45 minutes | Mar 1, 2021

Three Million CE - Episode 5

There was no doubt about it–the old man’s coordinates were in the Orubus Belt. The Belt was a lawless zone, claimed by none of the prefectures. Whispers of missing ships and entire crews gone mad kept all but the most foolhardy of adventurers far from its borders. All trade routes between neighboring systems circumnavigated it, leaving the Belt almost entirely uncharted. Zuli was a more than a little apprehensive, but she had promised to deliver the old man to his coordinates. And Zuli was not one to break her promises. Zuli made the sign of the Prophets across her face and muttered a short prayer. She pressed the comm button next to the navigational display on her console. “Are you certain of these coordinates?” Zuli said. “They are taking us into…” “Yes, I’m sure!” the old man’s voice came crackling over the comm system. “I know where it’s taking us. You promised! You can’t back out now!” Zuli frowned. She had no intention of breaking her promise. “No worries,” Zuli said. “The Prophets shall watch over us, even in the Orubus Belt.” “Yeah, yeah,” the old man’s voice blurted. “Just let me know when we approach the coordinates. I’ll have preparations to make.” Zuli scowled and released her finger from the comm button. She made the sign of the Prophets once more and asked for a blessing of patience. Zuli had taken pity on the old man at the New Antilles spaceport. She noticed him at the docks, dragging his large cargo container behind him and begging every passing merchant and trader for passage aboard their ship. Those who didn’t ignore him outright were quick to dismiss him once they learned of his destination. Now Zuli understood why. Zuli flicked her finger across the navigational chart on her console and flung it to the bridge’s main display. A spider web of specks and lines appeared near the bottom of the large glass screen, illuminating Zuli’s face with their dull green glow. The top half of the screen remained ominously blank. The blank space gradually expanded downward, pushing the web of charted systems and trade routes off the bottom edge of the display. Soon they would cross the border into the Orubus Belt. A red dot started flashing inside the empty map of the Orubus Belt. Zuli blinked and stared at the spot. The hairs on the back of her neck tingled, the way they always did when the Prophets were about to test her. Pulsing concentric circles expanded around the dot and faded away, like ripples in a red pond. A distress signal! Based on its proximity to their destination, intercepting the distress signal would require a slight deviation from their current heading. She tapped the alteration into her control panel, and felt an almost imperceptible shudder from the ship as it adjusted course. “What are you doing? Why have you changed course?” the old man’s voice boomed over the comm. “You promised!” Zuli sighed. “No worries, friend,” she replied. “I have detected a distress signal not far from your coordinates. I must investigate and help if I can. It is on the way.” “No!” cried the old man. “You promised to take me!” “I did promise,” said Zuli. “And I will take you. If you are unhappy with the path the Prophets have chosen for me then you are free to disembark and seek another ship whose captain is more willing to…” “Gah!” the old man cut Zuli off with a frustrated grunt. “Do what you must, but remember your promise.” Zuli sighed. The ship’s sensors indicated that the old man was still in the cargo hold. “It will be several cycles yet before we reach the distress signal or your destination,” she said into the comm. “Perhaps you would be more comfortable in one of the crew quarters, or here on the bridge with me.” “I’m fine where I am,” said the old man. The old man’s answer didn’t come as a surprise. He hadn’t left his cargo container alone for a nanocycle since boarding the ship. It was, perhaps, for the best; Zuli didn’t think he’d be very good company on the bridge. Something about the old man’s demeanor and the way he coddled that cargo container unsettled Zuli in a way she had never experienced before. Zuli released the comm button and returned her attention to the main display. The red pulsating dot–still alone in the wide empty space of the Orubus Belt–captivated her. She had heard dozens of tales of the Orubus Belt, and dismissed them as absurd. But now, as they approached its border, the seeds of doubt crept into her mind. The tales often told