(This story takes place shortly after the events detailed in ‘Triangulum‘. The characters in this story are introduced in that work, however this piece can stand alone well enough…I think. High horror content – you have been warned!)
Sa-Kolis’ eyes opened to near darkness.
She kept her quarters on the Nemesiid dim even during waking hours, for the sake of her eyes, which had always been somewhat sensitive. When she slept, she preferred the comfort of total dark. Presently, the contours of her room were lit only by the dim haze of blue which was emanating, intermittently, from the computer nearby. The indicator light was flashing in response to an incoming call at the private messaging terminal built into the apparatus.
Rolling out of her resting position, instantly alert, Sa-Kolis pressed her hand to the slim panel beside her sleeping couch and the room instantly illuminated in tones of gentle lilac at her touch. The shutters on the windows slid away to reveal the endless sea of stars twinkling in the infinite distance outside the ship.
Sa-Kolis pulled a robe from the helpful railing of clothes that had automatically descended from a ceiling compartment when the morning lights were turned on. She wrapped it around her naked shoulders and tied it closed, going to sit in front of the communications terminal.
Swiping across the insistent screen with a fingertip, the call connected and Sa-Kolis was greeted by the haughty, but not unattractive, face of Voivode Yuna-Opoima. She recognised him; they had completed conscription military training together in their younger years and he had, on several occasions, participated in the group beatings she was frequently subjected to as a result of her social caste. On the other hand, she’d heard that he’d been one of the few Voivode’s whom had called for her to be allowed the position which she had rightfully earned amongst their ranks and spoken out against what had essentially been her exile from the Empire.
“Ambassador Sa-Kolis,” Yuna-Opoima said smoothly. He had a slightly vulpine look, with upturned , almond eyes and golden freckles across the expanse of his forehead. “I trust I am not interrupting your sleep cycle?”
“Actually, you did,” Sa-Kolis said bluntly. “What do you want?”
Yuna-Opoima laughed. “Still so rude, even now. I hear you’ve acquired a new ship.”
“From the Artisans,” Sa-Kolis replied, voice still rough from sleep. She absent-mindedly rubbed the crust from the corner of her top right eye. “Did you read my reports, Voivode? I sent them to the council.” (Read the first adventure: TRIANGULUM. -Editor)
Yuna-Opoima gave her a Rit-Phyr smirk, chelicerae twitching slightly, eyes narrowing. “I don’t think anyone reads your reports, Ambassador. I mean, they didn’t when you were still a General, and I don’t think we’re going to start now.”
“I’ll forward them to you.”
“Don’t bother; I don’t really care,” Yuna-Opoima said with a wave of his hand.
“Really? But I heard your father mentioned a few times when I was in the Artisan Courts,” Sa-Kolis lied.
The Voivode tilted his head curiously. “My father?”
“They say he passed through the Abyssal some years ago when he was beginning his illustrious career and made some deals to sweeten the pot, so to speak. I heard he spent a lot of his time on his knees begging – or was it just on his knees? I can’t recall.”
Yuna-Opoima was now glaring nastily back at her, tapping his golden nailguards agitatedly against the surface of his gleaming wooden desk, a tic she remembered from their years in the academy. “I’m beginning to understand why no one else wanted the pleasure of contacting you.”
“That’s so hurtful,” Sa-Kolis chittered.
“Oh, shut up, Sa-Kolis,” Yuna-Opima barked. “I have a situation unfolding and you’re the closest ship I’ve got.”
“The Angra-Mainyu is trapped in a decaying orbit,” Yuna-Opima explained and Sa-Kolis blinked.
“Voivode Ma-Tek’s science vessel,” Sa-Kolis said, surprised.
“The same. Two hours ago, my sources tell me, the staff of the Angra-Mainyu were evacuated, and the Voivode with them. At this time, the vessel started a lethal descent into the gas giant it orbits. In an hour, Ma-Tek is going to make some bullshit announcement about how the station was damaged and needed to be abandoned to its fate, but any fool can see through that. I’m sure that the Angra-Mainyu has been jettisoned deliberately, to hide data that the Voivode doesn’t want anyone to see. The crew never made a distress call; it’s obvious that this was planned.”
Sa-Kolis laughed in incredulity. “Wait. You want me to go rifle through this station for dirt on one of your fellow Voivodes? While the entire station is sinking into hell? No, thanks.”
“You’re the Rit-Phyr Ambassador,” Yuna-Opima pointed out earnestly. “You have a mandate to respond to threats and a duty to obey orders from your ranking superiors.”
“I have a duty to obey orders given to me by consensus of the Empire’s parliament,” Sa-Kolis corrected. “Requests from individual Voivodes are just that, requests. If I got in touch with your friend Voivode Ma-Tek right now, how do you think he’d feel about you sending me to rummage through his underwear drawer?”
“You’re not thinking big enough, Sa-Kolis,” Yuna-Opoima countered. “This is why you’re not a Voivode yourself, you know. You don’t know anything about the art of the deal. If you’d been in possession of a few more friends, the council would have backed your promotion, in spite of your…’medical condition’.”
Sa-Kolis frowned at him, her heavy brow sinking over her deep black eyes. “Are you negotiating with me?”
The male Rit-Phyr gave her another smug look. “Yes, Ambassador, I am. Listening?”
“Get on with it.”
“I think Voivode Ma-Tek has been greenlighting illegal experiements on the Angra-Mainyu. I’ve got smuggled reports of biological weapons development, Vein technology, genetic augmentation, necromancy -”
“Necromancy!” Sa-Kolis laughed.
“Some sort of cult Ma-Tek is involved with,” Yuna-Opoima explained. “I think the Voivode deliberately set his own vessel on a suicide course because he has finally created something too big to hide. An experiment too dangerous to terminate.”
