Port of Call

This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on May 4th 2015. 

Port of Call
by Richard Holliday

“Hello?” Jake called, his voice echoing in the darkness. “Is anyone there?”

No response. Just the gentle hum of machinery. To his right, Jake observed the great bulkhead that separated the crew passage from the holding tank stood motionless. A gentle rumble inside murmured. Akin to a metal stomach, Jake thought nothing of it. These noises were the normal thrum of the ship as it ‘lived’. Further down the passage, where the low lights became hazy with the distance, metal banged against metal. A peeling sound followed, with a scream unmistakable with death coming just after. Erupting in an aural explosion into the odd, misplaced serenity of the corridor.

Jake gulped. The clipboard dropped from his hand as sweat trickled subconsciously from every surface of his skin. Doors were banging in a rhythmic pattern. Down the passage. Coming toward him. Frozen, Jake looked down the passageway, waiting for what would no doubt be death.

Unexpectedly, the door behind him flung from tis hinges, impacting the opposite wall and becoming embedded in it. Smoke rose from the crumpled metal as it dissolved into a putrid, jellified mess, leaving a pool of reacted acid forming on the floor. The diseased blood of a mechanical being.

He spun round and looked up at the being eight feet tall that had smashed the door. A drop of viscous and rancid fluid, its composition clearly alien, fell onto his fabric uniform. The patch of embroidered lettering, spelling out Jake’s surname, Green, discoloured and started to smoulder. With a wince, the young man gripped his eyes shut. A sticky heat enveloped his chest, seemingly destined right for his heart.

He screamed for a millisecond before the sound of another door crashing away brought an instant darkness.

Seven years later…

The gloom of the cockpit of the nimble little ship was permeated with the star-like pinpricks of light from instruments that hugged the curves of the hull. Unremarkable like the identical space outside, it glistened on the wet eyeballs of the Demeter‘s crew.

Automated systems chirped routinely, filling the void with sounds that the crew were so acclimatised to they might as well be sitting in silence. Ordinary, routine noises had become meaningless.

A chair creaked as the occupant leaned back for a yawn. The yawn was routine too. Out here, away from the busy transit lanes, colonies, even outposts on the Edge of Neptune, space was truly empty. Devoid of anything of appreciable size, weight and interest.

“Sector 17/AZ, nothing to…” the Ben Richmond, a round-headed man, begun before his chair creaked in the opposite direction. A glance at the display stuck out. In an endless sea of infinite nothingness, suddenly there was something.

The chair creaked as Ben sat forward in a stutter of movement.

“I think we have something.”

Besides him, the occupant of the opposite seat sat up similarly. She looked to her crew mate. The green blip on the screen shone through the control room like an emerald composed entirely of pixels. The hue alone sought the attention of Mandira Shiva, the captain of the Demeter, although it was a title she hated.

“What do you have, Ben?” she said abruptly to her navigator. Her voice was laced with scepticism and disbelief. She’d been in these sectors before, and there really was nothing here.

Ben placed a finger to the display, and the green trace grew under the film of skin oil. They both waited for any transponder trace to assign itself to the display, but it didn’t. There really was no need; the size of the trace belied its identity, as there was only one thing it could be: their target; their mother-lode, the Hephaestus.

Taking their eyes away from the display, the huge bulk of the abandoned mining ship loomed to dominate the view port, seemingly brushing away asteroids as if they were crumbs. The Hephaestus was enormous; the hull taking an ominous persona, sitting in space motionless, without a single light burning aboard. A great metal giant slumbering in a pool of absolute nothingness grew closer. The glow of retro-thrusters firing bounced off the dull, gunmetal hull. The coldness seemed to draw the light in like a black hole, bringing the Demeter with it.

The cockpit door slid open on its pneumatic runners. Alys Wakefield, the engineer aboard the salvage ship, took a glance forward.

“Holy shit,” she said quietly, his mouth agape. “Is that her?”

“It is,” Ben confirmed, looking back to the monitor. His fingers flew across the gloss, smooth display. “Running a background scan.”

Mandira bent over, curious. Her hair moved only slightly with the motion of her narrow shoulders. “Anything we should know?”

Ben laughed involuntarily, almost unbelieving of what he saw. “We’re going to need our environmental suits.”

