This is the law: Blood spilt upon the ground cries out for more - Aeschylus
When I awoke in that familiar sanctuary, I had no idea how
I’d gotten there, or why. A persistent
beeping had prodded my eyes open and I blamed the chill air for my trembling,
but deep down I knew that something somewhere had gone horribly wrong. The solid state lighting module above me bathed
the room in sterile white light that fell flatly off the beige medical curtains
on either side of my gurney. Past my
feet, I could see the small infirmary, exactly as I remembered it - except for
its emptiness. The Med Center, usually a hub of activity, was deserted and,
well, spooky. Clean, well-lit and spooky
which somehow made it worse. Behind my
head, a panel of monitors flashed. My name, Sofia G. Ashworth, blazed in bright red
letters above an ever-changing display of vital signs and graphs.
My mind was a fuzzy blank slate. Well, not completely blank. But whatever unsettling images lurked there seemed more like badly directed entertainment vids than memories. Stress dreams, I told myself because nothing like that could actually have happened to us.
To us? I turned the phrase over in my mind, confused for the moment. And suddenly, as if someone had switched on a light, I remembered Rob.
Rob, as in Lieutenant Commander Robert H. Ashworth, leader of our expedition to Kepler. Rob, the most capable Interstellar Marine in the Ark Program. Rob, my too-good-to-be-true new husband.
But Rob is dead, my mind reminded me.
Confusion fluttered in my chest. My breath quickened. He couldn’t be dead. My mind pictured him as he had been at the Ark Academy all those frozen light years ago. Tall, strong, cropped blonde hair, chock full of bad jokes and more leadership material than they’d seen in a decade. They handed him Command of Kepler’s Ark as was his due. And then in some oddball stroke of luck, they had paired him with me. I had asked him once if he was content with the match. He’d laughed with that Yale-boy smile and told me he was thrilled to have the only girl in the program who still knew how to have fun.
More fragments of memory surfaced. The truth was he had gone missing. So of course, everyone assumed he was dead. Kepler-452b wasn’t nearly as hospitable as the survey team reports claimed. Then again, they didn’t know Rob like I did.
I drew my mind back to the present. I had questions of my own that needed answers. Like ‘Why was I in the Med Center?’ for starters. My limbs felt heavy but the IV line hooked me to an empty hanging bag labeled simply: normal saline. Nothing ominous. All perfectly normal. And yet something was out of place.
“Hello?” I called out softly. “Anyone there?”
Nothing but silence answered. Sudden wariness told me that perhaps there was wisdom in not drawing attention to myself. I pulled the snaking tube and needle from my left arm and struggled to sitting.
I say struggled because my abdomen was distended and round. And in the most natural of unconscious moves, my curious hand caressed the curve of it. A tiny but distinct kick jolted more memories loose and I smiled.
I was pregnant. How had I forgotten that? Nearly six months along too judging by my happily stretched-out belly button. Rob would be thrilled, though I couldn’t remember if he’d known before going missing. The events in my mind were a patchy tangled jumble. “You gotta focus, Sofie,” I chided myself and once again pushed him reluctantly from my mind.
Okay, I was pregnant and in the infirmary with no wounds, no bruises, no incisions or sutures. I felt tired but good. So, maybe something was wrong with the pregnancy. I shivered at that. Other women had said they could sense the growing child within and so, feeling utterly idiotic, I ‘reached out’ with my mind to the roundness of my abdomen. No flash of new-age insight struck me. Not that I’d expected it to. But if I had to guess, I’d say ‘girl’ and that she was healthy and strong. I imagined the nudge from my belly was agreement. I stroked the curve again. “It’s all right, mi carino,” I whispered. “I’ll figure it out.”
Swinging my legs over the side, I stood with careful slowness next to the gurney. I was dressed in a hospital gown that, due to the size of my belly, was entirely too breezy behind. The steady beeping stopped suddenly; it had been my heart monitor. The silence was as blaring as any alarm and I waited in inchoate fear for someone to come check on me. When no one showed, I told myself just how ridiculous I was being and to get a grip. Feeling steady enough to walk, I grabbed the curtain and pulled it back with a metallic swish.
And immediately wished I hadn’t.
