|APAGear II Archives||Volume 3, Number 1||February, 2001|
[Note: Part One appears in Volume 2, Number 11. -Ed.]
Catryna played the beam of her flashlight over the end of the corridor, stepping over one of the light fixtures that were now sitting on the "floor" of the hallway. The space was tight, like most spacecraft -- there wasn't even enough room for two men to walk abreast through the corridor. It couldn't have been very comfortable for any GRELs on the ship's crew, that's for sure, she thought. Her beam fell on a curled, man-sized lump on the ground near a hatchway; bile rose slightly in her throat. It was the first body she had seen aboard the crashed spacecraft. The smell of death had been ever-present since they had entered though, something she had anticipated -- both she and Geraint wore respirators to protect themselves from the ghastly stench.
She caught a glimpse of the dessicated corpse's bald, splotchy purple head as she walked by; she looked away and locked her jaw shut. Behind her, she heard Geraint stumble and cough into his respirator -- she really hoped he didn't do anything worse. Ahead of her, the corridor ended, reaching a T-intersection. "Okay, Rick...we're at the end of the corridor here. Which way now?"
"Take a left, and about 20 meters down there should be a stairwell. You'll have to climb that, then you should be in the main corridor on this level." She pointed her flashlight down the left corridor. It was as dark and empty as most of the others had been and she counted her blessings. Climbing up a "down" stairwell would be a mess, even without Geraint retching over another corpse.
"Okay, Rick. Sit tight, we'll be there soon." She glanced back at Geraint and gestured towards the left, then turned down the corridor with her flashlight clutched in her right hand. The merchant was barely keeping up with her, but she was willing to cut him some slack; if the scene was grizzly even for a War of the Alliance vet like her, she imagined it must have been ten times worse for a man who had probably never killed with his own hands.
She picked her way through the cramped space, picking her way towards the stairwell slowly. "Almost there Geraint....stay with me. Petra, what's your situation?" The flashlight caught the corner of the stairwell's alcove ahead of her.
Geraint grunted behind her and Petra's soprano came over the radio. "We are on the bridge, Catryna. It looks badly damaged, and there are four bodies here...I will let you know when we finish the damage assessment." The woman's voice was strained, the bodies bringing back bad memories of her time in Basal, most likely.
"All right, Petra. Keep me --"
She turned the corner to the stairwell, distracted by the radio conversation, and almost didn't notice the crumpled bloody form on the ground in the corner. The growing red stain on the ground almost reached her feet and her flashlight illuminated the mashed face of the figure. Her words caught in her throat, along with her heart, which seemed to almost jump out of her chest.
"Sweet Mamoud." The body of the mechanic was barely recognizable as human, much less anything more specific. Blood stained every surface and limbs bent in ways nature never intended. It looked more like a lump of loose flesh than a corpse. She turned back into the corridor and grabbed Geraint as he tried to walk past.
"What? What is it?" he asked, voice muffled through the respirator.
"Don't -- just don't." She coughed and swallowed against the burning sensation in her throat. "I found your mechanic." She didn't know what else to tell him.
"What? Let me see --" As he turned the corner she saw his face pale and his hand went to his respirator, yanking it off his face only seconds before falling to his knees and vomitting on the deck. She turned away from the scene and leaned against the wall, trying to compose herself.
"Cat? What's going on? Everything okay?" Rick's voice seemed to come from far off, echoing hollowly in her ears.
"We found Geraint's mechanic, Rick....he's dead, and it doesn't look like an accident. Keep your eyes open and hang in there. Petra, you be careful too." She stepped over to Geraint and knelt down, putting her hand on his back. "You okay?"
"Yeah, just great." He spit the bitter taste from his mouth and wiped his face on the back of his sleeve, putting the respirator back over his face. Catryna stood up and walked over to the body, gritting her teeth as she looked over the corpse. She'd never seen anything like it -- if she didn't know better, she would have guessed some sort of wild animal attack. There was no sign of the bites or claw marks that usually accompanied such attacks though; it looked more like someone had brutalized the man with a club or some other sort of blunt object. It was obvious the man had not been dead long; a quick check showed that the body was still warm. She took out her 11mm pistol from its holster and looked up into the rest of the stairwell, but could not see anything.
