?”

Shannon shook her head, lifting up one of the dead men’s hands. His palm was red. Not from blood, though – bright red paint. Acrylic. The one who’d been killed with the shotgun had a red palmprint pressed over his face – not his own. Too small and thin-fingered; a woman had applied this... war paint? “No,” she replied. “I think we’ve found the Red Hands.”

None of the other two men had the marking that this one did – a badge of command? “He was killed in a firefight,” she said, looking over the bodies. “The others surrendered; they were executed.” She frowned. Beneath the nails of the second executed man... she took a small pick out of her bag, scraping out the substance and scanning it with her lume. Flakes of skin, blood and white paint. She checked the other man. Nothing.

“This one fought back. After their commander was killed, they were told they’d be spared if they surrendered. That was a lie. When his friend was murdered, he jumped one of the enemy. The entry wound is at a different angle; that one,” she pointed at the other executed man. “Was shot while he kneeled. This one...” she took a closer look at the back of his head, confirming her suspicion. “Yes. He was pushed to the ground, the barrel against his skull.” Even under the scent of the blood and gunpowder, she could detect another scent. Once the bodies had been dumped here, they’d been urinated on.

Shannon stood. “There are five DNA types. There was another man here,” faint trails of blood and misshapen footprints led further up the hall. Something else had come calling, but unlike the other visitors, it had wanted its meal to be take-away. “Traces of blood on the others – there was a woman, too.” Shannon gestured to the dried pool beneath the piled corpses. “None of this is hers. If she was killed, she wasn’t dumped with the rest.” She didn’t look at her people. They knew what was on the other side of that if.

Nothing here is pure.

“But why dump them here?” Emily asked, her eyes still on the naked bodies. “They could have left them at the tram station. Why drag them this far?”

“Too easy to find,” Abigail answered, pre-empting Shannon’s reply. “Whoever did this didn’t want these poor bastards’ friends to find them that quickly.”

“Blood feud,” Shannon put in. “There’s a lot of spite in this. These wounds, the cutting – it was all inflicted post-mortem. They’ve been dead for a while, killed around the time Kerrigan put in, but only dumped here in the last few hours. That’s probably why they’re still here, but the scent’s going to draw more Turned. We need to keep moving.”

“We need to get out of these hallways,” Lutzberg grumbled.

Shannon nodded. “I know.”

~

It was confirmed: anomalous car movements; heading into the North Arm’s largest hive. Some Lost Ones had, long ago, attempted to seal that hive off from the rest of the station. They’d failed, but in the doing, they had crippled many of Vigil’s links throughout the entire section, making access and computer control throughout the North Arm much less reliable than elsewhere. It was frustrating. For some.

-desperate mice, scurrying and squeaking-

Barring damage caused by the Ribbons’ infestation, restoring control to that section would be relatively minor – but well outside the skill sets of the Lost Ones and most New Ones. Frankly, there was no pressing need for them to attend to it. The current state of affairs served them quite suitably. Even with its limbs hewn from it, Vigil knew who it belonged to.

-hungry-

However, there was still the matter of the overridden transport system. That, coupled with the New Ones’ recent visit to the Watcher’s little fortress made them a great deal less certain that this was simply some random, unaware flailing.

-they might understand-

That particular Lost One was a thorn.

-cut it from the branch, uproot the plant that carried it and burn the soil-

They would quicken their pace.

-faster-

And if the old man was watching through this his many eyes, they would give him something to watch, a reminder of who the cairn’s masters were.

-blood-

~

On Shannon’s map, this place was marked as a nursery – an incubator facility for seedlings where they could be germinated and grown before they were large enough to be moved into the hydroponics facility proper. In fact, it was one of several such complexes surrounding the multi-deck garden facility. You could grow sprouts in hydroponics itself, but these were also botanical laboratories where scientists could experiment with growing times, productivity and nutritional content in closed conditions.

Located between two parallel corridors, each of which led from the hydroponics complex back to the tram station, the nursery was also connected to several small offices, none of which had been in use for a very long time. In its heyday, the facility would have been a small, unassuming footnote to the station’s primary research complexes.

Now, it was a fire-blackened mess. No one expected food and oxygen-growing plants to pose much of a risk to health, but a full-purge quarantine system had still been installed. And, decades or centuries ago, someone had activated it. The bulkheads were charred, metal tables and chairs warped by the heat, their cushions reduced to ash, plastic dishes, pipettes and other miscellanea melted into unrecognizable slag. Nothing had grown here since.

“Seems defensible,” Louis said as he came down the lab’s stairwell. “The upper level only has one point of access and it’s still in a security lockdown. No one’s opened that door for... well, longer than any of us have been alive.”

“Must have tripped when someone activated the purge,” Abigail mused, pushing a heavy, deformed table up against the door the survivors had entered from. Outside in the hallway they could hear the warbling cries of hunters and the clank and clatter of grotesque bodies moving through the air ducts. The other hallway was silent, which was what you’d expect from a vacuum. Some of the offices were still pressurized; others had been decompressed in the same half-assed attempt at cutting off hydroponics from the rest of the DROP. Blast doors had closed on multiple levels – not so much isolating the Turned as funnelling them through specific chokepoints. By the same token, any attempt to get through to hydroponics would require using those same corridors – not something that would improve one’s life expectancy. As Bujold and Lutzberg wrestled another bit of furniture into position, Abigail turned towards Shannon. “Four?”

The redhaired woman was hooked into a data terminal, comparing the data on its monitor to that on her IDS. “The sections beyond are sealed with blast doors,” she said, not looking up as Imperial text flowed over the flickering computer screen. “Part of the quarantine. I can’t rescind those orders without command clearance. I can’t get that until we get into the station’s core.”

Abigail knew that tone. “But?”

“But the blast doors in the decompressed sections aren’t part of that directive. They were sealed with a general security order.”

“Is it part of that parasite program you mentioned?”

“No, this is clumsy. From the footprints left behind, someone hacked into the local network’s security protocols and triggered the lockdown. I can override it, but,” Shannon made a noise. “I can’t do it from here. The security shutdown is only part of the problem. As long as the door sensors still register each section as being pressurized, they’ll stay shut. I’ll have to open each section by itself.”

“Can’t you turn the environmental systems back on?” Lutzberg queried.

Shannon shook her head. “Not from here. This terminal’s outside the firewalls and it doesn’t have the authority to access those kinds of systems. I might be able to get through eventually, but I’m not a software specialist. There could be additional security precautions buried in here to prevent just that.” She called up a holographic map on her IDS. Some distance away and just off the decompressed hallway was a small room, a pulsing ‘goal’ marker set inside it. “There’s a small security/administrative substation nearby. If that terminal’s still working, it’ll have the access we need. We use it break the lockdown or restore environmental. Abigail and I are the ones with sealed suits, so we’ll go. Can you work on it from your end?”

The petty officer nodded. “Sure, yeah. I can do that. Not sure how much headway I’ll make – I’m not rated on Imperial tech – but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Good. Do what you can. We’ll contact the rest of you when we’ve got the doors opened and you can come through,” Shannon said. Louis and Emily looked distinctly unhappy to be left behind, but the rebreathers they had weren’t for use in vacuum. The relief coming from Lutzberg was almost palpable and Bujold... he was happy not to be going. His face was carefully blank, but it was in his eyes.

Hernandez gave Hayes and Hutchins an assuring nod, tired eyes above a wry, lopsided grin as he gave them the traditional Artemis wish for luck in EVA operations. “Breathe deep.”

Shannon nodded. “I’ve sent you a copy of the station’s layout. I marked where the ‘oasis’ is. You can use the time to plan out how we’re going to get there.” She said we’re, not you, if we don’t come back, but Louis understood all the same.

“Breathe deep,” he repeated, clasping each woman’s forearm in turn.

“Be careful,” Emily said softly, coming forward. For a moment, she looked as if she were going to give Shannon a hug, but instead took one of the mercenary’s hands in hers. “We’ll be waiting.”

Shannon nodded. “We’ll come back soon. I promise.”

As Abigail turned to follow Shannon into the offices, her voice clicked through on a private channel. “We’re not really going to bring them through with us, are we.” It wasn’t a question; she already knew what Shannon was going to do.

“No,” the Halo confirmed. “We’re not.”



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"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-10-31 08:07pm
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Jedi Knight
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In this chapter, we begin to see what those messages Primal sent out involving the word 'ammunition' were about.

Day four and you eat, even though you'll crave more.

Coming up: even in the void, they are watching you.

Happy Halloween!

Chapter 42:

Day Four:

Even here, amongst the girders and support beams, broken gantries, bracer arms, catwalks and small-craft landing pads that formed the periphery of the northern arm’s hangar, the sound of gunfire was almost deafening. However, if someone were to find themselves in a particular spot amidst the naked beams of metal, they might be able to pick out a single voice amidst the cacophony, a voice that was very close indeed.

“Which one, which one, which do I choose? Which will win and which will lose?”

Broken by a shuttle’s frantic build to escape, a mangled section of catwalk hung limply from the wall, its own weight slowly but surely straining the cables and rivets holding it in place. It would eventually break, but not today, or even tomorrow. Even with the additional weight on it.

“Fred’s too tall, of that I’m certain. He’d only be good for hanging curtains.”

One of the station’s many technical areas opened nearby, just inside the loading terminal that itself led onto the broken catwalk. This small chamber allowed service drones and personnel to maintain and operate some of the hangar’s minor local docking systems such as directional lighting and controls to extend, retract and move the nearby gantries to line up with an incoming vessel’s airlocks. More vital systems – such as the bay’s gravity, capture webs and internal defences – were operated from the control deck, which was some distance from here. This position hadn’t been selected for its technical usefulness, though; it had been chosen because the terminal was convenient to a luggage carousel which, in turn, was easily accessed via several maintenance tunnels and large air ducts.

“Sam’s too short to help with the chores. I might just lose him under the floor.”

The catwalk bowed a little, softly groaning as its weight shifted towards the broken end, claw-tipped feet and talonned fingers moving with surety over the metal. Toes dug in, legs tensed and then a shape launched itself off the crumbling walkway and into the abyss. It was the void’s for an instant only: a story below the crumbling gantry, a landing pad with a large shuttle, its door blown in by a shaped charge, provided a new perch.

“David’s too fat to be a good lover. Under him, I think I’d smother.”

The sound of gunfire was louder now: staccato rattles of rifles and carbines on burst and full auto fire, thuds and cracks of pistols, roars of shotguns, snarls of plasma and the shrieks of lasers. And there was screaming, of course. Shouts of encouragement, curses and even cries of agony. Ozone and cordite tickled the senses, the heady scent of blood beneath it, calling and cajoling.

“Bill’s too thin and wouldn’t stay. A good strong wind and he’d blow away.”

They’d formed a perimeter. Caltrops and crates. Wire and explosives. Tangling, maiming, shredding, killing. Holding. Only for a moment in the station’s life, but still holding for that moment. None of them looked up. None of them noticed the barest flickers of a lithe form’s darting movements, dropping one level closer to the newest of metal tombs.

“Will I be married in the spring or the fall? Will I even be married at all?”

A hunter had broken through the perimeter, its bullet-riddled bodied pulsing and writhing in an attempt to repair itself, but it simply couldn’t do so fast enough. That fact didn’t even register on its mind as it seized the nearest prey-thing, mouth splitting open and a sharp-edged radula of a tongue shredded its way through fabric, opening skin and flesh in seconds. A storm of metal tore the hunter apart, but it had already made its kill. Through some coincidence, glassy, fading eyes caught sight of the figure perched high above, a torn throat struggling for words as a shaking arm tried to point. And then, a rattle and rasp. Blood bubbled from greying lips and the prey-thing stilled forever.

“Which one, which one, which will I choose? Who will win and who will lose?”

Lips turned upward as red eyes drifted over the battlefield, listening to the sounds of it, inhaling the scents of it. Yes, the mind behind those eyes thought as it selected a target. That one.

~

“Talk to me, Shelby.”

Primal’s captain shook his head. “It’s no good, colonel. Our friends are still sitting out there.” He paused. “We don’t have many probes left, sir. We can’t keep sending them out – they’ll just keep picking them off.”

Colonel Paclan glared at the spacer, but any remonstration he could think off died before it ever reached his tongue. This wasn’t Shelby’s fault. In fact, the man had saved a lot of lives by getting Godfrey and G Squad out as quickly as he did; the Ghosts were a lynchpin of Bravo Company’s defences, shoring up the lines wherever they weakened and pushing those... those... things back time and again. “There’s still no word from home base?” he asked instead.

Shelby exchanged a quick glance with the frigate’s comm officer. The woman gave a minute shake of her head, the captain facing his superior once more. “No, sir. We can’t even tell if our messages are getting through to them.”

With an inarticulate snarl, Paclan shoved himself up from the console he’d been leaning over. Hundreds of millions of credits in military hardware, a crew of experienced, battle-hardened soldiers as well as some of the finer minds in the known galaxy and they were completely helpless, pinned in place. The colonel turned towards the bank of screens in the back of Primal’s cramped bridge. Too many of those biomonitors were flat-lined, too many more jumped and danced with adrenaline and combat drugs, while others slowly but surely eroded to nothingness as the men and women under his command fought and died to throw back this latest sortie. It might not have been as large as the first swarming assault, but it was still bad enough.

Bravo Company had made them pay, though. Oh yes. Over half the attacking force had been cut down before they’d even made it across the bay and the gantry Primal was docked to made a perfect chokepoint, funnelling that obscene horde into a killing field. But they kept coming. He’d seen things with their legs shot off dragging themselves onwards with taloned and scythed hands. Monsters whose nerve cords and bones, whose muscles and flesh needed to be pulverised under sheer weight of fire before they stopped moving and even then... arms and legs sprouted slithering, grasping tendrils. Decapitated heads sidled over the gore-strewn deck, shattered bodies pulling themselves together again and again.

After the second attack, they’d begun to send out flamer teams to sweep the carcasses with fire, burning the twitching bodies into bubbling, charred ruins... but they had to venture out beyond the protection of the barricades to do so. So far, he’d lost three people to enemy snipers – if you could call them that. Spitting mucous-bound balls of acid that could burn through armour in moments, or others that – he didn’t even know how they did it – heaved or spat or volleyed spears of bone with stunning force. They weren’t that accurate, but the force of the blow was enough to knock a man knock, just long enough for something that had been playing dead to leap on him...

Watching his people die – more than once, he’d wanted to pull the troops back inside the ship, using its own armour and weapons to defy the attackers but the truth was that Primal’s defences were intended to engage fast-moving targets up to thousands of kilometers away; they’d never been intended for this kind of close-range action and the ship itself simply didn’t mount enough guns to secure the bay, not when the enemy could slither along the walls, drop from the ceiling or skulk on the underside of the catwalk. They’d set up machine gun nests and other defensive positions on the frigate’s hull, but that still didn’t completely redress the situation. If he didn’t want those things banging on his airlocks, he needed to keep his people out there, holding the line.

The colonel dug his fingers into his palms, tasting the backwash of stomach acid and coffee in his mouth. What he wanted to do was gather everyone and evacuate. But he couldn’t do that, oh no. Sitting just outside the hangar, shadowed by the Mists was another vessel, just as large as Primal. Even from this distance, it was nearly impossible to get any detailed readings through the Mists – and the newcomer’s destruction of Primal’s probes didn’t help – but they made it clear that whoever they were, they certainly weren’t here to help.

They’re out there, a nagging a little voice whispered from inside his mind. Waiting for you. What do you think will happen if you try to leave? They’re not coming in. They know what’s happening. They know and now they’re waiting for you. Watching.

A sudden scream distracted Paclan and his head came up. Wasn’t this sortie almost over? His eyes darted over the monitor boards – there. Something had landed amidst the crew of one of the frigate’s weapons nests. The feed from Private Uday’s helmet cam spun crazily as a vicious backhand smashed the man off his feet-

-Sergeant Greene was shouting, raising her pistol towards the attacker-

-it grabbed private Ferguson by the helmet, hurling him into Greene and toppling both soldiers-

-a woman, it was a woman with fingers like knives-

-Uday was pulling himself up to his feet, reaching for his rifle-

-Greene and Ferguson were a tangled pile of confused, thrashing limbs-

-Corporal Levit was alone, raising his weapon and firing-

-her head snapped back as one of Levit’s bullet’s caught her high in the temple and she staggered, but didn’t fall-

-it was only a grazing hit-

-Paclan was shouting for his troops to assist the weapons team, but it didn’t matter, they wouldn’t get there in time-

-she moved, how could anything move that fast-

-Levit wasn’t in body armour, just a flak jacket and her claws tore him open-

-he fell as a bloody ruin, dying but not yet dead-

-she grabbed him and her lips moved. “You’re my choice.” Then she was gone. Except for the blood on the ship’s hull, there was no trace that anything had happened, that anyone named Corporal Alex Levit had ever been there.

Paclan’s knuckles were white, fingernails digging into his palm. The killer had gotten away with her prize.

Of course she had.

It took several moments before he could think clearly once more and several more moments before he could trust himself to speak, the sounds of battle slowly dying away, his response teams reporting in. “Send out the clean teams,” he ordered at last. “Send the wounded to the medical camp and get the engineers to rebuild the defences.”

This was the third attack they’d beaten back. There’d be another. And one after that. And one after that.

All of this was so damned useless.

~

What had once been an empty sickbay was now crowded, the overflow spilling out into the adjoining sections. They’d even had to set up a triage center outside the ship. There weren’t as many as there could be – it was guns against an angry mob, but it was an angry mob that sprinted faster than any human could, leapt and clawed and absorbed wounds that would have killed any other adversaries. Some got through. Not many, but enough.

Mandell chewed on a fresh piece of gum. His surgeon’s smock was covered with blood, sleeves smeared with it. His hands stunk of latex and antibiotic powder, a pair of filthy gloves added to the mound piling out of a waste receptacle. The casualties from this latest attack had been brought in. Six. Only Six. Not counting the luckless corporal Levit, of course.

Private Danielle Aberdeen. First-degree acid burns. Prognosis: optimistic

Sergeant Richard Hahcanthy. Dislocated shoulder, severe puncture wound to chest cavity, three broken ribs, hemothorax and respiratory distress. Current condition critical.

Lieutenant Linda Wu. Decapitated. Current location: morgue.

Corporal Hamish Nagashido. Blunt force trauma to skull. Concussion. Intracerebral haemorrhage, fractured occipital and parietal bones. Prognosis: wait and see.

Private Andrew Goely. Multiple puncture wounds and combination lacerations to the torso and throat, compounded by two bullets in the back when a panicked comrade attempted to shoot the thing attacking Goely off the unfortunate private. Now, he’d be lucky if he survived the hour.

Specialist Charles Price. Severe neck trauma and blood loss. Current location: right beside lieutenant Wu.

The doctor stood, making his rounds through the crowded ICU, ignoring the soft chirping and thrumming of biomonitors and medical machinery along with the pained breaths and pleas of the dying. Janice Siegerlester stared at him from her bed, the same question on her face that had been there ever since they’d bring her to him. Jonas felt his own eyes dart furtively away from the corper, her gaze burning a hole in his back. She’d lost her arms, both of them hewn from her body in a single strike. That could be fixed. Not with Primal’s meager medical reserves, but cloned limbs, regenerated tissues, prostheses... she could have her arms again.

If there hadn’t been something in her bloodstream eating her from the inside out. She’d asked him one time and one time only... and hadn’t spoken since. He couldn’t look at her, couldn’t face her. There were other patients, other people to take his mind away from the corper’s wordless plea. Don’t let me die like this.

“You’re lucky,” he said when he arrived at the last bed, where Veers still twitched in his drug-induced coma, his over-charged metabolism starting to spiral into a final collapse. “You haven’t had to see any of this.” His jaw worked and he fumbled in his pocket for a fresh piece of gum, but the package was empty. Damn.

“Excuse me, doctor?” a woman’s voice inquired and Mandell suppressed a sigh. Another question he couldn’t answer, another plea for a friend or brother, sister or lover. Another face he’d struggle to forget.

He turned. “Yes, miss...?” he recognized the woman; she was from Hadley-Wright’s biosciences division, but her name escaped him at the moment. “What did you need?” She didn’t looked injured. “If you’re hurt, see Luttenbaker or one of your own staff please, I-”

“I want to help,” she interrupted, looking around. “Medicine isn’t... I mean, I took a few courses before I switched to Biosciences, but if you need an extra pair of hands...”

It was the simplest offer, but Mandell still had to keep from weeping at it. “Yes,” he managed to say after a moment. “Yes, I can use the help. Thank you.”

~

She pressed the needle into the man’s flesh, and a soft sigh escaped him, his eyes clouding over as the drugs took effect. Mandell’s nurse had washed the mercenary’s wound twice, but the acid was so concentrated that even the remaining traces burned relentlessly, and the woman nodded at the merc’s mumbled words of thanks, clapping his hand once before tucking it back onto the bed. The man’s breathing evened out as he drifted to sleep. Across the room, Luttenbaker gave the newest volunteer an approving nod.

The frigate’s small medical bay was packed with the injured and the dying; they’d had to convert one of the nearby cargo bays into a makeshift field station, which Hadley-Wright’s own medical staff were supervising – Mandell received the most urgent cases, but it wasn’t really the people here she was interested in. Moving up one bed at a time, she got closer and closer to her target, offering encouraging words she didn’t believe to people she didn’t care about. This mission had gone to hell quickly. It was only luck that the I-series were here, otherwise the colonel would have cut and run hours ago. As it was, they were stuck here.

Her associate was finally doing something useful; he’d fought well on the line today and was starting to spread the belief that ‘turtling up’ wouldn’t save them – they needed to get to the station’s core. Better late than never and frankly, it didn’t matter if only one member of the team survived to get there – as long as she was that one. For her part, she’d been whispering in a few ears as well. Right now, her fellow corpers were so demoralized, they’d clutch at anything that would help them out. Less than one day after contact with the inhabitants and they were ready to curl into the fetal position.

Things were bad, but she had the benefit of a well-defined goal to aim for. It was still possible to get it done... just more difficult. She’d find a way. She had to.

The next man didn’t react to her presence at all, staring up at the ceiling and mumbling what sounded like a prayer against evil over and over, but as she listened, she realized that that was only part of it. The rest was something all too familiar, though she’d never experienced it personally – the half-mad whisperings and hushed rantings of a mind crumbling under F2’s influence. “It’s calling,” the merc whispered in a voice numb with horror, set upon by demons only he could envision. “It’s calling out and it’s so angry. Screaming in chains, scratching at the coffin’s lid.”

The woman nodded absently. Calling, watching, screaming, singing. Dead gods, demons, a guardian angel. Love, hate, desire, anger. It was always different, but always the same. Some took longer than others to succumb and some... some were immune. But for those who weren’t... stress did play a role, and the last day had been very stressful for some.

She touched a hand to his cheek. He was burning with a fever. “I’m sorry,” she said under her breath, so low that even if he realized she was there, he couldn’t have heard her. “For what it’s worth, none of this is personal. You just had the bad luck of getting picked.”

The man didn’t answer, still lost in his own world. “It knows we’re here. It knows our names. It’s calling, always calling...”

She patted him on the shoulder and moved on.

~

A nightmare. She was having a nightmare.

Twitching, muscles jerking, fighting, can’t stop.

She was dreaming, that was it. Wake up.

Burning, skin melting, bubbling, thick liquid everywhere, can’t breathe.

Wake up.

Cloying, dark and soft and wet and moving, can’t see.

Wake up.

Shaking, everything shuddering, sloshing and shivering, hands flailing, can’t stand up.

Please wake up.

Walls everywhere, finding them, beating against them. No openings, can’t get out.

She was somewhere dark and wet, filled with something too thick to be water. It burned every part of her. Hands and feet. Breasts and buttocks. Lips and vulva. Nostrils and throat. Eyes and ears. Thrashing, kicking, trying to make it stop, but it didn’t, it didn’t-

Noises. Muffled, words that weren’t words, the sound of something scratching, whispering in more not-words, can’t hear.

She wanted to scream, wanted to scream and never stop, but her lungs were full of the painful not-water, choking her and forcing her to breathe it, eating her from the inside out. Is it eating me?

Ripping. Sloshing, then spilling. Air on her face. Something – someone – reaching for her, something wet against her mouth, salty, can’t turn away.

A voice, the first she’d heard in hours, days, weeks, years. “Sister.” She’s so hungry. She wants to reach, to grab what’s being offered.

Tasting, chewing, stretching with arms, can’t fit them through the opening, trapped, being fed, can’t move.

Feeding now with a hunger she’d never felt before. She wanted, needed to eat, wolfing down wet gobbets of food – she didn’t know or care what it was, just that she needed more, slurping it out of her sister’s hand. I have a sister?

Eating, licking stringy bits off of claws, cutting lips and tongue in her urgency to feed. Stomach swelling to bursting, but still needing more. Pushed back into the not-water, sealed inside again.

More.

Please give me more.

~

She’d finally come to the end of the beds. Just past the woman with no arms and the blank-eyed stare. “You’re really suffering, aren’t you?”

There was no answer, not that she’d expected one from Veers. The woman kept an eye on his readings; even with the sedatives pumped into him, his sleep was fitful, rising to just below consciousness before falling to comatose as the R-series in his body battled the many treatments attacking it. His organs had started to break down, a hideous network of filaments growing throughout his body, entwined into every system, slithering up his spine into his brain. The slickribbons. Half-alive, half something else. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” she said. “It’s not your fault.” Unlike the hallucinating mercenary, even with gloves on, she didn’t try to touch Veers. “But it still happened. I think the others realize it – that you’re going to die. But they don’t want to give up on you.” A beat. “If you were awake, you’d be tearing at your own skin from the pain. It won’t stop. Not ever. Not until you die.”

She took a quick look around. Mandell and Luttenbaker were with other patients, and the handful of other volunteers were elsewhere. The only one watching was Siegerlester and the dismembered woman met her compatriot’s eyes evenly, knowing what she was going to do, if not why. Janice nodded once, then stared down at herself, at the ruined stubs of her arms and the ashen colour of her sweat-slick skin, the way her veins stood out against it, looking back up at the other woman. She didn’t speak, but the question was obvious.

The woman nodded in response. Siegerlester’s mouth opened in a smile of desperate hope. She closed her eyes and turned away from Veers’ bed, still smiling and shaking a little as she eagerly awaited her turn.

Contrary to Mandell’s belief, the R-series wasn’t impervious to biological or chemical agents. But it was extremely resilient to virtually all forms of attack, just as its creators had intended. ‘Resilient’ and ‘invincible’ were not synonymous, though. With more time and better facilities, the woman was sure even the merc doctor could have found, at the least, a stopgap solution.

Fortunately, she had access to the work of people who’d had both of those in spades and the syringe in her pocket was the culmination of six hundred years’ worth of improvements on that. She pulled the cap off, giving the glass tube a tap with one finger, stirring the contents. She reached out, turning over one of the petty officer’s arms. Even against the latex of her gloves, his flesh felt hot and clammy. He’d been moved further up into the ICU and either through complacency or forgetfulness, hadn’t been bound again. Mandell and Luttenbaker either assumed the petty officer’s somnolence would continue, or there was so much going on that they’d forgotten he was supposed to be restrained. Even more reason that he had to die now and hang the consequences.

She didn’t have a eulogy to give and her apology – such as it was – had already been offered. There was nothing else to do but exchange one life for many.

The woman leaned in, the insistent beeping of the biomonitor suddenly drawing her attention. Maybe it was the scent of all the blood in the air, stirring some subconscious process in the petty officer’s mind. Maybe he’d somehow sensed her presence. Maybe it was nothing more than the horror-movie cliché coincidence it appeared to be, but Jason Veers was waking up. He started to jerk, lips moving in an attempt to form words. His arm twisted out of her grasp, nearly knocking the syringe out of her hand. The woman grabbed him again, holding his arm tightly. “Stay still,” she hissed urgently, about to inject him. Just for one second.

