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Chapter 1 – Unknown

Insula

“Aloe, I need you on the Bridge immediately,” a stern voice stated. “Aloe?!”

Aloe awoke to see the face of a squared-faced man hovering over her. Through sleepy eyes, she made out the holographic image of Ven, the ship’s Chief, appearing very life-like if not for its transparency.

She sat up lazily from her bed. “What is it, Sir?” she asked through a lengthy yawn.

The image was being produced from her Relayer – a small device at the end of her bed. Aloe had fallen asleep listening to the sweet melody it produced while the device projected soothing pictures of planets.

“Learn to answer your caller,” he scolded. “I’ve tried reaching you three times already.”

She glanced over to check the gadget strapped to her wrist. The screen was black along with the light receiver. Normally, it would flash when accepting incoming messages. She tapped it a few times to try and awaken the device with no success.

Aloe sighed. “Looks like it’s malfunctioning, Sir,” she replied tiredly. “I’ll take it over to Lester to get it looked at.”

“Do it later,” he replied sharply. “I need you up here.”

“You can’t get Lenio or Eri to help?” Ordinarily, she would never speak this way to the Chief but she detested being awoken from her sleep – who didn’t? That and she was on break from her last shift.

“Lenio’s at Medical on check-up for that arm,” he answered, “and Eri’s dealing with the Syn-Cells. Besides, I need your eyes. It’s a report that needs to be looked at.”

“Reports are more of Faa's lane.” She rendered another yawn.

“Yours too, last time I checked, Petty Corporal,” he answered.

Aloe scoffed. Why did I ever accept that vexing promotion? she thought.

“Besides,” Ven continued, “I can’t get a hold of Faa at all. I’ve tried her more times than I have you. I wouldn’t have bothered you if I didn’t have to.”

She cursed under her breath. That vexing girl. Where did she run off to? “I think I can locate her,” she suggested as a last-ditch effort.

“No,” he said sharply, “I want you. You can thank Faa for it later. Get off your ass and meet me on the Bridge.”

With that, the head dissolved into pixelated dust. The prior image returned with a large planet revolving to the sweet tunes of a piano. Irritated, Aloe hit the switch to shut it off. Where had Faa run off to? Breaks were a rarity on this ship and Aloe had been enjoying hers. She made a mental note to give her lip about it later. She rolled to the edge of her bed – letting her feet hang. Still attempting to fully wake up, she aimlessly stared around her quarters. The room was lit by illuminant strip-panels set to dim – as she preferred – allowing most of it to be veiled in shadows. Her quarters were cramped like a prison cell and bland to say the least.

The room contained but a single table embedded in the wall, hovering above a stool that could be retracted at a push of button to conserve space – even the bed. Aloe glanced down trying to find her boots, hoping to avoid touching the bitter coldness of the metal flooring. Her eyes were slow to adjust and she couldn’t see clear enough through the darkness. She cursed under her breath, knowing she have to brave it regardless to reach the control panel for the lights.

Out of all the rooms on this vexing ship, I had to get this one, she thought. Lester, the ship’s engineer barely stayed in his room and yet his panel was directly next to his bed. Some people didn’t appreciate their luck.

She finally slid onto the floor – cursing again under her breath for its coldness – hobbling over to adjust the light settings. With them on, she found her boots laying off to the side where she had cast them carelessly prior to getting into the bed. This was about the messiest she kept her room. Of course, she barely spent time in it, despite wanting to because of her duties. It was still more time than Lester had ever done. He practically lived in his workshop.

After slipping them on and rendering one final stretch, she punched a button to open the door.

Outside her room was a corridor lit by green illuminant strips. The corridor was long and appeared very confined. Columns of support beams ran along the walls in a pattern extending down to the end – each embedded with the strips of light. Thin clouds of white could be seen filtering from the grated path below, pushing up a cool breeze.

The long hallways always felt so claustrophobic even more than the quarters themselves. For one thing, you could almost touch the walls from the center of the path. Not to mention, the illuminants barely lit the way too, only shining where support beams were present, leaving gaps of shadows in between. It rendered an uneasy feeling as if something was watching from them. To top it off, an eerie buzzing from the ventilation resonated in the air like a deep hum.

Aloe quickly coursed the long path, making a sharp right at the end - her mind wandered as she did. It was easy to do so. She had been aboard this ship, the Insula, for several years now, which made navigating the corridors a second-thought. At the end of the hall, she came upon a set of closed doors with a small control panel to the ship’s main Ascender. Immediately upon pressing it, the doors parted open and she stepped inside, greeted by an automated voice:

Level for ascend? it spoke flatly.

“Main Bridge,” she replied out-loud.

Acknowledged, the voice responded, closing the doors.

She felt the Ascender tremor as it lifted. The illuminants – white this time – flickered as it moved. As it scaled each level, her eyes focused on the panel above the doors. It showcased digital numbers changing as it climbed, stopping at 15.

Main Bridge level reached, the voice announced.

She stepped out entering an open, white room filled with an abundance of display-panels decorating the walls. The Bridge had airy clean vibe as if it were an extension of the Medical Bay. White control panels hugged the walls of the room, all displaying holographic data – energy readings, blueprint of the ship, and even some with live surveillance of certain facilities. The back-wall displayed a panoramic close-up of the outside planet: PL-0490. They had been orbiting it for several Revolutions, extracting its resources. It was a huge planet that orbited around the giant sun of this solar system: Hale’s Eye.

The planet’s surface was actually quite breath-taking. It had a vast display of swirling colors from the gas covering the atmosphere: a bold exhibit of rich, vibrant reds twisting and molding into dark yellows and browns like a artist playing with watercolors. Aloe could admire its beauty for hours – it was a brainless decision to add its image to her Relayer.

She spotted Ven towards the back glancing at a projecting display that hovered over a panel. His fingers danced across the screen, prompting various displays of data and graphs.

Ven was a well-built man who stood at a looming height with Aloe barely measuring up to his shoulders. It always puzzled her why he didn’t choose to enlist as a Legionnaire soldier instead of a Chief. For one thing, he had their dominant presence. Vexus, the man even kept his hair trimmed low into a square-top as the Legionnaires did. Of course, this wasn’t necessarily a negative aspect about him. She definitely respected him as the others did. It was good though – a respectable Chief meant the difference between a ship succeeding or failing.

When the doors shut behind Aloe, his eyes met hers.

“Good, you’re here,” he said, gesturing for her to approach. “Something’s off on this report – I’m not sure what to make of it.”

With a puzzled look, Aloe headed over to his control panel, standing across from him.

“This is from our latest pull,” he stated, tapping a button on the screen. Immediately, the keyboard and the image projection shifted to her perspective. “Tell me what you see?”

Aloe glanced at the image, typing on the screen to enlarge the projection. The file was a graph-reading, displaying the percentages of the ore extraction. The ground surface of the planet was very rocky and rich in it and made for a necessary ingredient when creating new ships.

Her brow furrowed even more when she noticed the numbers.

“This can’t be right,” she said, looking up. “It’s saying there’s a thirty percent increase in the pull.”

He nodded in agreement. “Knew I wasn’t seeing things,” he replied.

“But that’s impossible, Sir,” she continued, “How can that be…?”

“How indeed?” he agreed, shaking his head. “I know the system over-estimates by a fraction sometimes – I can see an extra five, maybe even ten percent for compensation, but thirty?”

“It can’t be though,” she said, typing, attempting to locate a reason behind the abnormality, “maybe there was an unexpected inclusion?”

“Or... could be the Insula is just getting old on us,” Ven said softly, grazing his hand over one of the panels. “Eri mentioned that Syn-Cells don’t hold up like the used to. Not to mention another control panel is down this week.”

Aloe glanced at him.

He had a faint smile across his lips. She had never seen Ven smile – it was strange but it wasn’t really that disconcerting. It was the type of smile someone would exhibit as if reminiscing on the early days with an old friend. He walked away slowly, staring at the large display of the planet.

“She’s well over ten years – still fighting the good fight though, competing against these other younger ships…time flies by so quickly…” he said, his words fading.

“Sir?” Aloe said.

“Don’t mind me, Corporal,” he replied with his back turned, “I’m just speaking nonsense. See what you can find out about that report.”

Aloe knew how he felt though. She had only been with the Insula for three years, while Ven had served with it for ten. Even so, she felt attached to it just as he did – it wasn’t just another ship to her. No, even with only three years, the ship was more than that. Aloe returned her attention to the report. Digging deep, she managed to isolate the ore data with another element with a different signature reading. She tried to reference its contents to the database but the results pulled up "unknown".

Strange, she thought. She decided to pull up past reports to compare the numbers only to discover the same unknown element was present there as well. For each one, Faa had signed off on all of them. Did she not know about it? How could she not notice it? From her lab, she would have easily been able to spot the abnormality.

“Any progress?” Ven asked, turning back towards her.

Aloe quickly closed the report. She didn’t want Faa to catch any heat if she did in fact know about the extra element. She was known to dive deep in her own research which sometimes interfered with her main duties. This wouldn’t be the first time Aloe had to cover for her. She attempted to download the files to her caller, which surprisingly was successful. At least that function still worked on it, she thought.

“No, but I think I can get a better analysis if I head down into the labs,” she replied, “If I’m lucky, I’ll run into Faa as well.”

She needed to learn more and really did hope to find Faa. Vexus, she hated lying to the Chief. Ven nodded in agreement.

“Let me know what you find as soon as you can,” he replied.

“Will do, Sir,” she said, heading for the Ascender.

Chapter 2 – Hopeless

Lenio detested wearing casts. They were so uncomfortable – feeling ridged and in-the-way honestly. He attempted to shift the metal contraption covering his left arm without causing any pain. The itch underneath was relentless, tickling deep under his arm where he could not reach. Why was that always the case for an itch? It was like the vexing things chose spots like these on purpose. It was driving him insane – to the point he wanted to just drive a spark-wrench right into the spot and fry the very area as if to render a retaliating torment to the itch itself. Of course, he would only be hurting himself in the end – but still.

“I’m sorry for keeping you waiting,” a voice said, entering the room.

It was Dr. Qim. At her entrance, the itching ceased or rather Lenio’s care for it, that is. Vexus – she was gorgeous. The real proof a flower could indeed bloom in the icy reaches of the stars. His eyes followed her as she walked over to him, sitting cross-legged on the stool before him – he in turn was sitting on the edge of an examining table.

“Honestly, I feel like the Revs in a day aren’t long enough,” she went on, looking through the papers on her clipboard.

He studied her while she did. She kept her hair short – a dark brunette color that seemed to perfectly settle around her face, even compliment her luscious, red lips. Was a doctor even allowed to wear lipstick? She didn’t need it though, not to him anyways. His eyes continued to trace along her features within the open flaps of her white lab coat.

She wore a white blouse that gave tribute to her black skirt, displaying her thighs that seemed to reflect the lights or rather was it her own personal glow? Her blouse showcased just enough cleavage to make him blush. Don’t stare! he scolded himself, tearing his eyes away. Vexus, man! You know better.

“So how are we feeling today?” she asked, finally looking up.

Lenio turned to look at her – ensuring to look into her eyes only. “Better,” he said with a weak crack in his voice. Come on, man, he thought. “Much better,” he said with more confidence.

“Good,” she said, “any pain or irritations?”

He scoffed. “Well this whole cast is a vexin' irritation,” he stated.

She smiled. It was a beautiful, warm smile like bathing in the rays of Solaris. He felt his heart skip a few beats. Could he ever hope to win her over? Was it possible for someone like…him?

Lenio was a large man, not overweight but he wasn’t ripped to the teeth like the Chief. No, he was more of a tall, rounded man. When it came to looks, his face wasn’t completely hopeless. He wasn’t missing any teeth and he tried to keep his hair neatly combed to the side. Of course most would see this as a pointless measure considering the suit’s helmet he wore for drilling would untidy it, but still did she notice his effort? Did he have a chance?

“No, not much pain, but I really want to take this cast off,” he continued. “This vexin' itch – Isn’t there something better I can wear?”

She jotted a few notes onto her clipboard. “Well, believe it or not, Lenio. Casts have come a long way,” she answered. “You think these are a pain? They used to be much worse,” she explained. “They were much harder to apply compared to these, not to mention, they didn’t have any readouts of the fracture’s condition. I'd say these have those ones beat by a mile and some.”

“Wow,” Lenio replied, stunned. He felt a little guilty for complaining now. “I-I guess I have it easier then.”

She smiled again, placing her hand on his leg. “Even so, I think you’re right though. They still have a long way to go to making them better,” she said.

He felt his cheeks flush.

“I’ll see if I can get something for that itching,” she said, walking away.

He returned a smiled as she stood up. “Thanks,” he said softly. He didn’t want her to remove her hand. As creepy as it sounded, he had almost placed his own on top of hers out of instinct. Probably for the best that I didn’t, he thought.

As she left the room, his eyes couldn’t help but glance at her backside. What was he scared of? All he had to do was tell how he felt about her. What was the worst thing that could happen? The least he could do was invite her for lunch or something.

She came back almost instantly.

“Oh, I almost forgot. I’ll need your statement too so I can document the accident,” she brought up. “You were in so much pain earlier that we thought we wait until you settled down. Is that, okay?”

He blushed even harder thinking about how much of a child he must’ve appeared during that day. Sure he had fractured his arm, but did she view him any less for it?

“Lenio?” she said, pulling him from his trance.

“S-sorry,” he replied. “Yeah, that’s fine.”

She nodded. “I’ll be back.”

As he waited, his eyes traced around the room. He had been so distracted by that itch earlier that he hadn't really taken it in; it wasn't a place he'd been in often or never actually. The room was very clean and empty with the exception of a heart-reading machine in the corner and a medicine cabinet on the wall. He almost felt guilty being in it, believing his very presence tainted the area. It was so white – almost too white. Even the air felt sanitized unlike the heavy scent of oil and muddy smoke he was accustomed to. Here, it smelled like ointments mixed with honey and... flowers? For some reason, it left his mind feeling numb as if the walls themselves were administrating some form of medication.

Yet, it was relaxing somehow. His thoughts felt clearer. Earlier, he was having trouble recalling the accident, but now he could see it.

The event itself was odd.

Bits were still incoherent, but he could see it though. He recalled lending a hand to Faa. He never had a problem helping her when he had the time. She often rewarded his assistance with small goodies. This time, she needed his help to move a heavy container of ore to the back of the storage lot.

The containers sat on the ground level in the facility but after a while the stacks made it difficult to transport any more through to the back. Sometimes, the third level's walk-way had to be used – a thin path absent a decent handrail. It was poor designing in Lenio's mind but it was the only way to get the job done. He could recall, the palette he used jam on something and that was all it took. Before he knew it, he slipped off the edge, narrowly able to the handle of the palette. He had managed to keep one of leg on the edge but it wasn’t enough to pull himself up.