Sa-Kolis folded her brawny arms, her hallmark gesture of contempt, thought, and, occasionally, wariness.
“And you want me to…?”
“Go to Angra-Mainyu right away. Investigate what’s been going on. Recover whatever property you can. And then get the hell out of there. If you do this for me, and keep it discreet, mind you, I can promise you a steady stream of supplies whenever you go to one of my fiefdoms and the support of my vassals if – when you run into trouble.”
“If I go to Angra-Mainyu and find nothing of value, then what?” Sa-Kolis demanded shrewdly.
Yuna-Opoima’s eyes, golden from years of symbiote infestation, glittered. “If you find nothing, I’ll still back you. Loyalty counts for a lot in my book. If you represent my interests, then I’ll represent yours.”
Sa-Kolis huffed. “Fine, then. I’ll do it.”
“Good! I’ll send you some relevant data as well as the security access codes you need to -”
Yuna-Opoima’s image abruptly disappeared as Sa-Kolis unceremoniously cut the call and stepped away from the computer.
On the other side of the room was a recessed alcove, in front of which shimmered a pearlescent forcefield. At Sa-Kolis’ approach, it dissolved into nothingness, revealing a neat array of firearms, armor, accessories and survival equipment. She walked past it for the moment and into the washroo, where a cool bowl of water on a pedestal awaited her.
She splashed some of the liquid onto her tired face, patting it dry with one of the soft cloths folded on a collapsible rack by the sink. Sa-Kolis was was a stern-looking female, with dull, pale tan skin, a pronounced head crest with warning red markings on it and large eyes of deepest black. Time had worn away at the charms she had possessed when a young female, but she was still compelling in her own cold way.
In the bowl of water were some sweet leaves, their dark green surface veined with gold. Sa-Kolis took one and wiped it across her cheeks and the exposed column of her neck, cleaning them of the last vestiges of sleep.
Back in the main room, Sa-Kolis once more neared the compartment with its array of neatly organised gear. Sa-Kolis pulled out one of the near drawers built into the back of the alcove, withdrawing a fresh undersuit and clean inner garments. She shrugged out of the robe and her sleeping clothes and into the new outfit, zipping it tight.
She slipped into a pair of dress boots and carefully pinned their pinstriped spattergashes closed around the instep and ankle, and then locked on the components of her breastplate, the violet surface as smooth and reflective as a mirror.
She clipped her utilities belt around her waist, selected a few of firearms from where they waited patiently on their rack and strode out into the hallway.
The ship was quite spacious for what it was currently being used for. It had been designed for a crew complement of around 20, but only Sa-Kolis and one other staffed it presently. That other was a young Zurxok named Ushen-Takaan, whom she had met on her recent sojourn to the Artisan courts (see: Triangulum. -Editor).
They had been in possession of the alien vessel for only a few days, having taken it off the anxious hands of its previous owner. The circumstances of that trade had been extremely odd and the events beforehand had been extremely odd, and Sa-Kolis viewed the uncomfortably lavish surroundings of the Nemesiid with mixed suspicion and annoyance.
The bridge of the Nemesiid occupied a raised platform near the back of the ship, with a lofty ceiling which allowed crew on the upper decks to see through the semi-circle of windows on the opposite wall. Sa-Kolis did not like the layout, which seemed to her inefficient as well as unsafe, but there was nothing to do but get used to it. She supposed there was some tactical advantage the Artisans saw in the arrangement, but hadn’t figured it out yet.
The well-lit and circular room was occupied by only Ushen-Takaan, on the night watch, who was sitting, relaxed, in the plush commander’s chair. He was flanked on either side by hollow, egg-shaped computer terminals, which were on standby mode. A visual representation of the synthetic intelligence which looked after the ship was floating listlessly on the screen like a tepid jellyfish. Ushen-Takaan himself was not paying attention to either of the screens and had curled up in his chair with a heavy-looking book bound in red silk.
At Sa-Kolis’ approach his cerulean eyes drifted upwards, widening slightly at the weapons she was carrying, but he didn’t close the tome.
“Are we going into battle?” Ushen-Takaan asked. He was a tall Zurxok with a very angular face, slim in proportion and always immaculately groomed in suits and masks of purest white. How he kept them clean was anyone’s guess, although Sa-Kolis was beginning to suspect he had the supernatural ability to ward off dirt or grime. Where other beings might sweat, Ushen-Takaan glowed.
“I’m going into battle, you’re staying here to watch the ship,” Sa-Kolis corrected him, walking up the dais to the main viewport in front of Ushen-Takaan’s seat. She called up the interface for the computer, logging into her account so she could throw the Voivode’s message onto the large screen.
“What’s happened?” Ushen-Takaan said curiously, unfolding himself from the chair and setting his book aside to come and stand beside Sa-Kolis, where he easily dwarfed her in height.
On the screen, a grainy recording, obviously taken by one of Yuna-Opoima’s moles, was displaying the Angra-Mainyu as it lurched slowly into the outer atmosphere of a dark red planet. It was an onion-shaped space station, its hull shiny with countless hexagon tiles, topped by an enormous spire. An outer platform for mining purposes was built around its radius, although half of the platform looked to be warping at its edges in response to the gravity of the gas giant below it. Although not yet engulfed by the dense clouds of gas which made up the warped circle of the gas giant, it was obvious that it was tilted in such a way that a descent was inevitable.
“What ship is that?” Ushen-Takaan asked her, eyes fixed to the images on the screen.
Sa-Kolis flicked her wrist and the footage changed to a blueprint view of the Angra-Mainyu, with each section separated and colour-coded according to function.
“This is the Angra-Mainyu. It’s one of the largest research facilities in the Rit-Phyr Empire,” Sa-Kolis explained, folding her arms and scrutinising the data on the screen.
