I bolted upright in my bunk, chest heaving. The strange visions of my dreams slowly uncoiled, but the wailing remained. No, wait. Not wailing. Just the door chime. I frowned and rolled over to look at my clock. Who would bother me at 0300? I slid out of bed and grabbed a pair of pants, slipping them on as I stumbled over to the door.
It hissed open, revealing a young man in uniform with red stripes on his cuffs and collar that identified him as part of security. According to his badge, he was Security Assistant Wesley Gilles. I frowned. Why would Olson have sent this rookie to wake me up?
“What is it, Gilles?” I injected a little bite into my words.
His entire body trembled and his eyes were wide. “Sir, you have to come. Now.”
“There’s been…” He swallowed and I suspected he was fighting to hold back tears. “It’s Security Chief Olson…and Cargomaster Lewis. They…”
A weight settled into my stomach. “What? Spit it out!”
“They’re both dead. Suicides.”
I stared at him, unsure I heard him correctly. But then I snared a shirt from the chair near the door and followed him into the corridor. He led the way to Olson’s quarters. As we walked, he tried to tell me what happened, but his words were a near incomprehensible babble. I think I understood the gist: sometime during the night, Cargomaster Lewis walked into the secondary cargo bay and blew the hatch. She had been sucked into the vacuum immediately. When Gilles tried to report the incident to Chief Olson, he discovered that Olson had used his sidearm to vaporize himself from the neck up.
No wonder the kid was scared. I would be too. I barely was able to hold down the rising tide of panic that threatened to sweep me away. But I had to remain in control. I was the captain. It was my duty.
A small knot of crew members had gathered around Olson’s quarters. They parted as we approached. Gilles hung back as I walked through the door. He probably had seen enough already.
Sure enough, Olson’s body lay in the middle of his room. His shoulders were covered with a scorch mark, his head and neck gone. I tried to remain impassive, to look for any indication of what had happened, but the weight in my stomach surged upward, and I quickly stumbled out of the quarters and pitched into the far wall.
“What are we going to do, Captain?” Gilles asked.
I tried to formulate an answer, something I could tell him, but before my thoughts could order themselves, the deck underneath us bucked wildly. Emergency alarms blared through the halls.
I turned to the gathered crew. “To your stations!”
They bolted, hurrying out of my way. I raced through the corridors, heading for the bridge. With every breath, I choked on the musty smell that chased my steps. What had happened now?
I emerged on the bridge and jumped into my chair, calling up the Atwood’s status. The board was awash in red light. Some sort of failure in the main generator. The engines were still working, propelling the ship through the Expanse. But what had happened?
My fingers flew over the controls as I called up the security feed from the generator room. A gray cloud swirled through the compartment, obscuring the view. Had a coolant line ruptured? I thumbed the intercom, calling up Chief Engineer Daniels. He didn’t answer. Instead, gasps and feeble cries whispered from the speakers, their words overwhelmed with the sound of rushing air.
I closed the connection and rewound the footage on the security feed, back fifteen minutes. The cloud vanished in a blur, and I played back the footage. The night crew, three men and a woman, worked at their stations. Everything looked normal, but then someone burst into the room, wielding a lit plasma cutter. The newcomer leapt onto one of the crew, slicing at them with the tool. It took me a moment to recognize the assailant as Daniels himself. The chief attacked his crew, then turned the cutter’s beam on a coolant line. My fingers dug into the arms of my chair as I watched the conduit burst, spewing the toxic cloud into the room. Daniels dropped the torch and collapsed to his knees, retching. And then he vanished as the coolant overwhelmed him.
I froze at the quiet word, then slowly turned in my chair. Jones stood at the entrance to the bridge. He cradled a laser rifle close to his chest, and a wild fire burned brightly in his eyes.
“I told you, didn’t I? We shouldn’t have come to the Expanse. The worlds are dead and now, so are we. And I know why.”
I didn’t move, didn’t dare even breathe. He wasn’t aiming at me yet, but he could, probably faster than I could close the distance between us. The bridge’s open design offered me few places to hide.
“It’s because of whatever that Danforth brought on board. Don’t you see, Cap’n? It’s been floodin’ the ship with doom, and now it’s going to destroy us all. Well, not if I don’t destroy it first!”
