Escape Pod 811: The First Doom (Part 2 of 3)


The First Doom (Part 2)

by DaVaun Sanders

Kyria awoke with a start. An alarm chimed faintly in the cryo tube. The frosted glass hissed aside. She clambered free, but her legs immediately buckled and the steel plated floor greeted her with a cold kiss. Kyria lay there until the trembling stopped, and sensation returned to her legs. A light blinked behind the skin of her palm—her sleep mod had finally kicked in. She’d never had to use it in a cryo tube before.

You hear me, rookie? It’s just a leg. You can make a new leg out of the medallions I’m going to get for you. Kyria never spoke the dead woman’s name, it only encouraged her to stir. Now pay attention. Exo-armor can process your new equilibrium better than you can if you lose a limb. Don’t fight the balance when—

“Bad enough I replay it when I’m awake, too,” Kyria muttered. She stood, thankful her legs held.

A glance at the open cryo tube’s chronometer surprised her. She’d slept just over two weeks; half of their expected flight time. Shuster’s measured snoring came loud enough to crack his tube open, but Kyria checked on him anyway, brushing her palm on the frosted glass. I’m keeping more of my crew alive than you, Captain. Her argument cheated on numbers, but even a frail truth held some comfort.

Remiliat slept peacefully as well, the first time Kyria had seen her without a scowl. The woman was beautiful, in a fragile kind of way. The only thing missing from her repose was a drill wrench buried in her chest. More Dubious crew filled the cryo tubes, except for Zele and Paki.

Kyria rifled through the crew lockers, grinning wryly as she slipped on a standard Cassad suit, much too tight for her tall Arcadian build. She tugged the collar, and the auto seam unspooled more fiber at the shoulders, crotch and hips. Tight enough to show off enough muscle to discourage cowards—while giving anyone else exactly zero handholds in a fight—but still loose enough to breathe.

Kyria laced up her old boots, slipped her remaining volt knuckle in her pocket, then set off to find Zele and explore the rest of her latest home. The Dubious had a straightforward, clean simplicity that she grudgingly grew to respect, every surface covered in polished blue composite or steel. Several of the metal doors she passed bore titles she did not understand.

Time Density Acceleration. Amaurotic Matter Conversion. Propriosense Enhancement. Independent Neuron Synthesis. Not even a passing curiosity slowed her pace. Every last room sounded like trouble.

The Averator held a private room close to the observation deck, as Kyria suspected—a typical feature of Cassad design, demonstrating the rigid hierarchy of power. Zele added his own flare to the display; brightly lit panels on either side of the door glowed red:

Caution. No entry without Averator approval.

Kyria tapped an entry request. The door sprang open without even a summons chime, revealing an impressive room with glossy white composite on every surface. All manner of tools hung from the ceiling, from a shipwright’s plasma welder to a medic’s laser scalpel—along with a dozen more Kyria could not fathom. The Averator stood with his back to her, humming to himself.

A foul stench snaked into her nostrils, worse than a circuit fire in a waste disposal node. “Zele?” Kyria managed to cough out, holding a hand to her mouth.

The Averator turned away from the broad central work table, staring straight through Kyria as he ambled to one of the smooth white walls. He wore the exact same officer’s suit—two weeks’ worth of wrinkles left no doubt, though that didn’t account for the room’s reek. A half-band of coppery metal rested above his ears like a Tar City scrap merchant’s circlet. The components scattered across his table made Kyria’s heart leap against her ribs.

“You’ve been working on my armor this whole time?” she asked eagerly. The dark alloy framework of his design looked too smallish, like it would shatter if a Giak warrior backhanded it. “That’s supposed to go toe-to-toe with Raptor armor. If you read my specs right you would—”

“Now where did I put that binding protocol?” Zele murmured to himself as he paused, staring at a blank white wall.

Kyria frowned. Surely the man didn’t sleepwalk. She stepped past the door’s threshold, raising her voice. “Zele, did you hear—”

The panel before him abruptly slid from the wall, draped with a mass of gray flesh. Fluid sloshed on the ground, slopping over the Averator’s boots. Tiny points of light glowed pink among the tissue, which looked like a tray of starved Sentrian bloodworms woven together in a thick mat.

Unbidden thoughts and images poured into Kyria’s head, all laced with Amadi Zele’s probing voice.

Where is it?

Pain flared at Kyria’s temples as symbols and equations flooded through her mind’s eye.

I must take into account the Arcadian’s existing implants. Such an intriguing puzzle. An interface must be designed so there’s no cognitive overlap.

Kyria staggered back with a cry, clutching her head.

Her specifications are imperfect. Much better if I design a new alloy, to withstand a higher stress load. What looked like molecules appeared in her mind’s eye, torn apart and reassembled a thousand times. Yes, yes—excellent! These binding protocols will ensure that molecular cohesion is fully—

Her heel caught on the threshold and she spilled back in the hall. The door whisked closed. The flood of thoughts immediately ceased.

