Part III: Creeping Shadows

Hands shaking, Grace pulled herself free from the still frosted confines of the hibernation pod. She sank to her knees and inserted her ring finger into the ID port on the side of the storage locker beneath the pod. The device popped open with a soft beep that was drowned out by the rhythmic drone of the alert sirens.

She started to look around to see if anyone else had been awakened as part of whatever the hell was going on here and decided she didn’t care. With desperate speed, she tore off her damp skin suit and tossed it aside, quickly wrapping herself with the coarse towel that had been stored next to her personal effects. The meager cloth was hardly a source of warmth, but Grace pulled it tightly around herself nonetheless.

There she knelt and shivered. She was unsure how long remained there—maybe seconds, potentially minutes, possibly longer—but she eventually became aware of the pain from her bare knees being pressed too long against the grated floor. With a shuddering breath, she ran the towel one last time over her body and seized her clothes, boots, and sidearm from the footlocker.

Once clothed, she looked around the cryo-bay once more, still checking to see if anyone else had been so rudely awakened. Her investigation revealed one additional open hibernation pod, but the former occupant was nowhere to be found. All other passengers in her bay were still under, their vital signs and neurological activity within expected parameters.

So, what in Sol’s name had happened to her pod?

A hiss sounded on her left, and Grace snapped up her pistol.

The door in front of her had irised open, showing nothing but an empty corridor. There was no sign of who or what had triggered the opening. Another glitch, perhaps?

Grace stood there for a moment, her chest heaving with deep, steadying breaths. She shook her head, closing her eyes hard and then opening them again. There seemed to be a kind of haze in the air. Beneath the heady stench of ozone and recycled oxygen, lay the hint of another aroma. Something burning. A fried circuit perhaps?

That would at least explain the open door. It also might explain why the portal hadn’t shut again in the expected interval. It still stood gaping, an ovoid mouth welcoming her down a crimson-lighted throat of a corridor. Somewhere down that corridor, she heard another door hiss open. She didn’t hear it close.

Vent me. This was getting stranger and more uncomfortable by the minute. What should I do?

Staying here wasn’t going to help her at all. Now that she was out of cryo, she was going to need to attend to her basic needs. That meant finding food and water. The urgency of that need was entirely dependent on how much time was left in the voyage. How long was the trip from Prudence to New Gaia? She couldn’t remember.

Fine, I’ll walk through the creepy corridor and see what I can find. Grace stepped forward, slowly, carefully, never lowering her weapon. She stared down the barrel of her sidearm the entire time as she moved into the vacant corridor.

The space seemed much the same as the cryo-bay: sterile military space vessel stylings illuminated only by the pulsing red emergency lights which throbbed in time with the low droning siren. She moved to the first access panel on her left and tried to palm it open. No response.

Soon she became aware of a faint buzzing that registered almost below her level of awareness. As she progressed down the corridor, that buzz grew into a low hum that seemed to scratch at her brain stem. When the pitch reached a point where she felt the uncontrollable urge to twist her neck and flex her shoulders, she noticed the effect on her vision. Things were getting blurry around the edges. Darker too.

Gas exposure? Grace wasn’t an engineer, but she was sure all kinds of hazardous chemicals were necessary to make these metallic behemoths thwart the laws of physics. It was reasonable to assume they might be unsafe for direct human exposure. She backpedaled, hoping the sensation might be due to her proximity to some damaged coil or other apparatus further up the corridor. It didn’t help. The sensations only grew stronger.

Damn it. Her stomach turned. Her head began to throb in time with the lighting. Whatever was happening to her, it was getting worse. She needed to find help.

“Hello?” she called, straining to hear a response. Nothing but dust and echoes.

She pressed on until she came to an open portal on her left. This must have been the door she’d heard earlier. As if to confirm this, another hissing sound emanated from somewhere up the stairs in the neighboring corridor. It was almost as if the ship was leading her forward.

“Ship AI,” she said. “Can you hear me? Is this part of the emergency protocol?” She was certain she wasn’t referring to anything by its correct terminology. Shit, she was just a private, and one that had just finished a five-month planet-side detail to boot.

The AI didn’t respond. No one responded. All she heard was the continued moan of the sirens and that infernal buzzing in her brain. She felt the urge to throw up once more.

I’ve got to do this. I can’t go down like this. She didn’t sell her honor and integrity back to the Solarian Monarchy—much less those wretched Theracite Mercenaries—to die in some freak warp accident. If there was a way out of this, it lay up those stairs, and dammit, she was going to go and find it.

She didn’t find a solution at the top of the stairs, but she did find an open elevator. Closing her eyes in protest against what she was sure was another foolish decision, she stepped inside.

At least the light in the lift wasn’t pulsing like everywhere else on the ship. She released one hand from her pistol grip and reached out to the surrounding bulkhead to steady herself.