On a gurney exactly like mine lay a body. Its belly was ripped open as if by some ravening beast. Her ribs lofted like the arches of a medieval church, coated thinly with red gore but otherwise stripped. There was nothing within the hollow that had been her body. Just an empty cavity surrounded by normal if blood-stained arms, legs and a head crowned with long blonde hair that was flopped to the side. Her pale blue eyes stared pleadingly at me. I pressed my hand to my mouth, stifling any sound, and staggered back against my bed. As I scanned the infirmary for whatever creature had attacked her not three meters from where I dozed, the gurney rolled under my weight striking an instrument cart behind the other curtain.
The clattering crash of the metal tray as it scattered silver instruments across the floor made me turn with a jump. Another pair of crimson-splotched legs poked out from behind the other curtain. Pushing away from the still-rolling gurney, my unsteady legs shuffled backward toward the door. The second victim was as starkly disemboweled as the first. Not a single organ remained within, from ribs to pelvis. My brain tried to make sense of it. There was no blood on the white linoleum or on the curtains, no drips or spots or scratches or tumbled furniture. I saw nothing to indicate a struggle, just the empty white room and those gutted bodies.
I turned away from the bodies and pushed open the bay door, wanting nothing more than real clothes on my back and a friendly smile. As I thrust myself unsteadily through the main triage into the cold cement hall, I remembered the faces of friends: the red-haired and smiling Megan with her sharp sarcastic wit, and Tamara whose smooth cocoa skin and bright eyes were the envy of all the Breeders.
Breeders! Yes, that’s what the government labeled us - Breeders. But we called ourselves Mothers instead, Mothers of the Brave New World – me and Megan, Chloe, Isabella, all of us. Suddenly those pleading blue eyes had a name - Bella. My heart twisted. She and Michael were the first to be successful. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I remembered how proud she’d been, letting us feel the tiny fists and elbows moving inside her belly. What had happened?
A kick nudged my hand where it rested yet again on the curve of my abdomen. I smiled through the tears. “Nothing’s gonna happen to you, mi carino. Nothing. You’re gonna save us all.”
Everywhere I went, Kepler Colony One was inexplicably abandoned without any sign of disruption. I made my way back to our quarters, hoping Rob had returned. But they were empty, too. I stripped off the hospital gown, noting with pride the sleek roundness of my belly. We had been sent here because Earth was dying. The human race was dying. While Rob’s specialties were tactics, logistics and diplomacy, mine were personal development, grief counseling, and psychotherapy. It would be my job to help families thrive on this difficult planet. For all we knew, we were the last Homo sapiens in the universe.
They had included the best “genetic samples” of all races on each of the Arks. Every variation of skin, eye, and hair color, physical build, and talent was parceled out like Noah’s animals on the fifty or so Arks we launched in that ten-year period before the predicted collapse of Earth’s ecosystems, Kepler’s Ark among them. The Earth was long gone now, one way or another.
Memories flashed. “They paid so much attention to diversity,” I remember saying to Rob one night, “and all for nothing.”
“What do you mean 'for nothing',” he had asked with a laugh. “We have every type of human in Freeze and the mixed pairings will prevent a repeat of the racism we've never overcome. It’s perfect.”
“No, it’s sad,” I said. “Three to five generations like that will make us all the same.” Race would be no more. I wondered to myself if anyone a hundred years from now would recognize my olive skin and thick black hair as ‘Spanish’.
“I think that’s what they intended,” he said gently, “and it’s probably for the best.” Then he smiled his sexy smile and added that at least he got the last true Spanish rose.
Once I was dressed in my utilities and shoes, I felt better. I took the taser but only after much deliberation, telling myself I was being paranoid again likely due to whatever hormone imbalance had sent me to the infirmary. But the more I explored, the more unsettled I got. I found more bodies: All mothers, all gutted the same way without a pool of blood or bits of torn tissue. Of the rest of the crew and support staff, I saw no one. I had to conclude that everyone had left. But where? And why?
The answers would be in the garage, I decided. If they left, they would have needed the transports. Since there had been no state of emergency that I could find, appropriate log records should have been made for anyone who might come after. As I made my way to the ground floor, I considered that particular line of thought. Who was there to come after? We all knew when we signed up, that out here there would be no hope of backup.