Kyria dry heaved so hard that her ribs ached. Her brief interlude with the Averator’s turbulent thoughts had even stunned the dead woman into silence. Ever stop to wonder if there’s a good reason you’ve never heard of an Averator, Grazheen? Kyria staggered upright. Raw terror fueled her sprint through the empty halls. He’s Cassad, after all. Same as the monsters who thought up the ELE weapon that destroyed Arcadia—only smarter, clearly!

Kyria ignored her first impulse, to wake Shuster and break into the arms vault together. That made no sense, two weeks into the Unknown. Instead she retraced her steps to the hopper that first brought them aboard. If the Averator proved as insane as she suspected, that at least gave Kyria a flash exit if this job went wrong. But only once they were back in the Known.

The hopper floated silently in the wetdock, half-submerged in the Averator’s impact gel. Kyria boarded and pried open a control juncture between the pilot’s seats. A relieved breath escaped her as she studied the network. Even Cassad ship design reflected their strange blend of ruthlessness and compassion. The Dubious’s safeguards undoubtedly possessed hack sentinels to prevent incursion bombs and leach-ware from crippling its systems. Yet the hopper owned half as many security features; part of the Cassad mandate to make such craft simple enough for a child to steer if necessary—which meant Kyria could commandeer it with a few mods.

She tersely started reconfiguring base code. Another trick she’d learned from the dead woman, when Mercible hacked the downed dropship’s CPU to steal enough power to charge her assault armor.

The better they think they know you, the worse you can hurt them.

Kyria held down her bile and finished the work. She entered the next bay to repeat the operation and stopped with a groan. This wetdock held no hopper, only a massive, transparent reclamation tank filled to the brim with briny water. A pang of guilt stabbed her. Stealing a hopper consigned half of the Cassad crew to their deaths should they ever truly need to escape the Dubious.

“An eyeful of Zele’s experiments, and they’ll all come with me.” Kyria balked at the smell as she drew closer, like meat gone slick with decay. “What else are you hiding, Zele?”

A dark shape swirled closer in the fetid water. A data pad set into the glass flickered on, but Kyria ignored the white script flashing across the screen. Her fists clenched at eight powerful tentacles covered with toothy suction cups, connected to a bulbous green body. The Averator’s studying a bilking irlon!

The creature’s dark skin emitted a series of flashes, sinuous shapes that twisted and rippled, melting into orange, yellow and pink. A meter-thick tentacle burst from the tank, snaking down to loop around her torso.

“What in—”

Kyria’s grasp slid right off the irlon’s skin. She pounded helplessly on muscle strong enough to bend steel. The tentacle abruptly released her. “Should’ve ripped me apart while you had the chance!”

Kyria whipped out her volt knuckle, set it to max damage and heaved it. The metal flashed orange as soon as it hit the surface. White froth churned the brine. The irlon rushed her again, spraying water across the bay. A tentacle whipped out at Kyria and the air left her lungs. She hit the ground with a grunt, rolling to a rest near the bay entry.

The door whisked open to reveal polished boots. Kyria peered up at the science officer’s orange eyes.

“Rem predicted you wouldn’t sleep,” Paki said, striding past her as Kyria hastily rose and snapped to attention. Water pooled around her boots. “An alert signaled me of a power disruption. What’s happened?”

“Damn thing tried to kill me.” Something about the man sat wrong with Kyria as he stopped beside the tank, staring intently into the water.

“I highly doubt that.” He waved dismissively for her to relax. “We’ve no use for military protocol here, Arcadian. This creature is—”

Water slopped over the edge as the creature surged for the glass. “Look out!” Kyria shouted.

A tentacle looped out, ensnaring Paki. He peered at her reproachfully. “There’s nothing to fear. Consider this…a handshake.” Paki frowned at the blisters along the motley green skin before his face. “Amadi should’ve considered the avarice an Arcadian might bear for distant cousins of—”

“That thing isn’t irlon?”

“No. His name is…unpronounceable in our language. Their ship was found in the Unknown.” The tentacle peeled away from him delicately and submerged again. The creature retreated into the murk.

“Perfect. There’s fresh fek to step in on every meter of this ship, isn’t there?” Kyria edged forward as Paki pressed his palm on the glass. Dim orange flashes emanated from the furthest corner of the tank.

“You’ve wounded our guide to the Stack, Kyria. Badly.” Paki shook his head gravely. “He’s twice offered course correction to steer us clear of the irradiated zones of this nebula.”

Kyria’s blood ran cold. “These things are not to be trusted. I’d never have come if I’d known.”

“It’s of little matter if you wished to leave us now,” Paki said. “There are no shipping lanes near our coordinates. The Averator almost jettisoned another of our hoppers to make room for more experimental space, but we’ve just enough room for our crew if escape pods become necessary. Zele holds his work above all, but cares deeply for everyone’s welfare aboard the Dubious.”

“That’s comforting.” Kyria flushed, unable to meet Paki’s gaze. “You’ve been awake the entire time too, haven’t you? Do you spend your free time in some meat locker like the Averator?”

Paki stiffened. “You entered his study?” At Kyria’s nod, his eyes widened. “Never go in there again, do you understand? He’s developed an organic perception array, to store data and prioritize different reason problems. Including your armor.”

