Book: Black Wings IV: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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John Pelan and Stephen Mark Rainey

 

Author, editor, and publisher John Pelan works as an editor for Centipede Press and Ramble House Publishers. While he will protest that he isn’t really a Mythos writer, the lure of Cthulhu and kin seems to draw him back on regular occasions. John and his wife Kathy retired to Gallup, New Mexico, after decades of living in the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

Stephen Mark Rainey is the author of the novels Dreams of the Dark (with Elizabeth Massie; Harper Entertainment, 1999), Balak (Wildside Press, 2000), The Lebo Coven (Five Star, 2004), The Nightmare Frontier (Sarob Press, 2006), Blue Devil Island (Five Star, 2007), and The Monarchs (Crossroad Press, 2013), more than 90 published works of short fiction, five short story collections, and several audio dramas for Big Finish Productions based on the Dark Shadows TV series. For ten years, he edited the award-winning magazine Deathrealm and has edited anthologies for Chaosium, Arkham House, and Delirium Books. Mark lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

 

AT FIRST I DID NOT WANT TO GO. The pay was all one could hope for, but the long trip in stasis, where one is at the mercy of any mechanical failure, was itself enough to dissuade most people. Who could forget the return of the Mehitobel and her cargo of corpses? The ship had done its job, of course; the fact that the life-support units had burned out, leaving sixty people to die in stasis and quietly rot, was not the fault of the navigational program. The ship had reached Pluto and patiently waited for the crew to finish excavating a load of eganinium and return to Earth. But the crew had never broached the frozen surface or even left the ship. They had died before mining a single ounce of that most precious element.

However, money speaks volumes when one’s investments have fallen short of expectations, so I went. And the journey to that icy rock some five billion miles distant was successful—inasmuch as our life-support units operated flawlessly for the duration. However, we went with a crew barely half the size of the former ship’s. “Budgetary concerns” the official explanation given, though the real reason was simple gunshyness, and everyone knew it. I served as the expedition’s chief geologist, my primary duty being to oversee the extraction of eganinium from Pluto’s subsurface deposit; a serious responsibility to be sure, but one with which I felt reasonably comfortable, despite having a smaller workforce, a tighter schedule, and a slimmer budget than any previous expedition. The Murata Corporation needed to compensate for the Mehitobel’s failure, simple as that, and time was of the essence. Pluto’s orbit was carrying it toward the sun, and within the next two years the surface of solid nitrogen would sublimate, resulting in a dense, turbulent atmosphere that would preclude mining for nearly a century.

Thirteen months in stasis feels like the hard sleep after the bachelor party to end all bachelor parties. Coming out of it, I knew the Akhenaten’s life-support units were functioning perfectly because my limbs felt as if scorpions had built nests in them, and I would have sworn that someone had stuffed a rasp down my throat. Fortunately, the revival system IVs flushed away these horrid aftereffects in a matter of minutes, and once I felt more or less capable, I pulled myself out of my crypt and onto the gravideck. My legs were wobbly but able to support my body, which weighed about point-seven Earth norm inside the rotating fuselage, and thanks to the revival batteries my heart and lungs adjusted readily to the change in my physical state. Around me, I could hear the sounds of the ship gradually coming to life: a few coughs, a grumble here and there, the thump-clump-patter of unsteady footsteps. Then an unmistakable baritone growled, “There be some sorry life here,” which told me to expect the whip to crack before we could even wash the sleep from our eyes.

The first thing I did was collect my dataclip—my hot link to the ship’s brain—from the drawer next to my stasis bay so I could prepare for the upcoming briefing. Then I started for Audit One, taking cautious, deliberate steps, ignoring the tremors in my months-empty stomach, knowing it would be some hours before I could tolerate solid food. Long before the faintest spark of awareness had intruded on my enforced oblivion, the revival system had begun prepping my body for normal functioning, but one didn’t spring up from a thirteen-month nap and hit the ground running.

Unless you were Captain Samuel “Red” Tupper, who apparently put no stock in rumors of post-hibernation lethargy. I knew he was behind me when the gangway began to shudder rhythmically, and a heavy hand came down on my shoulder, squeezing it as if my bones were malleable things to be shaped to suit his whim. “Morning, Mr. Sykes,” he said, his voice a bellow even at conversational level. “I’ll expect the LDI analysis from you within half an hour. I need coordinates for dropping the E-drills, and I want you on the surface as soon as they’re down.”

“Roger, Skipper,” I muttered, though the huge, red-bearded figure moved past me so quickly I doubt he even heard. No moss ever gathered beneath those clodhoppers.

Audit One was the main briefing room, the site of the post-hibernation party for non-ship systems personnel. Here Tarec, our computer, would fill us in on any mission-related data that might have changed during our voyage. We would catch up on any news from home, personal or otherwise, only at the end of company business.

I saw a slim figure standing at the briefing hall entrance, and I barely recognized her until her husky voice said, “Hello, sailor,” and her turquoise eyes brightened as she smiled. Her sandy hair had grown six inches since our departure from Earth.