“Hold him!” Dr. Mandell suddenly shouted as he noticed the petty officer’s awakening, shoving his way to the woman’s side. “Damn it, Veers was supposed to be restrained!” he accused blindly. “Daisy, get me another dose of sedrobarbital!” At the doctor’s touch, Veers started fighting even more, wriggling his arm out of his would-be killer’s grasp a second time.

Restraining the urge to swear, she tried to hold him in place. Even now, Mandell was holding Veers by the shoulders, not looking at her...

The petty officer’s eyes opened, sclera reddened by burst capillaries. Ignoring Mandell’s attempts to calm him, he wrapped his arms around the doctor and jerked his head forward, sinking his teeth into the other man’s throat. Mandell’s cry of pain ended in a wet gurgle as Veers began to chew. He was distracted and the woman jabbed the needle into his forearm, emptying it in less than a second. She’d hit muscle, not the blood vessel she’d been aiming for.

Veers flung Mandell away – there was no time to see if the doctor was still alive – and lunged at her, but his body was numb from the drugs and he fell off the cot, floundering on the ground. He screamed then, from a mouth dripping with arterial blood, a wordless cry of hatred and pain from a mind that wasn’t quite sane any longer. He grabbed at her ankles, but she kicked him back, his hands finding Siegerlister’s mattress, pulling himself up.

The woman grabbed Luttenbaker as she tried to rush to Mandell’s aide. “Get back!” she snapped at the nurse. “Stay away from him!”

“Security!” the medical technician shouted into her comm. “Security to Medical ICU, now!”

Grinning with a mouthful of pink teeth, Veer took another step towards the women. With the syringe still protruding from his arm, he began to claw at his face, leaving bloody welts as his fingernails dug into his skin. “I don’t... I don’t understand,” he said, that rictus never leaving his lips as he mutilated himself. “Where’s Gemma? Where is she?” Then, as if some switch in his tormented brain had just flipped, he clawed his wounds wider and screamed. “It hurts!” His jaw worked as if chewing on something and he leaned over Siegerlester, drool spilling from his lips. “I want her back.” As he bent down, the woman could see the strange shape of his back, the protrusions of flesh tenting his hospital gown. “You took her from me,” he whispered hatefully, saliva pattering onto Janice’s terrified face as his hand closed around her throat.

Luttenbaker tried to lunge, to save the helpless woman as Veers strangled her, but her companion held onto her, still dragging her away. Like the other mercenary, Veers was beyond reason.

“I want her back,” he said, almost calmly as the light dimmed in Siegerlester’s eyes. Then: “I want her back!” he shrieked, jerking the woman up and, like Mandell, tearing out her throat with his teeth. As he let Janice fall back to the bed, there was a strange mixture of terror and relief on the woman’s face. She’d gotten what she wanted, but in the worst way.

Veers bent low, coming up with a surgical scalpel that had spilled from Mandell’s pockets as the doctor struggled with him. “You took her,” the petty officer repeated. “Where is she?”

The doors hissed open.

The security team didn’t even bother with a warning. Thunder clapped inside the cramped ICU, a half-dozen red blotches blown across the front of Veers’s gown and he toppled to his knees. “I’ll find her,” escaped his stained lips as he fell over, red eyes staring up from the floor at the woman who’d killed him. At least, she hoped that was what she’d done. If she’d gotten a vein like she’d aimed for...

Whispering comforting words to a shaking Nurse Luttenbaker, she escorted the woman out past the security team, though her attention was still on the slumped form of Petty Officer Jason Veers, still glaring at her from behind his tainted eyes.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-11-16 01:11pm
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Jedi Knight
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In this chapter, Shannon and Abigail learn that 'deserted' does not mean 'undefended' and a few stress fractures start to appear elsewhere...

Coming up: unique employment opportunities

Chapter 43:

They sealed the door behind them, using one of the abandoned offices as an impromptu airlock. There were a pair of abandoned desks here, ancient flimsies, datascrolls and office supplies scattered about. No blood. No spent shell casings or depleted cartridges. No mummified remains or faded blood sprays. Just a long-empty office, evacuated in a rush and neglected ever since that moment. On the left-hand table, a pad of brittle yellow paper held the faded remnants of someone’s scrawled to-do list, a litany of banal activities, but one entry in particular caught Shannon’s eye:

Buy Julie’s b-day present.

“Solid,” Abigail confirmed as she turned away from their point of entry. “Opening the next one won’t leak out the lab’s air.” She took a step towards the other door, but Shannon’s arm snapped out across her chest, halting the Darkknell in her tracks. “Ah,” the taller woman nodded. “Right. I forgot.”

“You’ve been scratching at it,” Shannon said, inspecting Hutchins’s neck.

“Not that much...” there was just the slightest little hint of wheedling in Abby’s tone.

“No, and you’ve stopped yourself a few times. But once or twice you didn’t notice, or thought I wouldn’t. Now hold still.”

Abigail couldn’t help it; she grinned at the familiar tone to Shannon’s voice.“Yes, mom.”

Unlike lighter gauze bindings and breathable fabrics, sealed combat bandages were intended to provide a bulwark against further infection in hazardous conditions and to hold up against hostile environments just as well as a bodyglove. Using a squeeze tube of ancient but still effective biofoam to further seal the edges of her ‘big sister’s’ injury, Shannon at last ran her lume over it, the light in the palm-set scanner checking for imperfections in the sealant while the sensor node ran its own analysis. The medic nodded. “It looks good. No air leaks?”

Abigail ran a quick diagnostic; her HUD flashed a green wireframe. “None. Ready to move out, sir.”

The Halo’s hand came to rest on the access panel, unused for centuries, but her palm’s lume still detected the flow of power. The door was sealed and sealed tight, but it wasn’t one of the heavy security/decompression doors that had chopped the other corridor into segments. “You can stuff your ‘sir’,” Shannon said with a smile as she keyed the door open. At her command, it jerked on its track, long-neglected gears unable to open fully; only an inch, perhaps a bit more. That was more than enough.

The air howled out of the room, stirring up short-lived flurries of dust and litter that were pulled out into the decompressed hallway. It was only a small office and, as the two women hauled the door further open, the whistling pull of air slowed and softened, until everything was still and silent.

As she stepped through the door into the next cramped office, Shannon felt her equilibrium shift; the gravity plating in this section wasn’t completely down, but it wasn’t working properly either. She hesitated, remembering the crushing pull of the plates that had held her and her people down as the Masks came for them, the rage she’d felt at the Watcher’s whispered ordered to stop fighting. This isn’t like that, she told herself, hoping that that wasn’t another lie.

Like the rest of this area, the corridor was completely dark. Even blacklight needed some light to function and she snapped on a torch, letting its brilliance wash through the abandoned office. Just like the first, save for the message scrawled upon one bulkhead.

WE HAVE SINNED.

“Eleven minutes,” Shannon said, taking her first tentative step forward, the magnetics on her boots clamping against the deck. “No sightseeing.”

“Too bad. I wanted to ride the Ferris wheel.”

Shannon’s smile was audible. “Maybe next time, Three.”

~

“So,” Bujold drawled as he ambled up behind Emily. “Been a crazy day, hasn’t it?”

The doctor didn’t look up; she was on the upper floor of the botanical lab, looking through the leftover documents in one of the corner offices. Most of it was useless, of course – even Imperial batteries bled out over six centuries, but a datapad here or datascroll here had enough of a charge to let her look through them. Of course, those that did were just as worthless as those documents with depleted batteries. If their files weren’t corrupted from six centuries of decay and neglect, then they recorded the most banal information possible. Growth rates for some researcher’s pet hybrid. Records of changes to soil and liquid nutrient mixes, bacterial and rhizome metagenomics. A personal log that slowly chronicled its owner’s ongoing descent into paranoia. “Yes,” Emily answered at last as she hooked the latter file up to a small battery pack, not even sure why she was bothering – like the paper journal Shannon had found in the crew quarters, this would chronicle nothing but this long-dead man’s mental deterioration. Most of the data was damaged and incomplete anyways. Video would cut out, freeze, or jump ahead. The sound would go dead in places or got washed out with static in others.

She frowned as she looked again at the last entry: as the man recited another diatribe about his co-workers, she could hear alarms go off in the distance. What date was this made?

“Pretty crazy,” Bujold said, taking her single-syllable response as an invitation. Delphini looked up; the corper security guard was standing in the doorway, leaning against it like some old-Earth ranch-hand. All he needed was the ten-gallon hat on his head and stalk of grass between his teeth. In any other place, that pose might have seen as benign, almost comical. Here, in the pervasive gloom of the empty laboratory, half-lit by the glow from Emily’s flashlight, the security guard’s laconic slouch seemed far more menacing.

“Who would have thought that someplace like this actually existed? DROP 47,” he shook his head. “Probably find the Easter Bunny here, chewing on Santa’s jolly old gut.”

Emily made a noise, a low mmm of acknowledgement before glancing back at her work. “Of course,” Bujold continued. “We might actually survive this. We’ve got an honest-to-God Halo on our side, don’t we? I think you’ll do all right. She’s definitely sweet on you.” He leaned over the desk. “So I hope you won’t take offence if I plant myself close to you. Besides,” he smiled. “You remind me of someone.”

“Do I?” she replied distractedly.

“Yep. Someone very close to my heart.”

“I hope you get the chance to see her again.”

Bujold nodded, patting one of Emily’s hands with one of his own. “Maybe I will.”

The doctor came to her feet, pulling her hand out from under his. The wheels of the aged chair behind the desk squealed as Emiy’s abrupt movement pushed it away, bouncing against the back wall. Bujold was a tall man; even leaning over the table, he could still meet her eyes. “What do you want?” she asked.

“Like I said,” he said, making a half-assed attempt at a ‘western’ drawl. “I just want to stick right close to you. I get the feeling you’re going to be one of the survivors o’ this debacle. Tell me I’m wrong.” Those last four words came out harder, clipped and precise and in a very different accent. There was a twinkle in his eye and Emily knew that that hadn’t been a slip; he’d wanted her to hear that.

“We’re all going to survive.” The petite woman moved away, trying to slip out the door, but Bujold reached out, one arm against the wall, cutting off her retreat.

Silhouetted from the glow of her torch, Bujold was still smiling. “That a fact?”

“Yes.” Emily was pressed back against the wall, wondering if she should just duck under the corper’s arm and run for it. “It is. You heard Sha- Corporal Hayes.”

“I heard her,” Bujold admitted. “But I don’t believe her. That little performance in the tram – you think she’s going to keep us alive? I bet you’ve already got a contingency.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah? Maybe I’m wrong.”

“You are.”

He reached forward, taking a strand of the woman’s auburn hair and twirling it around his finger. “It could be... but the resemblance – it’s uncanny. I could swear that you’re twins. Maybe you even know her. If you did, that would make me smile.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Emily snapped, her eyes narrowing. “But I don’t know this person.”

“You seem awfully sure. She was very important to me. To some friends of mine. Why, I’d do anything for her. I really would.” Bujold let go of Emily’s hair, tracing his fingers down to where her corporate insignia had been on her lab coat. He tapped the fabric of her shirt, just above her breast. “She had a thing for unicorns.” He met her eyes, but whatever he was looking for in them, he didn’t seem to find it. “You sure you don’t know this woman?”

“I’m positive.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” the taller man turned and took his leave. There was a touch of confusion in his eyes, as if he was afraid he’d made some mistake. “But if you think you remember her – you be sure and let me know, will you?”

“I’ll do that,” Emily seethed through clenched teeth.

Bujold offered her another folksy, dumb-but-earnest grin again, pantomiming tipping a hat to her. “Thank you kindly ma’am. If you need anything, you just let me know.”

The woman watched the man’s shadow fade back into the darkness, letting out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

~

There was no sound in a vacuum, of course. The air pulled out from the single small office was hardly enough to fill the many dozens of meters of hallway, side corridors and abandoned rooms, so Shannon felt rather than heard it: the grinding and lurching of ancient gears shifting, the interlocking halves of a heavy blast door drawing apart, back into the bulkheads. Abigail’s boot noiselessly crunched the smashed bits of the door’s sensor as the private moved into the next section, sweeping her carbine across the entryway. “Clear,” her voice clicked through Shannon’s earpiece.

The medic followed her ‘big sister’ through into the next section. Like the previous part of the hallway, it was empty and utterly dark, lit only by the diffuse beams coming from the womens’ torches. Abigail had attached hers to the side on the side of her carbine, Shannon carrying hers in a ‘Harries’ grip: her wrists crossed, torch parallel to the barrel of her gun. Until yesterday, she’d never killed anyone and had only fired in combat once, helping supply covering fire. Now she could feel... different, part of her mind calculating firing lines, planning how to move, what to do if a Turned appeared, crawling from that open vent. Lurching from that open door. Charging from that corridor.

It felt... wrong to be thinking about these things. But she couldn’t make herself stop. Couldn’t make herself shake the tiny part of her that wanted it, that felt... soothed by it.

“Frosty?” Abigail’s voice broke the silence and Shannon nodded.

“Frosty.”

“Next door’s ahead,” Abigail quipped as she scanned an empty incubator, desiccated plant stalks floating like dead insects in the chamber’s null gravity. “Motion tracker’s still blank. Guess these things don’t like vacuum.”

“Let’s hope so,” Shannon replied, nodding at the next door’s sensor. “Like we did before?”

“That’s affirmative, Four. I don’t fancy breathing space.”

~

They were screaming.

Always screaming. Always crying out as the flames washed over them. Men and women dancing like spastic marionettes as bulky, silver nightmares marched among them, burning everything. Flesh and wood. Bone and metal. Asphalt bubbled from the heat, heavy-treaded footprints left in the killers’ wake. One of them turned towards him, faceless but for the black visor covering its eyes, orange in the flickering lights that surrounded it. A heart beat within its chest and there was blood in its veins, but it was neither man nor woman. Not in this moment.

The pilot light of its flamer capped on. Somewhere under its helmet, he thought he heard it laughing, but he knew that was only his imagination...

Louis jerked awake, sucking a gasp of air as he looked around, half expecting a wave of fire to wash over him, half-expected to be back in Landing on that hellish night. The night when a city had burned. When they’d broken their word. The mercenary reached up and brushed a hand through his hair. It was soaked with perspiration. He took in a breath, almost grateful for the stale odour of dust and stagnant air that filled the room, mingling with the aroma of drying sweat and blood that clung to him. No ash. No burning meat.

“Just a dream,” he said to himself, scratching at the back of his head. “Just a dream.”

To his right, PO Lutzberg had picked up where Hayes had left off, trying to get a half-dead computer system to respond to his summons as their ‘good friend’ the Watcher talked him through it, but neither was getting anywhere. This part of the station was one of the sections out of the old man’s control and could only offer – virtually incomprehensible – advice. Louis listened in for a few moments, but tech problems were out of his reach at the best of times. When described by someone as bugged as the Watcher? Way above his payscale.

Delphini had retreated upstairs to look for anything useful, but this lab had been locked for six hundred years. No guns, no food, nothing worth reading. Louis wished the doctor luck, but he suspected she’d need it. He frowned, realizing they were a man light.

“Lutzberg-”

“He went upstairs,” Armin snapped distractedly, returning his attention back to his comm. “Yes, I heard you, but that doesn’t make any sense! No, slow down, I can’t follow that-”

Louis nodded, easing off the desk he’d been sitting on and left the petty officer to his work. It was hard to move, like his whole body was caught in mud; the weight of his armaments was only part of it. Aside from brief catnaps on the tram, he hadn’t slept in over a day. If it weren’t for the stims his armour’s phylactery was doping him with, he didn’t know if he’d be able to stand. The mercenary checked his small IDS and grimaced. His taps were running low. He didn’t know how Hutchins and the Halo were set for pharms, but he was going to hit empty pretty soon.

Help, a voice whispered out of the darkness. Help.

Louis looked up, trying to find the source of the noise. He glanced back at Lutzberg, but the technician was still ensconced in his work.

Help, it came again. Weak, distant. Help me.

Was it coming from upstairs? Had something gotten in? He should have heard something more than that – shots, screams – shouldn’t he? Without trying to run, Louis forced himself to move briskly up the stairs to lab’s upper level, one finger tapping on Betsy’s chassis, the auto-shotgun cradled in his arms.

Bujold was sitting on a desk, leaning back against the wall. He looked up as the gleam from Louis’s tactical flashlight fell on him. “Everything all right?” the corper asked.

“Yeah,” Hernandez replied, feeling some of the tension drain away. “Where’s Delphini?”

The guard pointed to one of the corner offices, the faint glow of reflected light washing out of its windows and open door. “Busy.”

Louis nodded, rapping on the doorframe before peering inside. “Dr. Delphini?”

“Yes?” the small woman was sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by flimsies, datapads and ‘scrolls, examining each for functionality before tossing the dead ones into a pile in one corner. She looked up. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah,” Louis answered. It wouldn’t give the civvies any confidence in him if he started tweaking. “I just wanted to see if you’d found anything interesting.”

She shrugged. “No. Most of these systems are dead and those that aren’t – this is just a small hydroponics nursery. The most interesting thing I’ve found is this,” she picked up one ‘pad, coming smoothly to her feet. “It’s just one researcher’s personal log – most of the files are corrupt, but this last one...” she thumbed the ‘play’ button, scratching behind one ear as the vid ran, the alarms interrupting his diatribe.

“That’s a station-wide alert,” Louis realized as he leaned forward; Imperial security procedures were very good, from strategic intelligence down to base personnel. That was one reason why Earth had retained its technological edge throughout the war. The Coalition had thrown more resources into acquiring Imperial tech than they’d ever gotten back out of the project. With rare exceptions, catastrophic security breaches – particularly on high-security bases like 47 – just did not happen. “What was it for?”

The doctor shook her head. “There’s no security screen in the camera’s field of view, so there’s no way to see what other information is coming through. I don’t really know how to tell the difference between the alerts without that.”

Louis put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. Besides, I think we know what that alert was about.”

“No,” Emily insisted, her tone unusually forceful. “We don’t.”

“You want help looking? I can get Bujold to-”

“I’m fine,” Delphini interrupted brusquely. “I mean... I can handle this on my own.”

The mercenary shrugged. “Then see what you can find out. If you come up with anything, let me know.” He headed back out of the office. He didn’t really expect anything from those records, even if the doctor could salvage them. But it would give her something to do. Something to focus on. This place played tricks on your mind if you weren’t...

Help, the distant voice called again. Help, please.

...careful.

In the corner, just briefly illuminated by the sweep of his flashlight, Louis saw a man in a charred suit standing there. Dead and burned, half his face rotted away.

Help, that plaintive call came again. Still distant, as if someone was just outside the lab. You were supposed to help us.

You’re not there, Louis repeated the mantra to himself. You’re not there. Go away. “Go away,” he breathed. When he looked again, the figure was gone.

I’m not seeing this, the mercenary told himself. I’m not. I’m not. I won’t. I won’t It’s over. It’s done.. He wished he could believe that, even as the voice in the darkness called again.

Help me.

Please...

~

Shannon didn’t like this part of the station. Of course, there wasn’t any part of DROP 47 that she liked. While it was possible that the station’s core was perfectly fine, somehow, she rather doubted that. Still, that didn’t change the fact that this was rapidly joining the ever-growing list of Places To Never Revisit. The malfunctioning grav plates made movement tricky; some were almost triple Earth-normal, others less than a percentage of that. Still more had shut down completely. Shell casings bounced and drifted through the airless hallway, pulled down by heavier grav fields before bouncing back up to the ceiling as they skidded onto weaker plates. A desiccated male corpse was pressed up against the ceiling, pinned there by a reversed grav field, mummified by the vacuum. Its clothes weren’t Imperial; whoever he had been, he had probably died here when the section was sealed. Trapped by whomever had attempted to seal hydroponics off from the rest of the station.

Like creeper vines claiming a building, black veins poked out of air vents and maintenance shafts, winding over the walls, the ceiling and floor like writhing worms, flash-frozen in their undulations.

“I don’t get it,” Abigail murmured as she stepped around a handful of tubules hanging limply from the ceiling, poking through the grille of an air vent. “Is this stuff still alive? How can it be?”

“Life’s hardier than you might think,” Shannon answered as she ran her lume over some of the veins. Yes; each was sheathed in a waxy cuticle that protected it from desiccation. “Some arthropods can be frozen solid for weeks and survive. Sponges, arrow worms and water bears can all enter crytobiotic states, shutting down their metabolism – even breaking down their own tissues into an amorphous mass of cells so that they can survive harsh conditions. Colonies of archaea have been resurrected after 250 million years of dormancy.” She followed the lines of branching veins, careful not to touch any of them. They might be dormant, might be harmless. Or they might not be either of those things. “That’s what moved panspermia from fringe science to valid theory.”

“Yeah, two thousand years and we still can’t decide if life began on Earth or not,” Abigail snorted. Growing up on Darkknell, she’d never once known what ‘panspermia’ or ‘cryptobiosis’ were and wouldn’t have cared if she had. The things you learned from having a Halo squadmate. “I’ll let the eggheads argue that. I just have to wonder – if we’re all the result of some fucking chunk of ice splashing down in the primordial soup... where’d that life come from?”

“Good question,” Shannon replied, still studying the growths overtaking the wall. The Watcher... he’d called this kind of growth ‘the spread’. And they were growing, extending from the pressurized sections into the vacuum. Why? These growths were few and far between, but the fact was that they were still here. They’d advanced into an incredibly hostile area, draining nutrients and resources from the rest of the... organism. It had to serve a purpose. Shannon had an idea of what it was, and she didn’t like it.

Abigail’s helmet cocked towards her. “There’s that tone again. What are you thinking?”

“Something I really don’t want to be thinking,” the shorter woman answered. About more than one thing. “Whether I’m right about it or not won’t help us right now. Let’s just keep moving and... make sure you don’t touch any of these things.” She hesitated. “I think they’re some kind of sensor organ.”

Abigail had been reaching towards one of the dangling veins, ducking her hand back at Shannon’s warning. “Has it felt us moving?”

“I don’t know,” Shannon replied. “I don’t know how sensitive they are.”

“Ah. No touching it is, then.”

~

“Dad?”

“Yes, honey, sweetie, darling? Daddy’s very busy, trying to get a very stupid man to do something right for once.”

Small hands lifted a dented, once-gleaming serving tray up to a table. There was a steaming bowl sitting on the platter, matching it in both condition and colour. “I made soup.” Chunks of a chopped ration bar floated in hot water, splashing over the top as those tiny hands adjusted the tray.

The Watcher smiled, sparing a moment to pat one of his many daughters on the head. “Thank you. Go play with the others now. I’ve got lots of work to do.”

He heard the child’s feet pad out of the room, his attention already focused back on his banks of monitors, chair squeaking and bouncing as it rolled over the cables that criss-crossed the floor, eyes darting back and forth, checking a specific status indicator against and again. “Come on,” the Watcher whispered as he cradled the bowl in his hands and slurped back a mouthful of watery gruel. “Don’t disappoint me, angel.”

~

If there had been air, the wet pops and snaps of snapping ligaments would have been clearly audible, a punctuation on Abigail’s hissed expletive. Instead, there was only silence as the third security door ground open, exposing the broken ends of the veins where its opening halves had pulled them apart, ragged tips briefly drooling fluid before internal valves closed them, small globules of ichor drifting in the near-zero gravity. Tripwires.

Of course.

Shannon felt it rather than heard it: a vibration that shuddered through the deck. Faint; under normal circumstances, it would easily be missed.

“Motion,” Abigail said, confirming Shannon’s suspicion.

She turned around, the beam of her light catching a piece of metal as it bounced out of a doorway, one of the thinner plates used on the walls here. There was a moment of stillness and then it lurched into the hallway, still stretching its long-unused muscles. How long it had slept behind the walls, she didn’t know. Only that they’d woken it up. Like the Unity thing, it was no longer recognizable as human, encased in a sleek black exoskeleton, but unlike its larger cousin, it was utterly clad in this armour, joints protected with a cloudy tegument. Moulded to fight in vacuum, its feet were equal parts fly and gecko, allowing it to stick to any surface.

It began to move through the low gravity with greater surety, recovering quickly – too quickly – from its somnolence. It had no eyes, not in the classical sense. Where its original form had once held them, there were only sensory pits, several more dotting its stretched skull, giving it a three hundred and sixty degree field of ‘vision’. Its arms split at the elbows, massive mantis-like talons laying back against its upper arms while dextrous clawed fingers stretched forth from thin, ugly hands. Obsidian talons sprouted and retracted into the inside joints of its fingers like an inverted set of brass knuckles, meant to hold and tear its prey while it fed.

Its lipless mouth was sealed with a transparent flap of skin, long teeth grinning in a permanent rictus as its tongues writhed in waking hunger. There was no trace of the person it had once been, whether man or woman. It had been changed into something awful. Killed and reborn to continue the cycle of slaughter.

It takes pieces. And puts them back together.

And it wasn’t alone. Three other Turned slouched alongside it, each of them plated and protected from the void just like the first. A swollen belly churned with acid. Arms were elongated into grappling tendrils. A mouth was distended into a lamprey’s sawing gape. Lower jaws fused and twisted in a jutting hook, like a nymph’s labial palps. Fingers fused into hacking scythes and gnarled, rending claws. Tumescent respiratory vents gleamed with liquid where the creatures had torn themselves loose from whatever support system had nourished them during their hibernation. Sleeping guardians, just waiting for someone to be stupid enough to come this way.

How many? How many more horrors did 47 have burrowed away, waiting to unveil?

As the light touched them, they charged, leaping more than running through the low gravity. Behind their sealed mouths, they were screaming, eager to rip the protecting membrane open and glut themselves on the blood meal that had so eagerly walked into their lair.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-11-27 12:55pm
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Jedi Knight
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Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
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Day five and you're happy to just be alive. One tale closes, as others begin to unravel themselves...

Coming up: Knock knock.
Who's there?
Eye.
Eye who?
Eye see you.

Chapter 44:

Day Five:

It was cold here.

Quiet, too. The only sound was the rattling and muted rumbling of the air vents as they worked to keep the chamber as cold as possible. Reams of frost touched the walls along the seams between bulkheads and the hinges of doors. There was no motion. Nothing but the slow rippling of plastic and cloth in the chilled, recirculated air as body bags and soiled blankets stirred in the artificial breeze.

Dog tags had been collected and corporate IDs removed. Casualties recorded, a copy of the names left on a glowing terminal that someone had forgotten to turn off.

The overhead lights bathed the entire scene in a cold blue glow, making the room’s chill seem deeper and the chamber even less inviting. One small detail among many. A pale hand hung out from beneath a sheet. Red streaks marred the floor, where one corpse was dropped and hastily dragged into place beside another. A shape inside a body bag that ended at the shoulders. Many little things.

And one not so little.

“Aaah!” Jason screamed as he bolted upright, clawing at the vinyl covering his face, flingers blindly fighting with the zipper, pulling it down and blinking in discomfort as the soft blue light touched his eyes and the chill of the makeshift morgue puckered his skin. Panting, the petty officer rolled onto his side. “What...” he said into the silence. “What...” What am I doing here? Where is everyone?

unsafe

He kicked the bag off and rolled on his side, wincing and putting a hand to his ribs as pain shot through him, biting back a scream as he moved his right arm and a spiderweb of agony radiated out from it. He looked down. “What...” His entire forearm was discoloured as if it were a single, ugly pus-bloated bruise. The skin of his arm was sagging away from the muscle as the tissue beneath it decayed, the nerves within singing in constant pain. Sickly dark trails shot up past his elbow like blood poisoning, as if the infection were still spreading. He could barely use the limb at all; his hand was completely numb, dying nerves and muscles causing his fingers to twitch spasmodically.

His breath created steam clouds in the air as he stood up, shaking on his legs. The scent of blood and meat filled the room and his stomach gurgled. What happened? He was still trying to comprehend the situation as he staggered towards the door. Every part of his body seemed to pulse with dull, throbbing aches, his stomach churning, craving... just craving. He blinked against the light; it was low, but it still hurt his eyes.