I pushed that worry aside. There had been over five thousand people on the Ark, I reasoned, and we had woken only a hundred to begin the construction. I did have backup.
The air got warmer and thicker as I went until sweat dripped down my temples and neck. Were the blast doors open? Had they forgotten to close them when they left? I conveniently refused to dwell why on why I might have been forgotten, pushing it down along with Bella’s haunting blue eyes and the fact that all I had found so far were dead mothers.
A musty smell assaulted my nostrils as I got closer, making my stomach heave. Rounding the last corner, my feet just stopped in shock.
If the peace of the empty colony had lulled me into thinking I could be safe, what stood before me told me I was wrong. Dead wrong. The wide door to the garage bay was propped open with heavy crates that were draped with dead Marines. Their utility suits were spotted with bloody bullet holes as their bodies spilled out of the makeshift bunker. Strangely they all faced me and the inside of the Colony instead of the blast doors that led outside. Behind them, the bay itself was littered with bodies, weapons, and crates as if a furious full-out war had taken place there. How could I not remember any of this. Tumbled bodies of Marines sprawled in piles and behind hastily constructed bunkers. Some had died of gunshot wounds, others had bite and claws marks, and others had strange blistering wounds on their backs, necks and skulls.
Among them were the bodies of creatures I’d only seen in pictures. I recognized their almost humanoid appearance: the pale blue fur, two sets of triple jointed arms and short stocky legs. The survey crew called them ‘bipeds’; Rob had called them the blue gorillas.
They were the most evolved species on Kepler though still little more than animals with no discernible social structure. At least that’s what the survey team said. If these creatures had had an organized civilization, we couldn’t have sent an Ark here. But I had to wonder. Our expedition had been grossly misinformed at every turn and met with difficulties that could easily have been anticipated. Considering the government’s desperation to launch as planned, was it so inconceivable they might have neglected to acknowledge an indigenous civilization? Had the blue gorillas organized this war against us, the alien invaders? I felt sick. If that was the case, our mission here was impossible. Obviously diplomacy had failed.
As I moved around the garage, I counted all ten vehicles which meant no one had left. Past the blast doors that were jammed open by a wrecked transport, I could see out into the pale wilderness that was our new home. The foliage was thick with fat vines and leaves in pale hues of orange and pink so different from Earth’s reassuringly lush green. It was daytime outside, or what passed for day on this planet. The light from its sun was weaker than on Earth, pale and thin. To my eye, the wilderness looked sickly and bloated and completely uninviting. I stroked the curve of my belly again. How would we survive?
Someone somewhere was still alive, I thought. Just like me.
Unwilling to venture into the undocumented wilderness alone, I searched the garage. Lighting modules dangled and sputtered, making the shadows deep as if they had substance of their own. I skirted bodies and climbed clumsily over the makeshift bunkers, feeling every pound of Kepler’s extra gravity. I rubbed my belly like a mantra. The tiny taser seemed absurdly inadequate amid such carnage. With increasingly frayed nerves, I picked up a crowbar to use as a weapon even as I hoped for survivors. But nothing moved.
So many faces I recognized. So much laughter silenced. What hope I refused to let go of was tested with each woman I had known, each would-be mother of humanity, dead with their insides gone. They didn’t seem to have been part of the general melee, except one.
Behind the only transport that seemed to have a hope of being usable I found Eshe, an older African woman who had been a stabilizing force to the younger mothers. My throat clenched as I gazed at her, staring up into nothingness with a bullet wound in her forehead and her belly slashed open. She hadn’t been emptied like the others. As bile burned my throat, I belatedly realized what a blessing that emptiness had been. I didn’t remember her being pregnant. She was the oldest of us and past her prime. My mind churned.
Then, a crate shifted nearby and I jerked to attention, brandishing my crowbar with determination. We had to survive. We were the last.
“Who’s there?” I croaked.
“Show yourself,” I said, not recognizing the tattered voice.
Crates shifted in the corner revealing a disheveled African man in torn overalls. His skin, so dark as to be almost black, was slick with what could only have been blood, head to toe. He carried a plastic container of what smelled like solvent. My heart pounded so hard I could feel my body tremble with each beat. “Slowly,” I growled, steadying my grip on the slick metal bar.