"What the hell could have done that?" asked Geraint, moving slowly towards her. "Your man was the last to see him...."
She didn't like what he was driving at, and she didn't think this was the place for an argument. "Rick didn't do this, Geraint....it looks like he's been trampled by a barnaby, for crying out loud. Whatever did it is still probably close by, so just be quiet and let's get to the engine room so we can get Rick and get the hell out of here."
"You're just going to leave him there?"
She looked over at the merchant, who was still looking at the corpse with barely-suppressed horror. "Do you have a better idea? We can't very well take him with us. We'll get him on the way out -- there's just no other choice."
Geraint winced slightly and inched along the wall towards her, shaking his head. "Yeah....I guess you're right." He glanced around, his body trembling almost imperceptably. "You're sure that your pilot couldn't have done that?"
Catryna looked over at him, frowning darkly behind her respirator. "What do you think?" She turned back to the stairwell and shook her head. She had to admit that it was odd, but it would have taken a bear of a man to turn the mechanic into the bloody mess behind her. Rick wasn't a weakling, but he wasn't a large man by any stretch of the imagination.
Geraint shrugged and stood up from against the wall, still a bit unsteady on his feet. "Are you going to be able to make it?" she asked, studying the upside-down stairwell. "I'll need you to boost me up."
"Yes, I think so....I'm just --" he started, but Catryna waved him off with an understanding nod. She wasn't fond of him, but there was no reason to let him think that the sight wasn't bothering her either. She was just better at putting it at the back of her mind.
"All right. Boost me up there and I'll help you up after me." He nodded and knelt down, clasping his hands together. She stepped into them and he lifted her up into the mess of metal that led up to the "lower" deck.
Catryna stuck her head between the wide pressure doors of the engine room, looking down at the "ceiling". "Rick?" She panned around the room with her flashlight in one hand and her gun in the other. Behind her, Geraint crouched down on his knees; she could hear his slow, deep breaths behind her. He still hadn't quite recovered from the discovery of the body.
"Over here," called out a voice from a corner of the engine room. She glanced in its direction and could see a light from behind some sort of bulkhead.
She scanned the space below her, trying to find a way down that would not involve her plunging into a dark mess of metal and plastic debris. "Uh....Rick, how in the Prophet's name did you get over there?" She heard Geraint cough behind her.
Rick stepped out from behind the bulkhead, standing on the "bottom" of a scaffold. "If you look over your head, there's a line strung from the top of the door to the bar over there." His light flashed towards her, illuminating a piece of blue and red nylon rope strung over her head. "That'll get you to the catwalk over there. As for how to get out...well, we didn't really figure that out." She muttered under her breath.
"Would have been nice if he had thought ahead," grumbled Geraint, echoing her own thoughts. She nodded slightly, acknowledging his complaint.
"All right. What have you been able to find?"
"Not a whole lot....some tool kits, blank cerachips, and other bits and parts. Looks like there was a good deal of damage in this part of the ship and any survivors may have taken most of the esoteric stuff. No sign of whatever killed Ortiz?"
"The mechanic? No....nothing. Whoever...or whatever did that to him, it didn't leave anything track it by." She slid her gun into its holster to give herself a free hand.
"He was here, and then just....gone, Cat. I was talking to him while I was going through the storage lockers over there, and when I looked over by the reactor control panels where he was working, he was just gone. He didn't say a word, and I don't know how he got to the door so fast and without making any noise." Rick stepped back behind the bulkhead, reemerging seconds later with arms full of black plastic cases. "This is all I could find....pretty basic stuff. Maybe Petra will have better luck on the bridge, or the armory...if you still want to check that out."
Catryna glanced back at Geraint, who shook his head. She nodded back and turned back to Rick. "I think we're going to skip the armory -- I don't think we should stay here any longer than we have to." She glanced around the dark engine room, looking for signs of anything unusual. "We don't want to lose anyone else to...whatever else is here."
Rick nodded in understanding. "Yeah...can't say I'm real keen on it either. Let me see if there's something here I can put this stuff in and we can try lifting it up to there. You have an extra rope?" He set the black cases down and turned to go back behind the bulkhead.
