Category: Chapters

Chapter 31: “Deadend”

It had been two hours since Lucas arrived at the launch complex carrying an unconscious Izzy on his back, the same as her father days earlier. He had pulled the escape vessel out of storage and taken her inside, leaving her there to recover. She hadn’t woken up yet, and maybe it was for the better. One more of her life-endangering attempts at returning to Residential Section C, and there wouldn’t be many options left but to lock her up, and Lucas wasn’t sure to be physically capable of that; it would require at least three people to stop that little girl, he had run the numbers already.

And so, making the most of his longed moment of peace, Lucas prepared the vessel for departure. 

The young scientist floated over the four-by-twelve-meter bullet-shaped vehicle, anchored to it by a harness. With a turn of his wrench, he tightened one more pressure bolt, locking the last of the solar panels covering the top. He wiped his forehead and exhaled in relief, done replacing the entire array. The removal and reinstallation process had proven a daunting task, especially after leaving half of his tools back on the shelter and with his wrist hurting like crushed by a sledgehammer. Not even finding and patching up the breach on the radiation shielding underneath the steel hull, had been such a pain. 

But at last, he was done.

The only work left was scavenging a fusion core from one of the other vessels and install it on theirs. It was a piece of cake compared to replacing the entire solar array, but handling such delicate hardware required extreme care; Lucas and his companions didn’t go to hell and back only for him to mess up their only way out of that godforsaken starship. 

It would take him at least two more hours, he reckoned.

All along, he had worked slower on purpose to let Nate catch up. It was a fact that as soon as he put his tools aside, Alex would show up, and if Nate wasn’t around, she would leave with or without him; she wouldn’t think twice to take the vessel by force. Maybe Lucas could delay the launch, but for how long? He was also a terrible liar; a trained military expert would see right through his bullshit with little effort. 

Anyway, he had a lot in his mind as it was to worry about that.

Onto the next step: finding a fresh fusion core.

Lucas scanned the cylindrical complex, looking for the command station at the back. He aligned himself with it and launched himself through the air. Before entering through the circular opening on the translucent roof of the station, Lucas threw his legs frontward to re-orient his body. He dived into the station and landed feet-first in a performance any judge would’ve given a perfect score.

A few screens flickered to life, greeting him. 

He pushed himself towards the larger one, waking it up with the tap of a finger. A diagram of the storage compartments distributed along the circumference of the launch complex spawned onscreen, some green and others red. By selecting one of them, new data produced on top of the diagram: a tridimensional model of the vessel inside and several more panels with health charts. 

A tap brought the list of parts composing the vehicle.

Lucas searched for the part he needed, but it wasn’t there; maybe the next vessel would be more fruitful, he guessed. Moving on to the next compartment, he repeated the steps until reaching the parts list, but the same as last time, no dice.

The next one was also empty.

And the one after.

As options narrowed, Lucas’s heart paced up from a stroll to a sprint. He could still keep his cool; the fusion core was there, he was sure. But as he kept going, anxiety crawled up his legs like a snake and wrapped around his body, creeping up his neck. 

He searched the next compartment, and to his relief, that one contained a vessel. 

It wouldn’t be long before his hopes plunged into despair, finding only a damaged fusion core in the parts list. By then, his mouth had dried, and his breathing had revved, at the brink of hyperventilating. Palms drenching, he continued through the options. When there were only two left, his stomach churned with a thought popping up inside his head: maybe the core wasn’t there. Maybe, he had been wrong all this time, carrying two innocent people to their doom, thinking he was helping them.

Maybe he had screwed up yet again, a demon whispered in his ear with its face split in half by a grin.

“No, it… it can’t be,” Lucas muttered to himself.

Even before diagnosing the vessel, he knew it was missing its fusion core. His very own girlfriend, Tatiana, had confirmed it before leaving Goliath. Nothing to worry about, Lucas had thought back then since she had also confirmed there was one he could use. Communications had already dropped throughout the entire generation starship, and she probably didn’t know whether the message would reach her boyfriend, but it did. She said they were there, and he had taken it for granted. Not even the slightest trace of doubt had crossed his mind. 

That had been until now.

Lucas had overlooked that possibility, and he was about to regret it. His hands vacillated to continue navigating the interface, dreading the worst. A few seconds later, all his nightmares materialized before his eyes, tied from hands and feet to a pole, burning on the stake. The last two storage compartments had a vessel on them, but none had a core he could use.

His only way of escape was but a dead man without a heart.

That was the end of the line for him and his companions; there was nowhere else to hide, and nowhere else run.

Lucas had promised Nate to help him leave the starship, and now, if the man ever arrived, dreadful news was all he had for him. He hanged there, with a blank stare stranded on the screen, both hands grasping the screen, squeezing his brain for a way around this terrible miss, even if deep within, he knew there was none.

“Where are we?” a voice mumbled in confusion. Meanwhile, Lucas’s whole expression melted in anxiety. From the corner of his eye, he spotted Izzy trying his best to keep balance in the lacking gravity. He turned his head slowly, still not daring to look all the way. At the entrance of the commanding station, the girl held onto the doorframe, squinting, covering her eyes as they adjusted to the lights of the complex. 

“Is this Micro-g?” she glanced about, confused.

“Y—yeah, we got here about two hours ago,” Lucas stuttered. He smiled at her, doing a terrible job at hiding his soul plunging into madness as they spoke. “Um, how’re you feeling?”

“Dunno, everything is spinning. What happened?”

“We had an accident at the lift. Let’s say we came to a hard stop.” Lucas preferred to spare unnecessary details. “You bumped your head real hard. I’m glad to see you’re okay.”

“Did you carry me all the way here?” 

“Yeah—I mean, I wasn’t gonna leave you behind.” Lucas rubbed the back of his neck. “I know the beds on the vessel aren’t the most comfortable, but you had to rest somewhere.”

Izzy’s gaze dodged him, then going down. “Thanks,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to be dead weight.”

“Hey, no, don’t worry about it. Getting you here wasn’t that big of a deal. There’s no gravity.” He shrugged and let out a nervous chuckle.

“It’s not that. I was supposed to help with the vessel. We need to get it ready before my—” Izzy’s eyelids retracted until her eyes almost popped out in realization. “Before my dad gets here.” She paused, her eyes lost, darting about as her breathing quickened with panic. “Dad,” she muttered, staring right at Lucas. “The explosion… w—where is he? Is he okay?”

“He, um—” Lucas picked his next words with the care he would use to defuse a bomb, and he bet it showed. “Oh, don’t worry about him. He called a while back. He’ll be here soon.” His mouth curled up in the most forced, reluctant smile humanity had seen to date.

Izzy kept silent for a moment, giving him a suspicious look, scrutinizing him for any traces of lying. “How long ago was this?”

Lucas pushed himself through the anxiety barring him from answering in a timely fashion. “Half an hour ago or so.”

He wondered why did he even try; she wasn’t buying a single word coming out of him anyhow.

But after what seemed to Lucas like an entire hour of staring, she nodded a few times. “I see. I’m glad to know he’s okay.” 

“Yeah. Climbing here through the service ladder, and that’s as shitty as it gets.” Another nervous chuckle escaped him.

“Yeah, I guess. It’s okay. We have time.”

Lucas couldn’t figure why Izzy had given up the argument, although it was clear he was bullshitting her. Perhaps she preferred holding onto the idea that her father was okay and on his way than contemplating his demise. Not like he could blame her. After all, Lucas’s girlfriend had stayed an entire week after the attacks grasping onto the hope that they would somehow get him out of Research. At first, he was hopeful too. But deep within, he knew that’s not how the story would develop.

Lucas could only hope things turned out differently this time.

“So, how’s the ship looking?” Izzy made the dreaded question.

Covering her father’s potential death wasn’t the most daunting and stressful job Lucas was to do that moment. He had fallen into a precipice, caught by a branch, and the branch had just broken. How to tell her their vessel wouldn’t be ready? How to tell her everything she and her father had gone through had been for nothing? How to tell her it had been all his fault? 

A lie wouldn’t cut it this time over.

By then, his silence had stretched far too long, but no matter how hard he sought for words, he had nothing.

And he didn’t have to say anything; her expression said it all. She looked down, lips sucked in, nodding. Lucas didn’t know her well enough to foresee her reaction, but it sure wasn’t this. He expected a dash of anger, or at least, one of her signature murderous stares. He strived for something like that, he realized—it would ease his burden. But no. The young girl just remained there, sight stranded, thoughtful, as if awoken from a dream. 

Regardless of her unexpected reaction, for Lucas, one thing was sure: Izzy and her father had trusted him, and he had let them down.

“I’m sorry,” Lucas said, unsure how or where to start. “I—I really thought we had all the parts we needed but—”

“It’s okay, Lucas,” Izzy said, calm, thoughtful. She took a deep breath and exhaled, gazing back at the vessel through the translucent ceiling of the command station. “Maybe we weren’t meant to survive after all.”

Her words rammed Lucas like a fist to the face. “Wh—what? What do you mean?”

“You know… maybe humankind was supposed to die with our planet instead of leaving it.” She shrugged. “Just think about it; more than a century later, we’re still out here, looking for a place only mentioned in history books.”

The only answer Lucas had to that was a wide-open stare.

“To be honest, I always thought we wouldn’t get anywhere,” Izzy continued. “I mean, what are the odds? If Earth was like they said it was, I doubt we’ll ever find another place like that.”

“You don’t know that,” the words escaped Lucas. “Humanity had a chance to survive, and we took it.”

“Surviving from what? You don’t get it either, do you?” Izzy planted her unfathomable, green eyes on him. “Goliath, Valhalla, Phoenix; these ships were our home. We didn’t have to ‘survive’ or ‘look for a home.’ We already had one. We were only living our lives, doing our time.”

Lucas had spoken to people skeptical about the Atlas Mission before, but nobody was daring enough to talk about it so openly. That didn’t matter anymore, but he could bet Izzy hadn’t ever kept anything to herself—taboo or not. “We worked hard during all that time for humanity to have a future—the next generations. People like you, you know?”

“People like me. Man, you sound like High Command’s propaganda.” Izzy snorted. “You’re a scientist, Lucas, a man who worked with the cold, hard facts. Did you honestly think humanity could survive out there?” She extended a hand at the massive airlock hatch at the front of the launch complex. “There might be a thousand years before we ever find a planet like Earth. And what future do you mean? This future? Are you going to tell me you prefer this to how things were before the mission went to shit?”

And the same since the conversation started, Lucas couldn’t argue that. After so much time wandering the expanse, everyone on the starships started living on pure hopes of a promised land they wouldn’t reach in their lifetime. Their only purpose in life was working, so the next generations could try and see if they had better luck. They would hold onto anything to keep their life with meaning, even if it was a silly dream. “We had to try at least,” was all he could say.

“Try… what’s the point?” Izzy looked away, shaking her head as if disappointed with Lucas’s narrow perspective. “How about you, man? Why do you try? What brought you all this way? It couldn’t be only good intentions—I know better.”

It took Lucas a moment to come up with an answer. “I—” He paused, still processing. Over the last year, he had kept the question buried deep within his soul in favor of keeping his mind focused—or at least as one could be with dozens of terrifying alien creatures and the undead overrunning your home. 

Before Nate and Izzy showed up, it was but a matter of survival. Lucas then found a chance at redemption on them; maybe if he helped them, he could forgive himself. However, once Alex implied his girlfriend was alive and waiting for him somewhere out there, his entire world shifted upside down. 

He needed nothing else to keep going.

Unable to articulate his thoughts, he kept it all for himself. For now, maybe the noblest cause would do. “One starship is still unharmed. The Phoenix made it out, and it’s still on course. We can continue the mission even with only one ship.”

Izzy gave him a long stare, perplexed. “You’re not serious, are you? Look what we are up against, Lucas. Look what they did to the other ships. Do you honestly believe they would destroy Goliath and Valhalla and let Phoenix go just like that? You’re not thinking straight, man.” 

Lucas admitted to himself resurrecting the Atlas Mission from its ashes was an impossibly far reach, considering High Command was gone, and most of the people leading it. If the enemy had left the Phoenix unscathed, and there was somebody alive onboard, society would be at a downfall over there right now. He had chosen the simplest of arguments, and quite a senseless one at that. “How about you? If that’s how you think, why did you come all this way?”

Izzy shrugged. “I don’t give two shits what happens to me. But Dad, he’s as stubborn as you; we had this same conversation long ago. He’s still hopeful, and I won’t take that from him.” Her voice went quieter. “If believing we have a future somewhere out there keeps him fighting, you can be sure as hell I’ll do whatever I can to help him.” She paused. “I know he wants to take me somewhere safe, wherever that is. I was there when he promised Mom he would take me to safety. But I’m no princess, Lucas. I might still be a child, but I don’t need somebody to ‘save me.’ All I want is my dad to be okay.”

Those words stormed inside Lucas’s brain like crashing thunder, removing any wrong ideas he could’ve conceived about her. All she and her father had was each other, and that was their only reason to go on—even if one of them was hopeless. It wasn’t she who needed saving. It was him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s okay, really. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

Lucas exhaled. “I guess so,” he said, nodding with his head low. “You’re a good friend, Lucas. Even if the plan didn’t turn up as we thought, you tried your best. My dad thinks the same.” She gazed out at their dead vehicle outside for a moment, then went back to Lucas. “I found some snacks in the vessel. Come on, let’s eat something while we wait for my dad.” She looked sideways. “You’re complete shit at lying, but he’s on his way—I know it. He’ll come any moment.”

It wasn’t like Lucas didn’t know she saw through his ruse. He only exhaled again, sucking in his lips. One last look at the screen revealed nothing had changed; the fusion core they needed continued not to be there. “All right.” 

He and Izzy exited the command station through one access on the sides, careful not to drift away in the lacking gravity. When they were ready to cruise towards the vessel, a clanking noise startled them, both shooting their attention to its source.

To one side of the cylindrical launch complex, the hefty door of the entrance opened, just enough so whoever was on the other side could squeeze through.

As Izzy had predicted, it was her father, Nate.

At the sight of him, her entire expression bloated with uncontainable excitement, eyes wide open and a smile ear to ear. “Dad,” she shouted with arms wide open.

Contrary to what Lucas expected, the man didn’t pay her much attention. With his entire self covered in a dark muck, he scanned the place with frantic eyes, a recoiled posture, and ready for anything.

The brightness washed away from Izzy’s visage, unable to figure what had gotten into him.

A few seconds later, Nate spotted his objective. He launched himself at it, pulling out his knife as he bolted through the emptiness. With a quick swing of his arm, he intercepted one of the dead lurkers drifting about the complex, a heavy-looking man in ragged clothes and a slacking mouth. Nate locked his arm tight around its neck. Both of them spun in the air, Nate stabbing the lurker multiple times in the chest, blue blood splattering all over, morphing into strands of liquid in the lacking gravity. They crashed on the ceiling of the commanding station, just feet apart from Lucas and Izzy. But Nate didn’t let go. He slashed the lurker’s throat in a violent frenzy, its head almost detaching from its body. 

On the time Lucas had of knowing him, he hadn’t ever seen the man like that, and by the look plastered on his daughter’s face, neither had she.

As if emerging from a trance, Nate’s expression crumbled into confusion, letting go of the almost-beheaded body. He grasped a rail running through the station’s ceiling, huffing and puffing, covered in sewage and lurker blood, smelling as if the entire starship had taken a dump on him.

And to all that, Lucas and Izzy couldn’t do but look at him perplexed.

· Index · Next Chapter →

Chapter 30: “Watcher”

The hordes of lurkers closed in on Nate like a python wrapping around its prey until leaving no room to breathe. Meanwhile, the beeping of the C4 charge still on his hand revved up more and more by the second. He had never seen a demolition explosive in action, so he couldn’t tell how hard he would have to toss it not to get caught in the blast. It would’ve been better to think about that before setting it off—not a very sharp move from him, he figured. All he could do now was hoping it was powerful enough to hold back the lurkers for him to escape without killing himself in the process.

Without further ado, he hurdled the charge at the multitude with all of his remaining strength.

His sight followed the payload as it cruised the air as if in slow motion, readying himself to make a run for the transport station as soon as it blew up. But when it landed, the charge swept through hundreds of marching legs and then disappeared down an open maintenance hole in the street. The beeping faded out as it plunged into the sewers below.

“Goddammit,” Nate said to himself, cursing his recent streak of bad luck. His run would have to wait for now. Instead, he threw himself to the ground, covering.

The sonic blast cut through two or three stories from below as the sewers exploded into a violent chemical reaction. The whole street bulged like a humongous blister and then loosening like quicksand, collapsing.

Nate couldn’t tell how far he had fallen, but he was falling. 

Water, debris, smoke, fire, and darkness—his surroundings turned into a storm as the ground swallowed him whole, his pulse drumming in his ears as he went. He then plunged into waters. He threw arms and legs, looking for the surface. When he did, he still couldn’t see a thing, but the foul, pungent smell abusing his nostrils hinted he was drowning in sewer water.

One of his hands found a ledge—it was a catwalk.

As Nate dragged himself out of the putrid stream, he gasped for air, coughing up the water he had swallowed, gagging with its visceral taste from which his senses had shutdown to keep his sanity intact. At last, he wiped out the muck on his face, struggling to open his eyes. His ears caught the crackling of the raging fire and electrical sparking somewhere nearby, flashes, and a reddish hue battling the darkness of the broken sewer passage.

Fusing with the sound of fire and water, a familiar hustle of snarls intruded from the surface as if the lurkers had gathered there, planning their next move.

A body came crashing down, falling into the sewage like a rock, startling Nate. Eyes widening, he hurried to recover. When the lurker reached the catwalk, another one crashed into the water, splashing, and hissing. Then another, and another; if Nate didn’t act fast, they would overrun the passage in a blink. 

A quick scan of his surroundings caught a ladder to the far left.

Nate sprung to a run, but one lurker clung to his foot, throwing him to the ground. “Get the fuck off me, you piece of—” As the other sentient carcasses emerged from the sewage, Nate kicked his captor on the face in desperation; it was a middle-aged man, covered un murk like him, and he wouldn’t give up. The man crawled on top of Nate, grabbing him from his jumpsuit to keep him steady, staring right into his soul. When Nate’s body started numbing, he remembered about the gun Alex had given him earlier along with the explosive.

By a miracle, he hadn’t lost it during the fall. 

He reached to his pocket and pulled out the weapon, pressing it hard against his attacker’s temple. An index finger sunk hard on the trigger, and the back of the lurker’s head erupted with a bang and into a dark blue mush splattering Nate.

The still body of the man fell over him, twitching as his nerves ceased working.

Without a second to lose, Nate threw the lurker aside and dashed at the ladder. He climbed it as fast as his exhauster physique yielded, slamming a trapdoor shut behind him.

The next passage wasn’t a sewer duct, but a familiar tunnel; it threw Nate back to the trek with his daughter to the underground levels—a place to which he swore he would never return. He sat against the wall, his chest expanding and compressing like a pufferfish, no amount of oxygen enough for his exhausted body, and his stomach contents about to leave him.

By then, his nostrils didn’t mind the stench anymore.

Darkness reigned the one end of the passage, while fire consumed the other; it was too far to do more than casting a warm light on Nate’s face, though. With some time alone, at last, he grabbed his radio to call his daughter—she must’ve been freaking out, he was sure. However, on a second look, he noticed it was wet, covered in mud, and the light on it had died. That couldn’t be good news. He tried the button to one side without getting a reply. “Shit,” he said in frustration, shaking the receiver like a chimp trying to figure out a calculator.

It was useless. 

Nate bashed it on the ground, cursing his luck once more. 

He reached to his cross necklace and snatched it from his neck in a surge of rage, breathing through flaring nostrils. “Am I nothing to you?” he whispered, squeezing the chain with a shaking hand, glaring at the silver cross dangling. Recalling how his day had played out did nothing for his fractured faith; it only filled his soul with grief and dread, desolating loneliness as he had never experienced before. “What have I done so badly for you to turn your back on me, Father?” He held it tighter like trying to squeeze an answer from it, holding back the tears. “Answer me!” His yell echoed down the passage, fading out in the distance. He stared at the necklace some more, eager, desperate, unsure what was he expecting to happen. 

Maybe it was time to give up, Nate concluded.

He pulled back his arm, the necklace on his hand. With a quick swing, he hurled it off away from his life forever, his vision distorting for a split second like TV interference as he did. The cross zinged through the air as if shot from a handgun, lodging in one of the countless of fissures branching through the wrecked passage. Then the fissure cracked, spitting out the necklace as if disgusted by it.

As the entire wall rumbled, the fractures deepened and widened, spitting dust. And to all that, Nate only covered, preparing for whatever was about to happen.

He didn’t expect the whole roof to collapse, though.

It decomposed into torn pipes, debris, cables, and a dozen other materials, then exploding into a cloud of dust seizing the tunnel. Nate coughed his lungs out, each breath like swallowing a handful of sand, unable to see a thing. “Shit,” he said, tripping on something on the ground and falling on his butt.

When the confusion stopped, he was lying on his back, kicking and tossing, struggling to stand like an upsidedown tortoise.

Nate wiped his eyes, trying to figure his surroundings.

As the dust cleared, he spotted the hole on the roof from which a large container had crashed down. Long, thick tentacles protruded from the breaches on its wrecked structure, and one had unrolled out until almost reaching Nate. It didn’t take him long to recognize the tentacles—they belonged to the abomination he and Lucas fought back on their way down from Micro-g. As for the container, it was the cargo compartment of the lift they had released to save their lives. He stood up and peeked through the hole on the ceiling. Two or three stories above, he spotted the ground level of the transport station, and farther above, the elevator shaft with the dauntless service ladder extending for six hundred yards before reaching Micro-g.

Nate spent a while gazing at the brand new before him, struggling to believe his eyes.

When his sight broke free from the roof, he found his cross necklace resting on the ground next to him. He examined it, reluctant as if it was some instrument of sorcery, unsure of what to make of it. 

Nate grabbed it and shoved the thing back into his pocket, and 

then started his climb up the hole and towards the service ladder.

It gave Nate peace of mind to find the lift gone. He had doubted for a moment that his daughter and Lucas would take it. But they had. It was gone, and the young scientist and his daughter had to be arriving at Micro-g by then.

As for Nate, the real struggle had begun. The mere sight of the infinite ladder before him was enough to detriment his spirit. He was well-aware of what he had got himself into; the daunting memories were still too fresh in his mind.

About thirty painstaking minutes dragged on.

One after the other, the rungs of the service ladder came at Nate with no mercy. One hand reached upon the next one, pulling himself up at the same time a weak but heavy foot fell onto the next step. Then another hand and another foot followed. The process repeated to exhaustion, over and over until his lungs begged for oxygen to keep his existence going. Sweat soaked his forehead, and the rest of him inside his jumpsuit despite the cold breeze huffing through the shaft. It seemed he had become heavier rather than lighter like it was supposed to with the fading gravity.

Maybe he wasn’t even close to the lesser gravity zone, he dreaded.

