Veins of lightning ruptured as the sky bled across the hull of their ship.
Beneath them lay a world partway through terraformatting. Orvid [72P] was the planet’s designation. In truth it had no name. A world with an already unstable atmosphere when it had been discovered, humanity had provoked it further. The storm now rolled across half the continent below, unfurling like the tail of some great beast, curious and threatened; an unborn planet waking. They were strangers and the sound of rain against their hull a warning.
It did not want them here.
The ship was a Petrichor-442 Orbit-to-Surface class vehicle; a polished black stone falling fast across the unpainted sky. Rough ships built from restricted alloys, Petrichors are designed to withstand artillery fire, extreme atmospheric turbulence, and the pressure of immeasurable depths. Michael could feel it struggling under the weight of the storm.
They pitched to the left and the inertia pulled at the restraints across his chest. Leaning into them, Michael saw Alison beside him do the same. He grimaced and used the small keyboard on his armrest to bring up a video feed of their descent. He was able to see the terraformatting facility, brought into focus by their fall. The complex was an ordered series of grey buildings spread across an expanse of rich, brown rock. He could just make out the fence that ran around the compound, although it was impossible to gauge its height. At the centre was the monolithic Terra-Formatter. A vast, narrowed pyramid with a flattened top, and vents placed periodically down its wider sides. Unseen particles and gasses poured out, engulfed by the maelstrom. These were shaping the atmosphere, fracturing it into something suitable for human settlement.
Despite the impressive layout of the facility the landing zone was little more than a sixty foot circle of mud, located against the interior of the fence and connected to the rest of the facility by a thin quickcrete walkway. Michael shouted over the storm and engines.
‘Didn’t leave much in the way of a budget for their air-pad.’
‘Why would they?’ Alison called back. ‘No one in their right mind would fly through this yet.’
They traded grins.
Three months ago the facility had stopped all communication with the Unified Colonial Admiralty. While the atmospheric turbulence on Orvid [72P] was abnormally hostile, the U.C.A considers terraformatting a high priority investment, and all facilities are equipped with extravagantly powerful communication arrays and fail-safe beacons should something go wrong. They do not just go silent. Michael and Alison had been the closest agents, three months out on a routine patrol. The U.C.A. pulled them and assigned them to damage assessment.
The ship shuddered as it lowered itself against the ground. Michael felt the landing gear sink and released the straps across his chest. He pulled his boots from the locker behind him and listened to the rain pour across the ship’s exterior. The cabin made the sound of driftwood snapping as the armour plating adjusted to the terrestrial temperatures.
Alison shouldered her massive pack and he chuckled, pulling his small bag from a locker. She flipped him off and practised drawing the pistol from the holster on her leg. Michael noticed the weight of the pack made her pull too far to the right. She adjusted her draw, and triple checked its mechanisms. Seemingly satisfied she slid it neatly back in place. He tightened the laces on his boots and stood, slinging the bag across his chest. He felt his own pistol pressed against his leg. He turned to her while she continued running through pre-mission prep.
‘Listen, if a terraformatting facility like this goes dark, it’s a habitat breach.’
She gave him a look while clipping the lower part of the pack into her suit.
‘Otherwise it just doesn’t happen. Their channels went silent three months ago, and the atmo is still uncomfortably oxygen rich for my tastes. That air will have torn through the place. Sudden, forced oxygen saturation is an efficient way of shutting down a planet side op. I don’t expect we’ll get much of a greeting.’
Alison pulled the straps on her pack tighter and tested the torches built into her suit’s shoulders, programming them to turn on automatically in darkness.
‘I know. I did read the debrief.’ She offered him another grin.
He politely refused and continued. ‘Once we’re out of the storm’s interference we’ll scan their coms for chatter. In case its-‘
‘Separatist groups who’ve seized the facility. With no demands for ransom however, it is the Admiralty’s assessment that it is likely a breach in habitat, in which case we are to identify the cause of the incident and account for all four thousand deceased personnel.’ She quoted the debrief.
Michael made to turn but paused. ‘Habitat breaches aren’t pretty.’
‘Didn’t sign up for pretty.’
