Chapter 19 - This Way The Devil
After retrieving their camera scouts, Darren, Nate, and Jorge stepped first through the circular portal onto the platform station, weapons raised. Several squid drones, quiet and motionless, were lined up in orderly rows apparently waiting for their ride. Beyond, they could see a vertically curved wall, the outer circular surround of the horizontal tunnel. Judging by the angle of the curve, Darren guessed the mass transit passageway leading down to the core ship had to be seventy or eighty feet wide.
“What are these squidies doing?” Tony asked. “Going home after a long work day?”
“In a way, yes,” Jorge replied. “There’s some kind of recharging plant down in the core ship where they stay in storage.”
Darren smiled at his friend. He was greatly appreciating Jorge’s guidance, his bigger new role in their group. Shy, quiet Jorge Lopez . . . a half-American with a green card . . . living a life of degrading poverty in rural Mexico just two years ago . . . speaking English better than most ’Mer-icans . . . now directing the hell-bent charge into alien territory to save mankind. The guy with the killer robot had all of the answers.
Looking around at his three friends, Darren suddenly felt very afraid for them.
“Here comes our ride,” Jorge said.
“Check for enemy bio’s,” Darren said.
“None on board.”
A low rumble rose from behind the circular surround, stopped, and the portal opened to reveal the machine inside. The drone creatures quickly filed in and disappeared into an alcove which led to a hidden space under the floor. Darren stepped inside first. The tri-rail’s interior was dimly lit and circular. There were no chairs expect for dozens of upright rectangular objects made of some kind of clear gelatin, all arranged in rows perpendicular to the tri-rail’s length. Each had a pole-shaped machine inside the gelatin with wires and tubes snaking out. Darren poked a finger into one of them and discovered that it reacted to his touch.
“Acceleration couches,” he said into his comm. “G-force absorbers. Everybody take one and just lean back.” Darren faced the front of the vehicle and pushed himself backward. The gelatin inflated outward between his legs, arms and torso and around his helmet, leaving the front of him exposed to air. He was locked in but still had some movement.
“Drive that HLJ to the back and right against the wall, sergeant,” Carruthers ordered.
After everyone had secured themselves, a motion sensor somewhere detected that all travelers were safely secure, and the tri-rail began to stir. Darren heard air outside the vehicle being sucked out of the tunnel’s airlock. After the chamber had been completely vacuumed, a circular portal in front of the tri-rail opened to reveal the dark tunnel leading down into the depths of the moonship.
“Brutus says that we’ll be traveling up to a thousand miles per hour. It will take us about forty-five minutes to reach our destin-aaaaaaaa. . . !”
The massive vehicle vaulted forward without even a single, courteous warning. Darren felt himself pressed into the hard gel. The g-forces were excruciating, and he gritted his teeth. Some of the SAWDOGs were whooping it up over the comm, apparently relishing the sensations. He was used to anti-g cockpit force fields negating this shit.
“Six g’s!” Jorge shouted.
It went on for another ten seconds before the massive acceleration unexpectedly stopped, and Darren popped out like a sponge.
“We’re at four hundred miles per hour,” Jorge said. “Hold on to your rocks because here comes another pulse!”
“What?” Darren shouted.
He felt himself mashed into the acceleration couch again. This time, it really hurt like hell. He heard Jorge shout something, probably trying to sound out the number of g’s, but couldn’t get his mouth to work. Not one cocky shout came from the bad-ass SAWDOGs this time.
Darren’s eyeballs felt like Jell-O, and his lungs had turned to concrete. Just when he believed he would actually start screaming, the acceleration ceased. The gel around him deflated, and Darren felt himself pushed out of the acceleration couch. Like him, everyone was trying to maintain their balance and regain equilibrium.
“I like a good roller coaster, but holy cow. . . .” Carruthers said, blinking his eyes rapidly.
“Where are we, Jorge?” Darren asked.
“Heading for the core,” he replied. “One thousand miles per hour there abouts. We’ll be decelerating in about a half-hour.”
After another round of hard g’s during deceleration——this time the gelatin couches rotated to face the rear of the tri-rail——Brutus used his Omni-Interface Tool to gain access to the vehicle’s electronics systems while the platform station’s air lock was pressurizing. The robot planted a bogus fire warning in the tri-rail’s electrostatic wave drive. This subterfuge prodded the Vorvons’ security VI’s to sound an evac on the platform station, clearing out any Vorvons that might be waiting for a ride. Still mimicking the dead maintenance drone, Brutus signaled that the fire was being attended to.
After the portal opened, a lone reconnaissance camera scout from Darren’s helmet flittered out and checked the area. Darren saw that the Vorvons liked their lights turned down low. The circular corridors were dimly lit, but he knew that their large eyes didn’t require much light to see. The walls were oddly shaped with a creepy organic design——conduits resembling veins, protrusions like polyps. It gave the ominous impression that they were inside a living creature.
