We get to see Abby and Shannon in better times, more evidence that DROP 47 is severely fucked up and Shannon starts using those brainmeats of hers to figure things out.
Coming up: It's Christmas for Abigail.Chapter 20:
A shadow loomed over her, blocking out the overhead lights. Even before the figure spoke, Shannon knew who it was. She didn’t look up. “Corporal.”
A tall redheaded man beamed down at her. “Hey, Hayes. How’s it going?”
“Yeah, that’s good,” Jerome Lutjens ran one huge thumb over his lower lip, sitting down besides the smaller woman at her table in the mess. “So what are you doing?”
She still didn’t look at him, picking up a piece of fresh fruit and popping it in her mouth. “Reading.”
“Oh? Whatcha reading?”
If Lutjens was discouraged by her terse answers and refusal to acknowledge him more than the bare minimum, there was no sign of it as the other corporal continued. “Yeah, I figured you’d be learning about stuff like that. Probably had your nose in a book or a file for the entire trip.” His tone wasn’t in the least amorous or containing the faux-impression that other suitors tried to convey. But then, he wasn’t trying to charm her. His green eyes glittered maliciously and the man’s smile widened with sarcastic glee. “Guess you’re always studying something like that, huh?” Behind him, a pack of his closest cronies chortled and laughed, waiting as Lutjens began to work up his latest routine.
Jerome leaned forward, drawing a pattern on the tabletop. “So, I was thinking-”
“I doubt that, sir,” Abigail interjected, deliberately bumping to Lutjens. She set her meal tray down and sat next to Shannon, across the table from Jerome.
The big man glared daggers at the newly arrived woman. “Ain’t you got a sewer to crawl back into, Darkknell?”
“Just came out of one. By the way, your mother owes me extra for that.”
Lutjens face flushed. “You-”
, because I was saying that your mother prefers the company of women. That she doesn’t mind bedding one of us Darkknells, that she’ll even pay for the privilege of doing it. That she’s into some really freaky shit and that because she often finds company in the arms of prostitutes, your own parentage may be somewhat in doubt. In other words, that there’s a good chance you’re a fatherless bastard like every other Darkknell.” Abigail flashed her teeth at Jerome in an expression far too predatory to be called a smile. “I just wanted to make sure that you appreciated this multifaceted slur on your family. It’s a very nuanced insult.”
“Watch your mouth, private,” Lutjens growled, pointing a thick finger at Hutchins.
“Ooh, yeah. I’d hate to get written up for insubordination towards a superior. They might have to court-martial me and threaten to drum me out of the service. It could even go on my permanent record. I’d sure hate to see badmouthed an asshole corporal
put next to assaulting a superior officer.
You know, that time I punched out Lieutenant Ming and gave her a concussion. For being an annoying little twat.” Abigail’s grin turned even leaner, hungrier. “Don’t you have some kids to shake down for their lunch money, corporal?”
“Fuck you, Hutchins.”
“Nobody rides for free, corporal. Ask your mommy if you can have your allowance early and we’ll talk. Tell you what you want it for an she might even give you some pointers.”
Lutjens pushed himself up from the table, towering over both women. “That mouth of yours is going to get you in trouble, wharf rat.”
“I’ve been told it’s my best quality,” Abigail batted her eyes at Lutjens, scooping up a spoonful of pudding and lasciviously licking it clean. “Any time you want to see what gets your mother to pay extra.”
Jerome’s face twisted in disgust and turned his back to his friends. Shannon picked out the words ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’.
“Asshole,” Abigail said with a contemptuous shake of her head.
“You didn’t have to antagonize him,” Shannon spoke up. “I was handling it.”
Abigail rolled her eyes. “Shannie,” that annoying nickname meant she was in full ‘big-sister’ mode. “That might work with some jagoffs, but Lutjens is a special brand of cocksucker. Ignoring him only convinces him that he’s not trying hard enough. Or that you’re intimidated by him. You need to take this,” she reached over and grabbed one of Shannon’s hands, balling it into a fist. “And put it here.” she pressed it to her own throat. “Or further south. I’d demonstrate for the added effect, but if I did I think Lutjens or one of his friends might notice and start stroking it.” She let go of Shannon’s hand and scooped up a forkful of purple peas. “I mean, ignoring him isn’t working so well for Alvarez, is it?”