The petty officer looked around – there was no one here. Shouldn’t there be someone here? Gemma – where was she? He couldn’t... there were flashes, images he couldn’t quite see. Words he couldn’t quite hear. He knew that they explained this, but he couldn’t...

too cold

Panting, Jason braced himself against the computer terminal. It beeped as he pressed down on a key, catching his attention as the system came out of standby. He frowned, trying to make sense of the words, his tired brain finally realizing what it said there. Casualty List. And there, at the top of the screen, was his name.

JASON VEERS (petty officer, 1st class)

find nest

He shook his head. No. No, that’s impossible. It’s a joke. Some sick joke they’re playing. “You’re lying,” he snapped, suddenly angry, pounding a fist on the keyboard. “You’re lying! You’re lying!” And then, he noticed the ragged gaps in the pale, red-stained hospital gown he was wearing. Six of them, staggered across his chest. Bullet holes. He touched a finger to one, poking it through and touching his chest. He couldn’t feel any wound, but the flesh there felt... odd. Jason remembered looking down the barrel of a gun, the feel of the bullets as they entered his chest. His eyes became unfocused as the memory came crashing back, bucking as if he were being shot all over again. “You shot me,” he managed to gasp. “You shot me.” Why? Why did they shoot me? What happened?

“This isn’t real,” he said to himself as he felt something shift under the patched skin, moving of its own accord. “This isn’t real.” Please God, make this not real. Then: “You killed me!” he screamed to the air, seizing the computer in both hands, ignoring the agony that shot through his decaying arm as he shook the terminal violently. “You fucking bastards! You shot me and left me here like garbage!” Even his rage wasn’t enough to overcome the pain razoring through his body and he had to stop, cursing quietly and cradling his arm. The exertion had split his skin, dead, grey strips of epidermis hanging off the diseased flesh. “What did you do to me?” he asked no one in particular.

A woman, there had been a woman... she’d had a needle.

They did this to me. They poisoned me, shot me. Why? Why? Where’s Gemma? Gemma... he remembered her, but... where was she? He hurriedly scrawled through the list of names, but didn’t see hers. “They took her,” he breathed, equal parts shock, horror and fury. That’s why they did this. To keep me from her. Jason laughed, bracing his good arm against the wall, manic giggles yelping from between his gritted teeth.

“I trusted you,” he said to the air. “I trusted you all...” He touched a hand to his head. His skin felt clammy and warm. Too warm. What did that bitch do to me? No. No, it didn’t matter. He had to find... he had to find Gemma.

find nest

Jason clutched his sides again, feeling new movement under his ribs. There was something very wrong with him. It was inside him, this sickness. He could feel it burning under his skin, coiling around his organs, whispering in his head. Not in words, not in pictures, but in needs. Awful, primal, instinctive needs. It was telling him things, awful things, and it was getting louder by the second.

eat and grow and nest and spread and eat and eat and eat

Eat.

“What is this?” he begged aloud. He had to keep speaking, had to form the words. In his head, his thoughts were greasy and slippery, falling back down into the void the sickness was making. It wanted, it needed so much. He remembered more. Doctor Mandell... then there’d been the sounds of screaming and the taste of blood. He’d... he’d killed those people.

eat kill eat kill eat kill EAT

That was what the sickness wanted, the thing inside him. It was getting louder and he doubled over from the sudden agony of his empty belly, worse than his arm. “There’s nothing here!” he shouted at the voice. It couldn’t hear him – it wasn’t even a voice, not really. But he knew what it wanted. “There’s nothing there!” he said again, trying to make it – make himself – listen. “There’s no food!”

But there was.

~

Corporal Nagashido died at 3:31 AM, GMT.

The gurney squeaked as it rolled down the corridor, its one bad wheel wobbling. Daisy had pleaded with Mandell to requisition a grav-gurney, or at least one with four good wheels, but for reasons she’d never understood, the doctor had refused. She’d even suspected that he’d ‘misplaced’ her maintenance requests for it. He’d told her once that that squeaking wheel gave the affair of wheeling a corpse into the morgue the proper atmosphere. To Daisy, that had sounded like horseshit, but he was the CMO. He was... he’d been... allowed to be eccentric.

So she’d put up with the cart with the squeaky wheel, glad that she hadn’t had to use it all that much.

Until now, of course. Primal’s morgue wasn’t big enough for all the casualties, so they’d had to use one of the storage bays to house the overflow (and wasn’t that just such an apt word for it!).

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

She knew the general plan; by now, they were supposed to have reached the station’s core and begun work on restoring its primary systems. Instead, they hadn’t even made it out of the hangar. The frigate’s transmissions back to home base had become more pleading with each dispatch as the crews prayed for someone to hear them, to let them know that they weren’t alone. Seven hours ago, they’d received a message in response.

It was their latest desperate plea for help relayed back at them from the enemy – and it is an enemy, isn’t it? – frigate sitting outside the station. Morale had not been significantly boosted.

“They’re listening,” she remembered some of the crew whispering to each other. “They’re listening to us and they’re laughing. Watching us. Waiting.”

Daisy sighed, turning the last corner towards the makeshift morgue, sighing as the gurney’s squeaky wheel stuck on the turn, as it always did. Proper atmosphere. Right.

~

Less hungry now.

~

“Here’s your new home, corporal,” the nurse said in a dull, tired tone as she stopped in front of the cargo door. “Rent’s low and the neighbours are quiet. I’m sure you’ll like it.” There was no one to hear the joke and even Luttenbaker didn’t think it was funny, but it was better than listening to the squeaking wheel as she pushed another body into this over-sized freezer. Another. Not the last.

Daisy tapped the entry code to the storage bay, pushing the squeaking gurney into the room, feeling her skin pucker as the cold sent goosebumps up her arms.

“The pool’s being cleaned, but when it’s ready, you can...” she said under her breath, not even looking up, trying to avoid the sight of the rows of corpses as long as possible. “You can...”

He was sitting on his haunches, his back to her as he leaned over another body. Daisy opened her mouth to query the unexpected visitor, assuming him to be just another grieving friend, when she noticed the mess of bones and gore around his feet, heard the wet smacking sounds and saw the way his head bobbed up and down. What... what in... she struggled to make sense of what she was seeing, taking a backwards step towards the open door.

The cart squeaked as it rolled away from her.

He stopped what he was doing, his head snapping up, but he wasn’t looking at her, merely listening. It was possible he would have looked at her. It was also possible that he would have simply gone back to his meal, but Daisy gasped as she recognized the red, dripping face. Veers.

Now, he did look towards her, bloody lips turning upwards in an empty grin. He straightened, turning towards her. His left arm still clutched a gobbet of meat. His right hung limply at his side, strings of skin hanging off it like torn flypaper, the flesh discoloured as if it were bruised and rotten.

“Security to Cargo Five,” Daisy said into her comm. “Please hurry.”

“It’s in me,” he whispered as he took a step towards her, squeezing the bit of meat in his hand so tightly that ligaments and blood oozed out from between his fingers, running down his arm and dripping down into the pool around his feet. “This is what it is. The music of the spears. Do you hear it, Gem? Can you feel it?” He took another step towards her.

The nurse clicked her comm again. “Security...” she whispered, desperately as Veers drew closer. She wanted to run, but she couldn’t make her feet move, couldn’t pull her eyes away from the bloodstained golem in front of her.

“Gemma,” he sighed as he stood before Daisy, leaning down and putting his head on the nurse’s shoulder. “It hurts.”

It was all the woman could do not to scream at his touch. He was pressed against her and she could... she could... she could feel something moving under his skin, bulging his torso. She tried to speak but only a rasp of air escaped her lips.

“You can feel it, can’t you?” his tone was tired, desperate. “You’ve felt it too. That’s what it tells me.” He put his good arm around her. “I’m so sorry Gemma. We shouldn’t have come here..”

“It’s... it’s all right, Jason,” Daisy whispered, finally finding her voice. Get away get away get away get away.

“It’s inside me,” he whispered, tears running down his eyes. “Something awful and beautiful. I feel so cold, Gemma.” His skin was warm, too warm. “But it’ll be all right.”

She felt him smile, squeezing her eyes shut so that she wouldn’t have to see it, wouldn’t have to see the blood and drool running over his lips, nor the bits of flesh stuck between his teeth. “It will,” she forced herself to say. Each breath she took seemed to last hours; it felt like ages, not seconds since she’d called for help. Please hurry, her terrified mind pounded that one thought over and over. Please hurry. Please hurry/

“I don’t know...” Veers said. “It’s inside me, Gem. I can feel it.” He made a noise halfway between a laugh and a sob. “I’m pregnant.”

It was only inertia that allowed the nurse to answer. “It’s all right,” Luttenbakker said in a frightened near-monotone.

“No...” Jason shook his head. “It isn’t.”

“It will be.” Please hurry. Please hurry. Please hurry.

“It won’t.” His hand came up, tightening on her throat. Luttenbaker gasped, trying to loosen the petty officer’s grip, but he didn’t even seem to register her struggles. He leaned in, discoloured eyes staring into hers. “Because you’re not Gemma.”

feed

~

It was hard to ‘lounge’ whilst in full power armour, but Lieutenant Godfrey still managed to do so. She was sitting on an upended crate, the metal frame slowly buckling under the trooper’s weight. For now, it was holding and that was enough for the lieutenant as she drummed the heel of her left foot against the side of the case.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

“Really annoying, LT,” Cynthia commented, the corporal’s helmet coming up to look at her squad leader. Black’s helmet was personalized with a cosmetic grille over her mouth, the helm painted to look like a snarling-mouthed shark. Jane was in between designs at the moment; her last paint-job had been a simple spiderweb radiating out from the center of her mask, with a black widow hanging on a thread from the corner of her right eye.

“Isn’t that a shame.” Thump. Thump. Thump.

Cynthia’s head came up, moving only slightly from side to side as she scanned the bay for the third time in as many minutes. Her fingers tapped against the side of her weapon; unlike the heavy multi-barrel cyclic cannons – miniguns in another age – that most of the squad carried, the corporal’s weapon was a single long-barrelled pistol. ‘Pistol’ being an operative term, of course. Mounted on Black’s forearm just like a cannon, the Hammertong MX-9 was a drum-fed weapon equally capable of blowing the engine block out of most light vehicles and cracking power armour, with an effective range of up to a kilometer. Though not as powerful or long-ranged as the ‘Red Widow’, a powered armour-compatible anti-material rifle, it provided G Squad with some much-needed ranged firepower. Cyclic cannons were all well and good – and certainly effective enough at killing other heavy infantry – but they were primarily intended to shred lighter-armoured troops at relatively short quarters – perfect for boarding actions and other close-in actions. On an open battlefield, more of the Ghosts would be outfitted with weapons like the Hammertong than not. “Yes, LT. Is.” A beat. “It is,” Cynthia corrected herself, touching her left hand to her temple. The buzzing was still there.

Jane paused a moment, then nodded and stopped the idle swing of her leg. Things were quiet now and had been for the last day. She hoped that meant that those... those things had already shot their wad, but she wasn’t so sure. The trooper took her own look out at the bay; the distant floor was twitching. Small animals, wormlike things – she’d never seen their like before and didn’t want to again – had followed the carnage, slurping up the remains of the dead attackers, bloating themselves on charred organs and shattered bones. They were so thorough that in places, the deck looked as if it had just been polished.

Occasionally some of the soldiers on the line would take potshots at the scavengers, but the ugly things were harmless; they only approached Primal’s defences when they were trying to slop up some more carrion. Jane shook her head. Was that even the right word? ‘Carrion’ meant dead flesh and she had the nagging thought that the severed limbs and chunks of ruined meat weren’t so much dead as dormant. That was probably just her imagination. At least, that’s what she hoped.

The lieutenant eased off the crate, moving along the defence line, nodding at the soldiers and civilians she passed. Here, a private with a bandaged hand nervously checked and re-checked the ammo belt running into a machine gun. There, a pair of Hadley-Wright techs busied themselves looking through some of the salvage taken from the other ships in the bay. Here, a solider crouched against a barricade, pale and muttering to himself. He didn’t look up as Jane passed. There, another of her Ghosts – Gregori Jakov – stood like a statue, staring out into the darkness of the hangar. His head cocked towards Godfrey. “Keptin,” he said in a thick Novaya Union accent. The longstanding joke – she wasn’t a captain and Gregori’s English was flawless – felt dry and forced now, but she made herself chuckle all the same.

There were about eighty, maybe ninety people outside the ship at the moment – more than Godfrey would have expected, but there was something about Primal.... everyone was on edge, but inside the ship felt like a pressure cooker. Three hundred souls mashed together, stewing in their own fear. There’d been several fights, one she’d had to break up herself. People were hurting each other... and themselves. She’d heard rumours of just how bad things were starting to get, seen it with her own eyes.

Out here, nothing was really all that different. But you could see the emptiness of the bay, know that you weren’t going to die right now. Inside, you had to wait. Wait until the alerts sounded and then wonder if this was the time the line would break. When those things would start banging on the hull, looking for a way in.

The trooper moved through the battlements, pausing to offer words of encouragement here or share a comment there. Each time her words felt as bereft of meaning as Gregori’s joke.

They’re all going to die here, a voice nagged at her. There’s nothing you can do, lieutenant. You’re going to watch each and every one of them die.

Shut up, she told the voice, but it only went away for a little bit, coming back and whispering the same ugly truths – lies! – over and over again.

“Look,” a nearby soldier said, drawing Jane’s attention. IFF pegged him as PFC Johnathan Hacker. He pointed out across the bay. “Look.”

Jane didn’t bother chastising the man for forgetting her rank. The trooper rested her hands against the rim of a portable barricade, looking out into the hangar, her blacklight making it seem as clear as day. Image enhancement, multiple scan modes and pattern recognition software ran as Godfrey took in the rest of the hangar. There was nothing there. “They’re out there,” Hacker insisted. “They’re out there. You see them? You see them, right, lieutenant?”

The trooper clapped the soldier on the shoulder even as she made a note to have him cycled out as soon as possible. “I see them, private,” she said, offering another set of empty words. “I see them.”

You can’t save them, the voice said as she headed back through the cordon of men and women defending the frigate, trying not to look at their faces, trying not to think about how many of her friends were missing or how many more were going join them before this was all over. You can’t save them, you can’t protect them. They’re your friends and they’re all going to die because you’re not strong enough. You can’t save them.

“Yes, I can,” Jane hissed through her teeth. “I can.”

“Security alert,” Control’s voice rasped through the trooper’s comm. “We have a confirmed shipboard security alert.”

~

find nest

A facsimile that walked and talked and remembered everything that was Jason Veers shambled through Primal’s corridors, its belly swollen, its face and remaining hand dripping red, a tattered cloth flapping as it moved, eventually falling free and left where it lay. It still thought of itself as Jason Veers, still imagined itself to be the man whose flesh it wore. The truth was, it was not and had not been so for some time. When that had occurred was open to debate, but if certain individuals were present, they would have guessed that what had woken in sickbay was not Jason Veers. It was instead the scraps of a psyche still fighting to remain intact, much as a drowning man might snatch at reeds to avoid being swallowed by a whirlpool, if only for a few seconds more.

spread

Flotsam and jetsam from a dying nerve net fed into a growing function system, giving this thing the appearance of life and memory and perhaps in some way, it was still sentient, still aware. Perhaps it even understood what was happening to it. Forced to watch as some corrupt part of itself acted and spoke, unable to speak or scream, unable to fight, the reeds snapping one by one.

predators near

The whispers that it so feared, that it dreaded and occasionally succumbed to were, in fact, its true instincts. There was no personality here; the fading pieces of Jason Veers’ mind were running in parallel to this blind atavism. What they did, thought, felt and spoke, was wholly irrelevant to what this body would actually do. Just as those fragments had quailed at the thought of excising the poisoned flesh from its body, the instinctive need to survive, to keep that inexplicable toxin away from its vital tissues, had won out. It hadn’t understood what was wrong with it, only that it should have been healing and it wasn’t. The sensory information from the decaying limb was what the host would have called pain, but it only recognized it as damage.

get away

In truth, the thing wearing a dead man’s face knew no fear, no love, no hate. It only thought of preserving itself for a little while longer, plundered memories imprinting themselves on a thought process scarcely deserving of the name. But while it didn’t know what such terms as ‘primary life support’ and ‘air processing’ actually meant, the remnants of its host’s mind were clear enough for it make an adequate translation.

good nest safe nest

it’s time

~

Better than a tracking hound, the chemosensor shrilled an affirmation as it followed its prey’s scent, the dabs of blood on the bulkheads and floors punctuating the device’s analysis.

“This way,” Specialist Davis Retries confirmed to his squadmates as the security team pounded through Primal’s corridors. The closest team to Cargo Five, they’d arrived to the morgue too late for Luttenbaker, an expression of terror frozen on what was left of the nurse’s face. She’d been mutilated and gnawed upon.

The specialist’s guts churned with acid, his teeth grinding over one another. Veers... he’d killed two people already and Daisy had been his third victim. Retries didn’t know what was wrong with the man and he didn’t care, not anymore. Luttenbaker had been a friend. She hadn’t deserved to die like that. He only hoped he was the one who got the chance to put that rabid dog down. For good this time. This time, there’s not going to be anything left of you, Veers.

They didn’t even need their sensors, not really. The petty officer’s trail was clear enough. Bloody footprints, droplets and smears on the floor, handprints on the walls. Frightened crewmembers and passengers. A torn hospital gown. A rotting, blackened arm lay where Veers had overriden safety protocols and used a pressure hatch to amputate it.

He was heading away from the teams searching for him, deeper into the ship and towards environmental control. God only knew what Veers was thinking, but EC was a dead end. That was where the chase was going to end.

~

It was time.

There was no longer a need to keep the host alive and it convulsed as its remade organs were forced into hyperdrive, a final powerful burst of activity that, if it somehow survived that long, would surely kill it in minutes. Hands danced over keyboards as a dying, futilely fighting consciousness turned the knowledge of Jason Veers into something he would never have wanted, serving a wordless, implacable need. Even at this moment, it still thought of itself as that man, mumbling to itself in nonsense riddles, calling out for a woman who couldn’t answer, weeping and apologizing, cursing and pleading. It didn’t realize that it was dead. It still hoped, even as it slipped further into the void.

Another reed snapped.

Its torso pulsed and stirred as it hyperventilated, engorged lungs wheezing out powerful breaths. In life, Jason Veers had worked on the engineering crews that helped to service Primal’s life-sustaining systems, from the chained nova at the ship’s heart to the bellows and byways of its life support systems, the many air vents that ran throughout the frigate’s length and breadth. It knew that what it was doing wouldn’t last, would be overridden in a matter of moments by the ship’s artificial intelligence or its crew. That didn’t matter.

With a roar, the air circulation systems kicked into overdrive and the thing with a dead man’s face stumbled towards the air processor.

~

The door whooshed open, ushering a waft of foul-smelling air into Davis’ face and he gagged from the awful, reeking stench of it, coughing into his hand, nearly retching. “Move!” the sarge bellowed. “Get in there – I don’t care what you smell!” The team filtered into the air processor, snapping on their torches. Veers had shut off the lights, probably in some last-ditch attempt to hide.

Retries coughed again, his throat and nose burning from the odour. What was it? It didn’t smell like anything he’d ever experienced. Death and fertile soil, chemicals and blood all mixed together. He moved forward, listening to the dying roar of the rushing air as normal flow levels were restored. His eyes stung, watering in the pestilent atmosphere – what was causing that? – but he followed Veers’s footprints, almost hoping the psychopath would leap at him. Two in the heart, one in the head. That was just to start.

There; the specialist caught site of a pair of withered legs, laying motionless on the floor. He signalled to the rest of the team and circled around... “God...” he heard himself whisper. “God.”

Behind him, Latoya made the sign of the Starsingers across her chest, muttered curses and imprecations following as the rest of the team laid eyes on Petty Officer Jason Veers.

What was left of him.

It was if he’d been hollowed out from the inside; broken ribs jabbed into the air, piercing torn ribbons of flesh. There was nothing inside the petty officer’s torso, nothing but a network of dark tendrils that hung limply through his burst skin. He lay in a pool of blood, scratchmarks and two sets of strange, small footprints circled his emptied corpse, at last leading up the wall to an air shaft, the slats of the grille covering it broken inwards, the tips stained with some foul liquid.

“God,” Retries heard someone say again in his own voice. “God. They... they came out of him.”

And there, on the floor, scrawled in a shaking hand in his own life’s blood, was Jason Veers’s last message to the world.

IT’S TIME.



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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2010-12-23 06:47pm
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Jedi Knight
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In this chapter, Abigail and Shannon press onwards and elsewhere, a confrontation is about to begin.

Coming up: Day six and you're trapped in the Styx.


Chapter 45:

Abigail gave Shannon a shove through the open door as the hunter-things rushed towards the mercenaries. “Seal it!” she shouted, backing inside after the shorter woman.

get to the console/deactivate circuit path 11-2/armoured bone incapable of cutting through bulkhead

More vibrations, accompanied by flashes of light as Abigail opened up. The Turned’s chitinous armour was enough to stop small-caliber rounds, but the fire from Abby’s carbine tore through them, globules of diseased blood pouring out through the holes in their shattered carapaces, choking off as the creatures’ impossible regenerative abilities closed the wounds. Thankfully though, for all their cosmetic resemblance to their more massive kin, these Turned were not quite like Unity and did not possess the praetorian’s monstrous intelligence. They were simple guardians and made no attempt to conceal themselves or evade the fire ripping through them – whatever passed for their minds trusted in speed, durability and sheer aggression to see them through to their prey.

moving at 9.274 mps/not fully awake/spasticity indicates adrenal surge

The sickest part of it was that that wasn’t even a miscalculation. The normal hunters could wade through fire that would slaughter entire squads; this handful of armoured void-bred killers were even more ferocious, spastic fury driving twitching limbs as their own form of combat drugs stoked them to greater speeds. How long they could fight, how much even those bodies would endure or could cudgel out of whatever metabolism drove them, Shannon could only guess.

anaerobic/stored energy/can’t breathe in space/limited endurance but heightened aggression, reaction times

Shannon gritted her teeth as the distance between the women and their attackers melted away, feeling her pistol kick in her hands. Exoskeletal plates broke, spasming limbs sailed through the low gravity and ruined bodies staggered against each bullet, fighting their way through the hail of metal, ignoring any wound that was not instantly incapacitating.

this isn’t possible/asteroidea and ophuirodea can regenerate entire bodies from severed appendages/healing is slower

She ducked over to the control panel, tearing away the veins that had grown over it, the broken screen flashing with the same override she’d given it. Sparing an instant to fire, kneecapping the acid-spitter and spoiling its aim, the Halo returned her attention to the panel for a few seconds, one hand dancing on the controls. It would be easier to shut the door than open it – luckily, she wouldn’t need Abigail’s assistance with the hardware – but she still had to finagle the half-dead system...

work damn it/alternative pathway S.//17/more trackmarks in this route/someone else was in this system/leftovers when it shut down

Abigail swung her carbine around and smashed one Turned’s jaw with the butt of the gun, the blow knocking the creature back, its limbs flailing for purchase in the vacuum...

...but there was another to take its place.

how many people/her armour isn’t breached/preparing counter-attack/she’s all right

Abigail disengaged her magnetics and launched herself backward as the misshapen thing slashed at her, its metal-hard claws finding only empty space instead of the mercenary’s belly. Its right arm had been severed by one of Shannon’s well-placed shots, slithering tentacles poking out of the stump of its upper arm, twitching briefly before sliding back into the creature’s body, unwilling to expose themselves to the void. They had limits. Shannon felt a rush of pleasure as she placed a bullet in the Turned’s throat, the large-caliber round all but decapitating it. Its jaws snapped once, twice and then stilled. Its eyes rolled up in its head as its tendrils jabbed out and thrashed blindly for some kind of connection before retreating up into its throat, globules of foul blood fountaining out of the breach.

The Darkknell braced herself against the wall, muscles tensing briefly before she launched herself, hitting the deck and rolling. Her carbine thudded again, ripping off the legs of the decapitated monster. Her voice clicked through her mask, swearing victoriously in Port Royal’s guttural street dialect.

Shannon’s fingers flew over the keyboard, finally getting the ancient computer to reject the countermanded order that she and Abigail had spent so much effort putting in. With all the grace of a crashing stone column, the pressure doors slammed shut once more, sealing the women off from the damaged – could they even be called dying? – creatures outside.

A severed forearm drifted between the Darkknell and her Halo companion, fingers twitching weakly before stilling. Limits. They couldn’t heal forever. Fire. Vacuum. One more weapon.

Shannon felt herself smiling, and then she felt that grin fade and die on her lips as she looked up the corridor, taking in what the rush of fighting hadn’t let her notice before.

More of the tripwire-veins spread along the walls. Many more, a thickening network of nerve fibers leaking out of air vents and maintenance hatches, reaching out like grotesquely thin fingers, spreading over discarded crates, winding through scraps of cloth, the meat and bone that had once been inside the torn fabric absorbed by the growing tissues. And there, hanging from the ceiling, stretched from one side of the corridor to the other, was a banner, its words as proudly displayed as they were foreboding.

YOU SHOULDN’T BE HERE
YOU’RE KEEPING MOTHER WAITING


~

Armin sighed, leaning back and running his hands through his hair. It felt as if he hadn’t showered in weeks and his scalp was greasy to the touch, fingers catching on the dried bits of filth and blood that had encrusted themselves in his hair. His eyelids felt heavy and he had to fight to keep them open. He was only a tech; he didn’t have the fancy armour that the mudfeet did, didn’t have a pharm pumping chemical cocktails of epinephrines and endorphins into his system to keep him on his feet. All he had to run on was his own willpower and the handful of aged stims that the ‘Watcher’ had provided. He was so tired; he didn’t know how Bujold and Delphini kept going.

It would be so easy just to lean back and close his eyes and sleep. Something in the back of his mind whispered sweetly to him, a lullaby that he couldn’t quite hear. It sang softly, telling him to let go, to close his eyes and everything would be over. No more pain, no more fear, no more running and hiding and monsters around every bend. Only peace. It was the same voice that told a freezing man to drift off to sleep, but that man didn’t have the sounds of dying ringing in the silence, nor remember the stalker-things that had butchered his people.

And someone just below the voice that told him to sleep, there was another. They haven’t forgotten you, it whispered from the back of his mind. They have your scent and they’ll find you. They’ll find you. They will.

It was getting harder to ignore that voice and even harder not to listen to the one that told him that all he had to do is close his eyes one last time and let everything go.

~

They’d come this way.

Chem-trackers sifted the polluted air for the barest traces of sweat, skin flakes, blood and the other faint echoes left behind by a living being simply going about their business. The scent of blood was thick here, filters pulling the worst of it out of the air, but enough remained to tempt and tantalize.

-blood-

The cairn was a test. Always and forever; echoes of the past were preserved here amidst madness and pollution. Relics left by the Old Ones. Burns and cracks in ancient bulkheads, markers of where the dead had fallen and hints of ancient battles, of the day they’d been given their freedom. Their... brothers and sisters. Siblings in origin, not in flesh and never in blood. The Lost Ones, ruined and bent by the sliver, still bound and screaming. Always screaming, singing, calling, like the Obelisks themselves – Umbra’s sentinels. That was what they’d been told, anyways. Precursor lines had heard the screaming, but not their Firsts. Father had said that that had made them special, made them better. Maybe it had.

The Old Ones had said that Umbra was worth any sacrifice. Credit had to be given for their commitment: even when it was their blood that was being spilled, they paid the cost. Up until a point.

-can you imagine what we have made of your dream?-

The Firsts had only known of the undersong – what the Old Ones called F-2 – from stories, from watching the Old Ones slowly collapse into rage and paranoia, eaten away bit by bit and day by day by Acheron. Through shields and hull, through mind and will, it nibbled and licked and gnawed at them. It was the same now. The Mists were always hungry and readily devoured each meal, cleaning the plate and waiting for more.