Brutus’s trick looked like it worked. The corridors around the station platform were empty. The fire alarm had a strange bellow to it. Like a lion grunting over and over.
Darren’s tiny recon scout spied an access which led to a hidden alcove beneath the platform where they could secretly demo into the air duct system and not reveal their intrusion.
“That’s where we go in,” Darren said. “Jorge. You’re up. Tony, Nate, you guys stay up here with your scouts and stand guard.”
“Roger that,” Tony replied.
Jorge gathered some engineering gear from Brutus’s storage compartment and quickly led everyone down into the alcove. Time was a factor. Demolitions had to be completed promptly before the security VI’s rescinded the fire alarm.
Jorge had a hand-held device that he swept across the metallic wall in front of him in wide circular motions. Something similar to a stud finder.
“There’s two layers here,” Jorge said. “The first is just over an inch thick. The second is the air duct wall, about two inches.”
He revealed another contraption from his Swiss-army-knife compartment of goodies which looked just like a caulk gun. Jorge applied a bead of clear gel starting from the floor, up the wall about seven feet high, across to his right about five feet, down to the floor and back across. He then ejected a teeny gadget from a magazine clip in the gun’s handle and embedded it into the gel. A tiny light began to blink.
“Everyone might want to look away,” Jorge said.
A smokeless, arc welder-bright rectangle formed on the wall, and Brutus moved forward to clamp the falling section between his arms, gently lowering it to the floor. Jorge applied a thicker bead of cutting gel to the curved outside wall of the air duct, lit it up, and Brutus pushed the chunk of metal into the duct with a thunderous clash.
The inside of the duct had a smooth, gun-metal gray surface. And dark at both ends.
Darren turned to Carruthers with a smile, “Into the rabbit hole,” and went first.
Darren wanted to take point alone with Brutus, but Captain Middleton requested that he and Vega Platoon’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Webber, partake in the van formation too. Soon, they were intel’ing one another. Middleton seemed cool and congenial, but Darren got the feeling the Brit was just sizing them up, deciding if these eighteen-year old Yanks had the guts, mental fortitude and honed skill of thirty year old special operations troopers with a decade of stone hard training. He asked a lot of questions, most of which leaned toward room-to-room tactics and urbanized combat. That was okay, though, Darren thought. He flat out said Middleton could trust them when the shit-storm came.
“I guess you’re right,” Middleton finally said. “I watched that security tape from the Chinatown bank. You lads took care of those robbers well enough, and they were fucking ex-Delta, too.”
“Doom on them,” Darren said.
The sergeant snorted. “Yeah . . . doom on them.”
Darren learned that Captain Trevor “Sock” Middleton’s first baptism of fire took place in Sierra Leone in 2002 as a corporal in the British Army’s 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment before joining the 22nd Special Air Service in 2004 where he distinguished himself as one of that elite unit’s most celebrated snipers. His meteoric rise through the Queen’s special operations forces then took him to Task Force 145, a joint American-British “hunter-killer” unit which gathered intelligence on Iraqi suicide insurgents and executed them with extreme prejudice when found. TF 145 also served as an open door for recruitment into SAWDOG which Middleton had been a member of since 2007.
Majoring in astronautical engineering and space systems, he received his bachelor’s at the University of Hertfordshire, now currently working on his masters at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Middleton said his annual base pay would go from $80,000 to $110,000 when he completed his masters. Not a bad job being among the highest paid soldiers in the militaries of Uncle Sam and Her Majesty.
“How come you guys don’t have laser rifles or gauss guns?” Darren asked. “They reverse engineered Vorvon magnetic field disrupters and zero-point energy generators, so where’s the individual weaponry?”
“They’re working on it, mate,” Middleton replied. “Just waiting for the technology to shrink. The smallest beamed energy weapon the R&D boys have is some two hundred pound monstrosity that no trooper in his right mind would lug around.”
Middleton hefted his .50-caliber CAR15 with the M320 grenade launcher. “Besides . . . Ol’ Patsy here works just fine in outer space. There’s an electromagnetic gyroscope gizmo in the butt stock that negates the recoil, so you don’t go spinning off into space when you pull the trigger. The SCAR-L’s that some of the other boys are using have the same recoilless device.”
“Just out of curiosity, what kind of ammo are you guys using?” Darren asked.
“As a matter of fact, the order to change ammo came down from Carruthers pretty damn quick yesterday. Now we’re using seven-six-two Saboted Light Armor Penetrators for the SCAR-L’s and M110 sniper rifles, and fifty-caliber High Explosive Incendiary-Armor Piercing rounds for the carbines and Barretts. Good thing too, because we received info from some Marines who already tangled with the toads that both ammos just barely pierce the aliens’ armor suits.”
“You’re lucky that order came down yesterday,” Darren said, smiling from ear-to-ear.
“Yeah. So tell me about your suits. What kind of alien-made nasties you got there?”
Darren gave him a quick rundown of his suit and weapon specs.