“Kathryn,” I said with a nod of greeting. “Glad to see we’ve woken up alive.”

“Just in time to make some money for Uncle Takashi.”

Kathryn Rhodes had been my number one for four years, with two missions to Titan under her belt. I expected this to be her last as an assistant, for she was overdue for a slot as chief geo. I know it was selfish of me, but when that time came I almost wished she would decline the promotion. Not entirely for professional reasons.

Audit One was a large chamber containing several rows of seats, some of which were already occupied; a bank of holo and vidpanels suspended from the ceiling; and a massive, circular port in the curved floor through which we could see a field of fiery stars slowly gliding past. The panels displayed various images of Pluto and Charon as viewed by our forward-mounted scanners, so crystal-clear that the electronic screens might as well have been portals into the void.

Even in the chamber, which hummed with life, seeing the distant stars and those dark, desolate planetoids filled me with an aching loneliness, a sense that I truly stood at the edge of the universe. An insignificant gnat that had flown too far from home and gotten lost in the vastness of space.

I took a quick count and found that most of my geo crew had already arrived, and the rest were just filing in. Tarec could just as easily handle the briefing, but tradition called for the chief geo to present it “live,” so to speak, so I slipped my dataclip behind my ear and started the transfer of the main mission file. As clear as my own thoughts, the details of our operation unfolded in my head, the updated matrix automatically comparing itself to the original I had loaded prior to launch. The transfer agent would stop to query me only in the event of a major deviation between the files.

Which is exactly what it did, just as I was about to take my place at the lectern that hovered above the circular viewport. I paused, looked around, and saw that Kathryn had also stopped in her tracks, one hand on her dataclip, her face a bemused question mark.

Even as our eyes simultaneously registered bafflement, over the PA system disembodied voices began querying others, some calling for verification of deviant data, others issuing orders to Tarec, one requesting the captain’s presence at Navcom.

According to the data I was receiving, Tarec should have brought the ship systems crew out of stasis ten weeks earlier. Circumstances had dictated human intervention, yet the Akhenaten had sailed blithely on and, contrary to alert protocol, entered its pre-programmed orbital groove two hundred miles above Pluto.

“There’s something at Point Echo Gamma One,” Kathryn said, and we both turned to look at the holopanels above us—which would be bringing our final orbital station into view within the next few minutes. “Quite a few somethings, if the analyzer is correct.”

I nodded, my dataclip having confirmed the information. “There should be nothing and no one out here,” I said. “No one authorized, that is.”

Kathryn held up a hand as she picked up a new transfer from her dataclip. “I’m getting some details from the communications log. Jesus, no transmissions received since dash-five-nine. And no confirmations of any of our outgoing. That right there should have triggered Alert One.”

“Diagnostics indicate shipboard systems nominal. No preempts of any autofunctions. All routine transmissions logged as completed.” I gazed curiously at the stars beyond the viewport. “It’s as if they were…swallowed…somewhere out there.”

“And the ship simply ignored alert procedure.”

We stiffened as the dire realization fell upon us simultaneously.

“Something’s wrong with Tarec,” Kathryn finally said.

Neither of us spoke as Mehitobel’s ghost paid a chilling call, prompting us to wonder how close we might have come to following its crew into oblivion. Who knew if, prior to the failure of its life-support systems, that ship had experienced similar anomalies? Was there something out here that played havoc with shipboard systems?

“Geo execs to Navcom,” Captain Tupper’s voice called. “Make haste.”

Without a word, Kathryn and I headed for the ship’s nerve center at the forward end of the fuselage. There we found the command crew staring fixedly at the bank of holopanels that dominated the chamber, the captain and Deena Ellis, his XO, as spellbound as the rest. In the amber light that saturated the room, Captain Tupper’s eyes looked redder than his hair.

“What do you suppose we’re seeing here, Mr. Sykes?”

I thought it was a great, gaping crater, perhaps the caldera of some immense volcano, from which spidery cracks radiated in every direction, as if a huge fist had hurtled out of deep space to gouge a hole the planet’s frozen surface.

At least, that was the view on panel one. Panel two, however, which focused on the same sector but from an oblique angle, told a completely different story.

Here, to my shock, the vast black area appeared to be the inverse of the original image: a towering, conical monolith whose crown rose countless miles above the surface, its surfaces gleaming onyx laced with veins of red that blazed angrily against the backdrop of space. Its spidery arms were not cracks in the planet’s crust, but an endless number of long, branchlike appendages that groped their way to outer space as if seeking the sun, billions of miles distant.

The incredible disparity between the images made me feel queasy. I had to put a hand on the nav console to steady myself.

Tera Keller, at the helm, called out, “Coming up on orbital point Alpha, T-minus thirty seconds, mark.”

“We’re not breaking orbit?” Kathryn asked.

Tupper shook his head. “Can’t plot a new course yet. Tarec seems to be…confused…by conflicting data. We’re working on it manually, just in case. But we’re already in the groove to go on station. We try to pull out now, we’re liable to careen right into Charon.” He half chuckled.