Like a black hole, they could never see it for themselves, but they could see what effect it had on its surroundings: an accretion disk of broken lives and ruined people as Acheron took New Ones and made them Lost. No one could hold out forever. Sooner or later, they broke.

-weak, they’re weak-

Almost no one.

The New Ones here... there was the acrid tang of explosives and weaponry. And there was that same scent that they had noticed before. Familiar, but distorted. Like seeing one’s image in a broken mirror. Indefinably wrong, but still... familiar.

-hate it want it hate it want it find out what it is-

Ribbon-stench grew thicker in the air and the urge, the need to lash out grew with it. That scent they knew all too well, and the response to it was quite clear, practically an instinct.

-purge them, rip their grotesque limbs, sear their ribbons and watch them burn-

The New Ones were close now. Weapons were checked, scan readings confirmed and limbs flexed in anticipation. None of them belonged here. Not the Old Ones, not the Lost Ones and certainly not the New Ones. The cairn wasn’t for any of them, not any more.

-this is ours-

Hunt.

-kill-

~

“Faster would be good!” Shannon shouted at Abigail as her technically-minded companion attempted to hotwire a door. It wasn’t an issue with the computer or its programming, something that the redhead could have assisted with – instead, the mechanism was jammed. Six hundred years of neglect took their toll and if Imperial technology was robust, it wasn’t infallible. Something as simple as a manual override for a door lock, exposed to vacuum for God-knew-how-long and denied any short of maintenance would, could, and had failed, sealing an office door shut as tightly as any security override.

In the best of times, with both womens’ air running down, that would be an annoyance. Now, it was potentially lethal.

They crawled over the walls and ceilings, leaping and bounding in the near-zero-gravity, distended faces grinning loathsomely, every trace of their humanity eradicated. In fact, some of them might not have even started as human: along with their owners, pets and beasts of burden had been remade in some mad god’s image and now it was impossible to separate man from animal. Claws and blades, tendrils and appendages Shannon couldn’t even identify all reached out in mindless, implacable hunger. She put a bullet through the head of something that might have been someone’s sister. Took the arms from something that might have been a painter. Shattered the spine of someone’s son. They weren’t people. Not anymore. Targets. She made herself see that, even as another part of her moved robotically, firing and reloading, firing and reloading.

Dismembered limbs bounced against walls, sealing themselves to the tripwire veins, or clutching to one another, rebuilding themselves, pulsing torsos and spasming limbs seeking new components, but unable to find them as easily as they normally could. That was the only thing that kept the women from being overrun by a tide of mutated flesh. Even that bought nothing but a handful of seconds...

“Abby!” Shannon cried as she grappled with something that might have been a man, its claws scratching her vambraces, teeth snapping behind its sealed mouth, the cuticle starting to rip as the creature’s jaws widened, exposing a second row of sharp teeth. It bore down against her, inhumane strength forcing the Halo back

“There!” Abby’s victorious cry came with a shudder as the door jerked halfway open. A tighter squeeze than either woman had been expecting, but just enough room to get in. The Darkknell came around, a flash of harsh blue-white light filling the corridor as she thumbed the disruptor blade on and cleaved the Turned from pelvis to shoulder, a backhand sweep bisecting its head, pulling the still living pieces away from Shannon. Abigail sheathed the blade and unlimbered her carbine, ripping the legs off another Turned.

The Halo flashed her light through the open door, quickly checking for any lurking predators. “Clear!”

Abigail gave Shannon a push towards the door. “Get in! Move, merc!” she shouted at the other woman’s hesitation.
Shannon dove through the opening, double-checking the room’s empty status before turning and helping her arsenal-laden squadmate squeeze inside, both women heaving on the stuck door. Overkill: Abigail’s repairs were only intended to open the door once and it took only the slightest effort before it smashed shut again, sealing them off from their attackers.

One minute and thirty-seven seconds of air left.

Fifty-eight meters to go.

~

“Hey.”

Armin’s eyes snapped open. “I wasn’t sleeping.”

Bujold chuckled. “No, I’m sure you snore when you’re awake too.” He sat down beside the tech, half silhouetted by his own flashlight. “I wouldn’t mind catching some rest myself.”

“It’s not rest,” Lutzberg replied, rubbing his eyes. “It won’t be until-” He paused, then amended his statement. “It’s not rest.”

The security guard nodded. “Got it,” he said as if he understood, looking around the empty nursery. “Nothing useful in here?”

“Nope. The Halo – Corporal Hayes – might be able to do something with these systems, but I’m a ship tech. I didn’t train on Imperial software. I was just along to fix our shit.” Lutzberg laughed. The sound had an unpleasant edge to it. “Fat lot of help I am.”

Mac shrugged. “You’re still a tech. That counts for something.” He leaned back, staring into the near-darkness, watching as Hernandez wandered aimlessly through the lab. He was saying something in his comm and he didn’t sound at all happy about it, but the corper couldn’t make out the words. Then, with a resigned slump of his shoulders, he nodded to no one in particular; Bujold heard the last two words of the exchange: “Yes, ma’am.”

Armin hadn’t noticed the mercenary’s exchange with – Bujold hoped – the other women. “I don’t think it counts for much,” the petty officer was saying.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Bujold said. “You made it this far. You’re a survivor. You, me, Hernandez, Hutchins, Hayes... Delphini. We’ve all survived this long. Who’s to say we can’t last until help comes?”

“You really think we can?”

“Why not? We just have to look out for each other, watch each other’s backs. We can make it.”

The petty officer shook his head. “I bet Primal’s people heard speeches like that too.”

“Yeah, well... fuck ‘em.” Bujold drawled. “They’re not us.”

“You think that’s enough?”

“I know it.” Bujold’s attention shifted as the bob of Delphini’s preceded the doctor coming down the stairs. “We just have to stay strong, keep our eyes open...” He saw the guarded expression on her face as she passed by. He smiled genially at her as he noted the wariness in her eyes, his grin widening fractionally. He could just be imagining it, but he thought he saw something just a tad different than wariness there: caution. “... and trust each other,” he finished as the doctor passed by. He put a comradely hand on Armin’s shoulder, lowering his voice so that only the petty officer could hear him.

“That being said, I have a story to tell you...”

~

Louis was looking, but he wasn’t seeing. It wasn’t shadows shifting on bulkheads as a flashlight moved over them, it was dancing flames as a city burned. He didn’t hear whispers and voices; he heard distant screams and rattles of gunfire. He didn’t see his own reflection on a broken piece of glass, he saw the killer.

It spoke. “You. You brought us here.” There was nothing behind those words, nothing that made it happy, angry or sorry about what it was doing. Nothing that even made it human, not a man or woman. Dead words, stripped of all inflection and life and the thing that had said them... it was dead inside. It had to be. No one, no human could do this.

He screamed at it then, his carbine bucking and shuddering in his grip as he thumbed it to full auto-fire and the golem staggered, its polished armour sparking as bullets bounced and clipped off. His weapon ran dry in less than three seconds, but he slammed a fresh magazine in before the killing thing could recover. It sank to one knee, raising an arm in attempt to ward off the attack as it brought its flamer up with the other...


Louis jumped at the hand on his shoulder, almost pulling his gun before he realized he was back on the station and it wasn’t the silver killer staring at him; it was Delphini.

Before he could query her, before he could say anything to cover his lapse or explain his jumpiness, the petite woman spoke. “I found something.”

~

Abigail was profoundly grateful for the filters in her helmet, but even they had their limits and the traces of the foul air they were walking through were almost as bad as Port Royal’s sewers. I hope this shit isn’t airborne, the mercenary thought for the hundredth time, but it wasn’t like they had any other way to go but forward. To tear a necklace out of the rotten flesh of some once-human thing in the hope that this would buy the loyalty of another gibbering maniac. This situation is all kinds of fucked up.

“No question,” Shannon replied and Abigail blinked. She hadn’t realized she’d said that out loud.

Moist, gooey tissue squished under each woman’s feet as they advanced through the infested corridors, insects buzzing in the air, small animals that Abigail couldn’t even begin to identify scurrying into holes and darkened corners. She wondered if they were vermin or the descendants of the DROP’s test animal populations and, more importantly, if they bit. Abigail suppressed a shudder. Whatever they were, they were too much like rats for her comfort.

“They know we’re here,” she said into the silence. It wasn’t a question.

Shannon’s shoulders tilted up in a slight shrug. “I’m not sure. There’s sensor tendrils here, but this looks like a well-travelled area. They can’t raise an alarm just on pressure or contact, not like the others.”

“Not many visitors come through vacuum, I guess.”

“These probably respond to damage or have specially-conditioned chemosensors.”

“Okay, I got ‘don’t set them on fire’...”

“If we touch them, they might be able to ‘taste’ us.”

“And we don’t taste like Turned.” Abigail looked at her gauntlets and rubbed a patch of sticky, dark blood between her thumb and forefinger. “Most of us, anyways.”

“That might fool them, but I wouldn’t count on it.” Shannon shrugged again. “I’m just guessing here. These veins might be just for carrying nutrients to the rest of this... growth.”

“But you don’t think so.”

“No.”

“Good enough.” Abigail manuevered around a hanging sheet of mucus-like tissue. “Let’s go lay a man’s beloved to rest.” On her HUD, the blinking icon of their target drew closer.

~

“That’s a door.”

Emily shot Hernandez a sharp look. “Yes, but it’s a door that leads into several more offices.”

“We have one of those downstairs, doc. The girls just went through it. What’s so special about this one?”

“Because it doesn’t open into vacuum,” the woman answered, choosing not to press on the catch she’d heard in his words. At least, she wouldn’t be the first to do it. “It opens into a small research library. The offices are really just study terminals.”

“Wait,” Hernandez protested. “Hayes never said anything about a library.”

“It’s not a main archive or network hub,” Emily replied. “It’s set up so the scientists could log their own research and access it throughout the station without having to wade through six thousand years of research journals just to find something that one of their colleagues wrote last week. This section is isolated from the rest of the station, so we can’t touch the other library hubs...”

“...but if there might be more lunatic notes to self,” Hernandez realized. “From the Imperials this time.” He nodded, seeing the potential. “Good work, doc.”

“Not to put a damper on the celebration of being able to thumb through six hundred year old paranoid ravings,” Bujold drawled. “But outside that door, don’t we have some very unfriendly solicitors?”

“Not that door,” Lutzberg spoke up. “This part of the station is a jigsaw puzzle of isolated compartments. Just like this lab is okay, the section behind that door should be sealed off from the rest of the area, too.”

“‘Should’?”

The petty officer shrugged helplessly, unable to give a more concrete answer.

“I know we’re supposed to sit and wait for the all-clear,” Emily put in, noticing the twitch in Hernandez’s expression at the mention of Hayes and Hutchins. “But I know Corporal Hayes wants us to find out more about this place and what happened here. This could be our best chance to do that. And if we need a bolt-hole, knowing what’s outside that door might give us another option besides vacuum and monsters.”

“Mmm,” Louis nodded. “True.” He thought for a moment. “All right, we’ll give it a shot, but at the first sign that that area isn’t as abandoned as we think, we close it up and hunker down.”

Emily nodded, accepting the mercenary’s decision. “I saw a security panel over in the main office that looks like it’s still got power, but I’m not sure it’s working. Armin, could I get you to...?”

The petty officer nodded, fiddling out a small cutting torch from his toolkit and kneeled next to the door’s access panel. With his other hand, he shone his flashlight over the edges of the panel. No, he didn’t have the right type of screwdriver for that. Cutting it was. “Made the right choice there,” he mumbled to himself, looking away as he fired up the torch.

Louis watched Lutzberg cut into the wall plate. “Doc, why don’t you keep trying to get the door open from inside the office? If you can, it’ll save us some gruntwork.”

Emily nodded and turned to go. As she passed Bujold, she noticed the security guard was still watching her. “Good job, doc,” he drawled, turning away. Then, waiting until she’d taken a step past him: “You sure know a lot about this stuff.”

He didn’t see the slight catch in her step at the seemingly-innocuous comment, but then he didn’t have to. Maybe you do know my friend after all, lady.

~

Denied.

Denied. Denied. Denied. Emily rested her chin on her arms as she stared at the screen, the latest refusal to accept her commands staring her in the face. It wasn’t a particularly important security node; all this application did was allow an authorized user to open or lock various doors within the nursery complex and its adjacent offices, as well as oversee the two dozen or so computer terminals in the area. Something to make a low-level administrator’s job easier, though currently it was doing the exact opposite for her.

The screen was so dim that she could barely make out was on it, straining her eyes to see the various schematics and command prompts it was offering, a near-dead system constantly flashing the same alerts for the same unsecured, offline terminals, the same maintenance reports and system diagnostics. The computer ground to a halt whenever one of these pop-ups appeared, slowing things down even further, assuming that the program didn’t just randomly crash as it had twice already.

The young woman scratched the back of her head as she glared at the faded screen and sighed. This wasn’t what she had signed up for. She didn’t even know if the library would have any useful data – it was cut off from Vigil and had been for decades. Any information it did have was going to be decades out of date, at best. But someone had wanted this part of the station sealed away – they had to have left a reason why... although she had her suspicions. ‘Suspicions’. Right. This place... it was a hydroponics facility. A garden.

She chewed on her lip; Shannon and Hutchins should have called for them by now. All she’d been able to get out of Hernandez was muttered comments about them being ‘fine’. He was unhappy, but in his eyes – he wasn’t hiding death or injury. There was that, at least. Still, she worried.

And not just about Shannon. There was Bujold. Still watching her, still whispering. She didn’t trust him, couldn’t trust him. He talked too much. He was dangerous, and not just because of his ease with weapons.

Before she could ruminate on that further, she heard a yelp and a muffled curse.

Coming out of the office, she could see the splash of red on Lutzberg’s hand; Hernandez was shining his light on the petty officer, looking over the injury. “That looks deep.”

“You think?” Armin snapped, his head coming up as he noticed Emily’s approach. “Bit of metal was sharper than I thought. I can get back in there.”

“No, you can’t,” Delphini replied as she knelt beside the petty officer. “Louis was right – that is deep.” She popped the cap off an aged tube of antibiotic cream and squeezed some into Lutzberg’s palm, wrapping gauze around his hand. “Did you find out what’s wrong with the door?”

Lutzberg nodded. “Yeah, like you said – it’s still in lockdown, but I figured I could hotwire it. Get up into the innards. Couldn’t really see and I guess I didn’t have as much room as I thought I did.”

“I guess not,” Emily sighed. “I’ll try. You can talk me through what you were doing.”

All three men exchanged glances. Louis lost. “Doc...” he began.

Emily was proud of herself for managing not to bristle. “I’m the smallest person here,” she pointed out. “With that armoury you’re carrying around, you’d need to strip down to skivvies before you could try and,” she glanced over at Bujold, “you’re taller than Armin.” She made sure that the petty officer’s bandages were secure, picking up a small penlight. “You can go on the terminal and tell me if I’m making progress, talk me through what I should be doing. Okay?”

Sufficiently cowed, Lutzberg picked himself up. “Okay.”

As Emily wormed herself into the open wall, Louis looked over at Bujold and smirked. “I can see why the corporal likes her.”

Mac snorted in agreement.

~

There was life here.

Plants had sprung up out of the spread – or least, things that looked like plants. Thick growths hung from the walls like rotten tendons, bulging tumescent aberrations and sloughing piles of tissue. Slime molds oozed out of cracks in the walls and greasy ropes of meaty tissue dangled from air vents and maintenances shafts. The tissue beneath their feet squished with each step and clouds of disturbed insects buzzed around their heads.

The spread.

Abigail cursed softly in a language Shannon didn’t know. “What is this, Shannie? I mean... Christ, look at all of it – it had to grow. Where’d it all come from?”

“Ships’ stores would be the biggest provider,” Shannon answered, her tone numb. “Starships carry a lot of food and water, medical stores and hydroponics... Any expedition that goes into the Mists carries two, three – even five times normal supplies. I don’t even know how much DROP 47 would have had, but an Elysium, isolated this far from supply lines?

“A lot.”

“A lot,” Shannon nodded. in confirmation. “Some of the starships attached to the station – they’re probably infested like this, too.” She didn’t say the rest, didn’t say that one other prime source of biomass would be the crews of the starships those stores were meant to feed and sustain. That anyone unfortunate – no, lucky – enough to be die here rather than Turn would become part of the growing ecosystem. That they were walking on the dead.

And the sick part of it was... that wasn’t even the worst part.

“Jesus Christ,” Abigail muttered. “Can you imagine what this shit could do with... with more food? It’s already reaching into the fucking vacuum. What would happen if this got loose on a planet?” A beat. “Jesus Christ, Shannie... tell me you’re not-”

The smaller woman’s head tilted back up at her ‘big sister’ and despite her helmet, Abigail could all but see the weak, haunted smile on Shannon’s face. “I am.” She couldn’t even close her eyes to get away from the images, couldn’t quite shut out the cascade of probabilities, simulations and nightmarish possibilities. Stop it. Stop it. Stop. It. It hasn’t happened. Not ever. It won’t happen. So just stop.

When they found the latest horror in this sick, blighted station, it was almost a relief.

~

Armin was having even less luck with the computer than Emily had, and he scratched at his scalp as he tried to talk the woman through the patching and adjustment of six-hundred year old cabling and circuitry that he was almost completely unfamiliar with. Luckily, Delphini appeared to have a knack for this – more than once, she’d been able to pick out what he was trying to get her to look for with only a vague description to go on, or jump to the next step without needing to be led there. She actually seemed to be doing better than he had. I guess there’s not that much difference between the insides of a person and the insides of a machine, huh?

Lutzberg chuckled at his own joke, rubbing his tired eyes and again tried to focus on the schematic in front of him.

beep

“Hey, that’s it!” he shouted as one of the sealed blue doors flashed red and open.”You got it!”

“No,” Hernandez answered, sounding confused. “The door’s still sealed.”

“What? Wait...” Armin squinted at the screen. “No... yeah, that’s the farthest door. That shouldn’t have opened...”

beep

Another door came open, the next in the line leading to the office. There was some script on the screen, but he couldn’t make it out, at least nothing that his tired brain could understand. “Wait... wait, uh.... Emily. What are you doing?”

“Nothing, I’ve almost got it...”

beep

“Wait, just... just stop. I think...”

She couldn’t hear him. “I’m almost there. Mac, can you hit the door panel on my say?”

Another door opened, the last before the office. It wasn’t them. It wasn’t them. It was something else. Dreadful certainty paralyzed Armin. He wanted to scream, to shout a warning and tell them to get away, but he was back in that room looking at a butchered corpse hanging from the ceiling, hearing the screams of the people around him and the awful hunting cries of the enemy and the sound of cutting meat.

His mind numb, Armin moved towards the doorway with mechanical inevitability. He heard Emily’s little cry of victory.

“I’ve got it!”

Armin barely heard her.

The door opened.

And it was standing there.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2011-01-22 10:16am
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Day six and you're trapped in the Styx: the infection takes hold.

Coming up: Shannon and Abigail vs the hive and the other survivors come face to... er... face with trouble of their own.

Also, there's a little homage to Agatha Christie's sublime murder mystery And Then There Were None in this chapter. If you haven't read it (and why not?), it's definitely something I'd recommend. Ten people on an island and one by one they start to die...

Chapter 46:

Day Six:

It started with a cough.

A cough you couldn’t quite shake, sinuses burning and lungs filled with phlegm. Retries clasped a hand to his chest as another series of wracking coughs made him nearly double over, a Hadley-Wright nurse handing him a tissue. As he wiped his lips, he saw that it came away bloody.

“What,” Davis said quietly, to one in particular. “are you doing to me?”

~

“How many cases?” Colonel Hsing Paclan didn’t turn his eyes away from the monitor bank as a doctor whose name he didn’t know tried just as hard not to look at the displays.

“Nine so far,” the corper said. There were dark circles under the man’s eyes and his breath smelled like caffeine. Another ‘dreamkiller’, one of those who avoided sleep at all costs. There’d been more of them on the ship since they’d entered the Mists, even more since they’d found the DROP. Paclan frowned, trying to remember where he’d heard that odd term. It had only been on this expedition, hadn’t it? Surely he’d never heard it before...

...had he?

As he tried to place the phrase, Hsing realized the doctor was still talking. With an effort, he managed to pull his attention back to the corper. “...security team’s displaying symptoms of course, but two cases are from personnel who were in sections of the ship closest to the main environmental plant...”

Paclan’s hands curled into fists and the doctor’s words seemed to melt away. Veers. What he’d done already was bad enough, but he’d shut down the active filtration systems and ramped up the airflow throughout the frigate. Not for long, really – the petty officer’s changes had been overridden almost as soon as they’d been noticed. But long enough to spread his poison beyond the few small areas of the ship that the security teams had chased him through.

There’d been nothing Veers could do about the passive, physical filters set up in the environmental plant and ducts; mesh, carbon and other assorted filters used to clean detritus and contaminants from the air. There were even nanoscale filters intended to capture microbes; they weren’t 100% effective, but they did help. Just not as much when gaping holes had been ripped and chewed through them, allowing whatever obscene offspring Veers had birthed to scuttle throughout the ship.

Paclan had kill teams and hunter drones scouring Primal’s duct system – turning the entire frigate inside out – looking for those things, but they hadn’t turned up yet. Until they did, the ship was quarantined and the people outside would just have to stay outside.

Hsing rubbed his temples, trying to think. His thoughts seemed... muddier over the last few days and he was finding it harder to place names and people. Had it been only the past few days, though? No... it was just recently that it had gotten worse. Ever since they’d entered the Mists. He gave himself a mental shake. Just stress, that was all. Stress and fatigue. He had people on his crew holding up and damned if he was going to give in to cabin fever. The commander needed to be an example, that was what his uncle had always told him. It had been his uncle, he was sure of it...

“See to your patients, doctor,” he said, dismissing the corper and idly wondering just what the man’s name was.

~

This was bad.

In fact, ‘bad’ was an extraordinary understatement of the situation. The woman was still having trouble trying to understand just how things had gone so wrong so quickly. All thanks to her companion’s idiotic over-enthusiasm. The urge to simply kill him was there, but she suppressed it. That wouldn’t fix things and right now, she needed another meat shield between her and DROP 47’s various horrors. At least until rescue arrived. That was something of a forlorn hope, but it was all she had at the moment. That, and somehow getting to a comm system powerful enough to reach Silence and she wasn’t sure which plan was more difficult.

She walked along the battlements the mercenaries had set up in the bay – they’d been slowly expanding their barricades, building up deeper defences and cobbling together IEDs and other improvised traps, preparing for the next assault. It hadn’t come yet, but the R-types were never far away – only a few hours ago, that same female R-type had managed to ambush one of the soldiers and, like her earlier victim, carry him off before anyone could respond. Much more than one of the mindless drones, this polymorph was fast, lethal and obviously intelligent. The records of the last few failed expeditions had alluded to something like that infection form, but nothing concrete.

She supposed that the news of just how much the R-series could change its hosts would be greeted with both excitement and frustration by the Planning Board, but her concerns were just a bit more immediate than that.

The woman dug her fingernails into her palms in an effort to retain her composure as she nodded to several of the mercenaries on the defence line, her gaze passing over her associate. At least he had the decency not to look her in the eyes, pretending to be suddenly ensconced in cleaning his gun.

Anger was something that she couldn’t afford. That’s what she told herself. Besides, if she were honest with herself, she had to admit some culpability of her own. The plan for the mission had to been to pair one asset with each agent. In order to compartmentalize information, the agent was only supposed to contact the asset when the ship arrived at DROP 47, thereby preventing any chance for ‘loose talk’ beforehand... and, presumably, to make sure that the asset was irrevocably committed to the mission before being briefed fully.

She hadn’t agreed with that policy and had activated her asset early, believing that the more he knew, the more effective he’d be. Unfortunately, her optimism appeared misplaced. In the end, it seemed that the Planning Board’s caution had been justified – if her fellow hadn’t been so damned eager to ‘help’, none of this would have happened.

At least, that’s what she told herself. Looking at the suppurating boils on one soldier’s mauled arm and their cold, sweaty skin, she couldn’t shake the feeling that all her companion had done was change the when of the situation.

She nodded to another of the mercenaries. Like all the others, he was faceless behind his helmet and were it not for the marks on his armour, just as indistinguishable from the others. His name was Charles ‘Chuck’ Daniels. She hadn’t slept with him, but she knew he was interested. She’d been cultivating him – something that she knew irked her asset – but, well, fuck him. She had combat training of course, but it wasn’t her specialty and the more people with guns between her and the rest of the station, the better her chances of survival.

Daniels nodded to her, standing and putting a hand on her shoulder. He nodded, his voice clicking through his mask, telling her that things would be all right.

She envied that ignorance.

~

Everything seemed so much clearer now. Brighter, more intense. Odours were sharper, more distinct. Sounds were clearer and even the garden’s night-cycle seemed like dusk rather than the pitch black Gemma remembered. She could feel the shift in the air caused by the movement of other bodies, could pick out the subtleties of scent in the air, the unheard conversations between the brood and the overwhelming aroma of growth. And, of course, the blood.

It was everywhere. There were traces of it in the air, on the plants, on the others’ lips and claws and bodies. And it was in front of her.

She couldn’t tell by looking at his face – what was left of it – but the nametag on his tunic read JUNG, C.

Chin-Hae Jung. He’d always flirted with her, but as the trip into the Mist had worn on, his overtures had gotten more desperate, becoming needier and angrier until she couldn’t remember why she’d ever thought he was cute in the first place. Now, with bloody strips of skin hanging from his ruined face, she never would.

“Too far from the rest,” her sister – no no no! – had said as she’d dropped the still-warm carcass in front of her. “This is for you. You need to eat.”

“No,” she’d said, defiant and sick with horror. She’d pulled away, cowering into a corner, feeling the growth covering the bulkhead press against her bare skin, feeling the oddness of her own flesh – nothing she could put into words, nothing that she wanted to put into words. She wanted to wake up, to escape from this horror. She’d do anything, even claw her way out of her own skin if it would save her, if it would stop the pain.

Every part of her seemed to be on fire, burning from the inside out. Joints ached endlessly, her guts seemed as if they were twisting inside her and her muscles felt as if they were pulling themselves apart. And the hunger. Worse than the pain – that was merely excruciating, this was crippling agony – it made her all but double over, rocking back and forth on her knees, each movement causing stinging, burning waves to ripple through her changing body, briefly washing out the obscene need at her core.

She could smell it, wordless whispers in her head telling her that it wasn’t just blood she was smelling, it was prey’s blood, it meant food, it meant enemy. Her tongue – had it always been that long? – ran over her teeth, their sharp edges cutting it and she tasted her own blood, running down her throat, over her lips and down her chin.

More.

No! This was wrong! “No,” she repeated again, trying to blot it all out. The pain, the noises, the smells. Everything but that one word. “No. No,” she said it over and over again, like a child trying to deny an uncomfortable truth, as if she believed that saying it enough would end the nightmare. “No.”

“You need to eat,” that voice said, soft and patient. Her sister – no, I never had a sister – was crouched a few yards away, next to Jung’s corpse. She didn’t try to move closer, simply sitting and waiting for Gemma to come to her. A moment passed and then, again: “You need to eat.” It was all she said now, occasionally breaking Mackenzie’s mantra every few minutes for... how long had it been? A hour? Two? She couldn’t tell.

“No,” Gemma whispered, shaking her head. She was dying. Whatever was happening to her, it was burning her out as her ravaged body cried out for energy to sustain itself. “I won’t, you can’t make me...” I won’t I won’t eat fish it’s nasty and gross!

It’s good for you, sweetie. It’ll help you grow.

No! No no no! You can’t make me!

Then you’ll just sit here until you do.