Just thinking on that moment made his stomach churn. He hated heights and luck would have him facing that fear full-force. Faa seemed to bolt into action below, but in the last few moments, Lenio remembered feeling the container suddenly jolt over the edge, which caused him to plummet. Fortunately, his fall was cushioned by a pipe before he slammed into the ground on top of his arm. He was very fortunate that it was only his arm that suffered.

There was one thing that puzzled him though. As he lay there, he noticed a face staring back at him from above. At first he thought it was Faa. Yet, the face retracted and a second later he saw Faa running from the lift to that same location before he blacked-out. He didn't understand what he saw exactly or if it was possible he had hit his head and imagined that strange occurrence.

What puzzled him even more was the face: he was sure it was Faa looking down at him. It didn't explain how could she could be in two places at once.

Lenio was startled by Dr. Qim's voice in the other room.

"I don't know what our next assignment will be, Garrett. No. I don't– Fine– I'll think about the dinner. Yes... I promise. I have to go. I have a patient I need to deal with."

A moment later she returned in the room with a small bottle. “Okay, Lenio. These pills should do the trick,” she said with a smile.

Dinner? Lenio thought. And who was Garrett?

Of course, a woman as beautiful as Qim would have tons of guys lined up to swoon her. She had options to any guy she wanted. There was no way she would even consider him as one.

It was hopeless, but the truth.

“Are you okay, Lenio?” she asked with a concern look, seeing his sulking face.

Men like the Chief are the ones that get the girl, not you, he thought. Stick to your station, Lenio.

“Yeah,” he lied with a fake smile, “thanks for the pills, Dr. Qim.”

Chapter 3 – Charred

Source Allocate Facility level reached, the Ascender’s automated voice announced.

The doors parted, allowing Aloe to enter the facility. This area was mainly composed of a large storage-bay which on first glance appeared to stretch endlessly in all directions. Despite having very bright illuminants, their reach seemed to weaken once it met the ground, leaving many corners in shadows. Aloe often wondered how it even fit on the Insula.

The Ascender stopped at the second level onto a balcony, which provided an overhead view of the entire bay. Stairs hugged the walls and stretched down to the ground level. A third level, more of a walk-way, hovered above along the outer edges of the facility. On the ground, large metal containers were neatly stocked in groups on various palettes ready for transporting.

Aloe made her way down the stairs to the bottom level. The center had a set of lab tables, many of which held display-panels similar to the Bridge. The screens presented different read-outs of data to inventory the materials stored. Faa was in charge of clean-up and inventory.

Aloe noted the surrounding tables covered with clear flasks containing many clumps of ore rocks. One table in particular had a small microscope with a large piece under its scope. She couldn’t help but shake her head with a smile, picturing Faa eagerly leaning over the scope to examine things. She was such a nerd when it came to this stuff. She often wondered if Faa had accepted this job as an excuse to conduct her personal research on things. It didn’t seem like a long shot given how lonely it was being down here and how much she enjoyed it regardless. Another table held a similar display. Yet, Aloe noticed a difference in a few others. The containers of those tables were covered in shattered glass, as well as the surrounding floor.

She scoffed. Way to keep your work space clear, sis, she thought.

“Faa?!” she called out, hearing her voice echo deep into the facility. Aloe hoped she was somewhere in the back, inventorying the lot. “Hey sis?!”

There was no answer.

She attempted her caller – it was acting stubborn again with the screen turning off immediately upon activating it. Irritated, she banged it a few times on the side of a table which seemed to work. The screen flickered on.

“Faa where are you?” she spoke into it. “I need you back in the lab. There was something off about the report. Get here, ASAP.”

With no immediate response, she sighed. Probably went to the latrine, she thought. She decided to check out the reports and made her way to one of the display-panels. Luckily, Faa was more organized on here. The graphs she pulled up were similar to the ones viewed on the Bridge, yet more detailed. They openly referenced the unknown element referring to it as RE-00X.

Strange, she thought.

The double-zero was a special code to describe resources of a solid type. It was a broad term never really used until the element could be properly identified. Surely that couldn't be the case here. There was nothing on that planet the system couldn't already classify. She dug deeper pulling up other reports. The reports listed the presence of the element in small amounts slowly increasing up to now. Vexus! she thought. She knew about it. Faa had no reference to what this thing was and still she said nothing.

It was clear from the reports traces of it didn’t show up until yesterday, but Faa knew about it and didn’t say anything. More than likely, she was too caught up on studying it instead of reporting it.

Aloe turned on her caller again. “Really Faa? You didn’t think I wasn’t gonna find out about your little side project? Vexus! What were you thinking?” she said, gritting her teeth. “Why didn’t you say anything? I could’ve informed Ven that it wasn’t ready yet. This is an Article 389 waiting to happen. Did you ever stop to think what would happen if this report had reached H.D.P.?”

She wanted to say more, but her anger garbled the words in her head. Instead, she ran her hands through her hair. This was sloppy of Faa, real sloppy. This could not only jeopardize Faa’s career, but she could face imprisonment for falsifying reports like this. It was one thing if it had been one, but several? Her and her vexing research. What had been so interesting that she’d go this far?

She returned her attention to the display-panel, searching among the files for an answer. She came across a folder marked as “RE-00X Analysis” – filled with audio files. However, they prompted a password to listen. She tried a few possible entries but they were all unsuccessful. With her sister the possibilities could be anything.

Aloe scoffed again, finally giving up.

“Faa?” she said into her caller, feeling her anger begin to lighten up, “I’m heading back up. Ven was the one who noticed the report not me,” she explained, “honestly, I’m surprised he didn’t want to string you up after seeing it. He didn’t see everything though so you owe me covering for you…again,” she stated. She started to wonder if this should be the last time. “Fix the vexing report…all of them and then send them back to Ven corrected. Next time, keep your research away from the job or you’ll be out of one.”

As walked to the stairs, Aloe caught sight of something flashing in the distance. It was back near the wall – the pattern of flashing was oddly familiar. She made way over to it, noticing that it was coming from within the Igniter Chamber – a machine used to burn up waste residue from a clean-up. Inside the chamber, she found a clump of charred remains. Buried among it, she could see the flashing light.

She pressed a button on the panel to open the chamber, which sounded off with a loud beeping noise. Immediately, a horrible scent was released: her first thought was charred curdled milk. It flooded her nostrils down into her throat and scorched her eyes.

Disgusting was an understatement. She had been careless though, opening the chamber without checking the toxicity levels. Luckily, the last few pulls had nothing of the sort or else the system would have detected such. Faa obviously never got around to emptying out the chamber, which would've been an easy job for Eri.

Covering up her nose with one hand, she crouched down, fishing into the charred remnants, to retrieve the flashing object. It was heavily burnt, but it was still recognizable. It was a caller – Faa’s caller. The light continued to flash, indicating all the missed messages it had received.

Chapter 4 – Update

Please state your name and access ID, an automated voice said.

“Ven. 1-1-0-4,” he stated.

Acknowledged, it replied.

The panel on the wall lit up, ready to accept authentication.

Please, place your hand for print recognition, it requested next.

He complied, placing his hand flatly on the panel. A blue light traced around the outline of it before turning green.

Acknowledged. Ven, Chief Director, you are authorized to enter Captain’s Quarters, the voice concluded.

The doors before him parted to the sides, allowing him entry to the room ahead. The Captain’s Quarters were on the upper deck of the Main Bridge and could only be accessed through a small Ascender in the back. He entered a clean, white room similar to the Bridge below but smaller. It displayed a large holographic map that floated above him, which showcased the current solar system and Hale’s Eye at its center. The projection continuously rotated, passing through him occasionally. A grid pattern was among the displays with the planets shown as small dots with their associated names. One dot in particular flashed with the PL-0490 as its label. Next to it was another smaller, flashing dot indicating the ship.

“Captain Insula,” Ven spoke up, “we were informed that a Docker is on route to unload our collection from PL-0490,” he stated, standing at parade rest – his legs shoulder width apart with arms behind his back. “They should reach us in a few hours, before the end of today’s Rev.”

The room was empty of another person. Instead a large sphere roughly the size of a head hung from the ceiling. Wires and cables dangled from above connecting to the device like tangled ropes. The surface of the sphere was chrome, reflecting the colors emanating from the projected map. Its exterior was decorated with a variety of lights that flashed in incoherent patterns as if in cadence to a silent beat.

Good, an automated female voice replied with an airy, metallic ring in its pitch, we’re ahead of schedule.

The ship was named after its captain.

All ships were piloted by automated navigation systems. It was a smart move considering the vastness of space. A Chief was truly the captain of a ship since they actually interacted with the crew. The automated captain, however, was linked back to the Head Docking Port, a Board of Officials where all ships inevitably reported back to.

I’ve already received confirmation for our next mission, she continued, her voice fluctuated between a soothing tone and a flat metallic one. RE-12 on PL-0716. Coordinates have been received from H.D.P.

RE-12? he thought. That was Nitrogen. They needed more so soon? “Sounds good, Ma’am,” Ven replied.

The holographic projection animated a line traversing from their current planet forward to another planet closer to the sun. Judging from the data, it appeared it would take several days to reach – at least a week.

“I’ll send these updates to the Docker to ensure were resupplied respectfully for this mission,” he stated. "We should be good-to-go in a few hours then. I'll send an update when were ready to head out."

Is that all?

"There is one last thing, Ma'am: On behalf of the crew, I wanted to submit for 48 hours of leave; Rev-time of New Spes, of course. We've been ahead on all our quotas and haven't missed a deadline on any pulls. I think my crew deserves a little break from the scene. "

There was a moment of silence, longer than Ven was expecting.

Noted, she finally said. The Insula has shown great efforts. Leave time will be authorized... permitting its approval through the Board.

Ven gave a small nod. "That's all I needed to hear, Ma'am. I have nothing else." He turned to leave.

Chief Ven? she said, prompting him to stop.

“Ma’am?”

What of the reports for PL-0490? I have yet to see any for Rev three.

He sighed. “There was an abnormality sighted in the report, and possibly others, that needed to be checked-out,” he answered. “As soon as we clear that up–”

An abnormality? she interrupted. Elucidate, please.

“It’s nothing serious, Ma’am,” he answered, “the readings were off showing an exaggeration in the data; it happens sometimes. I got my Corporal looking into now though.”

The voice didn’t initially respond. Ven was hesitant to leave though, not formally being excused. After an awkward minute of silence, she spoke up, Chief Ven, she said suddenly in more stern tone, you are to update immediately upon re-analyzing the data. Any and all information is to be signed off by you prior to being sent forward – no exceptions. Reanalyze this 'abnormality' and if still present, include all traces of your findings with the report. Is this understood?

Ven winced at this command, but nodded softy. “Yes, Ma’am. I'll see to it.”

Chapter 5 – Cargo Bay

“Vexus’ pull, Aloe – what’d ya do this thing?” Lester stated, staring down at the charred remnants of the caller she had brought in.

She sighed. “I thought these things were meant to withstand intense radiation?”

“They are, but not if ya rub ‘em all up in Solaris’ ass, they don’t – I mean look at this thing,” he replied, poking it at. “Where did ya say ya found it?”

“It was lying in the Igniter,” she replied, “I think Faa might’ve accidentally dropped it in there or something – Not sure really.”

“What was it doing in there?”

“Don’t know, Lest,” she repeated, rolling her eyes.

He scoffed, slipping on an optical lens that covered up one of his eyes and began to disassemble the device. He cursed under his breath attempting to pull the cover off.

Aloe glanced around his room while he tinkered with it.

Lester’s workstation was… much worse than Faa’s. The small room was filled to the brim with an assortment of half-assembled devices. She recognized some of the pieces belonging to control panels – the displays for holograms were known to be faulty and extremely sensitive to heat. Some of the much larger pieces she spotted though she couldn’t really identify – one in particular looked like the very heart of a machine. It had so many wires and parts sticking out in odd directions that it appeared as if a ball covered in glue had been rolled around in a junkyard. It possibly belonged to the drill’s regulator, but she couldn’t be entirely sure.

Lester’s table was no better. Almost every inch was covered with some screw, spring or gadget used to dissect his “specimens” – his word not hers. It was a wonder how Aloe could have ever given any heat to Faa for her workstation – at least she had isolated her messes to one area.

“And yer sure it’s Faa’s?” he asked suddenly after finally propping open the lid.

“Yeah, pretty sure,” she answered.

“Well, I can tell ya one thing,” he stated, yanking at the green circuit board inside. He had to resort to a tool appearing like a mini fork to get the job done. “This device does live up to its reputation. There, ya see,” he said, delicately exchanging the board over to a pair of tweezers.

It was perfectly intact.

“The shell is what takes the edge of the inside,” he stated.

She returned a nod with raised brows, pretending to care.

"I need to find her – think I can get your help with that?" she asked.

He scoffed. "I'd love to help ya, but do ya see all the vexin' work I got to deal with?" he answered, gesturing to the parts around the room. "Can ya believe the Chief wants half this junk up and runnin' by next Rev? I'm sorry, Aloe, but I'm all tied up at the moment."

"It's fine," she replied.

He got up quickly and began fishing around the back for something, cursing while he did. Strangely, he still held on to the small circuit in the tweezers carefully holding it up while he searched. Every so often, he would toss something Aloe depicted to being fragile like it was nothing.

“Ya can go on witcha business though,” he stated without looking back. “It’s gonna take me a bit to find the vexin’ thing I need, but when I have it ready, I’ll let ya know.”

“Sounds good to me,” she replied. “Oh and can you look at mine as well?”

“What? Did ya go and fry yers too?” he asked, sarcastically.

“No," she answered, rolling her eyes, "it won’t receive calls anymore and the Chief’s been giving me lip about it lately.”

“Sure thing – just set it on the desk and I’ll look at it in a jiffy,” he said, tripping over a box. He cursed out loud kicking the thing with all his might.

Aloe chuckled to herself, leaving the room.

***

Outside, she noticed Lenio approaching from the opposite direction. The corridors appeared so trivial to the man that his shoulders almost brushed against the sides. He could almost dwarf the Chief – almost.

“Aloe?” he said with a head nod.

“Hey Len,” she replied. “Going to see Lest?”

“Yeah,” he answered with a smile. "Wanna see if he can do something about this vexin' thing,” he joked, gesturing to his cast.

“How is it by the way?”

He shrugged. “It’s better, but Doc said I won’t be able to suit up for a few weeks.”

She nodded, regarding the chrome cast. The metal lacing ran from his shoulder down to his wrist, exposing his hand. It was configured to maintain it at a bent angle to his side.

“I’ll make sure to put you on light duties only," she stated. "The Igniter’s a mess so maybe you can just clean that for a while or assist Eri with checking the Syn-Cells,” she stated.

“Thanks, Corporal,” he replied.

“By the way, you get a chance to formally document the incident? I don’t want the Chief–”

“Already did – with Dr. Qim,” he interrupted, his smile growing wider. “I made sure to tell her to send it your way when she’s done.”