“Why’s that?” Alys asked, unable to see the display from his vantage point. Ben spun around on the chair, the pivot bolted to the floor.

“On board environment is saturated with H20. She’s full of water.”

Seven years of drifting through an asteroid field so dense no other vessel dared to enter had not been kind to the Hephaestus. As the Demeter closed in to dock, the appearance of a smooth hull from afar belied the dimpled, battered plating. In some places the alloy skin had buckled, with jagged structural members protruding like ribs through the carcass of some great animal. It was both a remarkable and painful sight to observe.

Inside the Demeter, Mandira, Ben, Alys and the ensign, Casey Locke, readied their pressure suits. Seals were made and the bodies of all encased in flexible armour.

With a deep, resonating thud, contact was made between the docile leviathan and the Demeter. The airlock the crew had gathered in shuddered, and the lights powered down with a flicker.

“I don’t like this…” Casey murmured, his voice filling with static over the radio. He fumbled with his sidearm nervously in its holster. He always did this at the threshold of a each salvage job. If I didn’t like it, why do I keep doing it?

Mandira strode clumsily to the control panel, trying to keep a good footing in her bulky spacesuit. “Contact made. Opening docking lock in three… two… one…”

With a swift jab of a hand the lever moved. Everyone held their eyes shut, expecting an inrush of water to the airlock. The reaction was a natural reflex that didn’t take in the presence of the pressure suits…

… but was unnecessary. After a moment of not feeling the pressure of flowing water and the cooling grip of it about their bodies, the Demeter crew opened their eyes. The docking lock was totally dry, with only the circular door acting like a plughole to the interior of the Hephaestus. Sensing an ominous turquoise glow in the distance inside, shimmering through cracks in the bulkheads and floor, the four salvage crew took their first step over the threshold and became the first people in a quarter of a century to venture aboard the great ship.

The glow beckoned the crew forward into the gloom.

“Ready?” Mandira called into her helmet microphone. Her crew nodded in assent. An imaginary deep breath followed, then the stomp of suited feet in titanium-alloy armour onto the blackened floor plating of the Hephaestus’s vestibule. Beyond that were the flickering aquamarine lights that had glimmered from before.

Ben was curious and peered forward. “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” Alys said quietly. Her initial reaction was of dismay. She sensed death had stalked these passages. “Could be signs of life. Who knows any more.”

Mandira led the crew in a few more feet, into the belly of the ship proper. The metal howled with a low moan, as it if was aching and in pain from footfall. Mandira was first the feel a little uneasy on her feet as the ship appeared to rock on the ocean of nothingness. An eddy in the vacuum of space. If anything she was impressed that the artificial gravity was holding up that well.

A fork in the passage prompted a decision for the salvagers. Forward, to the bridge or aft, to the engine room. Either seemed as good a bet as any; taking the ship into tow could be done from either. Undecided, Casey picked a disc of scrap metal from the floor. On one side was an indentation that looked like a cross. Vestigial remains of a rivet driven from its proper place. The other was blemished with contact scratches from rolling about the deck. He flipped it. Heads or tails…

The disc spun in the stale atmosphere of the ship, quivering in the artificial gravity. Imbued with a motion alien to the environment it had spent so long in. The look of boyish wonderment faded from Casey’s face in an instant as the realisation from his peripheral vision returned, alerting him of the danger the disc’s curious motion signified.

“Get out of the way!” Mandira shouted, running to tackle the young ensign to the ground, and away from the path of the collapsing structural member, which swung down from the gloomy rafters, exploding in a cloud of dust and debris. Casey cried in pain, but it was less severe than the pain he’d have suffered should the deck had landed square on him. Observing from their suits, the Demeter crew watched the pile of rotten deck fall in total silence, the helmets cancelling the almighty din the collapse generated. Dust settled to whatever was still providing gravity on this ship; fragments of collapsed deck caved inward toward that gravity too; the crew observing that all the structural members that made the box-girder section had been eaten away to resemble decaying bones.

Decay had quickly taken hold; the reason for this speedy dilapidation of a brand new ship intrigued Alys. She paced the floor around the heap of rubble.

“A ship made of matchsticks,” Alys hummed. She gingerly approached the pile of collapsed deck, attempting to pick up a piece but finding it reduced to fragments in her gloved hands. She stood back and looked around, silently eyeing the floors, ceilings and walls.