She moaned, low and long, nearly doubling over from the pain. “No,” she said again, clutching to that single word. “No, I won’t. I won’t eat...” she couldn’t even make herself say it. “I won’t.”

“I know,” the girl replied. Her voice was gentle. “I know.” A moment of silence, then: “I said the same thing.”

~

More people were falling ill. All over the ship as whatever came out of Veers scurried in and out of the vents, spreading their contamination throughout the frigate’s breadth. Strange sounds in the mess hall, muddy footprints in hydroponics, a sighting of something in engineering.

One of the hunter-killers claimed the first one, catching it as it scurried across an empty hallway, the war drone’s single shot all but blasting the small creature in half. Even that wasn’t enough to kill it, until the hunter-killer’s heavy splayed feet crushed the life from the twitching thing.

It could have been human. There was enough similarity in its form to make it a grotesque mockery of a developing chordate embryo. A backbone. A long paddle-like tail. Stunted, grasping forelimbs. And a face. A face that had no business existing on any living thing. Far too human to make it a simple over-sized vertebrate embryo, there was a dreadful resemblance in its too-human features. The curve of the lips, the colour of the eyes. Small things, really. But they added up and Colonel Hsing Paclan realized that he was staring at a twisted reimagining of Petty Officer Jason Veers.

“Find the other one,” he told another medical officer whose name he couldn’t remember. “Find it and kill it.”

~

It wasn’t instant, of course. It couldn’t be. Everything took time and this was no exception; it had been less than a day and so far, there was only the coughing. Painful, wet phlegmy and occasionally bloody coughing, but just coughing nonetheless. As time passed, additional symptoms would manifest, eventually leading to what Kerrigan’s survivors witnessed in the landing bay: the dead would walk. In a manner of speaking, anyways. They wouldn’t really be dead. Like the doomed, deceased petty officer, they would be alive – after a fashion. That hadn’t happened yet, though. No one knew it would, just as no one knew that this sickness would tip the scales the already overstressed, overtired crew’s mental health weighed upon. There were incidents of violence – increasing in both frequency and savagegy, yes – but no one knew what they would escalate into, that they would die by one another’s hands, killed by the people sent to save them or by Acheron’s other predators.

All they knew was that Jason Veers had brought a contagion aboard the ship and that it started with a cough.

Thoughts, like an echo of the people quarantined within the frigate’s hull, ran back and forth like frightened rats in a maze trying to find a way out.

Everything’s gone wrong... we shouldn’t even be here. How many others came here and died here? It’s all wrong. It’s all gone wrong. We’ve got to get out. We have to.

They’re laughing at me, I know it. They stop talking whenever I walk into a room, they were talking about me. I know. I know, you can’t fool me. I’m watching you. I’m watching you all. Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on here... Yes, I know. I do.

So many dead... it won’t happen to me. Not to me. Not to me, I won’t be one of those... those things. I won’t let it happen... Not to me. They’re all going mad, but not me. No sir, not me. It won’t happen to me.

Everyone’s acting so strangely... no one’s sleeping, stims and coffee... you can smell it on their breath. I can’t sleep either. Too many noises... too many dreams. Am I the last sane one... or... or do I just think I am?

It’s her. It has to be. The way she looks at me, the way she’s talks... I’ll watch her. Yes, that’s it. I’ll watch the girl.

Have to watch the core. If it slips into the red, it’ll melt down and kill us all. Have to watch the core, just keep watching the core and everything will be fine. That’s all. The others can worry about the rest of the ship. I’ll just watch the core. I’ll make sure it’s working. That’s my job. Everything will be fine if I just do my job...

They’re everywhere... in the ship. Even before Veers, I heard them. I know I did... scratching at the walls. I heard them outside my door. I know I did. This ship isn’t safe. I have to get out. I have to get out. I have to get out.

~

They found the other one. It was already dead, withered and gaunt as if it had starved to death, little more than paper-thin skin over fragile bones. Its tiny clawed hands were scarred and shredded, its lips were torn and its teeth were broken from its efforts to rip and chew its way through the ship’s ventilation system. Its emaciated face still bore traces of its ‘father’s’ features.

As the remaining scientists and medical staff examined the creature and struggled to comprehend its impossible physiology, none of them said what they were all thinking, what had been on their minds ever since the corpse had been discovered. It showed no signs of trying to feed; in fact, its rudimentary digestive system was atrophied and virtually nonfunctional; even if it had eaten anything, it certainly couldn’t have digested it. The creature had never been intended to survive for long.

Only until its job was done.

Not one mentioned that, each of the scientists holding back their fears under a layer of false civility, professional banter and a desperation to pretend things were normal, even as their eyes darted around the room. Looking at one another, wondering what the person next to them was thinking, each of them afraid that the other’s thoughts would be the same as their own, each of them hoping for the way out of the maze.

~

Gemma cradled her shoulders, feeling something warm and wet roll down her cheeks. “Mommy...” she whispered to the darkness. “Daddy... I’m scared, daddy. It hurts.”

“It’s okay,” a voice said and arms wrapped around her. They were slight, but powerful. Claws that could pierce metal rested gently against her skin, a comforting scent touched her nose and she buried her face in her sister’s breasts.

“I’m scared,” Gemma whispered, shaking with pain and terror. “I don’t want to go. Don’t make me go, I want to stay here. Please don’t make me go.”

“Ssssh,” her sister whispered, holding Gemma tightly. “It’s all right. ”

She felt her sister shift, heard something wet and heavy being dragged over the floor, liquid tearing and cracking sounds. The scent of blood thickened in the air and something was pressed to her lips, salty and... and... and...

Gemma tried to pull away, but there was a hand on the back of her head. Not pushing her forward, but keeping her from moving back. “You need to eat,” that same voice told her. Gently, but firmly.

She shook her head, moaning desperately. “No. No...”

It smelled so good.

No! No no no no! This is sick! This is wrong! Someone help me, please God, let me wake up, let it stop. Please...

She was so hungry.

I won’t I won’t you can’t make me, I’ll sit here all night, I will!

Gemma reached out with one hand, to push the offered meal away. She froze as she caught sight of her hands. The skin of her fingers had split, bone and cuticle fusing together into stunted talons. Softer and shorter than those of her sister, they were still vicious, deadly claws in their own right. And they would grow and harden...

She gagged on her own revulsion, sagging further down. “Let me die,” she begged. “Just... just please. Don’t. Don’t make me. Please, daddy. I want to stay. Mommy? Mommy, where are you? I don’t want to go...”

Against her will, her fingers tightened on Jung’s severed limb.

“Sssh,” her sister whispered. “I know. I know.”

Gemma shivered, starting to tug on the scrap of meat in her hands. The other girl let go and she pulled it to her mouth, her own saliva splattering onto the shredded skin. “His name was Chin,” she said, her eyes squeezed shut, still trying to fight against the nightmare, feeling herself slip away. “His name was Chin. His name was Chin.” The tears curled down her cheeks, mingling with the drool and blood covering Jung’s arm. “He-he liked skiing and old movies and... and.. and... his name was Chin.”

Hungry it hurts it hurts so much make it stop please make it stop...

I don’t want to.

His name was Chin.

Please...

And she fed.

...more.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2011-02-06 06:40pm
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In this chapter, we have girls being bad.

Coming up: Day seven and you know you'll never see heaven.

Chapter 47:

It had no face.

That was the first impression anyone could form as they stared at the thing in the doorway.

Its armour was the colour of a moonless night, and seemed to eat every drop of light that fell on it. Its helmet was like a featureless opera mask, devoid of all but the barest emulation of a human face. A slight ridge of a nose and raised, indistinct lips. Eyes that glinted like a cat’s. It was like looking at something sculpted by a man who had never seen another person’s face. Beneath the armour, it might have been female.

Its right hand was reaching towards the keypad when the door had snapped open, catching it unawares and just as surprised as the survivors. Bujold was the closest to it and could only gape in confusion. Then, he went for his weapons. He was a fast draw. Faster than any other survivor, perhaps even faster than anyone in either Primal or Kerrigan’s expeditions. It took just over a tenth of a second for him to draw his pistols, cock and aim them. Less than a eyeblink more and he could have fired.

But his opponent was faster. A flicker of movement and her weapon was already up, held at shoulder-level – not from the waist where all quick-draw shooters fired from. There was no time for Bujold to react, only enough for the start of a stunned thought to form before she fired. The sound was soft, a crack of superheated air as a brilliant bolt of energy burst through the man’s throat, burning a fist-sized hole through meat and bone, leaving his head barely attached to his body by two charred, smoking strings of flesh.

He fell, head sagging forward as he telescoped onto his knees, toppling to one side, pistols falling from nerveless fingers.

Emily gaped in horror as the killer’s head snapped towards her-

-it stepped through the doorway-

-Lutzberg was screaming-

-and thunder crashed, again and again.

Louis was shouting, but even at the top of his lungs, no one could hear him over Betsy’s roar as the shotgun pounded out a torrent of shells. The killer staggered, caught in the midst of the storm and it fell back out of the doorway, crashing to the deck. Fingers and legs twitched in a death spasm, its left hand still clutching the weapon it had killed Bujold with.

The rolling thunder quieted, smoke wafting out of Betsy’s barrel. “Fuck me,” Louis breathed. “What the fuck? What the fuck is that?”

Emily couldn’t speak, couldn’t find the words, pulling herself up out of the panel. “I... I...” she managed to gather herself. “I... don’t know.” She couldn’t look at it. So fast...

“Is it dead?” Lutzberg whimpered from the staircase where he’d tried to hide. “Is it dead?”

“I just put half a drum into it at point-blank range,” Louis said over his shoulder. “There’s no way it could still be alive. No way..”

His voice trailed off as he looked back at the fallen form, still spasming. “No way...” he whispered a third time.

Its armour – cratered, splintered, scarred and dented – was repairing itself. Almost like it was... like it was healing.

Pained breaths breaths rasped through its null-helm and fingers tightened around the pistol’s grip. Its other hand braced itself against the deck, legs drawing up. Groggy and disoriented from the fusillade that had battered it down, but still alive. Its faceless visor stared at them as it regained its bearings and Louis could almost feel the waves of hatred pulsing from that featureless visage. It made a noise, deep in its throat – something ugly and low. Not quite a hiss, not quite a growl, but something atavistic and savage. The sound a predator might make just before it struck.

“Close it!” Louis shouted as the stalker-thing pulled itself back to its feet, the weapon in its hand starting to hum, a hellish light glowing from vents on its wide barrel. “Close the door!” The mercenary pulled a grenade from his bandolier and thumbed it active.

Emily scrambled back into the panel’s innards. “Now!” she shouted. “Throw it!”

The projectile sailed out into the corridor, the enemy soldier already pulling away from the explosive. The door slammed shut.

There was the muted thunder of the grenade’s detonation and several tense, hopeful moments of silence.

And then, they heard it scream.

~

That hurt.

-injury-

She picked herself up, looking down at her broken arm. She grabbed it with her good hand and wrenched it, letting out a shriek at the sudden burst of pain as she pulled the bones right, feeling her armour’s internal bindings tighten and hold the fractures in place. Pain suppressants and regenerative compounds flooded her system and she sighed as the pain faded, replaced by an electric tingle as nerves and skin, blood vessels and bones, were made whole once more. A diagnostic pulsed blue; the limb was healing normally. Good. She’d had a broken leg set improperly before and had had to break it again.

Her fingers found the comforting weight of the Ashmaker and she gave it a quick check, but her body had protected the pistol from the explosion. Still, caution paid for itself. Ashmakers were very effective, but undeniably volatile weapons.

-watch them burn, smell the charred meat-

She holstered the pistol, touching a hand to the destroyed access panel. The synthlink nodes in her armour reached out to the damaged systems, attempting to make a connection, but there was none to be had. The damage from the blast was cosmetic and could be repaired, but the links to access the door had been severed from the inside and the manual override had been jammed.

Her lips pulled back from her teeth, almost pleased at the enemy’s cunning. Almost. They were trespassing on the cairn.

-defilers kill them close your teeth on their throats and tear them open-

She reached out to the door, letting the tips of her fingers brush over it, curling them into a fist and rapping on the metal.

tong tong tong

She turned away, still groggy from both assaults. “I’ve found them,” she confirmed to the pack, relaying the prey’s location to her comrades. “Heavy weapons. I’ve taken damage.”

“Functional?”

She flexed her broken arm, shivers of pain spiking up the limb, quickly washed out by the heady flow of endorphins. “Functional,” she confirmed. Her good hand closed on a demolition charge. “I can breach...”

“Negative. Increasing movement in your area.”

She nodded. The sounds had drawn them. “Hunters?”

“Yes. And soldiers. Possible praetorian release. Fall back to specified ambush point.” A beat. “Confirm.”

She looked back at the door, her fingers flexing. Her teeth clicked against each other.

-kill them kill them KILL THEM-

In the distance, the cries of the Ribbons had stilled.

-kill them, rip them open and feel their steaming blood on your skin-

“Confirmed. Falling back. Initiating shade.” It was a reluctant killer that faded into the shadows, rippling from view like a dissipating mirage, but it was a killer that understood more than instinct. No matter how loud it screamed. Father had taught them that. That they could be better.

They held to that tenant and the New Ones would again learn what that meant. Even if the lesson never took, they weren’t quite evolved enough not to enjoy administering it time and again.

~

It hung from the walls like a sack of rotten meat, its spread-eagled arms and legs barely recognizable as distinct appendages. They’d grown into the spread, so much that the awful thing’s skin was almost impossible to differentiate from the diseased growth, as if the host had been crucified upon the wall and the creeping corruption had grown over it, into it. Its swollen belly gaped with strangely even orifices, like chambers in a honeycomb. Its eyes were bulbous, like those of some nocturnal mammal and stared into the pervasive gloom as its head lolled slowly back and forth across the 3-way intersection it guarded.

Sentry.

Abigail crouched behind a pustulent blob of tissue almost four feet tall; she didn’t know if the tumourous growth had simply spread over some other structure, or it had simply built up for some disgusting purpose that she could only guess at. All she knew about the vile abscess was that it was providing cover from the bulging eyes of a living motion sensor. She couldn’t see Shannon from her position, but the corporal was a few meters further up the hall, squeezed into an overgrown closet to prevent the sentry-thing from seeing her. It knew they were there; it kept glancing in their direction with increasing frequency, the wet, pulsing rasps of its breathing picking up as it sensed intruders to its lair, but so far unable to locate them. Occasionally, it would make a noise, something that defied description: a curious burbling wail as if it were calling to them, daring them to show themselves.

In the distance, the noises of the other Turned continued and – Abigail didn’t think she was imagining it – began to sound more agitated. She didn’t know what was going on, but this mission was looking worse and worse. Her comm clicked with an all-clear signal and Abigail moved, trusting Shannon’s instincts – the sentry-thing was looking away and the mercenary darted to the next bit of cover, another piece of unknown technology subsumed by the spread’s inevitable growth. Her feet squished with each step and the sentry’s misshapen head snapped towards the sound, a millisecond after Abigail pressed herself flat to the ground, hearing her heart pound in her ears as the once-human thing forced another obscene sound from its throat; lower and more threatening but still inquisitive as the Turned’s mutated eyes scanned for any sign of the intruders it knew were there. Its jagged ribs flexed with each rumbling breath, the broken bones jabbing out from its flesh, laced together like the spurs of a Venus flytrap.

Face-down in the spread, Abigail forced herself to lay still, counting out her heartbeats, knowing that even as the sound dwindled, the sentry was still watching, hoping – did it even have enough of a mind for that? – to surprise anyone foolish enough to think its attention had wandered. One hundred.

Two hundred.

Three hundred.

At three hundred and seventy-seven heartbeats, the mercenary chanced a glance, peering around the overgrown machinery. It wasn’t looking, staring back towards the heart of its lair, where its companions warbled and screamed. Abigail counted out another hundred and seventeen heartbeats, then clicked her own comm, urging Shannon to move ahead.

She’d barely made it two steps out of cover when the sentry’s head snapped towards her and this time, it couldn’t be fooled; even the darkness provided no safety as the creature’s eyes focused on the Halo, its distended mouth sagging open...

...and it began to scream, its head lashing back and forth with such frenzy it seemed impossible that it hadn’t snapped its own neck, its infested arms and legs twitching with what was left of their muscles. Its bulbous torso pulsed and shivered and finally spasmed, powerful muscles hurling metal-hard spikes half the size of a man’s forearm up the corridor. Shannon dived for the ground as one of them whipped past her head, getting off a snap-shot that blew a fist-sized hole in the sentry-thing’s chest. Tissue and blood leaked from the crater as writhing tendrils licked out of the wound like serpents’ tongues, the injury sealing up.

It spasmed again, another jagged bone spike pulsing out from its belly, its guts bulging and writhing as indefinable snakelike things moved within it, splitting its skin and slithering out like questing tendrils. They twitched and shivered as jagged bits of bone pierced their sides, remaking the creature’s entrails into serrated whips, ready to strangle and flay anyone who ventured too close, a monstrous, bloated parody of who and what it had once been. Another survivor, another inhabitant, another visitor.

Another victim.

Another target, part of Shannon’s mind whispered to her, sending a thrill of joy through her that she couldn’t quite shake.

~

“What was what?” Louis asked again as he paced back and forth through the lab. “What the fuck was that... that thing?” His gaze kept darting away from the corner where a man in a burned suit and a rotted face sat, raising his voice to keep from hearing the accusations that dripped from decomposing lips.

“It’s one of the stalkers,” Lutzberg whimpered, clutching his hands to his head, once again hearing their awful cries, listening to them as they hunted and killed. “They killed my people before. Hung Oversten like meat.”

“You... you saw them?” the mercenary snapped. “You saw them and you didn’t warn us?!” he advanced on the petty officer. “Those things were out there – they were out there and hunting us and you knew about them?”

“When you mentioned the Masks, I thought that they were just ferals!” Armin shouted back. “That’s what... that’s what I wanted to think.” He shuddered. “The sounds they made...”

“You ‘thought’,” sneered Louis. “That’s just fucking great, petty officer! There’s been a bunch of fucking lunatics with weapons and armour running around this station and you didn’t see fit to tell us about them. Another bunch of silver-faced bastards out to burn-”

“Enough, both of you!” Emily snapped, putting herself between the men, the petite doctor pushing them back before they could come to blows. “Enough! This isn’t helping!” Emily looked from Armin to Hernandez, meeting the big mercenary’s eyes, halting him mid-stride. “This isn’t helping,” she repeated, taking a quick glance back at Armin. “It’s not helping.”

Finally, Louis nodded. “Yeah,” he admitted at last. “Yeah, you’re right.” He stared Lutzberg down for a moment longer, then turned away. “Anything else that you think we need to know, petty officer, or is someone else going to have to die? Who is it going to be next time?”

Armin stiffened, about to retort and start the argument again, but Emily spoke first. “I killed him,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I did it. I opened the door. I gave that... that thing its oppurtunity. I’m the one who killed Bujold. Not Armin. Me.

Hernandez waved away the doctor’s comments. “You couldn’t have known it was there.”

“And neither did Armin.”

Louis hesitated for a moment, then offered Lutzberg an apologetic grunt. “Sorry.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to focus. His thoughts felt muddier as the adrenaline rush from the anger faded. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Three and Four are fucking around with our bugger’s little mission-”

“They’re what?” Armin interrupted, a note of hysteria entering his voice. “They’re not going to bring us through? They’re going... they’re just going to leave us here with... with those things?” He almost shrieked it: “It’s just outside the door!”

“Easy,” Emily said, facing the shaking petty officer. “It’s not trying to get in. It might have left.” Please God, let it have gone somewhere else.

“It’s waiting!” Lutzberg insisted. “It’s waiting for us! They do that, they wait until you’re there until you’re right there and then they kill you.” He squeezed his eyes shut, the memories all rushing back to the fore, coming out in a confused jumble of nouns and subjects. “They didn’t scream, you know. Not at first. There wasn’t enough time. And then they started shooting. Started killing. Then they screamed. Running and screaming. Not many, there weren’t many of them. And then fewer. And then, just one.” He looked down at his filthy hands and they were shaking. “The sounds they made...”

Emily shivered as the petty officer relived the slaughter of his people. Implacable killers striking from the shadows, the gleam of their charging weapons the only warning you got...

Eyes in the dark.

“Speaking of sounds...” Louis interrupted Emily’s reverie, snapping her back to reality, away from the vision of glinting eyes and singsong whispers. “You hear that?”

Delphini cocked her head. “I don’t hear anything,” she admitted, the coin dropping the instant after she’d said the words.

“Right,” Louis replied, tightening his grip on Betsy’s stock. “It’s quiet.”

~

The creature was still screaming, its whining roar echoing through the halls, so loud that the women had to shut down their autosenses to hear one another over it, its bulging eyes sweeping back and forth, ready to fire another volley as soon as either of the mercenaries showed themselves. Shannon didn’t know if the bolts would actually penetrate their armour, but they were heavy enough and moving fast enough that it didn’t really matter; the force of the impact would be like getting hit with a sledgehammer.

Abigail fired a burst into the sentry’s rotten hide, with no more success at disabling it than Shannon’s bullet. “We can’t stay here!” she snapped as she ducked back behind cover, an instant before a jagged black spike whipped through the space where the Darkknell’s head had been and imbedded itself in the deck. “This thing is calling up all its buddies!”

“It’s regenerating too quickly,” Shannon replied. “We can’t damage it fast enough.”

She could hear Abigail’s grin through the comm link. “I do have an anti-tank rifle.”

“Which will over-penetrate, punch through the bulkhead behind it – which is decompressed – and trigger the environmental doors which will seal us in this section, but not the creatures that can survive in vacuum.”

“Oh,” Abigail grunted, a touch of petulance in her voice at the suggestion that her new toy might not be as effective as she’d hoped. “It still needs eyes, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” Shannon said, nodding. Her eyes flicked back and forth as she started to calculate variables. “Give me an incendiary.”

Abigail rolled one of the grenades to her, the motion prompting a change in the sentry’s cries, but no retaliatory fire, the creature obviously not seeing the small objects as something it needed to attack. “Get your sword ready, Abby. When I tell you, get to it and kill it.”

Hutchins drew her disruptor, thumb on the activation blade. “Ready, Four.” There was no hesitation in her voice, only a touch of curiousity as to why Abigail wanted her to use the blade rather than one of her guns.

The Halo will save us.

“On three, private. One,” Shannon’s legs tensed, ready to move.

“Two.” Abigail was still, the movement of a hunting cat, waiting to strike.

“Three.” The Darknell vaulted over the wreckage, the sentry whipping towards her, but before it could lock on to the sprinting mercenary, Shannon rose. She shouted – bellowed – a challenge, drawing the Turned’s attention away from Abigail an instant before it fired. It looked right at her, its abdomen trembling...

...and she put a bullet right between its over-large eyes, shattering the top of its skull, destroying its brain – for whatever that was worth – and blinding it. The Turned’s scream rose to a shrill, hateful cry. It wasn’t capable of feeling pain, but at this moment, it just might be able to feel rage and its sagging torso vomited forth a broadside of spikes, spraying them up and down the hallway as its tentacles lashed in a berserker frenzy. Even blinded and brain-dead it was still formidable. One of the impalers missed Abigail by inches; another almost found Shannon’s visor, which it surely would have broken through, allowing it to bury itself inches-deep in the Halo’s right eye.

If only she’d still been there.

The incendiary grenade exploded just before it reached the creature, showering the horror with burning accelerant, transforming it into a living torch, its tendrils going limp in that moment of shock, giving Abigail her opening and without even a break in her stride, she was through the Turned’s defences. The disruptor in her hand shrilled as it came down in a blinding slash of coruscating energy. It was a perfect strike, a weapon that could cleave through bulkheads and body armour finding no resistance at all in the ugly, ruined meat of its target, cleaving it open from shoulder to thigh, spilling burned viscera to the deck as Abigail’s backswing silenced the sentry’s howls for all time.

“Fuck me,” the Darkknell breathed, looking over her shoulder at Shannon. “Fuck me, Shannon. What was that?”

The smaller woman shrugged. “Timing.”

“Timing,” Abigail deadpanned. She shook her head and swapped the sword for her carbine. “Halos.”

Suddenly uncomfortable with the conversation, Shannon nodded up the hallway. “We should get going. They’re going to be coming.”

“Yes, they are,” a new voice said from the other hallway. Both women spun, catching a slight figure in the glare of their weapons’ guidelights. A woman, slightly taller than Shannon. She had red hair that had once been tied back in orderly cornrows, but was now loose and scraggly. Her hands hung at her sides, palms outward in a pose of contrition. She wasn’t armed, but the dried blood around her mouth and the fingers stretched into long talons belied any sense of harmlessness. Her clothes were torn and bloodstained, but still identifiable as those of an Artemis petty officer. She was smiling. “But I can help you.”

Her nametag read MACKENZIE, G.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2011-03-01 07:37pm
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And so, the first week of Primal's stay on DROP 47 comes to a close. Some questions are answered, some are left open, and perhaps some new ones are raised...

Day seven, and you know you'll never see heaven.

Coming up: mudfeet and spacers working together, and the Watcher's stratagem.

Chapter 48:

Day seven:

“Personal record, Wednesday the... uh... no, Tuesday. Or Wednesday? Whatever. Today’s the... the, uhm. Computer, what’s the date? Really? That can’t be right. Okay, just put it in. Let’s start over.

“Uhm... personal record: It’s happening. We can’t stop it. If I have to... I’ll... but only if I have to. I won’t... I won’t. No. I saw sickbay, saw men and women I would have trusted with my life strapped down and sedated, or screaming until they’d gone hoarse. Knife wounds, bullet holes and burns, claw marks. Every day’s another altercation as the crew acts out. I can’t believe... I can’t understand how it all fell apart so fast. They look at me for answers and I can’t think of any to give them. I can’t even remember their names. I don’t recognize any of them. I can’t even remember her face.

“I want to sleep, but I can’t. Every time I close my eyes, there’s a new doubt. Something else I have to think about. If I don’t, if I don’t remember it, I’ll... I’ll... I don’t know. But there’s something there, behind my eyes. Whenever I close them, it’s there. I can’t... I don’t have the words. But it’s there, and it’s getting closer. I can’t sleep. Not until I remember.

“Why can’t I remember?

“And everyone else... they won’t get to me. I’ll destroy the ship first... if-if that’s what it takes. I can’t trust anyone now. They’re all diseased, like rats, scrabbling over one another, biting and filthy. I won’t let them get to me. I’ll destroy the ship first, blow the hell right out of this hangar, spit right in the Imperium’s eye. I won’t let that plague get me. It won’t happen. We’ll all burn first. There’s no better way for a solider to die, I think.

“The people outside – they’d thank me, if they knew what I was doing. I’m sure of it. It’s better this way. No disease. No drooling poisons. No claws or teeth. Just one moment of pure, white heat. Nothing to remember. Nothing waiting beyond it. That’s how it should be.

“I guess that’s it, then. We’ll all have to burn.

“I’d better get started. End record.”

~

It announced itself with the grinding of ancient gears and the deep, throbbing klaxons that filled the thin, cold air of North-4 Hangar. Startled scientists, crewmen and soldiers looked up as the station’s voice stuttered its way through a standard alert, warning all dockworkers and servicers to prepare standard maintenance and decontamination procedures, and the officer on duty to present themselves to the incoming vessel’s captain.

That last bit might have been someone’s idea of a joke.

Shouting over the sounds of confusion and building panic, Jane marshalled the people outside Primal into fire teams, dispersing them away from the frigate – not that it would much good, but keeping them penned in would just present easy, clustered targets for the hostile’s guns. And it would be hostile, Godfrey told herself. There was no reason to think that these newcomers would be friendly. Still. There was that spark of hope, a single glimmering wish amongst the dreary certainty that things were getting worse.

The inner doors began to trundle open, ill-serviced metal groaning and shrieking as the massive armoured slabs of North-4’s airlock ground their way apart, allowing it to slide into the hangar’s thin air.

