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Black Marks

A "Dead Space" Fan Story

By Neal LitherlandPublished about a month ago Updated 7 days ago 38 min read

Cities never sleep. Not really. Even in the dead of night, parts of them are still fitful and awake. Junkies prowl the back alleys, looking for a score, or a mark. Red light clubs run like bad dreams, their flashing lights and pulsing sound systems melting everything into surreal nightmares. 24-hour grease spots waft their smoke into the air, and the trains run, and run, and run. Cities are predators, and like all the most dangerous creatures, even when they look like they’re sleeping, all it takes is one wrong move for them to eat you alive.

And if you see a place that looks bright, clean, and safe, that’s probably where the teeth are.

I was inbound on Upper Grant Parkway, the rain kissing the back of my helmet and collecting in rivers across the blacktop. The motorcycle thrummed underneath me, the sharp treads making short work of the puddles. The cargo crate locked in behind me kept trying to pull me to one side, but I compensated automatically, cranking the throttle as I headed toward the destination marked on my heads up display.

“Final check before crossing the perimeter,” I said. “You reading me, Echo?”

“Loud and clear, Lazarus,” the voice in my ear said. “We’ve got you on display, vitals reading strong. How’s your head?”

“Still broken,” I said, grunting as I swerved around a dip in the road. “No serious brain fog yet. Clear enough to do the job.”

“Good,” Echo said. “Alpha Team is in position around the target. Waiting on you to pull the trigger.”

“Copy,” I said. “Lazarus going dark. Will open a channel once the package is deployed.”

I closed the connection, and revved the bike. I shot past the towers of gleaming steel and glass that made up the downtown skyline, slipping in and out of traffic, and making sure I was on the right side of all the lights. As I rounded the curve that led to the highway, my destination came into view.

The place was a smooth, polished dome that looked like it was made of seaglass, carved with strange, geometric patterns that seemed to shimmer as the light hit them. The dome was framed by pairs of curling pillars that curled up from the earth like grasping fingers. They bent at bizarre angles that made the whole structure look both alien and organic, but what was worse was that I couldn’t tell if it looked like the place was sinking into the earth, or like it was trying to be born out of it. Maybe it was supposed to be both. I didn’t like it, and just the sight of it made the skin around the old scars on the roof of my mouth, and back of my head, pucker uncomfortably. Echoes played in the back of my mind, scrabbling at me like phantom fingers. I shrugged them off, shifted gears, and crawled back inside myself to get ready for what was coming.

I rolled up the front entryway to the Unitologist church, reducing my speed as I pulled into the turnaround just in front of the main doors. I cut the cycle’s motor, and engaged the stand before carefully swinging myself out of the saddle. I tugged the hood of my poncho up over my helmet, and shook some of the rain off while I gave the place the once-over from behind the tinted face screen. Nobody lit me up, and no alarms went off as I unclamped the crate on the rear of my transport, and activated the servos in my rig. The machinery whined as I lifted the steel box out of its restrainer cage, turned, and mounted the short flight of stairs. The doors opened in front of me with a soft, hydraulic hiss, welcoming me inside. I hesitated for a second, then gritted my teeth and made myself cross the threshold.

I stepped onto another planet. Sweeping tendrils curled up the walls, carved and polished until they looked more like flesh than they did stone. Recessed blue and green lights burned in unseen niches around the room, leaving a curtain of shadows along the edges of the room. The only bright light hung above the large doors that led into the church proper, the white bulbs revealing the way like some kind of guiding star. The entryway shushed closed behind me, and as the doors clicked into place I was suddenly aware of my own breath rattling around in my helmet. It was hot and stale, filling my nostrils even as the blood started rushing in my ears. I tasted something metallic at the back of my throat, and fog started clawing at the edges of my head, throwing a wet blanket over my thoughts as I tried to cling to where I was, and what I was supposed to be doing. My heart grew loud in my ears, like it was trying to drown out everything else around me.

“Are you lost, friend?” a voice asked.