“Is there anything to salvage here?” Mandira asked bluntly. Ben stood forward, next to his commander.

“Even if there isn’t, that pile blocks the airlock.”

Casey swore. He walked down toward the glowing light that filled the misty end of the corridor. “I guess the engine room’s where we’re headed?”

Indeed, there was now no choice, if an exit was to be sought at least.

Mandira looked down the passageway and took a first step. The floor didn’t collapse as she half-expected, and nor did it feel spongy, as a compromised deck would do under weight. Whatever had caused the damage to the upper deck piqued her interest; she wanted to know now what was capable of this more than even the salvage fee. Curiosity and the survival instinct joined forces, and she turned to her team to announce the decision. “Absolutely.”

A narrow companionway ran along the very edge of the Hephaestus’s hull. Usually this would be bathed in artificial, fluorescent light but the best part of a decade of decay, with no power for environmental containment to prevent the rot setting in, had left the batteries empty and a strange, sinewy substance hung from the walls and roof. As the crew proceeded, the passageway got darker. Flashlights struggled to cast their beams through a thick, translucent layer of stuff the Demeter crew found impossible to identify.

“What do you make of this, Alys?” Mandira asked in a hushed voice, ushering her engineer over. The suits were soundproofed but the human instinct was burned into the captain’s very consciousness. Alys stopped, with the other three crew doing the same. Puzzled wrinkles spread across Alys’s slender face, and she flicked her platinum hair back inside her helmet and her gloved paw tenderly touched the ropes of fabric-like mass that clotted against every metal surface. It was slightly viscous and adhered to the digits of the suit, the bonds stretching out for several inches before breaking.

“Tensile strength is remarkable,” Alys began. Mandira eyed her hopefully through her visor glass. Alys saw this and looked crossly back. “There’s a slight crystalline substrate too. Irregular in shape and composition, so I’d guess it’s a synthetic compound of organic origins.”

Mandira hummed, digesting this brief analysis. “So what you’re saying…”

“… it’s a synthetic ghost,” Ben chirped curtly. He looked past the two women to see Casey, the young ensign, wandering a little farther up the passageway toward the engine room. “Casey, wait for us!

Casey’s feet tiptoed another metre. He stopped abruptly, his head turning sharply and his hand bringing his flashlight to bear in a dance of photons upon the bulkhead. In a fluid movement he grasped some of the strange material and stood back as his flashlight shone on bare wall.

“Guys, you might want to see this,” the young man inhaled sharply. The others repeated the action as their eyes peered at the wall. Lettering formed from rough, hurried strokes of deep red, almost brown, hue spelt out a warning. Lumps of matter in the paint only fed the grim imagination of the four people now observing the message:

They’re coming through. Engines opened the gateway. Stay back, they’ll find you. JG.

Looking down the hall with flashlight held at the midriff, Mandira’s face fell backwards, her blood running coolly down to her feet and pooling there. A trail of paint feathered down the wall and onto the floor toward the engine room and into the gloom.

“We can’t go back, so we go forward,” she murmured, hardly wanting to follow her own order, but finding herself unable to do anything else. A low wail echoed down the passageway. The engine room was calling, as much as the Demeter crew now loathed their now-inevitable rendezvous with its implied skeletons.

Eventually the blast door beckoned. A sealed gateway designed to contain a roaring nuclear fusion that no doubt shrouded the four salvagers with from horrors within. Deep breaths rattled over the short-range radios embedded in the suit helmets.

“Are we ready?” Mandira, the commander, asked of her crew. She looked to the dimly-lit helmets of her three crew members. Each nodded nervously. Without speaking, they all said with their faces that, whether they liked it or not, this was the only way out alive, if one still existed. “Good. When you’re ready, guys.”

Alys retrieved from her backpack a bulky case that flipped open to reveal a shiny metal tip. The case unfolded into a half-hemisphere that clamped to the metal door. It had taken a few minutes to clear the layer of gelatinous organic ‘compound’ that coated the door surface to rediscover bare metal. Ben and Casey looked at each other and gave a simple puff of the cheeks before energising the device. It shook wildly, almost as if it would fall from the door and scuttle across the floor of its own volition, spraying white-hot shards of metal in its wake. The magnets held it strongly where it was as it ate away at the door. The circular portal transitioned from dim grey to a low orange before becoming white and sagging with fatigue. The heat-lock was working as it always did, melting immovable doors away on a molecular level. This door proved to be like no other, and was no longer an obstacle within a few minutes of the treatment.