At some point, when he reached for the next rung, his arm didn’t respond anymore. He glared at the rest of the ladder, looming above like an overpowered foe that had just given him a beating. He tried once more to go on but to no avail. His body refused to continue; the energy wasn’t there, nor the oxygen. The back of his brain stung with each heartbeat bucking his chest. His blurred vision warned him that if he didn’t stop, he would die right that instant.

And so Nate remained there, stuck, hugging the ladder with his forehead against it and eyes closed like two lovers dancing under a spotlight.

After a minute or two, his flustered breathing eased somewhat.

It was then when a stinging surge flashed throughout the back of his head, forcing his whole face into a wince. “Agh,” he grunted, the nerves inside his brain throbbing like a sore muscle. He opened his eyes, but no image came through; no lights, not even the distant glow far below coming from the transport station. His entire surroundings had vanished into pure, pitch darkness resembling Residential Section C after Alex had killed the daylight systems. But it wasn’t only the light; he realized he wasn’t holding the ladder anymore.

He was somewhere else.

“There you are. I told you—you can’t hide forever,” a voice materialized amidst the nothingness. 

Nate recognized the voice immediately, sending a chill throughout his entire being as if his soul flushed through his feet, spurring his heart rate almost into cardiac arrest.

It wasn’t the same tone, but very close.

“Your kind has an exceptional talent for slipping away,” the odd presence continued speaking with the voice of his wife, Amelia, each word stabbing his soul. “I have eyes all over this place, yet it has been a daunting task to find you.”

“Who are you?” the question escaped Nate. It was the voice of his wife, but it wasn’t her. Even if she had come back from the dead, it didn’t feel like her. “Wh—where am I?” 

“Who am I…?” the voice continued, thoughtful.

After those words, Nate fell his entire reality collapsing, and his stomach dropped as he plunged into the void. Then he sprung to a sitting position, awaking from his nightmare. Dazed and confused, he examined his surroundings, heaving, sweat drenching his visage. 

He was sitting on a bed in the middle of a black void. 

On the nightstand beside him, a night lamp shed a warm light fading into the surrounding darkness. But it was the sight of the glass of water there that stir his entire reality into madness. 

That was his bed, where he used to sleep with his wife.

As Nate’s broken psyche couldn’t take it anymore, a silhouette emerged from the shadows. It came into the light, and he felt the color washing off his face. Maybe he was dreaming, or he had died, and this was the afterlife, he tried reasoning to keep himself from subduing to insanity.

“Who—who are you?” Nate stuttered.

“This is how your… hemet looked like, didn’t she?” the woman spoke in a calm tone, examining herself. 

Her hair, lips, freckled cheeks, stature, complexion, everything; she looked exactly like Nate’s wife, Amelia. Yet, no matter how much his brain begged him to believe it was her, she wasn’t. His flesh urged him to run to her, to hold her in his arms and never let her go, but it didn’t feel right. Whoever stood before him was a stranger. A dark stain covered her eyes, and her pupils blazed with a blue glow. Instead of a maroon jumpsuit, she was in some spacesuit, more like body armor. 

Also, her voice tone was amiss, cold, and impassive. 

“I’m sorry if I startled you. The human mind can’t process things they’ve never seen, hence I had to use the image of somebody you already know.” Each word coming from that woman was like she had read it from a book, practiced, perfectly syncopated. She closed and released fists as if getting used to her body. After a moment, her sight fixed back on Nate, speaking to him without a trace of emotion in her visage. “To answer your question, I think your mer—hmm… friend, have already given me a name.”

“My friend?” Nate asked, more confused by the second.

“Yes. The one you call ‘Lucas.’” She stopped. “You see, the rest of your kind didn’t pose much resistance when we took over this craft. But you are different. When we met for the first time, I found myself fascinated.”

It was then when Nate finally placed that disconnected way of speaking. He remembered the underground tunnels, the surveillance station, and Juliette. “You can’t hide forever,” she had told him back then, limping at him with those same burning gaze. 

Those had been the same words of this person standing before him.

Nate then recalled the conversation with Lucas back at Research, the night before returning to the shelter. The words had engraved deep into his mind. “Lurkers remember who they were, but they’re aware of their actions to some degree,” Lucas had said. “They’re prisoners to a higher force that controls them. We all saw it on the day of the attacks. We called it ‘The Necromancer.’” Nate plunged into a dwell of memories, his world shrinking around him.

He wasn’t alone in there, though. Somebody was listening.

“I see you remember now,” the woman said, pulling him back to reality. “To me, you were a worthless parasite like the rest of your people who didn’t hesitate to destroy your own home. But I think I’ve misjudged your potential. Your body is changing. Not any lesser being gets infected with our DNA and handles it as you have.”

“What are you talking about?” Nate’s mind resembled a narrow door through which a thousand thoughts tried getting through at the same time. “What are you, and why are you and your kind after humanity? What did we ever do to you?”

“Trust me, Nathan, if it weren’t because I saw something in you, you would be with the others instead of asking these questions. But you’ve earned it.” The woman still lacked emotion, but she sounded reflective. “I might have adopted your wife’s appearance, but I’m human, like you. Or, at least I used to. I didn’t come from Earth, though. Earthly humans are different from the ones back on my home planet. I went through a process like the one you’re undergoing as we speak, however, our bodies are different, and our DNA can mutate without almost dying as you did.”

“The process I’m undergoing? I don’t—”

“As I said, I might have underestimated your potential. Who would’ve thought such an early iteration of our species could be capable of such things?” The woman looked away, her sight stranded in the distance. “What happened to your people was just collateral damage. You showed up in the middle of a conflict between forces far bigger than you would be capable of understanding. We all knew you would eventually return to your makers. After all, it’s only natural. The opposition tried warning you, but they ended up giving us the means to get to you easier.”

No matter how hard Nate tried, he couldn’t even decode five percent of what she said. 

By the time she finished musing, Nate had a thousand questions, none of which he could translate into actual words. “I don’t care about your agenda, or your conflict, or whatever is going on with your people. After what you did, you can’t call yourself a human, no matter where the hell you came from.”

The woman looked away, disappointed. “I understand you defending your own, Nathan. Under different circumstances, somebody like you would’ve proven very useful on our side.” Her eyes planted on Nate again. “Unfortunately, I can’t let you leave this vessel alive; that would look bad on us. All I can offer you is the same as the others: you will remain in your body—assuming your brain has evolved enough to take it—, and you will wait until we make out of you something more fruitful than a selfish, self-destructive pest. Trust me, not everything is lost for you.”

To her bold words, Nate couldn’t do but remain still, silent, a wildfire consuming his system. His wife was dead, and the one responsible was standing in front of him, talking as if nothing had happened—as if all she had done was stepping on ants on the road. “I’d like to see you trying to stop me,” Nate defied her, regardless of what kind of higher being she was or whatever harm she could do to him right that instant. 

“I know you won’t stop kicking and tossing, Nathan. You’re a fighter; I give you that.” She extended a palm at Nate, an image materializing over it like a hologram. “But what if you didn’t have a reason to fight anymore?”

When the picture focused, the rage burning inside him burst like water poured on boiling oil. “You son of a bitch,” he muttered through barred teeth and flared nostrils.

Over the woman’s palm, a tilted view of Lucas entering the launch complex at Micro-g showed like a live feed. Something had happened on their way up there; the young scientist carried his daughter. But at least, they had made it up there in one piece.

“Agh, man, I’ll never get used to those things,” Lucas said, looking right at Nate. 

That made Nate realize he was looking through the eyes of one of the many lurkers adrift in the launch complex. He tried leaving the bed, but his body wouldn’t respond, hold in place by an unseen force. All he could do was yelling, “you leave her alone!” 

He tried moving once more to no avail.

On a third try, his entire body fueled with a strength he couldn’t recognize as his, every muscle in his body invigorated. He jumped off the bed, releasing himself from whatever force tied him. He was free, and for the first time since they met in person, Nate spotted a flinch of emotion on the woman’s face, startled.

He hadn’t realized it, but he was charging at her.

When he was close enough, the woman’s brow wrinkled in disapproval, like a god staring down a vermin’s petty attempt.

Nate would never reach her. 

She vanished like a specter going back to the ring of hell from which it had broken loose. 

Reality disintegrated around Nate once again, then emerging back to consciousness, his senses returning to him like a cold shower. 

Eyes wide open and with flustered breathing, Nate noticed his arms wrapping the ladder, holding it tight. His mind still rushed over what had just happened, wondering whether it had been a dream or a vision. 

Whatever it was, he wouldn’t stand there with arms crossed while somebody threatened his daughter. 

With renewed energy, he resumed his climb, two, then three rungs at a time. Gazing up his objective above, he spoke one last sentence: “try all you want, you piece of shit.”

· Index ·

Chapter 29: “Ascent”

Subtle rattling and clanking blended with the whirring of motors outside, driving the lift up the transport tube. Inside the operator’s room, Lucas examined the diagram of the shaft on the main computer, showing the elevator a third of the way to Micro-g. 

There were ten or fifteen more minutes to go. 

It had been a smooth ride so far, light years away from the hell of climbing the service ladder. Back at the transport station, he had thought of leaving the lift to Nate, but the old man, seemingly reading his mind, had been clear in his instructions: “no matter what you do, take the lift.” It surprised Lucas that Izzy hadn’t argued back when they boarded the lift. He was ready for arguing with her, but the girl hadn’t uttered a single word.

Not back then, nor ever since.

Lucas glanced from the corner of his eye, glimpsing Izzy sitting on the passenger area. Her head hung low, and her stare stranded somewhere on the floor. She held the long-range radio in her hands, counting the seconds until hearing her father’s voice come out of it once again. He had promised her he would be back, but things didn’t look very promising at Residential Section C.

Lucas didn’t need mind-reading powers to tell the war Izzy was going through. 

As twisted as it was, knowing that a loved one suffered an ominous fate wasn’t as harrowing as the uncertainty, Lucas reckoned. Were they somewhere awful? Was somebody making them suffer? At least for him, getting stabbed in the chest repeatedly wouldn’t come close to hurting as much as not knowing whether or not his beloved Tatiana was alive all this time.

Three-hundred and eighty-five days to this day, he counted every single one of them.

The sorrow only intensified with each passing hour. 

Lucas would’ve given anything to see her for even a split second, to hear her voice once again, to hear her saying all would be okay. Reminiscing the nightmare he had endured over the past year determined him to do whatever he could to help Izzy and her father out of that godforsaken starship.

Maybe life would concede him redemption for his past sins.

Lucas entered the passenger area and sat next to Izzy. He wasn’t sure what to say or whether he should say anything at all, but he had to try. “Hey,” was his first attempt, and a dull one at that, Lucas guessed. “He’ll be all right, I’m sure of it. If he said he’d come back to you, he will. He’s like the second most stubborn person I know.”

That didn’t do enough to ease her, Lucas could tell. She kept gazing down, troubled, still like a marble sculpture, and her breathing the only noise coming from her.

“The other one was my dad,” Lucas continued, reflecting more than anything. “Mom wanted to name me Alvar, but there was no way he would let his firstborn have any other name than his own.” He sighed, shaking his head. “Also, Alvar was the name of his father in law, and he hated his guts. Those two would go into the longest, most pointless arguments for every single thing.”

To those words, Lucas noticed Izzy easing up just a little, a faint spark of hope kindling inside him. Hunched on her seat, Izzy glanced at him for a split second, then blinking. The grieving girl was hesitant, but after a moment, she spoke. “Dad wanted to name me Natalie,” she said, her voice struggling to shake off the sorrow permeating her soul.

“Natalie… Like Nathan, huh.”

“Yeah, dumb, I know. Luckily, Mom was even more stubborn than him.”

Lucas raised eyebrows. “That’s saying something. Why Isabel then?”

Izzy took a moment to reply, still reluctant to entertain his attempt at conversation. “Well, it’s kind of a long story.”

Lucas checked out his watch. “It’ll be a while before we get to Micro-g,” he said, shrugging.

Izzy gave Lucas her distinctive dismissive stare, examining him. He couldn’t do more than returning her a subtle smile, begging her in silence not to murder him for intruding her grieving. 

But at last, Izzy exhaled and sat straight. 

“All right, so…” She focused ahead at nothing in particular. “Mom didn’t do vocational assessment like the other kids. My grandparents had some big friends on the higher ranks, and they somehow got her into engineering.”

Way to start a story, Lucas reckoned; he could only guess the dumb expression of utter shock seizing his face right now. Director Amelia Walker didn’t get to rule over Atlas High Command’s Mission Operations by a chance of destiny. From everybody on the division, she had excelled at absolutely everything, from strategy to fieldwork, gaining respect and allegiance of even legends like the late Commander Viktor Larsson. If humanity hadn’t perished a year ago, books would’ve been written about her, trying to dissect how she functioned at such level. 

Everybody liked her, and everybody admired her.

To hear that her vocational assessment hadn’t placed her on that career was a mind-bender.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Izzy said, noticing Lucas’s eyes almost popping out of their sockets. “But man, her formation years sucked thanks to what my gramps did to her. The teachers on the program weren’t the best, you know. The whole point of the assessment is that: to find what people are good at, so even a monkey can mold them into success.”

That was the second proper conversation Lucas have had with Izzy, and as the last time, he struggled to match age to her way of speaking. She was the type of person who questioned everything and analyzed everything to the last bit. Should she have had the opportunity, she would’ve killed it working at the Research, following her mother’s steps, Lucas concluded. She had him hanging from the edge of his seat, eager to know more about this side of Director Walker, which only a handful of people knew.

“Teachers noticed Mom wasn’t a natural, but there wasn’t a lot they could do for her,” Izzy continued. “They had sealed her fate and, now she had to suck it up and learn the hard way.”

“I guess a reassessment was out of the question,” Lucas added.

“You bet. Your old folks have the last word on that stuff. And trust me, my grandparents wouldn’t let her have it her way.”

“Damn. That sucks. How can somebody do that to their child?” Lucas exhaled, shaking his head. “How did she become so good at it then? Not anybody gets to be Director of MOD.”

“Well, this teacher came by later on. She was the one who made the difference. While she couldn’t do a lot about Mom’s assessment, she got her to fall in love with her career. She became the parent figure none of my grandparents ever was.”

“I’m assuming her name was Isabel, wasn’t it?”

“Yup. Mrs. Isabel Ruiz—the weirdest old lady you could ever meet.” Izzy let out a soft chuckle, nodding. “She had quite an attitude. That was the only way to cope up with my mom in her early years, as she used to say herself. Her favorite pastime was crushing Dad during religious arguments.”

Lucas snorted. “Man, I’d love to see that.”

“Can’t tell it wasn’t fun.”

They remained silent for a moment.

During Izzy’s story, something had fired up deep within Lucas, resonating. She had opened up again, and it was only fair that he shared his story. “You know, I had my good deal of bullshit from the assessment system as well. One never imagines even the higher ranks can deal with issues like those too.”

“What do you mean?”

“They didn’t originally profile me as an engineer.”

Izzy flinched in contained surprise. “What? Did your parents set you up too?”

“Nah—totally the opposite. Mom and Dad said I had the aptitude for engineering since I was little. They were sure my assessment would set me up for that, but it didn’t. It profiled me as a producer.”

As his story went on, Izzy’s brow wrinkled more and more. “So how did you end up in Research?”

“My parents were pissed and requested a reassessment right away. It came out the same. Dad argued the system was botched and accused High Command of tampering the results to keep up the workforce numbers of the Production Ring.” Lucas paused, recalling his father on his last days before dying of lung cancer. “It was a shitshow, and High Command wouldn’t touch that stuff with a ten-foot pole. More and more claims surfaced, but they didn’t reply to the allegations. In the end, I had to wait the eight years law demanded before taking my third reassessment.”

Izzy’s stare remained fixed on Lucas, eager for the outcome.

“I was shitting myself when I did it, but the scandal seemed to have worked,” Lucas continued. “The results came back the same, but the score was high enough for them to allow me to work in Prod while preparing for a transfer to Research. And the rest is history.”

Izzy shook her head, baffled. “Screw that, man. The system was pretty fucked up. That’s the only thing I can take from humanity ending: it’s over. No more shenanigans.”

As the conversation ended and silence consumed the passenger area, a chime bothered the quietness, startling Izzy. “What’s that?” she said with a frown, gripping the armrest of her seat.

“It’s fine. We’re losing gravity. We should buckle up.”

“Oh.” Izzy lowered her guard, sitting back. “Okay.” She shuffled around her seat, looking for the seatbelt. When she found it, she grabbed the straps and glanced at the buckle for a long while, her expression consumed in puzzlement.

Lucas could see her brain rushing, trying to figure out how it worked. She had confessed never being to Micro-g, so it was only natural she hadn’t seen a seatbelt like that; it was more of the kind one would find in a spaceship rather than any civil transport.

Even so, Izzy didn’t let new technology intimidate her. She pressed on, tinkering with the seatbelt, trying to put it on. A minute or two went by, but Izzy had made little progress. She grunted and tossed, her brow wrinkling more and more like her father whenever Lucas spoke to him in nerd lingo.

“Here,” Lucas said, yanking a handle below her seat, releasing the straps, so she had more room to lock the buckle. “Everybody used to complain about these back then.” He gave her a reaffirming nod.

Izzy nodded back in silence.

With his companion safe on her seat, Lucas went to the one across and reached for the seatbelt. But before he could buckle up, a distant explosion rocked the entire elevator shaft, forcing him to hold on tight to the armrests. “Shit! What was that?” he said with a racing heart drumming inside his chest.

Izzy’s expression melted with worry. “Dad, no,” the words escaped her. Unlike moments ago, she didn’t have any trouble taking off her seatbelt. She undid the thing in a split second and bolted off her seat towards the exit.

Lucas followed after her. “Wait!”

Outside the passenger area, on what remained of the outer staircase, both glanced down the elevator shaft in dead silence. Izzy grasped to the rail, shaking and her breath all flustered. She reached for the radio. “Dad?” she called in a trembling voice. 

Radio static was all she got back. 

“Dad, come in,” she tried again in contained desperation, a tear dripping from her chin and plunging into the abyss below. “Are you there?”

Noise again.

Again, Lucas wasn’t sure what to say, or if he should say anything at all—that explosion couldn’t come from anywhere else other than Residential Section C, the place where they had left her father at the mercy of the undead.

“D—dad?” Her voice choked with a sob. “Please, answer me.”

But no matter how much she begged, no answer came through.

Lucas noticed her breathing pacing up as if her brain raced to figure a way to teleport back there. “We—we have to go back,” she stuttered, her voice breaking, still holding the radio. “We have to go back.” She grabbed Lucas by his jumpsuit and shook him.

“We can’t. We can’t get back there—it’s not safe,” Lucas replied. Nate had entrusted him with his daughter, and he wouldn’t falter. Even with uncertainty slowly eating her sanity, he wouldn’t let her walk her way back to certain death.

“He’s my Dad, Lucas. I’m not letting him there to die!” She pushed him away. Izzy’s blazing green eyes fixed on him, tears escaping them, and her body recoiled into a defensive stance. “You better stop this thing right now, I’m warning you.”

Lucas tried figuring a way around this unstoppable force before him, but to no avail. “Look, even if we could go back, we can’t just hit the brakes and stop the lift. We’ve reached the lesser gravity zone and it can’t be manually controlled once there.” 

That was the best excuse he could come up with, but despite his attempt, Izzy’s expression didn’t change—she wasn’t buying one word. She remained there, eager and ready as in a standoff, examining his every movement. After a while, she walked back into the passenger area, giving up the argument.

Or so Lucas had foolishly thought.

By the time he realized where was she headed, it was too late. “Wait, where are you—?” Before he finished his sentence, she sped up to a sprint towards the operator’s room.

He wasn’t quick enough.

She slammed the door right on his nose and locked herself in there.

“Hey, what are you doing? Open up,” Lucas pounded a fist on the door. “Open up the door!”

“Back off, Lucas,” Izzy’s muffled voice came from inside. “I’m stopping this thing with or without your help.”

“I told you we couldn’t stop it.” By now, Lucas’s feet had almost taken off the ground, his body losing weight quickly. “There’s a safety lock, and the brakes don’t work.”

“Pfft, come on. Do you think I’m stupid? There’s gotta be an emergency break somewhere.” Faint beeps came from inside as she pressed virtual buttons on the control board.

“Hey, leave those controls alone. You don’t know what you are—”

“Aha! Found it.”

A clicking noise came from inside, followed by a stream of beeps. Lucas pictured the prompt on the workstation, waiting for confirmation to engage the brakes. His eyes widened in terror. “What? No—wait! don’t press that—” He backed off from the door. “Oh, shit. Oh, shit.” He bolted towards the nearest seat, throwing arms to hold onto it before the lift came to a hard stop. One hand caught the seatbelt, but before he could lock himself to the seat, the brakes screeched against the rails outside. 

The abrupt change of speed hurdled him upwards like a catapult.

His back rammed hard against the roof. “Agh! Crap,” he grunted, bouncing back to the ground and crashing onto the seats. He threw hands once again, seeking for grasp, but when he reached one seat, he spun midair. His wrist twisted with a crack and a sharp pain bolted through his entire arm. “Fuck,” a yell escaped him between barred teeth. 

He let go of the seat, his body now drifting out of control and crashing against the walls, the roof, and then hovering towards the exit door. He anchored his other hand to the door frame before he drifted off the elevator.

Outside, sparks showered al around as the brakes brought the lift to a halt. And once it did, only the noise of the wind gushing up the shaft and occasional distant clanking from the bottom remained. 

Even with the lift on a full stop, Lucas didn’t let go of the door frame. His other hand still ached as if pliers pinched the nerves inside his arm. Still dazed and confused, he scanned his blurred surroundings. With the lacking gravity, the seat belts danced in midair inside the passenger area. Their backpacks floated about, spinning in slow motion amidst the dust now filling the room. 

He then remembered Izzy still inside the operator’s room.

Lucas pushed himself off the doorframe towards the locked door. He pried open a cover next to it and reached to a handle inside. He pushed it downwards a few times, but to no avail. One of his feet planted on the wall, and then the other. He pushed as hard as he could with one hand, jerking his body backward. “C’mon, open, you piece of shit!” he grunted while pulling.

The handle creaked a bit, but it held to the pressure.

One more pull and it gave away, the momentum hurdling Lucas off as it opened. He coiled back, waving legs and throwing arms, searching for something to grasp. He crashed on the wall behind him moments later. “Agh!” 

When he recovered, he pushed himself at the door and inside the operator’s room. 

A red prompt flashed on the control board, showing somebody had triggered the emergency brakes—as if Lucas couldn’t tell already. He glanced around, searching for Izzy, but she was nowhere to be found. “What the hell?” he muttered, holding onto the board. “Hey, where did you go?”

Mumbles came from above. “D—dad…” 

Lucas gazed up to find Izzy lying against the roof in the lacking gravity, half-conscious.

“Dad, I’m coming for you… don’t…” she continued, trailing off.