It was Aloe’s turn to smile. Lenio was always on top of his stuff. She never had to repeat herself with him or even second-guess his work. He was certainly a dedicated hard-worker and he took pride in his job.

“Thanks,” she replied, “well carry-on, then.”

He slid to the side – to the best of his ability – to allow her to pass by. She halted half-way, looking back. “Hey, you haven’t seen Faa recently, have you?” she called out to him.

He glanced back shaking his head. “Not since the accident,” he said, gesturing to his cast again.

She thought about enlisting his assistance to locate her, but decided against it, continuing in her own direction. Faa’s caller in the Igniter was questionable. Aloe wasn’t sure how it got there. Did it break loose when she was moving waste into the chamber? How does one not feel something like that if that was the case? It was hard to determine the cause from the device because it was completely burnt.

She made a turn into the next corridor.

There was also RE-00X – what was it and why didn’t Faa say anything about it? It was possible those files…

She noticed Eri while passing the dining lounge. The young man was leaning back in his seat tossing up grapes to catch in his mouth. Eri was a lanky fellow – very scrawny like a wrench with arms – and yet, he was always seen snacking on some treat. Where did it all go? Right now, he had a bowl of grapes next to a small container full of melted chocolate. Apparently, he had been dipping them in there. Disgusting combination, she thought.

“Eri?” she said as he caught another grape in his mouth.

“Oh hey, Corporal,” he said with a smile, rendering a small salute, “I’m done looking over the Cells. We should be good until resupply.”

“Sounds good,” she replied, not really interested. “Have you seen Faa by chance?”

His smile dropped. “Actually, yeah. A little while ago, I bumped into her when I came up from the Cell room,” he replied, rubbing his neck. “She good?”

Aloe gave him a puzzled look. “Why do you ask?”

He sat up in his seat. “Well, she didn’t seem like her cheerful self,” he answered. “Didn't even respond back when I greeted her.”

That did seem outside of Faa’s character, but then again she was known to shut down when there was a problem lingering on her mind.

"Just to cheer her up," Eri went on, "I even promised to listen to another one of her spills on 'Cosmos Expansion' at lunch, not that my interests has changed. Didn't do nothing either.”

That was another red flag. Faa loved talking, especially to Eri. Even if he didn’t really care about the nerdy stuff she brought up, the two actually got along quite well – which she never understood how.

“Didn’t want push her about it though,” he said. “Thought maybe she was a little upset with what happened to Lenio.”

“Maybe,” Aloe agreed, “do you know where she was headed?”

He shrugged. “Last I saw, looked like she was going towards the Cargo Bay. She don’t have access to the Cell room like me, so that’d be my best guess.”

The Cargo Bay? What was she doing down there?

“Thanks, Eri,” she said, leaving.

She made her way down the hall to a set of doors for the second Ascender. The main Ascender was the only one that led to the higher levels while this like the other ran to the ones below. Aloe summoned it, entering upon its arrival. She announced to the system to take her the Cargo Bay to which it complied, descending below.

Cargo Bay level reached, the voice announced upon arrival.

This area was the darkest part of the ship. There were very few illuminants which weren't very bright either. Aloe never understood why though, given it was easier to get hurt by running into something down here. Its walls were dark and rusty – riddled with streaks from being scrapped against over time. Stacks of metal crates hugged the sides like mini mountains, some as high as the ceiling. Some were stationed towards the center of the floor in attempt to maximize the storage. They made it difficult to see past them to the other end.

“Faa?” Aloe called out. “Faa?!”

She didn’t receive a response.

She stepped out of the Ascender and began navigating through. There was just enough space to create a mini path to move in-between. She winced at the air coated with a musty scent as if the walls had been painted with stale mustard. It wasn’t unbearable, but very distinct. As she continued through, she used the sides of the crates to maintain her balance in hopes of not running into anything. Vexus – the lighting was horrible. Why was Faa even down here?

The lights sometimes hid behind one of the mountains of crates throwing the path ahead of her in darkness. She managed to stumble a few times when this happened, having to slowly walk blind in an attempt to reach the next set.

After guiding herself through, she recognized the outline of the items ahead of her. They didn’t appear like the other crates – these objects were similar to the containers in the S.A.F. As she got closer to them, she noticed the lid removed from several of them.

"What the..." she whispered.

Moving nearer, she felt something crunch under her boots. She examined it and realized it was bits of crumbled ore from the container. It was like someone had opened the cases, and tossed out the ore. As she turned to head in another direction, she nearly bumped into a figure next to her. Her heart practically leapt out her chest, realizing it was Faa. “Vexus!” she cursed, “Don’t sneak up on me like that Faa!”

Faa didn’t react to the sudden outburst, simply standing silently. She had short, red hair that fell past her ears. Even in the partial shadows, Aloe could make out her narrow yet round face, which often reminded her of a mouse. It seemed like a fitting description.

“Where have you been?” Aloe asked, regaining her composure. “You had me worried when I found your toasted caller. What are you doing down here anyway?”

Faa didn’t respond.

She noticed her hands covered in dark smudges of dust from the ore.

“Did you make this mess?” Aloe asked, glancing back over to the opened containers. “What in Solaris' name –” she began, but immediately held up a hand. “Never mind, I don’t even wanna know. The less I know, the better.”

Faa still didn’t respond and simply cocked her head to the side slightly. Aloe released a deep sigh.

“Look, Ven’s been trying to get a hold of you – I’ve been trying to get a hold of you,” she started. “The reports, Faa. Really? Could you be more careless?”

She continued to stand there like a statue with her head still cocked. The silence was beginning to irritate Aloe.

"Look Faa, I know I'm still relatively new to this position, but you gotta be more discrete," Aloe continued. "I don't have a problem with your lil' projects – I never did, but remember, anything that goes wrong comes back to bite me in the end. I'm the one in the cross-hairs. Ven's already been on my ass of late about the others and the last thing I need is another ass-chewing because of my sister now. So, can you please be more careful in the future, okay?"

Again, Faa said nothing in response.

“Are you even listening to me?” Aloe asked, her impatience rising.

I’m sorry, sis,” Faa finally replied, “I would have told you sooner, but I’ve been feeling a little under the weather.

Aloe winced a bit. The tone of her voice didn’t seem to match her expression – of course it could have just been the shadows playing tricks on her. She sighed again, happy to at least get a response from her.

“Whatever, it’s fine,” Aloe finally answered. “Look, next time tell me when you’re gonna do something like this – that way we both don’t look bad.”

Faa didn’t respond. Aloe shook her head, heading back towards the Ascender.

“Please fix those reports and get ‘em back to Ven, okay?” she said over her shoulder.

I’ll talk to you later, sis,” Faa said behind her.

Again, why did her words sound so… strange? It wasn’t necessarily what she said, but how she said it. Waiting for the Ascender, she turned back to look. Even though she couldn’t see Faa because of the stack of crates, she could feel eyes gazing back on her. It sent a shiver down her spine.

The Ascender arrived with the doors opening. Aloe entered and they closed behind her.


Chapter 6 – Messages

The encounter with Faa was odd. Aloe couldn’t help but still shudder thinking about the blank expression she had seen across her sister's face. Regardless, she was able to inform her on the reports so she could correct them. Aloe was tired anyways and opted to head back to her quarters. She walked back down the corridor, passing by the dining lounge again. When she did, she was stopped by Eri.

“Hey Corporal?!” he said, almost falling over in his seat. He was still eating? The grapes were gone now, instead a bag of chips replaced them. Vexus – where did it all go? “Hey Lest, just hit me up. He told me to relay that your caller’s fixed... or something like that – should be good to pick up.”

She sighed with discontent. All she wanted to do was climb back into her bed. She nodded, thanking Eri before continuing onward. Aloe navigated back through the halls until reaching Lester’s workshop again.

Lester was still seen hovering over his desk tinkering with a new “specimen” – it appeared to be another circuit board for some unknown device. He poked his head up when she came through – the optical lens over his eye, enlarging it apart from his other.

“Ah, good! Ya got my message,” he said with a smile. “Was afraid that vexin’ fool would’ve never mentioned it to ya.”

He shifted away from his work over to the two callers sitting off to the side. He picked up one handing it her. “This one’s yers,” he stated. “Ya had a loose wire that wasn’t connectin’ right. Ya were still receivin’ messages but ya couldn’t see them comin’ in,” he explained. “I also fixed ya display too. And stop bangin’ the vexin’ thing, I can tell that ya did.”

She smiled, not contesting his accusation. “Thanks,” she replied, strapping it on.

Afterwards, he handed over the other device. “This is Faa’s. Since she fried the vexin’ thing, I had to search for a whole new shell and transport everythin’ over.”

Her device appeared much newer – unlike Aloe’s where the color was fading.

“Give Faa my love for all the trouble for it,” he said sarcastically with a smile.

Aloe thanked him again, placing it into her pocket and exiting. She turned on her caller which immediately began flashing from all the incoming messages. She recognized the three from Ven as he had stated. However, she was surprised to see so many had been from Faa.

How old were they though? The timestamp for the first one was from two days ago. She played the first message:


16:48 - 2REV:PL0490

Hey sis, just finishing up with this last inventory. I really need a break. Wanna catch up over lunch? Call me back, if you’re free in ten.

End of Message.


17:10 2REV:PL0490

Hey it’s me again. I guess you’re busy. It’s fine though, l think I saw Eri up ahead anyways. Catch you later, sis.

End of Message.


Aloe couldn’t recall where she had been at that time. It wasn't unlikely that she was too busy. There had been plenty occasions where she had gone almost a week without seeing Faa. Sometimes, it couldn't be helped when the workload called for longer hours – it was all planet dependent. Aloe listened as the next message began:


33:24 3REV:PL0490

Hey, Aloe. I think I might’ve spotted something in the ore readings…I might’ve already pushed up the report to Ven though. I’m sorry, sis. I would have told you sooner, but I’ve been feeling a little under the weather. Might be pushing myself too hard. I’ll fix ‘em though. If Ven gives you heat about it, you can tell him this one’s on me. I’ll talk to you later, sis.

End of Message.


Aloe’s stopped in her tracks. That message, why did it sound so familiar? It was her first time hearing it though. And yet…

The next message began:


33:58 3REV:PL0490

Aloe, you would not believe what I’m looking at right now?! *gleeful giggling* Sis, you need to get down here ASAP to see this – T-this… i-it’s *giggles* I can't even talk right. It’s amazing! I don’t know how to really describe it, but it was hiding among the crushed ore. *incoherent shuffling* It almost looks exactly like the ore.

I was going over the reports but they weren’t making any sense so I decided to check the containers. I almost missed it – probably why it was confusing the system too, but it’s definitely not ore. It’s like a small *STATIC* Aloe! I’m not sure how old it is or how long it’s been under the surface, but it’s proof – proof, sis! I knew it was a possibility of *incoherent shuffling* Get down here quickly. I’m gonna get this thing under the scope to see it better.

End of Message.


What was Faa referring to? Aloe almost didn’t understand the message because she was speaking so fast out of excitement. It was clear she noted the abnormality RE-00X, as she had named it, but what exactly was she looking at? She prompted the next message, eager to hear it:


40:10 3REV:PL0490

This is truly amazing, Sis. If I have to, I will come up there and drag you down here.*giggles* Where are you, you’re missing out on the discovery of the century?! I don’t wanna tell Ven…not yet at least. I wanna check it out a bit more. This thing – its cellular structure is almost identical to the ore’s chemical structure. It’s almost like the ore itself turned into organic material either that or…

End of Message.


41:05 3REV:PL0490

I’m having a serious nerd-spasm right now, Sis! *gleeful giggling* Guess what, I found more of them. One container was almost completely full of them. You’re not gonna believe it, but I think they are reacting to each other. The cellular structure appears to be…reanimating – I don’t think these…things were ever dead, but hibernating.

I ran a few tests and my theory was correct. The ore was not becoming organic but rather they were replicating the ore. It must be a survival mechanism of some of kind. I’ve never seen one this sophisticated. I have another theory that might explain it, but it’s still up in the air. I’ll explain later.

End of Message.


63:05 3REV:PL0490

*Sobbing*

Aloe, I need you! Please get down in the lab, now! Hurry please! *Sobbing* Get down here, NOW! It has me– W-what are you doing?! Stop! Stop it! *Banging* Please! *Banging* Don’t! *Beep* Pl- *Loud Burst of Static*

End of Message.


That was the last message from Faa. Aloe was stunned. What was going on in that message? Faa had shifted from being gleeful to completely distraught so suddenly. What had happened?

She stared down at her caller viewing the timestamp: 63:03 3REV. This was yesterday a full twenty-hours apart from the previous message. Aloe replayed it.

She listened to it, feeling her hands began to tremble. With the second run-though, she caught a sound she hadn’t noticed before; the sound towards the end. Her eyes lit up as she immediately took off in a sprint down the corridors. She made a sharp turn at the first corner. That sound, she knew it! She bolted down the next hall, picking up speed as she did.

Finally, she reached the main Ascender, almost slamming into the door. She repeatedly pressed the button on the panel to summon it, eager for to it arrive. It did so shortly, opening its doors.

Level for ascend? the automated voice requested.

“Source Allocate Facility!” She exclaimed, practically screaming the command. She was breathing hard, hands on her knees. How had she been able to run through four long hallways without catching her breath?

Acknowledged, the voice replied.

The Ascender began to move rapidly. Upon reaching the level, Aloe bolted out the doors before the voice could even announce the floor. She coasted down the steps, skipping many – luckily without stumbling. At the bottom, her eyes zeroed-in on the Igniter Chamber in the back.

Still breathing hard, she felt her heart crashing against her chest. Was it from the sprinting or the anticipation? Maybe both. She slowed down to a walk, approaching the machine slowly – her stomach twisting into a knot as she drew upon it.

Reaching it, she held out a hand hesitantly. She wanted to be wrong – hoped. Aloe pressed her hand across the Igniter’s control panel, prompting the door’s chamber to open. As it did, it released a loud beeping noise. She felt her heart plunge. Her fingers slowly etched over to her caller without looking at it – replaying the message.

Her eyes were focused ahead, staring at the pile of charred ashes inside.


63:05 3REV:PL0490

*Sobbing*

Aloe, I need you down in the lab, now! Hurry please! *sobbing* Get down here, NOW! It has me– W-what are you doing?! Stop! Stop it! *Banging* Please! *Banging* Don’t! *Beep* Pl- *Loud Burst of Static*

End of Message.

The same beeping noise resonated in the message. Aloe felt her knees buckle underneath as tears teased her eyes. Her hand slowly fished into her pocket pulling out Faa’s caller. Her eyes glanced at it and then back to the charred remains.

Against her will, her mind began to picture the horrible image of Faa inside the chamber, banging against the glass before the flames consumed her. It was her remains inside it. The caller wasn’t dropped in the chamber – Faa had been wearing it. She had been roasted alive.