“Sofia, is that you?” His words were slurred and he swayed as he stood. “You can't still be alive.” He raised his open hands in surrender nonetheless, the bottle of chemical dangling from a thumb. I did recognize him now, though I never thought I’d see the well-heeled Frenchman looking as bedraggled as he did.
“Jacques? Is that you?” He had been Eshe’s husband, married to her years before the Ark Program even began. “Jacques, what happened to Eshe?”
He turned blank eyes to her body, then took a swig of solvent as if it were bourbon from a silver flask. I recalled his fondness for drink and his legendary tolerance. “I didn’t let them take her.” His eyes wavered, watery and unseeing
“They? You mean the bipeds?”
“The apes?” He spat. “The apes are nothing but cattle, dogs. It’s the Riders you have to watch out for.” His eyes turned to the shadows as he shuffled toward me, drinking again.
“Jacques, that’s poison you know.”
“Keeps them out.”
“Keeps who out?” Up close, he reeked of alcohol. The two-gallon bottle seemed more than half empty. Alcoholic hallucinosis was my off-the-cuff diagnosis. That solvent combined with years of heavy drinking had finally unhinged his brain.
He turned to me and sniffled. “They got Rob, you know. Did you know?” He frowned and sniffled again. “Qui est alors. Nous sommes déjà morts, morts, morts.”
“I don’t speak French,” I snapped with temper.
He fixed me with a clear piercing look. “Dead,” he said, sharp as a gunshot. “We’re all dead.” Then, he turned away, cackling. His laugh held no hint of sanity. He raised the bottle to his lips again.
I reached out and took it from him. “That’s enough, Jacques. I need your help. Is this transport usable?” I turned to look at the treaded machine with determination.
“Where could you go?” he shrugged.
“After the others.”
“There are no others. Just you and me.” He put an arm around my shoulder and slumped against me. “Serves us right I suppose.”
Before I could reply, a sudden cramp doubled me over with a cry. Not yet, mi carino, I thought frantically. Not yet. I was alone on a hostile planet with a compromised colony and a crazy Frenchman.
“It begins,” he said with a knowing nod. Then he helped me to a crate to sit, picking up the bottle of solvent on the way. “You must drink. You must drive it out.”
“Are you crazy?” My belly clenched again, stealing my breath. Obviously, he was crazy, dangerously so.
“Maybe too late, I think,” he muttered. “It has your mind. I will fix you.” He grabbed my face with one hand forcing my head to the wall and my jaw open. Then he raised the bottle to my lips.
"Jacques stop," I said but he ignored me. “You killed her, didn’t you!” I shouted, hoping to shock him out of this insanity. “You killed Eshe!”
He paused then squeezed his eyes shut as if not wanting to see what he’d done, but he didn’t relent. The vapors hit my nose and eyes as cold liquid splashed over my chin and cheeks. I spat out as much as I could, struggling against his surprising strength. He had a knee between my legs trapping me, pressing on my precious stomach. “Jacques, stop! Stop it,” I shrieked, slapping at his face, his hands and the bottle.
His eyes were wide and mad as he babbled apologies but pressed forward. Solvent spilled all over my face, down my back, up my nose, burning my eyes. I was drowning, spitting, clawing at him.
And suddenly he was gone. I heard the clunk of the plastic bottle hitting the floor as I shakily rubbed the alcohol from my stinging eyes. I opened them just in time to see a blue gorilla rip Jacques’s head from his shoulders. Squealing in panic, I fell backward between the crate and the wall. I tried to fold myself small enough to hide as the beast looked up at me, its pale pink eyes glassy and dry. There was blood around its neck and the back of its head. Then the two sets of arms dropped limply and the creature collapsed to the floor.
To my horror, a dark shadow detached itself from the back of the creature’s head. At first, it looked like a snake. No, a slug. The giant slug pulled up and away from the head with a thick sucking sound. It reared back further, pulling tentacles out of the dead biped’s back and arms until it stood like some nightmarish walking stick bug. Not like an Earthly stick bug, but black and slimy with a pickaxe-shaped head that turned slowly in my direction. Its tentacled antennae were a gruesome mockery of a moth’s feathered feelers and I feared it would find me by my ragged breathing.