of dark, incomprehensible cosmic forces dwelling deep within the Belt. Zuli closed her eyes, recalling the horrific tales, and wondering what the Prophets had in store for her. Desmond sat under the desert planet’s perpetual night sky at the edge of what used to be a giant sand-worm pit. The nightly howling windstorms had filled it up, burying the sand-worm’s remains and turning the pit into more of a slight depression. Desmond stroked Bae in his lap and listened to Doyle calling Sarah to join them outside of the ship. “I am not eating one more of those… Those things!” Sarah shouted from inside. “Fine,” said Doyle, looking down at the mound of oozing baby sand-worms in his arms. “Just promise me you’ll crawl off somewhere before the end, I don’t want to see what death by starvation looks like.” That could take a while, thought Desmond. With an adequate supply of water even the frailest of human-derived species could potentially live for months without food. Desmond wondered how he knew that. It seemed to him that ever since he managed to side-load himself into the strange robot that now served as his body, he had gradually been gaining access to new knowledge. He was still an unprivileged user process running on the robot, though. Without root access, most of the robot’s systems outside of basic sensory input and motor functions remained an inaccessible mystery to him. “Don’t worry I’ll keep my distance,” Sarah called back. “The stench will keep me away.” Doyle sniffed his armpit and scrunched his nose. “Oh, you’re one to talk,” Doyle yelled toward the door of the ship. “Not exactly miss cinnamon and spice yourself.” Doyle trudged across the sand to where Desmond was sitting. He tossed the armful of baby sand-worms onto the ground. Bae leapt from Desmond’s lap to eat them. Doyle sighed as he watched the animal gleefully munching and snorting. “Is there anything we can do to get the stove or the bath back? Even for just a few hours?” Doyle asked Desmond. Desmond shook his head. “No bueno, bruh. There’s barely enough juice for the water purification and distress beacon.” Sighing, Doyle collapsed to a sitting position next to the pile of sand-worms. He grabbed one and shoved it in his mouth, making a face of disgust as he swallowed. “Any response to the beacon?” “Nah, it’s one-way. If there’s a response you’ll know. Dudes will just show up.” Sarah appeared at the ship’s doorway. She stomped across the sand to where Desmond and Doyle were sitting and, without saying a word, scooped a handful of baby sand-worms from the pile. Bae bounded after Sarah as she headed back to the ship. “You know,” said Desmond. Sarah stopped, her back still turned. “I think Heady would be pretty impressed with you guys,” continued Desmond. “He consumed thirty seven point five bugs in all the videos I had access to on the Ark. You guys probably got him beat a hundred times over by now. You should be proud.” Doyle gave a snort of laughter. “Fuck it,” said Sarah. She turned and sat down next to Doyle and Desmond. “I’ll do it for the content.” Sarah ate a worm. Desmond looked past Sarah to the large mound of sand in the distance where he had buried Bae’s mother. In spite of Doyle’s objections, Sarah had refused to consider the large rhino-pig’s potential value as a food source. The supply of baby sand-worms had also been dwindling since Desmond had killed the giant worm. Desmond had noted that the rate at which Sarah and Doyle were losing weight had accelerated, and both were suffering from a lack of energy. He wasn’t sure how much longer they could survive like this. A sudden gust of wind from above kicked sand up around the ship. Bae snorted and scurried over to Sarah, who scooped the tiny animal up in her lap. Another gust of wind hit, harder this time. “Is that a sandstorm?” asked Doyle. Desmond looked up. “Nah, bruh,” he said, and pointed. “Look!” A glowing spherical craft descended from the sky, blasting gusts of wind downward as it slowed. It settled on the sand twenty feet from the awe-struck trio. Desmond got to his feet and grabbed grub-smasher–the large metal scrap that Doyle used when fishing for sand-worms. The sphere went dark, then a doorway slid open and a ramp extended to the ground. A woman with short silver hair and orange eyes stepped out of the ship. Her silky dark blue robe flowed hypnotically in the wind. The woman made a gesture in front of her face with her hand, then started to speak. Desmond did not recognize the language. Doyle