I turned, and saw a long, low console station tucked against the wall. It hummed quietly, the monitors casting a soft glow onto two men. They were both tall, wide in the chest and shoulders, and dressed in understated robes that weren't quite enough to hide the suits they still had on beneath. Each of them had the twining tendrils of the Unitologist marker worn on their chests like badges, as well. It was their faces that were the worst, though. Masses of mismatched flesh, they were terrible things, empty of any real, human essence. My eyes flicked to the display in my helmet. According to my rig, the two of them were just normal, baseline humans. I closed my eyes for a moment, let out a long breath, and refocused. It was just my head, playing its usual tricks. Nothing to get jumpy about.

“Not exactly,” I replied, turning my steps toward them and setting the steel crate down on the ground in front of the desk they stood behind. I opened the seal on the front pocket of my poncho, and withdrew the sleek tablet from within. I tapped a few keys, bringing up the bogus delivery information before holding it out to one of the two men manning the station. “Was told this was top priority, so I got here as fast as I could.”

“Deliveries go to the back,” the second man said. I watched the lower half of his head lurch open, the words emerging around shards of bone jutting out between pink flesh, a slick, wet tongue moving in ways that felt disconcerting the longer I looked at it. I shrugged, just as if nothing unusual was happening.

“Whatever you say, chief,” I said, reaching into the chest pocket on my poncho and withdrawing a long, black stylus. “Just give me your signature, then I’ll hoof it to the right entrance, yeah?”

“That would be fine,” the guard looking over the tablet said, reaching out for the stylus. “I’ll be happy to-”

Before the guard could finish his thought I clicked the back end of the stylus, popping out the hidden syringe. I gripped the man’s hand, pushed the needle into his wrist, and listened to the sharp hiss of the auto-injector pumping a load of tranquilizer into his veins. He jerked his hand back, and I let him go. By the time he realized what had happened, his legs were already starting to buckle from the potent sedative.

The second guard was faster than I’d hoped he would be. He spun away from the console, and ripped up the cover on an emergency alarm before I vaulted the desk. I just barely managed to snatch his hand away before he could activate it, yanking him into a one-armed shoulder lock and clamping my fingers down on the back of his neck. He kicked, threw an elbow back at me, and even tried to bite before I heard him suck in a deep breath to scream. I clamped my free hand over his mouth and nose, and activated the servos in my rig. Slowly I felt the fight go out of him, until he slumped in my grip. I let go of him, and carefully lowered him to the ground. Before he could get a proper flow of oxygen back to his brain, I dug out the second stylus, and injected him in the neck. I made sure he got a proper dose before I slipped the hidden syringe back into my poncho.

“Echo, this is Lazarus,” I said, closing the cover back over the alarm in the wall. “You copy?”

“Read you loud and clear, Lazarus,” Echo said in my ear. “Status?”

“Two guards tranquilized,” I said as I opened another of my cargo pockets and took out sets of heavy tie restraints, cuffing the two men’s arms and legs together. “Vital signs are steady. No bodies, no outbreaks as far as I can tell.”

“That’s something, at least,” Echo said.

I checked the console screens, sweeping my eyes over the flashing images. The display showed a cavernous room that looked like the belly of some strange beast. Supporting ribs of stone were carved along the walls, and soft lamps hung from huge chains, filling the space with a diffused, blue-tone light that made the whole place look like it was underwater. Dozens of artfully carved stone benches erupted from the floor, and all of them were filled to capacity with worshipers. A crowd of men and women filled the screens, all of them dressed in a variety of robes, chanting and waving their arms as they directed their worshipful gazes at the front of the chapel where the dual prongs of a towering marker stood. I had trouble looking at the people filling that room. Every face was an expanse of formless flesh stretched over the ridges of jutting bones, tears and saliva running together as their wet, rubbery mouths formed nonsense words. Everyone seemed to still be human-shaped, though, which told me things hadn’t progressed past the event horizon. Yet, anyway.