The lift door hissed shut. The elevator surged upward. Grace cursed. Had she accidentally touched the control terminal? She turned to look.

A wet, squelching, slithering noise sounded from just over her shoulder. Grace forgot her original intention and snapped back around.

The bulkhead. Something was crawling out of the bulkhead. How, she couldn’t be certain. There were no gaps, no openings. Still, the crawling darkness crept out of the seams of the metal plating. Each shadowy tendril crackled with the sound of breaking ice as it slid millimeter by millimeter out of the seams and onto the bulkhead and across the metal plating. The things seemed to amplify the buzzing in her head.

They amplified them to the point of words. Grace heard the message clearly: Get down.

She didn’t notice when the lift came to a sudden halt. The door hissed open. Two pairs of hands seized her from behind. Grace screamed.

“Easy, private,” came a deep, sonorous voice. “Stand down. We’ve got you. Stand down. Everything is going to be fine.”

Grace knew that voice. “General?”

“Yes,” replied Garret Jax. “You’re safe now. We’re going to let you go. Please, stow your weapon and remain calm.”

Grace nodded, and the two pairs of arms—the General’s and those of someone she did not recognize—released her. She kept her promise and holstered her pistol before turning around. “Respectfully, sir,” she said, “what in the hell is going on here?”

“We’ll get to that, Private. Right now, we need to—”

The general was cut off by the sound of gunfire on the bridge. Cries of, “Man down. Man down,” were nearly drowned out by the screams of, “We have to get down. Cut warp. We don’t belong here. We have to go. We have to go.”

Jax cursed, raising a pistol Grace hadn’t noticed him carrying. “Private Anders, Ensign Williams, on me. Aim to wound. I repeat: don’t make this fatal.” Without waiting for acknowledgment, he dashed to the adjoining chamber. The other soldier—Ensign Williams, she presumed—was right behind him. A quick curse slipped from Grace’s lips as she fell into formation behind them, weapon raised once more.

They were on the bridge, she soon realized. A slender officer was on the ground being attended to by another soldier. The injured member of the pair—a dark-haired woman—shook with the effort of each breath. Her attendant whispered the expected encouragements and platitudes issued by anyone who held a person who was obviously dying.

Just beyond them, three burly men held back a fourth who was straining to get to a nearby console. The fourth man’s pistol—the one which he had presumably used to murder the woman on the floor—had been knocked a short distance away. Despite his relatively slender build to the three who were attempting to restrain him, he was putting up one hell of a fight.

“We don’t belong here,” he shrieked. “We have to get down. We need to find the Earth. Oh god, we don’t belong here.”

One of the men holding him, a massive dark-skinned man with biceps the size of Grace’s calves, attempted to secure him in a headlock. “Jose, it isn’t real. Calm down, man, it’s just the warp screwing with your b—”

The madman, Jose, elbowed the larger soldier in the solar plexus just before he managed to pop another guy in the nose. Two foes down, it was easy for Jose to struggle free of the last man’s grip and surge to the command console. He muttered the same words over and over again as he attempted to access the interface. “We have to get down. We have to get down.”

In the next instant, Jax holstered his weapon and launched himself at Jose. The pair fell away from the terminal, tumbling a short distance. Based on size and momentum, there should have been no way Jax wouldn’t come out on top.

Yet, Jose managed to fling Jax off of him, sending the bigger man careening into the far bulkhead. Worse yet, Jose snatched his pistol off the floor and aimed it at Jax.

Maybe it was panic. Maybe it was training. Maybe it was just one more Sol’s damned mistake that Grace made in the heat of the moment. Regardless, her actions were lethal and immediate.

She sent one, two, three shots straight into Jose’s center mass. From her left, she heard at least two more shots report from Williams’ weapon. Orders be damned.

“Target down,” she managed after a prolonged silence. She triggered her safety and holstered her weapon once more.

“Are you okay, sir?” Williams asked.

Jax grunted as he rolled to his knees. “I’ll be fine.” He looked back across the bridge. “Sergeant Patel?”

The soldier hovering over the fallen woman shook his head. “She’s gone, General. I’m sorry.”

Jax cursed. “Everyone else, status report. Captain Freeman, did Jose manage to access the navigation system?”

The largest of the remaining soldiers stood and stumbled over to the console. “No, sir. He didn’t get past the system locks.”

“What was he trying to do?” Grace asked, only belatedly realizing she’d spoken out of turn.

Freeman looked to Jax, who nodded. “He was trying to pull us out of warp space,” the soldier reported. “Third one to attempt it. The other two have been confined to quarters.”

Sol’s light. “Why the hell would he do that?”

No one answered at first. Garret Jax inspected Jose’s body, as if there could be any doubt the man might be dead. When he stood, he looked Grace directly in the eye. “That, Private Anders, is a longer story.”