jumped to his feet. “Yeah! Oh God do we ever!” he cried, and started approaching the woman. “Dude, keep back, we don’t know why she’s here yet…” said Desmond. “What? She got the distress signal! She literally just asked if we needed a ride,” Doyle said. “Wait, you can understand her?” asked Sarah. A confused expression crossed Doyle’s face. He ran a finger across his forehead, like he was feeling for something. “Yeah,” said Doyle. “I mean, I know she’s not speaking English, but I understood every word she said.” The woman spoke again. “That’s right!” said Doyle. “That asshole who took the Ark, he shot something onto my forehead. She said it’s like a universal translator or something.” “Universal translator?” said Sarah. “What is this, Star Trek?” “Fascinating,” said Desmond. “The man who took your ship gave you this?” Zuli asked, turning the small white slate over in her hands. Its black markings didn’t look like any language she was familiar with. The man named Doyle stuffed two more green food cubes into his already-full mouth and nodded. “I’m sorry but I have no idea what this is,” said Zuli. She handed the slate back to Doyle. The man and his young female companion ate ravenously as Zuli watched. “So the two of you were stranded all alone on that planet? You poor things,” said Zuli. “Four of us,” said the girl named Sarah. Sarah pointed at the large robot who sat silent at the end of the mess-hall table, and at the tiny creature in her lap. “Ah, yes, my apologies,” said Zuli, bowing her head. The translator patch that Zuli had fabricated for the girl seemed to be working, but she couldn’t do anything for the robot. The robot had not understood any of the languages that Zuli knew how to speak, leaving her with no means of direct communication with the machine. The robot spoke to Doyle in their native tongue. Doyle nodded, then turned to Zuli. “Desmond says if you’ll grant him access to your ship’s computers, he can try to learn your language,” said Doyle. The robot spoke to Doyle again. “Also he wants to know if he can recharge somewhere.” “Of course,” said Zuli. “As you must eat food to live, your friend must also have sustenance. Desmond may join me on the bridge to interface with the computers and recharge once you are finished eating.” Zuli continued to watch Doyle and Sarah as they ate. The poor things were starving–she wondered what they had been surviving on, stranded for so long on that desert planet. They looked malnourished by any humanoid standards, and their clothing was ragged and stained. “I imagine you two could use some rest,” she said. “Perhaps while Desmond accompanies me to the bridge, you two would like to avail yourselves of the beds, baths, and clean clothes in this ship’s crew quarters…” “Baths!?” Sarah interrupted. Chunks of green food cube and spittle sprayed from her mouth. “Did you say baths?” Zuli smiled and nodded. “Please, for as long as the Prophets’ paths for us are aligned, this ship is your home as much as it is mine. There is one other passenger, an old man who has requested transport to coordinates that we currently approach. Once we have delivered him to his destination, I shall help you find your ship, if that is your wish.” Doyle grinned and nodded. Sarah shrugged and continued eating. The strange robot continued to sit in silence. Zuli crossed her hands in her lap and quietly asked the Prophets to bless her and her new companions as they ventured deeper into the Orubus Belt. Sarah stared awe-struck at a small nozzle jutting from the wall above her tub. The mere idea of soap had become such a distant memory that she refused to get excited. Then she tapped the dispenser and the minty aroma filled her nostrils and she felt like she might cry. It was the longest, most luxurious bath Sarah had taken in all the twenty two years she had been alive. She had shampooed her hair five times before it started to resemble something she was familiar with. She had initially avoided looking at the bathroom’s body-length mirror, afraid of what she might see. But after her bath, she managed to muster the courage. Sarah didn’t recognize the frail, alarmingly thin girl who stared back at her from the mirror. She used her finger to trace the hollow depression under her rib cage where her belly used to be, then the sunken shadows around her eyes. She wasn’t hungry–she felt bloated and wished she had eaten less of the green cubes that Zuli had given them. She wondered how that idiot Doyle was