In this chapter: the flora and fauna of DROP 47 are more complex than previously expected.
Coming up: fun with grav plating and anthropological studies.
Researcher’s Log Amanda Barnes, final entry.
I’m the last one left. Not for much longer, though. There’s a deep cut on my thigh from where Daniels... it doesn’t matter. I think he nicked the femoral artery. I’m bleeding out. I don’t know how much longer I can last. I just... I failed. I’m sorry. Hadley-Wright’s going to have to find someone else to... that doesn’t matter, either. They’ll try again. They won’t stop. Not now.
If anyone... she laughed dully. If anyone finds this... please. Please, I beg you. Don’t – don’t let Karen wonder. Tell her I loved her, that my last thoughts were of her. Make sure the kids know that, too. I wish... I wish I could be there. I want to... I’m sorry. Emily, if you’re seeing this... get out of here. Get out now. This place... it’s not like we were told. It isn’t. You have to get out of h-
H-hello? Is someone there? I’m-I’m over here! Please, I’m hurt...
Emily was doing an inventory of their accumulated gear; Ramone was ‘helping’ – which mostly involved pacing back and forth, muttering to himself – as the mercenaries continued their sweep of the crew section. This was the lowest, and last, level. Then it would be time to move on. Part of Emily wanted to stay here. It seemed safe. But it wasn’t.
Despite their vacated state, the crew quarters weren’t any safer than any place else. Amanda’s log – what little could be deciphered as the woman fell apart a piece at a time – proved that.
Still, coming here hadn’t been a wasted effort. They’d turned up some useful tidbits. A flashlight with the batteries still half-charged. A few spare ammo clips – though only one fit the weapons they had, and that was for Hernandez’s pistol. A couple of MREs and some supply crates. Whatever Barnes’ group had been able to carry from the hangar. They’d made several trips, but hadn’t risked carrying anything that would slow them down too much and couldn’t be recovered easily if they had to rabbit.
Delphini looked up, checking to make sure that the mercenaries were still in sight; she couldn’t see Hernandez or Abigail, but Shannon was just a short distance up the corridor, flipping through a paper logbook; it was so old that the pages had yellowed, but the dry atmosphere inside the crew quarters had preserved it.
Emily didn’t have to read the book to know what was in it. More of the same – it would start out coherent, then slowly descend into raving madness as DROP 47 destroyed the author’s mind. It was what happened to every other expedition, what had happened to Primal. It had happened to Amanda. And it was happening to them.
The woman closed her eyes in grief. Amanda. Shannon had let her look through Barnes’ logs. They hadn’t been intimate, but they had been good friends. They’d trained together, worked together several times. It had been a tradition for Emily to join Amanda, her spouse and their adorable little rugrats for Thanksgiving. This is where she died. I’m sorry, Amanda. I didn’t know what this place was. No one did. Now it’s all gone to shit. You did good, though. I promise that I’ll carry your message back to Karen and the kids. If I can. If I don’t...
Focus on your work, Delphini scolded herself as she opened a small crate; there was nothing in there but clothes. Not even EVA gear, just spare Hadley-Wright issue uniforms. She pulled one out; it was men’s fit and too big for her.
The doctor made a note of the contents on her on own IDS – smaller than the mercenary gear, it was only for data storage and lacked the built-in motion trackers and sensor systems that a combat or field IDS had. She couldn’t see any real need for the clothes at the moment, but it wouldn’t hurt to know that they were here.
Moving on to the next discarded crate, she continued her makework. Intent on the task, it took the young woman a moment to register a voice calling for help, and even longer to realize that it wasn’t her imagination.
“Riddle me this, Three,” Louis commented as he ran a finger along a doorframe, brushing the topmost layer of centuries’ worth of frost off the layers of ice there. “We’re in the middle of the upper northern arm, right? How the hell do you get decompression this deep inside without blowing the entire structure in half?”
“Easy,” Abigail replied, not even looking at Louis. “Someone got into the environmental controls, sealed that section off locally and vented it.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“You’re asking me why people on this station do anything?” Abigail pulled a door open, sweeping her carbine across the entryway. Another deserted dorm room, this one with the bunks all shoved against one wall. Hutchins shook her head. “The fuck, Louis?”