The way he’d said that Tarec was “confused” rekindled my nausea, but there was nothing to do but plod onward and rely on our training for coping with unforeseen situations. Keller began his countdown from ten, at the end of which I felt a very subtle shift beneath my feet as the retros kicked in and the Akhenaten parked herself at Point Alpha, two hundred miles above the eganinium deposit that had drawn us here.

“On station,” Keller said. She glanced at the captain. “Shall I keep the boilers hot?”

“Hell yes, keep ’em hot,” Tupper said. He stepped over to Masao Kochi, our sci exec, who was entering data into his workstation with frenzied fingers. “Anything on those contacts we picked up in the area?”

“Nothing conclusive,” Kochi said. His uncle was one of Murata Corp’s most fiscally conservative administrators, who got along with our skipper not at all; thus, Tupper frequently came down hard on the young man, just on principle. Tupper scowled at him, but Kochi ignored it. “I’ve picked up over a hundred individual marks, but I can’t get a reading on them. Whether they’re organic, mechanical, or otherwise…I can’t say.”

“Then lock number three cam on one of them and eyeball the damn thing.”

Kochi shook his head in exasperation. “Trying to, sir. Tarec’s not holding vis coordinates long enough for me to get a lock.”

“Just like the nav systems,” Deena Ellis said. “Tarec knows something is wrong but not what or why. And it’s not flagging a single anomaly.”

“We’re lucky we made it out of bed, aren’t we?” Kathryn said to me softly.

“Something tells me that if Mehitobel’s crew had woken up, they would have found exactly this.”

“At least that ship made it back intact,” she said, obviously grasping for anything even remotely hopeful.

I rarely worked in Navcom, but there was a geoscanning station there with my name on it, so I settled into the seat, logged in, and brought up a chart of Point Echo Gamma One, the site of the eganinium deposit. It was a rough oblong, about ninety miles by forty miles at its widest point, just north of Pluto’s equator, on the hemisphere that perpetually faced Charon. The scanners confirmed the presence of eganinium, a peculiar, unstable element of which one metric ton could power a megalopolis for a decade or propel a spaceship to the end of the solar system in just over a year. It was the most hazardous and most prized substance ever discovered, and as far as anyone knew, it existed only on Pluto.

Currently, however, something was happening on the surface. Tarec confirmed the presence of moving objects but could not identify them. Whatever the incredible formation was that we saw rising from the surface—or deeply penetrating it, depending on one’s vantage point—our ship’s brain acknowledged its existence but could neither measure it nor ascertain its physical properties. Our scanners had detected the first signs of it ten weeks earlier, yet Tarec had failed to revive the executive crew. The latter point disturbed me more than the irregularity itself.

As I focused the viewer on the icy plain below, I would have sworn I was looking at a vast protuberance hovering above the surface, shaped like a forked tree branch, its onyx “skin” laced with veins of red—almost resembling striated muscle, I thought. But as my eyes followed its contours, I realized they were tracking the edges of a huge crevasse, and the red veins were glowing filaments that wound their way deep into the bowels of the frozen planet. Even on the panel, the shifting image made my head swim, and I had to back away for a moment to fend off another attack of nausea. I never could have imagined an optical illusion so intense, so disorienting; an illusion that toyed not only with human eyes but also with the most sophisticated artificial brain ever developed.

“Good God,” came Kathryn’s voice, and I glanced back to see her studying my panel with bright, bulging eyes. “Whatever that is, it’s damned impossible.” She hesitated for a second and then pointed to the display. “Did you see that?”

I nodded. For a fleeting moment, something had appeared on the viewer, moving far too quickly to identify. I zoomed out to try to find it again, but without success. Theoretically, Tarec should have detected the target, locked on it, analyzed it, and displayed a tactical image, yet the computer told me no more than my eyes had: only that an unidentified something had passed in and out of view, possibly guided by intelligence, no further details available. I allowed myself to indulge in a moment of frustration, barely holding at bay the rising dread that the system on which our lives most depended had suffered a catastrophic malfunction.

I felt the captain’s presence before he said a word. When I glanced up, his eyes were glued to my panels, the hand that clutched the arm of my chair an ivory claw. “Tell me you’re having more success than we are, Mr. Sykes.”

I shook my head. “Scans all inconclusive. I picked up at least one moving target, but I can’t even get a manual fix.”

“Not your job. We’re on that. What I need from you is an analysis of that behemoth down there. I want to know what it’s made of and whether it has anything to do with the…difficulty… we’ve run into.”

“But what the hell could cause this?” Kathryn asked, more to the air than anyone in particular.

Captain Tupper gave her a searching stare and said, “That’s what I need you to tell me.

“I think we’ve reached the limit of the data that shipboard systems are going to provide. How about a manual probe, Skipper? Permission to launch?”

“Do it,” he said. “And link directly to its sensors. Bypass Tarec altogether.”