Chapter 7 – Encounter

Aloe stared aimlessly at the charred remains of her sister.

How could this have happened? The message was still replaying in her mind. She could hear her sister’s pleads echoing over and over – the bangs against the glass for her life in attempt to free herself.

Faa’s caller slipped from Aloe’s hand without realizing it, thumping against the metal floor. She flinched, being pulled from her trance.

How did this happen? There was no way the system could have been turned on without being activated from the outside panel.

Yet, she directly remembered hearing the beeping in Faa’s messages.

Hold on! Aloe had just seen Faa a few minutes ago. If she was here, dead, then who was she…?

Her eyes lit up as she looked her at caller again. She began to glance through the message timestamps until she found the one she wanted, playing it:


41:05 3REV:PL0490

I’m having a serious nerd-spasm right now, Sis! *gleeful giggling*


Aloe fast-forwarded through the message. She stopped it, playing it at the new spot:


You’re not gonna believe it, but I think they are reacting to each other. The cellular structure appears to be…reanimating – I don’t think these…things were ever dead, but hibernating.

I ran a few tests and my theory was correct. The ore was not becoming organic but rather they were replicating the ore. It must be a survival mechanism of some of kind. I’ve never seen one this sophisticated. I have another theory…


She replayed that last part:


The ore was not becoming organic but rather they were replicating the ore. It must be a survival mechanism of some of kind. I’ve never seen one this sophisticated.


*Rewind* they were replicating the ore.


Replicating? Aloe thought. Who was 'they'?

"They were replicating the ore.”

She looked down at her caller with a puzzled look. She hadn’t replayed the message. Yet, she was sure she just heard it.

“It must be a survival mechanism of some of kind,” Faa’s voice continued, “I’ve never seen one this sophisticated.”

Aloe's tensed up, feeling every hair rise on her neck. The voice was coming from behind her. Her eyes began to gloss over with tears as she slowly stood, turning around.

When they met the figure standing behind her, she felt her heart drop. It was Faa – or rather whatever was pretending to be her.

Faa stood there with a blank expression – the same one like down in the Cargo Bay. She cocked her head to the side, not saying a word.

Aloe was frozen solid. She didn’t know what to do. What was this vexing thing?

The “fake” Faa just stared back at her with a blank expression like a doll. What did it want?

“W-what are you?” Aloe finally managed to ask – a crack in her voice.

The thing didn’t initially respond. She couldn’t remove her eyes from its – locked in an unwavering gaze as if time itself had halted. It had the face of her sister. With Faa gone, this thing was Faa now... but it was a lie.

“W-what are you?” the “fake” Faa repeated.

When it spoke the words, her mouth didn’t move. Instead her entire face seemed to ripple like the surface of water. The words too – they didn’t sound like Faa this time – it was Aloe’s voice.

“What do you want?!” Aloe screamed at it, backing up.

“What do you want?!” it repeated almost identically. Its voice fluctuated though, sounding as if Aloe had spoken the words while submerged in water.

Its face must not have expected such an outburst. Unlike the smooth fluidity it had exhibited earlier, it shifted erratically as if made up thousands of tiny fragments – fragments that appeared almost like small insects tightly nestled together.

What was this thing?!

Its face continued to shift around, growing more unstable like a hornet’s nest disturbed. As it did, a deafening humming filled the air in a strange pattern. Its face began to settle – it was still shifting but not to the extent of before. Aloe's eyes grew wider, recognizing the image appearing. Her own appearance was gazing back at her.

Her heart sunk lower. It was trying to replicate her.

The humming of the creature grew louder. Its mouth opened impossibly wide as if threatening to swallow her whole, forcing some of its face to split. She could see the legs of the small insect-like creatures squabbling in between the cracks. The inside of its jaws ran back deep and dark like the mouth of a Vexus.

Upon seeing it, something inside of Aloe finally snapped. It was like her internal voice was screaming at her to run. She listened. Aloe immediately took off, rushing away from the thing, heading towards the stairs.

However, she felt something jerk on her leg, instantly forcing her to fall forward, smacking into the ground. She was dazed, but she could feel her body being pulled back by her leg. When she glanced over, she saw that thing’s arm had somehow extended over to her. Its hand was wrapped around her ankle appearing more like a three-fingered claw now. She could see the thousands upon thousands of small creatures that made up the arm shifting around as if struggling to maintain its form.

The arm which had been imitating Faa was barely able to hold her skin tone. It now appeared more grey resembling the texture of the ores from before. Its body still held the body of Faa, but its face resembled Aloe’s. She attempted to claw at the ground, hoping to grab something to free herself, but there was nothing. She tried kicking at the arm with her other leg, but it did nothing! Finally it let go, but before she could react, it grabbed her throat and hoisted her up.

She felt its hand vibrating across her throat – its grip fastening tight like a vice. She strained to claw at its hand, but it was hopeless. The arm began to retract, bringing her up close to it. She could feel her vision growing blurry, struggling to find air. The thing didn’t seem fazed simply studying her up close.

Was this how it was going to end? She felt her hands grow weak. Her lungs burned, demanding oxygen, but there was none to receive. The world began to grow dark.

Finally, the thing tossed her backwards. She flew like she weighed nothing until her back slammed painfully against metal. Aloe toppled to the ground. She coughed uncontrollably, feeling air rush into her lungs like a floodgate released. As she began to regain her composure, she tasted something burnt. She could even feel grains in between her teeth like sand.

She glanced down to find her arms covered in a dark, soot-like powder. It was Faa. She shrieked, attempting to wipe it off her. She was covered in her charred remains!

A familiar beeping noise drowned out her panic. Her eyes widened, looking up to see a glass door shut over her. She was in the Igniter Chamber. It was just like Faa. This thing was going to vexing kill her in the same manner. It pressed its face up against the glass still wearing her face. It was going to pretend to be her and who know the difference?

“Stop!” she yelled, banging against the chamber’s glass. “Let me out!”

She pounded against it with all her might. The image of Faa trapped ran through her mind again. She could hear the screams her sister made in the audio. Panic consumed her. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t happen. She couldn’t die – not like this! She felt tears running down her face.

Again, she pounded on the vexing glass, throwing her shoulder into it with all her might. She could feel it start to ache, but she didn’t stop – she couldn’t stop. The glass wasn’t budging though; it was unfazed. The thing simply stared at her from the outside, cocking its head to the side again as if amused at her effort.

“Let me out, you vexing thing!” she screamed, banging harder. Blood began to smear against the glass, but she persisted. It wasn’t going to end like this.

“Let me out, you vexing thing!” it mimicked in her voice. It lifted its hand slowly to the panel, ready to activate the Igniter.

No! she thought. There's nothing I can do to stop it.

Without warning, something struck the creature across its head, stunning it. Aloe flinched, half-expecting to feel the flames devour her. It was Lenio! He was holding a large wrench in his good arm. Vexus – she couldn’t have been happier to see him. Her tears became ones of joy this time.

“Faa, what the hell are you doing?!” he demanded.

“Lenio! That’s not–”

Before she had time to finish, the thing reacted – backlashing Lenio. He flew back effortlessly like a ragdoll, landing quite a distance away. How strong was it? She noticed how its face had reverted back to Faa’s.

Lenio appeared dazed, struggling to rise.

“Lenio, get up!” Aloe pleaded out, banging on the glass. “Lenio?!”

She could see his head was bleeding now, very badly. His eyes were consumed with fear. It only took one blow to do that. The thing turned to him as if ready to continue its clash with him. Aloe felt relief though, seeing him finally get to his feet, but what could he do against it? To her dismay, he chose to run. The coward ran!

“No, don’t leave me here!” Aloe screamed, beating into the glass.

He was abandoning her. The thing didn’t give chase. Instead, it turned its attention back on her. Its lips curled into a smile, extending far up to its ears. The vexing thing was smiling at her. It was like it was mocking the pathetic rescue attempt, rubbing in her inevitable fate. She was back to being at its mercy.

Suddenly, a burst of light flashed into the air. It was blinding, forcing Aloe to look away. When she glanced back, she saw the creature stunned on the ground. It looked hurt. She saw a figure in the back – Lenio! He returned, but he was holding something in his hand.

It looked like a Pulsator – it was another tool that could remove unwanted junk on larger extractions. Lenio struggled to hold onto the large, drill-like device with one arm, propping it on his knee. He aimed it again at the creature, charging it up. In response, the thing roared at him, releasing a louder hum that sounded more distorted than before. Lenio fired the device again, sending another bright surge of electricity barreling at it.

It hit the creature again, which roared even louder in pain. It was working. The thing struggled to stand up – a lingering wave of electricity coursed throughout its form. It struggled to maintain Faa’s appearance, temporarily altering its complexion.

In that moment, the texture of Faa’s skin and clothing changed to a greyscale-like color – still maintaining her body’s shape – revealing all the thousands of insect-like creatures connected together to create her form. Immediately though, it reverted back to Faa’s appearance.

Lenio attempted to fire again, but the device appeared to malfunction. Aloe could hear him curse trying to get it to work again. The creature took advantage of the moment. With inhuman speed, it fled, launching itself up effortlessly onto the balcony to the Ascender. The doors of it could be heard opening and then closing.

Lenio was stunned by its maneuver as well, but appeared to look relieved. He dropped the Pulsator and collapsed on the ground. Aloe was relieved too, taking in a deep breath.

“Lenio?!” she called out, banging against the glass. “Lenio, are you alright?”

Still lying there, he lifted up his arm to render a thumbs-up. She could see his chest breathing heavily. She smiled.

“Well get off your ass, and get me out of this vexing thing already!”

He sat up slowly, eventually rising. After hobbling over to her, he pressed the panel to release her. Immediately, Aloe was met with a gust of cold air against her skin. She closed her eyes, embracing the blessing.

Lenio conjured up a smile. “You alright, Corporal?” he asked through his heavy breathing.

She had no words for him simply relieved to be free. All she could do was hold her smile. Lenio’s grew wider as he began to fall back. Aloe quickly rushed in to catch him before he fell completely.

“We need to get you to the Medical Bay,” she stated, struggling to hold up his weight.

He adjusted himself, throwing his arm over her shoulder. “Yeah, might be a good idea, but what was wrong with Faa?” he asked. “How was she able to do all that?”


Chapter 8 – Doctor’s Orders

“Wait, so you're telling me – that thing we saw wasn’t Faa?” Lenio asked.

They had managed to get up to the Ascender. Lenio had recovered much from his injury, but he still needed Aloe’s assistance to walk straight.

“No, Faa’s dead, Lenio,” Aloe answered, gravely. Even after everything, it still was a hard fact to accept. “It tried to kill me in the same manner as it did her.”

His eyes fell to the ground. “Faa…” he said softly. “Then what I saw at that time…”

“What?” Aloe asked.

“It’s nothing,” he replied, shaking his head. “If that wasn’t Faa, then what was it?”

“I don’t know,” Aloe answered, pressing the panel to summon the Ascender. “I think Faa might’ve had a clue in her files, but they’re encrypted – I’ll need Lester’s help. Maybe he can hack into them.”

“Why not just call him down here now, then?”

“The signal’s never the best thing down here and besides, do you really want to sit here and wait for him to respond after what just happened?”

Lenio looked around nervously. “No, not really.”

“Not to mention this is something I think would be easier explaining face-to-face,” she replied. “I’m having a hard time believing what I saw and I was right there watching the vexing thing ready kill me – to imitate me.”

“But why though?” Lenio asked. “Why go through all the trouble? What does it want?”

The Ascender arrived, opening up its doors.

Aloe shrugged. “I really don’t know. But the vexing thing is intelligent to some degree. How much? I don’t know,” she went on. “I need to tell Ven, but we need to get you to Medical Bay first.”

Lenio stood up a little more straight. “No, let’s head to Chief first. I’ll be alright.”

She exchanged a concerned look. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he answered confidently, “this thing is dangerous, and if it’s as intelligent as you make it out to be, then we can’t waste any more time.”

She nodded as they both entered the Ascender.

Level for Ascend? the automated voice requested.

“Main Bridge,” Aloe stated.

***

“Yer not serious now, are ya?” Lester retorted. “This is no time to joke – ya just lost yer vexin' sister for cryin' out loud. There’s no way somethin’ like that is possible.”

Aloe and Lenio had reached the Bridge. She informed Ven that there was urgent news to be told and requested he summon everyone to hear it. She was glad he complied without much of a fuss – of course, it wasn’t like she made requests like these on a normal basis. She explained everything to them: the report, Faa’s messages, the incident with the creature – everything. So far, it seemed like everyone was taking it better than she expected.

"Faa..." Eri said gloomily.

"Believe it or not it's what happened," Aloe replied. She couldn't blame their disbelief.

“Even if it was possible,” Eri chimed in, “and I’m not saying it is, why waste time hiding around in the shadows? If it’s as strong as you say it is, why not just take us out right now?”

“I don’t know,” Aloe answered. “It knows how to do certain things, but I think it’s still learning.”

“And it knows we can hurt it,” Lenio added. His head was being attended to by Dr. Qim. “Like the Corporal mentioned, I shot it with the Pulsator which seem to work against it.”

“How did you even know that it would?” Eri asked.

“I didn’t,” he answered. “I was just thinking on my feet. I had to stop it before it killed Aloe. I just grabbed the nearest thing.”

“Well it turned out to be a brave action,” Dr. Qim added, finishing up the bandaging. “Reckless, considering you could have sustained further injuries to your arm – even though I specifically told you to rest, but brave, nonetheless.”

Lenio grew bright red.

“So what do we do then?” Eri asked.

“Chief?” Aloe said, looking towards him. He stood in the background. He hadn’t said anything since they first came to him. Normally, he was a hard man to read, but it was safe to say he looked a little distraught now. It was clear he had nothing to add.

“Aloe, what about the files?” Lenio brought up.

Her eyes lit up.

“What files?” Eri asked.

“Lester, Faa had some files down in the lab,” she explained. “They referenced RE-00X – I think she might have more information on this thing, but they're encrypted. You think you could bypass it?”

He shrugged. “Wouldn’t know ‘til I got a look at it, but I’m pretty sure I could.”

“Sir?” Aloe turned back to Ven.

He nodded. “It sounds like our best bet since we’re in the dark with this thing,” he agreed. “But I don’t want anyone walking around here alone until we know exactly what we’re dealing with.”

“I’ll go with Lester then,” Aloe suggested. “I can keep an eye out while he works. That and he probably couldn’t find his way around if he wasn’t the inside of his workshop.”

“Vexin’ girl,” Lester scoffed, crossing his arms.

Ven nodded in agreement.

“I’ll join too,” Lenio added. “It would give them another set of eyes. Plus, I might be able to get that Pulsator up and running again – it’s our only defense against it for now and we might need it again.”

“And risk injuring yourself further?” Dr. Qim interjected. “Lenio, you’ve already fractured your arm and nearly endured a concussion as well. I can’t let you go back out there again.”

Lenio was stunned by her reaction.