“I told you not to engage the breaks, dammit,” Lucas said to her, even if he knew she wasn’t listening. He reached for her with his other hand. As soon as his fingers grasped her jumpsuit, a sharp pain shot through his arm, making him fling it off.

He had forgotten about his sore wrist, and now he was annoyed with himself too. 

Unable to use his hand, he let go of the board and held her with his good one. With his legs, he pushed both of them off the room and then through the passenger area. 

“Where… where are you taking me?” Izzy mumbled.

“We have little time. We need to get to Micro-g before they find us.”

“N—no… we have to go back.”

“I told you, we’re not going back,” Lucas said without looking at her. “Now stay still.”

They both exited the lift and continued up the shaft, towards Micro-g.

· Index ·

Chapter 28: “Rush”

As the sudden nightfall choked the last rays of artificial daylight, Nate pushed his body to the limit, racing to the north gate of Residential Section C before it was too late. His daughter and Lucas were at the front, like him, sprinting at the top of their lungs, skipping over the human remains carpeting Main Avenue. They had loaded their backpacks to max capacity with tools, supplies, vac suits, and everything else they could take with them. 

They haven’t had any time to pick their gear.

Nate couldn’t explain how was he carrying that much weight after a whole week unconscious, and even more so, on a full sprint. Blaming the adrenaline couldn’t justify the absurd speed of his recovery. But despite his improving condition, every muscle in him burned and ached, begging him to stop this madness.

But Nate wouldn’t yield, for that would be the end of him and everybody else.

Darkness consumed everything. Nate’s sight had already adjusted, yet telling how much further until reaching the gate. As the group pushed forwards, a fuss of snarls and hisses grew on all flanks, seeping from every recess in the destroyed landscape. Above and beyond, the haunting cry of the howlers mixed with hundreds of sorrowful voices stormed the skies, announcing their arrival.

The north gate came shortly after. As expected, darkness engulfed the next section as well, leaving only a few emergency lights lingering in the void.

“Of course. Why would she make our lives any easier?” Lucas said, out of breath.

“We still have a few minutes. Keep going,” Nate added.

The party advanced full-speed into Section C, until disembodied steps pounding ahead forced them to a halt. They all recoiled into a ducking position, fighting their flustered breathing not to make any noises.

“Stay behind me,” Nate whispered to the others, readying his particle rifle.

As usual, the alien spikes would take a while to shine to their fullest after night settled. Their weak blue glow barely helped to make some shadows from the gloom—some lampposts, buildings, and other random figures. Rather than helping, it turned the landscape even more confusing, Nate reckoned. He inhaled deep and exhaled slowly, steadying his racing pulse as he aimed at the overwhelming nothingness ahead. The noise of metal slamming against metal lashed the silence as he yanked a handle on his rifle, releasing the lock.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The steps ahead became a massive quadruped, muscular shadow with four glowing eyes. Its long tail broke into four strands, swaying like snakes prowling at their victim. A chorus of suffering voices of all genders and ages followed its bellowing as if rising tension on purpose.

“It’s a beta. There has to be an alpha nearby,” Nate said to the others as if pronouncing a death sentence upon them, almost unable to conceal the terror mauling his entire being. “Not sure if this will hold it, so get ready to run.”

Nate put one finger on the trigger, careful and steady. 

When he was about to take the shot, the worse scenario reeled out as the shadow vanished. Its growling and the noise of its steps ceased as well, fading into complete silence as if the creature hadn’t been but a product of their imagination.

“Shit. Where did it go? Is it gone?” Lucas muttered, panic strangling his voice.

“It isn’t gone. It’s cloaking,” Izzy replied.

“Wh—what? Since when can they do that?”

“They always have. Or at least alphas and betas can. Never seen it in person before, though. This is crazy.”

“Quiet you two,” Nate cut them off.

As he uselessly scanned his surroundings, something else he couldn’t explain went on: the howler had disappeared, but he could still sense its presence somehow. A shiver slashed from the back of his neck and throughout his spine. Multiple eyes watched over the party, and Nate could feel them as if by instinct.

Maybe the fear had finally driven him insane, he reckoned.

As his brain struggled for an explanation, his body shifted his aim leftwards by itself. A rushing beat drummed inside his chest, adrenaline spreading through his system like wildfire. He couldn’t see it, but the howler was charging at the party, its steps on mute as if weightless.

It would be seconds before it trampled them.

Once again, without Nate’s command, his finger squashed the trigger.

The nozzle of his rifle erupted with thunder, splitting the air in half and the weapon’s butt bucking Nate’s shoulder hard. An ear-piercing shriek from the other side of the street and the howler left hiding, dazed and stumbling, struggling to recover.

Nate hadn’t had a chance to test it until now, but apparently, a Tachyon 3 rifle indeed could stop a charging howler. He remained there in utter shock, unable to believe what he just did. He glanced at Lucas and his daughter, seeking validation that hadn’t imagined it, but they wielded a similar expression, unsure what to make of it.

Still, there was no time for explanations.

Before the howler recovered, Nate aimed forwards and pressed on. His weapon boomed once again as he took one more shot. Then another. And another. The monster staggered with the tremendous impact, backing off, stumbling on its hind legs until crashing against a nearby wall. But until it stopped moving, Nate wouldn’t stop firing. Four, five shots. Nate’s eardrums rung, unable to process the blasts anymore. At last, the creature twitched a few times, and the glow in its eyes died.

He waited a few seconds, eager for movement.

Nothing. It was either out cold or dead, most likely the former.

Nate turned at his daughter and Lucas, both eager for an explanation. But like them, he still had none. “Let’s get going. If it is still alive, it won’t be long before it wakes up,” was all he said.

The group readied to resume their race to Micro-g, but at their first move, the hustle of snarls and hisses of hundreds of lurkers grew even louder ahead. 

Dozens of eyes blazing in blue materialized down the road, swaying in the gloom. They then became hundreds, advancing slowly but surely. It was too late for Nate and the others. Every single lurker had come out of hiding, riddling every crevice in Residential Section C.

“Oh, no. We can’t get through,” Lucas said, cowering like a frightened dog. “What do we do now?”

Nate wasn’t sure himself. “We might make it if we hurry.”

“We might make it? Are you crazy? No way we’re coming out the other side in one piece.”

“Well, what other option do we have?” Nate yelled back, a stir of panic, frustration, and desperation overwhelming him. “It’s not like we can go back, is it?”

“Okay, I might have pushed it a bit too far,” a familiar voice stormed from above. 

With a loud, scratching noise, a flare blazed four stories above on a ruined building like a star burning in the night sky. From a hole on the wall, a woman peered down at Nate and the others, holding the flare up. Full-body armor, pulled-up night vision goggles, and a high-caliber sniper railgun strapped to her back. Nate had no trace of doubt in his mind; that was her—that was the mysterious shooter in the flesh. Despite her words, her expression showed no regret. Her cold stare matched her flat, impassive voice tone a hundred percent.

“You,” Nate said, recognizing her immediately.

“C—captain? Is that you?” Lucas stepped forward, his mouth slacking in utter disbelief as if seeing an apparition. “But… how?”

“What are you talking about?” Nate said.

“That’s—that’s Captain Wallin,” Lucas continued, his trembling sight fixed above. “She was with me on the mission to Centauri Ab a year back. But how? How are you alive?” He remained there, silent, frozen as if a circuit had burnt in his brain.

After a moment, Izzy spoke. “That’s not her.”

“The kid is right, Lucas. The name’s Alex,” the woman replied. “If anything, it’s good to finally meet my replacement in old Viktor’s crew in person. It seems like my sister saving your ass back at Centauri Ab wasn’t a complete waste of time after all.”

“We don’t have time for bonding—mostly thanks to you,” Nate interrupted, a fire burning inside his chest. “If you’re not here to help, scram and let us be on our way?”

“Easy there, big guy. I have a little something for you,” Alex said, pulling up a case and holding it up in the air. She let go, and the thing plummeted to a mound of rubble, then slidding down until stopping next to Lucas.

“What is it?” Nate said to him.

“It’s a box of flares,” Lucas replied.

“As I said, maybe I overdid it by shutting off the day cycle. But I’m on a mission, and this is the only way forward. See you on the other side.”

And with that said, Alex withdrew into the building.

With the glow of her flare gone, the survivors witnessed their surroundings dawning back into a mass of blue shimmers closing in more and more like a noose tightening around their neck. However, like with the howler, Nate could also sense the hundreds of lurkers coming to their hunt, fuzzing up his thoughts like signal static. As time continued slipping by, he turned at Lucas. “Quick! Fire up one of those and throw them ahead.”

Another scratch noise and Lucas’s flare combusted with a dazzling, reddish light. He threw the thing a few feet ahead, revealing the masses of the undead, hissing and snarling with the sudden brightness, backing off.

The path cleared for a few yards ahead.

Nate didn’t expect the light to hurt his eyes that much, though. He recoiled, covering his face with one hand, holding his rifle with the other. “Agh, shit.”

“Dad! What’s going on?” Izzy said, reaching for his arm.

“It’s okay. The light is hurting my eyes a bit, that’s all,” Nate replied, squinting. 

Contrary to what he said, the least attempt at opening his eyes was like pouring acid on them. Making a superhuman effort, he forced them to open a bit, just enough to make out whatever was going on in front of him. As the sight of the frenzied living dead threw his soul into an abyss of terror and desperation, bloodlust like a starving beast, he sent a pledge to whoever was up there listening. “Please, God. We’ve made it this far. Don’t leave us now,” he whispered, holding his cross necklace tight with a shaking hand. 

Nate hadn’t felt so foolish before doing that.

“Please. If you’re still there, don’t let them get my daughter.”

There was nothing else he could do aside from praying.

Nate aimed his weapon forward and spoke to the others. “All right, let’s move on. We’ll use the flares to clear the path. Stay close to each other since they won’t last for long.”

And so, the group continued their trek through the valley of death.

Lucas continued tossing flares ahead. One after the other, they blazed afire and died moments later, opening up a trail between the multitude. The instinct forced the lurkers to at least try reaching Nate and the others, but the intense brightness pushed them back like an invisible force field.

The next few minutes dragged like hours, but at last, the party arrived at the park in the middle of the section. Dead trees loomed tall all around, like the petrified bodies of ancient, fallen guardians. To the left, at the westernmost end of the middle street, the transport station waited for their arrival.

With the lurkers longing for the smallest opportunity to reach them, Nate wondered once again if they would make it.

Lucas’s next words would only reinforce his doubt. “I’m running out,” he let out, firing up another flare.

“What? How many we got left?” Nate replied.

“Three. It’s not enough, man.”

Nate glanced about in desperation, choking with fear but also anger, wondering if somebody up there was chuckling at his petty begging. It might have been the rage consuming him, but he was determined to find a way around. With divine help or not, Nate would take his people to safety. He gave his rifle one last look before speaking to his daughter and Lucas. “Let’s keep going!”

“What? But we won’t make it,” Lucas said.

“We will, boy. We must.”

One more flare went into the crowd, bursting into a ball of light. 

Another one followed, then the last one.

With no flares left in stock, Nate and the others made it across the park and to West Street. Only a few lurkers wandered over there, uninterested in the fuss coming from Main Avenue. 

The place was rather clear, but the hordes on their hunt would catch up at any moment. 

Before that happened, Nate kneeled and twisted a knob on his weapon. The rifle clanked, and with a hard pull, a cover came out from the top, revealing the energy cell; it was still hot from the battle with the beta howler. Nate smacked the back of his fist on the other side, and the cell came out. He pulled out his knife and turned to the others, who stared at him with faces drenched in sweat and dirt. “This will hold them back for two or three minutes while the cell burns out. Be ready to run.”

“Wait—but you’ll lose your only weapon,” Izzy said.

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll take the alleys and get to the station through there.”

It was a terrible idea, but they needed to stop the chasing horde. Izzy nodded, her face swelling with sudden panic as she noticed their assailants already on them.

They wouldn’t come any closer. 

Nate stabbed the energy cell, and it sparked and hissed like a pierced can of compressed air. He covered his eyes and tossed the thing through the ground and into the horde. It exploded like a flash grenade but with an electric blasting noise. The light continued burning strong as if a star had crash-landed inside the starship.

As Nate predicted, the lurkers didn’t dare going past, hissing and shrieking, pulling back.

Somebody else had noticed the light, not expecting things to go this way. As Nate and the others sprinted at the top of their lungs through the back alleys, howls pierced the dead of night once again. 

These were different, though, urgent, enraged.

“They’re calling their leader,” Izzy said, out of breath.

“Their leader?” Lucas asked.

“The alpha is coming. Trust me—you don’t want to be here when that happens.”

“Holy shit.” Panic stirred up Lucas’s pace, moving to the front.

The alleys were tight, so any lurkers they found would be an obstacle. And the first one wouldn’t take long to show up.

“I got it,” Izzy said, aiming her SG-1 air gun without slowing down. A click, a dull hiss, and then a pellet swished through the air. On impact, the lurker growled in pain and collapsed to the ground, twitching with the powerful electrical discharge.

Another came by, its face meeting Nate’s fist full force. It rolled and tumbled, crashing through a door nearby.

“Good one, old man,” Izzy said.

As for Lucas, he pushed an inbound lurker into yet another, both hurtling into a stack of containers nearby.

The group pushed onwards, cutting through their foes as if in a choreographed dance.

However, as they were almost out, an unseen force pulled Nate to a stop like a dog reaching the end of the leash. 

The others also stopped, looking back at him in confusion. 

Nate continued frozen as his ears caught a quiet weeping. It was a young woman, cowering in a corner, twitchy. She was in a ragged, muddy jumpsuit, her messed-up hair onto her bruised face, and her eyes burning in blue lost somewhere on the ground. 

Nate couldn’t help walking towards her.

“What are you doing, man? We need to get going,” Lucas said.

But the words were but muffled noises to Nate. There was something odd about that lurker in particular. Unlike the other sentient ones he had met so far, this one didn’t seem controlled by the same force. This one was scared, desperate. Her glowing pupils flickered like damaged lightbulbs, and she trembled like a beaten stray, receding against the wall, covering as if that would help if Nate decided to end her. 

The girl’s stare fixed on Nate, and he didn’t look away. That wasn’t the first time he had stared a lurker right in the eye. Like previous times, his entire body weakened as if his soul was detaching from his flesh.

But something was different.

The strange sensation was back.

Things appeared inside Nate’s mind. Emotions. Thoughts. Memories. His spirit choked with terror, weakening his limbs even further. None of those feelings were his own. They were hers. Staring into those eyes was like peeking into her soul, her life before becoming that wretched creature rolling inside his brain like a sped-up film. She cried and screamed for help, begging for release from whatever was keeping her soul imprisoned to a carcass of a body she couldn’t control.

“But… how?” Nate muttered, entranced.

Before he realized, the lurker reached the knife strapped to his hip. She backed off, staring at him with her eyes back to normal. With a quick, determined swing, she thrust the blade through her right eye, tumbling to the ground, bucking Nate back to reality as if she had disconnected him.

Lucas and Izzy were already on their way to him but stopped halfway. “Are you crazy? What were you thinking by going at her like that?” Izzy argued.

“I—I don’t know what happened. I—”

His daughter replied with a long, baffled stare.

“Hey!” Lucas called them from the end of the alley. “Do you mind if we keep going? This will get ugly real soon.” 

The light of the energy cell was gone, and the snarls and hisses of the hordes closed in more and more like an orchestra playing a menacing tune in crescendo.

By the time they left the alleys, dozens of lurkers were already waiting for them at the open area that followed. Nate and the others halted their race before startling any of them. Meanwhile, at the far end, the transport station bulged from the west wall, the elevator shaft rising high past the artificial ceiling, which had become a dark mantle.

Their objective was close, but with no flares left, their chances of making it through plummeted to the ground.

Or maybe there was a chance. After all, the place wasn’t that crowded, Nate reckoned, trying hard to convince himself. But no. The half-open cargo door at the front of the station reminded him that if lurkers followed them inside, they would swarm the place in a snap. He glanced at his daughter and Lucas beside him, both shaking to their bone and their expression quickly decaying in panic, realizing Nate didn’t have a plan. 

One thing was sure: if they stayed there, they wouldn’t live to see another day. 

Nate reached his backpack and snatched the last of the flash grenades they brought from Research. He eyed the thing on his palm, shifting between it and the transport station sitting in the distance like a treasure chest shining at the other side of a bottomless abyss. “It’s the last one,” he said to the others. “I’ll set it off, and you both will make a run for the station.”

“Us both? What about you?” Izzy said, eager for an answer.

Nate expected the question, but he couldn’t figure a reply that wouldn’t result in an argument with her. There was only one way to say it. “I’ll stay here and distract them while you take the lift to Micro-g.”

His daughter glanced at him, frowning like a confused pup. “Wh—what are you talking about? We’re not going without you.”

“Please. We have no time for this. One of us has to distract them. Otherwise, they’ll follow us into the station, and that’ll be it for us.”

“No, there has to be a way around.”

Nate glanced at the multiple sets of four eyes standing atop the ruined buildings around them, waiting, bloodlust. “There’s no other way. Trust me. They’ll make sure we have nowhere else to go.”

“Stop that! I said no,” Izzy snapped, fingers curled into fists and a tear rolling down her murky, freckled cheek. “It’s all of us or none! And why are you not saying anything?” She turned at Lucas. 

The young scientist looked down, rubbing the back of his neck, silent. If he didn’t make it to Micro-g, Alex wouldn’t let Izzy a hair near the escape vessel, and to Nate, that was the top priority.

It was the only way the equation checked out.

Nate exhaled, his soul tortured by his daughter’s helpless, begging stare. Holding his stern attitude was a futile effort for him. He leaned forward, placing his hands on her shoulders.

“Please, Dad,” Izzy went on. “Don’t leave me.”

Nate fixed his eyes on hers and wiped her tears. “Honey, I need you to be strong. I swear by your mother who’s looking at us right now—I’ll come back to you. We’ll make it out of here together.”

Izzy hesitated for a moment, but then she sniffed her sobbing away and wiped her nose, her expression hardening with a wrinkled brow. “You better keep your word, old man.” She pushed him away, then stepping back and turning around with arms crossed, still sniffing.

“You take care of her while I’m gone,” Nate said to Lucas, taking off his backpack and handing it to him. “Don’t let me down, boy.”

Lucas hesitated as if taken aback by a memory buried deep inside that had crawled back out to haunt him. His trembling stare shifted between the backpack and Nate for a few seconds, but then, he grabbed it. “Don’t take long. There will people waiting for you.”

Nate nodded in silence, giving him a half-smile.

“All right, on my mark,” he said, unpinning the grenade and holding the safety. 

Once the armies of the dead were close enough, he tossed it at them. He squeezed his eyes shut and covered as sudden, dazing brightness erupted with an earsplitting bang. A confusion of snarls, growls, and visceral noises cried all around. “Now!” 

Steps rushed away behind him, meshing in the hustle. Nate peered back from the corner of his eye, and to his relief, Lucas and his daughter were gone.

It was now up to him to see the rest of the plan through.

Not losing a second, Nate hurried down the road to the right, skipping the transport station. Angered hisses and howls chased after him as his legs made a last effort to outrun them. He didn’t trip, nor he bumped into anything in his haste. Despite the darkness, his eyes picked up everything with increased brightness as if through a night vision scope. His whole body tensed, a shiver sawing down his spine as he sensed multiple presences at the end of the road. 

He clamped a foot to the ground, stopping his run. 

Glowing lights approached upfront. From between them, a howler stepped out. That was the biggest one Nate had ever seen. Its steps pounded the ground like the thundering hooves of a thousand stallions. It let out a guttural roar, the back of its throat burning in blue and shaking its head, forcing the lurkers to back off.

At last, the alpha had made its appearance.

Yet another odd sensation invaded Nate. It wasn’t just dread from imminent death, but yet another foreign thought intruding his mind. It was the rage and bitterness from someone or something provoked by mere vermin. Like the last time, it wasn’t his, and again, staring into the eyes of this monster was like reading a book, fuzzy emotions, and blurred images projecting inside his brain.

“This again. Wh—what’s going on?” Nate muttered to himself.

To his question, a menacing feeling channeled throughout his body as the howler roared once more. Every muscle in Nate’s body tightened, adrenaline burning through his bloodstream, ready and alert. He fixed his stare on his contender, focusing. A thought tingled at the back of his mind for a fraction of a second, making him move to one side. A breeze blew on his face, and the ground shook beneath his feet as the howler’s thick, spiked tail struck right next to him full force.

Nate recovered, then ducked. 

A massive claw whooshed above him, slashing the air and striking on a wall nearby, bashing it to pieces. The howler’s intentions reflected inside his brain as if they were his, letting him foresee every movement. But with blows coming left and right by the second, he didn’t have any time to ponder whatever was happening or if it was even real.

The alpha pressed on, boasting with rage, throwing claws at Nate while growling and spitting. The swings came fast at him, one after the other, none of them striking their target. Duck. Dodge. Duck. Back off. Dodge. Nate evaded each attack with perfect timing as if he was dancing with the monster, realizing his movements until afterward. Another blow. He kneeled, letting the creature’s muscular arm sweep above him. As it did, he pulled out his knife and stabbed the howler on one eye. It backed off, tumbling around and shaking its head in confusion with the blade lodged deep into the socket. 

A few feet away, Nate rolled and came to a stop, ready for the next attack.

However, as the howler prepared to charge again, Nate’s surroundings vanished into darkness as if a switch had flipped inside him. His eyes could no longer distinguish anything. Apprehension seized him, shaking to his bone, huffing and puffing, lost in the pitch blackness of night with one of the most vicious creatures in the starship on his tail.

His ears picked up quiet huffing coming fast from behind. He turned around. A claw swung at him out of nowhere, too quick for him to evade. He saw the sharp blades approaching him as if in slow motion, about to shred him to pieces.

That was it, he reckoned; he wouldn’t survive this one.

But before the claws cut through his flesh, a metallic explosion thundered from above like a hammer hitting a landmine. Something slit the air at terminal speed, followed by a cracking noise. The ground rocked as the howler tumbled and collapsed before Nate. It growled, startled, angry. Blue ooze spurted from a hole on its neck as it threw arms, trying to stand back up.

It had lost interest in Nate—it was a matter of survival now.

The creature glanced at its surroundings, searching for the unannounced contender intruding the battle. And as it did, another loud bang and it collapsed to the ground again. Then another, and another. The howler fought to keep afoot, but it was losing the fight to this unseen force, kicking with less and less energy each time.

One last shot slammed through the air, this one bolting through its left temple and exploding with a blue mist though the other side of its head. At last, the monster crashed to the ground head first, and the glow in its eyes flickered and died.

“All right, Nathan, you earned this one,” Alex voiced from above.

Atop one of the buildings, Alex Wallin lit a flare in one of her entrances. Her tone hinted she had been hiding in the shadows all along, witnessing the clash unfold, placing bets on the outcome.