She pushed him gently on the shoulder and moved towards the bay doors. They each pulled a respirator mask from a pouch on their suit, placing it in their mouth and called to the pilot. The bay doors slid apart and they dropped down into the mud. Alison pulled the impact-hood of her uniform up. Michael didn’t bother. The Petrichor’s underside hung above them but the winds swept the rain underneath, drenching them in great, bursting sheets.
The grounds were lit with large halogen floodlights attached to the buildings. Several had gone out, letting small pockets of darkness flood across the compound, carried by the storm. Michael studied the site as Alison brought up a map. The vast structures of the terraformatting facility sat like some ancient, temple city. The wind screamed as they watched the Petrichor lift itself from the mud and begin its ascent back into orbit.
Following the quickcrete walkway, it brought them to one of the four main access hubs. They made their way inside, bypassing the decontamination procedures. Alison produced a small screen from her pack, and ran through the facility’s radio and net channels. They were all silent, except one which choked static.
She slid the screen away. ‘No one’s talking.’
Michael crouched, resting his back against a wall. He could hear the thrum of a combine generator deep in the complex, pulsing like a heart. Something dripped down an unlit hall, the sound muffled by distance. Underneath it all Michael could feel the deep roll of thunder. The storm entreating at their door.
‘Are you seeing these numbers?’ Alison was studying the display on her suit’s wrist. Michael noticed she still had her impact-hood up. ‘Habitation is fine. Air is breathable. I’m not picking up any trace virohazards. Hell, the temperature is a balmy twenty five degrees.’
She paused, looking sideways at Michael. ‘No breach?’
Michael checked the numbers. ‘No breach.’
She removed her mask and drew her pistol from its holster. One movement. She began checking the corridor ahead and its attached rooms.
Michael was looking at the reflective, white panelled walls and ceiling. Ahead of them the corridor stretched into the rest of the facility. Dark. The back-up generator was struggling, fuelling only a third of the lights in this room alone. He stared at them. They were the colour of torchlight pressed against skin.
There was no breach. There were no bodies slumped against the walls around them. No demands had been made by separatist groups. Not one of the four thousand technicians and scientists operating in the city sized complex was talking on its channels. There was only one lead.
A channel that choked static.
He stood and adjusted the holster on his leg.
‘The channel with the static. Can you locate it?’
Alison was silent for a second, trying to decide what he was thinking. ‘Biodevelopment. Two buildings over. East.’
He nodded. ‘These systems only send static if the receiver leaves their channel open. Someone might be broadcasting, and we’re not close enough to hear it.’
‘Storm might still be interfering.’
Michael watched as she entered the corridor. The lights on her suit activating automatically in the dark. She calmly moved her half raised pistol across the width of the hallway. Textbook form. He remembered the chapter. Michael followed, feeling his own pistol press quietly against his leg, a reminder that this should not be a combat mission. They walked without speaking, listening to the storm roar against the walls. Resonating down the corridors. Following them through the complex.
Biodevelopment was twenty seven floors of genetic research and engineering, preparing the planet’s biosphere for human settlement. The hall they had been following brought them out into the building’s lobby. The backup generators were online here, and the torches on Alison’s shoulders shut off as they walked under the limited lighting. They froze.
There was a large obelisk in the centre of the room, towering above them. The few lights still powered weren’t enough to make out its details, but Michael saw that it protruded at unusual angles. It bulged and retreated where he did not expect it to. The head was flat, while the base spilled out across the floor, stretching as if it were being crushed under its own weight. Michael moved closer and saw it clearly.
A mass of limbs and flesh, bound together with entrails and slicked with viscera were heaped atop each other in the centre of the room.
He gagged as the stench hit him. There were large carvings in the floor around the pile. He recognised some of them as crude chemical compounds. Others as geometric equations. Most meant nothing to him. The human parts were arranged at angles with a purpose that no sane mind could grasp. Someone had built this altar of flesh. Built it out of those that had worked and lived here. He turned back. Alison had brought the screen out and opened the channel. There was a woman on the other end mumbling.
‘This is Private Alison Keyes of the Unified Colonial Admiralty. Please identify and state your condition. I repeat, this is Private Keyes of the U.C.A. Please identify.’
Alison’s screen pinged.
‘Got it. Three floors up, in the operating room.’
