Part 2 HERE
David woke with a start and sat up, his head bursting out of the water. Coughing and spitting out water her looked around in near panic. He was still inside the lander, but it was half-filled with water that continued to rise. He was already up to his chest. Ogumbembi popped out of the water, cursing.
“What the F---? Where are we?”
Sarin, Carter and Farro were out as well. Sarin pulled the red lever next to the top hatch and it blasted up and away from the lander in a gust of smoke and steam. “Back on Ladon, somwhere.”
“Maeng!” David sloshed over to his fireteam partner and pulled the limp form out of the water.
“Damnit, let’s get out of --” Sarin never finished her sentence as she was pulled up through the hatch, her thrashing boots disappearing into darkness.
“F---!” Ogumbembi shouted, pulling out his sidearm and emptying the clip through the hatch.
“Sarin!” Wrapping his left arm around Maeng, David unslung his rifle and fired a burst. He sloshed towards the hatch, firing another short burst as he went. “Damnit, we’ve got to go get her. Farro, take Maeng.”
“Gimme Maeng’s gun,” Ogumbembi said. “F---ing sniper rifle’s no good out here. Careful, Wakker!”
David didn’t have to jump as the water level was now only a couple feet below the hatch. Frantically he scrabbled up onto the roof and looked about. Ogumbembi was out right behind him. The clouds had cleared and the reddish glow of the gas giant Typhon gave visibility better than any full moon back on earth. They were submerged in a lake a few dozen metres off the shore. There was no sign of Sarin, but the hull and the water around them were swarming with human shapes.
“The colonists!” Ogumbembi shouted. “Take this you motha --”
He opened up with Maeng’s rifle, blasting a half-dozen colonists into flying bits of bone and meat. Then Ogumbembi’s feet suddenly flipped up and his chest slammed into the hull. David fired a burst into a cluster of colonists almost close enough to grab him then spun around. The sniper was gone.
“Damnit, come on!” He fired again then dropped down to give Farro and Carter a hand out. On his way down, something slammed into the back of his helmet and he flew head first into the water.
His gear dragged him down fast to the bottom. He slid along the hull of the lander, bashing past colonists on his way down, then he got a mouthful of sand. Frantically he clawed at the clips on his webgear. As he got his vest unfastened, he felt it pulled off of him by someone else. The colonists were on him! His lungs were burning. He flailed about to get them off. He fired his rifle, but more were on him. He desperately needed to breathe.
Oh God, please help me, he prayed. Ohgodohgodohgodohgod ...
They weren’t grabbing him anymore. His gear was off. He pushed off for the surface. As he broke the surface he coughed and gasped for air. He couldn’t think. All he could do was repeat the Holy Name of Jesus over and over in his head. The colonists didn’t come near him. He got to shallow water and sat on the bottom, his head the only part of him above the surface and tried to catch his breath.
He remembered: he was somehow invisible to them when he prayed. It had happened both times with the twins -- what did they say? “We can’t hear you anymore, where did you go?” On the other hand they’d “seen” his squad in their retro-reflective fatigues. He started reciting the Lord’s Prayer and sat up. There was no one around. Where had the colonists gone? None of his team were visible either. The top of the landing craft slipped below the surface and even it disappeared.
David moved to dry land and hid himself in the undergrowth of the forest that surrounded the lake. He decided that this must be the same forest he and his team had advanced through to do their recon -- otherwise the colonists could have never reached the crash site so fast. He shivered and rubbed his arms to try to keep the circulation going. He took stock of his possessions: he still had his rifle and his sidearm. The training beaten into him in basic had not allowed him to jettison those items as he’d fought his way out of the water. His smartphone was in his pants pocket and … his rosary. His mother had made him promise her to keep it with him at all times when he left for New Parris Island. He’d done so, but not prayed the beads for a long time. Now he pulled them out.
He continued to work those beads as he set out for the colony. The sun was just cresting the horizon as he came to the edge of the forest and into view of the colony. Before emerging onto the field separating the forest and the outer buildings, David knelt and did a quick visual inspection. There were no colonists in sight, nor any sound carried on the soft breeze. Yet he somehow sensed that they were there. He clicked off the safety on his rifle and started down the hill.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee …
He made his way slowly down the main street that ran through the centre of the colony, staying close to the domed habitats along the left side. He checked each gap between buildings before dashing across to the next. As he moved nearer the centre he felt a throbbing in the air. When he reached the central plaza he found the colonists. They were all arranged around a wooden platform that had been erected near a black pit that the sun’s light seemed unable to penetrate. Neither of these had been here when they secured the colony days before. On the platform stood Maeng between two burly male colonists who held his arms. Around the platform the rest of the colony had gathered, and now that they were all in one place David saw there were at least two hundred of them. They all knelt, seize-style in a circle around the platform.