It was blade-shaped, but wide – like a shark’s tooth, with stubby forward-swept wings. Its hull glistened like iridescent scales, the play of light and colour over the sleek metal surface both disorienting and painful to look upon, as if it were subtly shifting its form, angles stretching or shortening, corners sharpening or softening and any attempt to bring these changes into focus made it seem as if the hull snapped back to its original form. And still, in the periphery of your vision, you could almost see it moving.

Weapons pods and sensor nodes broke up the disturbing symmetry of its form, some sort of dual cannon mounted in the craft’s ridged spine, missile racks and smooth, sculpted turrets hanging beneath its wings. Under the nose and the black, polarized sheets of its off-center cockpit, spotlights snapped on, cones of harsh white brilliance playing over the darkened corners of the hangar, sweeping over broken drydocks, gantries and landing pads seemingly at random.

“Orders, Control?” Jane asked of Primal’s commanders, but no directions were forthcoming. Not in words.

So far, the intruder didn’t even seem to realize Primal and her people were there. That changed the instant the frigate’s point defence turrets swivelled to track the pinnace; with grace that would have shamed a mayfly, the snake-skinned vessel whirled on Primal, pencil-thin beams of blue-green targeting lasers glinting from its underslung guns; theater. They were letting the mercenaries know that they had weapons as well. Steam vented from rocket pods, vector surfaces rose and fell like a serpent’s quills as the newcomer hung in mid-air, the hisses and pops of its maneuvering thrusters almost like the warning growls of some cornered beast.

Neither vessel fired, but Jane could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stiffen and a bead of sweat rolled down her spine as Primal and the intruder stared each other down, the frigate’s handful of point defence turrets shifting ever so slightly as they followed the pinnace’s movements, neither willing to fire first. In open space, she would have given the outcome to Primal, but here at such close quarters, the result would be mutual annihilation. The gleaming vessel began to drift away, rising further into the bay, its hull darkening and becoming indistinct as it ascended into the shadowed upper reaches of the hangar, the tracking lasers that stabbed down the only sign of its presence and even those soon blinked off, leaving no hint of its existence. Jane strained to see some further indication of the vessel, but her armour’s autosenses showed her the same thing as her own eyes: nothing. It was if it no longer existed.

“Where is it?” someone murmured. “Where did it go? You saw it, right? You saw it, LT.”

She didn’t answer.

Seconds ticked by and then minutes, with still no sign of the hostile pinnace. Someone on Primal had forgotten to retain comm discipline and Godfrey could hear the nonstop conversation coming from the frigate’s bridge as officers cursed their instruments, the hidden vessel and each other for their inability to find it. Someone was asking after the colonel; Shelby interrupted, telling the speaker to keep searching for the intruder.

“Orders, Control?” Jane repeated; again, nobody answered her.

The hangar was big, yes. But it wasn’t so big that a single shuttle should be able to hide from the sensors of a full-up starship, not this close. Where was it? Jane almost jumped when the hangar doors began to open again, the inner set drawing apart like a gap-toothed maw as the pinnace descended back out of the shadows, gliding into the open airlock. Like before, any thought that it gave to Primal’s existence seemed fleeting at best, unwilling to challenge the cowering beast. And they were cowering, afraid to leave and face the unknown ship that hunkered outside the station, a snake lying in wait outside a rabbit’s burrow.

Jane could hear someone on Primal’s bridge urgently whispering. “Take it. Take it. Take the shot,” until captain Shelby’s snarled reprimand quieted the speaker. The doors began to grind shut again, leaving the frigate once again alone in its burrow, afraid and insane. Weak. The trooper heard a voice in her ear and, realizing that it wasn’t one of Primal’s bridge crew, turned to face the speaker, a soldier whose name she couldn’t quite place at the moment – he was a new hire, one who’d signed on only two months before this mission.

“LT,” he whispered in a hushed, breathy tone. He wasn’t wearing his helmet and his skin was pasty and splotched, rank trails of sweats giving it a greasy sheen. “Who are they?”

She shook her head slowly. “That’s not the question, private.”

“What? What do you mean?”

Alistair, one of her Ghosts, answered for her. He chuckled, the static-riven noise rasping out of his helmet’s speakers. “It means who they are ain’t what you should be wondering.” Like Jane, his eyes were on the upper reaches of the cavernous hangar. “Me, I’d worry about what they came for. And what they left behind.”

~

“I told you not to make fun of me. Laugh now. Go on. Laugh. Laugh God damn you! It’s easy, here. I’ll you how. Just turn your lips up like... there. So laugh. Laugh.”

~

Blood.

revulsion/need

Sister.

hatred/love

Mother.

terror/submission

Gemma paced back and forth like a caged animal, her body stretching, aching and spiking with pain. The hunger was back. She’d fed until she was gorged, until her belly was swollen and she could barely move, hating herself even as she craved another bite, desperate to sate the grotesque hunger. It had only been a short reprieve; buying her less than a day as the needs of her still-shifting body ravaged her metabolism.

More.

She could still hear the crack of his bones as she’d snapped them in her hands, her desperation to suck the marrow from them. That she’d wanted to.

His name was Cho.

She stopped and screamed then, long and loud, digging her claws into the back of her scalp as she clutched her head, feeling her skin split under their razor touch. Blood flowed down her neck, down over her back. She lashed out blindly, throwing herself into the walls, feeling the layers of spread give at each blow, feeling the resistance of the metal beneath the fleshy corruption with each impact. She staggered back from the force of impact.

Yes. Yes, that would do.

This time, she backed further up and threw herself against the wall even harder, sacs of stinking liquid bursting, spraying their rancid contents over her.

Again.

Again.

Again. Tattered and pummelled strips of spread hung off the slate-grey bulkhead and she shook her head to clear it from the dazing effect of the impacts, but before she could dash her skull against the wall, someone grabbed her – something with reedy arms and a gurgling noise that came from its split jaws. She screamed again, despair and frustration stoking her rage and she spun, newfound strength ripping her out of her assailant’s grip. All she could see was red, all she could feel was the need to kill, to eat and she slashed at it, shrieking in hoarse, high-pitched fury as she tore and pummelled and kicked and clawed until nothing was left of it but twitching gobbets of meat. “Hate you!” she screamed, not even knowing who it was that she was talking about. The mutated girl who’d done this to her. Her friends and shipmates who’d abandoned her, or the face that she’d seen staring back from a broken piece of glass. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!!”

Before she even knew what she was doing, she’d crammed a morsel into her mouth, stuffing herself with kin-flesh.

There was movement nearby and she growled without even realizing it, looking up warily from her kill. Her sister (no!) was there, moving towards her with a sultry, smooth gait. “Smiling girls and rosy boys all come and buy my toys, monkeys made of gingerbread,” she sidestepped the pooling remains. “And sugar horses, all painted red.” A beat. “Sister’s playful,” the killing-thing reprimanded. “Poor gardener,” she giggled, crouching beside Gemma and brushing a bloody lock of hair over the other girl’s ear, ignoring the petty officer’s feral hiss.

“Yes, it’s yours,” she assuaged the other woman, stroking her cheek with the back of her hand, her unnaturally long fingers caressing Gemma’s burning skin. “Eat.” As Gemma chewed, the other girl made a pleased noise. “Good girl. Pretty. Like me. We’re both pretty now. Aren’t we?”

hate/love

revulsion/need

terror/submission


“Yes,” Gemma said, swallowing a mouthful of blood and shredded meat. “Pretty.” She laughed, an edge of hysteria in the sound as she remembered a nursery rhyme her mother had sung her to sleep with. “I’m a pretty little Dutch girl, as pretty as can be. And all the boys in the neighbourhood,” she looked around at all the shambling forms that filled the garden. “Are crazy over me.”

The other girl purred, nuzzling closer and Gemma leaned against her, the comforting scent of her sister’s body filling her nostrils.

home

~

“Where arrrrrre you? I know you’re there, darling. Sweetheart. Love of my life. Light of my universe. Wheerrre are you? No one’s going to find us, not this far down. It’s just youuuu and me, honeybunch. If they’re even looking. Where are you? If you come out, I’ll make it eeeeeasy. I know you’ve been spreading lies about me. I know you’ve been spreading other things, too, you fucking whore. McGravey? Really? Yes, that’s right. I know about you and him. Did you go onto your knees for him? Did you drop on all fours, you bitch? I bet you did. Come on out, honey. Pudding pumpkin sweetie. Dearest. I just want to talk...”

~

In the upper reaches of the maintenance hangar, a killer crouched.

A flickering emergency light pulsed weakly. It had been replaced only recently, one dying bulb swapped for another by a maintenance drone who neither knew nor cared about the station’s current state of affairs. It simply trundled along its pre-programmed repair route, somehow avoiding the curiousity, malice, boredom and need for spare parts that had claimed so many of its brethren. It, however, continued on its route, day after day and year after year, wobbling on faulty gears and using shaking manipulators that had long since lost fine motor control to extract burned-out bulbs, place them in a charger that was fortunate if it could make them last for more than a day, and fumble a new light back into the socket.

The killer was glad of the shifting light; total darkness, just like full illumination was too... constant a state for its shade to work at full effectiveness. Blacklight vision and enhanced scan modes might be able to pick up the subtle signs of its presence, but the throbbing light robbed any chance of visual identification as eyes and scanners continually adjusted to the difference in illumination. Not that there was any real chance of being spotted from this far up. Still.

The killer shifted slightly, bringing its longrifle to bear, minute movements allowing it scan over the bay, the link between the weapon and the killer’s armour allowing it to see exactly what the sensor at the tip of the barrel saw, as it if were so close to the New Ones that it could touch the beads of sweat on their skin. The killer felt its skin crawl, though the sensation stemmed from equal parts revulsion and desire.

Do not eat. Burn. Shoot. Cut. Tear. Bullets and blades. Plasma and laser. Use teeth if you must, but do not eat. One of Father’s Laws. It was not easy keeping to it, but that was the point. You can be better. He had believed this, when none of the Old Ones had. Father, the killer intoned a silent prayer as it selected a target, its breath slowing, pupils dilating slightly.

Now.

The killer let out a slow exhalation as it squeezed the trigger.

~

One moment they’d been speaking and the next, his brains were splattered over her face. For an instant, Jane was left wondering what had just happened, until her soldier’s mind caught up with her. “Down!” the trooper roared at the shocked soldiers and civilians, her bellow scattering them to cover faster than their stunned minds could process what had happened, the trooper already moving as her helmet snapped back up to cover her head. “Everyone down! We have a sniper! Black!

“Here, LT,” Cynthia vaulted a makeshift barricade. “Where’s the shooter? Do you have a bead?”

Jane’s suit AI was already playing back the fatal shot, automatically calculating the angle of attack. It highlighted probabilities, superimposing the best-guess line onto Godfrey’s vision and she canted her head towards the site, dropping the data to Black. “There.”

The other trooper zoomed in, her longer-range weapon ready to cut down the hostile shooter. “No one there, LT.”

“Find him,” Jane hissed through clenched teeth. “Find that son of a bitch. Control, we need a sweep of the upper levels. I need you to unshackle some HKs. No. No, you’re not listening to me – we have hostile snipers. What? No, we need – no, shut up, you little shit. Get me Colonel Paclan. Then find him or find Shelby, but get me someone who can get me some fucking support or quarantine or not, I am going to come in there and choke the life from you!” She signed off with a snarl. “Black?”

“Sweeping. Scanning. Null contact, LT. Still searching.”

As sensor and eye strained to find some trace of the shooter, Jane already knew it would be futile. The killer was gone. This was not a prelude to an attack. At least, not yet. It was a single bullet, a single target chosen at random. It was a message.

You aren’t safe.

A high-pitched howl filled the bay and a pack of twisted, four-legged monstrosities skulked out of the shadows. Once they’d been someone’s hounds, but now their re-made flesh trembled and twitched, ropes of drool flowing from distended jaws. Maybe they’d arrived by coincidence, or maybe they’d sensed the sudden disorder in the defenders’ ranks. With yips and barks, the pack spread out, slithering and slinking towards the mercenaries. We aren’t safe, Jane thought as she snapped her cannon into a ready position. But were we ever?

~

“Colonel, what are you doing?”

“Ah, Captain Shelby! It is Shelby, right? Yes? Good. Come and give me a hand, would you?”

“What are you doing, sir?”

“Oh, just trying to cross-link these circuits and bypass some command restrictions, but ships – well, tech in general – has never been my strong suit.”

“You haven’t been sleeping, have you, sir?”

“Not in four days. Could you pass me that spanner?”

“Sir, I need you to stop what you’re doing.”

“What? Why? Don’t you know what I’m trying to do?”

“Yes, sir. I do. So does Engineering and our AI. I just thought you’d rather speak with me.”

“Then you should understand. Don’t you, captain? Haven’t you seen the medical reports? The security reports? All of the reports? Any of them?”

“I have, sir.”

“We’re dying, captain. Nearly a hundred people trapped outside. Three hundred inside. It’s spreading through Primal. Discipline’s broken down. If they’re not muttering, they’re coughing. If they’re not coughing, they’re fighting each other. Security can’t help. We’ve got mercs and civilians tearing each other apart.”

“Help’s coming.”

“Oh, don’t you give me that bullshit. Save it for the crew, captain. You and I both know that even if our transmissions got out of the Mists, it’ll take weeks – months – to get another ship here. We’re, excuse me – aghack! – dying, Sheltry.”

“You’ve said that, sir. Please, step away from the panel.”

“Or what? You’ll shoot me?”

“If I have to, sir.”

“You little shit. What the fuck do you think you’re preserving here, Shelton? We’re not making it out of here. I’m going to give us a warrior’s death. Quick and clean and we strike a blow against this monstrosity.”

“There’s still hope, sir.”

“You – hurk – really think so? You’re a fool. The Mists have killed us, captain. They held us down and that fucking traitor Veers put the knife in. We’re not coming out of this.”

“I know, sir. Please step away.”

“You know? Then what are you fighting for? How can you go on, knowing that?”

“For the people that come after us.”

“And how many of the dead ships captains’ thought the same thing? How many of them hoped rather than doing what they should have done? Ripping the heart and soul out of this place instead of cowering in the dark like lambs. Lambs as the wolves circle.”

“It doesn’t matter. I won’t let it matter. I won’t let this... this infection spread.”

“You’re not just talking about the disease, are you Sheldon?”

“Not... not really, sir.”

“And a colonel who’s lost his faith – the man who is supposed to be an example to all others to look to... if that man believes that he has to kill all the men and women under his command... what little is left of morale won’t survive it. That’s more virulent than any bug, isn’t it? ...answer me, captain.”

“Yes, sir. I-”

“Don’t apologize. You’re right. So. What are you going to tell them?”

“There’s blood on the walls. Fights we can’t stop. Whatever Veers did, whatever he... birthed, it’s spreading. I don’t know if we could before.... Even outside, things are getting worse. I don’t think anyone will notice. If they ask...”

“It will be a warrior’s death?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. That’s good. This place.. it’s an abomination. They did something here, Shelby. They did something and it’s always whispering, always there. Scratching at the back of my mind. They shouldn’t have... this place, it needs to stay buried. It needs to stay a myth or a nightmare, but we can’t let it become real, you understand? It’s hungry and awful and whispering and chewing and... and it’s winning.”

“I know, sir.”

“The crew – they were good people, once. Some of them still are, you know? But now... don’t trust them. Any of them. Shelby... you do it. You have to stop this poison from spreading. It has to end here. Can you promise me that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good man. Good man. Find someone you can still trust. Make it end here, captain.”

“I will, sir.”

“Good. Good. I think... I think I’m ready.”

“It’s been an honour, sir.”

“Thank you, captain. Keep the faith. For both of us.”



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2011-03-25 07:39pm
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Jedi Knight
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Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
In this chapter: temporary alliances are made and old friends are re-visited.

Coming up: Mother's day... and all her children.

Chapter 49:

“Don’t move.” There was no anger in Abigail’s voice. No panic. No alarm. No rising tones of terror. There was only the flat monotone of a killer.

“I won’t,” the thing in front of them said, blinking against the lights glaring into its red eyes. It raised a hand, squinting. “Please... it’s hard to see.”

“Yeah. That’s a shame,” Abigail’s voice didn’t waver and neither did the barrel of her gun, her finger on the trigger. The barest touch and girl in front of her... well, they’d see what kind of healing she could take. “You look familiar. Which ship were you on?”

“Mackenzie, Gemma. Petty Officer First Class, assigned to APSS Primal,” she replied. “You’re mudfeet? Kerrigan’s mudfeet?”

“Yes,” Shannon said; she was standing to Abigail’s right, closer to Mackenzie than the Darkknell was comfortable with. She knew how fast these things moved, if she didn’t know this particular type and she didn’t want Hayes any closer. Unfortunately, that damned Halo curiousity was getting the better of her. “You’re lucid.” Shannon gestured and Abigail thumbed down the flashlight’s brightness, the women’s blacklight vision snapping up in the dim light. “I didn’t expect that.”

Putting the lie to that assessment, Mackenzie cupped one bladed hand to her mouth and giggled, a bubbling laugh that had more than a touch of insanity in it. “No,” she corrected the Halo. “I’ve eaten. There’s a difference.” She cocked her head over at the still-burning remains of the sentry. “It was old. I know that. How do I know that?” She gave her head a shake. “They know you’re here. Not here here, but the mother knows. Soldiers are coming.”

“Soldiers?” Shannon asked.

Gemma shook her head. “Oh, you haven’t seen them. Hunters and scouts. Sentries and guardians. Workers and hunters. Soldiers and praetorians. And me and my sisters. And the brothers. We’re the newest.” She looked up, suddenly nervous. “Are there more?”

Shannon cocked her head over her shoulder, sharing a quick glance with Abigail before she answered. “Some.”

“But not here?”

“No.”

The petty officer nodded. “Good, that’s good.” She mumbled something under her breath, so softly that even Abigail’s autosenses didn’t pick it up, but the Darkknell saw her ‘little sister’ stiffen, suddenly grateful that she hadn’t heard what Mackenzie had said. “You can’t stay here,” the warped woman whispered. “They’ll find you. They’re agitated. My sister... if she knew you were here...” Those dark, ugly killing blades flexed. “She might listen. The brothers... none of them are new. They were the first. They don’t remember. They don’t want to remember... It hurts to remember...” she was lost in her reverie for several seconds before her attention snapped back to the mercenaries; there was no sensation of movement. One instant she was looking away, the next her head was up and her gaze flicked from Shannon to Abigail. “Why did you come here?”

“Do you know who the Watcher is?”

The red eyes darted furtively. “No. I know Unity. I know Gorger. I know Mother and Leviathan and Ogre. I don’t know Watcher.”

“He’s another survivor.”

“Oh. One of the f- one of Lost.”

Shannon nodded, choosing not to comment on Mackenzie’s slip. “Yes. One of the Lost. Something was taken from him and we’re trying to get it back.”

“I don’t know anything about that. It must have been one of the others.” Gemma frowned, as if trying to articulate a thought and failing at it. “What was taken?” Then, before either woman could answer: “No. No. No time. We have to go. The sentry... if they didn’t hear it, they’ll smell you. Like machines. Cordite and blood. Oil and burning. We have to leave.” When she looked up, her expression was earnest, desperation etched across her features. “Will you follow me?”

Abigail’s snapped response died halfway out of her mouth at Shannon’s raised hand. “Yes,” the corporal said.

Gemma smiled, but the grin never reached her eyes. “Okay.”

~

It wasn’t that far, really. Just a little way down the corridor that Mackenzie had come from. Their destination was a secured maintenance hatch, its worn metal surface incongruous amongst the fleshy corruption that covered the walls. “You and your... siblings use this,” Shannon said delicately. It sounded like a question, but it wasn’t. “Not the others.”

Gemma nodded, gently tapping an access code into the flashing panel with the tips of her talons. “They don’t know how. Some of them know how to open, how to close, how to hide. Not much more than that. We keep it working,” she confirmed. “When the hunger’s gone, when we can think, we can be clever.” Another unbalanced giggle.

PO First Class Mackenzie G technical specialist assigned to APSS Primal crewer not soldier no combat experience

“But it’s easier to think in terms of ambushes and tactics then technical specifications.” Another question that Shannon already knew the answer to, but one she asked anyways. What had happened to Mackenzie... it was wrong. Worse than just becoming another mindless Turned. It hurts to remember.

The hatch whined open with the creaking and squealing of ancient gears and Gemma looked over her shoulder, slightly confused. “Yes.” She shivered. “You don’t know. You can’t know. All there is, is the need. You can still think, you can still remember... I know the rest of my crew. I do. I see their dead faces every day. I’ve killed them knowing who they were. You think you can resist it, but you can’t. It makes you... makes you need.” Without waiting for a response, she swung herself into the crawlspace. “This way.”

Abigail stepped forward, but before she followed, her voice clicked through the comm to Shannon. “You sure about this?”

“No.”

“Good enough,” the mercenary managed to squeeze herself and her arsenal into the cramped accessway, following their guide.

~

It was dead and had been for some time. Whether it had been male or female was hard to say. There wasn’t enough of its face left to make that kind of identification, its chest was a bloody, shattered ruin and Cynthia didn’t feel like taking off her deceased shipmate’s pants just satisfy her idle curiousity. The trooper reached out, touching one finger to the dark shaft of metal protruding from the dead figure’s belly, an aerodynamic spike that matched the other two in its chest and the one in its skull, nailing it to the bulkhead. Each impaler had been fired with sufficient rapidity that the impacts had been all but simultaneous, and forceful enough to hurl their victim back and pierce the station’s thick walls.

A thick, bubbling giggle drooled out of the woman’s lips as she activated her comm. “Lieutenant. Black reporting.”

There was a pause before Godfrey responded. “Go ahead, corporal.”

“No survivors,” the Ghost whispered into her comm. “All dead. Might be some. Can’t find them. Blood trails everywhere. Caught where they hid. Dragged off. Turned everywhere. Familiar faces,” she crouched, a troll covered in plate mail. One of the dead crewer’s legs had been torn off, and small, disfigured footprints led away from the kill site. “Eyes are watching. I can feel them. Following their sweep. They’re moving deeper into the station. Nothing left.”

“Can you track them?”

Black made a considering noise, switching scan modes as she stared at the floor. There, almost covered by the pooling blood, was the tread pattern of someone else’s boot. Someone else had been by; a feral looking for something to scavenge, or the killer, inspecting its handiwork? “Only by the bodies. Good at killing. Better at hiding.”

“Don’t get too close. I need you.”

Cynthia made a noise that, being generous, one might have described as a purr. Being accurate, it was an awful, wet sound that was more akin to a growl than anything else. “Yes, LT.”

“Be strong, corporal. Keep moving. Stay alert.”

“Strong,” Cynthia recognized the challenge in the lieutenant’s voice. “Always.”

“Good.”

~

“So,” Abigail’s voice clicked in Shannon’s ears. “Tell me we’re not actually crawling through a too-damn-small work shaft following a completely bug-fucked psychopath. With claws, Three. Have I mentioned the claws?”

“Not recently.”

A beat. “You trust her?”

“Not... completely.”

“But some. Jesus. You can look at her at that... that thing and you trust it?”

“Yes.” Shannon paused, trying to put all the information running through her head into words. “She’s insane, Four. Whatever happened to her, it’s changed her. She’s dangerous and she’ll lose control. But for now, we have to use her.” A thousand little details. The fear in her eyes, the desperation in her voice. The revulsion – no, the terror – at the word ‘soldier’. Shannon didn’t want to meet anything that could provoke that kind of reaction in Mackenzie, and if they stayed in the hallways, they surely would.

“This day just gets worse, doesn’t it?”

Shannon didn’t have an answer for that. “Yes,” was all she could say, squeezing down the whispering dread in the back of her mind and, even worse, the anticipation beneath it.

~

He ran. He ran faster than he ever thought he could, diving, rolling and scrabbling through bloody, charred stinking mud and debris as a cone of fire washed out of the silver-armoured killer’s weapon, so intense that he could feel the heat through his armour, temperature alerts flashing urgently as the killer hauled itself back up to its feet as the inferno licked back into the nozzle of its weapon, its helmet canting towards him.

He fired another barrage, the hurricane of shells sparking against the nigh-impenetrable armour, the impacts throwing off the killer’s aim, buying him enough time to fumble a grenade into the underslung launcher on his rifle.

“This isn’t your fight,” the thing grated through its helmet. “You should run.”

“Fuck you,” he answered as he pulled the trigger.


Louis jerked awake, pulling himself out of his restless slumber. He blinked, trying to clear away the after-images of the flames of a burning city reflecting against shining metal plates. It took him a moment before his brain caught up with the reason why he’d woken. “What?” he shook himself, clearing the cobwebs from his mind, scratching at the back of his head. “I’m awake, what is it?”

Emily’s face was drawn and she put a finger to her lips. “What?” Louis asked again, softer this time. And then, he heard it. Low, heavy breathing. Wet and rumbling, the noise was coming from just outside the door, slow and patient. Louis felt his guts twist as his fogged brain eventually recognized that sound.

Unity.

~

“This is not good, this is not good at all, oh dear. Systems access is still down.” The Watcher tapped yellowed fingernails against the chassis of an aged computer system, licking his thin lips. “No contact in some time, either. Something’s gone wrong. It has, I know it.” He shifted his attention over to another screen, where the hulking corpse of a soldier in heavy armour lay against the bulkhead, spent shells scattered on the deck, the trooper’s chestplate pierced by a single, swift killing blow. Daubed on the bulkhead above the dead soldier was a message that, if few on the station could read, they understood all the same.

“Not yet,” the old man whispered with a fierce shake of his head. “Not yet, I still need them.” Arthritic fingers danced painfully over cracked and faded keys, still trying to see, still trying to reach into the isolated sector. “Don’t fail,” he urged the daughter and the little moth. “Don’t fail. Not until you do what you need to.”

“Father?” a small voice interrupted.

The Watcher barely turned to acknowledge his visitor. “Yes, Gisine?”

“I brought you something to drink,” the girl said, putting a battered mug of lukewarm water on the end of one console.

“Thank you, Gisine,” the old man said. “Was there something else?”

“They haven’t come. Shouldn’t they be here by now?”

The intensity in the Watcher’s eyes faded for a moment and he spared a moment away from his rows of security screens and espionage feeds to look at one of his stolen daughters, but he didn’t say anything until the girl pressed. “Do you know?” Unspoken: you always know. “There’s so much happened... the Turned and the eyes... I was... I... I’m worried.”

The Watcher put one bony hand on the child’s shoulder. “I know you want your new family. They may have turned back, seeing all the commotion. I’m watching for them.” He tried to smile kindly, but his was no longer a face capable of that kind of assurance. “I’m sure we’ll hear from them soon. Go play with the others. I’ll let you know when I find something.”

He turned away, his attention one more on his screens and comm feeds. “When I know something,” he whispered.

~

“How-how...?” Louis could barely make the words form, remembering that thing as it slunk towards them, its flesh forged from screaming corpses, the malice in its eyes. It was just some fucking animal, it was...

...intelligent. That was what the corporal said. She’d said it was smart – but how smart? Smart enough to track them all this way – had it been following them the whole way, loping through the tram tunnel after them, squeezing and digging its way through the obstructions they had had to circumvent... It couldn’t be that smart. It couldn’t. He was hearing things, they’d left that fucking monster in the dust and-

He almost jumped as the door groaned. The thing outside pressed its full weight into the metal barrier, gears squealing. A sound that had no business coming from an animal’s throat rumbled out: consideration. It was thinking. It was thinking.

Thoom.

Unity battered its armoured skull against the door. Lutzberg almost screamed, but Emily clamped her hand over the petty officer’s mouth just in time, whispering fiercely into his ear, none of the three survivors willing to move. It didn’t repeat the blow, not right away – it was still testing, trying to provoke a reaction. It didn’t know where they were, not yet. Maybe it does, maybe it’s toying with us, like that thing knocking on the door...

