Prologue - Awakening
Vincent Gallagher leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. Only two more days until the Trial of Ascension. This was the year the death toll would be zero. He wondered how many times he would have to repeat the lie before he finally believed it? Even now his hand drifted to his shoulder feeling the familiar ridges of the ascension crystal under his left sleeve. Year after year he toiled, driving himself to torment with anxiety, fretting over every last detail of the trial’s preparations. This year’s class had been trained to survive anything. As had the year before… yet the death toll had risen again.
There was growing criticism of his office after the staggering fifty-seven deaths last year. Such losses were unacceptable, yet Vincent couldn’t help scoff at his critics. He had survived the worst slaughter during the trial since its inception. Four hundred and fifty-three dead, nearly half the Ascension class. The former overseer had committed suicide shortly after. A fate he had no intention of reenacting.
The truth was despite his title, this year at least was out of his hands. Everything that could be done had been, all that was left was to worry. If the mist relented then perhaps many would be spared.
Sliding on his glasses Vincent allowed the wash of reports that now clouded his vision to distract him from his worrying. Layer upon layer they filled his heads-up display. Letting out a deep breath he dived into the first report. Someone had ambushed an enforcer supply shipment bound for Crescent during the night.
Vincent cringed biting back a curse as he read the manifest. Not just food and water but ammunition too. Normally he would have dismissed the presence of ammunition as unlucky, but this brought the count to three times an ammo shipment had been hit in the past two months. With a thought, Vincent flagged the report with a priority marker and forwarded it to the inquisitor for investigation.
Even as he sent it, red flashed in the upper left corner of his display. His entire body tensed, and his trembling fist stopped just short of striking the terminal on his desk. There better be a damn good reason why Anna had let the link through. Then Vincent saw the originator ID and his lips curled in a snarl. Samantha LaBou.
As the chief researcher at Lab Corps, she was one of the few people with direct access to ruin his morning whenever she pleased. A privilege mandated by his superior, and thus irrevocable. Vincent paused and did his best to drive the annoyance from his face before accepting the link.
Labou began talking immediately. “I am looking at your research directives and they are calling for animation of the project!”
“And this is a problem, because?”
“With respect sir. We should have a containment team down here.”
“I should not have to remind you what it took just to get this project authorized. Requisition of a containment team is absolutely out of the question. Your research indicates that the current stasis tank will be more than en-”
“That’s all just guesswork. Brandon’s guesswork! We have no solid data to back up any of it.” Samantha shouted.
“You’re out of line professor! You will initiate the animation without further delay. This is not a discussion. This is an order.”
Samantha smoldered for a long moment her dark hair obscuring her green eyes. Eyes that said the words she would not. “Sir,” Samantha said at last as she terminated the link, a seething contempt only she could manage marred the formality.
Vincent’s fist struck the terminal view screen leaving a smudge on its pristine glass. It was shit like this that made him question appointing Samantha over the malravian project.
Whereas once she had been eager, Labou now dragged her feet on every directive even going so far, he believed, as to deliberately stifle progress. All the while Corwin pressed him mercilessly for results. Whatever her concern, this animation had better work, Vincent could not afford to report another setback.
With a thought, he dismissed the morning reports from his display and opened a private feed to the research facility. There was no use trying to focus on anything else now. Reports would have to wait.
On-screen Samantha and her colleague, Brandon Slater, began their final rundown of the animation process. In front of them, a dark grey humanoid form hung suspended in a stasis tank. Dozens of tubes and cables like snaking umbilicals tethered the creature while monitoring it for signs of life. Vincent couldn’t help but smile, if this worked it would be the first successful hybridization of the human and malravian species, taking the Imperium one step closer to perfecting the human race. Perhaps then the mist would no longer be a threat to them.
From within the tank, black eyes like a starless night shot open. The hair along Vincent’s arm stood on end and a sudden fear struck him. A second later the eyes closed and the malravian went limp. Immediately Vincent called up the tank’s vital monitors. Everything was stable, it was asleep, not dead. He let out a sigh of relief as he realized Samantha had given it a massive dose of tranquilizer. They had done it, they had actually done it.
The moment of triumph was short-lived. Another dose of tranquilizer had been pumped into the malravian, then another. That bitch was trying to sabotage everything! Movement from the tank drew his attention away from the vitals chart. The Hybrid had begun thrashing like a child in a night terror. The vitals spiked then flatlined as an inky liquid seeped from the cabling tainting the embryonic teal of the tank.
“No!” Vincent Screamed knocking his chair to the floor as he stood.
A moment later the cabling connected to the hybrid shuttered and the connection points were driven forcibly from its body. Black pools of deep abyss fixated on Brandon.
The hybrid made a pulling motion as if beckoning Brandon to the tank. At that moment the feed erupted in screams of agony as Brandon’s blood stained the floor. In the air above Brandon’s convulsing body hung a bloodied ascension crystal. It pulsed a brilliant yellow life fire as ragged remains of flesh were burned away. Like a bullet, the crystal sent a spider web of cracks radiating through the triple-layered reinforced glass of the tank.
The crystal splintered and cracked, what flesh remained fell away like molten wax before the color faded to an ashen grey. Soon even what remained of the crystal crumbled to dust leaving a thick purple mist choking the air.
The beast shuddered, its eyes momentarily rolling back into its skull as it absorbed the mist through the glass. With one fluid motion, the weakened glass was shattered as a large bone blade struck it. Like the bursting of a dam, the inky teal liquid covered the room sending Samantha sputtering to the floor.
Brandon had ceased his convulsing and the screams no longer filled the feed yet the malravian hooked him with its massive blade and flung the lifeless body against the remains of the tank. The brutality gave Samantha enough time to get to her feet and scramble into a nearby supply closet. The door was solid steel and it proved a far more difficult obstacle than the reinforced glass. Even so, it was unlikely the door would hold long enough for a kill team to reach the lab.
Yet even as he thought it Vincent knew that was out of the question. The Project had been a success, even if it had cost the lives of these two scientists. All their work was recorded and better precautions could be taken next time. Vincent knew what was supposed to happen next. Still, he hesitated.
As if his thoughts had the power to summon demons, the office took on a deep purple hue. A being comprised of purple and black mist congealed into a human form before him. Reflexively Vincent hunched lower in his chair as dark pits in the place of eyes fixed on him.
All light seemed to be sucked from the room as it spoke, “If anyone sees our creation before Corwin gives the order, you will be held responsible.”
It was not so much a voice but a sound that emanated from the mist on all sides. Vincent opened the termination procedure. All he had to do was press this one button and all evidence of this project, except that in Corwin’s possession, would be destroyed. He pressed it, and the mist being seemed to smile. In a moment it vanished and the room was filled with light once again.
From his office window, Vincent watched the billowing black smoke that rose from sector eight. Still gazing out at the smoke Vincent called up the prerecorded statement he had made. Truly he had never anticipated needing it. It was a shame really, to see weapons research take such a fatal turn.
"An unforeseen complication in the lab while researching new explosives had destroyed the facility and claimed the lives of two of the Imperium’s top scientists."