After the Ghost Ship, our own ship seemed like the safest space in the world. You need to understand something about danger and safety. It is always relative. If I throw you in the middle of a war zone and I’ve plucked you out of a birthday party, you’ll freeze. Your muscles will go on lockdown. Your heart rate will spike. Your lungs will seize up as you gasp for breath and your adrenaline levels will go through the roof.
The most spectacular change however will be invisible. If you could see your brain under these conditions you will see a dozen neural centers all lit up like Christmas trees, firing off messages that will fail to get where they’re supposed to because your brain will be awash with cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol shuts down some of the higher centers of the brain which means the messages you most need in order to survive are simply not getting through. The overload in chemicals that zip about but achieve nothing soon creates its own gridlock. Your survival is totally not guaranteed.
I have been in war zones. The reason my brain doesn’t shut down like that is the same as the Regulators. We’ve been trained. “Battle hardening” is what they call it in the militarized planets where the War Academies are. Basically they train us to know what to expect. They then train us to expect the unexpected. They teach our brains when to peak and when to chill. We learn to take the relative for what it is and make the most of it. This replenishes the brain’s and body’s biochemistry and resets us fast.
On board the ship I take a few moments to change the charge on my blaster to a full pack. I then sit in one of the deck seats and just breathe in and out for a few. I feel my lungs open up, my brain come down to normal. Within minutes I am good to go again.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Raynar do the same. He’s in a seat. Taking a few deep breaths. Trained professionals make the most of the downtime they get. There’s never knowing when it will come round again. He takes a little longer than me to come out of it. It was a close call he had back there on the Ghost Ship. Close calls take a toll. Professionals appear to brush them off, take things in their stride but that’s not how it works.
Pain, fear, uncertainty they all build up. Everyone made of flesh and blood, carbon and dust, responds the same way. Professionals acknowledge their feelings. They take the build up and push it away, in a very special place at the very back of their mind. And from there, they will pull it back to the front and examine it again, at some other time, when it will be safe to do so. When the heart palpitations and hand tremors and eye twitches will not be incapacitating because there will be no danger around. That’s how professionals deal with this.
“Good to go?” I ask Raynar. He nods. Peels himself off the seat he’d been in. Checks to see if I am still armed. It’s a subconscious thing. “Reed’s off to do his thing with the power cell-”
I am cut off by a scream. It comes through the intercom loud and clear. There is real pain in it. Agonizing pain. The sort of thing that cannot be faked. And it’s Sam’s.
“Where?” Raynar begins.
“Level below,” I say. My eyes are already scanning the monitors to see if there are any active feeds. I don’t see anything we can use so we both break into a sprint to get there fast.
We hit the corridor at a breakneck pace. There is one more agonizing scream over the intercom and it’s cut short. The silence makes our hearts pound harder. Raynar and I clamp down on the fear. Our legs work and our arms pump and we reach the shaft that will take us to the level below simultaneously.
I dive in first. I’m known for my impulsiveness in the face of the unknown. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard. Raynar is hard on my heels.
I hit the deck, blaster in hand and eyes scanning the space. It’s a holding area. Empty. The kind that ships have that doubles as anything they need it to be. Empty space is easy to convert. What was Sam doing here? Where-
I see the blood. There is a lot of it. A long, thick trail that ends up in a pool by the far side of the hull. The blaster is poised in front of me now.
“What the-” Raynar gasps and his eyes and mine together make contact with Sam’s body. What’s left of it. One of her arms has been torn off completely. Her body lies at an angle. Flung like a rag doll. A broken toy. Both legs are folded under her at the knee. Her chest looks crumpled inside her Regulator uniform. Ribcage smashed.
I spin around, eyes darting everywhere. It’s instinct more than anything else. I know of only one thing that can do that kind of damage to a human body. I saw it on the Ghost Ship. There is movement at the far end. Shadows moving.
At the shaft we dropped down on. I raise the blaster but the movement before I can take any action.
“Chimera,” I say. I am not 100% sure, but it looks that way.
“How?” Raynar sounds cool and collected as he runs beside me. Whatever he’s feeling he has a tight lid on it.
“I don’t know yet. But we need to get it.” I liked Sam. From the two Regulators she had definitely been the one with the better sense of self control and better brains.
“Yes,” Raynar’s tense.
“Reed,” I say on the comms. “Can you hear me?”
“What’s the situation with the fuel cell?”
“I have everything in place. I am running diagnostics but it all looks good so far. We should be able to get going in maybe 40 minutes.”
“Ok. Listen. We have a Chimera on board.”
“What?” Reed’s voice, usually so cool, loses some of its customary coolness.
“Get everyone on the bridge.”
“Everyone?” he asks.
“Yes. Especially Tessa and the girl. Sick bay is way too accessible.” Sick bays by their very nature are.
“Button down the bridge. Get us underway. Let no one else in apart from me and Raynar.” It’s a second or two before it sinks in. He’s running scans maybe to confirm.
Then: “What about Sam. The Regulator?”
“She’s dead.” I have a terrible way of breaking bad news, I know. “This thing killed her. Raynar and I are going to get it. Out.”
“You’d better have this,” I say to Raynar. In my hand I am holding a second blaster. A little less powerful than the one at my waist. A back-up piece for me. Just as lethal. Just as accurate.
He takes it without a word. Getting Sam’s killer and making sure the ship is safe is our priority right now.
Ships are metal cans. With tubes and boxes inside. The tubes get you to the boxes. I know, I know. Shipwrights, the AI-augmented geniuses who build these things would want me tied up and shot if they could hear my description. First, they’d have to take a number and join the queue for that. Second, they can’t hear me.