I nodded, already planning to do just that, despite knowing I’d get a hell of a headache as my dataclip received more streams of unfiltered data than my brain was accustomed to. Well, they made Cortedrine specifically to alleviate that problem, so I logged into an OE90 probe, made sure all the ports were clear, and sent the launch command. A few seconds later, the carrier signal vibrated through my skull, and then the data started coming in so fast and hard that it jolted my entire body. But I managed to process it without faltering, and within a few moments, in my field of vision, I could see exactly what the probe was seeing in three dimensions, along with an analytic readout that I could narrow-track at my discretion.

The craggy, blue-gray surface of Pluto whirled toward my eyes like a silent cyclone until the probe reached a point about twenty miles above the apex of the monolithic structure. I commenced an automated contour scan, and the figures that came through described a roughly cone-shaped object about twenty miles in diameter at its base, rising to a height of over a hundred miles. From this central trunk, dozens of translucent domes bulged like grotesque, oily blisters, and from many of these sprouted countless clusters of the tendril-like stalks I had viewed on my holo. So far, so good. I selected a few random sections of the base and hit them with the probe’s lasers to determine its composition. I should have been floored, but was only mildly surprised when the primary component came back as eganinium.

Surely, then, this thing contained Pluto’s entire supply of the unstable element. The tower appeared oddly organic, almost as if it had been birthed by the planet itself—or by some monstrous, unimaginable god concealed within. I knew, however, that this was no natural formation; someone or something had constructed it, for purposes yet unknown to us. It stood to reason that it would be intensely radioactive, yet my instruments detected nothing beyond the range that would normally register from the subsurface deposit.

I directed the probe to orbit the columnar axis at a range of twenty miles, and focused its viewers on the red veins that spider-webbed the long, black protrusions. Eganinium typically appeared as a translucent, blue-violet crystal; nothing like the devilish-looking thing that rose from the surface of Pluto. Perhaps the black substance was a shield of some sort, which might explain the relatively low radiation count. I fired an analyzer beam into the nearest vein, but it reflected no data back to the probe. It simply swallowed the beam.

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered. But a second later, in the area where the beam struck, I discerned something moving along the tar-black trunk of the monolith. It was too small and distant to identify, so I broke the probe out of orbit and sent it in close, hoping to get a solid fix on the object. It remained indistinct until I tweaked the spectrograph sensors, which finally allowed me my first good look at one of the things that so far had defied analysis.

It was a bug. A huge, three-winged, multi-legged bug, with a bulbous head and numerous stalk-like, crab-clawed appendages. The thing was half scuttling, half drifting along the onyx surface, periodically pausing to manipulate what appeared to be some sort of metallic device it carried in one grasping arm. I tried to run a series of measurements, but now the image on the viewer began to warp strangely, becoming a shifting, kaleidoscopic mosaic, and my virtual readouts simultaneously went dead. This might have been an effect of radiation on the probe, I thought, but my gut told me it was something else entirely.

A few moments later, the image returned to clarity, although the readouts remained dark. Then I saw, in the black sea beyond the pillar-like appendage, at least a dozen of the insect-like things drifting toward the first, their angular, triple wings spread wide, as if to catch a swell of solar wind. A few of them settled on the polished black surface and began energetically working with the curious-looking metal rods they carried, while the others continued on to another section of the protuberance.

It was these creatures. They had built the gigantic structure from the eganinium deposit many miles beneath the Plutonian ice. The prospect nearly floored me. Beyond the fact that these things existed out here, the technical ability they must possess, the sheer stamina to have done such a thing—it all seemed quite unthinkable. Apparently immune to millions of roentgens passing through their bodies, unfazed by the lack of atmosphere, they worked merrily on as I watched them via the probe, their tools cutting deeply into the strange black rock, their wings gleaming faintly as if either absorbing or giving off energy. I soon saw that the creatures were actually etching the bright red veins, for where the tips of the tools cut into the surface, pools of hot crimson welled up like blood from deep lacerations.

I felt rather than saw Kathryn hovering anxiously behind me, so I directed her to log in with her dataclip. She had less experience with unfiltered data transfers, but under the circumstances I knew she would prefer suffering the unpleasant physical effects to missing the momentous event I was witnessing.

She had just established contact with the probe when I felt something lurch in my head, and my field of vision flashed alarmingly. I attempted to regain control with my instruments, but something had happened, and now the probe was moving rapidly toward the huge black limb, as though of its own volition. I heard Kathryn gasp as she saw the creatures for the first time, and again when she realized I had lost control of the probe. We could only watch helplessly as the red-veined surface hurtled toward our eyes, and just before the probe impacted, I saw the bulbous head of the first insect turn to regard it for the first time, its great globular eyes ever so briefly meeting my gaze.

As if it had actually seen me.

I expected my viewer to go dead when the probe smashed into the stone, but another surprise awaited me: rather than blanking, my view simply changed—as if the probe had passed through the solid surface material and continued on its way on the other side. But now, just as when viewing the structure via Tarec’s scanners, I realized I was seeing a portion of the alien structure as if it had been turned inside out. Every convexity was now a concavity, and the long, spindly protrusions that extended from the trunk appeared as deep crevasses in the planet below, and even in the empty backdrop of space. This was no trick of the eye or brain, yet it had to be illusion of some kind, produced at the electronic level.