Afterward, Middleton had a face that made him look like a kid with a brand new Red Ryder BB gun who just found out his friend next door received a brand new Remington .25-cal pellet rifle with a 12x50 RAD parallax sight. “Well, ah . . . our suits hopefully will hold their own.”
“With your SLAP and explosive ammo, they’ll be good enough to fight the bad guys.”
“Not against their gautdamn laser guns. Shit, we didn’t know we were going to be fighting alien invaders until yesterday.”
“You’re kidding? I thought the SAWDOG’s were created years ago?”
“We were. But every rank below O-4 wasn’t told squat about E.T. Hell, we all assumed we were primed for rapid deployment ops against Iran or China or fucking Hezbollah. Carruthers and the rest of the chiefs disclosed ‘Actual Mission Directive One’ to us yesterday just after this moon spaceship showed up in the sky. Some heads up, huh?”
“There’ve been rumors in the brigade for years that we’d be fighting aliens,” Lieutenant Webber said. “Somebody told me that one guy a couple years back got bodily removed out of his rack in the middle of the night and never heard from again because he wouldn’t shut up about aliens.”
“I heard about that story, lieutenant, and it’s rubbish.”
“No it ain’t. A guy in Capella Company told me he was there when it happened.”
“By the way, why is your call sign ‘Sock’?” Darren asked.
Webber let out a short gaggle. “It’s not short for ‘soccer,’ that’s for sure.”
Middleton shrugged. “Well . . . my old instructor at Sennybridge kept giving me shit about my uniform being shoddy and all every morning. There wasn’t a damn thing wrong with my dress . . . that bucktooth, ginger geezer just didn’t like me. So . . . one day I came to the morning queue with just a sock over my knob. He didn’t like that . . . spent a week in the brig for that stunt, fuck him.”
“I heard you SAS boys were real cheeky bastards to the core,” Darren said. “My kinda bunch.”
“‘Who Dares Wins,’ mate——SAS motto . . . so tell me your story? How did you lads get your fighters and those evil-looking suits?”
“An AI-piloted cargo ship from a civilization the bad guys wiped out a long time ago crashed near my house and brainwashed the information into us.”
Long pause. “No shit.”
“Yeah. ‘Random Heroes.’”
“Ain’t we all.” Middleton threw a nod in Brutus’s direction. “I like your robot buddy here. Everywhere I point my rifle, I see a little hole in that force field follow my aim.”
“That’s his motion sensor. He’s got other toys that will impress you.”
“Does it blow shit up?”
Darren gave Middleton his best Are you kidding?-look. “That’s his specialty.”
Brutus just signaled in Xrel script HALT FOR ANALYSIS on Darren’s visor. The battle drone had several RCS scouts recon’ing the tunnel several hundred feet ahead of them. One of the flying cameras found a small vent shaft into what appeared to be a tube of gray basaltic rock. The schematic map indicated the cave as one of several entrances into the twenty-mile wide chamber underneath the processing area.
“Looks like we’re going spelunking.”
After gaining entrance with Jorge’s cut-welding gel, the men discovered the cave turned out to be a dead end. The map indicated that it should have led directly to the mystery chamber below the processing lab. What the hell? Twenty-eight humans stood around in a dark cave wondering what to do next when Brutus discovered a button pad inside the cap of a stalagmite. Jorge pushed the button, and a wall of rock suddenly pushed forward and up.
Sunlight. Hot wind. A smell of . . . coconut?
Darren walked up a short incline, pulse rifle to shoulder, and stopped when he reached the cave’s wide entrance. “Wow.”
“My god, we’re back in Iraq, boys,” Carruthers said.
A desert landscape under a bright blue sky and puffy clouds stretched out before them. Several miles to their left, a wide river meandered through the scorching wilderness, bordered on both sides with lush green marshlands, mangrove and date palms. A “sun” low on the horizon to their right cast long shadows from islands of palm forest scattered across the desert ocean. Was it early morning or late evening? Darren could even feel a breeze through his open visor. In the distance, perhaps five or six miles, stood the stone walls of an ancient city and a massive ziggurat at its center. Long neglected irrigation canals cut from the river bank and sprawling plains of dead crop fields around the town may have been a clue confirming the absence of human life. The land, however dead, was beautiful and mysterious, as if a chunk of Lower Mesopotamia had been literally gouged from the earth four thousand years ago and carefully deposited inside the moonship, making a perfect recreation of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin.
“Brutus says the sky is only four thousand feet high,” Jorge said. “Some kind of holographic projection screen. But he can’t identify the power source for that sun.”
Darren quickly connected the dots. Scorch spoke Akkadian, a dead language of Mesopotamia, and here was his place of birth, a human prison built to look like home.
“It’s a biodome,” one SAWDOG trooper said. “I wonder if phototrophic and chemotrophic cycles are present?”
“Shut the science down, sergeant,” Carruthers growled. “We’re here to vaporize the place, not collect samples. Darren, recon that town with your little camera scouts. If it’s as dead as it looks, it might be a nice spot to plant the nuke.”