“It’s sinking,” Ushen-Takaan mused.
“Yes, it’s not long for this life,” Sa-Kolis agreed. “I’d estimate two hours, at the most.”
Ushen-Takaan startled beside her. “You’re not meaning to go there, are you?”
“One of the Voivode’s asked me to and fetch some incriminating data from the station. He thinks that the crew have been doing something illegal and the vessel has been run aground on purpose to hide it.”
“What do you mean, ‘illegal’?” Ushen-Takaan asked, turning to examine her with his icy blue gaze. “What happens on that station?”
“Bad things,” Sa-Kolis shrugged.
“Very bad things,” Sa-Kolis evaded. She liked Ushen-Takaan, but he was still an unfamiliar quantity, an unknown element, and a Zurxok on top of everything else. She wasn’t about to reveal everything she’d heard (and things she’d seen, once) to the looming alien beside her. For all she knew, he would carry the stories back with him to his gilded Technocracy.
“This ship has been set on a course for the hard deck on purpose,” Ushen-Takaan said, an expert guess more statement than opinion.
“Yes,” Sa-Kolis said simply.
“The commanding officer should have just set it to self-destruct if he was trying to hide something,” Ushen-Takaan mused, again calculating the situation without having to be told.
“If he had done that, it would have sent an automated distress call to all Empire comm buoys, as well as uploaded the station A.I’s black box. This way, Voivode Ma-Tek can claim it was an emergency evacuation and explain away the damaged data as a system or Rit-Phyr error. He probably has some patsy in mind whom he can blame the catastrophe on.”
Ushen-Takaan harrumphed, folding his arms so that he mirrored Sa-Kolis’ stance. “This is imbecilic. You need me on this one.”
“Probably, but I also need someone to look after the ship and get it the hell out of here if we get double-crossed or ambushed.”
Ushen-Takaan raised his brow. “That’s concern?”
“When dealing with my crowd? Always,” Sa-Kolis said gruffly.
“I’m against this,” Ushen-Takaan said. “We should ignore this and go straight to the Irjizi like we planned.”
“They can wait.”
“This is dangerous.”
“It is, but the Voivode who commissioned us to do this has promised to give us supplies and his political support if…Well, when, the time comes. That’s something I – we – need,” Sa-Kolis replied. “We’re alone out here. You’ve left your post in the Technocracy and my people couldn’t care less.”
“But the point is, do you trust this Yuna-Opoima?” Ushen-Takaan asked. “What good is his word.”
This gave Sa-Kolis pause and she turned away from the screen to sit heavily in the commander’s chair, still warm from Ushen-Takaan’s presence. She steepled her gloved hands together on her knees and pressed her forehead to them, eyes closed.
“If it isn’t a trap or simple lie of some sort, then we’ll have lost an opportunity to make an ally at home. He’s influential; he could make our lives very difficult if we refuse,” Sa-Kolis said darkly. Her mind was racing with possibilities. Each one was turned over, inside out and scrutinised.
“You could make his life difficult,” Ushen-Takaan said shrewedly. Under the glow of the overhead lights, his whole suit and snow-bird mask were cast in shadows that made him seem more alien to Sa-Kolis than he already was.
“You should contact the Voivode Ma-Tek,” He continued. “Tell him you have some information on his enemy on the council and if he agrees to be our supplier you’ll tell him who to watch out for.”
Sa-Kolis looked up in surprise at the tall, pale figure across from her and barked out a stunned laugh.
“That’s a devious thought. You’d make a good Rit-Phyr with tactics like that,” Sa-Kolis said wryle as he came to sit beside her in the co-pilot’s seat. Not the for the first time in their new friendship, Sa-Kolis wondered what he was thinking, this alien from Maroussia’s palatial halls.
Ushen-Takaan sighed and briefly patted Sa-Kolis’ clasped hands with his far-larger ones.
“I’ll change our course to these new co-ordinates,” He said. “And if you die, I get the ship.”
Next to the keeling monolith which was the Angra-Mainyu, the Nemesiid was nothing more than an errant fly, buzzing of the length of the station’s central dome.
The Nemesiid was advanced enough to manage entry into even the hostile atmosphere of a gas giant like the imaginatively-named 5563-6, but it still fought the insistent pull of the storming world. It came to rest at one of the ports on the exposed ride of the station.
Sa-Kolis was waiting in the airlock, helmeted and fully armed. She held her balance as the Nemesiid locked with the Angra-Mainyu and the pressure inside the cabin began equalising with that of the Angra-Mainyu’s interior.
“The security access Voivode Yuna-Opoima provided is working,” Ushen-Takaan’s voice rang out from inside of her helmet. “The ship’s computer is interfacing with the station A.I. Should be opening any moment now.”
At that the lights in the cabin switched from red back to yellow and the synthetic, Artisan voice of the Nemesiid’s onboard A.I boomed out overhead.
“Docking protocols completed. Logged: Ambassador Sa-Kolis is onboard Rit-Phyr vessel Angra-Mainyu. Officer Ushen-Takaan has temporary command.”
The airlock doors, hexagonal in shape, whirred as their segmented sections unsealed and slid open.
Beyond them was a quarantine lobby for the station, a large and empty space filled with neat rows of waiting chairs, a customs counter and an abandoned security kiosk. Over the sound system classical music was playing softly.
“I’m going in now,” Sa-Kolis muttered to Ushen-Takaan. “Get the ship a safe distance away and wait for my word.”
“Understood, Ambassador. I’ll pick you up when you’re finished.”
Sa-Kolis stepped into the empty arrivals lobby, unhooking her rifle from the back of her breastplate and extending it in front of her, feeling its comfortable weight as she braced it in the cradle of her shoulder.