David found himself silently singing the Kyrie in tone VIII to himself as he cautiously stepped between the colonists. Not one made the slightest motion to indicate they were aware of his presence. Of the rest of his squad, there was no sign. He felt that they were dead, and he had an impression that one had to volunteer to join this company, as he so nearly had.
“Wakker?” Maeng said weakly from above.
Out of the corner of his eye, David caught a flutter of movement. She was there, as always with Her brunette friend beside. He started humming the Kyrie to himself. He had to be careful. He stepped carefully forward.
“Come on, M, I’m going to get you --”
“W-wakk-k-k-k --” Maeng lurched forward, a terrible fear and confusion on his face. The k-k-k-k continued into a chattering palsy as thick ropes of bloody saliva descended from his mouth down to the ground. He fell to his knees and the tooth-burr became an inhuman cry of pain and his body started contorting and convulsing. His skin rippled, then talons burst from his hands, which reached to his chest ripping his torso apart.
HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE! HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE!
He could only keep shouting those words inside his head over and over. He felt on the verge of losing his sanity watching that horrible scene unfold, yet somehow he could not take his eyes off it. In the frenzy of carnage the shape of a creature took form; a hideous blasphemy against nature. David’s senses revolted against the sight, scarcely able to define what it saw -- part ape, part lizard, with glowing yellow eyes in a skeletal black face. Finally, the creature sloughed-off the last of what had been Maeng in a single sinuous, body ripple like a reptile moulting on a time-delay camera. As one, the colonists rose and closed in, buffeting David and ascending the platform. They lifted the thing up on their shoulders and carried it down into the pit. David collapsed onto hands-and-knees beside the altar and was violently ill. Even after his stomach was well empty he continued to retch.
Oh dear lord, what was that? In spite of his horror, he forced himself to get up and stole down the path the colonists had followed. Heat built as he descended as did a terrible stench. He paused and heaved again as his senses were assaulted by the indescribable miasma. It was pitch black down here and his night-vision lay at the bottom of the lake with the lander. He ran back up to the surface, gratefully gulping the fresh air. He had to see what was down there, though. He had to see what was down there so he could kill all those …
He stopped mid-thought and refocussed himself. He would get himself killed that way -- he had to keep praying. But the movement he’d caught this time was not from the direction of the pit, but one of the tabs at the edge of the square. Slowly, slowly, he ghost walked over, his weapon held at the ready. He darted around the corner, finger on the trigger, then nearly threw his rifle away as he violently moved it aside. A gaggle of seven emaciated children, all between five and perhaps nine years of age were huddled together there, starting at him with saucer sized eyes.
“Good Lord, there are children here?” he blurted.
“It’s been so long since anyone spoke,” whispered the oldest among them, a girl with thin, colourless lips and hair as nearly as white as her skin.
He dropped to a knee and put a hand on her shoulder. “You talk -- you’re not like the others … what happened here?”
She looked at the ground, seemingly unable to speak further. David wasn’t sure whether any of the others were capable of speech at all, but they looked at him with life in their eyes. Sweet, innocent life, not the vacant stares of the adults. They all wore ratty clothes and their hair was dishevelled, unlike the perfect model-like appearance of the adults. He looked to the oldest girl -- she must have been trying to raise them. Living in one of the tabs, scrounging what food they could.
“Are you going to take us away from here?” the girl asked.
“My own ship … I’ll do what I can. You children stay here. I’ll be back.”
Hesitantly, he gave the girl a hug and she started to sob. He gave each of them a squeeze, and with tears in his own eyes hurried back to the platform. Gritting his teeth and praying all the more fervently, he approached the pile of clothing and shreds of meat that had been Maeng. Forcing his fingers to comb through this, he found a lighter.
“Grant unto him eternal rest, o Lord,” he mumbled. He would not wonder what chance of that Maeng or his other comrades had. For that matter, he was far from sure himself and he looked up to the sky, knowing that the nearest priest was lightyears away. Have mercy on me, a sinner.
He ran down the ramp and into the blackness. When there was no longer any light from above, he ignited the lighter and proceeded forward more slowly. The tunnel wound down ever further. He took note of the walls -- they were not rough stone, dirt, or even modern tunnel reinforcements used in such excavations. These were smooth stone, laid without mortar, but with carvings and unlit sconces. After another few paces the dirt floor gave way to smooth steps. The carvings told a tale of men fleeing a great flood aboard winged craft, travelling to a moon orbiting a gas giant, and of women worshipping at altars, with things like the one that had emerged from Maeng crowned and reigning from atop ziggurats. In the flickering flame-light he spotted an arched doorway ahead. To the left of it lay rusted excavation tools. To the right, a huge slab of stone that had been moved by graviton repulsers, still attached but dead. Beyond it was a blackness darker still than that in the corridor, and a new wave of stench. He dropped the lighter and after gagging and retching anew, he had to scrabble about on hands and knees for several minutes to find it again.