I put my hands over my head, tucking my chin, blotting out the sight of what could only be a Rider. “I’m sorry,” I whimpered softly at my stomach, “Imsorry-imsorry-imsorry.”
I was trapped. But something in me refused to give up. I had to try. For Rob, for my baby. I had to try. I took a steadying breath, the strong scent of the solvent almost as good as a stiff drink, and peeked up over the crate. The crowbar was where I’d dropped it a good five feet from me next to where the Rider stood. But it was uninterested in me now. I watched it sprout long tentacle legs, turn gracefully and glide off into the wilderness beyond the open blast door.
My relief was almost painful. I slumped back into the corner weak with the release of fear, and sorrow. All gone, he had said. They were all gone. Now what?
The only thing left to me was the Ark. If I got to the Ark, I could barricade myself inside and develop a sensible plan. Wake more settlers. I had to get to the Ark. I looked out the broken garage door into the wilderness and knew I had to find a safer way.
When I finally gathered enough courage, I strode back into the hall determined to save myself and my child, for Rob’s sake. You’re not brave, he used to say. You are brazen. And I remember laughing like I was queen of the world. Well then, I thought with angry determination, I’ll be brazen to the end. I decided to take the lower service passage through to the natural tunnels Rob had mentioned. The network of tunnels all led to the cathedral cave where they’d landed the Ark.
The cavern had been empty, the team said, except for the black fungus growing in sacs along the walls. But it was the best haven for the Ark. Her engine fires had scorched it all to hell on landing, so I knew the cave was clean. No fungus could survive those temps.
As I walked, I felt eyes on me, like someone tapping on my neck. I twirled occasionally to check my six but there was nothing to see except flickering light and thick shadows. Down here the lights were dimmer to conserve power, and I stumbled along in near dark letting my mind wander through whatever past I could recall. Though I had found my courage, I missed Rob. He had always made me feel safe.
They got Rob, Jacques had said. I pushed that thought away. Instead, I dwelled on the last time I saw him just before he disappeared.
Rob’s expedition to find the survey team had met with one disappointment after another. In the end, the scientists had been found and all were dead, their notes unintelligible gibberish or destroyed. When he returned, it was the middle of my sleep shift. He woke me in the dark, the damp musky wilderness scent clinging to his hair, his hood, his shirt. He hadn’t said much, just “Sofie” and “mi tesoro”. I wonder now if he had been injured. He had seemed ... wounded somehow. In pain but needing me close, needing to touch me.
His skin had been cool and clammy. Maybe he’d been sick, or perhaps only sick at heart. And as I held him to comfort him, his need became something hungrier as it often did when he was stressed. That night though, my gentle lover’s desire turned rough, desperate, angry even. It was obvious something was bothering him. We would talk it out like we always did, but afterward; he needed the release our love-making provided. I met his demanding hands and mouth and hips with passionate demands of my own.
Thinking back now, his cries of climax were not what I’d come to expect. They were anguished, as if his heart were breaking. When we finished, he caught my head with one hand and kissed me on the forehead, pressing into me so hard that I felt teeth. And he whispered with such sorrow as I’ve never heard, “I’m sorry, mi corazon. Forgive me.” The next day he was gone
That was the last time I’d seen him and I remembered next to nothing after that night. I wiped a tear from my cheek and forced my feet to move, one in front of the other. I was so tired. The lights had all but given out by now and my eyes were playing tricks on me. When I stared into the darkness, I could have sworn it moved. An image of the black slug-beast rose in my mind.
Having no other option, I turned my back to the darkness and pressed on. If they were there, I had to get to the Ark quickly. I couldn’t outrun them for long. Reason would say if they’d wanted to they could have caught me before now. But I kept my mind focused only on the Ark, hoping her independent lighting system still worked.
The one hand I kept on the cement wall didn’t keep me from stumbling to my knees when the smooth floor dropped out below me. I landed half a foot down from the concrete floor onto rough rocks. The natural passages, I had found them.
My abdomen cramped angrily with a long shuddering pain, so much more intense than the others I couldn’t stifle the groan. And it was then that I heard them behind me. A softish sound in the dark. Not a slithering really, or a sucking, maybe a combination of both. My mind was fraying and I thought that going insane might be a very short trip. I couldn’t resist looking back and something definitely moved in that dark. And it was much closer than I thought.