“You’re saying he’s built a…an extension to his brain?”

“His own personal hive mind. It allows him to go without sleep, among other things. The organic projections would drive anyone else quite mad.”

Kyria’s mouth went dry. His own personal bilking hive mind. This is the man building my armor? Who plans to change the Known?!

Paki straightened at another set of irlon flashes in the water, brighter and urgent.

“What is it?” Kyria asked.

“We’re nearing the Stack, a week sooner than projected.” Paki hesitated as he turned back to Kyria. “I must wake the crew. You realize I must also report this incident to Zele and Remiliat. Answer me honestly…are you a New Regime spy?”

“No,” Kyria muttered. “I just…made a stupid move.”

“Our allegiance to the Cassad hinges on Zele’s mood, but until he says otherwise, you will consider this a Cassad ship. Please do not attempt to kill any more of our essential personnel, Kyria. The Averator believes your skills will be important to his mission, but Remiliat has no qualms about your expulsion.”

“I still haven’t been assigned any duties,” Kyria retorted. “I’m no scientist, and your only crew problem is numbers.”

Paki shrugged as he walked out. “I trust his acumen. Even on those disastrous occasions when it fails us.”

***

Zele ordered the entire crew to the observation deck before they shook off the cryo fatigue; apparently some Cassad tradition that he insisted on that hailed back to when they were still conquering the Known. Kyria suspected the way the Averator’s eyes flashed as he conferred quietly with Remiliat and Paki did not bode well for her at all.

Shuster ambled over to where Kyria stood alone, shoving a plate and cup into her hands. “You make it really damn hard to stick by you sometimes, you know that?”

“I know.” Kyria sipped her water, wishing for something stronger.

“I’ve yet to meet an Arcadian who’s over what happened to your world. It was on you and the Forty-Sixth to protect it, so that makes you twice as twisted up.”

“You gonna rub the training dreams in my face, too?”

“No, but thanks for cinching my argument.” He smiled across the deck as he spoke. The Averator nodded back graciously. Shuster had managed to rig the ship filtration system to infuse their water with carbon dioxide bubbles, and even added some spice to the special rations Zele had set aside for his impending triumph. That was Shuster’s way, he made friends wherever he went.

“I’m doing the best I can, all right?” Kyria found her hands shaking. “By all means, go and—”

“You’re not going to finish that sentence,” Shuster cut in roughly. “You gotta heal, Kyria. You’re scared to take charge of anything, especially your own life. Saving up credits, designing some damn armor in case Pack Loren himself comes after you? I get it. Just make sure you remember to take it off after Zele builds it, okay?” One of the crew began fiddling with a heating gauge on the food trays, and he stomped off. “Damn it, get away from that! You want to lose your eyebrows?”

“If Zele builds it,” Kyria murmured.

The trio of officers broke their meeting. The Atunbé woman flashed Kyria a gristly smile, folding her arms expectantly. Zele strode right up to Kyria, and she faced him squarely. The scattered Cassad crew stilled expectantly.

“Arcadian—”

A proximity alert forestalled him. The deck’s massive viewscreen revealed the last dusty contrails of the nebula, dispersing to reveal a dense carpet of Unknown stars. Zele’s lips quirked in an almost smile. “Fortuitous timing. Unless you hacked my ship’s sensors along with the hopper?”

Kyria’s tongue caught in her throat. “I—”

“Nothing in the Known occurs without an Averator’s knowledge,” Zele said mysteriously. The effect was wasted when he pulled at his mustache, staring eagerly at the data streaming across the viewscreen. “That rule holds especially true aboard my own ship.”

Kyria shrugged. “Good thing for me we’re in the Unknown.”

“Time will tell, Arcadian. We’ll speak soon enough.”

A gentle lurch signaled the Dubious dropping out of its jump. Kyria felt foolish looking through the viewport like the rest of the crew, as if the King of the Known was going to ride out of the star’s center on a chariot with a handful of figs to greet them.

“Three worlds in this system. Preliminary telemetry indicates…they share the same orbital plane.” Genuine awe cracked Remiliat’s voice. “They form the points of a triangle around the parent star. Equilateral.”

“Perfection,” Zele breathed. “Undoubtedly inhabited.” He turned to the crew, giving Kyria a wink as his baritone swept through the observation deck. “Most of you hail from worlds where the Cassad Empire built monuments to their greatness. Before us lies a star system unlike any other—one that is constructed. There are three stars in this formation, perfectly aligned on the galactic axis, according to our guide, this is the centermost of them. You each bear witness to possible evidence of a precursor to the Cassad Empire, an intelligence in power during the Dark Age. We’re here to determine the truth of this.”

Astonished whispers filtered through Zele’s crew. “But there was nothing before the Cassad,” Julet muttered in disbelief. “That’s what the lessonmasters taught us in academy.”

Kyria exchanged an impressed nod with Shuster as she sidled closer. “By the All,” he said. “Sure is something, if it’s true.”