I moved fast, picking up the crate and carrying it behind the console. I punched in the code, and it opened with a hiss, revealing a pair of heavy, steel canisters. I removed them one after the other, setting them on the floor and out of sight. Beneath the canisters was a simple black box attached to a cord, and a universal plug. I plugged the cord into the console, rested the black box on a flat space, and flicked the switch.

“Skeleton key online,” I said. “Make it fast, Echo. It looks like the service is almost over.”

“On it,” Echo said. I could hear the sounds of his fingers on his keyboard through my helmet’s connection, but I ignored it and turned back to the crate. Snapping the restraining straps, I lifted out the rest of what I was going to need.

My hands moved of their own accord, snapping the web belt around my waist and checking the contents. Grenades, charge pack, ammunition clips, sidearm. I drew the Divet, checked the mag, and made sure the safety was off. The model of sidearm I’d been assigned was bulkier than the standard-issue, and the rounds it was loaded with packed a significantly bigger punch. I knew from experience that without my rig there was no way I could accurately fire the thing one-handed. I hoped I wouldn’t need it, but as someone had once told me it was better to have and not need, than to need and not have. I couldn’t remember who the hell had told me that anymore; it had vanished into the hole in my head along with so much else.

“I’m in,” Echo said in my ear. “Engaging main locks and re-routing air systems. Attach the nightingale.”

“On it,” I said, engaging the servos on my rig and picking up the canisters. The readout on my display pointed at two large vents in the room, indicating Echo had chosen these as the uptake zone. I played out the hose, stretched the cup at the end to fit over the indicated grates, and opened the valves on the gas canisters. “Nightingale is singing.”

“Confirmed,” Echo said.

I returned to the console, and checked the guards. Their heartbeats were strong, all vital signs normal. Reaching back into the crate, I snapped open the false bottom, and removed the last piece of equipment I’d brought with me on this mission.

The pulse rifle was a thing of awful beauty, and deadly purpose. The stock was perfectly fitted to my shoulder, the kinetic shock padding worked into the frame to reduce recoil to practically nothing. The grip was tooled to accommodate my palm, and my finger nestled along the trigger guard like a long lost lover. The three barrels jutted forward aggressively, their mouths open and ready to spit a stream of death wherever I pointed them. I loaded a standard magazine, and snapped the weapon closed.

I turned my eyes back toward the security screen. The gas I’d deployed was invisible, odorless, and tasteless, but the effects were taking hold. Several people who’d been standing were now sitting, and most of the ones that had been sitting were slumped over unconscious. A few bodies were stretched out on the floor, and the preacher was crawling toward the doors. As I watched he went slack, his hand slapping down to the stone floor. My finger instinctively slid over the trigger, stroking it as I watched the camera feed.

“Deployment is complete,” Echo said. “No movement. No incidents.”

“Yet,” I said.

“We don’t have all night,” Echo reminded me.

“Right,” I said. I thumbed the safety on my weapon, and socked it to my shoulder as I approached the chapel doors. “Pop the cork, and mark the objective. Turning on my air supply.”

“Copied.”

The sound of the locks opening was loud in the silence, and the door swung smoothly when I pushed, and shushed back into place behind me. I scanned the room, my weapon and my head moving as a single unit. The people’s chests rose and fell, and breath wheezed in and out of their open mouths. Several people were snoring, their airways partially obstructed by the positions they’d come to rest in. No one was vomiting. No one was juddering and jerking as their bodies ripped themselves apart in a symphony of splintering bones and rupturing ligaments. Just the memory of that sound made the space between my shoulder blades tighten, and the skin on the back of my neck tense up.

“Lazarus!” Echo growled in my ear. “Lazarus, confirm!”

I blinked. I was staring down at the balding patch on the back of the preacher’s head. It was dead in the center of my iron sights. I realized my finger had taken up all the slack on the trigger, and there was barely a hair or pressure left before my rifle would start unloading. I exhaled slowly, let the pressure off, and glanced at my air supply. I’d been gone for no more than a few minutes this time, but that was still too long for me.