Louis shrugged, accepting that as his answer. “You see anything?”
“Just more crazy.”
“What do you think happened here? That hole that the corporal found... what was in there?”
“I don’t know,” Abigail gave the room a final once-over, then dragged the door shut. “Don’t want to, either.” She didn’t mention the stress fractures she’d seen radiating out over the bulkhead behind all the bunks, nor the telltale scrapes on the deck where the large pallets had been hurriedly – urgently – shoved against the wall. This lower level was rotten with holes.
Hernandez was silent for a few moments. Then, so quietly that Abby almost missed his question: “You think we’re going to get out of here?”
There was something here.
She could feel it. More than the ranting, half-coherent scribblings on the walls. More than the madness that had taken Primal, the infection that had turned their bodies into those... things.
Kerrigan had been the first clue; rather, the ship’s destruction (someone was operating a vessel, not a relic, not if it had to operate in the Mists, not if was able to destroy a frigate so handily).
Theory: they were followed. Rejected – Kerrigan’s destruction wouldn’t have cowed Primal’s berserkers. They showed no compunction about attacking their own comrades; why would strangers matter? Alternative: preparing a new ambush for the newcomers. Possible. Problem: how would this hypothetical stalker have followed Kerrigan?
Answer: it was waiting, or it had extremely sophisticated sensors – both of which suggested familiarity with the Mists. How quickly it had pounced on Kerrigan meant it had some interest here. Corollary: no matter how many... monsters attacked, one of the larger expeditions should have been able to fall back and disengage from the station. None had. Either they had been overwhelmed (possible) or some other factor had been in play.
“Eyes in the dark,” Shannon murmured, running a hand over the wall, where someone had scrawled that same descriptor. She remembered that phrase from the graffiti in the concourse, here and there on the rest of the station. “They are watching you.” It was too frequent to be simple, isolated insanity – it was a meme that had caught on, repeated over and over as warning. Reinforced and maintained.
Someone else is here.
She remembered the script she’d seen in the concourse. Neat and controlled, but symbols she couldn’t – quite – place. They were familiar, but she couldn’t remember from where. Her cheek burned and she almost rubbed it, recalling the impact of her great-grandmother’s hand...
“Shannon! Corporal Hayes!” Emily’s voice jolted her out of her reverie. The Halo’s head snapped around, one hand going for her pistol on instinct alone. If she’d had time to think about it, the ease at which she went for the weapon would have unsettled her.
Delphini was waving Shannon over. “I heard someone!”
Shannon looked from Emily to Ramone. “You’re sure?”
“Yes,” Emily insisted. “Listen.”
Hayes paused, turning up the gain on her autosenses. The beating of the doctor’s hearts came in louder, the whoosh of their breathing... and a distant, plaintive cry. “I’m hurt...”
“Three, Nine. Get back here.” At such short ranges, they had some radio contact. We have to find those jammers and shut them down ASAP.
“Four, Three. Sitrep?”
“Delphini thought she heard someone. Ramone backs her up. I can hear them, too. They’re calling for help.”
“On our way.”
“I’m hurt...” the voice called again, from deeper in the passageway. This section of the crew decks was completely without power and only the small group’s flashlights cast any sort of illumination. Careful of a trap, the mercenaries moved cautiously, checking each room they as passed, but each was as desolate as the upper levels.
“Please,” the unseen person called again. Female, Shannon thought. Familiar, too.
They found her at the end of a hall, standing before a large pile of toppled crates. Long strings of what had once been light blonde hair hung down over her face, concealing it. Her arms hung limply at her sides. She didn’t move.
“Who’s there?” Shannon demanded, signaling for the group to hold where they were. “Who are you?”
“I’m hurt,” the woman mumbled.
This time, Shannon recognized the voice. It was-
“Amanda?” Emily blurted. “You’re alive!”
“I’m hurt,” Barnes repeated. She still didn’t look up, didn’t move. “Please.”
“She’s buggy,” Louis said. “We should just...” he held up his pistol.
“No!” Emily all but snarled. “You can’t just kill her!”
Shannon ignored them both, shifting her flashlight over Barnes. Michelle had been photophobic...