A few moments later, the probe, still out of control, began spiraling toward Pluto, and my retinal display went completely awry. Rather than suffer through the terrible vertigo, I severed the connection and backed away from the geostation, as weak and burned out as if lightning had arced through my skull. Kathryn and I simply stared at each other for countless ages, our bodies and emotions too shaken to attempt coherent speech. Everything we had seen had been logged to the captain’s console, so he could view it for himself when he had an opportunity, but I knew he would want an immediate report.

I didn’t have to go to him. Less than a minute later, Tupper was at my station. “What do you have for me, Sykes?”

“Just enough to add to the confusion.” I gave him the rundown on the structure’s composition and the repeat instance of what I was coming to think of as the inversion effect. I saved the revelation of the insect-like creatures till the end; but by now, the captain appeared nonplussed.

“We’re seeing them now too,” he said, nodding toward the executive stations. “Not so sure what to make of these beasts, but there are hundreds of them. Hard to keep track. Something about their properties, we can’t maintain visual locks on them.”

“Like the ‘illusions’ we’re seeing,” Kathryn said. “It’s as if they’re phasing in and out of our material universe. Crossing dimensions, or something.”

“Skipper,” I said, “something knocked that probe down. It wasn’t an effect of radiation, I’m certain of it. Given what’s happened to Tarec…it’s my opinion that our ship systems may be at serious risk.”

“You’re recommending we break orbit?”

“Immediately, sir.”

“Are you in agreement, Rhodes?”

She glanced at me and then nodded. “Yes, sir. This situation needs investigating, but it should be done by a ship and crew outfitted specifically for that purpose.”

Tupper’s customary scowl grew more intense. “You realize that if we break orbit, fourteen months from now every soul aboard this ship will be unemployed?”

“I’m guessing that’s better than the alternative,” I said, my sense of misgiving deepening even as we spoke.

The captain glared at nothing for half a minute before speaking again. “I agree,” he said. “This is an untenable situation.”

With that, he returned to his command station, and I felt an ounce of relief that I had not had to argue to persuade him. In a disagreement, Tupper was beyond formidable. He was also not easily spooked, and I gathered from his manner that he was just as rattled by these events as Kathryn and I. It occurred to me that, while I had shared our findings with him, he had told me nothing that the sci crew had learned.

“Captain Tupper to Audit One, zero-nine-zero,” called a sharp, disembodied voice. “Captain Tupper to Audit One, zero-nine-zero.”

An emergency call. He broke from his console, transferred command to Ellis, and before leaving Navcom pointed to Kathryn and me. “Come on,” he said. “That’s your crew in there.”

We made haste, Tupper with his hand pressed to his dataclip, his scowl becoming a dark, ominous thing as he received bulletins from the Tactical OD. When we entered Audit One, I saw several of the geo crew gathered around the circular view port in the floor, each face whiter than bone, all eyes fastened on something on the other side of the armorglass. Tupper dispersed them with a wave of his hand. We approached the viewport holding our collective breath, and when we gazed down into the black well of outer space and the gemstone stars slipping endlessly by, I’m quite certain each of our hearts stopped. Even the captain’s.

One of the insect-things was clinging locust-like to the armor-glass viewport, its splayed legs somehow gripping the smooth, transparent surface, its bulbous head cocked so that one of its globular, green-gray eyes peered in at us with the distinct air of curiosity. The cylindrical body was about five feet long and tapered to a sharp tip that might have possessed a stinger, and its wings, now folded behind it, were leathery and bat-like, rather than translucent like an insect’s. While its body appeared to be encased by an exoskeleton, its texture appeared knotted and scaly, rather like an alligator’s hide. The lower portion of the abdomen undulated as if it were breathing, even in the void.

“By all the gods,” Tupper rumbled, placing his hands on his hips and squinting thoughtfully, as if sizing up a potential adversary. “Foul-looking, isn’t she?”

Kathryn bent close to the glass to peer at the thing, her eyes no more than a yard or so from the creature’s. My breath caught in my throat, and even with ten inches of virtually unbreakable glass between them, I could not suppress a keen fear that the thing might somehow do her harm, its one scrutinizing eye unmistakably as curious about her as she was about it. Though we had no evidence that it might actually be hostile, the creature’s fearsome appearance amplified my sense of misgiving a hundred times.

We had no biologist on board, so the captain summoned Mr. Kochi, the executive science officer. When the young man arrived and stepped into the disconcerting gaze of the thing beyond the glass, he froze in obvious horror, which gripped him for a full minute before his objective, scientific mind took over to pull him out of it.

“No way,” he said somewhat shakily, “is that thing indigenous to Pluto. Or anywhere in this solar system.”

“A geo could have told me that,” Tupper snapped.

“How can it survive in vacuum, unprotected?” Kathryn asked.