“A piece of history,” Kyria whispered. She could not remember the last time she’d felt eager for anything more than a bottle of Cloudspittle, or another chunk of credits stashed aside for her armor. She wanted a place in this mission, somewhere. “It’ll shake the Known if it’s true.”

They looked on silently as the Dubious pulled closer to the Stack’s central star.

“You did it, sir,” Paki said to Zele, his fingers flashing over a data pad.

“We did it,” Zele corrected. “This is a monumental step for us all. The Known’s greatest discovery and my second greatest achievement.” Zele clapped the younger man on the shoulder. “Now the real work begins.”

“Averator…” The tension in Remiliat’s voice drew everyone’s gaze. “Data is coming in from the sensors. The worlds may have been inhabited once, but there’s nothing there. They’re desolate.”

“What?” Zele snapped. “That’s unacceptable. We’re not at a proper range to—”

Alert klaxons cut him off. Warning lights bathed the observation deck in red. Trajectory lines transposed over the black of space displayed on the forward monitor, converging on a point orbiting the star.

Paki frowned at his display. “There’s another ship out there. The star’s corona shielded it from us.”

What?” Zele snapped his attention to the nearest console, face suddenly slack. Cold sweat clung to Kyria’s back as Zele’s hands flew over the controls. “Determine the origin at once! If the Brython somehow…”

“Pinging it now,” Remiliat replied.

Alarm quivered in Kyria’s gut, too loud to ignore. “Stop. There’s no telling how it will—”
“Already done.” Paki looked between Remiliat and Zele, concerned. “Shall I prepare jump coordinates should it prove—”

“Calm yourselves. There are no signs of activity.” Remiliat’s expression promised words for Kyria later. “It’s derelict, Averator. We’ll ask the irlon after he’s…recovered, to be certain.”

“Thank the Known,” Zele breathed, straightening in relief. The deck’s display reverted to normal green scans. He made soothing gestures for the crew’s benefit. “Apologies for the excitement. We’ll begin active scans of the nearest planet and determine landing sites for our remote drones by the end of this ship cycle. Attend to your work stations.”

None of the crew moved an inch. Kyria tensed as Shuster shuffled forward, clearing his throat.
“With all due respect, Averator—the Dubious isn’t a Cassad ship any longer. Half of us are stragglers, and a few of us are homeless after Efalus Six.”

Kyria never saw Paki leave his station, but he suddenly stood between Zele and Shuster as though he felt no need to bother with the intervening space. He faced down over two dozen crewfolk with no trace of alarm in his orange eyes. “You’ll be paid as agreed,” he said in cool precision.

Remiliat settled into a stance beside Paki, face clouded in fury. “Arcadian, I’ll see you expelled into that star’s corona if you’ve intended mutiny this entire—”

“I had no part of this!” Kyria threw up her hands, shooting an accusing look at Shuster. She stepped between both groups. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I want to see this mission through!”

Shuster broke into a huge guffaw. “Mutiny? By the Known, that isn’t…I’m sorry. What I meant to say is, for all intents and purposes…we’re a mercenary crew. We’ve no itch to captain—except maybe Kyria. I don’t know if we’ll ever understand what we’re doing for the Averator out here, although I’m sure it’s important.”

Zele arched an eyebrow. “What a relief to know you don’t intend to murder us in our sleep for the simple act of hiring you. What are you suggesting?”

“That ship out there…by derelict law is salvage.” Most of the crew nodded in agreement as Shuster continued. “There’s a cut of that for all of us, in case Cassad credits go to fek. Kyria’s getting something solid in payment. Why shouldn’t we?”

“I retain all data and tech,” Zele said immediately.

Kyria jumped as Paki strode to a terminal and began inputting commands. The man is bilking fast.

Shuster shook his head doggedly. “That’s the most valuable—”

“For research and with final say.” Zele bulled right over him. “Basic mechanism of the ship, pods, scrap, munitions, Element G—the ship itself, if any of you are qualified to pilot it—are yours after my sweep.”

“We split rights to the tech,” A Marajeshi crewman called out. “If you go sell it off to—”

“The highest bidder?” Zele laughed. “The New Regime, who may kill us all for our trouble? Or the Cassad, with empire credits that may not be worth a bottle of Cloudspittle by the time we return?”

He swept his gaze over the crew. Kyria was not the only one to flinch before the man’s sheer intensity, and she chastised herself for not seeing the danger there before. “Make no mistake. I am of the Cassad. But if the upstarts of the New Regime supplant the empire entirely, my work will go on. I’ve no time to be a…ship monger. Take it off to the Targothan Graveyards after I’m finished with it, for all I care—if you make it that far.”

Shuster looked around, and saw nothing but nervous nods of agreement. “Fair and settled.” He spat in his palm and extended it.

Zele peered at him with a bemused look. “I think not. Paki?”

“Crew salvage terms updated.” The first mate returned with a data pad. “Agree here.”

“Your duties are still required of you,” Remiliat added coolly. “Any digression, and that ship will be your new home, whatever its condition.”