Miguel Alvarez, the quiet Epsilon Three, was sitting alone, reading through technical manuals of his own. His back was to Lutjens and his friends who were, in perfect frat boy style, flicking peas at the specialist. One of them bounced off Miguel’s neck and rolled down the collar of his shirt. Hutchins shook her head in disgust. I might be Darkknell trash, but even us ‘wharf rats’ didn’t pull that shit on each other. Of course, if Miguel grew up there, Lutjens would be gurgling around a shiv in his throat right about now.
Unfortunately for him, Miguel Alvarez was a quiet, introverted technical specialist. Even-tempered and mild were words that seemed to have been made especially for him. He seemed an odd fit for a mercenary outfit like Artemis, but he could hack through almost anything with just half a calculator and a broken datapad. Sergeant Laverty swore by his electronics skills.
By contrast, Jerome Lutjens was a loud, abrasive bully who was good with a gun (and sadly knew it) and was convinced he was God’s gift to everyone. He also had a particular bug up his ass about people who thought they were better than him. More to the point, it was usually anyone that he
thought thought that they were better than him.
He had a special place in his petty heart for Hayes, but Alvarez had the misfortune of being part of his squad and bore the brunt of Lutjens’ hostility. That he’d continually ignored the bigger man had only pushed Jerome into finding new and unique ways to torment Miguel. Some of which, like the peas, were downright juvenile, while others were not – quite – sadistic enough to get Lutjens pulled up short and hard.
“I guess not,” Shannon admitted. She’d tried to strike up a conversation with Alvarez several times, but it had gone nowhere; Miguel was just too quiet. The only person he seemed to open up to was Petty Officer Johnson, one of Kerrigan
“Hrm,” Abigail said around a mouthful of food. “Until you put that asshole in his place, he’s just going to keep after you. Dick out and jabbing in your ear until he gets a reaction. Then he and his asshole friends will laugh it up.” She pointed her fork at Shannon. “I’ve sparred with you, remember. I was also right there with you in that brawl in The Black Locker. I know you could put him on his ass with one shot. You don’t want to, that’s fine. Hell, tell Donowitz. I know for a fact that the sarge hates Lutjens as much as I do and I’m pretty sure he’s on St. Cloud’s shit list too.”
“I don’t want any special-”
“It’s got nothing to do with you being a Halo,” Abigail snapped and Shannon flushed slightly at her friend’s interruption. That Hutchins was right only made it more irritating. “Lutjens isn’t nearly as invaluable as he’d like to think he is. Alvarez is too much of a fucking pussy to do anything about it and if he’s not going to step up, none of Epsilon are going to run behind his back to Laverty. So Lutjens gets to keep being a little bitch that thinks he’s top dog.” Her eyes narrowed as she shot the big man an incendiary glare. “Fucker wouldn’t last two hours in Port Royal.
“The only reason I want you to pop him one – aside from it being fucking hilarious
– is that I think it’d you good, and help the rest of the company realize you can settle your own affairs without me. Not that I mind,” she scooped up another quick two mouthfuls. “But I can’t be there all the time. Sooner or later you’re going to need to punch someone in the mouth yourself. Someone who isn’t trying to put his hands down your pants.”
Shannon looked down at the table. She’d broken that man’s jaw. She could still remember the feel of his bones breaking with the impact of her fist, the noises he’d made as he’d rolled on the floor, clutching at his shattered face. “Maybe.”
Abigail rolled her eyes. “Okay, have it your way. But if you don’t, sooner or later I will. And you know what I do when I hit someone. I’m not trying to put it on you – if I do it, it’ll because he’s pissed me
off and it’ll be my decision, my call. I’m just telling you if he keeps this shit up, I will
hurt him for it.”
“I know. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that. I don’t want you to get in trouble on my behalf.”
“Get in trouble? Aside from those three dickless wonders, Lutjens doesn’t have any friends. Shit, I may even get a medal.”
The younger woman smiled. “Well, we can’t have that. You might start seeming like a proper and respectable soldier.”
“I know, right? Next thing you know, there’ll be talk of promotions and responsibilities. No, no. You can get bumped to officer grade. I’m happy right here being responsible for knowing which end of the gun the bullets come out of.”
“And building ‘security devices’ that maim senior officers.”