The woman didn’t so much as twitch. Her uniform was stained with sweat, filth and blood. Her skin was waxy and discoloured. “I’m hurt,” she repeated.
“No movement,” Hutchins’ voice clicked back. “Nothing here except for us... and her.”
That’s what worries me. “Slow,” Shannons said to her erstwhile squad. Aloud. “Amanda? This is corporal Hayes, Artemis Private Security. We’re here from the Kerrigan. We want to help you. Can you understand me?”
“I’m hurt,” the woman moaned.
“We’ve got doctors,” Shannon said. “We can help you. Just come towards us, okay? It’ll be all right. Just come this way.”
Barnes didn’t move.
This was wrong. Every instinct in Shannon’s body was screaming at her to walk away, but her medical training wouldn’t let her, wouldn’t let her abandon someone who needed her help. Not yet, anyways. Easy...
Emily stepped out in front of Shannon. Hayes made a grab for the doctor, but just missed the nape of her coat. Now she was blocking the mercenaries’ line of fire. “Emily, get back behind me,” Shannon ordered.
Delphini refused to budge. “She’s not going to come to you – you’re pointing guns at her.”
“Live and learn,” Louis snapped.
“Let me try. Please.”
Shannon gritted her teeth, tempted to refuse outright. Do no harm. You can’t trust her. What kind of Halo kills? Protect your people. “Don’t get closer than five meters. Stay out of Abigail’s line of fire.” God damn it. Please, don’t let this be a mistake. But she already knew it was.
Emily nodded gratefully, turning her attention back to the traumatized survivor. “Amanda, it’s me – Emily. Do you remember me? We trained together. You invited me to Thanksgiving?”
“I’m hurt,” the other woman whimpered again, finally moving, shuffling back one step.
“I know. We can help you,” Emily said. “You have to let us,” She reached out her hand. “Come on. Please.”
Another awkward step back. “Please,” Amanda called. Emily took another step towards her.
Shannon’s eyes widened in abrupt realization. Shit! She was already moving, even as her conscious mind sorted out the details that her subconscious had already processed. Idiot, idiot! You should have seen this! “Abby! Molotov!” She dove for Emily-
-‘please, I’m hurt’ had been the last words Amanda Barnes had said-
-she was repeating them over and over-
-she didn’t know what else to say-
-she doesn’t move, not even to breathe-
-can’t hear her breathe-
-the crates on the floor, knocked down away from the wall-
-scratchmarks at the other sites, caught by surprise-
-not just another berserker, not like Michelle either-
-bait, she’s bait-
-Shannon tackled Emily, the doctor letting out a strangled cry as she and the mercenary rolled into the wall-
-something howled, a shudder of movement shaking the entire deck as a new horror burst out of the hole in the floor that the scattered boxes and Barnes’s position had concealed-
-almost a meter thick, it was a giant tendril, corded, powerful sinews, four meters of it out now – how long was it?-
-its tip split into a four-jawed, drooling maw, swinging towards Shannon and Emily-
-Shannon continued the roll as the monstrous, grasping mouth slammed down less than a foot away from her thigh. She screamed and fired into its flank, blowing grapefruit-sized holes in its slick, corded flesh. The creature moaned in surprise and drew back, its four petal-lip jaws spreading as it prepared for another crushing grab. Pinned in the corner, Shannon and Emily had no place to go-
-something flew through the air and shattered against the tendril. Flames spread up and down its ugly, discoloured flesh and the monstrosity howled, shooting back up into the hole it had burst out of, its cries of pain rolling out of the reeking orifice.
On its heels, what was left of the person called Amanda Barnes dropped to all fours, and skittered backwards into the hole after the feeding tentacle. Shannon could make out some kind of cord attached to her back. It had burst through the fabric of woman’s coat, leaving a bloody, ragged hole in the cloth. Shannon caught a glimpse of disfigured where the tendril had burrowed into (or erupted from) Amanda’s body. Like some mockery of Theseus’ string, the tendril ran into the breach, connecting Barnes to whatever lay within that... lair. As she vanished into the darkness, the dead woman’s called out a final time: “Please. I’m hurt.”
Emily was in shock. “That... that was... that wasn’t....”
“It’s okay,” Shannon held the doctor tightly as the lurking horror bellowed again, licking its wounds. “It’s okay. You’re safe now,” she lied. “You’re safe.”