Michael ran and had his foot on the first stair when he felt it. The ground pulsed. A tremor ran down through the walls, the floor and up into his bones. He turned back and saw the ceiling to the left of Alison buckle. She hadn’t noticed it, distracted by the shudder running through the walls. There was the sound of metal snapping from the roof, followed by a noise like a large body of water being suddenly released. The ground shook violently against the force of whatever pressed upon the ceiling and Michael fell back into the stair well. Scrambling he pulled himself up and braced against the frame on the floor above, switching his manual shoulder lights off.
Glass shattered, followed by the shriek of wind clawing its way inside. He drew his respirator back out of its pouch. There was the violent splintering of metalloy girders, and the building quivered, before falling still. The wind was softening, blending with the low rumble of thunder and rain. He heard glass shards being scattered below, and something heavy dragging across the ground.
Then the deep, wet exhale of something truly alien. Like forcing air through thick mud. The noise clawed through him, hollowing him out. There was a smell, like the stench from the altar, but sweeter; as if someone poured perfume over rotten meat. Then the backup power cut out.
Against the reflective wall of the stairwell, from somewhere in the lobby he saw the bright white of Alison’s shoulder lights automatically turn on in the dark. There was the sound of something thick lifting off glass and metal, followed by an abrupt, weighted blow like meat against stone. The last coincided with brief, frenzied movement from Alison’s lights, and then their sudden absence. Glass shattered against the dragging of an enormous mass. Everything fell silent except for the storm.
After sitting for some time, retching until the sweet-smell dissipated, Michael came back into the lobby. There was a hole in the ceiling. Thick fluids lined the rim and covered the floor beneath. It had the same stench. He found Alison’s body, shattered and broken against a pile of rubble on the far wall. Her pack had been torn from her by the force of whatever struck her. He couldn’t find her pistol.
He drew his own from its holster. One movement. Walking quickly, he returned to the stairwell and up three floors. He located the operating theatre and eased through the doors.
There he found her, laying against an upturned operating table, various tools strewn around her.
‘You’re not him. . .’ She gurgled. Her clothes were congealed red. The skin beneath her eyes bruised, and her forehead glistening. ‘You’re not him yet.’
Michael lowered his gun. There were several pumps and screens laid across her abdomen, which was split apart.
‘I’ll fix it. I’m trying so hard to fix it.’ Her head rolled dangerously to the side, her hand smearing across one of the screens. ‘Bad make-up. Inherited. He won’t take them if they’re bad.’ Her cheeks sunk into an exaggerated frown.
‘What did you do?’
She paused, staring back up and through him. ‘We gave him form.’ She grinned.
Michael let his gun fall. ‘The altar-‘
‘Yes, the offerings. The parts she did not need.’ She began to emphasise each word with savage tugs at the tear in her stomach. ‘It would not feed on me. Genetic predispositions. Cancer. I will fix it though. Then I can go with the others. Be fed to that which devours.’
The biomass required to engineer something so large.
‘Where did you get that much biomass?’
The woman choked out a sob, but did not stop digging, moving up into her sternum.
He screamed at her. ‘Where did you get the biomass?’
He knew. The lack of bodies within the facility. The stench. They had harvested the personnel to give their god the necessary mass, and made an altar of the parts they did not need. The unhealthy or genetically flawed. He felt his stomach heave.
He turned and left. The woman screamed after him, either crying or laughing. He could not tell. He returned to the lobby and lifted Alison from the ground. Crystals of glass cascading off her. He carried her away. Outside the facility he lay her down on the wet earth and activated the beacon on his suit, calling for the Petrichor.
The rain was cool against his skin. Turning, he lay down in the soil beside Alison, letting the storm wash over them, and waited.
He watched as lightning splintered across the sky, its lambent glow retreating into clouds the colour of damaged tissue. He screamed into the great roar of the storm. He screamed for what they had unleashed here. For the defilement of this world.
It had not wanted them here.
Thunder echoed as the storm curled around him; curious and threatened.
An unborn planet waking.
Joshua McInnes is a fiction author and screenwriter whose writing is most notable for its evocative imagery and economic style. He is influenced by film and literature as varied as the pulp fiction of the early twentieth century, to the neo-gothic horror of modern science fiction. Joshua looks forward to one day seeing his work on a stranger's wall.
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