Cautiously, fighting every impulse in his body to flee, he inched towards the door. He felt he was suffocating in the stink, and could barely think, could only repeat the name “Jesus” over and over. It was all that allowed him to keep his sanity in those moments and in what followed, as he enkindled the lighter again. Surely, he had descended into Hell itself -- in the moment before the flame guttered out, he caught a glimpse of a chamber lined with skeletons to which still clung bits of rotting meat, and the colonists kneeling round an altar bearing monstrous creatures that writhed together.
In blind terror David fled back up the stairs, caroming off the walls, tripping and staggering before slamming face-first into them. He spat blood and rolled over, firing his rifle. Something wet splashed his face. He burned through the magazine, dropped the now useless weapon, and ran again. Gasping and crying he strove for the light. At last he clawed his way out, scampering more like an ape than a man. The sound of feet roiled up behind him. He reached for his sidearm but pulled out, instead, his phone.
As the colonists were boiling out of the pit, he hit the play button, and Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” stopped them dead in their tracks. As the flute and violin bathed the plaza in gentle tunes, the colonists fell to the ground and thrashed about as if they’d been shot. Once David had caught his breath, he stood on shaky legs.
“You like that, you’re gonna love this,” he said, setting his playlist to have Mozart’s coronation Mass play next.
He nearly dropped the phone as a bellow of pain and rage issued from the pit. There were still the monsters to be reckoned with. He turned, and saw that the children had crept out from their hiding place, and were staring at him with wide eyes. Seeing the look on their faces, as if they’d heard beauty for the first time, made him forget the terror he’d seen moments ago and tears stung his eyes. He trotted over to them and handed the phone to the oldest girl, ordering her to hold it but do nothing else. He got his sidearm out and crouched next to the kids, racking his brain for what to do now. He couldn’t just keep playing classical music all the time, and now that they knew he was here -- would prayers keep him invisible? Then there were the children. They’d survived somehow this long, but that may have been because they needed to be adults before they could be infected. He figured that was what was going on here, some sort of infection with the creatures below somehow being the source. But why didn’t all the colonists suffer what Maeng did? No time for that, he had to think … the Shackleton was destroyed. No hope of getting an evac. And his sidearm with all ten rounds it held wouldn’t put much of a dent in their numbers. But what if he could give them a taste of their own medicine? They’d used their landers as missiles, but their own “mothership” that held the interstellar drive that took them here must still be in orbit somewhere.
“Come on, kids,” he said. “We’re going to the operations centre.”
It would be easy enough to find -- right below the gigantic communications dish. They hurried along, the orchestra giving way to the Latin choir. Though the colonists kept their distance, David was sure he saw dark shapes dart between buildings as they went, and he shivered. Yet even those abominations that the colonists worshipped, or were controlled by, feared it as well. They made it to the operations centre. As per the standard specs, it was actually the main command module of the ship that had taken the colony here, precisely where it had landed years earlier. From the bridge he could communicate with both UNICA and the orbiter that he would bring down upon this lost colony. It also had escape pods which were designed to blast the crew a safe distance from the engines. Surely enough to launch them well away from ground zero.
There was no time for anything fancy. He transmitted an S.O.S. to UNICA, then found the orbiter and transmitted commands for it to “link up” with the command module. It wasn’t meant to enter atmosphere, but it had enough bulk to make it … and it would hit like an atom bomb. Now to get out of --
“Oh, no,” he said. Mozart’s Coronation Mass had played through and the next track the FIDO chose was not classical. He reached to grab the phone from the stunned girl’s hand but was sent flying across the room. He slammed into the consoles and fell to the deck gasping for breath. His sidearm was knocked from his hand and he was lifted off the ground by a taloned hand that burned like ice. He was face-to-face with the abomination that had burst from Maeng. Prayers failed him as its yellow eyes bore into his -- a malicious consciousness forcing its way through the gateway of his soul. Yet somehow his hand found his rosary and he thrust it forward. With a terrible shriek the creature released him and he fell to the floor. He sucked in a lungful of air, and clambered to his feet. The older girl was the only one not in the pod. He grabbed her and dove into the escape pod, slamming the hatch shut behind him. He secured her in her seat, strapped himself in, and with a quick Gloria, hit the launch button.
He came to still in the seat, but not still in the colony. Through the canopy he saw trees, and in the night sky ahead, a magenta glow told of a great fire burning off behind the horizon. He closed his eyes. Deo gratias. Then a hand grabbed his shoulder and a female voice came to his hear. Her voice.