“I’m here,” I said. I depressed a button on my rig, and felt a bite in the side of my neck as the auto injector shot me full of a low-grade stimulant. My nostrils flared. My pupils dilated, and a fire lit in the bottom of my lungs as I sucked in a breath. The scar on the back of my head throbbed, and phantom fingers scrabbled at my skin again. I shook my head once, and snorted. “Stim taken. Log the incident.”

“Noted,” Echo said.

I stepped over the preacher, taking the steps behind him two at a time till I was on the dais. The arms of the Marker raised up a dozen feet over my head, grasping at the ceiling. The lights swelled and dimmed above me, casting shadows over the stone of the marker that made it seem to undulate in front of my eyes. I raised my left hand, my thumb hovering less than an inch over where two of the twining, stone tendrils crossed over each other.

“Inputting security code,” I said.

Before Echo could confirm, I pressed down on the marker. There was a moment of resistance, and then I heard a click as a portion of the steel depressed. It stayed there, and I moved my hand six inches up to the second spot. A third panel was located on the right side of the intersection, and then I reached up, depressing a spot right above my head. A soft hiss issued from the marker, and then a seam opened up in the floor, pulling back to either side to reveal a stairwell. Concrete stairs spiraled downward, and as the hidden door locked open, lights flickered to life on the walls, illuminating the way downward.

“The door is open,” I said. “Descending.”

“Looks like Whisper’s intel was accurate,” Echo said. “Beyond this point, we’re walking blind. The shards these people have been bringing together are down there somewhere, though. Happy hunting.”

“Thanks, Echo,” I grunted. “You’re all heart.”

I stared down those secret stairs for a long moment. These religious fanatics had spent years trying to assemble the scattered shards of an alien artifact, with no real idea of what it would do. They thought it would allow them to transcend what they were. That it would let them conquer death, and become something more. They hadn’t seen what I’d seen. The horrors this thing would unleash if it was put back together again, and someone turned the damn thing on. If that happened, the most vivid hell we could imagine would seem like paradise by comparison.

I settled my grip on my weapon, and slipped my finger over the trigger as I ducked my head and stepped into the stairwell. I strained my ears, trying to listen for any sound coming up the stairs, but all I heard were the reverberations of my own footsteps bouncing off the walls. I’d gone maybe half a dozen steps when I heard a mechanical whine from above me, and the sharp hiss of the hidden door re-engaging itself.

“Echo, do you read me?” I asked. All I got back was a burst of static, then silence. “Echo, this is Lazarus, do you copy?”

The second time I didn’t even get static. All that greeted my words was dead air, and after a couple seconds the channel clicked off. I frowned, and broke my own protocol, opening up the holographic display that I usually kept turned off so that I didn't have one more face my damaged brain couldn't make sense of staring back at me. All I saw was a blank display screen and the words Connection Lost. Shit. I closed the visual channel, and checked the readout on the atmosphere, saw it was within acceptable levels, and switched off my onboard oxygen. I didn’t have a lot of it left, and I wanted to keep it in reserve just in case something went sideways while I was down here. The thought had no sooner crossed my mind than I heard something below; a growling, snarling, snuffling sound. It set my teeth on edge, and sent adrenaline pumping through my widened blood vessels. I recognized that sound. I wasn’t sure why I recognized it, but the way my stomach clenched told me it wasn’t good. When I didn’t hear it again, I took a deep breath, and resumed my descent.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and blood rushed through my ears. I expected some kind of monster to leap out at me with every turn of the stairs, but when I reached the landing, nothing waited for me. The stairs were clean, the walls were unmarred concrete, and even the handrails didn’t have as much as a speck of dust on them. I paused there, waiting, but the only thing I heard as the seconds ticked by was my breath rattling in my helmet. Sweat pooled in the hollows of my temples, and I felt the sting at the back of my throat that always came with my particular stim cocktail. Tension burned in my joints, and I knew this clarity wasn’t going to last forever. So I swallowed down the taste of metal, and kept moving.