She walked up to the customs desk and, seeing it unstaffed, stepped behind the counter. On top of the desk sat a small computer sphere, holoscreen still turned on and halfway through an abandoned puzzle game. The desk was still strewn with the detritus of the security guards whom had been posted there – requisition papers were in an untidy pile beside a tin of hand-wipes and an open sketchbook. Sa-Kolis picked it up to chuckle at the crude drawn etched on one of the pages, depicting an enormously fat Rit-Phyr dancing in a sparkling jumpsuit. The artist had drawn an arrow pointing to the picture with a caption simply reading, ‘Me’.
Sa-Kolis closed the computer game and opened up the administrator program, calling up the station A.I. The holographic pedestal beside the screen thrummed to life and a rotating sphere of colours was beamed above it.
“Hello, Ambassador Sa-Kolis,” The station A.I greeted her in a cool male voice. “Welcome to the Angra-Mainyu. I am Requiem, the synthetic intelligence for the station. How may I help you today?”
“Who is the ranking officer on this ship?” Sa-Kolis asked.
“You are the highest ranked officer aboard,” The A.I confirmed. “The station director and chief administrator is Voivode Ma-Tek.”
“And where is he?”
“Voivode Ma-Tek evacutated the Angra-Mainyu five hours and thirty-three minutes ago.”
“Why did he evacuate?”
“The Angra-Mainyu is in immediate danger from the nearby gas giant,” Requiem explained. “Navigation systems have been locked.”
“Why?” Sa-Kolis persisted.
“Unfortunately, Ambassador, that data has been expunged from my system,” Requiem replied. It seemed to bob in place for a few moments as if picking its next words carefully. “Please be advised that the station is unsafe at present. It cannot be halted from its present course. I estimate that the Angra-Mainyu will be destroyed within the hour. The Angra-Mainyu’s hull integrity is severely compromised. It will soon enter the planet’s terrestrial atmosphere. The pressure is 600 times that of the Rit-Phyr homeworld. Surface temperature is over 400 degrees. Immediate evacuation is strongly advised. Continued inhabitation of the station will result in death.”
“What sort of data do you have in your files?” Sa-Kolis asked him, ignoring the warning.
“Conversation transcripts, audio-visual recordings, mission reports, scientific theses, intranet browsing histories, interactive entertainment simulation results -”
“No, no,” Sa-Kolis said, sitting down in the nearby office chair. “I need information about the kind of research that has been taking place here.”
“That information is restricted,” Requiem said.
“Check my citizen I.D. I have the clearance.”
There was a pause. “Confirmed,” Requiem said in its toneless way. “Research on the Angra-Mainyu includes: ballistic weapons development, aircraft and vessel testing, genetics research, genetics augmentation, biological weapons development, viral weapons development, tactical military simulations and medical supply manufacture.”
“Genetic augmentation? Viral weaponry?” Sa-Kolis frowned. “That’s illegal.”
Requiem spun, a rainbow-coloured globe, on his pedestal. “The experiments in those departments and the use of test subjects were sanctioned by Voivode Ma-Tek.”
“Test subjects for viral weaponry…! How many of them still onboard?”
Sa-Kolis gave an angry churr, smacking her closed fist against the desk. “I need the data from all of the research.”
“That data has been removed from the system.”
“There has to be back-ups, stop trying to misdirect me.”
“In the archives room is a back-up of all files created in the last sixty days,” Requiem supplied, almost reluctantly.
“Can’t you just upload it to the Nemesiid?” Sa-Kolis demanded.
“Negative. All back-ups are imprinted onto external devices as per station protocol.”
Sa-Kolis chittered grumpily. “All right. Where is the archive room?”
“Deck nineteen,” Requiem answered, calling up a three-dimensional map showing Sa-Kolis’ location on deck three and the archive room some levels below.
“Fine. How long do I have before this place hits the hard deck?”
“Estimated time is one hour and ten minutes.”
Sa-Kolis frowned but said nothing, walking towards the beckoning elevator and stepping into the circular carriage. They closed with a mellifluous hum. The interior lights in the elevator dimmed as it began its rapid descent downwards. Video screens built behind the glass walls of the lift displayed cheery images of a sunny sky and soft white sand, replete with powder-white clouds and swaying palm fronds.
The elevator stopped gently and the doors hummed open again to reveal another empty room, this time a silent suite of immaculate offices. It was partitioned into sections through frosted glass screens, whilst the walls displayed holographic projections of bustling city streets (the better,
Sa-Kolis supposed, to alleviate the claustrophobia of life on a starship to a crew of cloistered scientists). Sa-Kolis, whom had spent extended periods in space herself, understood the isolation which accompanied the lifestyle but didn’t see the appeal of the city streets. She would have preferred a view of an empty green field – wide spaces, clean air and not a single other soul in sight.
“Requiem, where is the terminal?”
“Records room 3, section 4,” Came the disembodied response through the intercom. “Please proceed through this hallway for thirty metres and then take the door to the left.”
Sa-Kolis did as instructed, coming to a nicely furnished office panelled with rich, amber-coloured wood (which looked and smelled real, not synthetic), thick turquiose carpet and another high-tech computer on a wooden desk. She padded around the desk, turning on the computer and accessing the storage space for the disc.
Inside of it were mysteriously labelled files, some of them obviously word-based reports, others multimedia files and blueprints. Rummaging inside of the utility belt built into the lining of her suit, Sa-Kolis pulled out a tiny crystal disc, nestled inside of a clear case. Both disc and case were made of a flexible material that allowed them to be folded up inside the confines of her clothes. She inserted the disc into the inconspicuous writer of the computer and set the program to copy all the files over to her device. A sluggish progress percentage blinked in the lower right bar of the interface, which Sa-Kolis watched carefully.