With a hushed breath, the crew of the Demeter stood back as the door collapsed with a wheesh of air. A flash of glittering blue light filled their visors through the mist of the dissolved door. Air rushed through, buffeting the spacesuit-clad crew. Taking an uneasy step, Mandira led the charge into the engine room.

“What the hell happened in here?” she called out, but didn’t get a response. A shadow blocked the light that came from the aft end of the room, where the ionic engines sat dormant. Pipes grafted on led deeper into the hull. The translucent domes over the engine elements were coated in a slimy layer of the organic matter that had caked the rest of the ship. However in here, it seemed different to Mandira. In this room there was steam and vapour whooshing around the room, and the substance appeared runny and viscous…

A scream crackled through the suit radios. Mandira turned instinctively, and saw Casey fighting with, under the captain’s flashlight, an amorphous blob of the matter that loomed up and over the young crewman, taking the shape of a cresting wave that looked intent on coming down and enveloping Casey. Her visor began to fog. She breathed quickly.

“Quick, move him! Now!” Mandira hectored loudly, her instructions going wirelessly to Alys and Ben’s helmets. They were already acting with superhuman speed to pull their young colleague from danger, managing to pull him away before the bubbling mass of organic matter splattered from ceiling height to the floor. The respite was very transient; the blob was reconstituting to fall upon and smother the gathered salvage crew. Mandira looked around the room, her neck aching from the effort. She couldn’t see a way out. She was being backed into a corner, and all this had been for nothing…

A wall vibrated behind her before falling away entirely. Losing her balance, Mandira felt her body fall backward, the lumpy backpack of the suit dragging her down toward the artificial gravity. Darkness confined her to what seemed like a shaft and she shut her eyes, expecting a different death now. Any death.

Moments passed, but death did not emerge from the fall. A thud followed momentarily, and then the activation of yellow emergency lights.

“You made enough noise, didn’t you?” an unfamiliar, raspy voice rattled breathlessly into the dark space below the engine room. Mandira and her crew regained their bearings, almost unbelieving what they saw: a dishevelled, gaunt man in a threadbare, tatty uniform. The original colour had long since disappeared under a mixture of sweat, fear, blood and loss. The most surprising sight, for the crew still in their suits, was the absence of one around this man’s organic frame.

“You… you’re not in a suit!” Mandira called, her voice uncontrollable through shock.

“Shut up already!” the man hissed. “I’ve told you already…”

A tremor and a roar of strained metal cut the man, Jake Green, off mid-sentence. His face fell with the sound.

“It’s too late,” he hissed throatily. “Come on, we can’t stay here.”

“Where’re we going?” Ben asked pointedly. “And who are you?”

Jake was already proceeding down the emergency tunnel. His head turned on his shoulders as he walked, not bothering to stop. “The last survivor. And your last hope of getting off this ship alive.”

Kicking open another hatch in the floor, Jake gestured to his new wards for them to take another leap of faith. A scowl crept across his face as his subconscious pondered both the way forward and the perceived idiocy of these people. How did they not know all this? As the four suited bodies went down, Jake’s mind reminded itself quickly: this had been his life for, well, all he could remember. Joining the ship as an idealistic teenager; likely leaving it dead, but if not, a grizzled survivor stripped of his wonderment for creation.

Bangs, howls and grating metal followed closely behind. Taking another look over his shoulder, Jake jumped into the hatch. He’d lost count how many times he’d done that, too.

An open space, airy and empty that was juxtaposed with the cramped main passage and even more claustrophobic chute, was the the destination, dumping the five humans into the open room at its base. Jake dusted himself down; although his uniform was unsalvageable and his face obscured almost entirely by a scraggly beard, he had latent respect for his appearance. Immediately, he advised the Demeter crew to dispense with their spacesuits and helmets.

“Why’d we wanna do that?!” Casey argued. “I’m not taking this off!”

Jake’e eyes rolled. That and the glance over his shoulder felt like the only gestures he knew. “Just do it, already. You won’t fit into the warren with it on, anyway.”