doing–the way he scarfed down those cubes had been embarrassing. He probably ate ten times the amount Sarah had. Despite her tummy ache, the bath had invigorated Sarah, and she decided to do some exploring before bed. She left her soiled security uniform on the bathroom floor and headed to her closet to find it stocked with clean clothes. Sarah dressed in a pair of tan cloth pants and a black silk top that fit her well enough, along with a pair of slippers. When Sarah opened the door that led to the ship, Bae jolted up, leaped from the bed, and bounded out behind her. To Sarah, the ship felt strangely reminiscent of the Nikola’s Children compound back on Earth. Clean, colorless, utilitarian hallways and rooms that served their purpose with little flourish. Everything in the ship seemed somehow softer than the compound had been. Rounded corners replaced sharp right angles. Instead of solid concrete, the floor felt slightly spongy, as though carpeted with a thin layer of rubber. The walls felt smoother–like some kind of plastic. The lighting–provided by a continuous illuminated strip running along the center of all the ship’s walls–felt warmer than the compound’s harsh fluorescents. It felt strange to think that her life with Nikola’s Children was over. She had spent almost her entire life inside the compound. Sarah had known it would end–they drilled the idea of colonizing the New Home into all the kids who grew up there, but that idea never seemed entirely real. Sarah had believed only because It’s what her father told her to believe. After Sarah passed through the mess hall and into another hallway, the lights flickered and took on a reddish hue. Sarah’s vision went hazy and she felt nauseated. Was it the ship that was trembling? Or her?. A whispering noise tickled the edge of Sarah’s perception. The whispering washed over her in waves, coming from further down the hall. Sarah placed her hand on one wall, bracing herself, and took a few shaky steps. Bae made distressed noises at her feet. “Shhh,” Sarah hushed the rhino-pig as she followed the whispering to its source. As she drew closer it sounded like a man’s voice, coming from a room further down the hall. Sarah stepped gingerly as she approached the doorway, then peeked inside. Stacks of gray crates filled the room, surrounding an old man at its center. Beneath a dark, hooded robe Sarah saw the man’s thin white beard below his shadowy, sunken eyes. He stood next to a container–different from the others in the room–and muttered at it. When his back turned, Sarah crept into the room and hid behind a crate. “We’ll be together again soon,” the man said in a strained, raspy voice. “I’ll perform the sacrament. I’ll deliver the sacrifice. Blood for blood. Blood for…” The old man started whimpering. Was he crying? “Oh my child,” said the man. “Oh my sweet, sweet child what have I done? What have I become?” The ship trembled and Sarah’s vision went blurry again. Fear gripped her chest. She leaned her back against the crate, breathing heavily. The old man’s raspy weeping terrified her. The noise of somebody falling in the hallway startled Sarah. “What was that? Who’s there?” the old man barked. Sarah grabbed Bae and scuttled to the other side of the crate, barely avoiding the old man’s gaze as he walked past on his way out of the room. The sound of the old man in the hallway faded. Sarah stood and looked at the container that the old man had been talking to. The ship trembled. The lights flickered. Sarah’s head felt hazy, like a fog had descended upon her senses. She walked to the container, and knelt to study it. There was a small dial at its base. The sense of dread that had gripped Sarah intensified, but she felt compelled to twist the dial. Bae backed away, growling. The container’s locking mechanism clicked, and white mist vented from its sides. Bae yelped, then scampered away. Sarah’s heart pounded as she gripped the edges of the lid, and pried it open. The billowing mist in the open container gradually thinned, revealing its grisly contents. Sarah’s eyes widened, and she gasped. Doyle rolled around on the sweat-soaked sheets covering the bed in his quarters. The discomfort had started while eating, and had grown into a bowling-ball sized pain in his gut. Laying on his back, Doyle tried massaging his abdomen, sending shivers of pain through his whole body. He swung his legs over and sat up on the edge of his bed. Did the ship have any laxatives? Did laxatives even exist