“I have to, Dr. Qim,” he stated. “If something happened to them down there and I wasn’t there to help… I-I couldn’t live with that.”

“And if something were to happen to you?”

He went silent, looking over to Ven. “Sir, please?”

Ven glanced back and forth between the two. “This isn’t up to me, son. Doctor’s orders.”

Lenio looked back at her. “Dr. Qim…had I chose to not ignore your orders, Aloe would’ve died. That thing would have became her and we wouldn’t know to be on alert,” he explained. “I’m already beating myself up for not... I could have…” he paused taking in a deep breath. “If I can protect anyone on this ship – even if it injures me, I’ll do it. Orders or not, I’m not gonna take any excuses to hide.”

She was speechless. He hoped his words weren’t too hard towards her, but he meant them. Lenio could have possibly saved Faa. It was a long stretch, but it was a possibility. things might have turned out differently.

Dr. Qim sighed. “I can see there’s no deterring you,” she said. “Just… be careful, okay?”

He smiled. “I'll be fine, Doc. Vexus, we can even do lunch later, if I return safely?” he blurted without thinking. What the hell, Lenio? he thought. This wasn’t the time for it, and even so, he had finally done it.

Dr. Qim looked stunned. She wasn’t alone as everyone else seemed to share the same expression. She blushed, forming a smile on her lips, eventually nodding.

“I would love to,” she replied. “I’ll be waiting, so you better return.”

Lenio felt the surge of Solaris' light fill him. He wanted to jump up and down, screaming with joy, but he kept his composure. He simply nodded and turned towards the others. Eri tossed him a thumbs-up while Lester gestured a light clap of approval.

“Okay,” Ven started, bringing back the focus of the group. “So you three,” he gestured to Aloe, Lester, and Lenio, “will head down to the lab. We have three hours before the Docker reaches us and I don’t want that thing running around loose by the time it gets here. That means you guys have one hour – two tops. Find out what you can about it. Every thirty minutes, I want a status over the caller. Keep it simple since the signal can be weak down there.”

They all nodded.

“I’ll try and monitor from here with the surveillance if we spot anything,” he continued. “We’ll keep the Bridge locked until you return. If in two hours you can’t get crack it, we’ll have to resort to Option B.”

“And that would be what again, Sir?” Eri inquired.

“Evacuation of this ship,” he answered. “I’ll have to request H.D.P. for a transport. We can’t risk that thing getting out, but I won't risk staying here if there's nothing we can do against it. I'd rather abandon the Insula to ensure everyone is safe.”

“Abandon the Insula?” Eri repeated.

It was clear by the look on everyone’s face that he wasn’t alone in thinking that.

“I don't like it either," Ven replied, "which is why you better hope the first plan works. Make sure all of you are on your toes.”

The group nodded. As the three began to head for the Ascender, Ven held out a hand to Aloe.

“A minute of your time, Corporal?” he asked, gesturing for the other two to keep moving.

“Sir?” she said with a puzzled look.


Chapter 9 – File: RE-00X Analysis

“Yave come a long way, lad,” Lester noted as the doors to the Ascender opened upon their arrival to the S.A.F lab. “I was wonderin’ when ya were goin’ to make a move. Thought I’d have to do it for ya,” he joked.

“Was it that obvious?” Lenio asked, turning red again.

“Aye, the whole vexin’ crew could see it,” Lester replied with a wide grin. “Well, apparently everyone, but the good doctor.”

“Yeah, congrats, Lenio,” Aloe chimed in.

She tried to maintain the cheerfulness they had exhibited earlier. Yet the moment the Ascender began to drop, her stomach joined it. She couldn’t help but feel unsettled to return to the very area where Faa had died – where her own life had been threatened. For a moment, she regretted volunteering, but she felt like if she didn’t face it now, there was no way she could do it later.

They cautiously checked the outside, ensuring it was safe before walking out of the Ascender onto the Balcony.

“Sweet Zaile’s light!” Lester exclaimed, admiring the sight. “It’s been a rough minute since I’ve been down here.” He paused, scratching his brow. “Actually, I don’t recall ever bein’ down here.”

“Let’s move, there’s no time to waste,” Aloe said, sharply. She didn’t mean to sound rude, but she was anxious. She didn’t want to linger any longer than they needed to.

She guided them down the stairs and over to the lab tables.

“The file name is: RE-00X Analysis,” she stated, awakening the display screen.

Lester cracked his knuckles. “Alright sweetheart, let’s see what I can do with this.”

He began to type away, prompting new windows to pop-up filled with gibberish looking commands.

“I’ll try taking a crack at the Pulsator,” Lenio brought up, gesturing to the device that was still on the ground.

Aloe barely acknowledged him though. Instead, she found her eyes drawn back over to the Igniter Chamber. Against her will, her legs began walking towards it. With each step, she felt her heartbeat increase – hearing the beating grow louder as it resonated in her ears.

Images of the event flashed through her mind – she could feel the fear that consumed her in that moment, the heat from inside the chamber, and smell the charred pieces of burnt flesh, even taste it.

She felt that weight of hopelessness drape over her again like a veil.

The face of the creature was visible to her, wearing hers like a mask, smiling devilishly like life itself meant nothing to it – ready to extinguish hers like a candle.

“I’m sorry, Aloe,” a voice said to her.

She winced, being pulled her from trance. Aloe realized that she was no longer walking but now standing before the Igniter. The voice belonged to Lenio, who was standing off to the side. He had his head down.

“It’s my fault about Faa,” he continued.

“W-what –” she started to say, but he went on.

“When the accident happened, I didn’t know what to think or… e-even how to. I remember seeing something strange with earlier but…” his words started to trail off.

Tears were now forming in his eyes.

“I've keeping a lot of anger inside me,” he continued. “Didn't really think anyone one on this ship really cared about me – that people were just taking advantage of me. 'Yeah, we'll get Lenio on it, he'll always do it without a second-thought'," he took a second to pause. "So much was going on in my head, but like I always do, I kept it bottled-up inside me.”

He wasn’t making any sense. Aloe was wondering where he was going with this.

He sighed. “If only I had said how I felt once in a while," he continued, "it wouldn’t have gotten this bad. I could have said something to someone, but like the coward I was – am, I kept it in me and didn’t.

"If I had gone to you or the Chief about what I felt then maybe I would’ve spoken my mind more and maybe – maybe then I would’ve said something and she wouldn’t have died.” He turned his head away in shame. “I thought something was off about that accident with Faa. I saw something but I didn't say anything. I-I'm so sorry, Aloe. Faa’s death was my fault.”

Aloe felt tears of her own eyes forming, but she kept them at bay. “Look at me, Lenio,” she said, softly. “Lenio?”

After wiping his eyes, he turned to her.

“Faa’s death couldn’t have been prevented,” she stated. “She would’ve been gone even if you said something or not. There was no time to save her. And don’t ever say you’re a coward because you saved me. You could have ran away but you came back for me, and I never got to thank you for it. So thank you.”

He was struggling to choke back more tears, but rendered a smile. Despite saying those words to him, Aloe felt like they were more for herself. She had been blaming herself for Faa’s death more than anyone. If her caller hadn’t malfunction…No! It couldn’t be helped now.

“Thanks, Corporal,” Lenio said.

“Hey, I did it!” Lester exclaimed from behind. “I’m in!”

The two looked at each other – wiping away the last signs of sorrow before heading over to him.

“Took a vexin’ minute, but I’ve got it opened, ya see,” Lester said, clicking on the file.

Inside the folder were four audio clips.

“Let’s see what we can find out about this thing,” Aloe said, playing the first clip. “Help us out, Sis.”

RE-00X Analysis Clip 1

Okay, this is Faa Muri, first examination of the strange specimen found in the containers of RE-20 extracted from PL-0490.

Specimen appears to be a fossil – an ancient insect, by the looks with an unknown origin – although it does hold a similar appearance to the Cicadoidea family.

I would need to further examine it, but I would say this thing is well off around a thousand years old, maybe more. It was buried with the ore, suggesting that PL-0490 was habitable at some point. *Sigh* Even after all the years of traversing through space, this is the first discovery of the presence of life outside of New Spes. Amazing...

Its texture resembles the ore composition – measuring around *Pause* 20 cm. Of course, this could be a result of fossilization over the years, but it’s unsure at the moment. More to follow later.

End of clip.

“Well, that was pretty informative,” Lester said, interrupting the silence. “An insect though? Where’s the bug-spray?” he joked.

Aloe gave him a salty look, prompting the next audio clip:

RE-00X Analysis Clip 2

This is Faa Muri, continuing examination of the strange specimen. Due to its composition, I’ve elected to call it RE-00X since I can’t really classify it just yet beyond its solidified nature.

I do have an update though. I found more of the specimen filling up one of containers completely – fifty to be exact. I think we’ve picked up an entire colony by the looks of it. I’ll keep my eyes open for more. Also, I wanted to note that I found several chunks of something entirely new encased within some ore. The system’s database recognized it as: amber – fossilized tree sap.

If this is the case, then this is truly an amazing discovery! Not only is there proof that insects existed on another planet outside our system, but it confirms the existence of plants as well! It’s safe to say these insects fed off the sap. It doesn’t seem like a long shot considering they resemble the likeness of our Cicadas – so I believe they had the same diet. Although being extraterrestrial, it is unsure that is completely the case. More to follow.

End of clip.

“So, it’s basically just alien bugs then? Are we all on the same page on that?” Lenio stated. “But why attack us then? What does it want?”

“Let’s just hear the next one,” Aloe said, playing it:

RE-00X Analysis Clip 3

This is Faa Muri, continuing examination of RE-00X.

This is amazing! The insects appear to be reacting – they’re not dead! I think they were just dormant. If so, it means they have the ability to preserve themselves even in a state where they survive fossilization. It’s incredible, but I’m not sure how it’s possible given any normal living thing could never survive these conditions. It must have something to do with their cellular structure.

*Humming in the background*

*incoherent shuffling*

Yes, that has to be it! At first, I thought maybe they were just fossilized into ore, but in fact, they were replicating it! It must be how they persevered themselves. Cicadas are known to camouflage as a strategy to avoid predators. They also spend most of their development underground up to 17-years but this – this is on another level! I’m going to try and feed them the amber to see what kind of reaction they incur. More to follow.

End of clip.

Nobody had anything to add this time. Aloe played the last file:

RE-00X Analysis Clip 4

*Very loud Humming in the background*

This is astounding! They appear to be reacting very well to receiving just a few pieces of amber! I’ve put it away to keep them from getting too excited, but I think…

*Glass shattering*

Ugh! Vexus!

*Loud humming mixed with the fluttering of Wings*

End of clip.

“That’s it?” Lester asked, checking the clip. “What just happened?”

“Sounds like that’s how they escaped,” Lenio suggested.

Aloe glanced over to the lab table covered with glass. “Yeah,” she agreed, “but I don’t think that’s when they attacked her.”

Lenio shook his head. “No, I don’t either because I remember seeing the broken glass when I came down to help her.”

“I don’t think these things have a real purpose like we originally thought either,” Aloe added. “They’re just… surviving, doing what they normally do.”

“But how does this help us?” Lester inquired stiffly. “It still killed Faa. Sure, we know what the vexin’ things are, but how to we kill it? Especially, if it can hide easily. I’m not chasin’ around for it, ya can bet ya ass.”

“Maybe we won’t have to,” Aloe replied, regarding the surrounding tables.


Chapter 10 – Grief

Ven studied the surveillance footage from the display-panel. He fliped through the different areas of the ship: the dining lounge, a few of the corridors, the Medical Bay and even the doors of all the Ascenders. He wished there had been one for the S.A.F. but none of the lower levels had surveillance feeds. Their construction was different apart from the rest of the ship due to the thick walling used to compensate for potential hazardous exposures.

He glanced down at his caller, feeling the urge to look through it. He forced himself not to though – not with Dr. Qim and Eri around – Eri more than anything.

Eri resorted to dribbling his hands across one of the panels, humming to himself. Vexus – could he just be quiet for once? Ven thought.

Dr. Qim, on the other hand was quietly observing the view of the planet in the back.

“They should be checking-in in about five minutes,” Ven announced, noting the timestamp on the display-screen.

“I wonder if everything is going smoothly,” Eri said still dribbling. “Silence, is never a good sign.”

This seemed to stir up Dr. Qim. She shifted uncomfortably, trying to hide her concern.

Ven noted this. “If you can’t think of something positive to say, keep your mouth shut,” he snapped.

Eri put hands up defensively. “Er- you're right. Sorry, Chief,” he apologized. “Let’s hope the thing holds off on trying to kill them.”

“Eri!” Ven snapped again. He was ready to pound the vexing kid.

Without warning, Dr. Qim stalked towards the Ascender.

“Doc?” Ven said with a puzzled look.

She halted. “I think if we’re going to be cooped up in here for a while,” she said, “I should at least bring up more of my supplies. Just in case anyone does return injured,” her eyes flashed towards Eri, “I want to be able to treat them properly.”

“Absolutely not,” Ven interjected. “I don’t want anyone walking around this ship alone.”

She scoffed. “Well if you’re so worried about that, then one of you can accompany me,” she stated firmly, “but I will not wait here without the proper equipment. Every minute will count in the event something does happen and I can’t waste even one running back and forth.” Her eyes burned with the fury of Solaris.

Ven rendered a deep sigh, conceding. “Eri, go with her.”

“Me, Sir?” he said with a surprised look. “Why do I have go? She’s the crazy one who wants to go out there with that thing running loose!”

“Now,” Ven said firmly, glaring at him.

It was obvious Eri was not going to win this battle and he knew it. He scoffed in defeat, dragging his feet over to Dr. Qim – not without passing her a salty look.

“Since you’re headed to the Medical Bay,” Ven brought up, “I will be able to monitor you from here. If I see anything, I’ll let you know over the caller, but only in the event of an emergency. Remain alert out there and move quickly.”

Dr. Qim nodded, summoning the Ascender. The news didn’t seem to comfort Eri who trailed behind her. Immediately, the doors opened and the two entered, leaving Ven to himself.

Ven turned back to the monitors waiting for them to appear on the surveillance. As he did, his eyes drifted down to his caller again. He couldn’t wait any longer. He activated the screen, prompting the display of several messages – ones he had asked Aloe to transfer over to him prior to leaving. The ones of Faa.

He played the first one, listening to her voice speak about inviting Aloe for lunch. While it played, a smile etched across his lips.

She was truly something special – intelligent, passionate and beautiful. He on the other end couldn’t be more polar opposite. He wasn’t an imbecile, but nowhere near as smart as her. He didn’t hold the passion like she did for her work either – sure he cared for the Insula, but his years commanding the ship were what instilled that respect for it, never the work. As for his looks – he was a walking rust bucket.

Ven never understood what Faa was drawn-in about him. He knew what he admired in her, but what did she ever see in him? Maybe that was part of the reason why he didn’t want anyone to know what went on between them. What would they think? Even on the surface, they didn’t seem like a suitable match, like pairing a diamond with a plain rock, or a display-panel with a box of scraps.