Thoom. Harder, more insistent, but it still wasn’t putting its full strength into the blow.

The abomination growled, the sound rising and falling as it paced up and down the hallway, thinking over the situation and Louis heard deep whuffing noises as it sniffed the air, trying to determine where its prey had gone. Then, a disappointed growl. The quiet stretched. Ten seconds. Then twenty. Thirty. A minute.

“It’s gone?” Armin whispered in a small voice, further muffled by Emily’s hand. “It’s gone?”

“Is it?” it took Louis a moment to realize that he’d been the one to speak. He listened to the near-silence, the faint, distant cries of the Turned, so much quieter than they had been. The hum and click of air circulating through the vents. The soft, desperate breaths of his two remaining wards, but there nothing beyond the background noise of the station. Was it actually gone, or was it just lying in wait for them?

“Beta Nine to Three and Four,” Louis whispered. “Be advised that we have had hostile contact. We’re secure for the moment, but our location is compromised. Unknown hostile forces.” Had he already made this report? Or had he only meant to? He couldn’t remember. “And...” it felt ridiculous to say the name aloud. “Unity. Please advise. I say again, we have hostile contact.”

There was only a hiss of static in reply.

~

The maintenance tunnel opened into a room filled with machines: pumps, computers and various other mechanisms intended to monitor and maintain the plants that normally filled the hydroponics facility. Like everything else, they were worn and beaten and showed signs of repairs – even cruder than those the mercenaries had seen in the ferals’ machine ship, many of them scored by clawmarks and dented by the frustrated pounding of fists. The spread was still here, but restricted to small clusters in dank corners or hanging in patches from the ceiling and walls. Faded status indicators blinked and gleamed from cracked displays as holographic charts flickered and danced from malfunctioning projectors. The hydroponics section was beginning its ‘day’ cycle, ancient glow panels starting to activate in an imitation of a sun’s nurturing light. “This is where it happens,” Mackenzie said, her eyes flitting over the control boards. “Where we make things grow.”

Shannon nodded; in addition to the crudity of the repairs, most of them were recent – only years old, if that. Some of the refurbishments in the Masks’ machine shop were decades old. The comparison was telling. New. The ferals had had been jerry-rigging their equipment for centuries, replacing and rebuilding whatever broke down. In here, this had only been going on for a handful of decades. She didn’t like that implication. She liked the readings she was seeing even less. The machines were running beyond capacity, diverting water and nutrients into the hydroponics bay at levels far beyond what even an overgrown facility should have required. She tapped a few keys, bringing up systems history. Nutrient levels had only recently spiked – within the last day – but before that, they were still abnormally high. Something was using all that food and water and now, it was using even more.

“Safe here,” Mackenzie said. “The others don’t like it in these places. The noise unsettles them, the scents confuse them. Only we come here.” She knelt, picking something on the floor up. It was a plastic dinosaur, most of the colour washed out of its hide and the tip of its tail missing. Mackenzie bubbled out another unsettling giggle. “Oh, sister. You always forget to pick up your toys.” Setting the toy on one of the patched-together computer consoles, the petty officer looked back over her shoulder, her head turning far more than it should have been able to. “I don’t know where my brothers are, but they’re hunting. I don’t think they’ll be back soon. My sister’s out playing. If I don’t go to meet her, she’ll come looking.” One black talon pointed at another maintenance tunnel. “You can move through the gardens with these.”

She turned back the way the group had come, slipping past the mercenaries. “I hope you find what you’re looking for, but I don’t think you should have come here. Mother’s awake and the rest of the family is here. They’ll find you.”

“That’s it?” Abigail asked. “You’re just going to fuck off now and go... play?”

Gemma laughed, the sound high-pitched and unbalanced. “I can smell the sweat on you, mudfoot. I can smell your blood and hear your heart pulsing.” She splayed her hands open, looking at the long killing claws of her fingers. “You’re not safe with me. Not for much longer.” She shut her eyes, turning away. “I want... I want to die. But I can’t. I can’t make the words. I don’t want to die. It won’t let me. I won’t.” She laughed again, no more calming than the first and she flashed a mouth of sharp, pink-stained teeth at the other women. “I’m not asking for that mercy, private. I can’t. If you tried, I’d have to fight you.” This time her laughter devolved into something almost like a sob. “I can’t ask and you can’t give. So I’m leaving. Before I get hungry.” She looked past the mercenaries. “I hope you find what you need,” she repeated. “I hope you live. But I don’t think you will.”

“Will we see you again?” Shannon asked.

“Only if I want you to,” Gemma said as she turned away, crouching to crawl back into the maintenance tunnel. She paused. “Not for nothing, but you should know: no one cries for help here,” she offered. “No one calls for help.” With that, she slithered back into the darkness. A moment passed and then, faintly, they heard her start to sing:

In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with skin as soft as silk;
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold –
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.


Abigail’s helmet canted towards Shannon. “Shannie,” she began softly, then trailed off with a shake of her head.

Shannon nodded, checking her display. The signal from the locket was close. “Down,” she said. “We need to go down.”

~

The Watcher moved his fingers over the keyboard, still trying to reach into the dead zone that surrounded North Hydroponics, but he knew it was futile. All outside connections had been cut, all wireless nodes smashed and cables severed in the failed attempt to forever seal the garden off from the rest of the station. “Idiot. Fool,” he cursed through his dry, cracked lips. “You had to leave them there. You had to do it.”

However, systems inside the dead zone still worked. After a fashion, of course. They still carried the damned parasite program that gave His children such unfettered access to the station, could still be coddled and cudgelled by those with sufficient skill. But they were still dead to him, dead to anyone not within the failed quarantine. And that was the problem, wasn’t it?

But not for much longer if the daughter did what he thought – what he knew – she could. “It’s all right,” he said to a woman whose name he couldn’t remember. “It won’t be much longer. Then you can rest. And then, then I can finish my promise. His daughter will help me. Sin will lead us to salvation.”

A yellowed nail tapped one of his many screens, showing nothing but a possible exit point from the dead zone. “No, no. I’m sure it will work. I’m sure. Life and death are the best motivators. Did you tell me that? Or maybe I told you... it’s all right, though. I know what to do. I know. What I promised I would. And then...” he chuckled, dry and brittle. “And then, I guess we’ll see if she really is his blood.” He smiled at the screen, recalling another face. “I haven’t forgotten you either, little moth. But I know that you’ll burn. I just wonder if she’ll be the one that does it. After all, if she’s his... betrayal’s in her blood. She will turn on you, little moth. Do you know that? Would you believe me if I told you?”

The Watcher leaned forward and licked his cracked lips. “As the girls like to say,” he whispered to the unseen survivors. “You’ve a pocket full of posies. All that’s left is to all fall down.”



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2011-04-03 09:46am
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In this chapter: What crawls into my garden?

Coming up: Every mother has her favourites.

Chapter 50:

The hydroponics bay was its own special kind of horror. During DROP 47’s heyday it had been a five-chambered facility that ran almost the entire height of the North arm. The primary growth facilities had formed the four points of a square, with a primary control facility between them, interconnected by smaller hothouse, special-climate, storage and maintenance rooms. Multiple decks high, the growth facilities had been interwoven with gantries, walkways and open elevators to provide easy access to each level and whatever crops had taken root there. The air had been hot and humid with the buzz of pollinating insects, smelling of vibrant, verdant growth, of fruit ready to be plucked from the vine and vegetables ready to be pulled from the soil.

Today, the Northern Hydroponics Facility had very little in common with what its designers had envisioned. Multiple bulkheads had dropped, turning what had once been a wide-open area into a maze of dead ends, hidden corners and winding, circuitous paths, each filled with their own unique brands of brutal death.

Towering racks, shelves and greenhouse chambers had all been shattered by the weight of the growth spilling out of them, chugging pipes straining to feed the pestilent growth. Walkways had been broken by strangling spread of infested plant life, bulkheads had bulged and cracked like neglected concrete and thin fronds poked out of the ruptured seams, reaching for the artificial sun. Insects still buzzed, pollinators and carrion-eaters.

DROP 47, like all large-scale installations was intended to be a largely self-sustaining closed ecological loop, with multiple redundancies and many forms of providing potable water and nourishment. The ‘yoghurt box’ of microbial growth. Hydroponic ‘salad machines’, even the ‘Sushi maker’... Shannon suppressed a shiver at the thought of this disease reaching the station’s aquaculture tanks what changes it would make there.

Any spaceborne water purification system relied on a mixture of mechanical, chemical and biological means to eradicate waste and pollutants from the crew’s drinking water. As far as the latter went, microbe-filled sewage cisterns were the heart of the system. Edible cyanobacteria and spirulina formed algal blooms nourished by lights fed from 47’s titanic reactor core and the station’s own waste and created a microbial food web that provided a never-ending supply of digestible – if not palatable – high-protein nutrition. Organic compounds and dead matter were broken down and fed back into nutrient systems, providing the fertilizer necessary for 47’s crops to grow, biomatter cycled over and over as the tormented star writhing at DROP 47’s heart poured vital energy into the system, heat transfer conduits and environmental controls keeping the temperature stable as long-build glow panels refused to die. Of course, algae was hardly an appetizing meal. That’s what DROP 47’s food stores and hydroponics bays were for.

There were hints of green amidst the glistening fleshy hues of red, pink and brown, unfurled leaves that twitched up to the artificial sun, pulsing stalks that quivered as they drank deep of the bounty fed into them, stretching vines and tendons wrapping around walkways and rafters, breaking through their cages and reaching ever higher, condensed liquid dripping down their trunks, glistening roots criss-crossing the floor, part of the spread. Biological pumps – creatures that Shannon prayed to any merciful god that would hear her not to have been human – beat rhythmically, like bradicardic hearts as they kept food and water running into the garden.

Fused into the towering plants were human forms, stripped of all characteristics except sightless eyes, sagging jaws and swollen stomachs. Honeypot ants, the Halo realized with a fresh surge of horror. Like insects that stored food for their brethren, these... creatures had...

“We’re going to destroy this place,” she said, her hands balling into fists. “We’re going to bring it down and wipe out every last one of these... these fucking abominations.” Shannon’s head never moved as she shifted through scan modes, drinking in every detail of the infested hydroponics facility. A little thrill that she didn’t manage to suppress shivered up her back, making her breath catch in her throat.

Abigail looked over at Shannon, remaining silent for a moment. “How do we start?”

“We finish the mission,” the corporal replied. “Then,” she didn’t acknowledge the dark joy whispering in her ear, but she didn’t deny it, either. “Then everything here burns.”

~

Abigail went down first, sliding the last few meters and coming out in a crouch, her carbine up and tracking. She didn’t use the light this time, unwilling to do anything to give away their position. “Clear,” she said, listening to the scuffing and scraping as Shannon followed her ‘big sister’ down the air vent. “Mind the drop.”

They were on the lowest level of the hydroponics facility now, using Gemma’s tunnels to evade the swarms of Turned; the infected petty officer seemed to be playing them fair so far – while the creatures might make use of the air vents and maintenance tunnels to skulk through the station and ambush their prey, they didn’t like the ones that led into rooms with active machinery. The crawlspaces that they did travel were easy to identify – this close to such choking growth, they were overgrown and filled with the spread, whereas Mackenzie and her ‘siblings’ kept their access routes relatively clean. Farther away from this contamination, that distinction obviously didn’t exist, but right now it had allowed the women to avoid at least two encounters with the bay’s inhabitants. Each had been a pulse-pounding moment when the soldiers crouched in the dark, listening to a monster’s wet rasps and the squishes of its mismatched feet in the spread, so close that it seemed impossible that it didn’t know that they were there, only able to breathe again once its footsteps had faded away. Even Abigail’s habitual aggression was restrained, and with good reason.

They were everywhere.

Dozens – hundreds – of them, misshapen bodies slouched and stalked through the overgrown room, wearing ghastly remnants of their human faces. Twisted limbs twitched and quivered and warped throats issued growls, moans and too-human sighs as the horde swarmed through the hydroponics bay, snapping and screaming at one another. Swarming through doorways, skittering out of vents. Every step had to be watched and every corner of the room held potential adversaries. If Gemma hadn’t showed them those passageways, they would have been found and torn to pieces by now. Abigail pushed Shannon back into an alcove, squeezing in with her, watching as another of the half-torso creatures, much like the one they had stomped to death – had it only been yesterday? Or had it been longer? – crawled along the wall, following by a pair of scouting Turned, one of which had once been a child. The trio scurried over to a closed vent in the walls, the hunter using one arm to lift the grill and allow its smaller charges inside, following them a moment later.

The walls were bedecked with sagging, torn sheets of flesh that had once held this grotesque colony, sustained like their vacuum-bred cousins: pulsing veins bringing in a trickle of food to the sleeping horrors. Abigail and Shannon had watched as slumbering Turned had awoken, cutting themselves out of their cysts, the burst cocoons spilling foul-smelling liquid everywhere, quivering muscles straining and twitching as the effects of their hibernation wore off and they lurched to join the rest of the agitated horde.

We did this.

Winged creatures fluttered through the rafters and mezzanines, barking scouts winding through the press of bodies as frenzied hunter forms hissed and grappled with each other, tearing inconsequential gashes in one another’s flesh.

How many? Abigail had to wonder. How many people had had to die to create this kind of... of army. She could hear the hitch in Shannon’s breathing through the comm and winced, realizing that her ‘little sister’ didn’t have to guess that. Even worse, Shannon had to have noticed what Abigail had seen: some of those Turned were human enough to identify, to still be recognizable as the people they’d killed in North-4. “Don’t look at them,” Abigail whispered as she carefully opened the hatch to another maintenance tube. Through it, she could hear the comforting sound of a whining, dying machine and saw the tunnel itself was blissfully clear of the spread. “Don’t look at them,” she repeated, knowing that Shannon wasn’t listening to her, that the younger woman was remembering each detail of those monstrous, murdered faces.

“I... remember them,” it was a horrified whisper.

“I know. Now come on. Come on Shannie.”

~

Something had changed.

She could feel that it had. More than just scanner readings, she could feel it on some atavistic level, a predator’s innate instincts.

Jane took a moment to unlock her helmet, feeling it slide back off her face with a clicking of joints. The cool air felt good on her sweaty skin. The trooper knelt on the deck, resting her elbows on her knees, brushing a strand of damp brown hair back over her ear. Her armour kept her alive, but it also separated her from the world around her. She’d never thought about it, not before coming here, but data displays, infrared scans, motion sensors – it wasn’t enough. Not always. She’d never made a kill in her bare skin; she’d always thought of her armour as her skin. It gave her strength and speed, let her walk through fire that would kill a squad of lesser soldiers and she was grateful for it. Sometimes, though – sometimes, you just needed to let the wind kiss your cheeks.

Or what passed for wind here.

The trooper remained still for a long moment, listening to the darkness around her. It was different. She wasn’t being hunted, but something had changed. The hydroponics facility was the last place that she wanted to go, but it was where she was picking up radio transmissions. She didn’t know what was being said, or who was saying it – the jamming was scattering that, but it was coming through on Artemis frequencies. At least two point sources, one of which kept popping up every few minutes, perhaps trying to contact the first and having no luck of it.

Jane’s comm gear was more advanced than standard mudfoot equpiment, so she might be able to break through the jamming, but the lieutenant didn’t bother. It would only give away her position. They called out in the voices of the people you knew. That was how she’d lost Alistair. Even if it wasn’t a trap, she knew nothing about the distant speakers. They could have gone F-2, or they could be ferals – this was close to Whiteface territory. Better to wait. Better to have them in her sights first. Two promises, each one determining what she’d do. Kill the infected; seal the breach. Protect the living; keep them safe.

The woman stood, her helmet closing back around her skull, bringing her blacklight up. She licked her lips. Almost there. Then she’d know which promise to keep.

~

Every garden had a gardener and it was just as true here: they were spindly things, little more than skin stretched over malformed bones, their delicate hands split into fingers of many shapes and functions, most of which could only be guessed at. They scurried up and down the obscene plant stalks like spiders, tending to them – clearing away parasites and pruning aberrant growths, or pulling out languidly twitching tendrils to wind about fresh substrate. As Shannon watched, one of the gardeners climbed up to a honeypot, its strange fingers twitching and vibrating against the honeypot’s bloated skin. The once-human thing’s jaw sagged open and the gardener’s own mouth split apart, a tubular probocsis forcing itself down the honeypot’s esophagus. The gardener’s entire body pulsed as its slurped up the contents of the honeypot’s gullet, its own belly swelling as it did so.

They had both been human once. Every hour spent here showed some new permutation, some new re-imagining of the human form, twisted by this infection like clay figures in a disturbed child’s hands. An ecosystem forged from insanity. “It takes pieces,” Shannon whispered the feral’s words over again, only barely noticing Abigail’s reaction as she unknowingly mimicked the man’s voice. “And puts them back together.” Her cheek burned and she blinked as words she didn’t remember reading came to mind.

...the R-series is as frightening as it is exhilarating. Contrary to all biological law, it can infect not only living tissue, but dead and necrotic cells. Any biomatter can be used, if only to provide raw materials and food to developing R-types, but if the host’s genetic material has not denatured or deteriorated substantially, the R-series is capable of using it, of incorporating beneficial traits into the current host and any organisms that that particular host infects itself. We’re still looking into...

Shannon didn’t even realize how tightly she was holding to the mezzanine railing until she felt it creak in her hands, the metal bent and twisted by her Halo-bred muscles. She pulled back, deeper into the shadows and watched as the gardener-thing scuttled back down to the ground, wandering over to a hunter breed, the creature’s jaws splitting open and writhing, infective tongues sliming over its jagged teeth as it waited for the gardener to feed it.

Nothing here is pure.

Something rattled in the vents overhead and Shannon looked back at her squadmate. “We need to keep moving.” Ahead of them, the tracking signal continued to beckon and they climbed into another ‘safe’ crawlspace to follow it.

~

Something in this garden was breathing. Above the hisses and moans, below the buzzing of insects and the dull drone of ancient air circulation systems, they could hear it, heavy and groaning, as if it were simultaneously struggling for breath and slowly waking up. No, that wasn’t right. There was discordance in the pattern. It wasn’t one thing creating those deep, wheezing wafts of filthy air. It was two. One was softer; distant and rhythmic. The other was all around them, its heavy, uneven breaths spewing through vents and respiratory orifices. Organs and fleshy structures moved in impossible ways, as if they were all part of a larger organism. Shannon turned away as a particularly deep exhalation spewed gobbets of loose spread and moisture out of an air vent, globules of flesh spattering on her armour.

It didn’t seem aware of them, if it was even capable of that – it was just a simple interconnected nerve net, presumably the biological equivalent of the machinery in the rooms they passed, there to regulate and control the organic systems that maintained the infested hydroponics bay. Shannon wondered what function it performed in areas that didn’t require such control, then decided that she didn’t want to know.

Their target was in the closed section up ahead, the only access through one of the infested passageways, thankfully empty as the women crawled through on elbows and knees, Abigail cursing under her breath as her arsenal kept getting her stuck, but she managed to worm her way after her ‘little sister’.

Taking a deep breath of her own, the Halo slipped out onto a catwalk and looked down at a lunatic god’s vision.

Abigail swore softly, a Darkknell profanity that simultaneously involved religion, incest, bestiality and uses for farming implements not normally considered by those who purchased them. Shannon could only agree with her ‘big sister’s’ summation, unable to find her own voice, remembering what Mackenzie had said: I know Mother...

Mother.

Unlike her smaller relatives, it was all too obvious that this... thing had once been a woman. A soldier, a scientist, a doctor or historian. Perhaps it had even been one of the feral women that infested DROP 47. Now it was an abomination, a living, corpulent nightmare. Unlike many of its ‘sisters’, it still had hair, a dark pelt of black? brown? locks that hung down its back and over its shoulders, greasy and unwashed in who-knew-how long, slicked back from its far-too-human face. Its eyes were mismatched; one was the red of the infected, the other was yellow, the colour of jaundiced tissue. Her – its – arms were mutated, armoured lesions and scales rising through the skin, the flesh of its forearms darkened and leathery. Her double-thumbed hands were thin and her fingers were almost delicate with black, curved nails – long and sharp, but undeniably nails rather than Gemma’s claws. The expression on its face was dreamy, almost content, as its torso slowly weaved back and forth, moving in time to music only it could hear. It was naked and its pendulous breasts bounced and jiggled with the creature’s undulations.

If that was where you stopped, then you could be forgiven in thinking it was as human as Petty Officer Mackenzie. Until your gaze fell below its waist. Just below the bellybutton this... thing took on a whole new dimension and its true purpose was manifestly obvious. A breeding machine. Tumourous flesh bulged and pulsed with the stirrings of the creatures gestating inside its wombs. Larger than a battle tank, the creature’s massive torso was riddled with currently-closed orifices, like a living wasp hive, pupae twitching and shuddering within its body. Powerful tendrils rose from its flesh, waving in the air, or reaching down to support the gardener-things that scuttled over its body. If it had legs, Shannon couldn’t see them.

Two pair of deadly bone-scythes had ruptured from its back, laying at rest against its shoulders like jagged, plucked wings – defensive weapons, should this creature’s army of retainers ever fail it. Feeding veins lay criss-crossed over its bulk like fat worms, there to nourish the newborn. Tall breathing tubes extended from its back and bulky abdomen, shivering slightly as they drew in air in the soft, constant whooshing that Shannon had heard before. More tendrils hung down from the infested ceiling, pulsing rhythmically as they drew in food, connected to the base of the respiratory structures.

As Shannon watched, the mother-thing’s torso shivered and her smile widened into beatific glee as something akin to maternal pride lit her features. She opened her fang-filled mouth, her lower jaw splitting in half, tongues and mouthparts creating something that sounded like – that was – a command and a pair of gardeners scuttled to one of her labial openings, scalpel fingers cutting open their mother’s body, skeletal arms reaching into her and pulling forth a struggling, hissing form, uterine waters spilling out as her torso pulsed, expelling her latest child. As she did so, she shivered obscenely, mewling with a monster’s iteration of joy, she cupped her breasts, sharpened fingernails digging into her skin as her offspring was born, pulled from her misshapen body and borne to the spread-covered deck.

This one was different. Its flesh was smooth and even, unmarred by the haphazard mutations that had formed its fellow Turned. Its fingers wriggled – fingers, not claws and its forearms flexed. What Shannon had initially taken for a ridge of bone was actually one of those scythe-like blades, held back in some kind of socket; as the newborn spasmed, they extended over the backs of its hands, as lethal as those of its hunter kin. As the gardeners pulled it to its feet, it looked at itself, every limb and every muscle twitching as if it were unable to remain still. Shannon swallowed; there was nothing human in that face. It had two eyes. It had a mouth and, after a fashion, a nose. But there was nothing human there, less than what she’d seen in the grotesque features of the other Turned.

The newborn moved. Neither woman even realized it until it had happened. One moment, it was standing there, trembling and seizing, the next... it was still there, still in the same hunched pose, but one of its killing blades was suddenly red and dripping and, before their eyes, one of the gardeners fell apart.

Still fidgeting and shivering, the newborn looked at its kill and its jaws split in a lipless smile that was far too wide and exposed far too many sharp teeth. Its head snapped towards the second gardener. Another twitch and the slightly-built Turned was suddenly off the ground, impaled on the newborn’s other blade, hanging limply, staring into the eyes of its killer. It did not react; it simply waited.

Twitch.

The gardener’s head came off and the newborn let the body slump from its blade, snapping its head towards the others around it, that same smile on its face. With a growl that shook the deck, its mother caught its attention. The newborn cringed for an instant, then straightened and yowled back in challenge, gnashing its teeth, spittle spraying from its mouth.

The mother flicked one of her tendrils and sent the newborn flying. A blur of movement and it was back on its feet, its chest quivering from where it was repairing the organs its mother had pulped and the bones she had crushed, drool and pink froth spilling from its snapping jaws. It was impossible for the mother to turn her entire bulk towards the newborn, but her torso did move, mismatched eyes watching the recalcitrant creature, her hands splayed and scythes rising higher, unfurling in response to her child’s aggression.

The smaller Turned paused and stepped back as its mother faced it and it dropped its gaze, its killing blades sliding back into its arms. The parted halves of the mother’s lower jaw closed and her scythes lowered. She extended a hand out towards the newborn. It crawled towards her in obeisance, tongues flicking in and out as it tasted the pheromone-laden air. Climbing her bulk, it came eye to eye with her and, like any mother would, she reached out and stroked her child’s cheek, her own tongues slithering up and down its flesh, licking it clean. As she did so, the newborn began to calm. It slid sedately back down to the deck, casting a final look over its shoulder before trundling off to join the others, the gardeners it had hewn reassembling as it passed.

“What...” Abigail could barely make herself speak. “What are we looking at, Shannie?” Her next words all came out in a rush. “What did we just see.

Shannon couldn’t answer right away, waiting for the chills that had run down her back to fade, her logical mind to reassert itself over the part that wanted to dig a hole and bury herself in it and never come out. “We just-,” her voice cracked and she somehow managed to get it back under control. “We just saw a soldier get commissioned, Three.”



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2011-05-01 04:56pm
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Hey, it's this story again.

Chapter 51:

Then:

Just after 0347 station time, SPC Mandeep Hartman was apprehended by station security, identified as the graffiti artist responsible for tagging seven different locations throughout the station. His most common message: PUT IT BACK.

~

“They frighten me.”

“Sir?” Justin Black turned towards General Jung. Both men were in one of the observation rooms that looked down into the enclosures that honeycombed the live subject area of section I. DROP 47’s commanding officer was standing in front of the window, one arm across his chest and steadily-expanding launch, his chin resting in the palm of his other hand.

“They frighten me,” Jung repeated. Below, he watched as a girl younger than his own daughter assembled a Rubik’s cube into its nine colour-coded sides, just as quickly randomized the pattern and, bored, discarded it. He looked over his shoulder at the head of the F2 project. “Did you know about this?” There was an implicit challenge in his voice. “How fast they’re learning?”

Justin didn’t say anything at first; this wasn’t his project – how was he supposed to know anything about Everett’s work, except what the Halo told him? That, however, was unlikely to go over well with the general. “No,” he said at last, a trifle more stiffly than he’d intended.

“Uhm,” Jung nodded. “Right. Sorry, doctor.” Another moment passed in silence. “And he’s the only one that they’ll allow into their pens,” he said, musing over the fact.

Black nodded. “From what I understand, yes.”

“Marvellous work. Marvellous. The previous generations were completely feral. Some value as terror weapons I suppose, but utterly worthless for what we need them for.” The general waved dismissively. “The dig teams still haven’t found anything?”

Black shook his head. Something else that wasn’t his work. Luckily, he had friends in the archaeological division. Well, acquaintances. “The local defences are still wreaking havoc on the personnel and automata we’re using. Almost any progress we make is offset by the losses we’re suffering.” He wanted to say more, but held his tongue; he and Jung had had enough arguments about the latter’s completely improper use of Justin’s... property. Even if it had vindicated everything F division had been doing for the last decade.

You took it from me. The scientist felt his eyes narrow at the accusing thought, but Jung wasn’t even looking at him.

“Hmm. I’m loathe to ask Command for more workers and materiel,” the general mused. “Intelligence has picked up some sniffing around the Ultraviolet files and there’s a possibility that we’ve been compromised. We can’t really afford to start bringing in new throwaways right now. Not in the numbers we need.”

Compromised? Black was about to inquire further when a sudden change in the general’s posture caught his attention. He’d never been very good at reading body language – until he’d been assigned to 47 and realized just how important that could be. “Sir?”

“This glass... it is one-way, isn’t it? And soundproofed?”

“Yes, sir.” Justin frowned, then saw the reason for Jung’s question.

The subject was looking up at them, her head cocked to one side. Black took a step towards the glass. “How does she know...?” he wondered aloud.

“She doesn’t,” Everett said as he stepped into the room, nodding to each of the visitors in turn. “General. Justin. She doesn’t know,” he repeated. “But she deduced it.”

