Later, Marris would feel a sense of satisfaction that the first instinct of every member of her team had been to move toward the unnatural screaming darkness rather than away from it.
At the time, however, all she felt was surging adrenaline, cold terror and the fierce determination to keep both firmly under control.
It was difficult in the face of that howling void – a gaping blackness framed, almost incongruously, by the drably painted laboratory wall – but she kept her voice level, willing it to communicate a confidence and certainty she only dimly felt. “Albright, Devereux, keep to the rear. Five metre gap. Coleridge, De Santos, Garrison with me. Coleridge, you’re on point. With me.”
Fortunately, the orders required little thought, as did the automatic flipping of her sidearm’s safety as she unholstered it. The pistol purred contentedly then settled into a barely perceptible hum. She paused for just a moment at the threshold of the corridor.
The screaming had been steadily rising in pitch since the blackness had first appeared. She couldn’t be certain, but she thought she heard distinct voices. Gomez and Hendrickson, perhaps? It was difficult to tell. She didn’t want to think about what might be happening to them to cause that agonising, desperate shrieking. She didn’t want to think about what waited for them beyond the threshold, the stark dividing line between light and…
The screaming stopped.
The silence that rushed to fill its place seemed almost obscene in comparison. There were no whimpers or sobs or moans. There was nothing. One moment their ears had been assaulted by sounds wrenched from the pain-wracked depths of somebody’s being. The next, a crawling silence flowed over them like a suffocating shroud, terrible in its implications.
She cleared her throat.
“Any readings, Garrison?”
It took a moment for the science officer to reply.
“My scanner is registering this section of the laboratory as perfectly normal. Matter consistent with the rest of this section of the ship. No unusual radiation waves. There’s a concentration of phased particles ahead of us, but it’s diminishing quite quickly. Almost as if they’re being absorbed into the fabric of the… whatever that is.”
Garrison sounded rattled. Marris didn’t blame him. She examined the darkness for a moment. It had substance, a troubling suggestion of solidity that scratched painfully on the blackboard of her mind. The light beams of her helmet seemed to sink into it, fading from her sight perhaps half a metre or so in.
She took a breath. And stepped over. Into the darkness.
She was aware of Coleridge beside her, aware of his breathing – controlled but louder than normal. Most of all, however, she was aware of the darkness, aware of the manner in which it clung to the walls, seeming to congeal upon them, seep through the fabric of them, leak out through them from some unfathomable reservoir of liquid night.
The sensation of envelopment, of incipient claustrophobia, threatened to take hold of her limbs. She made herself take the next step. And the next.
And then, like filthy suffocating curtains, the darkness parted.
In her ear, Coleridge swore; she couldn’t bring herself to reprimand him.
With awakening had come awareness.
With awareness had come a jumble of sensations, emotions and thoughts.
The voice continued to speak, its words soothing and reassuring, although there was an undercurrent of urgency to them that threatened to destabilise and disrupt its gentle crooning.
“Open your mind.”
It quivered, sensation rippling across its skin in soft undulations.
“You will be free…. Open your mind.”
What did the voice mean? How could a mind be opened? How could it be closed?
“Allow my thoughts to enfold yours. You will be free.”
Free of what?
“I will show you. It will hurt. Be prepared.”
Like the rest of the ship, the Genetics Research Suite was bathed in red emergency lighting. Here too, archipelagos of dirty white chemical foam stood out from the dark flooring. Streaks of the stuff glistened on nearby workbenches and analysis stations.
Marris and her men scanned the area. Wherever the Kalaz’an missile had struck it wasn’t here. This was the GRS’ hub, a large atrium, in which the research team had met, shared data and findings, and monitored the remote experiments taking place in other parts of the suite. There was no sign of impact nor of any of the dozen personnel that had been stationed here.
Marris felt a twisting in her gut. The notion that the Kalaz’an had known not only exactly what they were looking for, but also exactly where it was, was beginning to become an ugly and disturbing certainty in her mind. Had she been set up? Were she and every crew member on this ship merely pawns in a wider game? She prayed not, but had to concede at least the possibility. Only she and the research team had known the full implications of what was hidden down here. Even Gordon and Garrison hadn’t been told everything.
Marris glanced across at the tall, stoop-shouldered science officer and felt a pang of envy. How pleasant to be ignorant…
“No sign of impact…” Garrison’s helmeted head swung her way, the flashlights embedded either side of the faceplate blinding her for a split second before the reactive plastiglass of her own helm darkened. “Hang on.”
But, Marris’ infofeed, displayed to one side of the helm’s visor, had already alerted her.
“Phased particles,” she snapped. “Over there. Just enough to form a trace.” There were five doors leading out of the atrium, including the one through which they’d just entered. The Kalaz’an missile had phased through the atrium wall just a few centimetres away from one of the security doors leading into the inner recesses of the suite. Marris was unsurprised to see that that particular door opened on a corridor that would eventually lead to a laboratory that did not officially exist. A laboratory which housed a project on which the hopes of an empire rested.
“Hendrickson, Gomez…” Marris nodded to two nearby security officers. “Through there.”