Petty Officer Armin Lutzberg cowered in the dark, covering his face with his hands as he tried not to weep in terror. Things had been looking up. Following the attack in the hangar’s central concourse, he’d managed to locate six other members of the expedition. Five were from Hadley-Wright, terrified out of their minds. Private Jackson hadn’t been much better. She’d almost shot him when he’d found her hiding in a corner, rocking back and forth, repeating the words ‘not real’ over and over.
She’d pulled through... somewhat and they’d made it to the nearest tram station, hoping to find other survivors. But the damn thing was broken to shit. That hadn’t been the worst of it, oh no. They’d found Beta Ten... he must have had the same idea that Lutzberg had and headed for the tram station.
He’d been butchered, hung from the ceiling like a piece of meat. His armour had been stripped off, his lifeless face a mask of horror. There were signs of a firefight, but aside from Overstern’s body, there was no indication of who had won it. And, on the walls, a very fresh splotch of paint:
YOU HAVE NO HOME HERE
They’d targeted Jackson first; heaviest armour, heaviest weapon. Had to be why. She’d simply... come apart. He’d never seen a weapon that could do that. Then, shrieks and cracks from the weapons of at least two other snipers. People falling all around him, steaming blood splashing on his face. In his eyes, his mouth. He’d run, leaving the others to die. Found the darkest corner he could and buried himself in it, amidst a pile of refuse. A maintenance junction, just off one of the hallways. Lutzberg squeezed his eyes shut, trying to not to think, not to remember what had just happened. What was still happening.
A few others had made it out too. And now, they were being hunted. He could hear them.
That awful voice.
Lyrical, flowing like mercury and just as toxic. Some cruel child’s lullaby, calling out to you, forcing you to answer, to scream in horror as if it were some awful thing touching you. He had to bite his tongue as it called to him.
The metallic scent of blood still filled his nostrils, its salty taste still in his mouth and he kept himself from vomiting only by sheer will, forcing himself to breathe slower, not to hyperventilate. Nearby, he heard a scream, rising in pitch and abruptly cut off by the actinic snarl of some cruel weapon. He heard feet pounding up the corridor towards his hiding place, heard someone panting and yelping in panic and he whimpered, burrowing deeper into the debris and filth, hoping he’d be missed. No one’s here. No one’s here. I can’t help you, please go away.
Hard, meaty slaps – a hammer against a hanging cut of meat – and a figure pitched face-first to the deck across the intersection, just meters away. A woman from the civilian crew. There were metal spikes half the size of Lutzberg’s forearm protruding from her back. Her mouth moved, but she wasn’t able to form any words and her hands clawed weakly at the deck, still trying to escape, but unable to find the strength to move. Her eyes stared into the shadows that concealed Lutzberg, and a finger beckoned plaintively, but she couldn’t have seen him. She was pleading with a mirage. The petty officer cursed himself for his cowardice, but couldn’t make himself move. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.
Lutzberg bit his lip so fiercely that he tasted his own blood as a second figure strode into view, slinging some twisted rifle over its shoulder as it crouched beside the dying woman. Metal glinted as a knife was unsheathed, a hand burying itself in the researcher’s hair, pulling her head back. A flicker of movement and woman’s neck was opened to the bone. Slick and swift, like a farmer killing one of his stock. The woman’s eyes glazed over, a last gurgling breath escaping from her severed throat.
His breath was caught in his throat as he watched, unable to breathe, to move, even to blink. Warmth spread from his groin, pooling in the seat of his pants as he lost control of his bladder. Don’t look, he prayed. Please, please don’t look at me. I’m not here. No one’s here.
The crouching thing stood, staring down at the researcher’s body, fingers twitching, dancing over the hilt of its knife, as if it were trying to make a decision. Finally it turned to go, sheathing the blade and taking its gun back into its arms. It cried out, its ululating call that of a predator announcing a kill. A moment later, it was acknowledged by another of its kind. The killer disappeared back the way it had come.
Armin bit his lip so tightly he sliced out a portion of his own flesh, but it kept him from screaming. After a long time, he managed to pull himself out of the debris. Sobbing in fright and his own weakness, he fled towards the second tram station.