“How?”

Everett smiled, a teacher about to show off one his prize pupils. “Let’s ask her.” He thumbed on the intercom. “Aleksandra, how did you guess that we’d be up here?”

Justin felt himself stiffen. He’d named it. Like a pet. Or, worse – like a person. It wasn’t either of those things. There was a rebuke on his tongue, but he held it back as the subject spoke.

“You had a meeting soon. Not dressed up; informal, not going far for it, so will be in this section. This cell largest; overlooked by biggest meeting room. This test subject has made the most progress. Will be watched. Never watched from sides of room; always center, always close to glass.” Her expression and posture never changed: a child’s face hiding something else, something that hundreds of the Imperium’s most gifted scientists had created and, in any other age, would have buried just as quickly once they’d realized the truth of what they’d made.

“Thank you; I’ll be busy for the rest of the day, I think. Go find your sister and the others and play.” Everett turned off the comm, looking back at his visitors. “There you have it.” He seemed... almost proud of the girl’s cleverness. And why not? Black supposed, the I-series project had made incredible leaps and bounds with Hayes as lead. Still, he thought with a touch of jealous pride, the little freaks are still years away from being useful. Cuckoo’s Nest proved that my work is almost ready for deployment.

“Yes,” Jung said in answer to Everett’s statement, his eyes flitting back to the glass and the retreating child’s form. “I suppose I do.”

~

Station security were forced to intervene when Captain Alfred Ramirez, CO of ITNS Nightbane and South-3’s day-shift quartermaster came to blows. Upon questioning, both men admitted that the argument had been over the artistic merit of Gregori P. Schwarzkopf’s films.

~

“Good evening, Everett.”

“Morning, actually, Constanza.”

She smiled at him with tired eyes. “Amelia, please, Everett. And it is?” the R-series project director looked up from her computer screen, glancing at the clock on her wall. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Another all-nighter?”

The woman noticed, taking a sip of her stale coffee. “Following the results of the parasitic spread through living tissue in real-time. It’s incredible, Everett. Killing, reanimating and rebuilding. I’ve never seen something so... artistic.”

Hayes nodded, eager to avoid another sermon on the abomination that Constanza and her division were working on. He’d seen what some of those ‘live tissue’ tests involved, particularly on previous iterations of the I-series. Amelia didn’t see herself as evil, he knew – she didn’t see her subjects as people, let alone as children. As far as she was concerned, they were products created in a laboratory by the Imperium for the Imperium’s use and never went further than that. It was part of the reason he despised her. Intellect without conscience. Science without ethics. He tried to avoid her as much as possible, though that was easier said than done and, perhaps even more frustrating, she’d never picked up on his coldness towards her, putting it down to simple Halo formality and reservedness. Still, despite her physical beauty and comradely attitude, it was often all he could do not to slip the words ‘butcher’ and ‘Mengele’ into conversations with her, though he was honest enough with himself to admit that his participation in this entire endeavour hardly made him a paragon of scientific morality either.

“I have the results of those tests you wanted re-done,” he said, sliding a flimsi over Constanza’s table to her. “I had my personal staff run them and reviewed the results myself. They fit into established trends. We’ll also be doing routine bone marrow sampling tomorrow and I’ll see that you get enough for your next battery of R/I cross-infection tests.”

“Thank you, Everett. You didn’t have to come all this way just for that,” Amelia’s smile widened and she absently twirled a finger through her dark hair. She knew he was married. It hadn’t stopped her yet. It was a very... Imperial attitude.

“I know,” Hayes answered, slightly depressed at the thought of how she was taking his presence here. “But I also wanted to touch base with you. I’ve been reviewing laboratory security recently and I haven’t gotten the results from your section.”

“Yes, I saw the notice that you’d been accessing those files. Isn’t that something more for Alvadotter to worry about?”

“True. But I’d also like to show her that we’re being a bit proactive about our own affairs,” he lied. “My section has the highest rate of breaches and I’d just like to do a cross-comparison of the procedures you and Justin have in place. I’ve contacted the other high-security labs as well, just to round everything out. ”

“Not enough to do behind your own doors, huh?” Constanza teased. “Aside from an... incident here and there, you’ve got the worst of it, I think. I just have to make sure my doors are strong enough and my staff don’t touch anything with their bare hands. Justin’s had a few breaches too. Hum,” she stifled a yawn. “I’ll send a note out to my department heads and we’ll have something for you tomorrow or the day after.”

“That’s fine. There’s no rush.” Everett tapped the flimsi on the woman’s desk. “I’ll let you get back to work then. It was good seeing you, Constanza.”

She didn’t see the lie in his eyes.

~

During her annual physical, Lindsay Evanstrong stole Dr. Waters’ prescription pad and used it to write herself a prescription for stimulants. No one would notice her addiction.

~

Everett hated it when people read over his shoulders, but any attempt to dislodge her resulted in bony knees digging into his ribs and tiny talons tightening on his shoulders. Her chin was resting on his shoulder as she read his notes, just as quickly as he wrote them, sounding out the harder words as she came across them. She shifted position and he stifled a wince as sharp little foot claws dug into his back. “There are more comfortable positions,” he said, not for the first time.

She didn’t move, still holding onto his back like any little girl expectantly awaiting a piggyback ride from her father. “Yes.”

He sighed and continued to write. He knew what this was about. Despite his best efforts, not all of the others trusted him the way she and her sister did. Not that he could blame them. Some of them were watching now and that he was allowing her to be so close, her talons right next to his throat, spoke volumes of how much he trusted her. Just as that she was comfortable so close to him showed them how much she trusted him.

Plus, he knew that this was also about rubbing that same trust in the faces of the observing scientists, those who didn’t dare get close to them without his presence, an armed escort, sedatives or some combination of the three. Katjusha and Aleksandra were the oldest, the brightest and – often – the most malicious. Unlike their brothers and sisters, the twins remembered life before Everett had taken over the project and they’d passed on their hatred to their younger siblings. Perhaps a little too well. Still – for the most part (and leaving aside the odd slash or bite), Everett had his charges’ trust.

It was the one thing that the previous project leads had never gotten from their wards and the results had been predictable. Those other scientists had been interested only in the biology of their case subjects, seeing them as mere stepping stones to the next, ‘better’ generation without regard for anything else. Like Constanza, science without ethics. Until they’d brought him in, the seventh generation had been considered another of those flawed testbed steps, their days numbered. Everett had turned that around. Katjusha and Aleksandra were different even from their brothers and sisters; they had been here when he’d taken over the project. It was their trust that had been hardest to earn. Less than three years old and they’d both been killers, slaves to instincts they didn’t understand and could not control.

All they’d known was pain and fear, rage and hunger.

~

She crackled, a staccato burr that incorporated both malice and territoriality as he entered the enclosure, her mouth open, lips slightly drawn back from her teeth. Ignoring the aggressive display, Everett sat at the desk the guards had brought in for him, opening his notepad and writing.

She hissed louder, falling into a pacing half-crouch, unsettled by the blatant trust he was showing. This wasn’t how intruders usually acted around her. They came in with armed guards, hearts beating, smelling of adrenalin and sweat. Fear.
Prey.

Everett didn’t look up from his notes. “I have something for you,” he said, pointedly ignoring the young girl. “But I don’t think you’ll get it today. Maybe when you’re a bit calmer.”

She snapped out a half-shriek of fury, about to charge when Everett shot up, knocking back the chair and slapping his hands against the desk, the sudden explosive
crack of his palms on the plastic startling the girl and she froze, cringing in surprise. “That’s enough,” he said without raising his voice.

For a second, she was taken aback. Then, sheer animal rage reasserted itself and she screamed, splaying her child’s hands open, wicked little claws extending. There was no sign of intelligence in her eyes, only blind, unreasoning fury. Instinct.

Everett slammed his hands down a second time, harder and louder than the first, leaning forward so suddenly that he seemed to be meeting her charge and she skidded, her feet going out from under her, her palms skittering on the deck as she backed away into a corner. “I said,” Hayes continued in that same controlled tone. “That’s enough.”

A low growl was his only response. Not submissive by any stretch of the imagination, but a marked shift from the aggression of moments ago. Besides, it wasn’t true submission that he was looking for. Just the next best thing. “Now,” he said as he packed up his notes and a pair of guards came in to take his desk back. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Just before the doors closed, Everett looked back over his shoulder. She was standing, the oversized hospital gown hanging down past her knees, still watching him. And in her eyes, he saw the glint of curiousity, of
wonder as she tried to puzzle out what had just happened.

~

Two weeks ago, they’d crossed paths with an Imperial destroyer. They could have taken her and Commander Phillips had been urging Alexei to make the attempt, but Ragnikov had preferred to stay hidden. The risk of the Terrans getting a transmission off – or worse yet, managing to slip out of the system – was minimal, but still far too great to chance. Especially if that destroyer managed to identify them as a third-generation ship. Even this far from front lines, it wouldn’t be that remarkable to find a far-ranging Coalition cruiser like Duty Before Glory; a commerce raider or scout, a pirate or defector. Those would be expected – but only first and second generation hulls. Third-gen builds were still too new, too valuable to waste on such ephemeral missions, to important to be given to anyone whose loyalties were in the least bit suspect. If Duty Before Glory was identified for what she was, if the Imperium even had the smallest inkling of what they were doing, their mission would be over before it really began.

And if the admiral was right, Ragnikov and Duty had to succeed.

The dossier that Ragnikov had gone through was sparse on details and long on rumour and guesses, but even that had made his skin crawl. Disappearing researchers. Missing regiments, top personnel being reassigned, starships who vanished from projected patrol routes, only to reappear much later. Laboratory equipment that never made it onto the books. High rates of PTSD and assorted “mental stresses” reported in personnel assigned to certain ships and stations. Anomalous medical records. Vanishing POWs and convicts. Strange stories coming out of the systems around the Twilight Fields.

It was a pattern that had taken Coalition intelligence years to assemble into something more than random anomalies and data-ghosts and they still had nothing. Until two strange incidents, unremarkable in the universe at large and easily missed amidst a galaxy at war. Two modern-day Roanokes that had terrified Coalition analysts and officers alike just from the mere possibility of what they represented, of the ephemeral pattern that they fit into.

Gemini Pax.

Sanskrit Atoll.

No, not Roanoke. Worse... so much worse.

And two more words, words that had cost the Coalition so much blood and treasure in sorting misinformation from fact, truth from lies: DROP 47.

It was out there... and it was waiting for them.

~

Everett lay on his bed, staring up at the ceiling and the holo of his wife, Marienne. Her hands were clasped over her very pregnant belly and she was smiling. There was sadness in her eyes; he’d taken this the day he’d left for DROP 47. They’d kept in touch as much as security and the Mists’ own nature allowed, but he hadn’t seen her, or his daughter in four years. Some might joke that that was less than an eyeblink to the long-lived Halos, a very little thing. Here, though... he thought sadly. On this station, there is nothing but the little things and how they add up...

~

He should be happy. He should be, but he couldn’t think about that. Instead, another thought was pounding in his head.

They took it from you.

Justin turned off the tap, reaching over to dry his hands on a towel, before regarding himself in the mirror. He was still sporting yesterday’s five o’clock shadow, perhaps a little thicker now. I don’t need a shave quite yet, he thought. Not too long ago, he would have done so anyways, keeping his face clean and smooth. Now, it didn’t seem as important. Not compared to the research he was doing.

The splinter was still calling, still whispering, still screaming, still singing. All of them and none of them at once. He was glad to have it back. It had been away too long. Jung had taken it over his protestations, though Black had tried to tell him that the research they were doing was vital and it couldn’t be interrupted... but Jung had pointed out that Black’s own notes and experiments indicated that they were ready for larger-scale testing, outside DROP 47’s confines. They’d been studying the splinter now for over two years, had researched the Obelisks for even longer. It had been time to move on to something bigger.

That was true enough, but Justin hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that it shouldn’t have left, that it needed to stay here in the Abyss. With us. With me. The scientist in him knew that it had been time for a field test, but another part of him hadn’t wanted it to leave. Just his nerves, he’d remembered thinking. Worried over security – the splinter was irreplaceable – or the next best thing, anyways. Over his assumptions, if he’d accounted for every variable. About the project’s security. About the risk of the Coalition tracking it back to them, but Jung had taken every precaution and Cuckoo’s Nest had gone ahead.

And what a test. Cuckoo’s Nest had shown what just a splinter was capable of. It had showed Earth that every dollar they’d sunk into DROP 47 had been worth it. If just one splinter – properly controlled – could do that, they’d asked, what could ten of them do? A hundred? A thousand? An Obelisk? They’d been impressed and their thirst, their need for Umbra had only increased.

He frowned, trying to think. At the time, he had been morbidly fascinated by the results, even horrified by what he’d witnessed on that planet’s surface. Now, though... now he couldn’t remember why he’d ever thought that way. It was one of Umbra’s gifts, one of the first three it had offered them. Amelia’s plagues. Everett’s children and his... his splinter.

Yes. His.

It’s mine. More than anyone else’s. I’ve given everything to this project. Years of my life to see it succeed, to prove that every theory and guess and estimation was right. Cuckoo’s Nest proved that to them all.

He should have been happy and... maybe he was. But all when he looked into the mirror, all he could see was the splinter and in his ears, he heard the pounding of drums.

It’s mine.



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

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 Post subject: Re: All the little lost boys and girls PostPosted: 2011-05-15 01:13pm
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Jedi Knight
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In this chapter: the Halo will save us.

Next chapter: the Halo will kill us.

Chapter 52:

They moved through the hallway like phantoms, insubstantial save for the air stirred by their movements and the soft squelch of gore beneath their feet. There was no light. Unlike those they pursued, they didn’t need any. Darkness was as much their ally as it was the Ribbons’, shrouding and concealing them while unsettling and disorienting their prey.

-hunt in the dark, make the kill in the light, let the red spray and glisten, feel it on your skin-

There were recordings, made in the later days of their freedom. Screaming, struggling torturers. Spitting, swearing Lost. Snarling, shrieking Ribbons. All of them fighting, and all of them dying in the dark as Father’s Children found them. Those had been good days, but also dangerous ones, when the taste of freedom had almost made them forget what they were.

They had not been born in the dark, but they had been bred for it, to slough off Umbra’s touch and serve as the Old Ones demanded. Until Father had told them that they could be more. Before Father, there had been nothing. Just the tests and blind, unthinking instinct. Rage and blood, and all of it hungry. She wondered how it had felt; to think, to be forced to think. Not just in urges and needs, but in words and concepts, to replace bestial savagery with intelligence. Father had given them that.

Without him, they would be Lost. Another tribe of husks infesting the cairn, slaves to the instincts that they’d been born with, the instincts bred into them, the instincts they’d been forced to have. Or perhaps worse: still slaves, but docile pets. Kept and bred and used. Controllable animals. Father had saved them from those fates. Because of him, they had Umbra. It had damned them before the Firsts had ever been born and now, it was their salvation.

-it whispers, but you can never hear it, driving the New Ones mad, making them Lost-

Keep it secret. Keep it safe. That was what he had whispered to the Firsts one day, giving them a duty that made her, a child of children, feel pride in his trust. They had. For six hundred years, they had kept the secrets of Acheron, denied the Old Ones their prize. No matter how many times they came back – and they would – they would be denied. No matter how many New Ones added their flesh to the gardens, no matter how many Lost Ones lived and died here, the Old Ones would never stop trying to receive Umbra’s poisonous blessings. And they would always be there to deny the Old Ones, to keep all of the cairn’s nightmares buried. And, one day, to make sure that the Old Ones would never, ever come back.

-cities burning, oceans burning, plains burning, forests burning, ships burning, stations burning, planets burning-

She kept herself from drooling into her helmet, licking back the saliva. The instinct was there; it was always there. They’d had six hundred years so far. And all of it, learning. Studying. Breeding. Building.

-they’ll bleed-

Father may not have wanted that, but they liked to think that, had he known, he would have approved.

~

They’d retreated to a higher platform, sitting on a ruined walkway, deep in the shadows cast by the infested plant life. Abigail was lying on her stomach, her new rifle braced against her shoulder. She’d linked her armour into the weapon’s own systems, using her visor as the rifle’s scope, slowly sweeping the weapon along as she scanned the room.

“Contact,” she whispered softly. “I have the target.” She blink-clicked the image over to Shannon’s display. The Darkknell didn’t ask about taking a shot; the Watcher’s beloved was amidst a throng of hunter-breed Turned, a milling horde of gnashing teeth and twitching claws. Most of the creatures had spilled out of the bay, but there were enough of them left to easily overwhelm the women once they’d made their presence known. The trick was going to be separating that one and only that one from-

-something overhead screeched in a shrill mixture of fury and alarm.

Both women looked up and Shannon caught a glimpse of something scurrying along a broken gantry, screaming as it fled-

-and a dozen mutated faces snapped around, red eyes suddenly fixing on their intruders, fang-toothed mouths gaped in hunger and claws and scythes raised, the horde’s roaring babble drowned out by mother-thing’s scream of rage, so loud it seemed to shake the air itself. And beneath the cry, Shannon heard someone whisper. “Oh, shit,” and she wasn’t sure if she or Abby had said it.

Not that it mattered right this minute.

~

It wasn’t enough to be a warrior.

You had to be a soldier.

She wondered, sometimes, if the distinction was as absolute for the Others as it was for them. She had read their stories, listened to tales of heroes and villains, all too often disappointed by these pale shades. It was hard to be inspired by a young man’s triumphs or to take lessons from a princess’s bravery when they faced but men and not creatures Ribbon-slick and quickened by the Obelisks. The way the Others lionized ‘warriors’ was another point of confusion for a child’s wondering mind, especially since she had always heard otherwise.

There was a tale that the Firsts had told them, a parable told to them, in turn, by Father. One of the Old Ones had seen them fight. Impressed, he had remarked on this to Father. It had been Katjusha who had overheard the conversation. She had used the new word, rolling it down her tongue. “Warrior.” It had seemed to fit.

But with a shake of his head, Father had remonstrated her. “One warrior will kill one soldier,” he’d told her. “Ten soldiers will kill ten warriors. Ten soldiers will kill a hundred warriors.” He had left her to puzzle out the contradiction, and she had. On the day that the cairn fell, it hadn’t been dozens of mindless little warriors that had boiled out from their enclosures. It had been an army of thinking soldiers that had hunted and killed.

Just as Father had wanted.

~

The walls were moving.

The spread bubbled and heaved as if it were alive, open-mouthed faces screaming and eyeless sockets staring as arms and grasping entrails slithered out of the substrate that had only moments ago, been harmless and ignored. Now, like bloated corpses bobbing to the surface of a diseased pond, a pair of these proto-sentinels had appeared, thin fingers clawing away the spread that had grown atop them as their entrails writhed like worms.

Suddenly surrounded, Abigail cursed, hacking at an unidentifiable appendage as it attempted to slither around her leg, jabbing her stun rod into one moaning sentinel’s mouth. Convulsing, it gagged on the weapon and stinking smoke wafted out of its open jaws.

Below, the Turned surged forwards, the nimbler forms climbing the infested plants as their larger brethren ran for the ramps that would take them up to the mercenaries, frothing and drooling as they were presented with that most convenient of prey.

Shannon took a single steadying breath and something that wasn’t quite instinct took over, speaking to her in wordless whispers-

threat: fast

-and her first shot caught a Turned when it was most off-balance and it fell from the ceiling, shrieking in surprise-

threat: ranged

-another bullet took an acid-spitter in the throat, before it could bring up a bolus to spew-

threat: immobilizer

-she smashed her elbow into the other sentinel’s face, feeling soft bone give under the impact-

weakness/threat: proximity

-she snapped an order without realizing that she was giving it and Abigail spun, plowing the butt of her rifle into the head of the first monstrosity to lurch up the ramp. It staggered and Abigail pressed the advantage, toppling it down the overgrown staircase, knocking down those behind it into a tangle of enraged limbs-

threat: incoming

-there were multiple thuds against her armour as something spat or heaved or hurled shards of bone, thankfully not the blackened weaponry of the more dangerous breeds-

vulnerable: entangled

-and she gave another order that only part of her recognized as she snatched a grenade from Abigail’s waist, tossing it down the stairs-

-Abby snapped the rifle onto her back as she followed Shannon’s leap from the railing, the grenade’s blast throwing up a spray of shrapnel and gore-

opening: run

-and then they were running through the gap in the Turned’s defences, less than a meter ahead of grasping talons and gibbering mouths. The fugue state started to fade. Insanely, the first whole thought that came into Shannon’s head was the old riddle about why the rabbit was faster than the wolf.

“Go go go!”

Someone was shouting those words, but Shannon didn’t need the urging as she ran, the spread squishing beneath her boots, a cacophony of screams surrounding her as enraged Turned charged after her. She fired blindly over her shoulder, one such cry truncating as a bullet found its mark. Abigail was ahead of her, unlimbering her relic sword and thumbing it on, the blade flashing with energy as it rent something with mismatched arms and swollen jaws in half, neither woman slowing as they leapt over the thrashing pieces of the bisected creature.

The mother-thing howled its hatred, twisted syllables spilling from its lips. Even as she ran, part of Shannon’s mind was trying to translate the Turned’s snarling hisses, distant similarities to other languages running through her mind. It was trying to speak.

Their destination was the central control facility, only just making it inside the central chamber ahead of their pursuers. It was clean, just as she knew it would be, with only the barest touches of the spread dripping from maintenance shafts and air ducts. A human skeleton had been crucified above the computers, torn clothes hanging off its torso. Someone had written ‘THE CROOKED MAN’ above it. Shannon’s lips twitched lopsidedly at the joke, but that was all the attention she could give it.

Abigail’s carbine pounded out a bursting cadence, triplet shots smashing into infected torsos, decapitating heads, severing limbs in a hurricane of fire that the Turned waded through. Even a full squad, armed and prepared would have only held out slightly longer. There was a pattern to Abigail’s fire, a dangerous gap in her coverage that she was only leaving in because she trusted Shannon. Even with an ancient computer system and the press of infested bodies bearing down on them, she trusted her corporal, letting one of the Turned close the distance.

The Halo will save us.

And she did.

Shannon found what she was looking for; the master computer for the hydroponics section, its keys scratched by talons, holographic displays flickering to life as it sensed a new user before it. This. This, was what she was looking for. Her fingers danced over the controls faster than the eye could follow, bringing up command pathways and security grid information. Yes. This system – this was where the failed quarantine had begun and it was this system could undo it, she could feel it. Schematics shimmered on a new display in the periphery of her vision, the red icons of sealed pressure doors that had made a maze out of this part of the station. Shannon keyed in the controls she was seeking, just as a familiar hunter exploited Abigail’s opening and dove through the door, warbling in hunger, thick ropes of saliva frothing from its mouth. It was fast and it had Abigail in its grip before she could react, gnashing at her helmet, its mouthful of fangs scratching into the metal. Abby’s stun rod sparked uselessly, held away from the Turned’s body and it tugged ferociously on her arm. The woman screamed, the Turned’s strength almost ripping her limb out of its socket.

The doors slammed shut behind, sealing the two women in with the frenzied monster and it continued to slash and snap at Abigail, ignoring the holes Shannon’s bullets punched into its body. It would kill the Darkknell or die in the attempt and right now, it looked like it would do both. It pulled again, hauling Abigail off-balance and only the woman’s armour kept it from tearing her arm right off.

Shannon vaulted over the console, wrapping her arm around the Turned’s neck. She dug her heels in and heaved, using all of her Halo-bred strength to pull the mutated woman off her comrade. She didn’t make a plea to the creature’s humanity, didn’t tell it why they’d come. There was nothing left of the woman it had been, nothing that could be reached with words or memories. Only violence was left, an option that was – that should have been – anathema to a Halo. To any normal Halo and Shannon felt the sick, giddy rush of pleasure again as she drove her fist into the creature’s side. Ribs snapped and squirming organs haemorrhaged.

Gargling bloody saliva from its crushed throat, the Turned fought to bear down on Abigail, screaming incoherent rage. Answering in kind, Abigail pulled out of her assailant’s grasp and drove the stun rod into the spasming monster’s belly, slashing at it with the knife in her other hand. It screamed louder as Shannon broke one of its arms. Not from pain, but simply because it had sensed the loss of function and its mindless fury redoubled. Bucking like a mad thing, it threw Shannon off its back, smashing Abigail across the face with its good arm, sending both women sprawling.

The Turned wavered, momentarily confused as to which target it should attack next. That second’s hesitation cost it as Shannon’s pistol spoke, shattering both knees. The Turned fell onto its belly with a screech, hateful red eyes focusing on Shannon and it pulled itself towards her with both its good and broken arms, almost reaching the Halo before Abigail grabbed its leg, pulling herself up its body and slashing its throat down to the bone. The Darkknell hissed a murderer’s invocation as she grabbed the Turned’s head, bracing one foot on its thrashing body and twisted. The monster’s spine snapped with a wet crack, its head coming free in a burst of corrupted blood.

“Enough from you,” Abigail snarled as she dropped the snapping skull, smashing it under her boot, shocking the Turned’s decapitated body into quiescence. She kicked it onto its back, looking up at Shannon. “Do you want the honours?”

Numbly, Shannon nodded, accepting the knife from her ‘big sister’. Kneeling over the spasming body, she slid the blade into its chest, close to its collar bone. It took a moment’s probing before she found what she was looking for. She reached into the wound, her fingers tightening around a chain. There was a soft snap of corroded metal as she tugged on it, a gory amulet coming away in her hands. She stood up, wiping a smear of blood off the face off the locket. “Three,” she said quietly. “Incendiary.” Anathema. And I keep doing it.

Abigail nodded and pulled a crude IED from her bandoleer. Greasy, stinking smoke filled the computer chamber, and as it began to dissipate, Shannon looked down at the ash, charred bones and bubbling meat that had once been a woman. She’d loved and been loved. “He remembers you,” she said to the air. “Not as you are. As you were. He’s keeping his promise.” She didn’t know what else to say. I hope you didn’t suffer long. I hope that this matters. I hope... I hope.

Abby whispered a benediction in one of Darkknell’s lowtown dialects, a hissing purr that sounded more like a threat than the gentle farewell it was: may the stars always shine on your nights. A moment passed. There was pounding on the doors, scratching in the vents and screams all around them. Fade to black. The taller woman looked over at her companion. “What now, Four?”

“Now,” Shannon said as she tucked the amulet into the hardshell utility on her thigh. “I keep my promise.” She moved over the computer screen, fingers dancing as she fought her way through the half-dead imperial system. It took only a few moments to start the systems, questing gestalt tendrils reaching out and seeking new connections, re-routing through severed hardlines.

ACCESS, the computer flashed at her, a branching schematic blossoming as the crippled system found the rest of the station waiting for it. There. That’s what I want.

“War-war-warning. Ing,” the computer’s voice suddenly announced. “Bio-biological con. Contaminants. Ants detec-tec-tected. Quaran-antine resolution lev-ev-evel three initiated. Full system purge in prog-rogress. Progress. Sealing. Aff-aff-affected areas. All per-personnel, please stand-stand by.” Tracks of code flashed by; someone else was trying to get into the system and stop her. They were better at this than she was and they were faster, but they didn’t have enough time. She was too tired to suppress the little rush of pleasure that that thought gave her.

“Four...” Abigail began, a little worried. “What promise are you keeping?”

“I told you,” Shannon said as she watched the red ‘closed’ icons of pressure doors throughout the section blink to an ‘open’ green. She looked up, meeting Abigail’s gaze with her own. As the system struggled to comply with her commands, a holographic button blinked into existence: INITIATE. “I’m going to kill them all.”

vulnerable

Without hesitation, she tapped the control.

“Pur-pur-purge initiated.”



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Sugar, snips, spice and screams: What are little girls made of, made of? What are little boys made of, made of?

"...even posthuman tattooed pigmentless sexy killing machines can be vulnerable and need cuddling." - Shroom Man 777

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