three million years in the future? His legs wobbled as he stood up. Clutching his stomach, Doyle walked into the bathroom and splashed water on his face. He studied himself in the mirror. His grime-stained beard–fuller than it had ever been–was in stark contrast against the fresh, clean clothes he had managed to change into earlier. He needed to shave and clean up, but first he had to deal with the pain. Doyle stumbled across his quarters and out into the hallway. He started in the direction of the mess hall. Maybe there was medicine there, or maybe he could find some kind of sickbay. A ship this big had to have medical facilities. All Doyle knew was that bad things were happening inside of him, and he needed help. As he lurched through the hallway, Doyle felt his body tremble. Was that me, he thought, or did the whole ship shake? He remembered the tremors on the desert planet. His eyes darted to the ground. Was it… moving? His vision blurred and spun. The ground swirled, collapsing beneath him like a whirlpool of sand. The sand-worm, thought Doyle. How did it get on the ship? A sudden jolt of pain in Doyle’s abdomen sent him crashing to his knees. He clutched his stomach. There was a shriek–the sand-worm was attacking! Doyle raised his arms to cover his face. He opened his eyes, expecting to see the giant creature’s rows of concentric teeth closing in around him, but all he saw was the hallway ceiling. There was no shrieking monster. There was only Doyle, screaming at phantoms in his delirium. Doyle struggled back to his feet and continued down the hallway. He regretted eating all those food cubes. He regretted leaving his quarters. He should have tried to call Zuli for help. The quarters had nothing obvious like a telephone, but there were panels and buttons on the walls–surely there was something he could have used to communicate. Doyle reached the mess hall and spotted some green food cube leftovers. The sight made him retch. This was a terrible idea, he thought. Doyle rushed past the tables and chairs and into the hallway on the opposite side of the hall. He felt his legs–or the ship?–tremble again and he lost his balance. He teetered sideways and slammed hard into the wall before collapsing to the ground. “What was that? Who’s there?” Doyle heard a voice say from further down the hall. It was a man’s voice he didn’t recognize. “Help,” Doyle tried to yell. It came out as more of a hoarse whisper. “Get Zuli, I need help.” Through pain and blurry vision, Doyle saw what looked like an old man in a dark hooded robe approaching. “Yes,” said the old man. Doyle’s spirits lifted. He had done it! He had found help! The old man, Doyle’s savior, spoke as Doyle’s senses faded and he lost his grip on consciousness. “Yes,” the man said again. “You’ll do nicely.” “We’re less than a cycle away now, I should let the old man know,” said Zuli. She sat in a chair at the center of the bridge, facing a large curved glass display behind an array of control panels. Desmond was plugged into one of the control panels, charging his power banks and providing him access to the ship’s data stores. “My friends?” Desmond asked. He had learned enough of the woman’s language from the ship’s computer for rudimentary communications. It surprised him how efficiently his body was able to run his training routines–the Ark’s computers had processed data at a snail’s pace by comparison. “In their quarters,” said Zuli, after glancing at one of the control panels. “Getting some rest, I hope. They looked… weary.” “They had, difficult time on planet,” said Desmond. Zuli nodded. “It is good that the Prophets led me to you.” “Prophets?” Desmond asked. The word Zuli had used was unknown to him. “Yes, the Prophets,” said Zuli. “You do not know the Prophets? You have no… religion?” Desmond recognized that word. Heady Armstrong, the Youtuber whose videos his training routines had ingested for three million years, had strong opinions about religion. “Ah, religion,” said Desmond. “No, I have no religion.” Zuli nodded somberly. “Perhaps I can teach you of…” The ship shook slightly and one of the panels in front of Zuli started flashing. Desmond’s training algorithms stopped executing. Running diagnostics on his connection to the ship didn’t reveal any obvious problems. Why had his body terminated the processes? He stepped closer to Zuli and looked at the control panel. “What happened?” asked Desmond. “I do not know,” said Zuli. “A millicycle ago there was nothing