"We've both got rope, that shouldn't be a problem." Catryna turned to Geraint, who was still glancing back down the corridor they had walked up. "We'll get this stuff out of here and then head back to the entrance," she said quietly. "I'll have Petra meet us there when she's d --"
She cut herself off as she heard the faint sound of footsteps on cold metal; she saw Geraint's spine stiffen as he heard the same. She tapped him on the shoulder as she drew her pistol from its holster, causing the merchant to jerk and look back at her, eyes wide. She gestured towards the edge of the doorframe and he moved back against the wall, herself moving to the opposire corner. The merchant pulled his 9mm out and clutched it in both his hands.
"Petra...this is Cat. You aren't coming back by the engine room are you?" she subvocalized over the radio. The footsteps were coming closer; the echo chamber-like effects of the empty metal decks were playing havoc with her direction sense though.
"We are still on the bridge, Catryna."
"All right. Rick, sit tight...don't move until I give the okay." Her finger rubbed against the trigger guard of the pistol, itching with anticipation. Her breathing slowed and became shallow and quiet, while she could hear Geraint trying to choke down nervous breaths. She hoped whatever it was she would see it first.
Catryna could not believe her eyes. The gun in her hand became cold as ice and heavy as lead as she sat, paralyzed in disbelief. Next to her, she could sense that Geraint was in the same transfixed state. She could not tell if she had spoken the name of the Gentle Prophet or if it had been some other far-off voice.
In front of her, the figure of a man, over two meters tall with a bald head and wearing a flight suit of the CEF, emerged from around the corner. The figure turned its head to look at her and she swore she could see the skull through the skin. Hollow, glassy eyes faded to black, empty eyesockets right in front of her. She felt a scream wedge itself in her throat, but could not escape her clenched teeth. The figure turned away and walked down the corridor away from her, wordlessly fading away into the darkness.
It was not until the figure disappeared that she realized that the figure had been walking upside down, on the actual floor of the corridor. Her body shuddered and the gun slowly fell into her lap as she sat in disbelief, looking down the now-empty hallway. "Did....you....see that?" she managed to rasp, slowly turning her head to look over at Geraint.
The merchant jerked out of his own trance and looked over at her, wordlessly nodding. His hands were still tightly wrapped around his gun and he was starting to shake.
"Cat....everything okay up there?" Rick's voice sounded like a call from another world in her ears. She swallowed and tried to compose herself.
"We're....we're okay, Rick. Just....you'll never believe what we just saw."
"Just that stuff ready and let's get the hell out of here."
"Are you sure? On the ceiling?" Rick looked at her incredulously as the three of them slowly walked through the corridors of the spacecraft.
"Positive. Geraint saw it too." She adjusted the heavy load of tools in her arms, wishing she could carry them and her gun at the same time, even if a gun was probably not going to protect her from....whatever she and Geraint had seen. "And not the ceiling. The floor."
"Yeah, I know....the floor." Rick shook his head, looking over at Geraint, who remained quiet. The merchant had not said a word since the experience and wore a stunned look on his face as he walked. "Is he going to be all right, you think?"
"I don't know. I don't even know if I'm going to be all right...how do you deal with seeing something like that?" The face of the gravity-defying CEF soldier haunted her vision every time her eyes closed, and her ears kept straining for any sign of closing footsteps.
"Yeah, I guess. You think that's what did Ortiz in?"
She stopped in her tracks and turned around to face the other pilot. "For crying out loud, Rick -- how the hell should I know? I don't even know what the hell it was, much less --"
"It was a ghost."
The two Gear pilots turned simultaneously to face Geraint, his words slicing through the air like a machete in the jungle. Catryna almost swore she could hear the snickersnack of a whipping blade behind it.
"Can you think of anything else?" Geraint shrugged slightly, looking at the other two. "I can't think of any other explanation."
"That's not an explanation, it's a delusion." Catryna shook her head and turned to start walking again. "Whatever it was though, I don't want to run into it again, so let's just get the hell out of here." In the back of her mind, she knew she had been thinking the same thing all along, but refused to admit it. It was silly. Everyone knew there was no such thing as ghosts....
"Catryna, this is Petra. Are you there?"
"Yes, we're here. Go ahead, Petra."