One by one the crew shuffled toward the new contract. Kyria earned a reproachful look from Paki as she came up last. “You are surprising, Arcadian,” he said. “You profess an interest in our mission in one instant, then concede to a petty salvage squabble in the next. For one who has lost so much, wouldn’t—”

“I never leave credits unclaimed,” Kyria replied. She caught the Averator’s eyes as she extended her hand to verify the salvage terms. “There’s no guarantee you’ve found what you think. And this doesn’t affect our original agreement.”

Zele nodded, suddenly eager. “I’ve given much thought to your particular puzzle, Arcadian. Once we’ve completed this survey, I’ll be happy to show you my—”

“A ping just came back,” Remiliat announced, frowning intently at her station. “Data encryption is processing. Cassad most likely, but it’s not recognizing our handshake. There’s a name, at least. Desecratia.”

Zele’s eyes went wide in shock. Shuster swore under his breath. Remiliat looked at them in confusion. “I’ve never heard of such a ship.”

Kyria’s palm tingled above the data pad. She jerked her hand away too late. Officially bound to the salvage agreement, she let out a defeated laugh. “Don’t fathers read to their daughters on Atunbé?” she asked. “It’s one of the Three Dooms.”

***

Kyria zipped up her incursion gear back in the crew quarters. Shuster sat silently before the locker next to her, watching her dress when he thought she wasn’t looking. “Let’s get this over with. Paki’s leading the salvage appraisal. I’ve got the feeling he doesn’t take kindly to tardiness.”

Shuster stared at his boots. “I’m not going with you. Zele’s orders.”

Kyria stopped. “What?”

“We drew straws. Some are headed over, but most are helping prep for the planet survey.”

“I didn’t get to draw straws!”

“Come on, Grazer. Is there any doubt where you’ll end up in this kind of stuff?”

“I should clout you.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Shuster grinned. “Bring me back a souvenir.” His face grew serious when Kyria didn’t return his smile. “Don’t tell me you’ve bought into this talk about the Doom. It’s a cradle fable!” Shuster stood, pacing as Kyria laced up her boots. “A stupid rumor the Cassad let drift around the worlds they conquered to keep everyone in line. ‘Revolt in the night or spit at the Cassad, and a Doom will take flight with a chastening rod.’ As if a battle platform could just show up in orbit. We gobbled that doctrine whole as kids before we even knew how gravity wells worked!”

“Normally, I’d agree with you.” They exited the crew quarters for the wetdock. Kyria cursed herself for the seventh time for leaving her remaining Forty-Sixth gear behind on Efalus Six.

“Except there’s a ship out there named Desecratia orbiting one of Zele’s precious rocks. Did you see the pre-specs? Battle platform doesn’t even come close…it’s a true-to-death siegenought! Do you know what a ship like that will mean to the Cassad? To the New Regime? The Averator’s right—salvage for that thing is a death sentence. The minute you make it back to the Known, people will tear it apart. And we’ll be caught in the flak.”

“Leave the siegenought aside for a minute.” Shuster shook his head. “The stuff Zele’s saying, about the Dark Age…maybe it’s enough to get people to look at the Known in a different light. Stop the war, even.”

“The war’s bigger than any one person,” Kyria said with a sigh. “I don’t trust him, either—so quick to insist on the tech rights. He’s Cassad. If that ship’s what it’s supposed to be, we’re better off steering it into the sun.”

“Not before I get paid,” Shuster grumbled. “Besides, there’s no way to be sure it’s a Doom.”
Kyria stopped short. “There might be.”

She abruptly changed direction, hurrying down a different corridor. Shuster followed hesitantly as Kyria led him back to the bay set aside for the irlon. His scowl deepened as the door whisked aside, revealing the irlon’s tank. “Is that…you trying to get me thrown out of an airlock, too?”

“Just look out for Paki while I—”

“Bilk off, Kyria.” A coldness settled into Shuster’s eyes, one Kyria knew well from her own reflection. “You’re losing it.”

“Shuster—”

He abruptly marched off. Kyria kissed her teeth in frustration, but made her way into the bay. Tentative pink and white tones issued from the water’s shadows. Kyria typed her phrase into the glass’s data pad. What do you know about a ship at the Stack? An overhead light flashed her query into the water, mimicking the irlon’s strange visual language.

Kyria waited. “Come on, you slime-eating cephalopod!” The water remained dark, betraying not so much as a ripple. She moved off with an oath. A splash touched her ears, and the nape of her neck sizzled hot. She yelped and spun around. The irlon had thrown her volt knuckle at her!

A burst of orange light issued from the water. The air squeezed out of Kyria as she read, worse than if the irlon grabbed her, the same word over and over again as the irlon flashed.
Death.

“Should’ve converted with the Knight, Grazheen.” Kyria pocketed her knuckle and hurried to the wetdock.

***

The Desecratia’s dark hull stretched for kilometers, a slim frame of cruel angles with turrets and missile arrays covering every available surface. Kyria swallowed as the hopper fell under the ship’s shadow.

A yawning cavity dominated the central mass. Angular metal protrusions surrounded it, so the fore and aft halves resembled an array of wicked eagle talons grasping for each other without quite touching. The ship appeared whole despite such a bizarre configuration, as if its designers had chosen against giving the siegenought a heart.