“Couldn’t you do that a little earlier?” Nate said.

“Look, I’m not eager to waste ammo saving your expendable ass, but what you did right there was impressive,” Alex continued. “I see your body is handling the strain pretty well. Trust me, I’ve seen others get it, and most of them die from the infection. Consider yourself lucky.”

“The strain? What are you saying? What’s happening to me?”

“No time for explanations, I’m afraid. But you could definitely be of use to me. Here—you just got yourself a second chance,” Alex said, pulling something from one of her pockets and hurdling it at Nate, landing close to him.

He grabbed it; it was a tactical belt. It had a gun on a holster and some device he couldn’t recognize. Probably, the rest of the straps used to hold more of those. “Wait, what is—?”

Nate glanced up, but Alex wasn’t there anymore.

On a closer look, Nate spotted the inscription on the block: “M112 (C-4). HANDLE WITH CARE.” His eyes widened at the words, realizing he was holding a high-yield explosive charge. Alex had access to every and all lethal weaponry on the starship, no doubt of that. As for the gun, its energy cell had enough charge for one shot. Nate scoffed at her offer: he could either end his own life right there or fight one last time for his life. 

Alex surely didn’t know him well enough. 

With their leader dead, the masses of lurkers were back at Nate. They approached him from all flanks, closing in quickly, reminding him he had lost enough time already. 

However, now there was a way out.

Without a trace of doubt in his mind, Nate held the explosive charge tight and plucked the detonator switch from a recess to the side. As his flustered breathing eased, Nate glanced at the block in his hand one last time.

“Okay. Here goes nothing,” he said, yanking out the pin, to which the charge responded with a trail of beeping noises pacing up.

· Index ·

Chapter 27: “Scramble”

Nate flung the door of his closet open, revealing an array of jumpsuits inside. Half of them were his; Medical-standard hazel, size large, paired with jet black boots. As for the rest—the maroon ones—, those belonged to his wife. He glanced about the clothes and drawers, searching for something he couldn’t recall.

Was it his socks?

No. Nate was wearing a pair already.

Perhaps it was his watch then.

Wrong again. It was already on Nate’s wrist.

“Crap,” he muttered to himself. His mind was a mess; he couldn’t recall anything before getting there. It had been a while since he blanked out that badly.

Like previous times, his stubborn self would try remembering only to find the thought unrecoverable.

Giving up, he closed the door and turned around.

His bedroom, like the rest of his apartment, was twice the size of a standard unit; it was the norm for the residence of an Atlas High Command high officer, or as he knew her: his wife of twenty years, Amelia.

It was early in the morning. The artificial sunlight filtered through the curtains over the windows, filling the room with a warm, cozy light. The bed was already made, and as usual, a cup of water rested on the nightstand on Amelia’s side. 

It threw him back to the first time she had stayed the night with him.

Right before going to bed, she had asked him for a glass of water. He woke up the next morning to find her gone and the water untouched. At first, he figured she had forgotten, but the next time, the drill went the same: she asked for water only to leave it there overnight. He thought it over and over, trying to make sense out of it, intrigued by this behavior. He eventually realized there was no explanation; it was nothing more than a bedtime ritual of hers. They never discussed it, not he asked about it. She was beautiful, smart, and successful, yet it had been those small quirks that had pulled the carpet beneath his feet and made him fall for her.

With a big, silly smile on his face, Nate stepped out of the bedroom and into the living area. The place was sparkling clean and dead as if time had stopped. “Amy?” he called his wife, going past the kitchen island.

The joy in his expression slowly shifted to uncertainty.

Never in his life had he seen his home so tidy. Somebody had arranged the plastic containers from small to big next to the sink, the stove was clean and shiny, and a basket full with fruits gave the scene some contrast.

“Amy? Honey, are you home?” he tried again. “Izzy?”

Maybe he had overslept. He checked his watch; it was seven in the morning of a Thursday. By that time, his wife would be sipping coffee on the table, checking on some emails while their daughter munched some cereal with a wrinkled face.

Today, that wasn’t the case.

“Where did they go?” Nate asked to himself.

He reached the corridor leading to his daughter’s bedroom, this one a bit darker since the light didn’t reach well. “Izzy? Where is your—?”

The squishing noise of his feet stepping on the wet carpet cut him off.

He looked down, and his entire world froze.

A strong smell of iron seized his nostrils. His heart bucked inside his chest like a startled horse as he realized he had stepped in blood. His eyes followed the trail of crimson footprints to the door of his daughter’s bedroom, slightly cracked open.

“I—Isabel?” he voiced through his flustered breathing the best he could, his words decaying with terror as he forced himself closer to her bedroom. “Sweetie, are you in there?” An urge to kick the door open caught him, but his soul refused, too scared for whatever lay past.

He leaned closer, focusing his hearing.

Over the noise of his pulse battering his temples, he caught a faint sobbing coming from inside. Whatever was going on in there, he was sure of one thing: it wasn’t his daughter. With his whole body shaking, he placed a hand on the door and pushed gently.

The interior was dark. A thick curtain covered the windows. Nate’s sight continued down the trail of blood until reaching a woman. She held something in her arms, swaying on the carpet while singing a broken lullaby. A breeze blew the curtains, which waved as if dancing to the tune. A ray of sunlight intruded the room for a second, revealing the splatters smeared all over the walls and the messed up bed.

There was a kitchen knife next to the woman.

Nate recoiled with a gasp. “Oh, God, no,” the words escaped him as his eyes opened wide, his reality falling apart around him.

A few steps into the room and the singing stopped. Nate stood there, shaking, only his breath disturbing the quietness. The woman had spotted him a while back, but she hadn’t minded him. She rose to her feet and turned around. Whatever she was holding seemed human, though Nate couldn’t see it well.

Another soft breeze and the curtains danced to the silence, letting in another ray of light. The tall, red-haired woman lay there without moving, the top of her bloodstained jumpsuit unzipped, revealing her naked upper body chock full of odd writings carved right on her flesh, crimson flowing from the wounds. Her grieving stare remained fixed on the lifeless girl on her arms as if trying to bring her back to life just by glancing at her.

Nate’s numbed brain struggled to process whatever was happening, but it eventually did. He had been in denial, but he had known all along who the woman and the girl were. His legs faltered, and his stomach turned upside down as his sanity shattered in a million pieces. In a split second, the ground had cracked beneath his feet, and he was now falling down an endless well of razor blades, still not as hurtful as the scene before his eyes.

“Amy,” he voiced the best he could, his soul shredding inside a blender. “What… what have you done?” He wasn’t sure what look was on his face, but it had to be that of complete daze, anger, sadness, and torment all stirred together.

To his broken words, his wife looked at him, lost. She had a black goo smeared over her eyes, their color an intense blue instead of green. “But honey, this is what you asked for.”

“Wh—what?”

Her lips hesitated into a smile. “Now we can all be together,” she said, stepping closer and handing Nate the girl. “See? She’s happy.”

Nate stared at his daughter lying dead in his arms, her eyes turn to white and her mouth slacking. Her limbs dangled in the air like a rag doll. “No—honey, please. Please, wake up,” he begged, choking as he spoke. He shook his little girl, knowing it was useless. “No, God, please. Not her.”

With his strength depleted by the most ruining and debilitating grief his heart had ever endured, Nate fell hard on his knees, tears breaking down his face.

“No. This can’t be happening.”

He wrapped his arms around his daughter and hugged her as tight as he could as if trying to keep her soul from leaving her body.

Amelia appeared crouching behind him, putting her arms around him with her head resting on his shoulder, looking at their daughter. “Please don’t cry, baby. She’s better now.”

To the sound of her voice, a surge of rage flared deep within Nate, but the pain was too much and soon extinguished any other emotion in him. He asked the only question his mind could produce at that moment. “Why?” He sobbed. “Why is this happening?”

The answer took a moment to come.

“It’s all your fault,” his wife whispered to his ear in a tone as calm as it was disturbing. “You abandoned me. You let them kill me.”

Her words didn’t materialize inside Nate’s mind until moments after. He couldn’t form a single sentence, unable to comprehend why his wife—what he loved the most in this life after his daughter—would say something like that to him.

“But don’t worry,” she continued. “We’ll be together soon.”

Amelia had reached for the knife a while ago, but by the time Nate realized, she was already rising it up in the air, ready to go at his neck.

His survival instinct fired up his body with adrenaline, snapping him out of his trance to dodge the blade.

But he wasn’t quick enough.

Coldness struck him like thunder, lodging deep somewhere above his collarbone. He fell against the wall, his heart in a rush. Putting a hand over the wound, he tried recovering, but his life fluids spurted through his fingers, flushing out from his weakening body.

With eyes wide open and unable to speak past a choking gargle, he stared at his wife, who was back on her feet and gazing down at him. Her eyes burned in blue, and her sadness had transformed into a broad, inhuman grin.

As life escaped him, he stumbled sideways, still holding a hand to his severed artery. His daughter lay on the ground in front of him, glaring back at him, disappointed. Maybe he imagined things as the last synapses sparked inside his dying brain, he figured.

“This is your fault. You let this happen,” Nate’s daughter said, moving nothing but her mouth as she spoke.

“No—I…” Nate tried reaching for her hand, but his body didn’t respond. “I’m sorry, honey. Please…”

And one by one, his senses started shutting off.

His hearing went out first.

Then everything faded to black.

“No,” he shouted in a drowned cry, shooting his body to a seating position.

Nate darted his eyes around the room, sweat soaking his entire body and pacing with a flustered heartbeat. His fuzzy mind struggled to identify this setting on which he had emerged. He wasn’t in his apartment anymore. The out-of-place furniture, the humid smell in the air, the barred windows; that was the shelter on Residential Section D.

The familiar objects around him pushed him the rest of the way back to reality.

He was on his bed. A worn-out blanket covered him up to his knees, and a gas lamp illuminated the room with a faint, warm light. As his pulse eased and adrenaline wore off, a dull pain hammered his skull from the inside. “Shit,” he said, wincing and pressing fingers on his forehead.

Recalling the wound in his torso, he flung the blanket off him. Somebody had cut his jumpsuit, the fabric soiled with a dark shade of blue. There was no more bleeding, nor any bloodstains he could spot. Dazed, he unzipped his jumpsuit, revealing his upper body.

Another shockwave of adrenaline rushed through his entire being as he examined himself.

Instead of his wound, a patch of dark blue covered his side, blackened veins spreading through his torso like weeds branching beneath his skin. Clusters of pores pulsed with a faint bluish glow to the rhythm of his heartbeat.

His wound was gone, but to give way to what exactly?

Struggling to keep his shaking self to spiral downwards in panic, Nate zipped his jumpsuit back up and crawled off his bed. He wasn’t anywhere near ready for it; his legs faltered, but before stumbling to the ground, he shot a hand at the wall for support.

“Agh, shit,” he said, his headache forcing a wince off him.

Everything revolved around him as if he had drunk a whole bottle of scotch, and his body seemed ready to throw up his churning stomach any minute.

He took a moment to get ready to attempt walking.

One clumsy step after the other, Nate hobbled toward the door, leaning against the wall to keep himself from falling. As he went on, his ears picked up familiar voices arguing outside.

“We need at least two more days,” the first voice was Lucas.

“I think you’re not understanding me,” the second one was female, flat tone, disconnected, roughened by an unkind life. “We can’t waste any more time. We leave the ship now, or we lose the window to reach the Phoenix,” the mysterious shooter replied.

“Aren’t you listening?” Finally, a third voice belonging to his daughter. “He hasn’t woken up yet. How are we supposed to leave with him like that?”

“That’s not my problem to solve, I’m afraid. Get him up, or I’ll go do it myself.”

“Threats won’t get you anywhere, you hear me?” Izzy snapped back.

The mysterious shooter exhaled. “All right, I’m done dealing with your shenanigans. Have it your way then.”

And with that said, the radio channel died with a burst of static.

Holding himself by the doorframe, Nate pushed the door of his bedroom open. Outside, in the living area, Lucas sat at the dining table holding the radio receiver, both he and Izzy sharing a disconcerted look.

They hadn’t noticed the half-dead man heading their way.

He trudged towards the couch, grasping to anything he could along the way. “Hey,” he casually said to Lucas and his daughter as he passed them by, startling them. 

Reaching his destination, he turned around and let himself onto the couch in slow motion, suppressing a wince of pain as his ribcage compressed on the way down. “Agh.”

Meanwhile, his daughter and Lucas glanced at him in dumbfounded silence.

“What was that all about?” he asked them with a cough. “What did our friend wanted this time over?” His eyelids struggled to keep open. For some reason, the light of the gas lamp was a thousand times brighter than he remembered, his eyes itching as if he had poured an ant nest over his face.

“Dad. You’re awake,” his daughter said, gleaming with hope and her voice breaking. “But… but how?”

“Geez, man. You’re truly carved out of stone,” Lucas added. “What are you doing out of bed? You should be resting.”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine. Could you please—” Nate covered his eyes. “Could you please dim that lamp a bit? The light is killing me.“

“S—sure.” Lucas did as asked and turned a small knob to one side of the lamp.

“Thanks. That’s much better.”

“Here, let me have a look at that wound.”

Lucas reached to Nate’s jumpsuit, but the man grabbed his hand halfway. Fixing a stare on him, he shook his head in rejection.

“I—It’s okay, it’s okay,” a shaken Lucas said, stepping back.

“So, what did she wanted?”

“Well, she said we’re running out of time and wants us to fix the vessel ASAP and be on our way. Of course, we can’t do that until you recover. We need you at your one-hundred percent.”

“And is she right? Are we running short on time?“

Lucas exhaled. “We are. We’re not traveling at the same speed as the Phoenix. There’s a chance we’ll miss the window to reach it if we don’t get going soon.”

Nate’s brain was recovering but wasn’t still there yet. “But how? Yesterday we had plenty of time.”

And awkward silence ensued, during which both Lucas and Izzy looked away, avoiding eye contact with each other.

“The thing is…” Lucas paused, uncertain. “The thing is you’ve been out cold for a week already.”

“Holy shit,” was all Nate could say, his pulse bucking to a sprint. He reclined on the couch, running a trembling hand down his hair. His sight dangled around the room for a moment before going back to Lucas. “How long until we miss the window?”

“A day or two.”

Nate took a moment to think, but it was useless. “Well, we better get going then,” he said, trying to suppress the panic arresting his voice.

This time, Izzy stepped forward. “No way. You’re not leaving this place until you’ve recovered.”

“I’m fine! We can’t wait another week, dammit,” he snapped at his daughter, far harsher than he intended. “We can’t lose more time.”

His daughter glared back at him, startled by her father’s sudden burst.

“She’s right, man. You’ve been close to dying like twice already,” Lucas intruded.

“You shut up, Lucas.” Nate shot up from his seat, losing control, waving a finger at Lucas, who backed off. “You know how important this is for me, and I won’t miss this chance even if it kills me.”

A terrified Lucas covered, shaking, and Izzy didn’t dare to utter a word, frozen where she stood. He might have gone too far, he reckoned. But before Nate could say something else, the light filtering through the barred windows started fading, defusing the whole topic.

“What’s going on?” Lucas asked as the phenomenon arrested everybody’s attention.

By the time he finished the question, Nate was already halfway towards the windows facing the street. The others joined him, gazing through the gaps left by the blocking furniture.

Outside, the light of day receded into nightfall at an alarming pace, although it was around ten in the morning. A distant howling announced that soon, the streets would crawl with monsters. Nate couldn’t explain what was happening, but it couldn’t be anything good. The walls closed in more and more around him, asphyxiating him with crippling anxiety.

Back at the table, the radio burst with static once more as it received signal. “I’m glad there’s an adult back in the room, Nathan,” the mysterious shooter said. “You seem to understand my point. But in case those kids of yours keep delaying our schedule, I gave you a little incentive.”

Nate grabbed the receiver, his pulse racing. “What did you do?” he spoke in a low, menacing voice.

“Let’s say Section D won’t see the light of day anymore.”

“Shit. She disabled the artificial day and night cycle,” Lucas said, his expression broken in terror.

“I’m sure it brings back some memories for you, Lucas. I would get out of there quickly if I were you; that place will get busy real soon.”

“You idiot,” Nate snapped at the receiver. “Are you out of your mind? You’re risking the only person who can take us out of this ship.”

“It’s fine. All you have to do is quit wasting time and head up to Micro-g.”

“You’re not listening.”

“Hey, what did I just say? Grab your stuff, get moving.”

And with those words, the channel died.

“Goddammit,” Nate yelled in frustration, smashing the receiver on the table.

He leaned forward, both hands on the table, head hung low and thinking. Once again, the mysterious shooter had gotten things her way, and there was nothing he could do about it. 

Trying to figure out a way around was useless.

Hence, short on options, he turned at Lucas and his daughter with his resolution. “Let’s get to the storage. We’ll pack everything we need to repair the vessel and leave right now.”

“Are you sure?” Lucas asked. “You think you can make it?”

“And what other option do we have?”

· Index ·

Chapter 26: “Change”

It was late at night when Lucas finally had a chance to examine the diagnostics data he and Nate had retrieved from the escape vessel at Micro-g. Sitting at the dining table, he fired up his tablet computer and opened the files. His device wasn’t as powerful as a desktop workstation, so a progress bar spawned on-screen while it processed the results. A few minutes went by, yet the damned thing didn’t move a single percent.

A long wait was in order.

Lucas exhaled in frustration. Elbows on the table, he removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes just for a sudden soaring ache to kick him back as soon as he touched his cheek. “Agh, shit,” he winced, peering at his bloodstained hand. Nate might as well be on his fifties and weakened by the one journey to Micro-g and the infected wound in his torso, but the man still packed a punch, Lucas had found. While he didn’t appreciate getting a fist to the face, he could barely blame him for what happened earlier; the mysterious shooter had done a terrible job at not involving him on her personal agenda. It went the worst way possible. The more he backtracked on the events, the more he realized how lucky he was to still be alive. But what bothered more than anything else, was Nate and Izzy’s hard-earned trust on him to go down the drain in a split second. 

And to all that, Lucas didn’t have anyone else to blame but himself.

Now he was up for an awkward stay at their home.

The air was still tense from the encounter from a few hours earlier. Conveniently enough, Nate had the midnight’s watch, giving him some time alone to vent his frustrations on the rooftop. The mysterious shooter had humiliated him and his daughter, leaving them with no option but to suck it up and comply with her demands. However, while she had left Lucas in an abysmal position, something she had said brought balance to his broken soul: somebody was waiting for him on the Phoenix.

His girlfriend, Tatiana, was still alive.

Life could maul his body, chew his spirit, and spit him back out a hundred times that he would stand up and keep fighting until seeing her once again. Just remembering her hair scent, the softness of her skin, and that mocking laugh of hers energized his entire being.

Determination consumed his soul.

Emerging from his thoughts, Lucas realized his lips had coiled into a slight smile. The pain had receded, diluted to a mild aching palpitation on his cheek. He scoffed and focused on the progress bar on his tablet—it was only ten percent there. As it made it toward eleven, an apprehending presence haunted Lucas, a stare nailed to his back. He peered over his shoulder, recalling Izzy was in the living room with him. He couldn’t distinguish much from that angle, but he could picture her perfectly. The twelve-year-old sat on the couch, hugging her curled legs, chin resting over her knees, and green eyes cold as a blizzard under a shower of red hair riveted on Lucas. She didn’t move one inch, barely blinking.

A gargoyle had nothing on that girl.

Lucas went back to his computer, avoiding any visual contact as if hiding from a prowling bear. It was useless. Her stare penetrated right through the back of his head, making it impossible to focus. There was nothing else left to say, yet he had an urge to say something—anything—to shake her off him. When the anxiety festering his sanity became too much to bear, she got ahead of him.

“I believe you,” Izzy said, freezing him where he sat.

Lucas didn’t look back, assessing whether the words had been a product of his imagination. “W—what was that?” he said, unsure if the sentence left his mouth entirely.

“I believe you,” she repeated.

This time, he turned. “You? Of all people… why?”

“I’ve been trying to figure you out all along,” she spoke with a tone way too mature for her age, Lucas determined. “You seemed sketchy as hell at first, all quirky and smiling like a trinket dealer. But everything makes sense now. You’re just a fool who was at the wrong place at the wrong time.” She shrugged, relaxing her body as she continued hugging her legs.

Lucas remained silent, unable to figure a reply; her statement took him by surprise, robbing him of his words. He was convinced she would be the most likely to kill him if things went sideways. But as it turns out, Izzy had a far cooler head than her dad. If she hadn’t done such a thorough job at proving the former over the last days, he would admit he had been too quick to judge her.

“And don’t worry about the old man,” she continued. “I’m sure he thinks the same. He just likes to be alone when he needs to think. It’s a lot to take in—my mother’s death.” She paused, her eyes stranded somewhere on the ground. “We don’t speak too much about that.”

“I’m sorry,” Lucas said. “I was a dumbass. I should’ve told you before—”

Izzy sighed. “You did what made the most sense. It’s hard to explain without a shitshow, and it wouldn’t have helped us anyway. I don’t know. I’m just glad to finally know what happened to her. It gives some closure, you know?”

Despite her words coming out strong and confident, Lucas could see that deep inside, she was battling a titan to hold herself from breaking into tears.

“He’s dead,” Lucas said.

It took Izzy a moment to reply. “Who?”

“The guy who did that to your mom—my girlfriend’s dad.”

Izzy shook her head a few times, then her eyes went back to him. “It’s okay, Lucas. Like Mom said, she would have done the same for Dad or me. If she forgave him, I should as well,” she concluded with a shrug.

Lucas spent a few seconds staring at her. Even after a year, he struggled to process what had happened that day—what Mr. Lundgreen had done to that innocent woman. The mere thought churned his stomach. Yet Amelia’s daughter herself didn’t seem to hold any grudges against the late military veteran. He got her reasoning, but it perplexed him that somebody could be that prompt to forgiveness.

“Anyway, please excuse my dad,” Izzy continued. “He might have given you an ass-kicking, but he’s not a killer.”

“Well, I gotta admit I’ve had my doubts about that lately.”

Izzy chortled. “He’s a saint—trust me. When you told him lurkers were still people, he spent the whole night throwing up.”

Lucas tried concealing his shock, aware he was doing a horrible job. “W—wait. Did he tell you?”

“Yeah. To be honest, I think I’ve always known.”

“And… how do you feel about it?”

“I don’t mind.” Izzy’s flat tone backed her confession. “Lurkers, howlers, humans, aliens, whatever—if it attacks you, you defend yourself. It’s what you do. It’s how things have always worked, aren’t they?”

She had a point, Lucas admitted to himself. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

After a moment of silence, and with matters settled between them, Lucas slowly turned back to his computer, hesitant. He was still processing Izzy opening up to him, even if slightly. That was the first time she had conceded him more than a few words.

Maybe that was her making peace with him at last.

When Lucas was ready to focus back on his work, she spoke again, startling his soul out of him. “So… um.”

He turned over, looking at her in silence, eager for what else she had to say.