An insistent bleat suddenly rang out from the computer and the interface dimmed and minimised, replaced the image of yet another Voivode: the snooty visage of Voivode Ma-Tek himself. He was older than either Yuna-Opoima or himself and had a paunchy face, short celicerae and watery yellow eyes which were half-lidded in a permanent expression of contempt.
“Ambassador Sa-Kolis, are you snooping?” Ma-Tek crooned in his distinctive, high-pitched hum. “I really must insist that you stop. The station is in the clutches of Death Herself, you see, so you risk more than your reputation when you go rooting around where you do not belong.”
Sa-Kolis grunted. “I’m helping to recover your records. You evacuated so fast you must not have noticed how much you were leaving behind!”
“Who put you up to this?” Ma-Tek asked conversationally.
“Just doing my civic duty, Voivode.”
“Come, come, Ambassador. We both know you would have needed an access code to get onboard my Angra-Mainyu. Who was it who gave you the keys?”
Sa-Kolis didn’t answer him, dark eyes affixed to the progress meter still filling up determinedly.
“So, you will not reveal who it was,” Ma-Tek said flatly. “Loyalty. That’s a good thing, yes. I could do with some of that. You can’t imagine the cut-throats I have working for me. No sense of ethics at all. Would it make any difference to you if I told you that whatever you are being offered, I can do better? Imagine being a Voivode. I know you have; it is what you have longed for. I can help you with that. My influence is vast. Were you to stop what you’re doing and leave right now, I’d be more than happy to compensate you.”
“Can you explain what I’m seeing here?” Sa-Kolis sneered, gesturing at the reams of data flitting past on the screen. “It says here, plain as anything, that you’ve been using live test subjects – Vitiates, how predictable. But it also says that you’ve had Waseans, Irjizi and even a Rej-Jir locked up here. And that you overrode the safe navigation systems deliberately. All to cover your tracks. The data is right here. Your people have done a pathetic job at hiding it.”
“Really? Because I think that launching the Angra-Mainyu into hell is a fair strategy for getting rid of all the things you bleeding-heart-types like to harp on about. In fifty minutes, it will end up working perfectly.”
“In fifty minutes,” Sa-Kolis sneered. “I will be out, beyond your reach, with all of your dirty secrets. Including the real reason why you decided to destroy the Angra-Mainyu.”
Ma-Tek shifted closer tot he screen, his leer suddenly becoming cold and frightening. “In fifty minutes, Ambassador, you’ll be dead. Requiem!”
“Orders, Voivode?” The A.I chirped from nowhere.
“Disable the forcefield on deck eight. Open all doors and vent seals.”
“Authorisation confirmed. Security protocols deactivated,” Requiem said, crisp, cool and definite.
“What in the blue hell did you just do?” Sa-Kolis said in alarm.
“Goodbye, Ambassador,” Ma-Tek said convivially. “Give my regards to Subject Six.”
With that, the call was terminated and Sa-Kolis was left looking at a completed download to disc. She removed the device and placed it back inside its protective case and slid it into her belt.
“Requiem, what’s happened?” She asked aloud.
“Quarantine has been lifted from deck eight. Subject Six is no longer contained.”
“I got that part, who is Subject Six?”
“Subject Six is the designation of experiment 24, group 3, lot 2. Rit-Phyr. Male. Underwent genetic augmentation under the supervision of project leader Doctor Na-Pel.”
Sa-Kolis frowned. “What else?”
“Subject Six, a Vitiate, was implanted with a symbiote from a Rit-Phyr cadaver. The symbiote was successfully revived and integrated with the new host but began to mutate host physiology after forty-eight hours.”
“Physical enlargement of the chelicerae. Lengthening of bones. Changes to facial morphology. Increased strength. Increased visual and auditory acuity. Increased sensitivity to movement. Epidermal toughening and resistance to known ballistic weaponry. Keratinized cells. Resistance to extreme temperatures. Ability to survive in vacuum,” Requiem recited.
“Damn!” Sa-Kolis said.
“Subject Six displays extreme hostility and behaviours suggestive of paranoia. Sadistic behaviours evidenced. Responsible for twenty-three fatalities and fifty traumatic injuries. I suggest caution, Ambassador.”
“Oh, for sure!” Sa-Kolis said sarcastically. “It sounds like Subject Six is my mother! Where is he now?”
“Surgical room three, deck eight.” There was a pause. “Surgical room four. Vent access eight-three.”
Sa-Kolis cursed. Right then, the room titled violently on its axis, sending Sa-Kolis, and all the items on the desk, to the floor in a sprawling heap. The ship gave a tortured moan as the grasp of the gas giant tightened about it. The lights flickered once before being extinguished completely, replaced by the eerie glow of emergency lighting strips built into the walls.
From deep inside the station came the distant roars of explosions in the core, almost drowned out by the loud klaxon blare of the evacuation alarms.
“Warning: hull integrity failing. Estimate twenty-five minutes to destruction,” Requiem informed her.
“Twenty-five! You said fifty before!” Sa-Kolis yelled. “Never mind, damn it. I hate computers,” She growled, pushing herself up from the floor and out from the pile of personal effects which had fallen on top of her.
“How are the elevators?” She asked.
“Disabled during emergency alert.”
“Wonderful. What’s the best route back to the arrivals hall?”
“Take auxillary tube eighteen in room six to deck five. Walk through lecture room ten to offices of General An-Kal. Remove access panel covering, proceed upwards to deck three.”
Sa-Kolis wasted no time, hurrying out of the office and into the darkness of the corridor. Her arachnid’s eyes took in the surroundings clearly, albeit washed with a filter of yellow. Her sense of touch, on the other hand, instinctively became that much more acute as she picked her way through the warped corridors and into the room Requiem had indicated.