Paki studied the HUD wordlessly, not offering a single word of confidence as his salvage crew gaped through the hopper’s portholes. The siegenought accepted the hopper’s softdock query. So even if it’s not Cassad origin, it responds to Cassad protocols. Kyria didn’t know if that was a good sign or not.

The outer ship clamps hissed into place. Kyria’s stomach lurched as Paki immediately strode for the airlock. “Shouldn’t we prep our gills?” she asked. “No guarantee of atmo in there.”
Paki blinked. “Of course, Arcadian. A good precaution.”

The other crewmen stole grateful looks at Kyria as they helped each other loop the emergency breathers around the necks of their dark blue incursion suits; deceivingly tough and lightweight composite.

One of the Cassad latched Kyria’s gills into place without asking. “Glad to know one of us is actually trained for this work,” he murmured gratefully.

Kyria shrugged and checked her Pacifier H22, a standard Cassad shock trooper’s rifle. The others had chosen poorer sidearms, either afraid of the smart rounds or too stupid to know it was the best weapon. “That’s why I’m here…” She cast about for the Cassad’s name. “Julet.”

Julet blinked as she deftly tapped new configurations into the Pacifier’s guidance defaults, then clicked on her suit’s atmo gauge, wrist mapper and threat filters. Fresh readouts poured over the clear faceplate of her helmet.

“You realize I’m sticking to your hip through this, right?” he asked, copying her prep.

“Watch out for yourself, Cassad. My hip pocket isn’t the best place to be.”

“Says who?”

“Says Arcadia.”

Julet’s smile slipped as the airlock hissed open. The crew followed Paki through the airlock without a hint of precision. An automated rail cutter stationed in a cross corridor could wipe them all out without even burning through fifty rounds. Everyone except Paki, at least.

He led them swiftly through the derelict, a warren of halls that suddenly opened into cavernous terraces full of workstations, or ran past micro-arcologies of stacked crew quarters. Kyria never let up her tension for an ambush, and refused to remove her gills despite the solid atmo readings. Ellin left hers on, but Julet and a few others removed them after a taste of Paki’s pace.

“Forget the armaments,” Julet whispered, rubbing his hands together as if the credits were already issued to his account. “Imagine what we’ll pull off the Element-G needed to jump a ship of this size?”

“Who told you to holster?” Kyria asked curtly. Julet grudgingly pulled his weapon back out.

“Three of them, you know. The Dooms.” The brick-shaped Euphrates-born mercenary that the crew called Perk nodded thoughtfully. “The Cassad never let more than one stay in the Known at any given time. Too much of a threat.”

“Hey Paki, you mean to search the whole thing in a day?” Ellin called out.

“If I must,” he replied. “The sooner this is complete, the sooner we pursue our real work on the planet’s surface.”

“Likely this ship already razed the planet,” Perk said. He snapped his jaw shut when Paki frowned back at him.

“Pace up and chatter down,” Kyria said. “I don’t want to see your shadows’ lips move, clear?”

The ship was massive, and searching it at Paki’s tireless clip soon had Kyria sweating. She had never seen an actual battle platform, except for study back in military school. The All-damned siegenought dwarfed the specs she remembered—it rivaled some jump gates in size. Someone’s gotta be checking on it, for it to maintain sync orbit. But who? I saw in Zele’s eyes, he didn’t even know it existed.

Paki suddenly halted before a black metal door, rigid as a Marajeshi seeker wolf that had just sniffed out an edible blood type.

“What do we got?” Kyria asked. A panel inset into the steel wall had been retrofitted over an older display, glowing faintly with a Cassad code dialect she’d never seen before. “Paki, talk to us.”

“Research and advancement.” A few quick taps and the door responded. Julet, Ellin and a few others jumped as a metallic screeching echoed down the hall.

“Guide rails must be rusted out,” Perk offered.

Kyria ground her teeth as Paki entered with no deployment orders, not so much as checking his corners. The man acted like he was invincible, or else utterly convinced the ship was abandoned. The crushing emptiness of the Desecratia had made them all overconfident.

They entered a monstrous room with a ceiling high overhead. A long row of research bays marched away from them, some sizable enough to hold the Dubious itself.

Paki’s lips pressed together as he took in the space. “We must conserve time,” he announced. “Arrange yourselves into pairs. We may not be able to strip all the available data of a ship this size, so research takes first priority.”

Kyria bit her lip as the others began to split up. Julet approached, but Perk nudged her first. “Looks like it’s you and me,” he said with a leer.

Normally Kyria would leer back, but their commanding officer’s stupid orders had her tense. “You remember the way out of this bilk hole?”

“I remember how much I liked watching you put those gills on, squish.”

Squish? “I’ve never been to Euphrates.” Kyria decided his lips made up for the double iris. “You’ll have to tell me what that means when we finish up here.”

“Easier to show you. I like that hair, think I’ll call you Blue.” Perk paused for a moment. “Unless the cook is…”

“He’s Zele’s crew…not mine.” Kyria gave a bitter laugh.

Perk shrugged. “Thought we were all Zele’s crew.”