“What’s the warren?” Alys enquired meekly. Jake turned. He liked her manner a damn sight more than the others already. His mind started to wander, to conjure simulations… which he quickly suspended. Reminders of past times were out of place here and now.

“Network of passages around this ship,” Jake explained. “It’s how I’ve kept myself alive so long. Away from them.”

Curious faces turned to Jake with one question: what was them? A howl of metal and the shudder of the passage curtailed any further discussion.

Kicking open a ventilation duct, Jake gestured down, toward further unknown.”You’re about to find out.”

Even without spacesuits the ventilation duct was cramped and claustrophobic. It felt like a sheet-metal coffin that was extruded along the entirety of the Hephaestus’s length. Each end was an indistinct cloud of blackness, with flashlight glare erratically darting around the nearside. With each thump of limbs against metal, an eerie whine seemed to stalk the five people in the vent.

“What is that sound?” Mandira asked. She couldn’t contain her inquisition, though she was sure the answer would not be something she wanted to hear. Jake stopped abruptly.

“They know you’re here. And they’ve found your ship.”

“What do they want with the Demeter?” Ben enquired shortly. Sudden thoughts of an alien… something rooting about his cabin, the pictures of his wife, invading his very personality rapidly resonated inside his skull. He disapproved intensely.

“It has power. These things… these plasmatons, they suck up energy like there’s no tomorrow,” Jake answered. The Demeter crew looked blankly; he explained his epithet for these invaders. Beings of plasma but half-automaton. It seemed fitting. He looked up, finding himself under a barred grate. Shifting quickly, the grate came away in his hands, but was covered in slime. “They’ve been here recently. But I figure I can show you what they’re up to.”

Feeling trapped into the situation, the crew of the rescue ship found themselves compelled to follow Jake’s lead. Another corridor was above; this one was curved around a circular room, the doors to which were melded into the wall under thick layers of solidified slime. Alys examined the organic welds, impressed with the bonding.

“It’s a total molecular seal. No getting through that. Must be something important in that room…” she surmised. Jake smiled. She was getting it, even if no-one else seemed to be. They looked gormlessly to Jake, waiting to be led to safety like helpless children. Alys had an enquiring mind, and Jake had a gut feeling it’d get her out here alive.

Pointing to a ladder, he nudged Alys to bring it to her attention. “Go up and see for yourself.”

The thin crew member did so, and Jake observed her body as it slipped through the round hatch in the ceiling. A few bangs of legs on metal. And then a gasp followed by an exultation. Jake smiled subtly, expecting that reaction. A few seconds passed and Alys had slid back down the ladder, and appeared breathless with her hair frazzled from the trip.

“What did you see?” her commander asked quietly. Alys gasped for a moment, recollecting both her breath and reconciling what she’d seen with her own scientific knowledge. It didn’t add up. Taking another long breath, she explained.

The cargo hold had been emptied of the collected ore and was an inferno of sparks, fire and plasma, running about the space on the tails of immense cosmic winds. The centre of the chamber was dominated by alien machinery, the purposes of which Alys could only dream to understand. While she explained her observation, Jake nodded quietly. He was impressed at her hypothesis, but less so by the dumbfounded looks of her crew. How could they maintain the pretence of being an educated and learned crew when the very unknown struck them dumb like sheep at the first fence?

Alys continued, describing the surface of the spherical portal as a glimmering aquamarine light that dazzled the chamber and seemed to seep into the very material of the ship that contained it. This energy was frightening in its voraciousness, seeping through this machine. Alys jumped, noticing patches of the aquamarine glow everywhere now.

Jake laughed. The Glow had gotten her. Once seen, it could not be unseen. It had plagued him for nearly a decade, and now he had someone to share it with. He felt a further… affinity toward the young engineer. Jake decided that she would live, if no-one else did.

“What does this device do, d’ya reckon?” Ben asked, breaking the chilling silence. His words were pointed like spears at Jake. The penny was starting to drop in the others, Jake thought, slowly but surely.

“It’s a portal,” the tall man said starkly. “It brings more of them from their galaxy. Or dimension. Either-or, it’s like a magnet. Mostly dormant still, but enough’s come through to make this ship their waystation.”