This one hadn’t fared any better than the previous. The desk was covered in water from an overturned and broken vase of flowers and a shelf full of antique-looking books and bric-a-brac had collapsed completely onto the wooden chair sitting beneath it.
Sa-Kolis scanned the room for the auxiliary access panel but could not immediately see it. She stepped further inside, closing the door behind her and knelt below the desk. No luck.
“Ushen-Takaan, can you hear me?” Sa-Kolis asked into her helmet, standing to pull a heavy cabinet away from the wall. Behind the cabinet was the screwed shut panel, which Sa-Kolis got to work prying loose with the little knife kept in the heel of her boot.
“I hear you, but you’re not clear,” Ushen-Takaan’s velvety voice crackled in her ear. “The spire just exploded! Are you okay?”
“I’ve got the data but the elevator’s busted,” Sa-Kolis grunted, twisting the first screw loose and moving to the second. “As for being okay, Voivode Ma-Tek had the useless A.I disable quarantine. There’s some freakshow roaming the halls, looking for a fight, and since I’m the only fool onboard, I suppose that makes me the target.”
“Where are you?”
“Deck three, but I’m not sticking around,” Sa-Kolis said, hurriedly ripping the second screw out. “I have to climb through some access tunnels back up. Can you be there in fifteen-minutes? This station is going to hell sooner than we thought.”
“I can, but I’m concerned the station is going to roll. It’s tilting right now. If it rolls over I won’t be able to get to opening.”
Sa-Kolis pulled away the panel covering and shimmied into the tight confines of the tube, barely able to squeeze her hips through. She reached out to clamber onto the slim ladder built into the shaft.
“If it rolls – well, let’s just hope it doesn’t,” Sa-Kolis huffed, speedily ascending rung-by-rung. “I have to concentrate now. Shut up unless you absolutely have to talk,” Sa-Kolis ordered rudely.
Ushen-Takaan chuckled darkly but did as she bade, as she climbed past deck seven, then six before finally making it to level five. The opening for the auxiliary tube was again closed from the outside (the station designers sure hasn’t cared much for health and safety regulations) so Sa-Kolis climbed up a few rungs so she could kick it open. It came free after a few solid kicks, clattering forward. After climbing through, Sa-Kolis found herself in a sparse dormitory.
The room was narrow, containing a narrow sleeping couch with a neatly folded blanket on one end, a dented metal cabinet and a worn but clean desk hosting a computer tablet, two scrolls of parchment, and a standard issue hand-mirror.
Sa-Kolis crept to the door and pressed her palm to the open panel and the door obediently shushed open. The corridor beyond was dark and panelled with other dormitory doors. One end of the hall led to a requisitions counter and the other sectioned off into halls for the lecture lounges.
She stalked down the hall in that direction, bracing against the wall as the ship again seemed to roll with a metallic groan. She crept further through the askew corridor, coming finally to the lecture hall entrance.
The auditorium doors were open, revealing another room lit by emergency lighting. The hall was circular in shape and featured descending rows of chairs. At the bottom and centre of the room was another, smaller one, built into the floor. From the top of the stairs, Sa-Kolis could see the slim door built into the walls of the lower room, which Sa-Kolis figured to be the office of General An-Kal.
Hurrying down the stairs, Sa-Kolis noted that many of the chairs still held overcoats, tablets, notepads and other small remnants of the last lecture the auditorium was likely to see. The entire station, it seemed, had made a very hasty exit. Many of the seats were scorched by the plasma discharge of handguns.
Sa-Kolis reached the last row of seats, arranged in an even tighter circle around the little room, the better to observe it from above. Sa-Kolis frowned still deeper at the sight revealed below – a surgical demonstration space, with restraining chair soaked in blood so fresh the metallic tang reached and stung Sa-Kolis’ fangs. She hopped over the wall to land with a soft thud below, standing slowly to inspect the carnage up close.
The restraining cuffs, sturdy-looking contraptions made of metal had nevertheless been torn completely off the chair. A tray of medical instruments, which all looked sharp and more unpleasant than the last, had been thrown to the floor hard enough to crack it on impact. The tray itself was still lodged in the ground. Sa-Kolis turned slightly and startled to see what had been in her blind spot, obscured from view.
A body lay crumpled against the opposite wall, curled in such a way Sa-Kolis could not see their face. She came closer and then blanched when she realised she could not see the face because there was no face to see at all. The body was headless, the arterial spray of blood behind its tattered neck suggestive of a savage decapitation. The dead Rit-Phyr, still in his black surgical robes, was probably General An-Kal. One of his hands was still tightly gripping a blood-soaked bone-saw.
Sa-Kolis turned away from the gory tableau and walked into the office door, shutting and locking it behind her. This room, at least, seemed to be mostly untouched but for the mess of a few scattered stationery items and the spilled cup of tea which was soaking the carpet. There was still regular overhead lighting inside, which did not make her feel any calmer.
Behind the General’s desk was another maintenance tube access covering which Sa-Kolis quickly bent to remove. She had the sudden awful sense that she was not alone in the auditorium, and it made her fingers fumble. The ship rolled once more and the lighting switched off, aside from a solitary night lamp on the desk. Its dim blue glow gave the entire room a somber cast.
Sa-Kolis prised the covering away, certain she had heard the steady thump of footsteps coming down the auditorium steps. She crawled into the shaft, pulling the panel closed behind her Unnerved, Sa-Kolis scurried up the ladder, managing to cling on as the station convulsed more violently than ever before. This time, the effects were exponentially worse and the sound of distant explosions much louder.
The shaft buckled with a painful screech, and suddenly Sa-Kolis’ hands came free from the ladder. She gave a short, sharp scream which was cut off as she bounced against the adjacent wall, then was thrown by the shaking ship against the other side. She richocheted her way down, down, down, plummeting several levels before reaching out desperate hands to cling to a ladder rung, a ledge, anything to slow her descent. Hands and booted feet found brief leverage on the tight confines of the shaft, before she lost her grip again and plummeted in a painful heap at the bottom of the shaft.