“Hey, O’Connor was just a lieutenant. And the stupid bastard shouldn’t have been playing with it in the first place. Besides, they re-attached all his fingers. Now Engineering gets all twitchy whenever I show up.”
“Just the officers. Between Ming and O’Connor, they’re worried you’re going to start working your way through the rest of them.”
“Well,” Abigail drawled, her eyes bright with amusement. “Maybe.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Hutchins gestured with her fork. “So, what are
“Just some run-downs on research missions focused on the Mists.”
“Not really. Most of them didn’t get closer than the tertiary nebula.” Though the Mists themselves were incredibly dense, some dispersion had taken place over the millennia; a sizable cloud of gas and dust had expanded away from the core, hundreds of billions of kilometers in diameter. Officially, this thickening nebula was known as the Twilight Fields while the denser center portion were the Mists proper, though in practice the names were used interchangeably. “Of those that did, most terminated early, citing safety reasons. There’s a lot of notes on medical matters, too.” Shannon called up one file in particular. “This is the captain’s log from the Shubenacadie
– take a look.” She handed the ‘scroll to Abigail.
“It’s pretty typical from what I’ve seen,” Shannon continued, running a hand through her red hair. Unlike Lutjen’s bright red hue, hers was darker, almost the colour of blood. “Lots of inconclusive guesses and supposition, but no solid data to support the science team’s hypotheses. Shubenacadie
’s captain refused to take his vessel past the tertiary nebula; they eventually had to leave with no real answers to their questions. That’s par for course as far as research into the Mists goes. The ships that don’t go deep enough never find anything new and those that do never come back.”
Abigail nodded. She’d skimmed through the literature once or twice herself, but not to the extent that Shannon obviously had. “Okay?”
“I’m just saying that ever since Shimmerman discovered the Mists eight centuries ago, we’ve learned nothing – nothing
, Abby – about them. It’s one giant unknown, with a pretty bad reputation. Look at the appendices. You see? Shubenacadie
reported three violent altercations over the nine-month survey cruise. That’s as many as it had in the previous two years.”
“They were also shipping with the science team; several dozen new people thrown into the mix and kept in close quarters for an extended period of time. I know if I had to spend the next nine months with these wonks from Hadley-Wright, I’d probably end up snapping and killing a couple.” Abigail handed the ‘scroll back.
Shannon frowned, opening a new file and looking at the notes she’d made. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“You haven’t been on enough long tours, Shannie. If we don’t find that fucking station in the next month or two, I guarantee that even you’ll be spoiling for a fight.”
“Maybe,” her expression was distant. “But that doesn’t change that fact that shipboard incident reports increase with proximity to and duration spent in the Mists.”
“Or people just notice them more, because there’s nothing else to focus on. I’ve heard scare stories about the Graveyard, too. People claiming Earth’s wreckage is haunted by all the billions of souls that died when the Coalition cracked the planet open. Ten credits’ll get you a hundred stories about visions of Terran wraiths, nightmares, disappearing ships and spectral murders.”
Shannon wasn’t convinced. Abigail noticed her expression. “Look, I know what this is about.”
“That drunk back in the Axe. He got to you.”
“I... he didn’t...”
“It’s okay. I know you went to see the captain about his story. And from what I remember, it was a damn spooky one, too. But that’s all it was, a story. Pirates hit his ship and he spent the last few weeks remembering the faces of friends and telling himself that it couldn’t just have been some psycho raiders killing for kicks, that there had to more to it, some reason. I get that. I’ve seen it. Just keep your feet grounded, Shannie. Command and our backers have seen the same data and the Old Man wouldn’t send us off to a place where we’re going to start killing each other and Hadley-Wright is sure as shit not going to waste all this money. Anything goes wrong and it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. What they’ve paid out might be a rounding error in their budget, but no corper bean-counter wants those ‘rounding errors’ to start piling up.”
Shannon flushed, embarrassed. “Sorry. I guess I’ve just been letting my imagination run a bit wild.”
“It’s all right. This trip is making us all a little buggy. I saw Meyers muttering to himself in the hall, Hanover’s ramped-up her wiseassery and Ferguson’s been swilling back sleepers. I’ve even-”
A crash interrupted Abigail and both women looked up; Lutjens had dumped his food tray onto Alvarez. “So sorry Miguel,” Jerome was laughing. “I didn’t know you were there. You were just so quiet, Miggy. You forgive me, right?” He gave the tech a shove. “Right, man? It was an accident.” The corporal’s other three friends were sniggering.