After the RCS scouts positively ID’ed the ancient town as uninhabited, it took everyone just under an hour of military-style jogging past dead wheat fields and dry canals before reaching the open gate. Darren worried about Nate’s asthma, but when he looked back at his friend, he received a reassuring smile and a thumb’s up. No illness in that modified body.
A broken cart, its wood bleached white under the fake sun, lay shattered against a low wall to their left that encircled a warren of single- and two-storey mud brick houses. Leather harnesses secured the cart to a pair of horse skeletons lying on the ground. They appeared to have been dead for a very long time.
“I wonder what happened here.” Carruthers asked. “Look . . . there’s more remains lying in the street up ahead. Not just animals either.”
They continued up the palm-lined dirt street, encountering human skeletons wearing ragged tunics and leather belts and shoes. Their deaths did not appear to have been the cause of some kind of uprising or battle . . . no swords or spears lying on the ground or the shafts of arrows wedged in rib cages. Every living thing looked like it had dropped dead where it stood. Many of the skeletons, human and animal, looked grossly contorted.
“I recognize these postures,” Middleton said. “Muscle contraction from nerve gas exposure.”
“Uh-huh,” Carruthers replied.
Brutus had several scouts recon’ing the city and mapping its many structures into their battle maps, every building perfectly preserved as if just built yesterday. The town formed the shape of a perfect square two miles across from each side. Two main streets lined with lush palms cut through north to south, east to west, beginning from a gate at each wall to the huge ziggurat in the center of town. The southeast quadrant contained only hundreds of mud brick houses clustered together, forming courtyards here and there surrounded by arched cloisters and wooden walkways. An empty bazaar of broken shop stalls sold nothing to the human corpses lying in the marketplace. Conical stone ovens, their tops black with the soot of countless fires were built out in the open to provide community cooking. The southwest quadrant also had living quarters, but these were constructed around an oval-shaped temple over three hundred feet long and a hundred feet high. Northwest of the ziggurat lay more brick houses and bazaars and some kind of citadel or thrown room according to several RCS’s that had penetrated the structure’s interior. A skeleton dressed in an immaculate blue robe leaned to one side in a beautifully ornate thrown placed on a high dias——a dead king who now presided over nothing but a room of skeletal nobles laying on faded rugs and pillows. Thousands of stone tablets filled long alcoves in the walls of a library northeast of the ziggurat. Those that had smashed on the floors revealed ancient cuneiform that Darren could never hope to read or understand.
And everywhere lingered signs of horrifying deaths throughout the silent city. Humans, goats, cattle, sheep, all manner of life snuffed so quickly, none of them surely understanding the calamity killing them so mysteriously and why.
“I wonder who or what did this?” Tony asked. “It couldn’t be the Vorvons. Why wipe out their only source of human slave troops?”
Carruthers turned and waved the HLJ driver up. “Not important. Let’s move people.”
“Actually, it is important,” Darren interjected. “What if it was an enemy weapon of mass destruction? As in Vorvon enemy. We might have an ally out there somewhere.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“It’s an intriguing inquiry, Mr. Seymour, but one we don’t have time to discuss further.”
Darren agreed but stored the question for later.
The ziggurat stood 260 feet tall according to the battle map drawn by Brutus’s scouts. The temple was rectangular, 170 feet wide by 240 feet long. Five tiers circumvented the monument, and a steep staircase on the south face led to its top course where Darren could see palm trees and wild vegetation growing unchecked down the sides.
As they got closer, several bas reliefs carved along the south staircase’s bottom drew everyone’s attention. Depictions of daily life activities like gardening, playing lutes and purchasing goods in the marketplace were incorporated with images of ancient humans worshiping deities who conveniently looked like Vorvons who in turn were idolizing a human female that stood above all others.
“Ishtar,” Lieutenant Webber said. “The goddess of love and sexuality. Their veneration for her makes sense in light of these terra cotta mosaics over here.”
Darren followed his direction to a series of brightly colored, tiled reliefs showing females giving birth to “litters” of offspring.
“The humans were encouraged to produce as many children as possible.” Webber paused to read the pictures carefully. “Every third child was claimed by the Anunnaki, or Vorvons rather, for service.”
“Yeah . . . service as berserk shocktroops with tentacles.”
Webber shook his head. “Strange. Why didn’t they just clone us? Genetic engineering would be simpler and much more productive. Hell, you could crank out hundreds of humans in a lab in the nine months it took for a single mother to bring one child to term. Why spend the time engineering an expansive and complicated biodome just to keep these humans relatively happy?”
Darren noticed several mosaics depicted people being punished by their Vorvon masters for secretly creating machines and elixirs, and rewarding those who maintained crops, livestock, and the plentiful procreation of children. These images were nothing more than propaganda pictures. “Looks like learning science was a no-no. See here?”
Webber nodded. “Agrarian socialism . . . keep ’em down, keep ’em dumb. Just like Pol Pot and his Khmers back in the 70s . . . hmm . . . alien commies.”