Her sight shifted between him and her surroundings, rocking back and forth where she sat, hesitant to step out of her comfort zone like a rescued puppy. “So, you went outside, huh?”

Lucas wasn’t sure where she was going after, but he braced for more compromising questions and maybe another fist to the face. “Oh. Y—yeah. High Command sent me and a few others on a mission to track a distress signal before everything happened.”

“Hmm, I see. And how…” Izzy paused, thoughtful. “How is it to be out there?” A smile vacillated in her face for a split second, then looking away. “I mean if you don’t mind me asking.”

The sparkle in her eyes reminded Lucas that past her thick shell, she was still a little girl. He returned her a kind smile, only grateful for that long-awaited chance to strengthen their bond coming. “It’s scary at first. You can’t help to feel lonely and helpless. It makes you realize how big and desolate space is, and how small and vulnerable one is—a speck of dust in the vastness of creation.” He tried not overdoing the fancy prose, but he didn’t know how else to describe it. “But trust me, it’s all worth it. The beauty you see out there is unimaginable. Stars, planets, constellations—gazing out the observation decks just don’t make it justice.”

The more he spoke, the more Izzy’s expression bloated with excitement. She glanced at him with big, bright eyes like a child listening to a fantasy tale. “How about this planet? Centauri Ab, was it?”

The mere mention of the name sent chills down his spine and dampened his palms with sweat. A grieving sigh escaped him. “Centauri Ab,” he muttered, the events of that dreadful day flashing before his eyes. “It’s not a place meant for anything alive. Rivers of molten lava flowing through the land, thousands of violently active volcanoes exploding one after the other around the clock, and an atmosphere chock-full of volcanic waste burning at thousands of degrees. As impressive as deadly.”

“Geez. That sounds real badass.”

Lucas felt his entire expression dawning. “Yeah,” he let out, looking at nothing in particular, stranded in his thoughts. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t—” Izzy said, realizing of the mood shift. “Were they your friends?”

“Who?”

“You know, the guys that died on the mission.”

Lucas gave it some thought; he wasn’t sure himself. “Hmm, not quite. I was the new guy. High Command needed a Science Officer and also there was an empty spot in the crew after the previous person screwed up big time and was kicked out.”

“Screwed up big time?”

“Yeah. She was responsible for an accident that almost killed the entire crew during an asteroid mining operation. High Command put her to trial and ultimately kicked her out of the crew.”

“Damn. That sure fits the definition of ‘screwing up big time.’ Who was she?”

“I didn’t know her in person. Alex Wallin. She was the twin sister of Captain Annie Wallin, the pilot of the mission to Centauri Ab.”

Izzy jerked back her head, shocked. “Wait—you said, Alex Wallin?”

Lucas wondered on which landmine had he stepped this time. “Um, yeah. Did you know her?”

“Well, you could say that Dad and I found you thanks to her.”

“What do you mean?“

“We found her diary a while back during a supply run. She wrote about a surveillance station deep in the underground levels, which we used to restore the comms systems, which resulted in us talking over the radio.” Izzy rolled her eyes. “Or, well, let our mysterious shooter do her thing to have us talk to you.”

“Wh—” Lucas started the sentence but trailed off. “Alex… is she alive?”

She curled her lips inwards, dodging eye contact.

“Oh.” He looked down, regretting the foolish question.

“We found her at the station. She was in pretty bad shape, but she had her name tag. She wrote in her diary about her last days and also a network address where we found a video scheduled to be broadcasted all over the starships before stuff went to shit.”

“A video? A video about what?”

“Oh, man. You’re in for some story, I’m telling you. Alex turned out to be the good gal here. If this thing had gone live, High Command would’ve been done for. I’m talking about another uprise.”

By that point, Izzy had arrested Lucas’s interest. He struggled to figure out what the higher-ups could’ve done so bad to ignite the third uprise in the history of the Atlas Mission. “Geez. Was it that bad?”

“It had to do with the Ebola outbreak a few months ago. Everyone praised High Command for handling it so freaking great that it was rather suspicious. I mean, people were dying by the dozen, and then nothing.”

“Right.” Lucas nodded, recalling news outlets back then already projecting the end of humanity only for it dissipate weeks after. “They said they could control it by strengthening the quarantine protocols, which sounded like one of their usual generic bullshit explanations. But it had to be that or some kind of miracle cure they found.”

“Not quite. These folks were shipping out people infected like they were expired meat.”

Lucas frowned at her, confused. “Shipping out? Shipping out to where?”

“Outer space.” Izzy readied for her next statement. “The excuse they gave to the families was that the sick was being transported to the Valhalla for better treatment, but in reality they were sending them away in pods and destroying them once they were far enough from the starships.”

The words took a moment for Lucas to digest, during which he stared at Izzy with eyes wide open, secretly hoping she was joking. “Wh—?” the question left his mouth by itself, unable to even start it. For a few seconds, his brain disconnected from his body. “That can’t be true. How could they—?”

Izzy sighed. “I thought the same at first, but Dad and I stumbled upon one facility used for disposing of the sick.”

“Disposal facilities?”

“It was like a subway station under Section C’s Medical.” Izzy stopped, shaken. “According to Alex’s diary, High Command assigned her to one of those facilities, but she broke down and was helping some people to expose the whole thing. High Command found out and threw her and the others in a cell.”

Lucas had heard Alex’s story from Commander Viktor himself, but whatever came out of her trial was classified. He could only speculate how she had got assigned to such a gruesome task. “Holy shit. They took advantage of her screwing up to put her there.”

“Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised. High Command sure had their good deal of nasty stuff they wouldn’t tell even the highest of ranks.”

Lucas wondered for a moment whether Izzy’s mom knew about any of this, but he dismissed the thought after recalling how airtight the different units of Atlas High Command were. Such operation would only be known to Chairman Solomon himself and a few others. Also, there was no way Director Amelia Walker would’ve kept silent about something like that. “That’s just fucked up,” he concluded at a loss for anything else to say.

With the conversation ending in such a dark tone, both Lucas and Izzy couldn’t do but remain there in silence.

The front door opening interrupted the depressing calmness.

A dark figure lumbered in the shadows, wearing a dark olive blanket tied around his neck like a cloak. The sound of metal dragging followed him as he came forward into the light of the gas lamp. It was Nate. He dragged his rifle through the floor, holding it with a shaking hand struggling not to drop it. Having reached the table, he pulled a chair and helped himself onto it using his weapon as a cane.

Lucas and Izzy remained speechless as the man sat there, breathing heavily, glancing back at them with sunken, exhausted eyes. Sweat damped his entire face, and the color of his skin had flushed resembling a ghoul.

The man eyed Lucas for a few seconds before speaking. “How is it feeling?” his speech came out laborious, out of breath.

It took a moment for Lucas to realize he was talking about his black eye. “Oh. It’s still hurting, but not too bad.”

Nate shook his head, looking down, and exhaled. “I’m sorry, Lucas. I—”

“It’s okay. Really,” Lucas said. “It’s been a weird couple of days for all of us.”

Nate inspected him in silence for a while, his expression full of regret. His lips curled inward and then nodded a few times. “At least let me take care of that for you.” He pulled a small bottle of pills from his pocket and flung it at Lucas. “Take two of those before going to bed. You’ll feel like new tomorrow.”

And while the two of them talked, Izzy had been gazing at her father with her visage melted by worry. “How are you feeling? Are you okay?”

“I’m—I’m fine, honey,” he hesitated. “Don’t worry about it. I’m must’ve caught a cold or something.”

She might not know about the infection raiding her father, Lucas reckoned, but she still wasn’t buying a single word he was saying. Whatever his body was fighting, it was winning the battle. By the looks of it, the man would be lucky if he managed to stand up from that chair.

“How’s the vessel looking?” Nate asked Lucas.

“Um…” Lucas hesitated, then going back to his tablet computer. “Yeah, I was about to check the data.” The progress bar had disappeared, replaced by the result of the diagnostic. A tridimensional model of the vessel floated at the center of the screen, surrounded by charts and panels with health indicators and details on its making. Lucas swiped a finger on the screen, rotating the model. Its shape was an elongated ovoid, thicker at the front and gradually thinning out until meeting its ring-shaped drive at the rear. An array of solar panels covered the roof, easy to mistake for windows, which the vessel had none. In the case of attempting a planetary landing, a pair of small wings at the sides would stabilize the craft on its way to the surface. However, in one and a half centuries, no one had the chance to test those landing capabilities.

As Lucas continued examining the vessel, red callouts sprouted from it.

“That doesn’t look very promising,” Izzy said from over his shoulder.

“It’s not as bad as it seems.” Lucas tapped on the first callout, reading it out loud. “Damaged navigation module.” Then the second. “Partial breach in the radiation shielding.” Then the third. “Fusion core and landing gear… hmm, damaged.”

“Fusion core?”

He glanced back at her. “Oh, don’t worry. The connections are damaged, but it’s not a core breach; it’s just a matter of replacing it.”

“How long will it take to repair?” Nate said through labored breathing.

“Well, the nav module and the fusion core is just replacing parts. The landing gear and the shielding will take some time, though.” Lucas stopped, crunching numbers in his head before giving a final answer. “I’d say three or four days.”

Nate lowered his head, exhaling in frustration while running a hand through his hair. “It’s too much. Can’t it be done sooner?”

Lucas looked at Izzy, whose eyes avoided him. He went back to Nate. “Maybe, um…” He paused. “Maybe we can cut it down to a day. We don’t need the landing gear unless we’re doing planetary landing.”

“Two days?”

“Yeah. Two or two and a half tops.”

Nate nodded, leaning back on his chair, his face receding into the shadows of the hood of his blanket-cloak.

“And where are we getting those missing parts?” Izzy said.

“Luckily, there are a couple more vessels left on Micro-g. We’ll scavenge the missing fusion core and nav module from them.”

“That seems easy.” Izzy lifted an eyebrow at him. “Perhaps too easy.”

Lucas adjusted his glasses. “It’s plug and play. The fusion core is quite a large piece of hardware, but there’s no gravity up there, so we’ll be able to move it without breaking a sweat.”

Izzy’s eyes brightened with excitement. “Man, I’ve never been to Micro-g. It’s gotta be so cool.” 

“Never been up there?” Lucas didn’t hesitate anymore while speaking with her. After their last chat, conversation came out more naturally. “It’s just a matter of getting used to it. You know, floating around and stuff. It’s kinda disorienting but doable.”

“Pfft. I can handle it, no problem.” Izzy gave him a sly smile.

“I hope you do better than your old man.” Lucas chuckled, covering his mouth. “He was bouncing around like a lost bullet.”

Izzy snorted. “No way, Dad. You’re the worst.”

No reaction came out from Nate.

His head hung low, his face shadowed by his hood, and his arms hanging loose to his sides.

“Dad?” she said with sudden worry consuming her tone. She placed a hand on his shoulder, looking him closer. “Hey, Dad,” she insisted, shaking him a bit. “You okay?” 

Again, no reply. 

Some more shaking and her father lost balance, jerking to one side, and tumbled to the ground like a sack of rocks.

“Dad!” Izzy cried out, falling to her knees and holding his head up.

“Shit,” Lucas shot up from his chair to his aid. He crouched next to Izzy, his eyes lost on Nate laying motionless on the floor. By then, his skin tone had gone from pale to bluish while sweat soaked his hair and face. He was still breathing, although faintly. “Wait,” Lucas said to Izzy as she broke down sobbing.

Lucas flung off Nate’s blanket, exposing his torso. He expected to see his bloodstained wound underneath. Instead, a patch of thick, blue liquid smeared one side of his jumpsuit, expanding fast. Blue, glowing dots flowed through the ooze, resembling the nightly streets outside full of lurker’s eyes. “Wh—what the hell?”

Izzy reached to the gas lamp, shedding a light over the blue patch to see better. However, the liquid reacted to the light, evaporating with a burning smell while her father winced and twitched, grunting in pain.

“No, no, wait—get that off,” Lucas said to Izzy.

“I’m—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” Izzy said, shaking and panicking as tears slid down her eyes. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Wait here and don’t move him.” Lucas stood up and rushed to the kitchen. He yanked the drawers open, messing their contents while searching for a knife. All of them were empty, except for one with a few forks and a spoon. He tried the ones at the other side of the sink, finding a small utility knife inside the very last one. He snatched it and hurried back to Izzy and her unconscious father. 

Grabbing Nate’s jumpsuit, he cut through the fabric, exposing the wound under the blue patch. A strong smell of iron combined with dry sweat and stagnant water bucked Lucas right on the nose. “Oh shit,” he said, covering and coughing.

“Oh, no,” Izzy mumbled, terrified, sobbing. “What the hell is happening to him?”

Lucas didn’t have a medical answer to console her, but judging by the blue-glowing liquid spurting out of his ribcage and the sudden sensibility to light, there was only one conclusion.

He looked at Izzy right into her hopeless eyes.

“I’m gonna need the strongest antibiotics you have. This is no human infection.”

· Index ·

Chapter 25: “Mother”

The water in the glass before Lucas remained as still as his heart as he sat at the living room table. Izzy had offered it to him a while ago, but he hadn’t dared a sip, fearing it would be the last—it might also be a trick to give him a false sense of security. If anything, the thing served as a safe spot to station his sight, avoiding eye contact with his prosecutors; none of them had uttered a word for the past ten minutes. While Nate’s stare pressed on his forehead like an accusing finger, Izzy silently drilled his skull, seeking to unearth its secrets. The air became thicker with each passing minute, and the silence just as unnerving. Lucas rubbed his hands together over and over, more slippery each time, his palms drenched in sweat. From time to time, he gathered whatever courage left in him and threw quick glimpses around, searching for potential escape routes. He was trapped. Furniture barricaded the windows, and a hefty cabinet blocked the main door. As his brain processed a hundred fateful scenarios, the room shrunk around him until there was no space to breathe. He even avoided thinking too loud in case somebody heard his thoughts.

When Nate sprung up from his chair, Lucas’s heart rate spurred almost to cardiac arrest. The man approached him, hands behind his back, contemplative. He stopped next to him and patted him on the shoulder. “You know, Luke, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt just because I grew to like you. Any other day, I would’ve thrown you down the hole at Section D already. I expect the same courtesy and get only the truth to what I’m about to ask you.” His calm but unsettling tone lashed a chill down Lucas’s spine. The man patted him again, harder. “Are we on an agreement?”

Lucas nodded, shaking as if about to fall apart, struggling to tame his rushed breathing.

“Good.” Nate walked back to the end of the table. He took a deep breath, arms crossed, his impassive gaze fixed on the defendant. “High Command sent you on a mission. What was it about?”

Lucas frowned, taken off-base, dazed as if he had just realized he was in a hidden camera show. “How—?”

“How do we know?” Nate completed his sentence. “Oh, we know a good deal about you, Luke.” With both hands on the table, he leaned forward and continued in a lower, somber tone. “Again, I strongly advise you answer only with the truth.”

Lucas’s sight switched between Nate and Izzy like cornered prey. “All right—the mission. I—” Not a compromising question, yet his mind did not provide him with words. And even if it did, his inherent tendency for wordiness and diving into technical jargon only sprawled a minefield before him. “Before everything happened, they sent me on a mission to look for the source of a distress signal picked up by the Valhalla.” With alien forces taking over the starships, he didn’t expect Nate to get too surprised by his findings. However, he didn’t expect a complete lack of emotion, either. “We tracked it down to a nearby planet—”

“Centauri Ab.”

Lucas paused. “Right. We thought since whoever was sending the signal was intelligent life, it might lead us to wherever they came from and maybe a place for humanity to settle.”

Nate shared a look with his daughter, then back at him.

“We stumbled upon a fleet of about a dozen ships inside,” Lucas continued. “We boarded the main vessel and found nothing. Then I came across this… computer. It identified itself as one pilot of the ship.”

“Identified itself? What do you mean?”

“It was intelligent. Actually, I didn’t find it—it called me when I walked past it.”

Nate only nodded, which finished proving that he already knew everything Lucas was telling him. 

“The Commander and the Second Officer lost their lives after a pyroclastic storm struck our ship. The Captain and I took the computer back home. High Command somehow cracked into the thing and plucked a map of the Alpha Centauri System from it. They spotted a suitable planet for human life, so they issued an executive order to redirect the Atlas mission there.” Everything Lucas had testified so far was on file, archived somewhere deep on the mainframe of the starship. Considering Izzy’s skills to swift through it like it was her playground, that sure was their source. However, what Lucas was saying next hadn’t been documented—nobody was alive to do so. He leaned forward, his pulse steading, sight rigid on the prosecution. “Turns out the data was botched. Wherever we were heading, there were no planets there. Not even asteroids. The sector is empty.”

Jackpot. Nate and his daughter frowned and shared a confused stare. They tried concealing their shock, but their shuddering brow confirmed Lucas’s theory. “What?” Nate said.

“A colleague of mine verified it with a recognizance satellite. It didn’t spot a single body. She suggested somebody had planted the data.”

Izzy rose from her chair. “A setup? Are you kidding?”

“I deemed it crazy at first, but then the attacks happened,” Lucas said.

“Are you saying High Command did this on purpose?” Izzy snapped at him, her words scorched by resentment. “Why would they sabotage the entire mission like that?”

“No. High Command did what they had to do. If they had waited longer, we would’ve missed the planet. Rerouting the starships was the most logical choice. After all, who would’ve expected getting ambushed by aliens?”

Nate sat again on the table, and Izzy leaned back into her chair, both attempting to regain control of the interrogation. After a long silence, when the mood had reset, Nate nodded to his daughter. Lucas had attained a reaction from them, but what came next would trample his insignificant achievement. Izzy reached into her pocket, pulled out a heart-shaped locket engraved with a lion on the front, and placed it on the table as if she was handling an actual beating heart. 

At that moment, Lucas connected the dots. That was what the whole interrogation was about. A mouth full of fangs opened in the ground and ate Lucas whole. Whatever his pulse was before, it had doubled. His eyes opened wide, and he receded back into his chair, begging gods he didn’t believe in for an escape.

“I see you recognize this locket,” Nate said.

Lucas didn’t reply; his entire world had closed in on that piece of jewelry, wrapping tight around his neck like a noose.

“This is an identity chip holder,” Nate continued. “It’s a device everyone with a critical position at High Command possesses to transfer their identity. In an emergency, somebody else might fulfil their duties, ensuring the uninterrupted functioning of their role and the starships.” He walked next to Lucas again. “We found it among your things.” He leaned closer to him and grabbed the locket. “The problem there, Luke, is that this locket belonged to my late wife. Yet here I was wondering how you had gained access to every goddamn place in Micro-g. Mystery solved, right?” He shrugged. “So, how come my wife’s locket turned out on your sweaty hands?”

Each word coming out of Nate’s mouth was like a saw through Lucas’s neck, slitting each tendon and nerve until he stopped twitching. 

“I knew I had seen you somewhere else,” Nate pressed on. “That beard of yours tricked me at first, but I figured it out. I’m sure you remember us too.”

Lucas glanced right at Nate, his brow shaking with sheer horror. The man was correct; he had recognized him and his daughter from the moment he met them at the Science and Research Section. The image of Director Amelia Walker enjoying New Year’s Eve with her family was engraved deep in his mind. He recalled Nate kissing her in the forehead like it was yesterday. Life had roughened them, but they were the same people: the scruffy-looking man with taped glasses and his redhead loose-mouthed daughter. As Lucas sat there frozen, his brain curated every word it knew, picking the best combination, so he didn’t get murdered right there. However, all that made it to his mouth was stutter. “I—I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to—”

The next thing he recalled was knuckles ramming his face, hurling him off his chair. He appeared on the ground, missing his glasses, twitching in pain, holding his head as a pulsating sting sent shock waves of hurt all over his facial muscles. The taste of iron overwhelmed his palate as he struggled to recover. As soon as he heard heavy steps approaching him, he turned, his surroundings all blurry, and raised a hand imploring for mercy. “No—I’m sorry. I—”

Nate nagged him from his collar and pulled him close, his eyes consumed by rage fixed on him. “Listen to me carefully,” he said, his flustered breathing buffing through flared nostrils, “the next thing coming out your mouth better be a direct, succinct answer. Else, I will kill you right this instant. Do you understand?”

Lucas didn’t have the slightest doubt of that; whoever was that man, he wasn’t the caring religious father and loving husband he knew. Lucas nodded twice as blood dripped down his temple and one side of his mouth, his eyelid swelling fast. Even if his whole visage hurt, he tried his best to produce his next words. “Director Walker—your wife. She—she gave it to me. I’ll tell you everything. Please…”

And with that, Lucas backtracked to the day of the attacks. Tatiana, her father, and their group had freed him from the sinkhole. Once he was breathing again, they had agreed on heading to the Transport Bay at Residential Section C; there they could take an escape pod to the Phoenix.

It was a long stretch, but also their only option.

And so, the group crossed the underground tunnels as the apocalypse unfolded on the surface. Fire and explosions, the distant yelling of the masses, and the whole structure ship suffering seeped into the passage, drowning the flustered breathing of the party as they sought for an exit.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” Tatiana asked her father, Mr. Jacob Lundgreen, who marched at the helm, rifle aimed forwards and ready. Meanwhile, security officers Dutch and Randy guarded both flanks and Demarco the rear.

“We’re almost there. We’re exiting through Section C’s south train station,” Mr. Lundgreen replied.

Lucas frowned, puzzled at the statement—the south station was at the opposite side from Transport Bay. “Why south? Shouldn’t we take the north station instead? It’ll leave us right on the bay.”

“We came that way before finding you, Luke,” Demarco said. “The ground collapsed at the middle of the section. It’s gone. We’re not getting there through the tunnels.”

At that moment, Lucas realized the real risk of his plan and why Mr. Lundgreen had hesitated so much on it: they would have to cross Residential Section C in the open at the mercy of whatever creatures waited for them up there.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Tatiana said to him. “But don’t worry. We can make it. I know we can.”

Lucas gave her a long, consternated stare and then nodded unconvinced.

She nodded back with a smile. “How are you holding up?”

For having been close to dying about three times in the same day, Lucas figured he could be doing a lot worse. He managed a smile. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me,” was all his brain mustered, still trudging through everything that had happened. Several times he had wondered whether he was in a nightmare, and the impossible odds of his girlfriend, of all people, rescuing him only added to the surrealism. But even if he never woke up, reuniting with his beloved gave him enough strength to continue fighting for a way out of the gutter they were stuck in.

Moments later, as Mr. Lundgreen had promised, the party emerged at Residential Section C’s south train station through a service entrance. 

“What the hell?” Mr. Lundgreen said as everyone contemplated the inferno greeting them ahead; a train had derailed and crashed on the platform, blocking the station’s west exit. Frenzied alarms blared and flashed, and water rained all over as the fire suppression systems fought the raging flames. The corpses of whoever didn’t make it out of the carts lay charred on the ground.

“It should have happened within the last hour,” Demarco shouted through the fuss, squinting and covering from the heat. “We must find another way out.”