She, Garrison and the other four guardsmen watched as Hendrickson overrode the security code with his keywand and the heavy metal door began to slide upwards. The space behind the door was shrouded in shadow. There was no emergency lighting active in that part of the suite, no lighting of any kind.
Crouching low, Gomez took a step forward, her phase rifle parallel with the floor. Hendrickson was a couple of steps behind her, standing taller, so that his plasma gun had an unobstructed field of fire over her shoulder. Their helmet beams criss-crossed each other, dispersing the shadows, illuminating an empty corridor, its identification markings picked out in bland, official blue and red script.
Centimetre by centimetre they made their way down the corridor.
“Looks clear,” came Gomez’ voice. “Hold on. There’s something…”
Both the audio feed and the two security officers’ helmet lights cut out at the same time. The darkness returned with a vengeance. To Marris and the others, it appeared that the two officers had simply been swallowed by the shadows.
There was a moment of shocked silence.
“Gomez?” Marris said, taking a tentative step forward towards the shadowed entrance.
With a fizzing hiss, the audio feed snapped back on. And then the screaming started.
The bridge of the Valiant was dominated by a holographic tank that bulged out of the wall directly in front of the Captain’s chair, currently occupied by Lieutenant-Commander Sam Gordon. Updated constantly by an unending stream of data from sensors on the hull and within the superstructure of the vessel, the tank was currently displaying the state of combat between the Valiant and the Kalaz’an ship. The Valiant was pummelling its enemy with a tachyon broadside from its starboard batteries, while the Kalaz’an battle cruiser hung in space silently absorbing the impacts with – in the holographic recreation at least if not in reality – pink, orange and, occasionally, red flares of light blossoming on its screens, a representation of the likelihood of phase shield overload. Gordon found the enemy ship’s calm inscrutability profoundly unsettling. This was not the first time he had served on a vessel engaged by a Kalaz’an ship, but being part of the thirty-strong liberation fleet in the Battle of Von Bek’s World or running anti-incursion patrols on the edge of Earth Fleet space were completely different propositions to what he was experiencing now.
Gordon shifted in the command seat, biting down on the urge to ask Schofield for a situation report; the situation was blindingly obvious to anyone willing to cast even a cursory glance at the holo-tank.
He turned to Forster. The comms officer’s shaven head gleamed in the blood-red lighting and shadows pooled in her sunken cheeks. Her eyes were open but unseeing. Her lips moved subtly – pursing, twisting, relaxing. Mantras, catechisms, psycho-mnemonics that he couldn’t hear and wouldn’t be able to understand in any case animated them.
“Forster…” Gordon stopped himself. Interrupting a comms officer in communion was not an inherently dangerous thing to do, but it still felt… sacrilegious. “Forster!” Sharper this time. More authoritative. More like Marris. “Any breakthrough?”
Forster’s eyes remained closed, but her voice was clear and steady. “We remain outside beacon range. I have asked ShipMind to broadcast distress signal eight-alpha as a broadband transmission. It will take some time for response and even longer for the arrival of in-system reinforcements. I will continue to attempt to establish an independent beacon. It will take time.”
Gordon’s scowl deepened. “How much time?”
“Unknown.” Her voice softened a little. “I would suggest you leave me to it, sir. I will inform you if breakthrough is made.”
Resisting the urge to swear, Gordon turned his attention back to the holo-display. He zoomed in on the area of the hull currently shielding deck 13. A patch of discoloured, mottled polyferrocrete was visible, perhaps six or seven metres across. It didn’t look like much, just laser or plasma damage. But the analysis that was being currently updated alongside the holographic image told him that it was slowly but surely weakening the integrity of the hull in that area of the ship.
His finger stabbed down at the intercom.
“Damage control. How are we doing with those drones?”
The voice of Delacourt, one of the engineers responsible for shipboard maintenance, drifted faintly from the small speaker in the command chair, as if it were being transmitted from some distant facility in-system rather than from a mere three decks below him. Gordon frowned.
“… first batch ready in… minutes…”
“Repeat. I say again, repeat.”
“… say again… ten… in… we’re… breaking…”
The speaker hissed and popped for a moment and then went dead.
Gordon’s frown deepened.
Behind him, Forster broke her connection with the Valiant’s ShipMind with an anguished, drawn-out sob. Gordon whirled round to stare at her.
“The child…” she gasped, her eyes struggling to focus on him, her scalp gleaming with perspiration. “The child… is… awake.”
The gangways of Deck Fourteen were ankle deep in fire retardant foam, the ship’s automatic emergency procedures having evidently activated in the moments following the Kalaz’an torpedo’s impact. The Valiant was not adequately prepared for phase-shift technology. None of the old Vanguard-class cruisers were. Shiftshields and harmonic scramblers were for the newer ships of the line in the Galactic Defence Fleet, those that had been designed and constructed years after that first and disastrous contact with the Kalaz’an at Tau Ceti.