Alvarez set down his technical manual. “Yes,” he said without looking at Lutjens. “I forgive you.”
Abigail shook her head, her expression bordering on contempt. “See? You roll over for an asshole like Lutjens and-”
Shannon didn’t even see him move. One moment Miguel had been reaching for a fork, the next he was standing and had the utensil buried in Lutjens’ throat. The bigger man didn’t react at first, as if he was simply too shocked to understand what had happened. He fell backwards, crashing to the floor. Shannon was out of her seat in a flash. “Medical emergency in the mess!” she shouted into her comm. “Severe neck trauma, security needed!” Blood was bubbling out of Lutjens’s mouth, but the fork had gone straight in – if Miguel had twisted it, he would have made things much worse. Hayes slapped Jerome’s hands away from the fork. “Leave it in. If it nicked a vein, you pull it and you’ll bleed to death before the medics get here.”
Abby was already moving, ready to take down Alvarez if he tried to finish Lutjens or some impulse made him go after Hayes. But he didn’t even move. “I forgive you,” he repeated, then sat back down and picked up his manual again, food still dripping down his face and shirt. “But see that it doesn’t happen again.”
“Wow,” Shannon heard Abigail say as a pair of other soldiers pulled Alvarez out of his chair, pinning him to the ground. “Never thought Miguel had it in him.”
“We’ve been to Medical,” Abigail noted. “Been to the crew decks. Time to hit up the engineering subsection?”
“We might as well,” Shannon said. One of her arms was around Emily’s shoulders, guiding the doctor through the corridors. She was still in a state of shock and had been since their encounter with the flytrap. “I think we’ll find one of the jamming stations there.”
“Good,” Hutchins grunted. “I’m in the mood to break something.”
“You’re always in that mood, Three.”
“It’s just so fun, Four. Machines, bones, beds...”
The two women chatted back and forth aimlessly. There was no point to the conversation, but the illusion of normalcy gave them something to focus upon. Plus, it helped to drown out the distant bellows of the flytrap. Not very well, but it helped, offering something to listen to besides the cries of the monstrosity as its feeding limbs and lures stalked them.
Every so often, they would hear something batter into the impromptu barricades – always the one closest to them. Louis twitched every time it did, remembering the warning that had been splashed on the doors, the way its bait had repeated the last words Amanda Barnes had said, over and over. It can hear you. And I think we’ve pissed it off.
Worse than the sounds of the feeding tentacles pounding against the substrate were the voices. Not just Amanda’s, either. There were at least two others calling out in mindless repetition, taken by the flytrap and used as lures, still trying to draw the survivors off to where it could get them. We’ve got to find a way to kill this thing,
Louis vowed. To kill all of them. All of them. Wipe the station clean, blast it into pieces. Whatever they created here, it can’t be allowed to spread any further. This... this place is an abomination.
Movement caught his eye; further up the corridor was another bait-thing, standing in the middle of the hall. A man. Louis didn’t recognize the clothes, but it was a style decades old. “I don’t want to die here,” he begged. Half his face had rotted away and his one remaining eye stared at Louis. The dead man held out his arms as if beseeching Louis. “Please, help me.”
Louis started as he recognized the man. That’s impossible.
He blinked in surprise, and when he looked again, the figure was gone. “Did-” he shook himself, getting his voice back under control. “Nobody else saw that?”
Abigail’s helmet turned towards him. “Saw what, Nine?”What do you mean ‘saw what’? He was right there!
he almost shouted. “Nothing,” he replied, giving himself a slap, trying to focus his mind. “Just thought I saw... well, just another one of those things.”
“There’s nothing there, Nine.”
“I know. Just my mind playing tricks, I guess.”
Three and Four shared a quick look. “This place can do that,” Hutchins said carefully.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Click. A figure in power armour smashed a hunter breed into a bulkhead, pulverizing the Turned’s torso, but it gnashed its teeth and struggled all the same.
Click. Three soldiers pressed their backs together, spraying fire in all directions as a lurching horde overwhelmed them, bullet-ridden carcasses slashing and stabbing, ripping and tearing.
Click. An unarmed woman grabbed her companion’s hands, her mouth moving, shouting at him as she strained to pull him back to his feet, flickering shadows cast across the pair of them as stalking forms ambled up the hallway towards them.