Darren had been aware for some time of a large tube rising from the ziggurat’s roof, barely cloaked within a failing invisibility field in an obvious state of neglect.
“I think I see our lift up to the processing chamber.”
“Yeah, I noticed that, too,” Carruthers said. “Let’s move people.”
Towsley opened the door to First Deck-Infirmary and slowly stepped out of the stairwell. The hallway was lit, but he could see that the adjacent corridors were not. Both labs were dark as well, but the infirmary had lights. He wanted to call out but didn’t. Instead, he backed against the wall and slid to his right toward the cleaning room door, sweeping the sweaty 9mm Beretta left and right.
The door to the small infirmary cleaning room was ajar. Towsley stopped, again suppressing the urge to call out, even to whisper. He checked behind him before he crossed the hallway and pushed the door in with his foot, his trigger finger ready.
Geils was gone, which didn’t surprise him. Making sure, he looked behind the tall shelves of floor cleaner and laundry detergents and opened the mop and broom closet. He had a scratch in his throat and fought like hell not to cough. He swallowed hard and stepped out of the cleaning room.
Reminding himself that Caliban could see better in the dark than he could, Towsley cautiously retraced his steps back toward the darkened infirmary vestibule. He stopped at the corner and leaned against the wall, eyes roving back and forth. No movement in the darkness. Towsley slid against the wall and peered into the small dentistry office just off the vestibule.
“Geils, this is Colonel Towsley!” he rasped.
He called out a little louder but still no reply. He expected Caliban to make some kind of move now——if the alien was indeed on First Deck.
He was cognizant of a heavy iron smell, musty of death, and realized it was the scent of blood. Thoughts crept into his brain, images of a poor little kid ravaged by an angry monster. On the corner of his eye, he detected the faint glow of a light on the floor down the corridor leading to the laboratory. He moved cautiously toward it, rounded the corner, and beheld the sight of what remained of Sergeant Collins’s body highlighted by a flashlight on the floor.
A twitch of anger tore up through the deep flood of terror in his chest, and it gave him a little more juice in which to stir him into further action.
He shouted, “Geils, can you hear me?”
A muffled reply in the distance: “I’m in here!”
Towsley turned his head as the kid shouted, trying to pin down the location. Where in the hell is ‘here’? He wanted to call out just one more time, but he caught movement in the shadows to his right in an open door to a room he couldn’t remember. The Beretta came up, his finger ready, as he bent down to probe the floor for the flashlight somewhere at his feet.
Finding it, he aimed the light toward the darkened doorway. A coat hanging still on a wooden rack had just moved. Or maybe not. His mind conjuring nocturnal spooks perhaps.
The kid was behind him, back in the Infirmary-Dentistry. Where Towsley had been not three fucking minutes ago.
“Geils, I want you to stay where you are and don’t make a sound.”
“I’m in the operating room!”
“Goddamn it, Geils, shut up!” he screamed in terror.
Towsley poked his head into the corridor like an eager bird and ducked back. Clear. He moved swiftly along the wall back toward the infirmary, occasionally checking behind him for moving shadows, pissed at himself for coming undone.
“Get me outta here!”
Towsley almost came out of his skin this time and came near to shouting medieval blasphemes. Once more in the vestibule, he made his way toward Op Room 1, the first door in the hallway which bisected the infirmary, and opened the double swinging entry. Geils was sitting on the floor in the back corner, holding two paddles of a portable defibrillator in his hands.
“You have a heart attack, kid?” Towsley whispered.
Geils shook his head. “It’s the only weapon I could find.”
“Turn it off, and let’s go.” He checked both ends of the corridor once more.
“There’s a dead guy in the other hall who looks like he got mangled in a plate press.”
“Yeah, I know. C’mon, put that shit down and let’s go.”
Geils stood up and turned off the defibrillator. Both of them stepped out of the infirmary and quickly tiptoed toward the stairwell.
“Where we going anyway?” Geils asked with his high-pitched voice.
Towsley grabbed the kid’s shoulder, spun him around and hissed into his ear, “I want you to keep your mouth shut, do you understand? You’re talking too loud.” Most people clammed up when they were scared. Apparently Geils’s fight or flight response pushed his voice volume to extreme levels.
Towsley raised his eyebrows and waited for Geils to nod an affirmative. Instead, the kid’s eyes grew bigger. He heard him suck air, whimper, and watched his lips begin to tremble. Geils was looking over Towsley’s——
Oh God, he’s looking over my shoulder!
He tried to move but his muscles seized up. He felt the life go out of him even before he felt a warm hand wrap around his neck, the claws poking into his flesh. A dozen possible evasive maneuvers went through his head, but he realized he was dead as a careless antelope separated from the herd.
Geils backed away from him, turned and ran for the stairwell.
From behind, another hand snatched the 9mm Beretta from his grip. Fear had already trickled out of him, leaving only the apprehensive pang of surrender which he accepted almost graciously.