And yet, she still cared for him.

By the time all the messages finished, Ven had finally broken down into tears. He felt anger dwelling within them, even remorse. Most importantly though, he felt something he hadn’t in a very long time – grief.

Vexus, he wished he could just hold her – just one more time.


Chapter 11 – Quietly

Dr. Qim opened up a cabinet. Inside, the shelves were topped with an assortment of pill bottles. She skimmed through the labels, picking up ones she deemed worthy, and tossing them in the bag behind her.

“You think this thing 'senses' where we are?” Eri asked, pacing the floor. “I mean like can it tell if we’re afraid or not? I always heard that in the face of true danger, people can sense impending doom – like their senses just pick-up on it like a radar or something.”

Eri was talking fast, rubbing his arm uncomfortably as he paced. Dr. Qim wasn’t paying him any attention, throwing more bottles into the bag resting on the stool.

“Easy with the noise, Doc,” Eri said. “I don’t wanna alert the vexin’ thing here.”

She sighed. “You know, this would go a lot faster if you helped,” she stated. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and grab some syringes and bandages out the cabinet in the back.”

“Split up?” Eri said quickly. “Uh-uh, not gonna happen. We need to stick together.”

“It’s just in the next room. Besides, it won’t do us any good if we’re here too long… and it finds the both of us,” she stated, jokingly scanning the room with her eyes.

“Say what now?” Eri said with wide eyes, scanning around too.

“Yeah, I think Aloe mentioned something about it being able to smell the scent of people that linger in an area for long periods of time.”

His eyes grew even wider with paranoia. “Y-you said syringes and bandages, right?” he repeated, swiftly heading to the other room.

She chuckled to herself. Sure it was wrong to tease him like that but they really did need to hurry. The sooner they got out the better.

After grabbing enough medicine, she scanned the room to see if she could find anything else. The entire Medical Bay held four rooms – one of which acted as a room for surgery. The others varied from patient rooms – for privacy obviously – to her actual office. They were all connected together, leaving only a single exit to the corridor outside.

Dr. Qim's office was a decent-sized room accompanied with her desk sitting off to side of the exit. File cabinets and wall-lockers took up the majority of the room, layering the walls like a border. She was the ship's only qualified medic and had more paperwork than equipment to deal with. With that, she kept everything tidied.

She recalled a small, portable heart-reader she kept in one of the lockers. Who knows if a heart-rate dropped too low to feel? she thought. She hoped it would never come to that, but it was better to be safe. She made her way across the room, propping open the first locker she came to. It only had a single shelf at the top. Below it was a bar with several lab coats hanging from it.

She smiled, noting the heart-reader at the top, grabbing it.

Immediately, she heard a loud thud from the backroom where Eri had gone. She jumped, cursing under breath. And he was worried about me making noise, she thought. She turned her attention back to the locker, but a shuffling noise followed after from the same room. It sounded like something was aggressively rubbing up against the wall.

This time she felt an unnerving chill creep down her spine. “Eri?” she called out softly.

The shuffling noise didn’t cease. She could feel her heart start to race. Was he playing a joke on her? She started to walk slowly towards the back room. After a few steps, she heard a low gurgle almost like a stomach growling. She froze instantly. The shuffling steadily grew louder.

She could hear something else though. It was like a beeping noise in the background that increased in tempo. The gurgling stopped too, as if whatever was making that noise could also hear it. Vexus – what was it?

It finally hit her – the heart-reader! It was picking up on her heart beat.

In that moment, she heard a loud humming begin to resonate from the backroom. Instantly, she tossed the device away. She could hear the footsteps back there stomping towards her. Vexus! She needed to hide! Her eyes darted around the room looking for somewhere – anywhere. They fell upon the locker she previously opened.

She bolted to it, climbing in, and quickly pulled the door closed – ensuring not to slam it. Outside, she could hear the distorted humming continue. Did it see her? She could hear the heavy footsteps stomping around aimlessly. No, otherwise it would have instantly honed in on her. They grew distant. She scoffed to herself, realizing she couldn’t see out the vents of the locker.

“Dr. Qim?” a light voice spoke. She flinched nearly screaming out in shock. “Dr. Qim?” it repeated with more static. She looked down at her caller.

“Ven?” she whispered.

“Yeah, try to keep your voice down,” he said.

My voice? she thought. He was the one calling her.

“I saw it attack Eri,” he continued. “It came right out of the ceiling – it happened so quickly,” he explained. “I tried to warn you but this vexing thing was acting up.”

“W-what should I do?” she whispered, lip quivering.

“Stay where you are, I can see you in the locker. It’s in the other room right now. But it’s taken Eri’s appearance now.”

She squealed impulsively, forcing herself to throw her hand to her mouth.

“Quiet!” Ven hissed. She heard a static curse.

“What? What is it?” she asked.

“It’s heading back to your area again. Stay quiet.”

She bit her lip, fighting off the urge to scream. Her heart was thrashing against her chest. Could the thing hear it? Outside the locker, the humming continued – it was much lower though. Was it trying to listen for her?

***

Ven’s eyes were pressed to the screen while he held his caller up to his mouth. The screen revealed the thing with its appearance resembling Eri. It stood in the middle of the room awkwardly hunched over like a zombie. The vexing thing wouldn’t move.

He could hear Dr. Qim’s breathing through the device.

“Qim, try to keep quiet,” he whispered into it. “It’s right out –”

His words stopped short when the creature turned its head towards the surveillance. He felt his heart drop. Was it looking at him? Did it know he was watching? How though? Wearing Eri’s face, it cocked its head to the side while it glanced around at the ceiling.

Without warning, small insect-like creatures began crawling across the screen. They were out-of-focus, but they swarmed the feed until it went completely black.

“Vexus! Qim it cut the –” Again he was interrupted – this time by her squeals. “Qim? Qim, what’s going on? I’m blind up here?”

“T-the lights,” she stated through sobs. “It took out the lights.”

How did the vexing thing know how to do that?

“C-can you see it?” she asked. He could hear her voice quivering.

“I- I can’t. It took out the feed. Look, just stay put.”

Her breathing was heavy mixed with minor trembling. He wasn’t there with her, but he found himself doing the same. Vexus – what should he do? What could he do?

“Wait,” her voice started up again, “I-I think it’s gone,” she stated. “I think maybe I can make a run for the exit.”

“Dr. Qim, don’t. Just stay still.”

He paused listening, the caller his only "eyes" now.

He heard the soft creak of the locker door opening. His heart was practically a drum now. He listened as her breathing sounded fainter – it was still present though. What was happening? It was too quiet – did the creature leave?

He felt relief when he heard her voice again. “I think I’m good. I’m near the exit now – wait...”

A faint humming could be heard in the background. He could hear her gasp.

“I-I see Eri – Vexus! He sees me!”

The humming grew to deafening levels, distorting the audio of the caller. She screamed out in terror before the audio completely cut off.

“Dr. Qim?!” Ven called out on it. “Dr. Qim?! Qim?!”

There was no response.


Chapter 12 – Forsaken

Aloe and the others finally returned to the Bridge with a few supplies. Lenio had the Pulsator, still inoperable, but planned to fix it. Lester had managed to grab a few of his tools that could possibly help after they swung by his workshop. Aloe on the other hand, had brought up a small case she found in Faa’s lab.

“Where’s Dr. Qim?” Lenio questioned looking around.

Aloe noted her absence as well. The Bridge wasn’t that big so there was nowhere else she could be.

“And Eri?” Lester brought up. “I don’t see the lad either. He’s too hyper to be this quiet.”

Ven was silent, hands pressed against a panel, leaning over it.

“Sir?” Aloe said. “Where are they?”

He sighed, turning around slowly. “This might be hard to take in,” he started. “Eri was killed by the thing – shortly after, I lost contact with Dr. Qim as well.”

Lenio dropped the Pulsator, which crashed with a loud thud. “Lost contact? Why did they even leave the room?”

“Dr. Qim insisted on grabbing some supplies,” Ven answered, “in case things took a turn for the worst. Eri went with her to the Medical Bay.”

Tears began to fill Lenio’s eyes. “So she’s…”

“I don’t know for sure, but she ran into It before her caller went black. I’m sorry, Lenio.”

Lenio turned around immediately, heading for the Ascender. “I’m gonna look for her.”

Ven pressed a button on a panel, locking the Ascender.

“What are you doing?!” Lenio yelled. “Unlock the door!”

“I can’t let you go out there, son,” he replied sharply. “I’m sorry about Dr. Qim, I really am, but she’s gone and I can’t risk losing someone else.”

“You don’t know that for sure!” Lenio roared back. “Unlock this door now!”

Ven stood unmoving. Lenio turned around, attempting to pry the doors open with his hand, but it was useless. Lester headed over to the surveillance display.

“Sir, if I may,” Aloe began, “maybe Lenio is right. Dr. Qim could still be alive.”

“Hey everyone! I see her!” Lester exclaimed.

The others rushed over to the screen. Lenio barged his way to the front to see. The feed showcased one of the corridors. Dr. Qim was seen running through the halls. She stumbled a few times looking back – she looked terrified and very exhausted. They couldn’t see what was chasing her though. She turned at the corner, disappearing off the feed.

“Where is she?!” Lenio screamed at Lester, who flinched from having him yell in his ear. “Find her! Hurry!”

Alright, lad,” Lester said, shifting the view of the feed to another hallway.

The view was changed, but she wasn’t seen in it. He changed it again, but just missed her as she quickly flashed by, turning a corner.

“Lester!” Lenio said, impatiently.

Lester was beginning to look agitated, but he bit his tongue and complied. He finally found her reaching the end of the hall with the main Ascender’s doors. She could be seen pressing the panel to summon it, but it wasn’t responding. Her face was consumed with terror as she pounded onto the panel, glancing back. Behind her, a black cloud slowly began to swarm up to her.

“She’s right below,” Lenio announced, heading for the lock. “We gotta let her up.”

Ven quickly stepped between him and the button.

“Chief, get out of the way! We have to let her up!”

“And risk letting those things up here as well?!” Ven brought up.

“We don’t have a choice,” Lenio argued, attempting to get by him.

Ven held him back effortlessly, pushing him away. Lenio was large, but the Chief was stronger. “You’re not thinking clear, Lenio!”

“Oy!” Lester called out, “I think I see Eri! He’s approachin’ her fast!”

Lenio doubled his effort to reach the button, but still couldn’t pass. In a last ditch effort, he turned to the others. “Guys?” he pleaded.

“She makin’ a run for it!” Lester announced from the screen.

“Aloe? Please?” Lenio said, tears forming in his eyes.

Aloe was speechless though. She didn’t know what to do.

“Corporal, you stand-fast!” Ven bellowed, pushing Lenio back again.

Vexus’ Great Pull – it’s got her! She’s trapped in the Dinin’ Lounge with nowhere to go!” Lester continued.

Lenio raced over to see, pushing Lester away from the screen. “Eri” stood at the doorway, blocking the exit. Dr. Qim could be seen backing up into a corner of the room. It walked over to her slowly. As it did, she slid down the wall to the ground, curling up into a ball like a child. The thing loomed over her.

Unexpectedly, it exploded into a large cloud like a swarm of bees, completely engulfing Dr. Qim. She thrashed about on the ground, rolling around with them covering her. Streaks of blood were flung in all directions, coating the walls and ground. Like before, the feed was interrupted by many of the insect-like creatures crawling over it, forcing the screen to go black.

Lenio held onto the screen, dropping to his knees. He sobbed quietly to himself with his head down. Aloe and Lester were speechless – looking at each other, hoping the other had the answers.

Lester was finally the one to make a move. “Lad?” he said, reaching over to comfort him.

Before he could touch him, Lenio launched onto his feet over to Ven. Without hesitation, he punched him across the face. The blow was hard enough to knock him clean off his feet. Aloe was ready to rush in to restrain him if he planned to unleash his rage on Ven. In hindsight – it would have been futile considering her size against either of the large men. She might as well have been a star fighting off a Vexus.

Lucky for her, Lenio didn’t continue. He was trembling out of anger though – white knuckles baring with his fist shaking.

“You did this,” Lenio said softly. The tears hadn’t left him. “You let them go out there – you got them killed.”

He appeared as if he wanted to say more, but it was clear the anger was preventing the rest from coming out.

“Lenio?” Aloe said softly, attempting to comfort him.

He immediately brushed her off. “And you’re no better. I expected more from you of all people, but you just watched and let it happen.”

He stormed off into one of the corners, sitting down, facing away from them. She could hear him sobbing quietly to himself.

“Are you alright, Sir?” Aloe asked, helping Ven off the ground.

“Fine,” he replied, rubbing his jaw. “Please tell me you found out something we can use against it.”

Did the man even care about Dr. Qim’s death? she thought. Vexus – he seemed to brush it off like it was nothing.

“Not much, Sir,” she answered. “Faa’s reports were helpful in establishing that it’s some type of ‘alien’ insect.”

“I’ve gathered that much,” he replied, looking over at the surveillance screen. “What else?”

“She mentioned a possibility of them being related to Cicadas – maybe ancestral by origin, but…” Her words fell flat.

“But what?”

“Sir – after seeing what they did to Dr. Qim, I don’t know what we can consider valid anymore,” she finished.

Ven cursed under his breath. “That’s it, I gather?”

She simply nodded.

With that, he headed towards the back of the Bridge.

“Sir?” she called after him.

“I’m going to push this up to the Captain,” he said without turning around.

“Option B, then, Sir?” Lester chimed in.

“We have no choice,” he replied, continuing forward. He turned into the small groove behind the wall next to the panoramic display.

***

“And that’s where we stand right now, Ma’am,” Ven finished up. “I’m requesting a transport for the rest of my crew.”

The chrome sphere’s lights appeared be more active than usual.

Chief Ven, she began, you were specifically ordered to update upon rectifying the reports.

“I know that Ma’am, but circumstances–”

However, in spite of recent events, your failure to comply is justifiable. With that said, your request for evacuation has been denied.

“Denied?” Ven repeated. “Then what are we supposed to do? I’ve already lost three of my crew. Are we supposed to just sit here and die?”

She didn’t initially reply. The silence left Ven irritated nonetheless.

Your course of action, she began after a minute had transpired, is to send remaining reports for Rev three including the abnormality.

"The reports?" he started, feeling the anger boiling inside him. "What about–"

Following that action you are to quarantine your crew and await further guidance.

“That’s it?!” he asked.

You have your orders, Chief Director Ven. You are dismissed.

The vexing bastards! What good would that do, just sitting here? It was easy to say that when they were nowhere near the danger. They were lucky enough the thing didn’t try and attack them while they were on the Bridge, but how long would that last? Vexus – was this how Lenio felt when he had made a similar decision with Dr. Qim?