“The west exit is clear. Quick, before we bake in here,” Mr. Lundgreen said, waving the others to follow him.

As they continued, a muffled call held Lucas. 

“Help,” the words barely made it through the bellowing of the blaze and the snaring of the alarms. Somewhere, somebody kicked on a door, desperate for release. “Is anybody out there? Please!”

“Wait,” Lucas called the others. “There’s somebody in there.”

They stopped, puzzled. “What? Where?” Mr. Lundgreen asked.

“The cart over there,” Lucas pointed to the one cart that wasn’t completely consumed by the fire. “I hear yelling.”

Mr. Lundgreen nodded at the cart, and Dutch and Randy followed him there. They stationed to both sides of the door while he aimed at it. “Get back!” he warned whoever was inside. A single shot boomed out his shotgun, and the door flung open with no resistance. They backed off as a woman stumbled on her way out, collapsing to the ground before them. There was no time to check on her. Before flames consumed everything, Mr. Lundgreen signaled his officers, and they picked her up.

As the group rushed to the exit, the flames roiled around them like snakes lurking their prey, impatient to reach and devour them with everything else. The stairwell to the surface showed up ahead seconds before the blaze incinerated the entire station. Mr. Lundgreen punched a button on the wall, and a metal curtain sealed the passage, leaving the fire suppression systems alone to a fight already lost.

With adrenaline wearing off, Lucas’s legs faltered, and he fell on his rear on the stairs. His chest expanded and contracted in an effort to provide him with enough oxygen; every breath was difficult as if an unseen force strangulated him. As he sat there, recovering, he peered at the new member of their group. The woman was a complete mess, coughing her lungs out, covered in bruises, her maroon jumpsuit charred and battered, and her red hair drenched in sweat and all over her face. Even so, Lucas recognized Amelia Walker, Director of the Science and Research Division and Mission Operations. He never fathomed to one day see her like this: crawling in the ground, struggling to stand up, faltering like a toddler. The others had recognized her a while back, now gathered around her in consternation.

“Demarco—bring some water for Mrs. Walker,” Mr. Lundgreen said.

“Yessir.” Demarco pulled out his canteen and handed it to her.

Amelia fought her shaking pulse for a sip. “Wh—what’s going on?”

“You haven’t been out there yet, have you?” Mr. Lundgreen said.

She looked down and shook her head, shaking. “I was riding the train home and heard explosions. Then the tunnel collapsed. I was trapped for half an hour. I thought somebody would come, but they never did. Then the fire—” Her breathing sped up. “I saw them all die. Their yelling—” A single tear streamed down her cheek, washing off the ash. “What’s happening?” Her green eyes shifted between the group, begging for an answer.

Mr. Lundgreen crouched next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. He chose his words with exceptional care. “Something attacked us. They took down the Valhalla, and Goliath might follow. No idea why, but they let the Phoenix go, so that’s where we’re headed. If we don’t leave soon, we’ll die like the hundreds of people that already have.”

Amelia’s brow wrinkled with a mixture of daze and disbelief, her gaze darting among the others. She stopped at Lucas, the only one she knew from them, striving for a hint it was all a joke of bad taste.

With a heavy heart, he couldn’t do but looking away.

He was almost able to hear her heart jolting inside her chest. “Wh—? Oh, God. I—” She tried standing up again, shaking like a tree in the storm, her visage lost in worry. “I need to find my family.”

Like Lucas, Mr. Lundgreen also looked away, unsure of how to deliver his next statement. He exhaled. “Mrs. Walker, I’m sorry to break it down to you like this, but whoever attacked us boarded our ship and started a rampage. The odds of finding somebody still breathing out there are very slim.” He paused. “You can still save yourself if you come with us.”

“No—I need to find them. Please, help me find my family.” Her weak hand grasped the old man from his jumpsuit, tears breaking from her desperate eyes.

He shook his head, grieving. “I’m sorry, but we can’t. If we stay any longer, we’ll die.”

A long pause followed, during which Tatiana glared at her father in disbelief. “Dad, what are you saying? We can’t leave her like this.”

He expected his daughter to argue. “There’s no option. We can’t detour to search for survivors.”

“We can’t leave her like this either. I won’t.”

“Will you listen to your father for once?” Mr. Lundgreen shot a scorning stare at his daughter. “We barely made it this far ourselves. Getting out in the open with those things to reach the bay is enough risk already.”

“You’re going to the transport bay,” Amelia said.

“We are,” Lucas replied. “We’re taking the pods to the Phoenix.”

Her gaze stranded in the ground, calculating. “We’re losing speed—I can feel it. If the Phoenix is still traveling at nominal, you’ll never reach it in a pod.”

And with those words, Lucas witnessed his worst fears materializing. His eyes bulged until almost popping off their socket, held in place by his wrinkling brow. Once again, his surroundings wrapped around his neck, choking him while the others shoot terrified stares at Amelia as she shot down their only hope of escaping that soaring hell.

Amelia’s expression hardened, evoking Lucas of her usual self as the military-trained, highly-ranked officer of Atlas High Command she was. “There’s another way. There’s a launch complex at the hub of the Goliath with ships fast enough to catch up with the Phoenix.”

“The Microgravity Center,” Lucas said in realization.

“Exactly. Getting there is as easy as taking an elevator from Section C. You help me find my family, and I’ll take you there. The ships have enough room for everybody.”

During the next pause, Mr. Lundgreen’s thoughts of ditching the woman right there and heading to Micro-g right away resembled text scrolling down his face.

“Don’t even think about it,” Amelia fired at him. “You’ll need me to get in there. Only members of High Command have clearance.”

“There’s no need for that. We’ll help you find your family regardless,” Tatiana said to her. “I’m sure we’ll find them.”

Mr. Lundgreen remained silent for a moment, arms crossed, balancing his options. He didn’t have any. He grunted. “We make this quick. Let’s get moving already.”

The station’s south exit led the party to an alleyway on Section C, right by the containment door separating it from Section B. They took cover behind a collapsed wall, planning their next move.

The outlook wasn’t too promising, Lucas reckoned. 

Howlers roamed the streets, hunting for survivors. Most buildings had subdued to the chaos, leveled into hills of rubble and people. Not everybody was dead. Some still moved, confused, trying to free themselves from the twisted metal. The familiar blaring of alarms muted their cries while the fire suppression systems battled the fires raging from the collapsed ground and the windows of the buildings still standing. Explosions blasting underground rocked the entire habitat, hard to stand upright.

If Lucas had ever tried picturing the end of the world, this was it.

“Jesus. This can’t be real,” Amelia said, her voice broken. 

“Those things breached into the ship and went on a rampage,” Lucas said. “Whoever they kill, they stand back up.”

“Stand back up? What do you mean?”

“Like you heard it. They come back to life and attack others.”

Amelia wasn’t buying one word, but once Lucas finished talking, a survivor broke loose ahead and made a run for it. Three seconds was enough for a howler to catch up. Amelia covered her mouth, holding back a gasp as the victim yelled and twitched with the claws of the howler impaling him right through the chest. Like Lucas had testified, the man resuscitated shortly after as a violent husk seizing the others still trapped on the rubble. Meanwhile, the monster that had gifted him with that new, grim life continued down the street, disappearing past the containment door.

“All right, they’re leaving. Get ready,” Mr. Lundgreen said. “We’ll go the opposite way—quick but steady.”

Amelia’s horrified stare followed the old veteran as he left cover and scurried up the street, weapon aimed forwards. She didn’t give signs of going by herself, so Lucas and his girlfriend helped her stand.

“It’s going to be all right,” Tatiana said to her with her characteristic recomforting smile. “Dad can be a thug sometimes, but he’ll keep us all safe. He’s a good man.”

Her reassuring words seemed to work—Amelia nodded and followed Demarco, who was already on his way out. As for Dutch and Randy, they remained with one knee planted on the ground behind the wall, waiting for everybody else to be on their feet and after their bold leader.

As the group advanced up the street, the creatures zoomed out in the distance, heading the other way. The apocalypse unfolding at ground level numbed Lucas’s mind, yet the ludicrous scene above in the sky surpassed everything else. Even from afar, he noticed the bluish veins pulsating on the skin of the gargantuan serpent-like monster wrapping around the habitat of the starship. Those were the same veins covering the spikes infesting the habitat, the interior of the alien vessel, and the AI device Lucas had found in it. However, while they shared that feature, Lucas couldn’t relate whoever crewed the ship of Centauri Ab with the monsters ravaging the starships.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Amelia whispered to Lucas next to her as the group padded along. “Is—” Her voice broke, chock-full of guilt. “Is this High Command’s fault? Did we do this?”

He had questioned the same a thousand times since it all began. But no matter how much he wanted to blame Atlas High Command and their antics for all this, he had arrived at the same conclusion each time. “You people did what you had to do. Nobody could’ve seen this coming,” he said, believing each word.

Not like it mattered.

Lucas heard her inner self blaming her for dooming everybody and everything she loved. She looked away without replying.

They were almost to the middle of Section C when the ground started rumbling and shaking. Cracks spread and branched along the street, disappearing beneath the rubble.

“Watch out,” Mr. Lundgreen shouted at the others, forgetting about the creatures.

His warning came too late.

In a split second, Main Avenue bulged like the belly of a breathing dragon and erupted in flames as gas pipes blasted underneath. The next thing Lucas recalled was appearing covered in dust and rubble, sitting against the wall of a dilapidated building. His entire self hurt, burning everywhere. The shock wave had bucked him off ten or fifteen feet. Ash stained his glasses, and a constant ringing was all his ears processed. Once his senses returned, the first thing Lucas did was look for his girlfriend. He almost called her name, but he remembered the monsters. Dazed and vision-blurred, he scanned his surroundings to find Mr. Lundgreen slapping his arm to put off the fire. Tatiana wasn’t with him. Lucas flinched at the pained grunting coming from behind. “Tatiana?” he kept his voice low. No. It was Amelia struggling to stand back up.

At the brink of desperation for having lost his beloved yet again, he spotted her in the distance. The entire street had disappeared. A deep trench was instead, where the pipes had exploded. At the other end, Tatiana checked on the rest of the party—Demarco, Dutch, and Randy.

A river of fire and wreckage had split the group in half.

Instead of calling her, Lucas waved at her. She waved back with a relieved smile. She then pointed him up the street, signaling him to continue with the original plan. 

They would reunite past the trench.

A thick hand grabbed Lucas’s shoulder from behind. “We need to go,” Mr. Lundgreen said with a cough. “There’s no way those things didn’t—”

He didn’t need to end his sentence. The fuss had alerted the howlers, now racing towards the group. As Tatiana and the others scurried into a nearby alleyway, Mr. Lundgreen snatched Lucas into a demolished building where Amelia had already taken shelter.

The noise of the chaos ravaging the habitat waned in Lucas’s ears, outdone by his breathing multiplied by a hundred as he watched the monsters heading at his girlfriend. “We need to do something,” he said powerless, choking with anxiety.

Mr. Ludgreen’s expression had melted into concealed terror, fearing for his daughter like Lucas. “I—” he stuttered. 

He didn’t have a plan. 

This time over, he didn’t have an answer. 

The dread engulfing his visage confessed he was convinced he would lose his daughter that day. His brow then wrinkled with rage, and he glared at Amelia. He thought long and hard, not taking his eyes off her. His breathing then eased as if readying himself for something. Finally, he planted one foot on the ground and left cover. Shotgun aimed high, he yelled at the monsters just feet away from his daughter. “Hey—this way, you fuckers!” The nozzle of his weapon blasted as he shot the air.

“Wh—what are you doing? Have you gone mad?” Amelia whimpered.

No reply. Mr. Lundgreen took a few steps, sight on the howlers which had forgotten the others, now heading across the blazing trench. He paced to a run and bolted into another alleyway north of the dilapidated building, leaving Lucas in pure confusion. He didn’t even try understanding his plan—if he and Amelia didn’t go after him, the monsters would end them. With the same drowning sensation that had haunted him since it all started, Lucas grabbed Amelia by the arm and dragged her out of cover, chasing after a suicidal Mr. Lundgreen.

“No—we can’t go that way,” Amelia said, pulling back like a child getting dragged to the doctor’s office. “We can’t—we’ll die.”

“We’ll die if we stay here, Director,” he shot back, without time to reason with her. “We need to go.”

Amelia hesitated, her deep green eyes planted on his. At last, she nodded, realizing he was right.

By the time they entered the alleyway, the howlers had crossed the pit and were almost on them. Lucas expected Mr. Lundgreen to be waiting for them, but he was nowhere to be found.

“Where—where is he?” Amelia said, out of breath. 

For a moment, Lucas pondered he had ditched them. But no. The man was a thug, but still was his girlfriend’s respected father—that would’ve been like him. “He’s got to be ahead. Let’s keep going.”

Nothing could prepare him for what came next.

A suffocated yell escaped Director Amelia Walker as she collapsed to her knees, tumbling to the ground. Lucas stopped, staring back at her in confusion, eyes wide open, his pulse bucking his temple. Like a wounded animal, she retreated behind a dumpster nearby, holding her abdomen. That was when Lucas realized she was bleeding profusely. A crimson stain spread over her suit. She winced in pain, grunting, her breathing flustered and conflicted.

Then it hit him.

He shot his stare to the end of the passage.

There, Mr. Lundgreen stood shaking, holding a silenced handgun, smoke coming out of its nozzle. A tangle of guilt, horror, and regret overwhelmed his expression.

“Wh—what did you do?” the words left Lucas, his voice faltering. He didn’t need the answer. He had figured out his plan, and it churned his stomach. His sight shifted between Amelia bleeding out and Mr. Lundgreen fighting his juddering pulse, still aiming his gun forwards.

“It… it was the only way,” he said, trying to convince himself rather than Lucas. “She can’t come with us.”

Lucas wasn’t sure how to even start an answer to that. He was only sure of one thing: he would throw himself in the way if he dared a killing shot. “You’re leaving her as bait,” he said through barred teeth.

“I’m—I’m sorry. I really am, son. You can stay here with her, or come with me. Your choice. But my daughter—” He paused. “She will be heartbroken if you don’t come. I’m begging you.”

Lucas reckoned that was the first time somebody had seen a tear shed from the eyes of that man; despite his atrocious deed, he was truly desperate. It threw Lucas between a rock and a hard place. If he abandoned Amelia, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. However, he would die with her if he stayed. Meanwhile, Mr. Lundgreen continued further into the alleyway, leaving Lucas to make a decision he wasn’t able to make.

“It’s okay, Lucas,” Amelia’s faint voice said to him. “I understand. Sometimes we have to do what we have to do.”

Lucas crouched next to his former superior. “Don’t talk like that, Director. We’ll make it out of here together.”

“Don’t—” She grunted in pain. “Just go. Your people need you.”

No matter how hard Lucas tried, he didn’t understand how she could be so peaceful and comprehensive after fate took such a wrong turn on her. “I can’t leave you like this. I—”

“If my family is really dead, I have nothing to live for. But you do. And to be honest, if I had to pick between you and my daughter, you would be the one bleeding out in my place.” A weak half-smile drew in her lips. “Here.” She unzipped the collar of her maroon jumpsuit just enough to pull out a locket. Her right hand curled into a fist and released, her wrist facing upwards, showing a small square bulge where her identity chip lay beneath. A gasp escaped her as she stabbed her wrist with the locket, extracting the chip and leaving a small, bleeding wound where it used to be. “Take this. It will give you access to the launch complex. It will also let you launch the ship that will take you and the others to the Phoenix. Go. You can’t keep wasting time like this.”

Lucas’s stare switched between Amelia and the locket in her hand. “I can’t leave you here.” He shook his head.

Pain held Amelia from coughing, wrinkling her expression into a profuse wince. “Do it, Lucas. Go. It’s an order from your superior, and you have to follow it.”

And with those last words, Lucas ended his testimony. He was back at the shelter, sitting before a shocked Nate and a shaken Izzy.

A long silence ensued, during which dust particles danced a slow waltz under the light of the table lamp. No noises came from outside—not even the usual snarls or the dragging of feet of lurkers. Their whole apartment seemed to have teleported into the vacuum of space.

“I’m sorry,” Lucas broke the disturbing silence. “I meant to tell you once we left the ship. I didn’t want to complicate matters between us. That’s the last thing we need right now.”

Like footage in fast-forward, Nate bolted off his chair and appeared before Lucas. He seized him from the collar of his jumpsuit, lifted him off his chair, and pulled him closer. From the wrath blazing in his pupils, Lucas saw the man’s internal struggle to decide whether to murder him on the spot. Nate remained there, breathing through flared nostrils, stare fixed on Lucas with a fist up and ready to beat him to a pulp.

“It checks out.” The haunted voice of his daughter dispelled him from his trance. “It’s what mom would’ve done,” she said, grief squeezing every drop of life from her heart.

A few seconds and Nate’s rage rekindled.

His fist pulled back, preparing to strike Lucas in the face yet again.

“All right. Enough of that.” Everybody in the room flinched at the radio buzzing on the table. Lucas recognized the voice right away—it was the mysterious shooter that had saved them back at Residential Section E. “I’ll need you to let the boy go and stop fooling around, Nathan.”

Nate frowned, puzzled but even angrier at the intrusion. “Who the hell are you? And how do you know my name?”

She didn’t reply. She didn’t even make a noise, not interested in Nate’s questions. “I won’t tell you again. Let him go.”

“What’s your interest in him?”

“I’m not looking to complicate things between you even more than you clowns have already managed yourselves. You still have things to do. It’s better if we keep it civil.”

Nate’s glare darted between Lucas and the radio. “What the hell are you talking about?” He looked again at Lucas, searching him for clues to solve the puzzle.

Little that he knew, Lucas was as lost as he was. None of that mattered anyway if Nate decided to beat him for answers on this whole new puzzle on which he wasn’t more than another confused victim.

A long sigh escaped the radio. “Things are never easy with you people, aren’t they?” The woman paused. “I need the boy alive. People are waiting for him at the Phoenix. They contacted me a while ago and spilled the beans on the escape vessel at Micro-g and how he’s the key to get it going. Simple. If we get him there in one piece, we can all leave this place.”

The mysterious shooter picked the worse time to disclose her agenda, Lucas reckoned. The way she put it, he had been together with her in this plan all along. Nate’s bloodlust stare planted on him, accusing him of treason. “You,” he growled, boiling. “You both planned all this and used my daughter and me to save your asses.”

Lucas’s entire face twirled in a daze, the plot entangling around his limbs more and more by the second.

“You really think he had to do with any of this? You give him too much credit,” the woman said, her tone showing emotion for the first time. “I told you—it’s simple. I couldn’t risk myself to die fetching him from Research, so I had you do it for me.” She spoke as if everything she said made sense, justified, harmless. But the more she confessed, the more Nate’s expression twisted in bedazzlement and sheer anger.

“All I had to do was to patch your radio frequencies together. The boy would’ve told you about the vessel, and you wouldn’t refuse to help him given that’s your only way out of the ship.”

Lucas noticed the fury simmering inside Nate. He couldn’t find a single word that would help him not to get killed right there, right at that moment. Before Lucas even tried speaking, Nate bolted back at him and hurled him off his chair in complete berserk. His back hit the ground, and he rolled and tumbled as Nate went after him to finish him. But the crazed man stopped as one of the barricaded windows exploded, forcing him to recoil and back off and Lucas to cover on the ground with his arms. When he recovered, he spotted the hole in the floor next to him. Whatever had shot through the window was high caliber—enough to go through the ground and into the story below.

“Stop that,” the mysterious shooter ordered. “The next one will go on your forehead.” 

Nate glared at the blasted window with bulged eyes like a lion startled by poachers.

“Just so we’re clear, you and your daughter already served your purpose. At this point, you both are very much expendable to me.” The loud clack of the shooter’s high-caliber rifle reloading burst through the radiofrequency. “If you settle down and play nicely, you can come with us. Otherwise, you’re nothing more than a liability, and I’m afraid I’ll have to put you down. Don’t get mistaken, Nathan. I’m no hero. I saved your ass once, but I did it to do to carry on with the plan.” She took a deep breath, her gun ready for a decision.

“So, what is it going to be?”

· Index ·

Chapter 24: “Plunge”

It took Lucas and Nate half an hour to return to the transport station, where the lift waited for them at the center of the dome. Nate hadn’t uttered a single word during all that time. Like thermites on wood, countless questions feasted on Lucas’s mind, the main one being whether whatever Izzy had told Nate had to do with him. He preferred to think otherwise, but considering the turbulent start of their relationship, he was convinced it did. The more thought Lucas gave it, the more his anxieties consumed him until it required a superhuman effort to hide. A thick, solid wall had materialized between them, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t figure something to say that could break through it.

Remaining silent was the safest option.

The two men cruised midair until reaching the lift, skipping the cargo hold at the lower portion of the car, and climbing a ladder towards the passenger area on the second level. Even if they weren’t on speaking terms, Lucas couldn’t help but to witness in awe at how fast Nate had mastered the arts of self-maneuvering in zero-g—the man tagged along like if he was his shadow. Once at the door, Lucas opened it by waving its hand at it; he could feel Nate’s stare on his neck, strangling him if it could. About a dozen seats welcomed them, standing in the dark, vast interior of the car, their unbuckled seatbelts suspended in the air. Lucas continued to the operator’s room to the right of the entryway, a small chamber with a single computer terminal. “STATION LOCKED,” its screen prompted just as he expected. Somebody had locked it on purpose, and Tatiana and the others were his best guess. He tapped on the screen a few times getting no response but a dull chime.

“You can fix it, right?” Nate said, crashing the silence, spurring Lucas’s heartbeat.

Lucas nodded, peering back at Nate but avoiding eye contact. “Y—yeah, I can.” He removed a panel to the left of the terminal, revealing a handle and a key lock inside. With a turn of the key, the handle released; he shoved it all the way in. The ground whirred and rattled, and after a moment, the lights came back to life. The prompt disappeared from the screen to give way to a stack of virtual buttons at one side and a diagram of the elevator shaft occupying the rest. Outside the operator room, the noise of the air conditioner filled the passenger area, leveling the temperature to a comfortable seventy-five Fahrenheit.

“And we’re back in business,” Lucas said to Nate, pushing up his glasses. A few more taps on the computer terminal and the brakes freed. And as the lift submerged into the transport shaft, Lucas took a seat and buckled up. Through a window nearby, the emergency ladder scrolled upwards; only thinking on the excruciating climb from earlier made his whole body sore. He laid his head back, looking up at the ceiling. He took a deep breath and exhaled, relieved to have found what they came for. Despite his initial doubts, he had held the promise he had made to Nate.

Furthermore, he could rest easy knowing that his beloved Tatiana had left that horrible place unscarred. It was now only a matter of sitting down and enjoy the two-and-a-half-thousand-feet ride back to Goliath’s habitat. He gave his watch one last look—it was three in the afternoon—, closed his eyes, and relaxed in his seat.

Whatever came next, he didn’t care at the moment.