at the old man’s coordinates. Now there is something.” “Something?” asked Desmond. “Yes,” said Zuli. She looked up at Desmond. “Oh! You are glowing!” Desmond looked down. Glowing blue lines had appeared, tracing intricate geometric patterns over his body. His body started spinning up dozens of new processes that he had never seen execute before. “Are we close to it?” asked Desmond. “Too close,” said Zuli. “I cannot stop our approach. The ship has stopped responding.” The ship shuddered again. “Can I see?” asked Desmond, pointing at the large curved glass panel. “Yes,” said Zuli. She made some gestures against the control panel, and the large glass display went dark. “Is that it?” asked Desmond. Zuli nodded and pointed at the large darkened screen. “Something is there,” she said. Desmond looked again. There was a spot at the center of the screen that looked darker than its surroundings. Desmond adjusted the gamma of his ocular sensors to get a better look. The dark mass at the center of the screen seemed to be moving–like its surface was a living, writhing thing. A series of whirring and clacking noises rang through the bridge. Desmond felt his body moving on its own, lowering its center of gravity, exposing concealed components. Canons extended from his forearms; his legs divided into an array of spider-like limbs; a device extended from his back and emitted a flash of blue light, surrounding Desmond’s transformed body in a translucent, shimmering honey-combed shield. Even if Desmond didn’t know what that thing on the screen was, his body did–and its response was to prepare for battle. “We should leave,” said Desmond. Zuli stared with her mouth open. “I am trying,” she said. An alarm sounded and another panel started blinking. Zuli tore her eyes from Desmond to look at it. “There is a new problem!” she cried. “What is it?” asked Desmond. “One of the ship’s airlocks is opening,” she said. “Your friend is inside!” “Whoah,” said Desmond. He tested his control over his new robot spider legs and prepared to see how fast they could go. “Tell me where.” – It was a child. Or at least what remained of one. Sarah stared at the grotesque figure inside the container in horror. It couldn’t have been more than five or six when it had died. The body was too twisted and mutilated to tell if it had been a boy or girl. The sound of footsteps in the hallway broke Sarah from her stupor. She grabbed the container’s lid and slid it back into place. The locking mechanism clicked, and the dial that had released the lid started tightening on its own. Sarah scrambled to another stack of containers. She peeked out from behind in time to see the old man reappear at the door. The old man scuffled to his container at the center of the room, muttering under his breath. The old man knelt next to his container and turned the dial to release the lid. Sarah tried to make out what he was saying. “The sacrifice is ready,” she heard, and a shiver ran down her spine. The old man tenderly lifted the corpse and cradled it in his arm. Then he reached back into the container and pulled out a rifle of some sort. Damn, thought Sarah–if she had known that had been hiding under the body she could have grabbed it herself. The old man started walking back toward the door. Sarah crouched, getting ready to sneak after him, but a familiar sound stopped her cold. The high pitched bark was unmistakable–Bae had made the same sound on the planet during the sand-worm attack. Still hiding, Sarah desperately looked toward the old man. She could hear Bae, but cargo containers by the door obscured her view. All she could see was the old man from the waist up, as he pointed his rifle at the ground in front of him. “Filthy creature,” the old man said. The rifle fired before Sarah could react, and then there was silence. It felt like her heart had stopped in her chest. Sarah wanted to scream, but she had lost the ability to speak; she wanted to lunge at the old man–to turn him into a mangled corpse like the one cradled in his arm, but she had lost the ability to move. She could only watch, grief-stricken as the old man kicked something from his path, then walked out into the hall. Sarah’s mind was a jumble–whether seconds passed or minutes, she wasn’t sure. She thought of Bae, and her anguish gradually dissipated, leaving blind rage in its place. She never had a pet growing up–they were unheard of in the Nikola’s Children compound. She knew from the internet that keeping pets was