Ven returned back to the Main Bridge. Immediately upon re-entering, Aloe came up to him.

“I’m Sorry, Sir. I tried to stop him, but I couldn’t,” she said solemnly.

Ven glanced around the Bridge, noticing Lenio missing from his corner. The vexing bastard. Could he really blame him though?

“He took the Pulsator with him as well,” Lester brought up. “Just took off with a vengeance. Lad’s gonna get himself killed.”

Ven sighed. “It’s alright, Corporal. It couldn’t be helped.”

“And what did the Captain say?” she asked. “Are we cleared to get off this vexing ship?”

He shook his head, running his hand through his hair. “Our orders are… to remain put until further guidance can be provided.”


Chapter 13 – Rigged

“It was a real shame what happened to Qim,” Lester brought up.

He was playing with one of his tools – the one that looked like a fork from earlier – twiddling it between his fingers.

“Could have sworn Faa said they were close to being like cicadas,” he continued, “but did ya see what they did to Qim? They her tore up into pieces.”

“Yeah, but she was speculating, Lest,” Aloe chimed in. “We don’t know anything about them. Faa was just working off of theories.”

Ven was silent. He had been so since relaying they were to remain confined on the Bridge until further orders. What did that mean? Was H.D.P scrambling to find a solution for their situation? More importantly, how long could they even last until then?

Finally, Ven walked over to the case sitting on the side.

“I’d be careful with that, Chief?” Aloe said to him.

“Why? What’s in it?” he asked, looming over it.

“It’s amber. Apparently, it’s what they feed off of – well one of the things, at least," she answered, rendering a light shiver. "Faa mentioned that it excites them.”

“Why did you bring it then?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t know, I thought we could use it like a lure – maybe attract them if the moment called for it.”

Aloe turned her attention back to the surveillance. Ever since they were instructed to remain put, she felt on edge about keeping an eye out for the thing – or rather things. It did little to unease her nerves though. Still, she kept her eyes tuned to the feed. She changed the view on one hall and noticed something.

“Chief!” she called to him with widening eyes. “You need to see this.”

He made his way over to her.

“What the…?” he whispered.

In the feed, they could see a cloud of the creatures, flowing up from the ventilation near Ascender B – the lift led to the lower levels. Like a floating river, the swarms of creatures were filtering into one of the rooms not available on the feed.

“What are they doing?” Aloe asked.

“Not sure,” Ven replied, “it looks like they coming up through the vents. Those should connect from the Cargo Bay if I’m not mistaken.”

“Cargo Bay?” Aloe repeated. Immediately, her mind dawned on the encounter she had with Faa down in there. “Sir,” she began, “I saw Faa down there – well what I thought was her at the time. I didn’t think much of it then, but I found a lot of the containers from S.A.F opened. When it was pretending to be Faa, I noticed its hands were covered in the ore as if had been searching for something.”

“I’m not following,” Ven replied.

“Well, in the audio files, Faa mentioned how she found more and more of the creatures mixed in the containers imitating the ore. She said they didn’t start reacting until they were around each other. Faa hadn’t noticed until a day after we made our first few pulls and stored in them Cargo Bay. I’m thinking that those containers held more of these creatures and that they somehow react from their dormant state when near each other. Which means…”

“Which means,” he continued for her, “that it’s collecting the rest of its kind from below – growing.”

“What happens when those things grow to an amount that can’t be contained?” she asked.

At that moment, her caller’s receiver flashed from an incoming message. She and Ven glanced at each other and then back at Lester, who also appeared confused. Who was it?

“Hello?” she said, speaking into the device.

There was heavy breathing on the other end. “Aloe?” a grizzly voice spoke from the other end. It was rough, and almost seemed strained, but she recognized it.

“Lenio?” she asked. He was still alive?

“Aloe, I need you do something for me,” he continued. “Bring me the amber from the Bridge.”

It didn’t sound like a request more like a demand. Even so, why did he want it? She glanced at the Chief, who shook his head.

“Lenio,” Ven said, speaking for her. “I’m not about to send any –”

“I was speaking to Aloe!” Lenio interrupted.

The outburst surprised both of them.

“I have a plan to kill the vexing things, but I need the amber,” Lenio stated.

“For what?” she asked.

He was silent.

“Tell us, so we can understand,” she continued. “You’re asking us to risk our lives, Lenio. The least you could do is clue us in on what you plan to do.”

He remained silent from his end.

“Lenio?” she called in it.

“Just bring the amber to the Cell room,” he answered coldly. “Or you can just sit around and wait until it decides to kill you.”

With that, the caller cut off. Aloe looked up at Ven again – a loss for words. Her look must’ve said everything though. What were they going to do?

Ven sighed, looking back at Lester and then the case holding the amber.

“I don’t like it,” he finally stated, “but it does us no good just sitting around waiting. If he has a chance to kill this thing, even a slim one, then we have to take it.”

Aloe nodded. She didn’t know why she was nodding. She didn’t want to go out there again – especially after seeing a cloud of those creatures, but something inside her must’ve agreed with Ven.

“Well if that’s the case,” Lester said, walking over, “I’ll be yer eyes from here. There’s no vexin’ way, I’m goin’ down there.”

“Fair enough,” Ven stated. “Try to keep it low over the caller.”

Aloe grabbed the case and joined Ven over by the Ascender. Lester pressed the button to unlock it.

“And make sure you watch ya selves,” Lester said.

“We will,” Aloe replied.

“I’m not just talkin’ about those things either. The lad hasn’t been right in the mind after Qim, so be on alert.”

Ven nodded, entering the Ascender with Aloe.


***


Aloe felt her stomach twisting into a knot. It was similar to when they elected to hack Faa’s files – no, it was worse! This time, an icy grip of dread coiled its fingers around her, chilling her to down to the bones. Why was she heading towards danger again?

The Ascender reached the lower level. Her heart was crashing against her chest like a prisoner craving freedom. The doors parted, revealing the long corridor before them. Ven started to walk off, but halted, noticing Aloe remained behind.

“Corporal?” he said.

She didn’t respond. His words sounded distorted and distant like an echo. Why was she here again?

“Aloe?”

She heard his voice with clarity this time, prompting her attention.

“Stay with me,” he said softly.

His voice was so composed. She wasn’t aware such a trait could have been found in a stiff board like him. It seemed like she was finding out more things about the Chief now than she had ever seen in the three years she served under him. Was this result of the danger?

“We’ll get through this," he continued, "I’ll make sure of it, but I need you with me on this, okay?”

She nodded.

The two slowly walked off the Ascender into the halls.

“Alright, Lest. How we looking?” Ven asked, speaking into his caller.

“It’s looking good from my angle, Chief,” Lester responded soon after. “Ya should be clear until the next turn.”

“Got it.” Ven gestured to Aloe to follow.

They crept through the corridor, ensuring their steps didn’t echo out against the metal grate. That eerie feeling Aloe always experienced in the halls had amplified. The shadows in between the support beams left her on edge, half-expecting the things to hide among them, ready to pounce on her.

After what felt like an eternity, they reached the first corner. Ven made a quick peek around, before signaling her to follow. In the hall, they heard a deep humming, much louder than the ventilation’s. They both grew on alert. It was so deep as if a swarm of those things were nearby.

“Lest?” Ven whispered over the caller.

“Ya should be good, Sir,” Lester replied. “I’m not seein’ any activity. They must be in the vents or somethin’.”

They cautiously continued down. Before long, they had reached the last hall leading to Ascender B. As they approached, a foul smell began to taint the air.

It was rancid like spoiled meat that had been sitting out for far too long. Aloe noted the dining lounge ahead on the side. She recalled the footage of Dr. Qim being attacked in it. A chill ran down her spine when she realized they would have to pass it on the way. The illuminants inside flickered on and off, remaining off for the most part.

Ven looked back her way. “Don’t look inside, Corporal,” he said. “Just keep your eyes forward.”

She nodded, following him as he proceeded. As they grew closer to the doorway, the smell grew stronger. It reminded Aloe of the scent she had experienced in the Igniter Chamber. At that moment, it had been charred only hinting the smell of flesh. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case this time. There was no char to filter this smell – it was a raw scent.

As they passed the doorway, Aloe was tempted to look inside. For a second, her eyes accidentally skimmed through. When they did, the lights flickered on, revealing a quick sight of the walls coated in red. She immediately shut her eyes, pushing forward. She felt the urge to gag from that small moment, feeling her stomach twist tighter than it ever had. Yet, she fought the feeling off.

Ven reached the Ascender panel, pressing it.

“You okay?” he asked, noting her face.

She opted to nod over speaking, fearing her stomach would take advantage the moment her mouth opened. When the Ascender arrived, they entered it, requesting their level. As it descended, they could hear the humming once again. It grew louder into a deafening level before fading.

“Was that from the Cargo Bay?” Aloe asked.

“Who knows how many are in there now,” Ven added. “Let’s hope this plan of Lenio’s actually works.”

The Ascender halted with the voice announcing the level. The doors opened, revealing a dark corridor leading up to an opened area ahead. The two exited, heading towards it. A pulsating rhythm could be heard resonating within. It was like a strong heartbeat pumping to a steady tempo.

Past the doorway, there were long rows of massive machines connected up to the ceiling. A radiant green swirled within each, appearing much like the gases seen covering the planet. As they churned inside, sparks of electricity pulsated throughout it like a storm cloud. It was a beautiful sight.

It had been awhile since Aloe had seen the Syn-Cells which were used to power the ship. They would be a nice addition to her Relayer – Vexus! This isn’t the time to be thinking about that, she scolded herself.

The room itself was massive, but poorly kept. The walls were crusted over with a thick layer of rust like molting skin, reflecting the shadows dancing from the light. Despite being a stunning view, the Syn-Cells left a muddy smell in the air like burnt rubber and their presence left the room boiling with heat like a sauna.

They were surprised to find it vacant of Lenio. Ven noted the machines and gestured Aloe's attention upon them. The panels to each one had been propped open, revealing a set of wires dangling out to connect to the switch panel at the end. That was dangerous! Applying the switch could cause an overload to the chamber of the cells, igniting a meltdown.

“Vexus,” Ven said softly. “What's Lenio doing? Is he trying to blow up the entire vexing ship?”

“How did he even get access to this room?” Aloe asked.

“From Eri,” a voice answered.

They turned to see Lenio poke out halfway from behind one of the machines. “I swiped the key-authenticator off his body.”

Lenio appeared…distressed. His hair was unkempt, sticking to his sweaty face. He appeared as if he had been running for miles.

Ven tensed up. “Lenio, are you crazy?” he said, getting ready to pounce towards him.

However, Lenio stepped out completely, revealing he was holding onto the Pulsator. He had managed to create a strap for it so that it could be worn over his shoulder to support his good arm. Ven immediately halted in his tracks, holding up his hands.

“And to answer your question, yes,” Lenio continued. “If it comes to it, I’ll blow up the whole vexing ship to kill it.” He kept the Pulsator trained on Ven. “Now, did you bring it?”

Aloe stepped forward, holding up the case. Lenio nodded.

“Good, now open it,” he said.

“Lenio, you don’t have to do this, you know,” she started.

“Open it!” he barked.

She flinched, setting the case down, and propping open the lid. The pile of brown, rock clumps gleamed against the light of Syn-Cells.

“Now what?” Ven asked.

“Now, we wait,” Lenio replied. “They’ll come here, attracted by the smell…and then I’ll blow every last one of them up.”

“You don’t even know if that’ll work,” Aloe said.

“Well there’s only one way to find out,” Lenio replied.

“Fine, you got what you want, but let us go,” Ven said.

“What’s the point?” he replied. “You’ll die from the explosion anyways. You might’ve as well get a front-row seat. It’ll be quick and painless…unlike Dr. Qim.”

“I’m sorry about what happened,” Ven began, “but Dr. Qim would not want to see you like this.”

Lenio’s face twisted into a mean glare. “Don’t you ever say her name! You don’t have permission to say her name!” He activated the Pulsator, prompting it to flare up with electricity.

“Lenio?” Aloe said, stepping close to him.

Immediately, he pointed the device at her, forcing her to halt. She held up her hands.

“Lenio, Ven’s right. This isn’t you,” she continued. “You don’t have to do this. Remember what you said to Dr. Qim, about wanting to protect everyone. You can still do that.”

His eyes looked away for a second.

“We know you care, but this isn’t the way to do it. We can figure out another way. You’re not a bad person.”

He glanced back at Aloe, staring deep into her eyes. Soon after, he lowered the Pulsator.

“Come with us,” she said holding out a hand.

Abruptly, there was a loud crash from the wall, sending them all to the ground. Chunks of metal debris were launched in all directions. One piece barely missed Aloe’s face, slamming behind her. Immediately, a swarm of creatures began flooding into the room, filling the air with its deafening humming.

Aloe could hear the fluttering of their wings beating in an asynchronous rhythm like screws blowing around in a vent. The swarm funneled up in the air before dropping over the case of amber, engulfing it.

“Aloe!” Ven called out behind her.

She could barely hear his voice against the humming mingled with the beating wings. She turned to see that Ven had not been so lucky avoiding the debris. A large chunk of metal had fallen onto his leg, pinning him to the ground. She ran over to him and attempted to lift the piece. It was too heavy. She tried again, pulling with all her might. Ven tried to assist from his angle, but he struggled as well to move the object.

It was possible he would have been able to move it – had their fates been reversed – but his positioning made it impossible to get any leverage over the vexing heap. Aloe glanced back at the swarm around the amber. Luckily, they were distracted from attacking them, but how long would that last? She made another attempt to lift the heavy object, but again failed.

Finally, she felt the piece start to lift on its own. Was it Ven? No, she saw Lenio had joined them. He gave Ven a long hard look and nodded at them, gesturing that they all try at once. They did so. Even with Lenio’s help, it still felt impossibly heavy, but she could feel the piece moving now.

“Pull ‘em out!” Lenio managed say. He adjusted himself to take the bulk of the weight.

From there, Aloe grabbed under Ven’s arms and yanked him back until he was completely free. Afterwards, Lenio dropped the piece which slammed, releasing a strong vibration.

“Are you hurt, Chief?” Aloe asked Ven.

He shook his head. “My knee’s a bit numb, but I should be alright to move,” he said struggling to get up.

She helped him up.

“Thank you, Lenio,” Aloe said to him. Ven gave him a nod of gratitude.

The humming behind them grew louder again. The amber had been completely consumed. With nothing to distract the creatures, they would turn on them.

“Come on, Lenio. We need to go!” she barked, starting to head to the exit.

Lenio stood there, simply looking back.

“Come on!” She repeated. She couldn’t grab him since she was helping Ven to move.

He nodded, following behind them. Aloe struggled not to fall over with Ven as they hobbled out of the room. Immediately upon crossing the room's threshold, they heard the door slam shut behind them. She stopped, glancing back.

“Lenio, what are you doing?!”

