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:
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 – 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 a*s, 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?”