Caliban lifted Towsley off the floor by the neck and threw him hard against the far wall.
At the ziggurat’s top floor, they entered a square room lined with stone-carved bas reliefs of ancient children reveling in the joys of everyday childhood: playing musical instruments, dancing around fires, chasing butterflies, kissing under palm trees . . . and not a single adult represented anywhere. It reminded Darren of the large murals hanging in an elementary school hallway. One consistent feature in each bas relief was an open-armed female deity surrounded by Vorvons lifting their own arms up to her.
In the center of the room lay a colored, glass mosaic embedded into the stone floor before a wide entrance onto a metal platform. The picture depicted a line of children being led into a brilliant portal by Vorvons dressed in red robes, the open-armed goddess standing in the entryway beckoning them. This is where they brought them, Darren thought. This room. A promise of heaven and ascension.
“Looks like the aliens corrupted the image of Ishtar to deceive the old humans,” Middleton said. “Used her to legitimize their agenda . . . this fucking place. . . .”
Carruthers turned to Darren. “When we get to this processing chamber, or whatever the hell it is, I’m going to quickly ascertain whether this girl’s extraction is going to be a problem and a danger to my team. If so, we’re going to bug the fuck out ricky-tick and hump it back here. You and your boys can decide whether you’re going to stay or not. Sorry buddy, but that’s the way it works in my world.”
“I understand,” Darren said. “They’re your guys.”
Carruthers turned to the HLJ driver. “Sergeant Taylor, you and your squad will remain here with the nuke. If the rest of us, for whatever reason, are compromised, declare penance to the Lord Our God and engage the bomb’s trigger.”
“Yes, sir,” Taylor snapped without hesitation.
Darren looked down and pretended to tune his pulse rifle so that Carruthers couldn’t see him roll his eyes in disgust.
“Darren, what are your plans post-extraction?” Carruthers asked.
“Depends on what condition she’s in when we find her.”
“‘If’ you find her.”
“‘When’ we find her,” he replied with a grin, not wanting to compromise the rapport already established.
Carruthers nodded. “Alright troops, let’s go.”
Everyone save for the four-man engineer squad stepped through the dim entryway onto the platform. Brutus performed some wireless cyberwarfare magic, and the lift was off, a soft hum pulsating under the floor. Everyone had their faces craned upward into the descending darkness and the unknown shrouded by it. Less than a minute later when the lift began to slow, rifle muzzles rose.
“Frosty around the edges, boys,” Carruthers whispered over the comm.
They came to a nearly dark machine room, perhaps twenty feet wide. Darren tagged a single Vorvon with one of his scouts standing at a computer station on the far side of the room. The alien did not have armor but wore a thick red jumpsuit and bulky gloves which manipulated a glowing sphere on the computer console with tiny streamers of electricity.
Darren faced Middleton, slid his vibro-knife out, and mouthed the words, He’s mine. He paid no attention to the captain’s sudden look of apprehension as he vaulted off the lift and began his stalk. Knees bent, head low, eyes up and forward, Darren stealthily closed the distance to his prey, weaving around humming machines and computer consoles, ducking under low electrical conduits.
Darren offered the alien a silent promise that it would not feel a thing when, at the end of his stalk, he sunk his humming blade into the base of its skull. He remembered to flick his wrist up and destroy the tiny, neuronal lobe producing telepathy, negating its silent alarm, and then twisted down, severing brain from spine. The creature was already dead before it slowly went limp and fell to the floor.
Darren gave his vibro-knife a snap in the air, slinging the alien blood from its body before returning it to the scabbard slot under his left arm. He turned to see Vega Platoon pouring into the room and making its way to the single portal and the corridor beyond.
Middleton stood over the dead Vorvon looking like a proud papa.
“You still trust me?” Darren asked.
Carruthers walked up, looked down at the body, nodded once with an impassive look and strolled off to join his men.
“That means he approves,” Middleton said.
Brutus took point, followed by Darren and Jorge. As soon as he entered the corridor leading out of the machine room, his enhanced senses detected something . . . odd. He couldn’t place it. The air felt heavy, constricting somehow. Cold and humid. The corridor looked even more organic and ribbed than the others they had traversed, and the walls looked slimy but dry to the touch. It felt and looked like they were walking inside a living thing. Darren also noticed a slight pressure on his temples.
He checked data from his suit’s foreign contaminant detector, but the device detected nothing but clean breathable air and clean water vapor.
“Is anyone feeling a bit buggered, or is it just me?” Middleton asked.
Everyone either nodded or voiced affirmatives.
“Tony, Nate,” Darren said. “Get up here with me. We’re all taking point.”
Darren increased his pace, not waiting for his buddies, stabbing the darkness ahead with his helmet lamp. According to the schematic map, they had maybe another ten minute walk until they reached the bottom of the processing lab. Or whatever it could be. The map was not very specific about surrounding structures and corridors either, even though the rest of the ship was rather detailed in the imagery. In fact, the Vorvons did not appear to give much attention to this particular area of their ship when they made their computer maps, either by intentional oversight or, perhaps more ominously, outright forbiddance.