Kochi shrugged. “Maybe it’s not. What looks like an exo-skeleton may be a kind of environmental shell. The actual creature might look different than what we’re seeing here. Assuming it’s even organic. None of our scanners will touch the thing.”

“Where do you suppose it comes from?”

“Damn good question,” he said. “And just as important, how did it get here? And when?”

“You think these things were in any way responsible for what happened to the Mehitobel?”

Kochi might have been formulating some theory when a collective gasp shook him from his thoughts. He stumbled backward just as the creature began to pass through the viewport, breaching the armorglass as if it were no more substantial than a layer of vapor, its body rising to hover above the portal like a living dirigible, its wings outstretched yet motionless, their purpose evidently something other than aerodynamic. The oversized skull swiveled back and forth as if mounted on a rotor, its malevolent-looking eyes surveying the chamber, though whether it was enraged or merely curious, I could hardly speculate. I heard thudding footsteps as many of my crew hastily vacated the auditorium, and someone called for a fire extinguisher, presumably to use as a weapon.

I held up a hand and shouted for my remaining crew to stay calm and make no move against the creature. It could pass through solid matter; who knew what else it might be able to do, or what its intentions were? I saw Captain Tupper standing brazenly before it, his body a defiant bulwark, his eyes glaring at it so fiercely that I found myself as awed by his courage as by our incredible visitor. The insect-thing drifted slowly toward him, its eyes meeting his and briefly flashing, as if photographing him and storing his image to its memory. Then, for a moment, by the way the creature paused and lowered its head, almost like a bull preparing to charge, I fully expected it to attack. But Captain Tupper puffed out his chest, clenched his fists, and unleashed a stare so withering that even the airborne horror appeared to diminish before him.

It was Kathryn who stepped forward then, her face pale and drawn but intensely curious, and the bony skull-head swiveled slowly toward her, its eyes again flashing significantly. As if sensing in her something other than fear or anger, the thing glided toward her and stopped, its huge, glistening eyes only a few inches from hers. I heard the clatter of footsteps behind me as several of the geo crew came running, obviously intent on protecting one of their own, but I again waved them back, adamant that no one take any action that might provoke the creature’s rage.

“What are you?” Kathryn whispered, as if the thing could possibly understand. “Where do you come from?”

To my surprise, something about the insect’s aspect seemed to change—a vague softening of its revolting features, perhaps—as if it were absorbing her thoughts and attempting to formulate a response. Its huge eyes peered deeply into Kathryn’s, and I realized then that her gaze was now fixed, her facial muscles slack, her mind seemingly in the creature’s thrall. Vulnerable, I thought, with mounting alarm.

“Damn if it doesn’t understand her,” I said to Captain Tupper. “I think it’s actually reaching into her mind.”

The big man nodded and took a step toward it, which drew the beast’s attention, and Kathryn’s body wavered unsteadily. I placed one hand behind her back to make sure she didn’t fall, but she gave no indication that she was aware of me. The captain continued to move toward the thing, which alarmed me more and more, for the creature’s aspect had now reverted to malevolent.

Tupper growled, “What the hell are you? And what is that?” He pointed to the circular portal and the black and red stone tendrils that were just beginning to inch into view with the rotation of the fuselage.

The gray-green eyes swiveled toward Kathryn again, and without warning it darted forward, not simply striking Kathryn but plunging into her body, penetrating her flesh and bone the way it had penetrated the armorglass portal. However, instead of passing through her, it appeared to merge with her, dissolving into her body and vanishing altogether. Kathryn gasped and gurgled thickly in her throat, her body going ramrod straight before stiffly lurching a few steps away from me. She turned to face the captain, her eyes revealing themselves to be huge and gray-green like the insect’s. Her jaw dropped, and with a grunting, grumbling preface, she said merely, “Yahh.”

The captain glanced at me, and I heard more footsteps as several crewmen rushed forward. “Somebody bring me a stunner,” he said, “If we can knock her out, maybe we’ll get the creature as well.”

“Yaaaahhhhh,” Kathryn moaned.

“Skipper, no,” I said, my body gripped by an electric fist. “You don’t know what that thing is doing to her body. It may kill her if we make any move against it.”

“YAAAHHHH,” Kathryn’s voice rose. Her discolored eyes bulged so terribly I feared they might erupt from their sockets.

But then everyone in Audit One froze as Kathryn Rhodes’s body slowly rose from the gravideck to hover several feet above the floor, her back arching, her head tilting backward with the sound of cracking bone. Her jaw extended so far that the corners of her mouth began to ooze blood.

“YAAAGGHHH! YAAAGGHHH ZADDAGGGHHH.”

A second later, she fell heavily to the floor, and the vaporous horror that had violated her body reassumed its insect shape in the air above her. It spread its mandibles, released a string of unfathomable shrieks and clicks, and then simply vanished, leaving behind a horrific odor, like formic acid and sulfur, which seared our nostrils and brought burning tears to our eyes.

I rushed to Kathryn’s still form, took her wrist, and searched frantically for a pulse. There was none.