something that other people did, but she never understood why–until Bae. The little rhino-pig was everything to her–had been her sole source of happiness since she woke up on the desert planet. And now Bae was gone. It pained Sarah to think of Bae’s little body–kicked aside like a piece of trash. She shielded her eyes as she ran to the door. She would return for Bae later. Now was not the time for mourning. Now was the time for one thing and one thing only–seared into every fiber of Sarah’s being: Revenge. The ship started trembling again as Sarah stormed after the old man. The light emitted by the strips along the walls seemed to dim as she went. She slowed when she heard the old man’s voice around a corner ahead. An image of the rifle aimed at her face flashed through Sarah’s mind–a head-on assault wouldn’t work. She needed to be careful. She needed to keep the element of surprise. The dim lights were flickering now, creating an eerie strobe effect as Sarah peeked around the corner. The old man had laid the child’s body on the ground. He clutched the rifle and chanted, waving his hands over the corpse. Sarah couldn’t hear his words over the deep rumble of the trembling ship. A control panel jutted from the wall behind the old man. Across the hall was a large sealed door with a long window. It looked like the door they had boarded the ship through–on the other side had been a decompression chamber and another door that opened to the ship’s exterior. Something was moving in there. It was a man, frantically banging his fists against the window. Doyle! The old man continued his ritual around the child’s corpse, ignoring Doyle. Sarah blinked. She thought her mind was playing tricks on her–it looked like the area around the dead child’s body had grown darker. The black aura seemed to swell outward as the old man chanted. It almost looked alive–like a shadowy mass of writhing black tentacles. The ship’s trembling intensified. The old man finally glanced toward Doyle, who still pounded at the door. The old man leaned his rifle against the wall, turning his back to Sarah to face the airlock’s control panel. Now was her chance! Sarah charged into the hallway and sprinted as fast as she could. The old man turned to face her, and grabbed for his rifle. But it was too late–Sarah barreled into the old man, sending him soaring down the hallway. The rifle clattered on the ground and slid out of the old man’s reach. Sarah regained her balance and turned to the airlock. Doyle stared out at her. Sarah turned to the control panel and slammed her fist down on a large red button near its center. The inner airlock door hissed and slid up into the ceiling. Doyle didn’t look so good. He clutched his stomach and winced. “What the fuck, Sarah!” Doyle said. “How did you know that button would open this door and not the other one?” Sarah looked at the control panel. She hadn’t noticed before that there was a large green button next to the red one she had pressed. She opened her mouth to say “oops,” but the butt of the old man’s rifle slamming into the back of her head interrupted her. She cried out and stumbled into Doyle. “You’re too late!” cried the old man. “The sacrament is complete! All that remains is the sacrifice!” The old man pointed his rifle at Sarah and Doyle and took a step forward. Sarah stepped back into the airlock. “Why are you doing this?” she shouted. The old man, still aiming the rifle, glanced back at the child’s body on the ground. “It was my fault,” the old man said. His demeanor changed–a profound sadness replaced the vitriol in his voice. He wept. “She was all I had, and it was my fault. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. This is the only way.” Sarah inched forward while the old man’s attention was on the child’s body. She stared at the rifle in his hands. Just a little closer and she could reach it. The old man spun to face Sarah. The sadness in his eyes vanished. “This is the only way,” he repeated. The venom had returned to his voice. “I have performed the sacrament of rebirth, now I offer the sacrifice. Blood for blood, a life taken for a life given!” Sarah saw the old man tighten his grip on the rifle. She shoved Doyle out of the way, then dove in the opposite direction. The blast passed between Sarah and Doyle, hitting the window on the door behind them–the one leading directly to the ship’s exterior. A crack formed across the window, and a creaking noise rang through the air. “Grab something!” Doyle