“Waystation?” Casey gasped incredulously. In Jake’s mind, he heard more coinage hit the floor. “You mean…”

“Yes, it’s what you think,” Jake spat derisively. His irritation at having to educate people he saw as pre-schoolers on a subject he had become an expert in was growing exponentially. The human condition. These were no humans. They were lemmings. “And your ship will provide them with the power for a full-on invasion.”

Silence. The realisation that their very mission had endangered humanity hit hard.

“Did they know?” Mandira asked, following on without allowing time for an answer. “These plasmatons,” she mused before returning to her point, “did they know this mission carried such risks?”

Jake laughed with derision and walked to face the wall of the chamber. Consciously away from the crew of the Demeter. “Doubtful. It was an inevitability. They’d just wait, gain strength, planning for their eventual resurgence. A long game indeed.”

A roar pierced the silence that befell the antechamber. The ceiling crashed in, sending debris flying like splintered balsa. The salvagers hardly had time to move before the spindly grey alien-alloy legs of a plasmaton dented the floor, with the gelatinous body they supported towering above them. Sinewy slime slathered onto the chamber floor. Instinctively, everyone made for the door. The plasmaton whinnied, arching it’s mechanical back to appear even taller and, with an aggressive stomp, came down toward the covering group. Vibrating, the deck quivered under the show of force. Through the smoky darkness of the room, the silvery disc-like eyes shone indiscreetly with horrifying clarity.

This was it. Death. Time to meet my maker.

In the pits of their bellies, the crew of the Demeter felt the heat that strangely heralded death burn bright until it was unbearable. Boiled guts laid out on a plate for the plasmaton to eat for dinner. It was not death; however, and the clanging of metal and whoosh of superheated coolant filled the void in front of a quad of fused eyelids.

“Get up!” Jake hissed, pulling Mandira to her feet. “There’s not much time!”

Mandira found the room had become dark, a musty cloud hanging low from the ceiling. The saccharine smell of the air, almost acclimatised to now, replaced with the pungent odour of decay. Looking over her shoulder, a limp mass of flesh and metal.

Jake pushed Mandira through the doorway. She was the last, right? As their guide, Jake went last, but turned to see the door closing.

His blood ran cold. Three crew members in front. One…

A single, cadence-defying scream curdled the air. Jake looked as the door glided shut. Casey was still in there, his young face full of terror, his subconscious knowing that the clicking lock signalled death. A flurry of silver light blinded the crew through the inspection hatch in the door. Material tore and flesh separated from bone. And suddenly there was a deeply horrifying silence. The silence that followed death like a shadow.

Heavy breathing filled the air where words somehow could not. Jake avoided eye contact with his charges. Even if they could speak, he knew deep down what they’d be saying.

A thronging vibration precluded any more mental dissection of what had just happened. Pointing forward, Jake indicated the next step.

“Do you even have a plan?” Ben cried accusingly. Jake paused and turned as he’d done several times before.

“Yes. This ship has to blow up. Now.”

“Why? Feels like the engines are restarting. Why isn’t there any power?” Alys enquired. Jake gave her a weak smile.

“Not the engines. The portal. They’ve tapped into your fusion drive now. It has to be destroyed.”

“Or what?” asked Mandira directly. Her cold, direct manner was befitting a commander, but Jake knew it was all a facade. He’d enjoy seeing it break down. The chinks had already started to show, emphasised now by the increasing numerical likelihood of a grisly death.

“Your families, friends and everyone you hold dear get what Casey had coming. It’ll never cease, and never stop until we’re all dead. And then it’ll keep going on. And despite your reservations, I care enough about humanity to want that to not happen.”

A silence fell, permeated only by the vibration. Fittings and fixtures worked a little loose, and the sound became rougher and more primal. The ship was exulting from the pain of the parasite gestating in its hold.

Giddy screams, higher and closer than anything else on the ship, froze the faces of the Demeter crew agape with fear. They were coming, and it felt like there was nothing they could do to stop them,

“What do we do? Tell us, what do we fucking do?” Ben screamed, though fear entrapped his voice deep in his lungs, the paralysis producing a feeble whisper. Jake’s brow furrowed, a look of determination and cunning sweeping across, although a front of uncertainty had to be swept away first.

“This ship has to die. Down here,” Jake said, kicking open another maintenance hatch with his dirty boot, “it’s time for plan X.”