He spun and lurched off the bridge. I gaped after him, surprised to still be alive. But then I bolted after him, chasing him through the corridors. He was headed for the main cargo bay, sure enough.
But then Danforth slammed into Jones, knocking him off course. The wiry man no longer wore his rumpled suit, but long black robes with a crimson fringe along the sleeves and hem. He held a dagger, its blade a corkscrew of metal with dark jewels on the hilt.
“I tried to warn you, Captain,” Danforth said. “I tried to tell you to hurry, that we couldn’t be late, but you didn’t listen, did you? And now it wakes. Yes, before it arrived home. And see what beauty it has wrought.”
Jones roared a challenge and charged. Danforth whirled faster than I thought possible and plunged his blade into Jones’s stomach and then pulled it free with a vicious shout. Jones staggered and gasped, his hand fumbling at his wound. The rifle clattered across the deck and came to rest at my feet.
I quickly scooped it up and turned it on Danforth. The man dropped to his knees and laughed. He actually laughed!
“It is too late, you see? I tried to protect us as best I could, but the dreams of a god cannot be contained when it stirs.”
He shook his head. “No more so than any who dare to walk in the shadows of giants.”
He lunged for me, and I pulled the trigger, the crimson beam slicing through Danforth’s chest. He toppled and fell on top of his dagger. A pool of blood slowly spread out beneath him, staining the deck. He didn’t get up again.
My fingers tightened on the rifle. As much as it pained me to admit it, Jones had been right. Whatever it was that Danforth brought onto my ship had to be destroyed. Maybe the rifle wouldn’t be enough, but maybe I could vent the hold, dump it into the Expanse. I had to at least try.
I sprinted the rest of the way, the corridors strangely empty. I wondered what had happened to the rest of the crew, if they were huddled in their quarters, scared or perhaps slowly descending into madness. Had they killed themselves as well? No. Focus! Deal with the threat first, then evaluate the damage.
I skidded to a halt outside the cargo hold. After taking one last shaky breath, I opened the door.
A wave of salty air mixed with the choking odor of mold washed over me, and I staggered backwards. What felt like a vice tightened around my head, and a cry ripped free of my throat. I clawed at my temples, trying to dislodge the pressure. But it only grew, driving me to my knees. I gagged as the scent overwhelmed me.
As I knelt there, I heard it, the wet sound of leather scraping against metal, drawing closer and closer to me. I risked a look and how I wish I hadn’t! For a shape, monstrous and overwhelming, towered over me, its mottled skin glistening in the dim light. It wasn’t human, that much I understood, but as I tried to decipher its form, the pressure in my brain increased, becoming more intense as a high-pitched keening mixed with my own screams, and I wanted nothing more than to shrivel up.
But no. Visions of blood mingled with the odors of salt dragged me under, and the riptide sent me tumbling through visions of buildings trapped in ice, their angles impossible and disturbing, the inhabitants of those ancient walks even more so. And I kept falling and falling until darkness reached up and smothered me in its depths.
They tell me that the Atwood drifted out of the Expanse three weeks later. A scavenger vessel found her, life support barely functioning, all the holds open to space, and I was the only survivor. The ship’s computers had been scrubbed, and all of the navigational data was erased. The crew and Danforth were gone. Me, they found in my bunk, a gibbering wreck, spouting words with no meaning and staring at the ceiling. The only clue as to what happened were puddles of briny water in the main cargo hold, indicating the Atwood may have landed in an ocean at some point. I didn’t know. I couldn’t remember.
I spent close to a year in a psychiatric institution, where the doctors worked to knit together my damaged psyche. They eventually succeeded, and they believed me when I said I couldn’t remember anything that happened on the voyage. I suppose they were relieved they wouldn’t learn the truth.
Wise men. I wish I could forget. But even now, as I sit in my home, I can still smell it, the salt and the mold. As if the odor clings to me, like rot on a corpse. The memories will not leave me either. I must live with the deaths of my crew, for that was the price, it seems, to bring Danforth’s creature home.
John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in Blue Springs, Missouri, with his wife and two boys. You can find him online at his website or on Facebook, and his books on Amazon.