Not even five minutes had gone by when the blaring of alarms snatched off of his internal, peaceful place. He squeezed the armrests, his bulged eyes scanning the room in confusion. Beacon lights spun and flashed in a frenzy as the lift rushed its descent, booting Lucas’s stomach up to his throat.

“What’s going on?” a dazed Nate shouted through the noise from another seat nearby.

He hadn’t finished the question when Lucas was already on his way to the computer terminal. It was too soon, but he wasn’t weightless anymore, and he got heavier by the second. A warning prompted on the screen, flashing in red like the rest of his surroundings. He fixed his sight on the diagram of the transport shaft, where the altitude dropped quickly. Adrenaline rocked his hands as he navigated the interface, pulling the status of the lift. “Something is in the cargo hold—it’s too heavy,” he said to Nate, who had just entered the room.

“Something like what exactly?”

“Not sure.” Lucas continued tapping on the screen, struggling to keep his head clear. “Hold own to something—I’m going to try the emergency breaks!”

Nothing in there could have held them to the ground once Lucas engaged the breaks. They flew off towards the roof and plunged back to the ground. “Agh, shit,” Nate grunted as sparks showered from the rails outside, an intense smell of burning rubber invading the chamber.

One more prompt flashed on-screen warning about the overheated brakes.

“Damn it,” Lucas tried standing back up. “We’re going too hot—it’s useless.” He grasped the window frame and went back to the computer, bringing up the video feed of the cargo hold.

“Jesus Christ. What the hell is that?” Nate said, glaring at the screen.

The footage showed a massive blob of muscle and tissue, almost filling the hold. Its flesh and veins crept along the walls, fusing with it like a parasite. Clusters of glowing eyes of many sizes filled the muscle joints, and tentacles wrapped around its deform body, waving as if looking for a more comfortable position. Whatever that monster was, it had grown in there as part of the car. “There’s no way we’re kicking that thing out. We must get rid of the whole cargo section,” Lucas said, meeting Nate’s sight at last.

“What are you waiting for? Do it!”

“I can’t. We have to get in there and release the locks.”

“W—what? Are you fucking with me?”

“We have no other option. If we don’t get rid of it soon, we’ll crash at the bottom. Follow me—we have no time to lose!” And with that said, Lucas bolted out the operator’s room.

With the lift in free fall, both men exited the passenger area and descended the ladder towards the cargo hold. Lucas grasped the ladder tight before the winds roaring up the throat of the shaft flung him off the car. Having reached the door to the cargo hold, he turned another lever and hauled it open. The putrid stench releasing from the interior kicked him in the nose, throwing him away to one side of the door. “Jesus,” he coughed, covering his nose with the back of his arm. He peered inside, reckoning the shapeless creature. Gargling noises escaped the hold as the thing moved, covered in ooze, dripping down its body and puddling in the joints and eyes. On a closer look, it was not plain flesh, but a mesh of many skinned human bodies—a body covered in faces frozen in an expression of eternal suffering.

From the other end of the doorway, Nate stared at Lucas with eyes overtaken by sheer horror.

Lucas spoke as quietly as he could, trying not to disturb the nightmare contained in the hold. “There are three locks: one to each side and one at the back. All you have to do is turn a valve and back off when the hinge pops—we’re going too fast, and they’re at full pressure.”

Nate nodded. “All right. I’ll take the ones to the sides, you take the one at the back.”

“No, no. You release the locks, and I’ll distract that thing.”

“What? Have you gone nuts?”

“Somebody’s got to do it, or else it’ll be on us in a blink. I can move quicker than you in your current condition, so it must be me. Do as I say and—” A slimy tentacle shot out the doorway and curled around Lucas’s torso. A frustrated yell escaped him as it seized him off the ground and pulled him inside.

“Shit, Lucas,” he heard Nate shout, rushing after him.

Inside the cargo hold, the monster waved Lucas in the air as if playing with a rag doll. He grasped to the tentacle, desperate for release, but it had wrapped too tight, and his fingers slipped in the nasty ooze covering it.

“Shit, shit. Lucas, hang in there. I’ll find something,” Nate rambled around, clueless of how to free his companion.

“N—no,” Lucas managed, battling his captor, the tentacle strangling him. “Release the locks!”

He regretted refusing Nate’s help for a moment as the flesh atop the blob of viscous meat cracked into a mouth full of rows of sharp teeth resembling a shredder. A deep, angry growl whiffed a gust of putrid breath, spitting foul slob all over Lucas. The adrenaline overtaking his system countered the terror invading him, allowing him to keep control of his senses. Before the monster shoved its dinner into its mouth, he pulled out a flash grenade and hurled it down its throat. He covered before the thing blasted with a dazzling flash. The blob hissed in pain, twitching, tossing, and with it all the faces covering its body screaming in unison. With each hiss and growl, smoke fumed out of its mouth as its gut burned. After a while, it couldn’t hold its prey anymore and threw it away. A second later, Lucas landed next to Nate, who was already on its way to the first lock.

“Shit, are you okay?” Nate asked, kneeling to check on him.

“I am—get the damn locks, what are you waiting for?” He shook Nate off.

“Lucas, this is insane. You were lucky there, but next time it will eat you.”

“I still have some grenades. Just go.”

“All right—kill yourself if you want. Don’t let me get in your way,” Nate gave up, rushing towards the box with caution stripes containing the lock. While Lucas recovered, he popped the cover open and pushed the valve, then turning it. “Holy shit,” he said, covering too late. The lock released with a jet of pressurized gas right to his face, tumbling him onto his butt.

“I told you to back off,” Lucas said, his attention shifting back and forth between a blinded Nate and the abomination infesting the wall of the hold. “Get the next one, hurry!”

“Shut up,” Nate shouted, throwing arms around as he went back on his feet, then lumbering towards the next lock.

The air whirred close to Lucas’s left ear as a tentacle lashed the ground next to him, menacing. He backed off, dropping to one knee but with another flash grenade help up high, threatening the creature. “Back the fuck off,” he shouted.

The monster hissed with a breath of burnt rotten meat, receding its own deformed being to the wall, cautious—it had learned the danger of eating one of those things. It was catching up too fast, Lucas found out too late. As he peered back to check on Nate, the grenade in his hand changed into a soaring, burning pain as a tentacle slapped it off his hand. “Agh,” he shouted in pain, backing off and wincing. But there was no time to recover. His sight swayed around, searching for the weapon, panicked, losing control of himself. He spotted it rolling towards the creature, and before it grabbed it, he raced forwards and threw himself at it. Another tentacle almost got him, but he turned and unpinned the grenade as it snatched it.

He covered just as it exploded with a dry metallic boom.

He went on all fours and crawled to a safe distance, away from a fuss of more growling and hissing and human screaming.

Meanwhile, a loud clank went off and then a hiss as Nate released the next lock—he had backed off this time. “How you holding up?” he yelled at Lucas.

“I’m having the time of my life,” Lucas said, standing back up but faltering as a burning throb bit the nerves of his lashed hand. “Shit,” he said to himself, wincing. His eyes opened wide, intercepting a barrage of tentacles flogging at him. He jumped back on his feet and bolted off, realizing he was running toward Nate, who was already on the third lock.

The man’s eyes widened alike as he saw him coming. “What are you doing? Go the other way!”

“Quick—give me your grenade,” Lucas yelled.

Behind him, the air cracked as a tentacle whipped and bolted at him ahead of the rest. A fraction of a second later, he appeared again on the ground after Nate had sacked him out of the way before the thing slashed him in half. It struck the lock instead, destroying the box cover and ripping the valve off its socket.

The last lock released with a jet of pressurized gas.

“It’s done—let get the heck out of here,” Lucas said, helping a dazed Nate back up. He unpinned the last flashbang and tossed it at the creature. By the time it detonated, they were heading out the doorway back to the ladder, leaving behind a mesh of guttural snarls and sneering.

They now only had to return upstairs and release the cargo.

However, the monster wouldn’t give up so easily. Tentacles shot out the door and grasped the ladder, stirring it with fury as Lucas and Nate climbed, threatening to rip it off the car at any moment. A few bolts popped, starting to yield. When the creature detached it, Nate and Lucas jumped back into the passenger area. It threw the ladder into the shaft, sparks showering on the lift with it trapped between the car and the rails. It didn’t help slow down the fall, though—it fell down the duct and reminding Lucas of the fate that awaited them if they didn’t stop the lift soon.

Back at the operator room, the diagram showed them dangerously close to the bottom of the shaft. “We need to get rid of it now, or we won’t have room to break,” Lucas said, rushing through the interface.

He commanded the computer to ditch the cargo section. And so it did.

He and Nate tumbled to their butts as the whole lift lashed upwards, the breaks engaging with another shower of sparks and smoke and smell of burning steel. Seconds later, the cargo compartment crashing and exploding at the bottom of the shaft stormed and shook the entire passage like the throat of an angered beast. The acceleration wore off more and more until the lift came to a complete halt at ground level, locking to the bay on the transport station with a soft clank as if nothing had happened.

A moment passed after the lift stopped, and Lucas still laid face down on the ground with hands on the back of his neck. He huffed and puffed as his rushed heart demanded every bit of energy his weary body could yield. It was then when he heard a grunting nearby. “Are you okay?” Lucas asked Nate, who was trying to stand back up.

“Yeah.” Nate coughed, holding his abdomen right after.

Lucas went upright. “That was a close call.”

“You don’t say.”

“Can you walk? “Lucas offered him a hand.

Nate shook it off. “I’m okay. Let’s get going—it’s getting late.” He looked away, hiding his sweating face from Lucas, who already knew his health had worsened after that feat. Without waiting for his companion, the man floundered his way towards the exit but stopped, realizing there wasn’t a ladder anymore, and the ground was a good seven feet below. So he went on all fours and crawled down the edge. He let himself go, crashing below a while later with a thud and a grunt like a human potato sack. Lucas meant to ask if he was okay, but he rather not risk angering the guy even more; the air between them was thick once more, so it was silence for him again.

Outside, the cargo hold had destroyed the bottom of the shaft, smashing through the ground two or three stories below. It had reduced to a mesh of twisted metal and dead tentacles, smeared in bluish slime, and thin smoke fuming. Aside from the wreckage, Lucas spotted Nate on the walkway encircling the shaft, recovering after his fall from the lift.

As they made it out the transport station, Lucas trailed close to Nate, ready in case he collapsed. Every step the man gave, he looked worse and worse, making Lucas wonder if he would survive the way back home.

It turned out to be a walk as painfully slow and silent as he had expected. Half an hour later, Nate hadn’t spoken a single word or even made eye contact with him. And to that, Lucas couldn’t do more than stick a few feet behind, speculating about whatever went inside his head. He knew his daughter was a liability in terms of his efforts to gain their trust, but he didn’t expect his downfall to come this soon. He realized that as he machinated whatever was happening, his body had hunched in a defensive position, unconsciously expecting the worst to come.

After another excruciating half-hour, they were back at Residential Section D’s Apartment Building 8. The flight of stairs to the fifth floor made Lucas feel like cattle on its way to the slaughterhouse. The sun had set already, filling the stairway with a dark hue, their echoing steps desecrating the immaculate silence. And when the last rung came by, adrenaline kicked him in the gut as Nate stopped and let him continue in front.

Once at the door of the shelter, the door opened before Lucas could reach it.

He expected everything that followed, even if he preferred to think it would be otherwise. Standing next to the door, Izzy glared at him with cold, green eyes as deep as space itself, and a blank expression on her brow. Against the light of the living room lamp, her curly red hair shadowed her entire self, making her look like a wraith lurking in the darkness, waiting to feast on his soul. “Step inside, Lucas. We have a few questions for you,” she said in an impassive tone before turning around and starting her way inside.

For a reason he wouldn’t ever be able to determine, he looked back at Nate with a desperate stare, seeking rescue. All he got back was a nod, silently advising him to comply or expect the worst otherwise.

· Index ·

Chapter 23: “Farther”

Lucas grasped the rail and pulled himself further up the vertical passage, dim strips of light to each cardinal point guiding his path. After resting at the transport station and surviving to a surprise meal, he and Nate had resumed their journey to the launch complex. Lucas had resolved that hauling Nate for the rest of the way wasn’t practical—both of his hands better be free in case of an emergency. He strapped Nate’s back to his, carrying him like a backpack, and to his surprise, the man hadn’t put much of a fight; it seemed that setting him loose in the null gravity like a helpless leaf in a gust of wind had taught him a lesson.

Everything was going according to plan.

It was twelve o’clock in the afternoon, meaning the habitat had eight more hours of sunlight to go—enough time to find the vessel, run diagnostics, and take a pleasant sunset stroll back to the shelter.

In Micro-g, however, the further the party dived into the passage, the more the lights faltered, unable to withhold the encumbering darkness. The atmosphere grew hot and thick with a damp smell, packed with dust, compressing Lucas’s nostrils.

The sight of the containment door at the far end frustrated his impending sneeze, freezing his whole body in place. It was cracked up in the middle, opened by pure brute force, beaten up like a guardian fallen in battle. Dents and scratches loaded its surface as if something had drilled its way inside. A shockwave of electricity spread through Lucas’s nerves, his heartbeat drumming in his ears in an almost tribal cadence. Despite his efforts, he couldn’t fathom what could’ve given a twenty-inch-thick door such whacking. His pulse spurred at the realization that whatever did that could be hiding in the shadows, watching, relishing in the fear that consumed him. Looking at the bruises on the door struck him with an odd sense of familiarity, apprehending his sanity.

He had seen scratch marks like those before.

Then a memory struck him like lightning, jarring his entire self.

“Out of everything that could’ve made those marks, you lock in on monsters from a horror movie?” Commander Viktor Larsson’s voice resounded in Lucas’s head, transporting him back to Centauri Ab. Before they entered the alien vessel stranded in the blazing clouds, Lucas had spotted the marks on its battered hull. The Commander had disregarded his findings, leaving him wondering what could’ve authored such damage. Something hinted him he would find out this time over. “Damn, this is not good,” he said, emerging from his thoughts.

“Yeah. Howlers must be around,” Nate replied from behind him.

Lucas’s eyes swayed over every wound on the reinforced metal surface of the door. “Howlers didn’t do that,” he said almost to himself.

“How do you know?”

Howlers hadn’t made the marks on the hull of the alien vessel, Lucas was confident. The creatures were relentless, but being extremely sensitivity to solar radiation, they wouldn’t survive a second in outer space—let alone the inferno raging inside the pyroclastic clouds. “It would take a dozen of them to breach a containment door. And that’s if there was gravity,” Lucas said, favoring an answer that wouldn’t require further explanation.

“An even better reason to watch our backs. That thing is not only vicious but proficient in zero-g.”

Lucas pulled himself at the door, landing on it as gently as the combined mass of two grown men could land. On impact, a restrained grunt of pain escaped Nate. “You okay?” Lucas said.

“All good. I’m having the time of my life.”

As long as the man kept cracking jokes, he must’ve been well enough from his wounds, Lucas resolved. He stuck his head through the opening in the door only enough to reckon what followed. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, sheer horror made him recoil back into the passage, threatened by a daunting setting.

They had arrived at the center of Micro-g, a ten-yard-wide cylindrical concourse extending back to front across the hub of the starship. Ledges divided the place into sections, and each one featured an opening at the bottom, through which a rail routed trams for faster movement. Doorways like the one Lucas and Nate came from populated the circumference of each section, leading to the different parts of Micro-g.

A year ago, it would’ve been packed with green and red suits hustling and bustling.

Today, it was a slaughterhouse.

“Jesus Christ,” Nate muttered in awe.

Whatever had breached the door had gone on a rampage, murdering everything that moved. Lucas placed the number of bodies in the dozens, and that was as far as his eye could reach through the darkness and the atmosphere chock-full of dust. It had slashed some of the bodies in half, dismembered, or even torn to pieces—too desecrated to recognize. The last of the surviving lights flickered in the dark, refusing to die like everything else. On each glimmer, more and more shadows produced in the darkness, hovering in such a peaceful manner only the dead can muster. Bloodstains, smears, and handprints covered the passage, a record of the victims’ attempt to escape the carnage.

Despite the overwhelming death and ruin, only one thought asphyxiated Lucas’s sanity: was his beloved girlfriend resting among these people?

Something bumped him on the back, calling for his attention. “We better get going, boy. The faster we get out of here, the better,” Nate said in a quiet voice.

Lucas barely made the words, trapped too deep inside his head. There were more pressing matters, but he had to look for her, or he would lose his mind. On the other hand, if she were there, Lucas wouldn’t have any reason left to live. He scanned the place against his better judgment, searching for somebody striking a resemblance. The world had disappeared around him. Someone was talking, but the voice filtered as a muffled, incomprehensible mumble.

And then he saw her.

A battalion marched inside his chest, his hands melted in sweat.

Not too far ahead, a girl in a hazel jumpsuit drifted midair with a quiet spin. Wounds riddler her body, and long black hair obscured her face, swirling in the lacking gravity as if she was underwater.

“No,” the word escaped Lucas, reality shrinking around him until he had no room to breathe.

Before he realized, he had pushed himself at her.

“Wait—what are you doing?” Lucas heard the voice say.

He anchored a hand to a nearby railing and reached for the girl, his head swollen with second thoughts.

“Lucas, are you out of your goddamned mind? Stop—it could be a lurker!”

He ignored the voice. He caught the girl by her suit, pulling her closer. As she turned, his heart kicked his thorax so hard it would burst through any second. Closer. He removed her hair, revealing her face. Her skin had darkened and wrinkled like old newspapers, tensed over cheeks barely sporting any muscle. Dried lips wrapped around a mouthful of yellow teeth, yielding a morbid, blank smile of death. As for her eyes, they hid beneath petrified eyelids fused together. The sight, although terrifying, released the knot strangling Lucas.

The dead girl wasn’t her—she wasn’t Tatiana.

The invisible force clutching his core released, letting him take a deep breath. He struggled to contain his flooding tear ducts. His surroundings cleared into reality again and coldness spread throughout his being as adrenaline leveled down. Even if he was back at the mausoleum Micro-g had become, he could breathe again. With his head hung low, he remained anchored to the railing, recovering.

“What the hell got into you?” Nate snapped at him, struggling to keep himself from yelling. “I told you to be careful.”

Lucas wiped his cheeks with the back of his arm. “I’m—I’m sorry. I thought that…” He trailed off, his head still too foggy. A dozen emotions stir in his gut until almost throwing up—an urge to cry, to run from that place, relief and happiness, all at the same time. “It won’t happen again. I’m sorry.”

Nate kept quiet for a moment. “Did you know her?”

“No. No, I don’t,” Lucas replied, gently pushing the woman away. She banked in the air, receding into the darkness back to her kin. One thing Lucas was sure of: she would haunt his dreams for the rest of his days. “Let’s get going. We’re almost there,” he said, releasing the railing.

The doorway to the launch complex was marked as “N-7”, located about twenty yards eastbound. Past it, a new passage stretched before Lucas and Nate—same design to the previous one but illuminated by emergency lights filled this one with a red hue. No matter how hard Lucas tried focusing his sight, distinguishing anything out of the mesh of shadows and crimson required his imagination at times. But despite the poor visibility, he could still make the dark smears and patches and scratch marks on the walls. Every muscle in Lucas’s body contracted, preparing to escape in case the attacker jumped at them from the shadows.

At the end of the passage, the upper body of a man clenched to another beaten-up containment door. The hinges barely held it to the frame, pitch blackness consuming everything past it.

“Careful,” Nate whispered.

They might as well be walking to their own deaths, but their only way out of Goliath lay past that door. “You think it’s in there?” Lucas said, more like seeking the strength to swallow his fear and continue from his companion.

“If it is, that thing is as quiet as hell.”

The answer didn’t do a thing to put off Lucas’s panic, but there wasn’t another way but forwards. A hand after the other, he traversed the railing until reaching the door. He reached to the man and drew him closer, his petrified hands cracking and tearing, releasing the handle. So far, Tatiana had been the only one in Lucas’s mind, but as he stared at the man right in the face, he recalled the others in the group: Tatiana’s father, Demarco, and two security guards: Randy and Dutch. The sight widened his eyes in terror. Despite his advanced state of decomposition, he recognized Dutch Harlow. Lucas then glanced at the door, piecing the puzzle together; the creature had bashed it open, but the locking mechanism was engaged.

“Poor bastard. He died sealing the door,” Nate said.

Lucas replied with a grieving sigh. He let Dutch go and reached for the door next; it detached from the frame as soon as he placed a hand on it, drifting away weightless. Before it stranded into the darkness ahead and caused a ruckus, he grabbed it and steadied it midair.

The daunting silence amplified his and Nate’s restless breathing a thousand times, worsening every time they tried to soothe it. Despite their best efforts to remain quiet, they amount to nothing after they crossed the door. They recoiled to a defense position as a barrage of booming noises like a cracker inside a plastic box ambushed them. With each blast, one more emergency light blazed to life along the circumference of the massive chamber around them. Once the circle closed, smaller, blinking ones revived in the darkness.

Asphyxiated by fear, Lucas darted his eyes around, searching for the monster in hiding which sure had heard all that fuss.

A few seconds went by, and nothing moved or made a noise aside from the subtle purr of a generator somewhere in the distance.

They had finally arrived at the launch complex.

It was shaped as a vertical cylinder, like the central concourse of Micro-g. A mix of red and white lights unveiled the compartments along the wall; some open and empty, and the others sealed by a sturdy door with a number and caution stripes on it. A dome protruded from the base of the complex—the commanding station. The top started as a cone and then opened into a broad tunnel ending in a pressurized hatch. “KEEP CLEAR. AIRLOCK,” the text on it warned along with more caution stripes. Lucas knew what followed: the six-hundred-yard tunnel used to accelerate and launch the vessels at terminal speed. Like the rest of Goliath, the dead riddled the complex, resting as crimson blobs in the dusty atmosphere.

“You hear anything?” Nate whispered.

Lucas contained his breath, focusing his hearing. With the unnerving quietness, the scene resembled a silent horror film. “Not a thing. It must’ve been gone already.” He fixed his attention on their next stop: the commanding station about ten yards below, where a few lights pulsated inside. He lined up himself with the hole at the top of the dome. A correct aim was critical, for once he pushed himself off the doorway, he and Nate wouldn’t have anything within reach to stop their dive. “I’m sorry about this,” he apologized to Nate in advance.

“About what? Wait—what are you—?”

Nate wasn’t done talking when Lucas had planted both feet against the frame and pushed himself at the dome. He cruised the empty space with arms open and his feet in front, trying to keep still or else he would enter a spin and crash on the dome. Repeating his stunt back at Centauri Ab of landing onto the alien vessel in Olympic fashion, Lucas bolted through the roof opening and touched down inside upright. He didn’t have a full-gown man attached to his back on Centauri Ab though. Their combined weight lashed him off-balance and onto his butt, throwing Nate to the ground and bouncing to the roof. Luckily, Lucas recovered quick enough to catch him before he continued ricocheting like a lost bullet. “Gotcha.”

