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.