Click. A mercenary with a comrade in a fireman’s carry paused and slowly dropped to one knee as exhaustion took its toll. The soldier carefully eased the other man off his shoulders and propped him against the wall, shaking him to wake him up. It took the uninjured man a few moments to realize that his friend was dead.
Click. Five survivors moved through the corridors, heading towards the north arm’s engineering decks.
“Oh,” cracked lips smiled painfully. “There you are again. Thought I’d lost you. Going down, down down are you? Hmm. They won’t like that. That’s their territory.” Eyes flickered to another cam feed. “But it may save you from them
“Con-con-control of grav. Grav. Gravitational plating gran-granted.”
“Oh, thank you, dearest. You do know what I like to hear.”
“Caution. Caution. En-en-environmental sys-systems mal-malfunctioning. Functioning. Please-ease con-contact engin-gin-gin-eering ser. Services. Un-until repairs-pairs can be made, system functionality. Ity. Is-is severely-ly com-compromised. Ised.”
“Well, that’s no good. Darling, I thought we discussed this? Well, I suppose there’s nothing for it. We’ll just have to wait until they get where you can feel something.”
“No escape. No escape. No escape.”
“Contact,” Abigail’s voice was intermingled with white noise. It looked like Shannon’s guess was right; one of the jammers had to be located in North Engineering. As they got closer, the effective range of their radios dropped further and further. Soon, shouting would be more effective than the comm.
“Confirmed, Three,” Shannon’s voice came back. “What do you have?”
“Unknown. Could be another flytrap.”
“Do we need to backtrack?”
“I don’t think so. Wait one. I’ll check it out.”
“If you need help-”
“I’ll let you know. Three, clear.”
“No escape. No escape. No escape,” the speaker repeated themselves over and over. Abigail moved ahead carefully, swinging her carbine around to cover the hallway. There, sitting against the wall was another of Primal
’s team. At least two-thirds of the expedition had been trapped inside Primal
when Shelby sealed the frigate – which left a few dozen outside the ship. This one looked like ship’s crew, but Abigail couldn’t make out his field.
He rocked back forth, holding his arms against his chest. “No escape,” he repeated the words over and over. “No escape. They woke up. No escape. They woke up. No escape.” He flinched as Abigail shone her flashlight on him, staring back at her and squinting against the brightness in his eyes. He seemed to recognize her and started laughing. “You did it,” he said between maddened chuckles. “You woke them up. Now they’re coming. No escape. No escape.”
“Who did we wake up?” Abigail said carefully. “Who’s coming?”
“Them,” the crewer laughed again. “It’s listening to you. The station. It’s alive, you know. It felt you coming. It reacted. They felt it, they know what it means.”
“What does it mean?”
He hadn’t stopped laughing, hadn’t stopped rocking back and forth, the actions getting more manic and jerky. “It means they get to eat.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t so bad before. After the first swarm, there were only a few. A few, and the tribes. Now you’ve woken them up. There’s no escape. No escape,” he unfurled his arms, revealing the ugly, ragged hole in his guts... and the pistol in his hands. “No escape but one.”
“Drop it!” Abigail snarled, zeroing in on the man’s head. “Put it down, or I will put you down.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He raised the gun, putting the barrel under his chin, wrapping both hands around the grip. “They’ve woken up. You can’t get out. They won’t let you.
There’s no escape.” He was laughing so hard tears rolled down his cheeks. “But I’m going to beat them. I found the way out.” He looked back at Abigail, smiling beatifically. “Welcome to Acheron.”
The shot echoed through the hallway. The crewman fell to one side, one leg twitching briefly. Abigail knelt beside him and pried the weapon out of his hands. It still had seven bullets. She looked over at the man’s corpse. I guess you did find a way out.
She stood and commed Shannon again. “Clear. Come on through.”
She didn’t want to think about how long it would be before she started considering that kind of escape, too.
Something skittered overhead. It was small; perhaps it had been a child. It gnashed and clawed at the metal grating, trying to break through, but lacked the strength to do so. With a disappointed yowl, it turned around and scurried back the way it had come.
Calvin watched it go, not bothering to expend the bullets on it.
He’d made it out of the crawlspace, for what little good that did. He’d been unable to contact anyone else – for all he knew, he was the last person left alive. Alone... trapped with these... these things
. And what were
they? People? Maker, what had
happened to this place?