The salvage team spread out. Paki ended up with a sour-faced Julet, who entered a bay directly across from the entry.

Kyria motioned Perk to a bay that looked nearly barren. No ominous tools—or Averator’s spare brain matter stuffed into the walls. Just bare workspace and terminals. All perfectly clean, just like every other meter of the ship.

“Pretty boring,” Perk mentioned grumpily.

“Exactly why I picked it,” Kyria retorted. “Boring usually means alive.”

Perk nudged one of the displays. Kyria swore as an axial grid powered on. A miniature hologram of the Desecratia—rendered down to its rivets—rotated silently before them. “Why’d you do that?” she snapped. “You stupid, botch-eyed—”

“Downright ghoulish, she is,” Perk marveled. He waved a hand through the intricate hologram. Flesh sizzled, and he pulled it back with a yelp. “Every bit of this ship is made for pain. We didn’t even see the bomb bays on the way in—look at those soul rakers. Ordinance like that will turn mountains into mass graves. You see anything like that on Arcadia, Blue? I’ll bet you did.”

“Careful, Euphrates,” Kyria said, typing into the interface. “You’ll never get a kiss like that.”

A simulation ran. Dark light pulsed in the middle of the Desecratia hologram, a pulsing vortex that crackled and licked at the ship’s hull. Finally a black point spread from the siegenought’s hollowed middle, yawning open until it consumed the ship.

“By the All…” Kyria’s jaw dropped. The hologram winked out, replaced by a data stream that confirmed—

“What?” Paki’s demanding voice bade her to turn on leaden feet. “What did you find?”

“This ship has a self-destruct,” Perk said blankly. “Some Doom it is. Not sure why Blue is all spooked.”

“Thought we tripped it,” Kyria lied.

Paki took in her quivering knees. “I’ll take over here,” he said. “The next bay over may interest you, Arcadian. Some sort of experimental armor compound. For ship plating, I believe—perhaps we can use it to allay your concerns about the Dubious.”

Right that moment, not even a custom build of Raptor armor would stop Kyria’s gut from clenching. Perk was too stupid to realize what the Desecratia had just shown them. Paki immediately restarted the simulation as they left him. He would soon understand why this ship truly was a Doom, and undoubtedly report it to Zele. Bile licked the back of Kyria’s throat.

By the All, if the Cassad were evil enough to build something that can do this, I’m glad they’re on the cusp. A new determination settled within her, exhilarating and terrifying. Some worlds will get it worse than Arcadia if any of this tech gets back to the Known. I can’t trust Zele to do what’s right.

A sudden scream echoed through the research wing. Julet sprinted straight for them, his eyes wide around as bellfruit. More of the crewmen ran right behind him.

“That shriek come out of you, Cassad?” Perk’s lips curled in amusement.

“There’s a damned irlon in one of those bays!” he shouted. “It just rose up, like—”

“Everyone to me,” Paki commanded, striding into the main thoroughfare between the bays.

“You heard him, form a rank in case it’s hostile.” Tightness rippled through Kyria’s shoulders as the salvage team pulled back together.

“Friends of your guide?” Perk asked Paki dryly. “Too bad Blue tried to cook ours up for dinner, or they could talk.”

“Shut up,” Kyria snapped.

“Perhaps,” Paki replied, peering into the poorly lit bays. “Keep your weapons holstered for the moment.”

The crew finally formed a line, although one ragged enough to make Kyria grimace; and get any squad leader in the Forty-Sixth stripped of their rank and sent to scrape hulls.

Perk looked a question at Kyria. She nodded. They wordlessly took flanking positions on either side of the Cassad line, positioning themselves behind the nearest bay walls. Ellin and one other started to mimic them, until Kyria held up a hand.

“Stay there!” she hissed. Idiot Cassad. Best-drilled shock troops in the Known—except for Marajeshi diamond reavers—but their auxiliary personnel were helpless. Hopefully they didn’t manage to shoot holes in their incursion suits.

Paki stepped forward, one hand open. “We mean you no harm,” he called out. How the man expected to speak with an irlon was beyond Kyria. A series of flashes from the darkness made her jaw tighten.

“You understand that? What’s it saying?” The flashes were nothing like she had seen from Zele’s guide. The colors were…off somehow, sickly green and an eye-wrenching blue; they pulsed through rigid geometric shapes fast enough to make Kyria’s eyes hurt. A looping tentacle whipped forward, pulling a nightmare body behind it.

“Get back, commander!” Kyria shouted. More of the creature’s legs slithered out, covered with bristling suckers that screeched against the metal. The irlon slid forward at a drunken rate, deceptively quick. Paki stared at the ceph’s flashing body, transfixed and unmoving.

I want a personal invitation to every medallion ceremony you attend on Arcadia. The dead woman snapped Kyria out of her trance. She trained her Pacifier on the irlon, just where the legs met the body.

“Hostile target identified!” she shouted. “Open fire!”

The mishmash of weapons drilled into the creature. Julet and the other Cassads’ low-level energy stunners slowed it. Kyria’s first shot took a leg completely off at the base.