In the distance, a sound rose listlessly from the darkness——a low throaty groan with weight, but it did not sound organic. It exhibited a machine-like echo as it wound down until there was silence once again.
It brought goose pimples to Darren’s skin, causing him to stop his advanced. “What . . . the . . . fuck . . . was . . . that?”
It came again, this time with more volume. A reverberation pulsed through the air around them. At the top of Darren’s head, he could hear a hiss like an untuned AM radio. Tony, Jorge and Nate had anxious looks that betrayed similar perceptions. The sound drew out a little longer than before until it slowly spiraled away.
“Is that some kind of alarm?” Tony whispered.
A shadow suddenly leapt out of the wall toward him, and Darren jerked his pulse rifle and fired. Tony and Nate opened up, too, blindly sweeping the area in front of them. A second later, their rifles went silent, the soft whine of their batteries recovering the only sound left.
“Did you see that!” Darren screamed.
“See what?” Nate shouted back.
“I didn’t see a shadow!”
“Then why did you fire?”
“Because you did, you jumpy asshole!”
Darren turned to face the darkness ahead. “Recon scouts!” he ordered.
The four of them let go four flying cameras, and the tiny machines darted ahead. With the green infrared screen, Darren watched the RCS’s come to a fork in the sinuous corridor and split up. Further away, more corridors branched off from the last.
“Catacombs,” Tony said.
The recon images from the cameras began to sputter with static as the signal strength diminished. This confused Darren——no ECM jamming could interrupt their sub-space signals. They were literally jam-proof. The weakening images on their visors, however, dispelled that.
“There’s a little girl!” Nate shouted. He vaulted forward with an almost mindless scramble, and everyone broke into a dead run after him.
“Nate, hold up!” Darren said, his heart pumping. “Goddamn it, don’t go so far!”
“I saw a little girl!” Nate shouted over the comm which was beginning to break up as well. “She was naked, standing . . . the middle of . . . corridor.”
He had nearly run himself out of Darren’s helmet light before Nate suddenly stopped, his arms flailing to hold up his balance.
“She’s not here!” he said.
Darren barely heard Nate’s muffled voice through his helmet because their comms were dead. Darren opened his visor, and everyone else coming to a halt around him did the same when they realized that electronic communication had been compromised.
“She was right here, I swear to god,” Nate continued, out of breath, spinning around. “She was naked and grubby looking, hair all mussed up. Her eyes. . . .” He stared hard at the floor. “Her eyes were black as coal. And she had a birth mark on her neck or something. I can still see every damn detail.” Nate turned away, his agitation lessening as he continued to calm himself.
“Was the birth mark on the left side of her neck?” someone asked. A SAWDOG moved forward from the back of the pack. “Blond hair? High cheekbones?”
Nate nodded his head quickly, looking anticipatory, hoping someone didn’t think him crazy. “Yeah, you saw her, too?”
“No, but I think you just saw my daughter.”
No one stirred for a while. Darren’s eyes roamed from one bewildered face to another. A few moments passed before Nate spoke.
“Is she dead?”
The man gripped his weapon tighter, teeth showing between his lips. “No!” he shouted. “Why would you ask me something like that?”
“Because she looked . . . like a ghost . . . her eyes were black and all messed up.”
The man suddenly looked despondent, and his suit began to heave in and out as he took in big gulps of air. “My daughter is alive and with my wife and son at my parent’s.” His eyes got wet.
“Can anyone hear that hissing sound? In your heads?” Darren waited for a few people to nod affirmative. “She wasn’t real, Nate. Something is messing with our heads, tossing images around in each other’s minds. That shadow I saw wasn’t real either. Your daughter is alive and well, mister, so just shake that shit off.”
That mystery sound bellowed once more, echoing throughout the dank empty spaces of the catacombs. This time there were other sounds attached underneath its wavering base register ——screams. Hollow, scattered screams.
“Jeee-sus Christ, we just walked into a haunted house,” Middleton whispered.
The twisting, narrow corridors came to a large circular room, thirty feet or so in diameter, and dimly lit by clusters of egg-like orbs attached to the walls. Here, the walls and ceiling looked more organic than ever. Darren could make out a round platform just a few inches high in the center of the room. Three recon scouts lying inoperable on the ground at their feet were collected and placed in bandolier compartments.
Ghostly cries in the distance would occasionally pierce the darkness around them and send fidgety rifles waving around at nothing. That strange bellow, mysterious and unnerving, shook the walls, and Darren had the impression that they were much closer to the source.
As he took a sip of cool water from the drinking tube, he noticed something move in a corridor on the opposite side of the room. He ignored it, looking away. Everyone was seeing spooks, and it took the combined effort of Darren and Carruthers to remind them to stay sharp.
Darren prayed he was wrong. He prayed that Vanessa was not down here in this place of rising horror. Please be somewhere else, he thought. Not here. He took another gulp of water, but it did not cool the sourness in his stomach or the cramp in his lungs.