The stairwell ended at a glassed-in airlock leading to a space that looked almost like a hospital intake. A security desk made from molded plastic faced the door, and hallways led off to either side. Overhead fluorescents cast the whole place in a harsh light, and shone on the polished, concrete floor. Cameras faced the stairwell, their red, unblinking eyes watching everything. I didn’t see a speaker, and when I tried the outer door, it didn’t budge.

“If this is buttoned up tight,” I muttered, giving the door another hard tug, “Then what the hell did I hear?”

Nobody answered me, so I slung my weapon, then readjusted my stance and my grip. My rig hummed as it powered up, and I steadily ramped up the force I was exerting. The door put up a fight, but just before I hit full power, something inside the door snapped with the sound of an icicle cracking. The door leaped out of its frame, nearly smashing into my helmet before I could stop pulling and power down. I paused long enough to be sure there wasn’t going to be an alarm, then stepped into the airlock itself. When I tried the other door, it opened without a struggle.

I glanced around the entryway, but didn’t see any signs about what was supposed to be down here. I peered over the desk, but all I saw were a pair of empty chairs. There were no log books, and no vid screens… there were also no bodies. I should have found that comforting, but if anything it just screwed my nerves a little tighter. With no clear indication of which path would get me closer to my destination, I took the right fork and advanced.

The halls were built with the same aesthetic as the entryway; concrete, steel, and industrial glass. It was minimalist and purpose-driven, with soft, white lights held in recesses that were almost invisible if you didn’t know what you were looking for. There were offices and workspaces, communal breakrooms, and soft, padded cells that were either meant for living or praying. Other than being empty, everything seemed to be in order. As soon as I had that thought, though, I turned a corner, and felt ice water congeal in my guts.

The floor of the connecting hallway was grooved and gouged like somebody had driven a dozer with tread spikes through it. Glass panels were cracked or outright shattered, and even the ceiling was covered with blast impacts and scorch marks. Half the lights had been wrecked to the point there weren’t even sparks coming from the dead outlets. The lights that were left were more than enough to illuminate the blood splashed across the walls, and puddled on the broken floor. Worse, they were enough to show me I wasn’t alone.

Something hunched over a body on the floor, its neck twisting as the wet, slick sound of meat being torn filled the hall. Bones shifted under its too-tight skin, and muscles that didn’t belong together flexed and shuddered as the thing forced its jaws opened, and dropped the newly-made corpse. The thing's head shifted, and in the dim light I saw blind, sightless eyes staring at me from a broken, mangled face that was dripping with fresh, steaming blood. The thing had been human once, but the thorny, protruding tendril that hung out from where the lower jaw had once been made it clear that was no longer the case.

Time froze for half a heartbeat, and we just looked at each other. Then the clock started again, and everything sped up to compensate. The thing leaped to its feet and ran at me, shrieking through its shattered mouth as it brought up mantis-like arms tipped with blood-streaked bone blades. I took a half a step back, and tipped my weapon down, squeezing the trigger as I aimed at the creature’s legs. Bullets smashed into the concrete, sending up shards, until a burst of fire tore into the thing’s ankle. It stumbled, trying to regain its momentum, but before it could get its injured limb back under it, I took aim at the other leg. The rounds cracked carapace and shattered bone, sending the thing spilling onto its front. It looked up at me, dragging itself forward on its deadly limbs. It was still shrieking in idiot fury as I emptied the rest of the magazine into its skull.

My hands moved on their own, popping out the empty mag and automatically snatching a fresh reload off my belt. I reached for the one with the red tape on the side, slamming the flechette rounds into place, and pulled the charging handle. As soon as my weapon was ready to fire, I heard another sound; the skittering, clicking sound of too many legs on the broken concrete. They were joined by clumsy, stomping sounds, and wet undulations that made my stomach clench reflexively. I raised my weapon, and aimed it at the darkness where the sounds were coming from. My helmet display lit up with warning icons, and a moment later I saw them.