Meyers had heard horror stories of archaeological teams exploring intact DROPs. Intact defence systems, experiments set loose either through neglect or as a last, spiteful form of protection for the installation. Alone in a freak-show station...
No. There had to be someone else, somewhere. Some of his team had to have made it back to the station. Someone from Kerrigan
’s landing parties had to have survived. All he had to do was find them.You remember 119, Meyers? Yeah, you do. The last fully-operational DROP anyone found, some five hundred years ago.
Yes, he remembered it. Anyone who had even a passing familiarity with Imperial technology or history had heard of DROP 119.
Coalition agents had sabotaged the stationmind, inserting malicious code into the AI’s operating system with the intent of triggering a low-level quarantine, trapping the Imperial crew, while flagging their boarding teams as ‘crisis response’ units to be given free reign. Unfortunately, the AI... reacted to the virus in an unexpected fashion. Which was a more complicated way of saying that it went insane. Rampant.
It enacted quarantine measures – lethal ones. 119 exterminated its crew and slaughtered the Coalition strike force alike. And it kept the production lines running. The AI saw all organic intruders as ‘spreaders of filth and disease’ and would react as it believed its programming dictated. Protect.
When DROP 119 was finally rediscovered, it had a defensive force of over 4 million combat automata, from the original Imperial designs to the AI’s re-envisioning of those forms, using its factories and its fabricator engine to build new and twisted creations, each generation more lethal than their predecessors. Eighteen thousand men and women were fed into the meat grinder of DROP 119 before the Coalition finally made the decision destroy the station utterly. It had not been made lightly – like 47, DROP 119 was an Elysium
and it had had a fully-mature Hephaestus
Fabricators weren’t mere factories, construction yards or assembly lines – those could only build along certain lines. What plans they had. How they had been built. A munitions factory could not assemble tanks. A tank production line could not build starships. Fabricators could do all that and more.
Engines had databases filled with design information, technical manuals, combat reports and technology reviews. You simply told a fabricator what you wanted and it would build it. If you wanted an amphibious tank, the gestalt would delve into its files, examining every amphibious tank ever built, cross-referencing performance specifications with after-action reports, analyzing every facet and character in minute detail before deciding which to incorporate and which to ignore. Smelters and ore processing complexes would shudder to life, breaking down raw materials and forging alloys and ceramics, electronics and armour, weaponry and software. Nanite construction swarms and memory metal would reconfigure at the gestalt’s orders, re-shaping and specializing the engine’s construction systems to produce your tank.
That was what a ‘newborn’ engine could do. The more an engine built, the more data it had, the more it understood, the faster and more efficient its construction became. Even, to some degree, intuitive. If you gave a mature fabricator that same tank and told it ‘make it better’, it would. Sloping the armour to be more resistant to solid shot, incorporating superior heat-resistant materials in the hull for additional thermal protection, increasing the accuracy and range of the main cannon. It wouldn’t end there, either. As the gestalt ran simulations and absorbed field tests and combat reports, it would improve on every successive generation of that tank automatically.
What would take a team of organic engineers and scientists weeks, months or years to accomplish, a mature high-end fabricator engine could do in minutes or hours. And it could keep doing it, learning and developing as a human brain might. Constantly improving its designs as organic and artificial minds alike gave it more information, more ideas. Of course, human engineers and think tanks did not require a fabricator’s massive resource and power requirements and no matter how effective, there were always some ideas that came to an organic developer that a fabricator might overlook. Say what you wanted about the Imperium, but they believed in spreading their eggs amongst different baskets.
The Coalition had never had fabricators. Only factories. In the six hundred years since the Imperium’s fall, no fully-intact fabricator engine had ever been recovered and the designs to build them had been purposefully destroyed by retreating Imperial forces. DROP 119 had been the closest anyone had ever come.
Though he knew what it meant, part of Calvin prayed that 47’s engine was too old and ruined to still function. Yes, he remembered 119.
The child-thing called out in the distance, some ugly warbling call answering it and Meyers stiffened. Come on then.
“You’re between me and my people. I’m not going to forgive you for that. Come on. Come on!
” he shouted into the darkness, so loudly that his speakers blasted with static as he threw down the challenge, almost eager for it be accepted.
“What is it?”