During the time the Hephaestus had laid dormant the plasmatons had taken the ship and adapted it to their needs. The ionic drive was just the start; the plasmatons had slowly but surely augmented the best in human ingenuity to create a hybrid that would bring about their renaissance over Earth. Jake explained that he’d run through this so many times the outcome had been burned into his consciousness – this ship was now a loaded bomb ready to be wheeled back to the centre of a society that would be decimated from within.

It explained why the ship was so dark. Dank. Stinking of sweat and goo, the remnants of an organic life that had now been extinguished and replaced by an alien surrogate. Every joule was harnessed for the portal, sucking up energy like a ravenous beast of its own accord. What Alys had seen was no mere machine inside the hold, but almost a sentient, hungry being bursting for release of the engorged energy.

She was curious though. How could one act destroy this ship so totally as to prevent the activation of the portal? Jake smiled as she asked, her voice meek and unsure. He wished she was less unsure of her own ability; his reply was soft and cool.

“There’s a junction room in the belly of the ship where the three electrical systems converge. I’ve spent years down there, tinkering with it to see what I can get away with. And I think I can overload the drive system override.”

“What’ll that do?” Mandira asked, but Alys jumped in quickly. Her voice was feverish with a shrill, strange excitement.

“Overload that and there’ll be a runaway excursion.”

“Resulting in?” a puzzled Ben put in. His familiarity with exotic and experimental power sources had found a hard limit.

Jake looked to Alys, a nod of his eyes reassuring her. She took a breath. “It’ll open the portal, but in an uncontrolled way. Space-time will turn inside out, pulling this ship apart before the wound, I presume, closes itself?”

Jake nodded with assent. “Well done,” he assured her. A knocking sound came through the walls of the maintenance shaft. Trickling water came too along the passage, indicating the portal was slowly but surely twisting the hull with the trembling mass of energy it was containing. “But I suspect we’d better hurry,” the young man huffed. He saw dents in the malleable metal of the passage he had made a long time ago, the dents forming the shape of a rough skull-and-crossbones. “Not long now.”

Mandira and her remaining comrades grimaced wordlessly, feeling compelled to follow this madman. Though even if this scheme worked, insular feelings of survival piqued through. How exactly do I get out of here?

An unwelcome humming heralded the approach to the junction room. The telltale creep of alien goo ceased at the door, as it the coursing energy had kept it at bay. Nothing organic was welcomed here. Inside the cramped space were three cabinets that glowed with pure coursing energy. The stench of dry, electrical heat sizzled the nostrils of the four humans crammed inside, each instinctively holding their limbs to their torsos, for want of touching anything metallic. Opposite the door, against the central cabinet was a control panel on a plinth, the stiff controls of which Jake took in his hands. Four switches with lights; one for each electrical relay and a final master switch. Crackling and zapping came from the bundle of wires underneath the desk. A dry heat baked the throats of the people huddled inside dry.

In turn, the first three switches were tripped, the mechanism snapping back with the crack of a spring and accompanied by the pulsating glow of the tell-tale lights. A shudder followed by a change in resonance. The Hephaestus’s heartbeat changed palpably.

A pause as Jake’s hand wavered over the final switch. He turned to his companions; only one he’d consider worth saving from their actions thus far, but they were all human like him. They’d come for him, and he could in one flick save them and his biological brethren.

“Are we ready? There won’t be much time once I do this?”

Mandira nodded, her throat dry through despair tinged with anticipation and unknowing. “What’s the escape strategy?”

“How’re we getting out of here?” Ben seconded, wanting to know too. He’d followed this strange man this far, dancing around death, and wished for a safe passage out.

Jake focused on the switch. The cracking and arcing of the rerouted power was getting steadily louder. When he planned this act he had not anticipated questions. Or anyone else in the room at all. He coughed through the dust that filled the air in the chamber before looking over his shoulder again.

“There’s an escape pod I reckon we can reach. If we’re lucky.”

The station shook again, this time the tremor felt centred on the junction room. A drip of clear liquid that Mandira and her crew initially discounted for water came from the dusting above. Jake felt the first instance of the droplet hit the exposed back of his neck. The slimy, slippery texture betrayed its real origin.