They were perversions of the human form, twisted, stretched, and broken into things we were never meant to be. I saw spinal columns raised like the tails of scorpions, tipped with acrid, dripping stingers bound by ropy ligaments. There were rib cages that snapped like bear traps, the elongated bones bound with raw muscles that dripped black blood with every step. Intestines writhed in the mass of bodies like tentacles, bearing sucker mouths lined with needle-sharp fangs, their interiors studded with bone fragments that would rip and tear at flesh. In that flickering light I looked upon abominations, and I did the only thing that made sense when faced with such horror; I squeezed the trigger, and didn’t let go.

The shotgun rounds filled the air with whining, buzzing shrapnel in an unending roar as I unloaded on those things. Blood splattered and muscle shredded as the high-velocity steel tore the creatures apart, impacting with enough force that the salvo turned several targets into bombs that sent shards of bone flying in all directions when they exploded under the assault. Some of them fell, but most of them kept coming even after I cut their legs out from under them. I watched them struggle forward, but their bodies were so mutilated by what they’d become it was impossible to tell how badly injured any of them truly were. When my gun ran dry, I didn’t bother stopping to reload. I snapped a boomer off my belt, thumbed the primer, and threw. It didn’t go as far as I wanted, though, and the last thing I saw before getting knocked off my feet by the blast wave was a white hot flash of magnesium.

The world came back to me in a rush. I was on my back, staring up at a ceiling covered in pock marks and scorches. There was a ringing in my ears, but beneath that I heard something. It was muffled, like a voice shouting at me from under a wool blanket, but as my brain reordered itself I heard it more clearly.

“Lazarus, respond!” Echo growled in my headset. “Are you there? Respond, goddammit!”

“The hell have you been?” I muttered through numb lips as I sat up and took stock of my situation. My weapon was nearby, and I snatched it up, giving it a once over. It was a little scorched, but nothing a good buffing wouldn’t fix. I removed the expended magazine and replaced it with another, before checking that my remaining explosives were still in place.

“There’s some kind of radiation dampening material in the bunker,” Echo said. “We had to find a workaround. For once your audio-only requirement turned out to be helpful, since it's easier to connect through this maze. What’s happening?”

Echo had barely finished asking me the question when a door down the hallway smashed outwards, the glass shattering as it flew off its hinges. A thing with two heads, and more body mass than a forklift, followed, letting out a roar no human throat could produce. I snatched another grenade off my belt, and threw it in the thing’s direction before it could turn to me. The explosion rocked it on its heels, but it didn’t seem to do it any meaningful harm. It lumbered, turning toward me, and I activated my kinesis module. Using the device on a fallen chunk of masonry the size of my torso, I launched it down the hall. It skimmed over the rubble, and remnants of the previous bodies, slamming into the thing’s knees with a hollow, crunching sound before bowling the thing over backward.

“Contact,” I snarled, double-timing it down the hallway toward the dazed creature. I leaped onto the shattered concrete slab, and fired down into the thing’s exposed heads. It took more shots than I was comfortable with to make it stop struggling. “There’s necros everywhere.”

“Stupid bastards,” Echo grunted. “They must have reassembled enough of the shards that the signal reached the preservation crypts. There would have been hundreds of bodies in there for the signal to reanimate and remake.”

“Smash and grab?” I asked, switching to a full magazine. My display beeped loudly, informing me there were more signatures inbound to my position. “Son of a bitch… this place crawls.”

“I’ve got the location of the shards,” Echo said. “I can’t access your display. Just follow my directions.”

A muscle twitched at the base of my head, making me wince as my skull tried to shift. Something wasn’t right about what Echo was telling me, but I couldn’t put the feeling into words. Time wasn’t something I had a lot of, though, and when a swarm of skittering, chittering things that looked like spiders made from human heads came pouring through a broken window, I decided it was a problem I’d deal with later. Ripping down chunks of the ceiling with my kinesis module, I tossed my second-to-last grenade to buy me a few seconds. Then I started running.