Her helmet, breastplate and smart suit kept her bones from breaking, but they could do nothing for her dizziness and the ache of the fall. She lay there for several moments, winded and sore, eyes half-lidded as she gazed up at the flickering, blurred lights far above.
Awareness came back to her slowly, as did the crackly, distant voice of Ushen-Takaan in her helmet.
“Hey! Are you okay? Talk to me! That station just lit up like a parade; it’s not going to last. You need to get the hell out of there right now!”
Sa-Kolis pushed herself to her feet, wearily inspecting the distance between herself and the warped remnants of the ladder some twenty feet above.
“I’m here,” Sa-Kolis groaned, looking around for an exit and finding one just behind her: a tight-looking tunnel which led who-knew-where. But she figured it was better than just standing around waiting to burn to death on the Angra-Mainyu. “My exit hasn’t worked out.”
“Where are you now?”
Sa-Kolis crouched down and began to crawl through the darkened tunnel, head still pounding with each movement. Whether that was from fear, adrenaline or pain, she hardly knew.
“Hell if I know,” Sa-Kolis muttered, coming to a fork in the tunnel, two different paths stretching out into pure darkness. “Requiem,” She called to the A.I. “Where am I?”
“Requiem, respond,” Sa-Kolis barked, waiting for an answer.
“The A.I might be dusted,” Ushen-Takaan replied. “There was another explosion on the ship, it could have damaged the core.”
“Damn,” Sa-Kolis said. “Can you call up a schematic for the Angra-Mainyu?”
“I’m way ahead of you,” Ushen-Takaan replied. “How many levels do you think you fell?”
“I don’t know, but I fell all the way to the bottom of the shaft,” Sa-Kolis replied. “I was in the maintenance tube attached to General An-Kal’s office.”
“I don’t have one minute,” Sa-Kolis said angrily, eyes anxiously looking around her in the dark. The beam of her flashlight was not sufficient to illuminate the entirety f the tube.
“Okay. If you take a left at the first fork, you should end up in one of the cargo holds. There’s another ladder on the far side of the room which will take you back up to the airlocks. I’ll be waiting for you, as long as I can.”
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Sa-Kolis grunted, beginning to crawl down the left tunnel as instructed, breath heavy inside the helmet. “If I die here, I’ll kill you.”
The end of the tunnel couldn’t come fast enough, and Sa-Kolis let out an exhalation of pure relief when the grate signalling the entrance came into view. Already half-hanging off the frame, a single push from Sa-Kolis’ outstretched hand was sufficient to knock it loose. Crawling to the lip of the tunnel, Sa-Kolis growled in frustration. The grate was still falling – the floor of the cargo hold was partially collapsed, revealing the equally destroyed levels below. Burning fires were raging directly below, beyond the capacity of the extinguisher system to deal with. As Sa-Kolis watched, the spinning metal frame was engulfed in the inferno beneath her.
Sa-Kolis swore, leaning further out of the tunnel. The entrance to the ladder was clearly visible in the corner of the large room, but she was cut off from it by the fiery pit below. To her left was a group of cylindrical shipping containers, perched precariously on the edges of the ruined floor. Sa-Kolis felt she could jump across to them and to the buckled walkway leaning against a few overturned crates. From there, it would be a tricky leap to another series of containers beside the ladder.
Shuffling out of the tunnel as much as she could without falling, Sa-Kolis pushed herself away from the wall and landed cleanly on the containers beside her. The floor whined in protest, and she gingerly hurried across their varying surfaces and to the walkway leaning against them. It had once connected the upper level of the cargo hold to what might have been a clearance room, but it had been thrown free from its moorings and was only partially connected to the ceiling. Sa-Kolis gave it a nudge with her boot, checking that it was secure.
Not quite satisfied that it was safe, but lacking an adequate alternative, Sa-Kolis pulled herself up onto the cool metal and carefully crawled across it. With every movement, the metal groaned audibly above the general din of the imploding station. Upon reaching the containers, Sa-Kolis was again thrown off balance as the inferno a few levels below boomed out in fury. An arcing plume of fire billowed out into the room, filling it with heat and smoke. The walkway swung on its hinges, and Sa-Kolis instinctively leapt for the containers just as it snapped loose and plunged into the fire.
She only half-cleared the jump, torso and arms laying on the surface of the nearest container as her legs dangled over the edge. She desperately hauled herself upwards, flames licking at her heels. She cursed and yelled, stumbling over to the ladder and practically flying up the rungs, smashing open the vent with an angry headbutt.
“Damn this station!” Sa-Kolis screamed into her helmet as she ascended up the vertical shaft, heart pounding. Sweat was dripping down her face despite the temperature-controlled interior of her armor.
“Are you okay?” Ushen-Takaan asked her worriedly over the radio.
“Do I bloody sound alright, you dirty grey!” Sa-Kolis howled as her muscles protested the quick ascent up the tube.
There was an incredulous laugh on the other side of the channel. “Did you just call me a ‘dirty grey’?”
“That’s so racist!” Ushen-Takaan responded, laughing.
“You’re racist,” Sa-Kolis grunted without venom. “I’m coming up.”
“I’ll be there.”
The emergency lighting in the tube had already switched off, leaving Sa-Kolis to navigate her way upwards with the help of the flashlight built into her armor.
Ascending to the top, Sa-Kolis peered through the lattice of the metal grating at the arrival hall. The emergency lights were flashing red with concurrent alarm bleeps, casting deep black shadows along the walls and floor. She pulled the grate away, squeezing back out so that half of her body was laying on the ground. A row of chairs blocked her view of the rest of the hall and the custom officer’s room she had investigated earlier. She pulled herself out and made to stand before abruptly ducking back down again behind the chairs.