“Plasmaton coming in! Through the vents!” he yelled, simultaneously throwing his body toward the final switch. The metal limbs of the plasmaton rapped on the ducting, which parted; the metal taking the consistency of molten butter on hot toast. The final green telltale flickered and faltered. The room lights failed and then strobed, inducing a visceral pandemonium.

“Shit!”

“Don’t worry,” a voice called as Jake fell atop Alys and Mandira on the threshold to the junction room. There was the majority of a second to associate the voice with Ben, who stood crouched as the monster formed above his head. “I’ve got it.”

Mandira yelled from underneath her guide; desperate not to lose another close colleague. Ben’d been there from the very start; losing her protege was punishment enough, but now her mentor? “Don’t do it! There has to…”

“No,” Jake called as he shuffled along the floor away from the junction room. The door shuddered, finally able to close. “He has to hold down the switch.”

There was no more time for words as the door clattered shut. From the floor, the vantage point of the inspection hatch on the door just showed translucent jelly flooding the room, the roar of an alien beast penetrating the metal; a deafening shudder resonating through the floor. Supercharged electrons arced through the conduits, lighting up traces under the mesh floor with blue zaps of energy that turned golden on the other side of the bulkhead. The roar of the plasmaton and the engine overload blotted out, in a strangely happy din of horrific noise, the sound of Ben’s body being torn to shreds. The light of the junction room was extinguished forever as the first slabs of flesh left crimson smears on the rectangle of polymer glass.

Amongst the din of the corridor, Mandira let out a deathly screech. Of rejection of what had happened. Of what kept happening. Of her continued existence.

This feeling was transitory. Within a second, the junction room door crumpled. From their position on the floor, Mandira, Alys and Jake saw for the first real time the true scale of the plasmaton. Blood dripped from the mechanical limbs and stained the translucent, slightly green matter that composed this grotesque creature’s top half. The head extended on a neck of jelly toward the floor, with arms that had metallic cores following, brandishing spinning blades that effortlessly emerged from the goo.

She reached for her sidearm on her battered, stained suit. Her hand gripped it defiantly. The plasmaton stopped moving, curiously watching Mandira. Wondering what she planned, it’s face contorted with alien curiosity. The body suckered and slurped with careful, slow movement.

“Go now,” she commanded to Jake and Alys. “Get to that escape pod. Get out. Tell people.”

Alys seemed reluctant to take her eyes off her captain, but Jake’s firm grip persuaded her otherwise, pulling her away.

Time to leave.

“Come on, there’s not much time!” he hissed impatiently. In a moment that seemed like an aeon, Alys turned away and started running. She heard the shot ring out, the squeal of alien agony followed by the death throes of a martyr. The sound of death had suddenly become normal in this place. A normality that was unwarranted and alien.

The iris door of the escape pod beckoned around countless corners and bends. The groaning grew louder, nearly deafening both Jake and Alys. She waited, looking all around as he fought with the keypad that activated the lock. His fingers fumbled at the lack of haptic response, to which he replied with a mighty thump. The door responded to that display of physical manipulation and the interior of the pod beckoned. Two seats in a cylindrical vessel with a window dominating the front and benches lining the round walls behind. Two spotlights illuminated above the pilot stations, and the two young figures slid into the seats. Cracking leatherette was telling of its age. An array of panels lit up in front, but only one switch took Jake’s attention immediately: the one labelled egress.

Rockets jolted the pod free from the hull of the lumbering, flailing mining ship as the engines tore it apart. The bright turquoise glow seemed to seep through every crack and seam that appeared in the tortured hull. Like some injured animal, the Hephaestus’s stricken form began to turn away, shielding the pod from the impending implosion, becoming a smaller black mass as the pod boosted further away.

And then it was gone. In a flash of bright light as brief as the blink of an eyelid, the whole machine, and everything it now came to represent, from humanity’s greatest accomplishment to it’s greatest threat, now gone forever. It ceased to exist on a molecular level.

In the gloom of the escape pod, Jake looked over at Alys. She looked over at him. Wordlessly, her appreciation for all he’d done was apparent. They embraced, hoping never to have to let go.

A dampness filled Alys’s hands, but she didn’t want this moment to end. But it had to, her curiosity and increasingly her concern demanded it, so she pulled away and looked forward.

And for only a second she looked directly into the eyes of the Prime plasmaton and with that, the damnation of her species.

It was going to be a bloody fight.

© Richard Holliday, 2015

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