“Just a little longer, mi carino,” I whispered to my daughter, holding my cramping belly with shaking hands. “It’s not safe here.”
I reached out for the wall, that rough scalloping curve, and I dragged myself up to teeter on legs rubbery with exhaustion. I was the last one. I was Earth’s last hope. We had to survive. I walked.
The noises, though louder now, still kept their distance from my shuffling progress. I felt rather than saw when the tunnel opened into the cathedral cave Rob had described. The air seemed freer, cooler, but muskier at the same time with the tang of burnt mushrooms. Unfortunately, the Ark’s lights were out and I was bathed in complete darkness. The softish noises turned to excited chittering that expanded out and away from me, echoing off walls that seemed miles away.
As I stumbled along, a sudden bright light clicked on and blinded me. It was the painful but familiar flare of a halogen flashlight. And it came from directly ahead of me.
I stopped and leaned against the curving wall, groaning at the rhythmic pains shuddering through me now. This little girl was not gonna wait long.
“Who’s there?” My voice was little more than a squeak but it rebounded off the walls, its tone picked up by the chittering darkness. By the sound, legions awaited me in that dark. I was terrified. There was no answer from the one who held the light that was slowly advancing toward me. I might have run if I had any strength left but the pain had begun to shoot down my legs as well. If this wasn’t help, we were done.
As I waited trembling with fear and pain, I noticed the reassuring clomp-clomp of boots, work boots. Human work boots. The light stopped, a few feet from me, as I put up my hand to shade my eyes. “Who are you?” I asked.
“Forgot me already?” The light moved to shine up onto Rob’s face.
“Rob? Ohmigod, Rob!” My knees gave out and I would have sunk to the rocks if his large hand hadn't pulled me up into his arms. And then, the dam of strength within me broke. I sobbed into his rough jacket with great gulping heaves. He smelled of the wilds, of Kepler, the steamy sodden muck that was our new home. Had he been outside this whole time? Was there an encampment of survivors he’d come to take me to?
“They’re all gone,” I cried. “All the mothers but me.”
“Shhh shhh.” He hushed me and stroked my hair. “I know. It’s almost over, Sofie.”
“Where have you been? It’s been months.” I said, hiccupping and gripping his jacket so tight my fingers ached.
“A few weeks is not so long.”
I jerked my head back to look for humor in his eyes but there was none. “A few weeks? Look at this belly!”
He smiled and placed a possessive hand on my abdomen. “Larger than the others,” he said with awkward stiffness, “because you’re special, Spanish rose.”
I stared blankly at him as a cold black hole of fear opened in my chest, turning hope to ash in my mouth.
He continued in that slightly wooden voice, “You always said you wanted to be mother of a brave new world. And so you are.” His smile faded as if it had never been. “Only not a human one.”
“Rob, you’re scaring me.”
And then his face went totally slack, eyes glazed and dead. His hands dropped away from me and the flashlight hit the floor, its light swinging along wall beside him. I swayed without his support but managed to keep my feet.
“Your Rob was a good vessel,” his mouth intoned, “but your time is upon you and he is longer needed.”
And then Rob’s head lolled to one side and he dropped to the ground like the biped had - a crumpled heap of flesh, nothing more. The darkness I dreaded detached itself from his back and shoulders, peeling itself out of him, until my Rob lay deflated and pale at the feet of a Rider.
A sudden and terrible ripping inside my gut sent me to my knees, my arms wrapped around the squirming mass of my abdomen. “You can't have my daughter,” I yelled, my mind resisting what I already knew.
“It’s not your daughter,” the Rider’s chattering said in poor imitation of human speech. “It’s mine.”
My world tumbled as it walked up to me and reached out a black tentacle that curled along my cheek, cool and slippery against my fevered skin. I could feel its mind in mine, alien and vengeful. I felt the truth of its words. “It was I who mated with you that night. My seed grows in your belly. And she will be the mother of our world. To replace the one you burned.”
The next contraction was claws tearing through my diaphragm. Teeth clamped on my pounding heart and I slumped to the floor in paralyzed agony. As the last of my life fed the child of my enemy, I stared into the dead eyes of my beautiful husband. Above us, the alien cheers echoed in the cavern: “Long live Mi’carino of the D’thichar.”
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