“Captain Tupper to Navcom,” the PA rang out. “Zero-nine-zero. Captain Tupper to Navcom. Zero-nine-zero.”

For several moments he did not move. No one did. I squeezed Kathryn’s hand, unable to comprehend or accept that she might be gone. I kept saying her name, expecting—hoping—to rouse her from a merely tormented slumber, my eyes willfully shutting out the sight of her twisted neck, her slack, broken jaw.

I was not aware of Captain Tupper bolting from Audit One, or of hearing the call to prepare to break orbit, or the panicked cries of those who saw the strange colors that seemed to ooze from the monstrous structure on Pluto, turning its empty sky a hue of silver-black-crimson-violet that resulted in the almost immediate blindness of those who were watching through the open view-ports.

I knew none of these things because I was collapsed over Kathryn’s corpse, weeping behind clenched eyelids.

 

The next time I opened my eyes, it was thirteen months later. I could see, but I had no memory of having been escorted to my stasis bay, locked in, and sent into hibernation. The majority of the Akhenaten’s crew had witnessed the phenomenon on Pluto through the holopanels only, which apparently filtered the alien spectrum. Sadly, it was the geo crew, stationed in Audit One, that had been most affected. Fully two-thirds of its number had been struck blind.

Once fully revived, I made straight for Navcom, where I found Captain Tupper seated at his command station, his beard long and streaked with gray, his eyes cold and weary, his once-ruddy face now pale and gaunt. At the moment, he was alone in the chamber. On the panels, I could see the distant, blue-and-white-marbled disc of planet Earth swimming in the star-speckled black velvet sea. We were still at least two days out from Ashur Five, our orbital docking station.

Tupper barely acknowledged my presence. He simply sighed heavily and nodded at the panel.

“They’ve followed us,” he finally said.

“What?”

He switched the main panel to aft view. It took a moment, but I soon noticed several silver-gray dots of distinctly familiar, ominous configuration drifting among the stars. Tupper zoomed in on them, and something in my chest lurched as the contours of the insect-things became clear. I should not have been surprised, yet I felt the same pangs of disbelief and anger as when Kathryn’s life had slipped from her body. I counted at least a dozen of them, and trailing at some distance was a host of suggestively shaped dots, surely numbering in the hundreds.

“I picked them up yesterday,” Tupper said. “But they must have been behind us all along. They only came into visual range when our retros fired.”

“Yesterday?” I asked. “When did you come out of stasis?”

He shook his head. “Never went back to sleep. I didn’t dare leave Tarec to oversee operations, especially the stasis bays. And it was the right decision. Tarec is scrambled for good.”

“You’ve been awake for the whole year?”

“Ellis too. If we hadn’t, you—and everyone—would be dead now.”

I swallowed hard, my throat suddenly too dry to speak.

“But Ellis is dead. Since a month ago. Went out an airlock.”

“Suicide?” I managed.

He nodded. “Don’t know what came over her. Loneliness. Hopelessness, maybe. Anyway, there was no warning.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’ve not been able to regain contact with Earth. Communications…completely fried. I’ve been flashing emergency codes with the external lights, but I’ve no idea if they’ve been picked up. No sign of commerce out there yet. Maybe in the next twelve hours. Except…”

“What?”

Tupper directed my attention back to the aft-facing panel. “It’s clear that the creatures are following us. That being the case, one might consider it reckless to lead them straight to our home world.” He set the panel for maximum magnification and set its focus on what I recognized as Pluto’s orbit. “Especially since I feel we’re facing an even graver situation.”

The panel now displayed the area of space we had left behind during the past few months, and again my heart felt as if it were exploding in my chest.

“This became visible shortly after the incident that left your crew blinded. It appeared in a quadrant of space light years beyond our solar system. Yet in the past few months, it has passed into our system and has reached an area near the orbit of Mars. At the rate it is catching up to us, I estimate we have only a few days. At first, I thought it was following us, but it’s actually the creatures themselves, I think. Anyway, it amounts to the same thing: if we continue on course to Earth…”

The thing on the panel display must have been bigger than the earth itself. I recognized it immediately as the entity that the structure on Pluto had represented: something immense, alive, and sentient, something that could destroy worlds with a strike of but one of its fingers, thousands of which now groped and seethed and writhed like solar prominences from its incomprehensible mass. One thing the insects’ depiction had failed to replicate was the congeries of luminous globes that blazed from its center section, globes that I could only take to be eyes, all of which were now focused plainly on us.

“Our observatories and tracking stations will have detected this thing,” Tupper said. “The code I have been flashing for the last few months warns against any recon, any investigation, anything that will draw the thing’s attention away from us. I have advised a global blackout as it comes into range. I can only hope they’ve seen my message.”

I looked around at the empty, all but silent chamber. “You didn’t wake anyone else, did you?”

He shook his head. “At first I intended to let you stay asleep until the end. But I have a decision to make, and I don’t think too clearly anymore, Sykes. I’m…tired.”

“What is it?”