The door had but a small glass panel, showcasing his face. Despite the looming swarm behind him, Lenio smiled. “Thank you, Aloe,” he said, “for not losing faith in me. I’ll try and hold them off as long as I can.”

“You don’t have to do this!” she screamed, feeling tears tease her eyes.

“Go! Get out here now!” he yelled back. He turned around and began firing off the Pulsator in the air.

“Come on, Aloe,” Ven said. “There’s nothing we can do for him now.”

She bit her lip, but complied, hobbling over to the Ascender. Once it arrived, she caught one last glance of the light from the Pulsator streaking across the window before the doors closed.


Chapter 14 – New Plan

When the Ascender doors opened, Aloe helped Ven off. After walking only a few paces, a loud explosion erupted, launching them in the air like ragdolls. Aloe felt the wind knocked out her as she landed on her back with a hard slam. Ven fell just a few feet ahead of her in samilar fashion. A burst of flames exploded around them, sending out a wave of sparks from the illuminants, completely shattering some. Many of the walls of the corridor were torn open with ease, shooting out debris like shrapnel. The entire ship rocked, releasing a deep moan.

Without warning, the ships' stabilizer failed, sending the ship to tilt at a downward angle. Aloe and Ven started to slide down the hall into the long mouth of the corridor. Just as the two were starting to pick up speed, they managed to grab onto the wall’s support beams. Chunks of debris slid dangerously past them, crashing below. After a few seconds, the ship began to correct itself, stabilizing back.

“That vexing bastard!” Ven cursed out loud. “He could’ve killed us all.”

Aloe’s ears were ringing from the blast as she lay there, trying to compose herself. They were still alive? How?

“Ven? Aloe?!” Lester’s voice could be heard from their callers. “Are yall alright?”

Ven managed to sit up with a grunt of pain. He lifted his caller to reply. “Somehow we managed.”

“What in Solaris’ name just happened?!”

“Lenio set off the Syn-Cells,” he replied.

“Has he gone mad?! Where’s the vexin’ idiot?!” Lester yelled. “Wait til’ I get hold of ‘im!”

Ven looked over to Aloe, who was finally able to get to her feet. “Lenio’s gone, Lest.”

Lester went quiet.

“How bad is the damage?” Ven inquired.

Lester sighed from his end. “The whole vexin’ Bridge is goin’ haywire,” he noted. Behind him, a choir of alarms could be heard. “Well I’ve got good news and bad news, Sir.”

“Give me the bad first.”

“The bad news is, Insula can’t maintain her orbit. She’s fallin’ towards the planet now,” Lester answered.

“And the good news?”

“Sir, well the good news is we’re not dead…yet. I hope ya got a plan.”

Aloe helped Ven to his feet. “Sir?” she said.

Ven gestured that he was fine to walk on his own, although he still limped. “Lester, make your way down to the Drill pod. We’re abandoning ship.”

Aloe’s eyes lit up.

“Should we inform the Captain, Sir?” Lester asked.

Ven glanced at Aloe. “Screw the Captain!” Ven said. “Meet us down there ASAP.”

“Aye, Sir!”

***

“So what’s the plan?” Lester inquired. “Are we just gonna jettison ourselves out into space? We’ll be sittin’ ducks out there.”

They were on third Ascender which led to drill pod. Lucky for them, it was on the opposite end of the ship away from the Cell room and the Cargo Bay. Aloe thought back on all the days she used to complain about that, but now it was a blessing.

“That might be,” Ven replied, rubbing his knee, “but it beats sticking around here.”

Lester nodded in agreement. “Did he at least kill the vexin’ thing?” he asked.

“We don’t know,” Aloe answered. “I hope so.”

“Same,” Lester agreed, “I’d hate to see him die in vain.”

“I’m not sure how long the ship can hold up, so suit as quickly as possible,” Ven stated. “Aloe, as soon as you’re done, fire up that pod.”

She nodded.

“Lest, you’ll hover by the bay-door switch.”

The doors opened, revealing a large Docking bay. It was spacious, rivaling the S.A.F. in height and depth. The illuminants were very bright casting over the small ship centered within the bay. It was trivial to the Insula but large in comparison to them. The pod held a faded, dark yellow hue – a result from its years breaching the surface of many planets.

It was connected to thick tubes, feeding into the walls like anchors. At the rear of the pod, the large drill was folded up. The drill pod could salvage up to several tons of resources from one pull. Yet, no one was ever anxious to pilot the vexing thing. It was their job, but it was never an easy pill to swallow, descending down into unknown planets – brewing with storms and elements eager to kill them. Yet, now it was their only hope – their salvation.

On the side wall, they could see several glass tubes containing a series of suits. They could be used to traverse the outside of the ship, but were mainly used when piloting the pod. They quickly made their way over to them. Normally, Aloe could suit up under a minute, but now she found her hands trembling, struggling to get her feet inside the leggings.

There was another loud explosion, knocking everyone to the ground, prompting a deafening alarm. The illuminants above shifted to a bright red as a spark of electricity flared.

“We need to hurry!” Ven pressed.

Aloe had finally managed to suit up completely. Her breathing fogged up the helmet’s visor as she took off heading to the pod. Once Lester was done, he ran towards the bay-door switch.

“Vexus’ ass!” Lester yelled out. “We’ve got a problem, Sir!”

“What is it?!” Ven asked, hobbling to him.

“The last explosion might’ve fried the panel. I’ll have to reset it!” he explained.

“How long will it take?!”

“Should have it up a few!”

The ship rendered another violent shake nearly knocking over the two.

“Do it, then!” Ven said.

He started to head over to the drill pod.

“How we looking in there, Corporal?!” he said over his caller.

Aloe had already unhooked the ship from the docking cables. She was in the cockpit’s main seat, activating the switches on the control panel. She looked out the window as she her fingers moved.

“Working on it, Sir,” she replied, calibrating a button.

“Well, keep at it,” Ven replied. He turned to Lester. “Lest, you told me a few. Where we at now?”

Lester gave him a thumbs-up.

Without warning, there was another loud explosion, tipping the ship again to the side. The stabilizer was giving-out again. Lester and Ven began sliding unable to keep their balance. Lester managed to grab onto the Ascender’s panel. Ven smacked into the wall. He was much closer to it than Lester, but still managed to hit it relatively hard. Aloe attempted to brace herself within the pod, feeling it tilt to the side.

A loud humming soon filled the air, growing louder. Her eyes grew wide when she heard it. Ven was still pinned up against the wall due to the destabilization, but he too noted the sound.

The things were still alive.

Suddenly, a cloud of the creatures burst through the Ascender’s doors. Lester screamed, struggling to hold onto the panel. The cloud hovered above him like a swarm of bees. As it did, its composition slowly began to change. Among the small, fluttering bodies, an image began to appear across the surface. They were changing again, but into what?

Ven stared helplessly up from his position. An image began to take form, pressing outward, resembling a face. It was… Lenio, or rather it was a poor attempt to become him. Its eyes were engorged, sagging loosely as if melting – its mouth stretched open as like it was attempting to scream out its agony. Instead, the same distorting hum left its lips.

The head glanced down at Lester, who was powerless. He had nowhere to go. The panel he held onto was much further to the wall. More faces began to appear, meshing up against Lenio’s like a artist’s twisted sculpture – each taking on a familiar appearance from the crew: Dr. Qim’s first, then Eri’s, and even Faa’s. Their faces were filled with anguish. Were they suffering inside there? The cloud swarmed around Lester, forcing him to let go. He fell far, smashing into the wall-now-ground. Lester screamed in agony, flailing around. Ven watched in horror as the creatures completely smothered him, tearing into his suit.

The ship finally re-stabilized, causing Ven and Lester to fall back to the ground.

“What’s going on out there?!” Aloe screamed into the caller.

Her voice managed to pull Ven from his trance. He rose to his feet, and began to limp over to the bay-door switch. He could feel the surge of pain in his leg, but he fought against it.

“Aloe! Get that ship up and running now!” he screamed.

As he hobbled over to the switch, he could see the creatures flooding into Lester’s suit as if the entire swarm was trying to enter it. His screams grew louder cracking from the strain. Finally, they cut short from the creatures exploding out his mouth, flooding the inside of his visor. Before they completely covered the inside, he caught a terrifying glance of Lester’s face with most of his skin missing, little meat clinging to his skull.

Ven felt his leg give out on him, falling to the ground. He cringed, but attempted to crawl towards the switch.

Aloe ignited the pod’s power, prompting the control panel’s lights. The outside engines sparked with life, burning with a ring of blue flames.

“Chief! We’re all ready, make your way back!” Aloe announced. “Chief?!”

She could hear him grunting over the caller. “Aloe, there’s no way I’m gonna be able to make it back to the ship.”

What was he saying?

“Sir! Yes, you can! Now, move it!”

He struggled to pull himself up to the switch, reaching the base of the board. The cloud of creatures began regrouping in the air, now finished with Lester. His face now joined the others, forming out the side of Faa’s.

“No, I won’t,” he said softly. “Not if this switch has to be pulled.”

“Chief, move your vexing ass!” she screamed.

Ven pulled himself up the switchboard's base, hovering over the button. “I’m sorry, Aloe,” he stated. “You have to survive this.”

The cloud of faces rushed towards him. Immediately, Ven hit the switch, prompting a loud alarm. The illuminants above flashed erratically. Below the pod, the doors started to part. Like a vacuum, the air violently sucked out of the room through the cracks.

“Ven!” Aloe screamed.

The pod plummeted through the open door, barreling out of control. Aloe felt her stomach tighten from the sudden drop. She couldn’t submit to it though and instantly turned her attention to the control panel. Her heart was crashing against her chest but her fingers began moving across the buttons. They danced furiously as if they had a mind of their own.

Through the window, a dizzying display of the planet and the ship flashed across as the pod continued to fall uncontrollably. An alarm ran int he background with lights flashing. She needed to regain control of it. She hit another switch and grabbed onto the throttle, fighting to keep it from jerking.

The dizzying view began to slow down, but she could feel the grip of the planet pulling on the ship. The alarms grew louder. The outer hull of the ship began to moan, caving-in slowly like a can being squeezed. She tightened her grip, pressing a switch to activate a small thruster in an attempt to cancel out the spinning.

With luck, it worked. She was now oriented, but the pod was still heading down towards the planet. Aloe adjusted her grip on the throttle, turning it to the side. With her other hand, she managed to activate another thruster, from the rear this time.

She felt the boost throw her back into her seat. The pod was now maneuvering away from the planet. Yet, she still wasn’t out of harm’s way – she was still in the path of the Insula falling towards her. She immediately yanked the throttle to the side, throwing all her weight into it in effort to avert the collision.

Her stomach tightened even more as the large vessel came dangerously close. The pod shook, releasing a dull screech from the metal scrapping between it and the ship. Eventually though, the noise ceased. Aloe felt relief fill her veins. Air – she had almost forgotten to breath, taking in large puffs of it.

She was home-free.

Without warning, another explosion erupted from the Insula. Aloe felt the pod violently shake from the blast. The shockwave was enough for the throttle to slip from her grip. She felt her head smack forward onto to the control panel.

Once again, the pod began barreling out of control. Her vision grew blurry as a spot of blood leaked onto her visor. Through the spins of the pod, she could see the aftermath of the explosion from the Insula in between the vast ocean of stars. She wanted to grab the throttle again and try to re-stabilize the pod, but she felt weak, and her eyelids were so heavy.

You have to survive this. She could hear Ven’s words lingering in her mind.

It couldn’t end like this – not after everything.

You have to survive this.

I’m sorry, Ven, she thought. I tried.

Everything went completely black for her.

Chapter 15 – The End?

Aloe awoke finding herself on a table. There was a bright cast of lights beaming into her eyes. Was she dead? No, she felt pain – it was from her throbbing head.

“Ma’am, she’s awake,” a voice said firmly.

Aloe’s eyes slowly adjusted, finding that she was inside a small, white room. The surroundings were different but vaguely familiar. She was in a Medical Bay, but how? She could hear a heart-rate machine beeping in the background. Looking around, her eyes met with the face of a pudgy looking man. He had a thick mustache under a broad nose with glasses sitting at the brim. The man wore a white lab coat.

A doctor? Aloe thought.

“Take it easy,” the man said. “You’re safe now.”

“Where am I?” Aloe asked weakly, feeling her head throb even more when she spoke.

“You’re aboard the Stockholm,” a female voice replied.

Aloe glanced over to see a large, busty woman, approaching. She stood firm with her hands pressed behind her back. She had sharp features with her red hair neatly pinned up – her chin pointed upward.

“I’m Chief Kaya,” she said. “Welcome aboard.”

“Corporal Aloe,” Aloe answered, rendering a light salute.

The woman’s lips curled at the end as if pleased with the recognition of her rank.

“Ma’am, what happened?”

“You tell us, Corporal,” the woman started. “We were scheduled to dock with your ship to collect your load and resupply you. However, H.D.P instructed that we cancel our rendezvous. It’s not something a ship wants to hear after taking such liberties to traverse a two-day trip. Do you care to enlighten us on the reasoning behind this order because they have failed to do so with us?”

Aloe didn’t respond. What could she say? Her crew was attacked by strange creatures?

The woman continued though as if the question had been rhetorical. “You’re very fortunate we didn’t depart immediately after so. The explosion from the Insula is what stopped us. We spotted your escape pod soon after and scooped you up. Your ship, unfortunately, could not hold its orbit and crashed into PL-0490.”

Aloe rendered a sigh of relief. Then those things had to be dead this time, but at what cost? Her crew? Faa? Ven...?

No, this wasn’t the time to think about that. She had to focus on the outcome. If not for this ship, Aloe would still be unconscious, floating aimlessly among the stars. The thought sent a shiver down her spine.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

The woman’s lips became a line and her nostrils flared. “We're not in the habit of picking up squatters,” she stated harshly. “You may have survived quite an ordeal, but I expect everyone on my ship to pull –” She was interrupted by her caller.

“Ma’am, we got sight of another possible survivor,” a voice spoke from the device. “Scanners are picking up a male.”

Aloe’s eyes lit up. It couldn’t be! she thought. “Ven?!” she shouted.

Her outburst had startled the woman along with the doctor.

“Another of your crew, I suspect?” the woman noted. “Well they are very lucky as well. Corporal Deen, make arrangements to obtain the survivor.”

Aloe smiled – something she hadn’t done in a while. She was relieved. She wasn’t the only one who had made it.

How long had Ven been floating out there though? Did his oxygen hold up? She hoped he was still alive. As she dwelled on this, more thoughts flooded her mind. How did his body even make it out this far? Her pod had barely managed to escape the planet’s pull and yet Ven’s body had done so. It was impossible, wasn’t it?

During her escape, she wasn’t able to see what had happened to him once he opened the bay doors. There was no telling what became of him then.

Her smiled faded as another thought came to surface.

What if that wasn’t Ven?



Written by Vngel W
Content is available under CC BY-NC

Published September 3rd, 2016‎