Without warning, the ceiling peeled away with a sickening sucking sound. Membranes opened and folded against the ooze, revealing a ribbed vertical esophagus above them, lit at the top. Crashing down from above came the familiar machine-growl unsettling them for the last twenty minutes . . . and the musty smell of birth and death.
“What is that?”
“Let’s find out,” Darren said, hands shaking. “Everyone on this platform. Looks like another lift.”
He was correct. As soon as everyone stepped onto the raised section in the floor, it rotated slightly and began to hum before rising quickly.
“Here we go!”
. . . I am the Invicid . . . I am That Which Moves The Firmament.
“Firing positions!” Carruthers shouted.
Everyone went to their knees and faced outward
. . . I am the master of your perfection . . . my caressing hand will wipe away the tears of your disgrace.
The platform began to whoosh up faster. Darren felt the centrifugal force press down on him, and he fought to stay upright.
“Keep your bursts tight, laddies!” Middleton shouted. “Steady now!”
. . . she is here, Dar-ron . . . she shall be merged . . . ju’soon bih takeen sik ret Vorvon!
The platform halted at the top of what appeared to be a stepped altar rising from the floor of a round chamber thousands of feet across and hundreds of feet high. It took Darren a few seconds to process the abominable sight at the center of the huge expanse.
His mind rushed back to his early childhood to his grandmother’s study and the framed poster which hung on the wall behind her desk——The Garden of Earthly Delights, a medieval depiction of naked human souls suffering unspeakable tortures at the hands of cackling demons and grotesque monsters. He remembered how that painting had had a disturbing effect on him. Some kids feared the doctor’s syringe. Others dreaded a cracked closet door at night. Darren’s most profound childhood terror was Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal vision of eternal damnation. Now that same horror suddenly swelled back inside him as an eighteen year-old man. The ghastly reality spread out before him, however, was no fucking painting.
At the center of the chamber, clinging from the top of the ceiling on huge strands of sinewy tendon, hung the Invicid, a gargantuan being at least a thousand feet in diameter. It had no true symmetry, as Darren tried to will it in his mind into the resemblance of a jellyfish, but even a jellyfish had physiological balance. This thing looked like it had exploded sometime in the past and had been reassembled with no regard to preserve its original proportions. It was a simple mass of pulsating organs, monstrous tentacles drooping out at odd angles, clusters of brain bags like grapes attached intermittently throughout the body and long crab-like legs waving underneath. A segmented appendage resembling a large intestine hung down to the chamber floor and branched out in all directions, breaking into smaller and smaller vessels meandering across the bottom.
Hundreds of mutated children skittered across the floor like ants. They were not screaming and shouting like Darren had heard before. Here they remained silent, reserved perhaps before their god hanging from the ceiling. Their insectile movements suggested nothing important underway. They appeared to be just scurrying about for no reason.
Darren’s roving eyes then drew his attention to their adjacent surroundings. Arranged around the altar’s circular top were several pink “mouths” at least four or five feet wide contained within metallic ovoids which curved out and down toward the floor of the chamber. He could see muscles pulsating under the slimy flesh, and that’s when Darren noticed another feature which struck the last shard of terror into his heart. On the floor, he spotted long thin fingernail marks gouged into the surface leading toward each mouth.
His eyes returned to the chamber’s bottom in time to spot a mutant child being birthed from a grotesque orifice on the wall of one of the intestinal-like vessels. Several children assisted in the birth, but it was more like they were ripping and pulling at the newborn’s limbs, trying to free it from the repulsive womb trying to spit it out. Darren didn’t think he could take anymore revulsion, and he was about to turn his head away before he spotted one last ghastly sight he wished he had never seen. The Invicid had an adult woman, and several more, fleshly embedded into the side of an intestine, but she had no limbs . . . only a bloated torso with multiple fat breasts, her sunken eyes staring off languidly as if she were in a trance or drugged stupor. The slimy newborn scrambled to her and greedily began to feed.
Darren looked up at the giant monster, curses forming in his mind but none appeared on his tongue.
“Please God, don’t let me die in this place,” Middleton murmured next to him.
The mouth at the front of the altar, this one much larger than the others, began to stir. Vega Platoon backed away, weapons coming around. A sickening belch burst forth, an overpowering stench of ammonia and decay, before an enormous pink and oily tentacle spurted from the orifice. It landed upright on the floor and began to pulsate and conform into a familiar shape.
The figure of a human began to take form, the tentacle shrinking to form a small umbilical securing the being from the back of its head to the alien mouth behind it. The skin tightened to reveal more detailed features: eyes, ears, fingers and toes, well pronounced muscles. Darren realized he was almost hyperventilating from dread. No . . . please. . . .
Seconds later, Darren found himself starring flabbergasted at who had actually morphed.
“Hey, Seymour,” Marcus Lutze said with clenched teeth. “I knew I could trick your ass up here.”
Shit just got real.