shouted. Sarah scrambled toward the hallway and grabbed the edge of the inner doorway. The glass on the outer door shattered. A blast of air blew past and lifted Sarah’s body off the ground. Holding on for dear life, she looked up and saw the old man clutching the airlock control panel. His beard and the hood of his cloak flapped furiously in the rushing air. “Blood for blood!” the old man screamed over the howling wind. Then he let go of the control panel. Sarah watched aghast as the old man’s flailing body blew past, slammed into the outer door, then bent backwards at a horrifying angle as it squeezed through the shattered window and ejected into the cold vacuum of space. As Sarah watched the old man’s body tumble away from the ship, she felt something take hold of her arm. She looked and saw Desmond–at least, she thought it was Desmond. Blue luminescent lines covered his body, and he glowed with a shimmering light. His lower body had transformed into a dozen articulated spider-like legs. Desmond retrieved Doyle with one arm and pulled Sarah from the airlock with the other. Once they were both clear of the doorway, Desmond used one of his insect legs on the control panel, and the inner airlock door hissed shut. The gusting wind ceased, and silence descended upon the hallway. The blue lines on Desmond’s body and the light surrounding him faded away. His insect legs recombined into the humanoid legs Sarah was more familiar with, and what looked like a pair of cannons retracted back into his forearms. “I didn’t know you could do that!” Sarah said excitedly. “Dude, neither did I!” said Desmond. “Doyle did you see that? Did you know he could do that?” Doyle curled up into a fetal position and moaned. A familiar sound rang out from further down the hallway. Sarah perked up and spun around, hunting for the sound’s source. Could it be? But the old man had shot her! There at the end of the hallway, a large sooty stain on her side, stood Bae. The rhino-pig gave a honk, then started charging toward Sarah. Sarah felt like her heart was going to explode as she ran toward Bae. She scooped the little animal up in her arms and squeezed tight as she tumbled to the ground, laughing as Bae squealed with glee and licked her face. “Aw, look at that,” said Desmond. “Isn’t that cute?” “I think I shit myself,” moaned Doyle. Desmond sat at the mess hall table and stroked Bae in his lap. Despite a little charring, it seemed that the rhino-pig’s thick hide had absorbed most of the rifle’s shot. “So do you think you can do that blue glowy thing again? And those legs! Wow that was insane!” said Sarah. “I know right? But I can’t control it,” said Desmond. “It’s some kind of automated defense system.” “What triggered it?” asked Sarah. “Something that old man was doing?” “Nah,” said Desmond. He still didn’t know what the thing was that his body’s sensors had reacted to. “Something outside caused it. Whatever messed the ship up and made the lights go screwy also affected me.” Zuli entered the mess hall, carrying a covered tray in her arms. “Whatever that thing was, it weakened enough after the old man died that I was able to pull the ship away,” she said. She placed the tray on the table between Sarah and Doyle. “Did anyone see what happened to that gross corpse the old man had in his container?” asked Sarah. Doyle shrugged. “Probably blown out the airlock.” “I watched the old man go, but I didn’t see that,” said Sarah. “Did you see that?” “Where else could it have gone?” asked Desmond. He hadn’t seen the body when he arrived, after the old man had already died. “Anyway, what’s on the menu?” Doyle asked, staring suspiciously at the covered serving tray that Zuli brought. “Do not worry,” said Zuli. “The ship’s harvester drones processed a new food supply from the last planet they harvested. You will not have to eat food cubes again.” Doyle sighed with relief. “I’ll eat anything,” said Sarah. “I mean, anything is better than…” Zuli pulled the cover off the tray, revealing a steaming pile of baby sand-worms in a puddle of purple goo. Desmond looked down at Bae, who was squirming to get out of his arms. He lifted her onto the table. The little animal scampered to the pile of worms and started gobbling them down. Sarah calmly slid her chair away from the table, stood up, and turned away. “Where are you going?” asked Zuli. “To the airlock,” said Sarah. “There’s a big green button calling my name.”
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