“No!” Paki screamed.

Perk and all the rest ignored him. The Euphratian’s ancient sonic driver peppered the ceph with charged pellets. One specialist in Raptor armor would have laughed off the entire volley, but this irlon was exposed, except for a silvery sheen that covered the bulk of its squid body—nothing resembling armor.

The creature dropped with a wet shriek, tentacles splaying and whipping about until it finally lay still. Blood and darker ink oozed over the metal gridded floor. Julet whooped, and the other Cassad lowered their guns with nervous laughs. At least until they noticed Kyria and Perk. They hastily snapped their guns back up, despite Paki’s scowl. The man had never drawn.

“It is quite dead, Arcadian,” he snapped, planting himself in their line of fire. “The communication it attempted was—”

He stopped. The creature did not quite stir, but its body somehow sagged, as if a last gasp before dying shuddered through the dark flesh. “It’s still breathing,” Perk called out anxiously. “Maybe we can—”

A sense of wrongness tugged at Kyria’s gut. “Irlon don’t breathe.”

Sooty mist filled the air around the creature, shining and glittering silver wherever the muted light of the science bays touched it. Kyria backed away on instinct.

Perk grunted. “Smells worse than a fungal reclamator. That’s a new one.” He glanced at the rest of them and jerked as his eyes settled on Julet.

“What?” the Cassad frowned at him.

Kyria edged closer to check him out, then glanced at her threat filters. Nothing. “Anyone else reading a rad leak in here?” she asked. Paki blinked, and the rest shook their heads. Kyria eyed Julet cautiously. “You’re browning by the second, my friend.”

“This is some joke because I’ve never shot a stunner before, right?” Julet smirked, wiping his cheek. Kyria’s eyes widened. A pale streak stood out where his hand had touched. He gaped at his hand in horror. “My faaaace…”

His words ended in a high pitched shriek as his face continued to darken. Not a radiation burn. Pinpricks of blood squeezed through his pores.

“Plague.” The word escaped Kyria’s lips.

Perk cupped his mouth protectively. His bearded skin sloughed off up to the cheekbones, like the bloated peel of a too-ripe moonfruit. Kyria would never kiss those lips after all. Perk staggered to her, holding out the bloody mass of flesh and hair and skin in his open hand. “Bluuueee…”

Kyria puked, even as she staggered back out of his reach. A scream tore out of her lungs as her skin prickled. She felt as though every drop of Cloudspittle she had ever swallowed had leached through her pores and set on fire. She took two strides forward and unloaded smart rounds until the irlon’s body resembled a ruptured cyst of blackened pus. The strange mist continued to disperse.

Paki dropped to the floor, his entire body lost to convulsions. Cassad howls filled the Desecratia. Ellin clawed at the gills around her neck, they were filling with crimson. “Arcadian, help me!”

Kyria tore her eyes away. “Back to the ship, crewmen!” She risked a shout, fearing her tongue might drop away. “Move!”

A few of the Cassad tried to comply, but bent in fits of screaming as the gills cleaved right through their cheeks, their necks.

They’re all gone.

Kyria lurched into a run.

“Kyria Grazheen…” Paki struggled to rise, reaching for help. The irlon’s poison cloud now drifted through the air with purpose—by the All, it was settling on Julet and Perk! Their bodies twitched and danced like they were infested by Targothan spark lice.

Remember their faces. Take care of us.

Kyria cursed and grabbed Paki’s arm. A relieved sob escaped her when his skin held fast. He weighed enough to make her spine pop, but she was Arcadian. She hefted him to his feet. “On your feet, Paki! I can’t carry you the whole damn way!”

His mouth opened, but no words came out as Kyria dragged him through the bay doors.

A ship alarm peeled through the Desecratia’s halls.

The promise of death helped Paki find some balance. He stumbled less and ran more. Echoed memories of the crewmen’s screams chased Kyria all the way back to the hopper. We’re Arcadian, the dead woman admonished. We don’t leave family behind.

“So much for salvage,” Kyria whispered. Her hands shook at the controls. “Tell me you’re all right.”

Paki’s orange eyes only offered a vacant stare. Kyria considered expelling him from the hopper’s airlock. He had seen the Desecratia’s true nature. She bit her lip as the hopper shot back to the Dubious, and Paki watched her decide whether to kill him or not. She reluctantly decided against it. Better for a superior to explain why everyone on the salvage team was dead.

About the Author

DaVaun Sanders

DaVaun Sanders

DaVaun Sanders resides in Phoenix, Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, PodCastle, Broken Eye Books, Dancing Star Press, and the New York Times bestselling Black Boy Joy anthology. He currently serves as Executive Editor for the World Fantasy Award winning, British Fantasy Award winning and 3x Hugo Nominated FIYAH. His most recent editorial project includes Breathe FIYAH, a flash fiction anthology collaboration with Tor.com. He hopes to continue expanding his body of work in children’s fiction, for his own twins and kids everywhere who deserve to enjoy inclusive stories. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @davaunsanders.

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About the Narrator

Laurice White

Laurice White is an actress, poet and mom currently residing in Michigan.

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