Nate coughed, but his aching wounds interrupted him, squeezing a grunt off him. “Jesus. What the hell are you—?” He flinched at pulsating lights blazing into dozens of screens around the station, awakening from their long slumber at the presence of these intruders.

Meanwhile, the roof transformed from a glossy black to a translucent green with a grid materializing on it. Pulsating dots with callouts full of data represented the planets and stars of the Alpha Centauri System—or at least what humanity had discovered so far. As for the hole in the roof, it aligned with the pressurized hatch at the opposite side. There was no way to “aim” the mass driver, but at least the star map offered a way to visualize the trajectory before lanching.

The last of the screens awoke to one side—the main terminal. And like every terminal they’ve had to interact so far, it prompted for access credentials.

“I take we’ll have to hack our way in,” Nate said to Lucas.

But there was no need for that. Without saying anything, Lucas waved a hand before the computer and the screen unlocked, offering many panels riddled with data and visuals on the status of the whole complex.

A startled Nate glanced at him with wide-open eyes. “How… how did you get access? I thought this place required high clearance.”

That was a story Lucas would rather avoid for now—for the sake of Nate’s hard-earned trust. “I hacked my ID chip,” he lied and hoped Nate’a lack of expertise in the technicalities of their world to finish selling it up.

“Can you even do that? Why did you bring your things then?”

Lucas forced his face muscles to produce a smile. “Well, I’ve never tried it before, and there was a high chance it wouldn’t work. Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell you about it later.”

He held his smile while Nate looked at him with a lifted eyebrow—he could almost hear his mind racing. After a moment, his attention diverted at the screen. “So, where is our vessel?”

Lucas held back an exhale of relief after having succeeded in fending off his companion’s suspicions. “Um, here—let me show you.” He brought up a diagram of the compartments encircling the complex, each one with a numbered and colored either grey, green, or red. He pointed at number seven in red. “This is us.”

“Red seems like a bad sign.”

“And it usually would—it means the ship is damaged. However—” Lucas tapped on the compartment, and a tridimensional model of the vessel materialized on-screen; it’s elongated body barely featured any windows, its two ion drives protruding from the rear, and stabilizers on the sides. “However, we already knew ours is damaged. We’re here to run diagnostics to find out what exactly needs repairing and how long it will take.”

“Wait—couldn’t we do all that from home?”

Lucas shook his head. “You can’t access high-clearance facilities remotely while the Goliath is emergency lockdown—not even with a hacked ID chip.”

“Emergency lockdown?” Nate frowned.

“Yeah. You and Izzy only wander around residential areas, so it’s expected you can’t tell, but during the attacks, the whole ship entered into a lockdown state. I mean, technically I could’ve tried running diagnostics remotely, but it’s almost impossible not getting kicked out by the security systems. It happened to me before when I tried repairing the day cycle systems back on Research. Here it would’ve been worse because the system can also deactivate the vessel as a security measure and that’d be it for us.”

“Makes sense. It’s not a risk we want to take.” Nate scratched his beard. “So, once our ship is nice and ready, what comes next?” He gazed out the translucent ceiling of the commanding station.

“You see that arm over there?” Lucas pointed at the structure mounted over the rails traversing the edges of the cylindrical wall, encasing the compartments like the barrel of a pistol. “The pressurized door at the front opens, and the arm takes the vessel from the compartment and loads it into the launch tunnel. After a nice old-fashioned countdown, the ship is accelerated and shoot into space.”

Nate remained silent for a moment, thoughtful. “Sounds like a hell of a ride.”

“A six-miles-per-second-hell of a ride to be precise.”

“Can’t wait.” Nate was about to throw another question at Lucas when a chime escaped his pocket. He pulled his radio, hearing the odd noise in silence wrinkling his brow. “Sorry. I gotta take this.”

Lucas nodded. “It’s cool.”

And with that, Nate headed out the commanding station.

With him gone, Lucas sped up his pace through the interface and fired up the diagnostics, and then connected his equipment to the computer to extract the results. As the progress percentage dragged along, his throat entangled into a knot while he prepared to find out what had really happened with his girlfriend and the others. Lucas brought up the surveillance recordings of the cameras in the complex. A pressure constricted his chest as he backtracked to the date they had left their hideout at Residential Section C towards Micro-g two weeks after the attacks. Two weeks—the thought assaulted his mind. That had been how much it had taken his girlfriend to let him go and save herself. Each time he remembered, his soul sported yet another crack. An urge to travel back in time and hold her tight in his arms invaded him, squeezing his chest and cutting off his breath.

The surveillance footage showed the launch complex from several different angles, full of bright lights instead of red emergency ones. There were no dead bodies on sight or anything out of the ordinary. The door from which Lucas and Nate had entered appeared firmly attached to the frame, sturdy and shiny like it had been just installed. It was any other way in the launch complex, except it was deserted. Being one of the most secret places in Goliath, Lucas didn’t expect it to be full of people, but not completely empty either. Two or three minutes into the recording, the door opened, and he felt drowning. His girlfriend was the first in, then helping Demarco, who seemed wounded but stable.

Her father and Randy followed, guns blazing at something chasing them from the passage. “Hurry up, Harlow—it’s right on our asses,” Mr. Lundgreen shouted at Dutch who was still outside.

Another camera feed showed him on the other side emptying his automatic rifle at whatever was trashing the far end of the corridor. He didn’t reply. Instead, he pressed buttons on the panel next to the door and shut it. He then grabbed the handle on it, pulled it, turned it, and pushed back in. “I’ll hold it back, boss. You go save the others,” he replied, agitated but determined.

“Are you out of your goddamned mind? Open that door, Harlow.”

“That thing will kill us in seconds if it makes it through. I’m glad to have been of service, boss, but this is the end of the line for me. Now hurry up and get going.”

Meanwhile, Demarco had been preparing one of the vessels. Door number four cracked open, and the craft emerged from its encasing. By the time it was out, the loading arm was already over it. “Get in,” he shouted to Tatiana, who was still with her father.

“What? No, wait—” she hesitated, but Demarco snatched her from the arm and took her towards the ship. “Dad!” she called as they entered it through a hatch on its side.

At that moment, a black mess materialized in the passage, wrecking everything on its way. Dutch switched to iron sights, trying to hit whatever that was. His rifle nozzle boomed with each one of his missed shots—he would need superhuman reflexes to assert his target. Soon, it was too late. A primal yell peaked the waveform of the footage audio, and the video feed of the passage cut off. On the other side, Mr. Lundgreen and Randy backed off the door as the creature rammed it time and time again with fury.

“Damn it, Dutch.” Randy smacked a fist on the door in frustration.

“Campbell, no, get away from that door,” Mr. Lundgreen shouted at Randy.

It was too late for him as well. In a blink, a blade pierced through the reinforced door and impaled Randy.

He didn’t yell. He didn’t make a noise.

His body went loose as if his batteries had run out, his limbs dangling midair. The blade receded, and the man’s lifeless body drifted away slowly, letting go of his weapon.

Mr. Lundgreen caught him, perplexed, desperate. “Goddamnit,” he muttered through barred teeth. Whatever was at the other side of the door had taken the lives of two good men, and he wasn’t letting it take his family as well. “Son,” he spoke to Demarco. “Is that ship ready to go?”

The interior of the vessel showed in another feed; Demarco was at the bridge setting the course, and Tatiana was on one of the passenger seats nearby. “It’s all set, boss,” Demarco replied.

“All right. Let’s get this thing going.” Mr. Lundgreen launched himself away from the door and bolted into the commanding station.

“Dad, what are you waiting for? Let’s go!”

He landed inside. “Let’s see what we have here.” He browsed the interface of the main terminal, and as he did, the creature rammed the door harder until it started bending. “Honey, listen to me carefully. You were always my biggest achievement in life. I couldn’t be more lucky to have a daughter like you.”

“Wh—what are you saying? Dad, hurry up.”

The door of the vessel slid shut. As soon as it sealed, the arm rose to line up the craft with the launch tunnel. “Woah. What’s going on?” Demarco said.

“Dad?” Tatiana started panicking.

“I—I’m sorry I have to leave you like this, but you’re in good hands. Demarco is a good kid. He’ll help you get your Lucas back, I’m sure of it.”

“Dad, no—you can’t leave me, please!”

The pressurized door of the launch tunnel cracked in half and receded, giving way to an infinite passage roaring as it sucked wind, leveling the pressure. With the launch sequence in progress, Mr. Lundgreen exited the commanding station and headed back at the door getting a beating.

Meanwhile, Tatiana continued trapped in the ship, clamoring for her father to have mercy on her broken heart. “Dad,” she muttered, defeated, sobbing. “Dad, I love you, please don’t leave me. Not like this. I can’t lose you too.”

“I love you too, darling. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll always be with you.”

Tatiana’s sobbing went on. After the vessel had retreated into the tunnel, the audio feed cut off, and the pressurized door sealed back shut.

By then, Mr. Lundgreen was readying his rifle, reloading and adjusting his sights. “Okay. Show me what you got, you piece of shit.”

One last hit and the door bent inwards like clay. The last of the surveillance footage showed Mr. Lundgreen spending his last clip on the creature which moved too fast for the camera. Then it stopped. Lucas couldn’t tell if the old man had died or not, but even if so, he had completed his objective.

The vessel was on its way to the Valhalla with his daughter.

A pressure released off Lucas’s chest realizing his beloved girlfriend was alive and well. More than ever, he was determined to leave that wretched starship. Somewhere in the universe, she was waiting for him with arms wide open.

But still, one question lingered in his mind.

What did her father mean by getting him back?

As he was about to drift in his thought yet again, an invading feeling overtook him. He hadn’t noticed Nate, looking at him from the doorway of the commanding station.

Something was different about him.

“Hey. Didn’t see you there,” Lucas said to him.

Nate didn’t reply. He remained there with a blank expression, pale, barely blinking. Whatever his daughter had told him, it couldn’t have been good news.

“Is everything okay?” Lucas tried again.

After a few seconds, he replied. “Yeah. It’s all good.”

“Oh, good,” Lucas struggled to formulate the sentence, taken off base by Nate’s sudden shift. “We’re almost done here. The diagnostic should take another thirty seconds. After that, we’ll be on our way.”

He only got a nod back in reply.

The air had turned as dense as water, anxiety kicking Lucas hard as he tried figuring out what had shaken the man like that. He was hiding something and doing a terrible job at it. But one thing Lucas was sure about: if this was about him, he better get ahead of the game before it exploded in his face.

· Index ·

Chapter 22: “Conflict”

As soon as Izzy heard the front door closing, she jumped out of bed and peered out her room. Rays of light intruded the living room outside through the crevices between the furniture barricading the windows like gleaming needles stabbing the gloom. There was nobody on sight. She skulked past the dining table as silent as a shadow stretching across the floor. She hopped onto the couch and leaned forward on its back, peering out the window.

Her father and Lucas were already on their way.

A lopsided smile drew on her face as a tingling sensation spread through her system—the thrill of a plan expertly executed. The whole operation almost crashed when her father got suspicious, but her ruse held up. She had the entire shelter to herself. It was time to investigate what surprises Lucas had in store.

Izzy had sneaked into his room back when she and her father stayed with him at the Science and Research Section. The place was as dull and unremarkable as the owner himself. She searched every corner, her hands light and swift like those of a master thief, but nothing caught her attention. Then she noticed the small lockbox on his bedside drawer. If that room hid anything significant, it was in there.

At first, Izzy thought such a bland guy wouldn’t be capable of producing a combination she couldn’t guess. She had underestimated him. Ever since they returned home, she had tried opening the damned thing to no avail. Luckily, it wasn’t one of those crazy models that locked up permanently after a determined number of attempts. Further investigation was required to complete her mission. Hence, she skipped today’s absolutely-exciting-expedition-to-Micro-g-she-would-die-to-go-to in exchange for sneaking into Lucas’s room once more, hunting for clues.

She would turn that place upside down if necessary.

Crossing the door, Izzy noticed the room was an exact copy of the one at Research. The desk, the bed, the bedside drawer—Lucas had arranged everything likewise. He had even found the same horrible lime bedsheets, she reckoned, the corners of her lips curling in disgust. Only one thing was different: his tablet computer was there. Her characteristic sly smile returned to her, peering down at her hand unfolding to reveal her jolly roger pen drive—that thing didn’t stand a chance against her toolkit.

Two minutes was all it took to crack the password. Whatever secrets that device held were now within Izzy’s reach.

As expected, Lucas had sorted the files in a calculated and systematic way to the point of obsession. Lucas’s quirks started to annoy her, but she realized that it would only make navigating the contents a lot easier.

The folder labeled “Pictures” hinted a promising start. From about a hundred images, over three-quarters featured the same girl—tall, long and black hair, and pale skin. She was a hazel jumpsuit same as Izzy’s father. Medical personnel, Izzy reckoned. At that point, she settled on two options: it was Lucas’s wife or some girl he was obsessed over. Either way, Izzy could bet her hair on the name of that girl was the combination. She checked every one of the one hundred and sixty-three pictures, but none of them yield any leads. However, one thing got her attention: the sight of Lucas without his petty attempt of a beard zapped a sensation of familiarity in the back of her brain.

“Where have I seen you before?” she said to herself, her eyes squinting in suspicion.

She put that thought on hold before trailing off from her objective.

It was time to try another folder.

The next one didn’t follow the strict naming conventions of the others, sticking out like a sore thumb. Lucas must have copied it from somewhere else. “CNTUR_AB” was its name, and it was chock full of documents. Dozens of photos presented a setting she couldn’t place—it was dark, but enough detail showed to hint it was the bridge of a ship. It didn’t resemble the Goliath, or the other starships, or any spacecraft Izzy had ever seen in her books. However, she recognized the square squiggles of blue light spreading through the walls; they were the same ones on the alien spikes infesting Goliath’s habitat.

That ship wasn’t human-made, Izzy resolved.

The first pictures featured the prow of the bridge. Most of the equipment in the commanding station was idle except for a few lights in shades of red. Further ahead, a strange pyramidal structure protruded from the ceiling, looming above a socket below. Darkness consumed everything past that. Two main actors starred in the shots—two men wearing charred, beaten spacesuits and no helmets, hovering in the absent gravity. The first one had to be in his fifties, of slim features, and a bit of his blonde hair escaping the communications cap on his head. The second one was younger but taller and of a hefty complexion. If Izzy had to pick who was the leader, she would go for the former—his hardened but tranquil stare was the one of a seasoned veteran.

The next set of photos shifted somewhere on the back of the bridge. More control boards with scarce lights and square squiggles extended along every passage. An array of pods filled with a glowing, blue liquid lined up in the last shot. Although they cast a faint light, it saturated the rest of the scene and obscured any further details. One pod didn’t glow, perhaps broken, and the glare of the others reflected on it, revealing the identity of the mysterious photographer.

It was Lucas, looking as if about to shit his pants.

The more Izzy browsed the photos, the more questions that popped into her mind. She knew herself too well; leaving Lucas’s room without answers would crush her psyche. But then the next file came along, promising her the gift of knowledge. It was the mission briefing. A distress signal had reached the starships a few months before the attacks. It only took Mission Ops a day to gather a crew of four and sent them out in one of the highest-profile mission in the past one-and-a-half century. They pinned the source down after a month abroad, and what followed only wrinkled Izzy’s brow even further: the signal originated from an abandoned spacecraft stranded in the atmosphere of a nearby planet.

She had guessed right; the ship wasn’t human-made.

“Holy shit,” she said to herself. She realized her eyes opening so much that they would pop out any moment; not even her wildest guesses would’ve foretold this to be today’s outcome. The attacks that obliterated the Atlas mission hadn’t been humanity’s first encounter with alien life.

One more question popped up: what did Lucas and the others do to piss the aliens enough to destroy humanity?

They stole some computer from the alien ship. Izzy would’ve been pissed off too if some guys took her stuff, but not to wipe an entire species. Also, the craft was abandoned; nobody would’ve cared if they had taken the whole thing home.

Maybe the evil aliens weren’t the only ones, a wild thought poked the back of her brain.

Before she headed down a path that would yield nothing but more questions, Izzy dismissed the entire idea immediately and continued reading the briefing. The next section detailed on the people involved in the mission. She had just started reading when an invisible entity thrust a fist into her chest, snatched her heart out, and tossed it on the ground.

“Mission Director: Amelia Walker,” her mother’s name topped the list.

As her soul spiraled downward into a dark place, Izzy remembered her mother leaving Goliath around the date the events in the report started. She was a high-rank officer, and most of her work remained a secret even to her family. A while had passed since High Command had called her to serve at the Valhalla, its headquarters. When the time came around, “it’s my duty” was all she could tell her family. And it was. That was the only thing Izzy could remember bothering her about her mom; she would go even for months sometimes, and Izzy couldn’t go with her. Aside from that, their time together would remain carved in her memory as the most beautiful and loving moments a child could wish for. Izzy couldn’t recall one time her mother’s job had interfered with her family life—remarkable considering her position as Director of the Mission and Operations Division.

So that was what her mom was up to, Izzy solved the mystery at last.

As much as she enjoyed tying loose ends, she had to keep going; the name of Lucas’s damsel was still amiss, and without it, the lockbox would keep hiding its secrets forever. However, she could only wonder what could surpass discovering his involvement in whatever resulted in the demise of humanity.

The bar was high.

Izzy’s investigation continued with a folder with video files. Some recordings dated as old as six or five years ago. She picked one at random. It started with the camera facing the ground, shaking as whoever held it waddled through a crowd of blue jumpsuits, huffing and puffing and chuckling. It was a party, judging by the music, but the lights were dim, so Izzy couldn’t tell the location. When the angle straightened up, it fixed on Lucas who glared at the camera with eyes wide open like a burglar caught on the act. He looked even younger than the pictures of him beardless and wore a blue jumpsuit instead of green. “Ah, sneaking on the food again, ain’t ya, Luke?” The cameraman wasn’t only loud, but he skipped some letters or even whole words.

“Aaron, hey—what’s up?” Lucas struggled to articulate through the food stuffing his mouth. “Wait—is that my cellphone? What are you—”

“I’m documenting,” Aaron cut him off. “It’s an important day today—you made it into Research! Man, I’m so goddamn proud of you.” An arm stretched from one side of the camera and patted Lucas on the shoulder.

Lucas swallowed hard. “Thanks.” He let out an anxious smile, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Man, I’ve never heard of somebody getting reassessed. Come on—brag about it. Tell the audience how much you scored in that exam.”

“Nah, I don’t think anyone wants to know that.”

“Come on, tell us!”

Lucas looked away, blushing like a kid about to sing in front of his whole family. “Six hundred and eighty-nine.”

“That’s right, fellas. Six. Hundred. And. Eighty. Nine,” Aaron yelled. “Heard that, you all? Out of seven hundred! Unbelievable. This man is a freaking genius.”

“Come on, man. Let him be,” an off-camera voice said.

The shot panned to a guy approaching from the right—twenty-something, dark-skinned, and the only green jumpsuit Izzy had seen so far.

“Don’t be a bummer, Dee. Say something for the man of the day.” The camera shook more as Aaron adjusted the angle, centering on the man.

The man frowned for a few seconds, but then he dropped his act of seriousness. A sly smile spread across his face, and he let out a chuckle. “I got you for a second there, A.” He wrapped an arm around Lucas and messed up his hair. “Hey everybody—Demarco James here with the man of the century, Lucas Sundberg, who’s getting transferred from Production to Research after absolutely crushed his JATs with a—” He inhaled deep. “Six. Hundred. And. Eighty. Nine.”

The scene shifted up and down as Aaron and Demarco lost it, bouncing up and down, yelling and cheering. “Luke! Luke! Luke!” they chanted in unison to Lucas who resembled a startled pup stranded in the city.

When the fuss leveled, Demarco glanced at Lucas. “I knew you would make it, man. I’m so proud of having been part of this process.”

Lucas smiled, his attention shifting between his friend and the camera. “Thanks, man. I had the best mentor.”

“Hell yeah, you did. But hey, you better keep it up—the real fun is coming. The first days at Research are no joke, I’m telling you. Everyone’s been there their whole life.”

“Yeah, break a leg, Luke,” Aaron said. “But come to visit sometime, you hear me? Don’t forget you have family here at Prod.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll remind him,” Demarco said with a chuckle, messing Lucas’s hair again.

Aaron let out a throaty laugh. “Oh, sh—” were the last words in the video after the camera slipped from his grasp and crashed on the ground, ending the recording.

Another discovery, Izzy thought. She hadn’t ever heard of somebody switching vocations. High Command profiled everybody in the starships at a young age, and once they had dictated your purpose in life, it was for good. Yet Lucas had moved from Production to Science and Research. Izzy theorized that he might have had connections with the higher-ups—his friend was a green jumpsuit. But after thinking it over, she dismissed the idea; it would take a lot more than that to pull off something like a reassessment.

As Izzy had predicted, this new finding didn’t even get close to the previous one. The bar was too high. It wasn’t even relevant to her investigation. However, it comforted her to know that Lucas was nothing but an average human being fighting to make a name for himself like her, or her father, or even her mother. After giving it some thought, Izzy pulled out the lockbox from her pocket and gazed at it on her palm. Maybe she had been too hard on the guy, she resolved, retracing her history with him. Maybe he was fine. Her father had trusted him—why wouldn’t she do the same?

She stood up and placed the lockbox on Lucas’s bedside drawer, ready to drop her case against him.

However, when she was ready to leave, a framed picture on the desk snatched her attention. It was Lucas and his girlfriend, and it had some text written with a red marker. “To my shy bear. I will always love you.”

And below it, a signature.

“Tatiana.”

Izzy noticed her mouth slacking and her pupils dilating as if she had unearthed a treasure chest filled with riches. Her eyes darted between the picture and the lockbox, her inherent curiosity wrestling against her decision to let the guy alone. Perhaps that wasn’t the combination, the thought tried persuading her along with a hundred others by that line. By now, she was fighting her impulse only to tell herself she at least tried.

Before she realized, she was already reaching back for the box.

When it was back in her power, trembling fingers entered the combination. A tornado of mixed feelings stormed her insides, her imagination running wild on what could be inside. She had waited long for this moment.

The box didn’t respond, and Izzy’s soul returned to her. But then it beeped, firing up her whole system with adrenaline.

It cracked open.

As she scanned the contents, her world stopped, regretting having insisted on opening the damn thing. Her brain cells synapsed with such intensity that she could almost hear the sparks of electricity connecting thoughts inside her brain. She felt like waking up from a nightmare, dazed, confused, and a banging in her chest as if about to throw up her heart.

A golden locket engraved with a lion rested inside the box.

Izzy recognized it immediately, her sanity exploding to pieces like a block of cinder through a store window.

That was her mother’s locket.

At that moment, all of her doubts on him came back full force, running her over. Without a doubt, this blew up the bar set by her other findings.

Despite the noise bloating her mind, one last question came to her.

What would her father think about this?

· Index ·