Raynar and I get real busy running, sliding and jumping from tube to box to tube to box again. We try to secure each one by locking the airlocks and sealing the doors but we are just not sure if the Chimera would be able to open them, just like we can. There’s just not enough known about these deadly things, except perhaps the fact that they’re deadly.
Hunting a deadly enemy on a ship, in space is a game of narrowing statistics. The more tubes we travel through and the more boxes we secure the higher are the odds that we shall find our quarry. Which means it also stands a higher chance than average of finding us.
“This is freaking hard,” I am out of breath and sweating heavily.
Raynar grants his agreement. He too is covered in sweat.
“Reed,” I speak into the comms.
“Is the bridge secure?”
“Tightly locked up,” Reed confirms. “Just me the doc and the girl here,” he says. “By the way, she’s awake.”
“And asking for you,”
I don’t have time to deal with this right now. I grant my acknowledgement to Reed and kill the channel.
“Three more compartments to go,” Raynar says. “This thing can’t double back, right?”
“Nothing’s certain but I think it can’t.”
“Great. I like your certainty.”
“An asset under pressure,”
We both smile and it takes the edge off the tension we feel.
“Where did you learn to fight like you do?”
“I grew up rough. Backwater planets are not known for their civility.”
Raynar nods at that. “Me too,” he says eventually. “I joined the Regulators to get away from Oxygen gangs.”
Oxygen gangs! I’d heard the rumors. On small planetary establishments, where the Terraforming process had not yet completed but the immigration had already started, those unlucky enough to have to go first because they had no other choice, sometimes had to fight for air. Oxygen, the most basic commodity needed for human life became a bargaining chip over which lives were enslaved and fortunes lost and made.
Raynar must have grown up on a mining planet then. Like me. Lives diverge but there are only so many origin stories. Those born with a silver spoon in our mouth rarely find themselves in a narrative like mine. Hunting around, blaster in hand, looking for Chimera that might end me. Inwardly I sigh.
“Stay sharp,” I whisper unnecessarily. I can see from the way Raynar moves that he is ready for action.
“Roger that,” he falls back to his military responses. Talk helps take the edge off our nervousness. A clink in the deep shadows to our right has both of us moving as one. We separate. Both execute picture-perfect shoulder rolls. We come up, one knee on the floor. Blasters extended. It’s a classic military maneuver: separate to present two targets.
Present to the enemy two sources of fire.
You need a good core for moves like that.
There is nothing to see where the sound came from. Damn.
“Anything?” Raynar asks quietly. He’s scanning the half of the room I am not.
“Nope,” I say and we get hit.
The Chimera moves fluidly fast. Its bulk is powered by such strength it moves as if it’s weightless, the ship’s artificial gravity barely registering. My brain does something weird, it begins to think about gravity wells and how gravity waves are necessary to maintain bone density. It’s a response to overwhelming fear. I snap it back to the present. Duck under the Chimera’s massive swing. Kick out as I fall back.
Both boots make contact. The Chimera’s skin feels like concrete. I am flung back. The creature is off by a fraction. My kicks have surprised it. Its miscalculation saves Raynar’s life. The Regulator rolls away, fires one blind burst from the blaster. It misses, but the creature flinches. Pauses for a split second. A split second is all I need.
It all happens so fast that my brain sees it in slow mo. The creature rolling in mid-air, twisting round to bring its bulk to bear on us again. Raynar, struggling to regain his balance.
Me, on my back, sliding away from the Chimera and Raynar. Blaster rising slowly. The action in front of me perfectly framed.
There is a burst of light from my right hand. The walls of the hull are briefly lit up by garish silhouettes engaged in some kind of macabre dance. Then there is an unearthly sound and the usual flash of light as the blaster’s energies do their job. Red dust molecules hang in midair; twirling slowly as they fall to the cold metal floor.
“Close one,” Raynar says noncommittally and I nod.
I begin to rise to my feet. He is already up and holstering his blaster. I notice he’s not thinking of giving it up. My brain is working with the blast’s after image still fresh on my retinas.
Shadows thrown up on the hull wall. The blaster throwing out outlines. Monstrously exaggerated forms. Raynar, caught on his side, desperately trying to rise looking like some wounded beast with an arched back and horns. The Chimera, framed centre. A massive bulk of black about to be extinguished. The half part of me picked up by the blaster’s light falling back into the shadows.
The Shadows! My brain works overtime trying to warn me. I am still fresh with relief. Giddy with our easy victory over the monster that had destroyed the Ghost Ship. And the tableau from that ship rolls unbidden in my mind. Broken bodies jumbled together. Piled in the middle of an airlock. In the middle! Shadows. Dark mass behind me.
Why would bodies be piled up in the middle?
“There’s another one-” I begin to cry out and start to twist at the same time.
Too late. The deep dark shadow behind me materialises into Chimera solidity. My movement, fast as it is, is too slow to save me. “Raynar!”
The blow, when it comes, clips me on left side. I feel more than hear the splintering of bone. The numbness of massive damage. I try to say something more but there is no sound I can hear nor do I have a sense of control over my mouth anymore. I try to fall so that the blaster I am holding is side up, unblocked by the damaged mass of my body, but there is no sense of control in my movements. It’s like I have been blown into a massive, invisible, galactic particle stream.
I vaguely have a sense of the metal floor as I hit it. I try as hard as I can to force my finger to squeeze the blaster trigger. My head must hit the floor hard but I only know that because I have a sensation of it bouncing off the floor.
My vision begins to fade and I have a sense of bright beams above me. Raynar’s blaster. Still going off?
Is he alive? The Chimera towers over me. So fast. So powerful.
Voices. Screams? I … fade.
Darkness swallows me.