"We have finished looking over the bridge; there looks like a lot of damage here, madame. We found five bodies and much of the instrumentation was smashed. However, we think we can salvage some of the communications equipment at least." Catryna sighed with a bit of relief -- they should be able to get Travis' Gear back in working order, if nothing else.
"There is something very strange about some of this damage though, Catryna...three of the bodies here have what looks like fatal gunshot wounds, and there are some bullet holes in the walls." Catryna could hear a bit of -- something creeping into the Southerner's voice. Not fear, more like...curiosity mixed with caution.
"They were probably boarded after they crashed -- Earthers weren't getting a lot of mercy back then, Petra. Salvage what you can, then get the hell out of there. Whatever is going on here, I don't like it, and I'd like to get out of here as soon as possible."
"Oui, madame. It will take us about twenty or thirty minutes to get finished here, then we will head to the exit. I take it we will be skipping the armory?"
Catryna could feel the gaze of Geraint and Rick at her back, waiting for the answer. "Yes, we'll be skipping the armory -- if the ship was boarded afterward they likely plundered that first anyway, so I doubt we'd find anything useful. Finish up and get out of there."
"I will do so. See you soon, madame."
"You're making the right decision, Baez," said Geraint.
She wished she felt so sure. She had so little to go on, yet what she did know kept telling her it was time to get the hell out of there. She wasn't even sure it was really a decision as much as her fight-or-flight instinct kicking in. There was only so much you could do in a situation like this though. "I damn well hope so," she muttered.
The Bear lowered Rick and Geraint to the floor of the cavern with his massive arms. The wind that had been whistling through the chamber before, slipping past the makeshift barrier of tarps at the entrance, had died down as the burning Badlands sun set. The encroaching stillness, offset only by the whirr of hydraulics and the din of voices and machinery, seemed to cause a bit more claustrophobia in Catryna as she waited at the doors to the ship's interior for Petra to arrive.
Her mind flashed to the crumpled body of the mechanic, battered and bloody in the corner of the stairwell. They had left the corpse where it was -- for the moment, the dead were less of a concern than the living. At least, the dead which were not walking around. She wondered what the man had seen in the moments before his death -- had he seen the same thing she did? How did he end up outside the engine room and halfway back towards the exit hatch? If it was...ghosts...what could she do? Where --
On reflex, she twisted and looked into the darkness of the spacecraft as something brushed her hair. She saw nothing, but in the distance she swore she heard the sound of voices, shouting, yelling at each other; they were too far away for her to make out any words. "Petra, where are you? Is everything all right?"
"We are on our way, Catryna....will not be long. Everything is all right here, is something wrong?"
She frowned, one hand tugging the back of her black hair. "No, we're fine here....I thought I just heard something." The voices had stopped. Or Maybe they had not been there at all? She shook her head, trying to clear it. She had to keep herself together.
"We're ready to bring you down, Cat...." called Travis from below. The large Gear lurked under the exit, raising its arms upward.
"I'm going to stay here until Petra gets here. It won't be long."
"All right. Just let me know when you're ready to come down." She nodded, even though she knew he could not see her. Soon Petra would be back and they could get the hell out of here.
"Catryna!" The shout shook her and she was on her feet almost before she knew it. Petra's voice was frantic -- a drastic change from only moments before. She drew her gun from her holster and moved into the darkness, her eyes peering for any sign of Petra or the mechanic.
"Petra, this is Catryna -- are you all right? What's going on? Where are you?"
There was no reply, only the echoes of a scream and a yell from down one of the corridors. She turned and tried to follow the sound, her finger rubbing the gun's trigger guard nervously. "Rick, Travis -- I'm going to go after her, something's happened. Stay there unless I call."
"All right, Cat....be careful." The shouts were getting louder, and then she heard a gunshot, followed by two more. They were not much further ahead now. She was almost sprinting down the dark corridor now, her footsteps echoing on the bare metal walls, flashlight in one hand, gun in the other.
"Hang on, I'm coming!" She turned a corner and stopped, her light settling on the sight in front of her. The mechanic was sprawled out on the ground, knocked cold; a trickle of blood seeped from his forehead. Petra was locked in struggle with a massive assailant -- the tall and thick frame, along with the bald head and mottled purple skin marked it as a GREL.
To be continued...
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 3, Number 1||February, 2001|
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