“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 – like vexing monsters.”
“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 orders from the captain. They had were to were remain put until further guidance? 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?
Ven seemed to notice the case Aloe brought up and edged over to it.
“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 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.
“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 at 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 try 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. She pictured the face of those things wearing her face, smiling devilishly at her. The face cracked as its mouth opened wide, forcing some of the creatures to scurry across.
“Aloe?” Ven said.
His voice was clear 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?”
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 humming, much louder than the ventilation’s. They both grew on alert. It was very 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 as something had been sitting out for 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 in a pattern.
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.
As they passed the doorway, 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 instance, 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 doors opened, they entered it, requesting their level. As it descended, they could hear the humming once again. It grew louder into a deafening level as they passed one of levels 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, open it,” he demanded.
“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 with a loud thud.
“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.