Inside of the office, far on the other side of the room, loomed an unnatural shape. Sa-Kolis had caught the flash of movement before being spotted by – whatever-the-hell it was. She crouched, brow furrowed, behind the chairs, one hand automatically resting on the useless firearm at her hip.
Cautiously, she shifted so she could peer through the gap between chairs.
The security office had been invaded again, this time by what Sa-Kolis figured to be Subject Six. He, or, rather, it, looked nothing like the Rit-Phyr it had once been. It stood unnaturally tall, with gangly, wiry limbs. A barbed proboscis had formed in between the malformed and sharp chelicerae of the creature, which twitched this way and that as if scenting the air. Save for a tattered patient’s robe, Subject Six was naked, allowing Sa-Kolis to take in his (its) many deformities with every flash of the alarm. The symbiote it had been implanted with was visible underneath its taut flesh, a grotesque knot of nerves. The pulsating mass seemed to be the cause of the boils which had sprouted along Subject 12’s bony, curved spine.
Before her very eyes, he hopped up on the security officer’s desk and then darted upwards to cling, effortlessly, to the ceiling. He gave a discordant shriek of, perhaps, annoyance, crawling out of the office and staring down at the arrivals lounge with bulging blue eyes that seemed to shine in the dark.
Sa-Kolis considered shuffling backwards into the tunnel, but then Subject Six had sprung back to the floor too close for comfort, and she rolled underneath the chairs instead. She tried very hard not to breathe as he thumped towards her location with slow, predatory steps. She watched his bare and mangled feet walk around the bench and come to a stop on her right, just in front of the maintenance panel with its cover removed and still lying on the floor. Sa-Kolis inwardly swore.
She waited for a few tense moments as Subject Six seemed to sniff the air and then let out a banshee-like scream which hurt her ears even inside the helmet. He finally paced away, his steps receding as he angrily stomped back across the room.
Sa-Kolis waited for a few moments more and then, miraculously, heard the sounds of the Nemesiid coming to rest on the other side of one of the nearby port openings. Subject Six had noticed the commotion too, and prowled over to leer at the illuminated door, still closed to the station.
The Ambassador took the opportunity to roll across to the row of chairs adjacent to her. Subject Six heard the movement and immediately swung his head too-far around to give another ear-piercing shriek. It was a dreadful sound, beyond the capacity of a normal Rit-Phyr’s vocal cords, and it made Sa-Kolis feel dizzy.
She stayed still as he again stalked purposefully nearby. He slowly made a circuit of Sa-Kolis’ row and those around her, and then sprang furiously back to the security office in one unnatural bound. Subject Six raised one thin arm and smashed apart the desk with a single strike of his pale fist.
He rampaged for a minute, two, three. Sa-Kolis watched the chaos unfold and stayed still, taking the shallowest breaths she could. In time, his anger seemed to stop, and he disappeared through the back room where the security officer’s canteen and storage was located.
Sa-Kolis released a breath she hadn’t known she was holding and turned her attention back to the airlock, which, after another few minutes, opened with a gentle hiss.
She waited for another few agonising moments and then cautiously crawled out from under the chairs. Just as she was about to stand up, the unpleasant feeling of being scrutinised ran its crooked way up her spine and she turned her head sharply to see Subject Six on the ceiling almost directly above her. He was staring down at her with his eerie, dead, white eyes.
Several things happened then, all at once. Subject Six screamed and launched himself at her. Sa-Kolis, still partially underneath the chairs, swore and flipped the entire row upwards so that it shielded her from the force of the attack which followed. She was pushed backwards into the wall with enough force to crack the tile. She wrenched herself free just as Subject Six effortlessly batted the warped piece of furniture away.
She crawled on the ground and felt a hand enclose upon her lower leg with an iron-grip. She was yanked backwards, coming face to face with the snapping, bloody mouth of Subject Six. Her arm fumbled behind her back for her rifle, and she brought it up to point at the barbed proboscis lashing out at her helmet.
“Eat this!” Sa-Kolis growled, firing two shots into the gore-crusted maw. The bolts only staggered the monster, but it was enough for Sa-Kolis to pull herself free and make a break for it.
“Close the bloody Gods-damned door!” Sa-Kolis screamed, launching herself into the airlock so hard she practically bounced off of the opposite wall.
The hulking rougarou was right behind her, and Sa-Kolis fired several more bolts at it as it loomed up to the airlock. The creature staggered backwards, and the doors slid shut just before it ducked through. Sa-Kolis lowered her weapon in relief as she heard the rattling screams of the experiment even from behind layers of metal. There was a loud thud as a preternaturally strong body attempted to breach those layers, causing a small dent to form in the metal of the door.
“Get us the hell out of here!” Sa-Kolis cried in alarm and the Nemesiid obediently detached itself from the Angra-Mainyu with a jerk. It bobbed uncertainly for a minute before speeding away, straining to escape the insistent tug of the gas-giant’s gravity.
Sa-Kolis staggered into the command room of the ship, where a tense and alert-looking Ushen-Takaan was occupied with the navigational controls. He said nothing, still concentrating on getting the ship clear. Sa-Kolis leant heavily on the back of his chair, watching the ghastly sight of the Angra-Mainyu being consumed by the planet. She saw its hull crumple like paper before it vanished into the mist.
“What happened?” Ushen-Takaan asked, attention still on the controls.
Sa-Kolis didn’t immediately answer him, mind adrift on the events of the last hour. She turned away from the depressing view and sunk wearily into the co-pilot’s seat beside him.
“Death,” Sa-Kolis said after a moment. “Death happened on the Angra-Mainyu.”