“Our emergency pods will hold only two-thirds of the crew. You’re aware of that, right?”

I nodded, having known all along that, in the event of a catastrophic emergency, I, as one of the senior execs, would have to go down with the ship. One of those practical cost-saving measures the Murata Corporation had implemented for our journey.

“We have the opportunity to save the majority of the crew. But you and I are not among them, Sykes.”

I felt the first cold fingers beginning to work their way down my back. All I could do was nod again.

“However, we are being observed. If we launch the pods, I reckon that thing is going to see them. And if those pods go to Earth, it’s no different than if we take the ship right on into Ashur Five.”

It took no great leap of the imagination to figure out what he was planning. “The Akhenaten is going to bypass Earth altogether. Hopefully leading that thing away with us.”

“I don’t believe I can risk saving any of the crew, Sykes. What do you have to say about that?”

I looked at the monstrous image on the panel and soon my eyes began to burn. For all I knew, it might be emitting the same blinding colors as the artificial thing that had summoned it across the light years.

“A hard choice, Skipper.”

Tupper reached across to his instrument panel and entered some codes. “Those bugs. They’re broadcasting signals we can pick up on certain bands. I suspect that’s what’s actually drawing that horror down on our heads. Don’t you think?”

The sounds that rose in my ears reminded me of crickets and frogs chirping and buzzing on a midsummer’s night, modulated into a droning, repetitive rhythm:

“Yagh-Zaddagh, Yagh-Zaddagh, Yagh-Zaddagh, Yagh-Zad-dagh.”

“You have no way of knowing whether anyone has seen or deciphered your codes,” I said. “What if ships have already been sent out there? What if that thing is already aware of Earth?”

“Then it doesn’t much matter what we do.”

I nodded morosely, trying to keep images of Kathryn’s dying moments out of my head. Finally, in a voice that barely escaped my lips, I said, “I don’t believe we can risk the pods. sir.”

He looked at me for a long time, his eyes burning almost as intensely as the brilliant orbs out there in the depths of space. Finally, he turned to his controls and began entering his data, which he had obviously prepared well in advance. When he was finished, he slowly, painfully rose from his chair and disappeared for a time. When he came back, he had a bottle and two glasses.

“I’ve put us on maximum power, which may buy us a few more days. I don’t think I want that thing to catch up to us before we go into the sun.”

“Understood, sir.”

He handed me a glass, and I took a long swallow of the rum. It was old and good, and for several minutes I actually felt contented and at peace. I knew I would never have a chance to regret my decision. Our decision.

“Thanks, Skipper,” I said. “In a way, I’m guess I’m glad to you brought me out, rather than go to the end oblivious.”

“You say that now, but you still have plenty of time to think about it. Just say the word, and I’ll put you back in stasis. Or…offer you another alternative.”

I looked at the vidpanel, and the horrible thing that seemed to have grown larger even in the last few minutes. I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve got this time to make my peace. How about I let you know?”

He looked at the distant, seething devil, and shuddered visibly. “Yeah. We’ve got time.”

I nodded.

 

The sun’s gravity had pulled the Akhenaten past the point of no return when Yagh-Zaddagh began to slow as it approached Earth. I was not aware of this at the time because, without my knowledge, Captain Tupper had narcotized me, returned me to hibernation, and launched my stasis capsule in an escape pod, apparently only moments before it was too late to do so. All I knew was that I woke up some weeks later in the sickbay of the Vardinoy, a freighter that had joined the fleet of surviving Earth ships and set about rescuing any castaways that might be found in the navigable space lanes. I was lucky because the Vardinoy was just retiring from its final recon flight when it picked up the faint signal from my pod’s transponder.

I say I was lucky. I wish the skipper had taken me with him on his final journey. I don’t know why he did what he did; I suppose he felt it was some final act of kindness, his way of atoning for whatever transgressions he felt he had committed in this life.

Yagh-Zaddagh had already cleared he earth by the time I returned to consciousness. Of that cosmic monstrosity, there was no more sign than there was any indication that humankind had once been the dominant species on the blue and white marble the Vardinoy and fleet were leaving behind for destinations unknown. While the fate of the Akhenaten’s remaining crew would probably have been no different had Captain Tupper opted to spare as many as he could before it hurtled into the sun, the irony, I believe, is that the horror from beyond our solar system had never been following us specifically. Its target had been the Earth all along, and it was simply happenstance that we happened to be where we were when the insects from Pluto began their long voyage across the solar system.

I believe this is so because, on the Vardinoy’s holopanels, which will continually scan the Earth for as long as it is in range, we can see that the insects have set to work building a new gigantic likeness, this one amid the ruins of the eastern Asian continent. In the last month, as our little fleet has approached the orbit of Mars on its reach for the stars, we’ve watched the structure grow and spread steadily, almost as if it were building itself. It appears different from the one on Pluto; far larger, and somehow even more terrible, more malignant.

Soon I will enter hibernation one more time. Hopefully, I will awaken in a place where I can live out my remaining days before Yagh-Zaddagh comes.

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