Shannon cocked her head at Abigail. “What?”
“You’ve got that look.”
“How can you-”
Abby laughed. “It’s not just in your face, Four. It’s in the way you move, that sudden slow-down and start and stop. So, give it up. What did you figure out?”
“It’s just a theory...”
“Theories are good. Spill.”
“I was just thinking. Do you remember – it was eleven days ago – when Alvarez stabbed Lutjens with a fork? That conversation we had?”
Abigail nodded. “Reconsidered your theory?”
“Yes. I left Halo before I finished my Masters,” the younger woman replied. “But I’m a good medic. You know what the ship was like before we got the station.”
“Everyone was going stir crazy.”
“Headaches. Bad dreams. Paranoia. Fights and arguments. That incident with Miguel. I didn’t mention this before, but... a few crew came to see me. They were hoping ‘the Halo’ had come up with something that the other doctors hadn’t.” Shannon shook her head. “We’ve been on long shipboard deployments before. It was never that bad. What’s the variable that changed?”
“The Mists,” Shannon confirmed. “‘Don’t trust them. Any of them,’” she repeated one of the warnings on the concourse’s walls. Her voice took on the flat, empty tones reminiscent of the woman Louis had found: “‘Continued exposure to ambient conditions causes increasing levels of paranoia.’ We thought that was Michelle’s,” God, I don’t even know her last name!
“trauma talking. I don’t think it was. Nobody knows anything about the Mists, Abby. Nothing. You remember? Expeditions don’t get deep enough into the nebula to do any real research, because the ones that do never come back. I think this is why, or at least one reason.”
She looked up at the ceiling, as if staring outside. “There’s something in the Mists. I don’t know what, but prolonged exposure to it does something to people. It was doing it to us before we even got here. It’s still doing it.”
“Wait, though...” Abigail shook her head. “This station was up and running for years. If the Mists were making people crazy, the Imperium would never have kept it going.”
“Its hull is thicker than almost any ship’s,” the corporal pointed out. “And Imperial materials science was better than the Coalition. It’s still better than some nations. Plus, when it was operational, the station had systems that actively repulsed the Mists. That had to have an effect.” She bit her lip. “It could just be coincidence like you said. Stress. Some other agent. That’s what I don’t understand. If it had measurable affects on people, then whatever cause should itself be detectable. Even at low levels in the tertiary nebula. Which means we have three options,” she ticked off points on her hands. “Coincidence. It’s not the Mists at all. Like you said: stress, observer effect and bias in the case of ships and throw in some possible biological or chemical contaminant on the station.
“Concealed. There is some field, some energy, something in the Mists itself, but no one’s ever managed to detect. It’s subtle or just something no one ever looked for.”
“And the third?”
“Conspiracy,” Shannon said. “There is something in the Mists, but someone has been actively suppressing the release of that information. It wouldn’t be that hard, not really. Study of the Twilight Fields has mostly been for intrinsic value. They’re unique, yes. But isolated with no real application to the galaxy at large. If there was something, some bit of data or reading, it wouldn’t be that difficult to convince someone to leave it out of their reports.”
“Particularly if there was no other evidence of it and it happened to be some kind of ‘crazy ray’,” Abigail summarized. “I can’t think of many scientists who’d want to be the first to stick their neck out like that.”
“Exactly,” Shannon ran her fingers over the scratchmarks on her helmet. “The problem is, who would bother? What’s the point? There’s no Imperium anymore. No Imperial loyalists to carry out a centuries-long campaign of suppressing information for whatever reason.” She sighed. “So either I’m seeing patterns because I want to – observer bias – or there’s something out there. I need to find out. I need to know, maybe even find some way of counteracting it – whatever ‘it’ turns out to be.”
“How do we do that?”
“You said it yourself: when it was active, DROP 47 was operational for years. No one would have had more data on the Mists than the people working here. I need to get into the main computer. The closer to the central server network the better. We’ll need to get into the station’s core for that. Plus, if we can get control of the computer...”
“...this whole expedition gets a lot easier, along with bumping our chances of survival. I’m game,” Abigail said. She canted her head towards the rest of the party. “What’s the plan with them?”
“We’ll still see if there’s anything in North Engineering. Shut down the jammer there and hope we can contact someone else. After that, we’ll just have to play it by ear and hope I’m not coming down with the crazies, too.”