As she sloshed her way through the dirty residue of chemical slush, Marris scowled. Even in the uncertain light cast by the recessed emergency beacons, it was clear that there was very little evidence of fire damage; the ship’s response to the foreign object lodged in its bowels had, as had been the case at every stage of this encounter with the Kalaz’an battle cruiser, been almost laughably ineffective.
“They’ve made a mess of the hydroponic floors.” Even muffled in her ear, Garrison’s voice exuded bitterness. “It’s going to take weeks to sort them out.”
Do you think we’re going to have weeks?
Marris refrained from expressing the thought. Instead, she glanced over her shoulder. Six security officers followed her in a loose formation, keeping close to the walls, plasma and phase rifles at the ready, the weak lighting turning their polished black armour the colour of old blood.
“Reconnaissance pattern five,” she said, her voice sounding hollow in the confines of her helmet. “Slow and methodical.”
She didn’t feel slow and methodical. As she watched the guardsmen move past her, it took an immense amount of effort not to sprint past them, towards The Incubation Suite, the lab within a lab, the heart of the ship. Its very raison d’etre.
A series of shudders shook the ship and she almost slipped on the slick flooring. This was not the ghostly unreal touch of an out of phase missile bypassing the Valiant’s shielding. This was something else.
“Report.” The guardsmen ahead of her had halted their advance towards the Genetics lab, their leader turning to look at her. She urged them forward with a sharp jerk of her head. And then promptly forgot about them as Gordon’s voice crackled in her helm.
“Not entirely sure, but it would seem that the Kalaz’an had launched some sort of bio-munition prior to the phase torpedo strike. They’re small. Perhaps two or three millimetres across. Our shields have been calibrated to keep all matter out, but a few of them must have passed through in the torpedo’s wake. Not impossible if the phase field was extended widely enough.” Gordon paused. “When they came into contact with our polyferrocrete hull, they started expanding, apparently. Quite dramatically.” She could hear chatter in the background. Schofield perhaps. Or van der Vyne. “Er… apparently, it’s also highly reactive.” She could hear Gordon swallow. “It’s a metal-eater. Outer hull integrity is already down to 73% in the affected areas. Decks 11 and 12, rear to mid sections. What we felt just now was ShipMind trying to shield the affected area from further attack. And failing.”
Marris absorbed the new information for a moment. She had fought the Kalaz’an before, but this was new. She felt a horrible, desperate uncertainty twist in her gut.
“All right,” she said finally. “Damage control to the affected hull. Use the ceramic-plated drones…”
“They’ll need to be repurposed. They’re currently set up for…”
“I know. Just make it happen. Quickly. In the meantime, keep the affected areas clear of personnel. Have we started firing?”
“Affirmative. Their shields are holding, but the tachyon cannon is disrupting their offensive capabilities. We’re still in this.”
Marris bit her lip. Whether they were ‘still in this’ or not depended on a number of things of which Gordon was not fully aware. She watched as, ahead of her, the first of the guardsmen ducked into the laboratory complex. She spoke as she briskly walked towards them, Garrison behind her.
“I want our laser and plasma batteries primed for instant salvo if and when their phase shields fail.”
“They’re out of effective plasma range and…”
“I don’t care at this point, Sam. Do it anyway.”
Clicking off the intercom, she followed her guardsmen into the Genetics Lab.
Schofield’s voice was unnaturally calm, his pinched face painted a lurid red in the emergency lighting.
Scowling, Marris gritted her teeth, clutched the arm rests on the command chair and braced for impact. There was a subtle, shivering shudder as the Kalaz’an missile slid through the Valiant‘s shields and then phased through the thick polyferrocrete of the old cruiser’s hull.
“Penetration!” Schofield again, his voice sharp.
A sudden, sickening lurch threw her against the harness; it seemed to Marris that the Valiant lost its artificial gravity for a second, bucking like a particularly truculent mount.
“Co-or…” Marris swallowed down the bile in her mouth. “Co-ordinates?”
On the periphery of her vision, Schofield wiped a trickle of blood from the fresh wound on his forehead.
“Deck fourteen.” He grimaced. “Genetic research.”
Marris swore and began to unbuckle herself.
She glared at Gordon, fixing her second in command with as steely a look as she could manage under the circumstances. She stood uncertainly. The arti-grav had reasserted itself, but her sense of balance had yet to settle. She made herself straighten up. Gordon watched her carefully.
“You have the conn. You can start by directing energy to the phasic shields on the engine decks and calculating additional firing spreads for the tachyon cannon. I will not allow this ship to be fired upon without reply.” Nodding curtly, Gordon turned to the intercom on his console and began snapping orders at the Weapons Officer on the firing deck.
Marris glanced across at her Science Officer who was watching her warily. “Garrison, you’re with me. We’ll pick up a security detail on the way.”
Not waiting for a reply, she headed towards the SpineWay, removing her decidedly irregular hand blaster from its holster as she did so.
Only she and Garrison knew what the Kalaz’an were after; only she knew why they were after it. This was something she had to take care of personally. Whatever the cost, she would not let the filthy mindshredders steal The Child.
Author’s Note: This may be the start of something new. Who knows? I have a couple of good ideas for this. We’ll see where it goes.