My footsteps pounded through the concrete hallways, practically drowning out Echo’s instructions in my ear. Every time I thought I was clear of the things on my trail, more of the disgusting, fleshwarped monsters came crawling out of some unseen hole. A scything blade from one of the reapers caught my shoulder, cracking through my armor and sinking deep enough to lodge in my muscle before I brought the barrels of my weapon around to blow its head from its shoulders. A slithering amalgamation of skin and screams that moved like a manta ray caught my foot, and I practically blew out my kinesis module prying the thing off of me, then shredding it into little pieces to ensure it wouldn’t get up and try again. I ran out of flechette rounds after a shortcut that Echo sent me through turned out to be more crowded than he thought. Something with a dozen jaws that had been fused together into a single shelf of bone put a crack in my helmet, and I fired my last standard magazine empty to put it down. Even after I got the creature off of me, I had to pull my sidearm and double tap it to make the dying meat stop twitching.

“The lab is through that final set of doors,” Echo said.

I tried to catch my breath, and took stock of what I had left. It wasn’t comforting. Worse, my muscles were aching and trembling. My rig had stopped my bleeding and gotten my various wounds tended to as best it could, but my stim rush was gone, and my adrenaline reserves were running low. Still, my only other option was to go back the way I came. So I settled my finger back around the trigger of my sidearm, and braced my uninjured arm on the doorframe.

“You got a plan for getting me out of here?” I asked.

“One thing at a time, Lazarus,” Echo said.

I didn’t like that, but I didn’t have the time for a debate on the subject. I flicked my eyes over to my helmet’s display, and saw that I wasn’t going to be alone for much longer. I gritted my teeth, activated my rig’s systems, and started pushing. Machinery whined, and red lines spiked. I felt something in my suit’s arm strain and twist, but I didn’t let up.

I forced the final set of doors, and stepped into hell.

The laboratory was a mirror of the church above. The lighting was the same, as was the vaulted ceiling. At first glance the walls looked the same, as well, but the organic designs were overlaid with a thick, red membrane that pulsed and throbbed, sweating as it stretched over the walls and floor. Instead of benches for the faithful, though, there were banks of technological workspaces pointed toward the center of the room. Patches of flesh coiled around the cables, spreading onto the dials and keys like a creeping cancer. And in the center of the room, atop a dais and surrounded by an untouched section of concrete and steel, were the shards I’d been sent for.

The problem was there were more than just a few of them… and they were located in a large, whirring assembly tube, bathed in some kind of chemical bath. They'd been assembled into a half-complete marker, and it was growing with every second that I stood there staring at it.

“Shit,” I growled. “Echo, I have visual. This is a Dagon Event. I repeat, this is a Dagon Event.”

The sound of claws on concrete, and the screaming of steel echoed down the hallway from my back. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw a tide of flesh and bone making its way toward me, raking limbs and slavering teeth pouring into the room as the recombined remnants of hundreds of corpses came for me, eager to tear me into my component pieces to add me to their ranks.

“Get in there!” Echo shouted in my ear. “Get near the marker!”

I didn’t hesitate. My feet were moving before Echo finished barking his order, my legs pumping as I ran for the dais at the center of the room. The fleshy floor grabbed at my boots, trying to slow my progress. I felt like I was wading through mud, but I kept going, the pounding of my pulse in my ears so loud that it practically drowned out the ravenous howling of the damned things at my back. I crossed the line in the center of the room, drew my sidearm, and spun around ready to kill whatever was closest to me. But the necromorphs were no longer closing for the kill. They were just standing there, their eyes unfocused as they looked back and forth aimlessly. It was like they couldn’t see me… or they’d completely forgotten I’d even existed in the first place.

“You’re safe, Adam,” a familiar voice said from behind me.

I turned around, bringing up my weapon. A man in hard-used black fatigues was sitting on the top step, just below the half-assembled marker. He was broad-shouldered and powerfully-built, with hands covered in scars. Well-worn sergeant’s stripes decorated his uniform. He tugged a cigarette out of a battered and scarred case before he plugged it between his lips, and fished out a lighter. He touched the flame to the smoke, and raised his head to look at me. He had hard, gunmetal eyes, a nose that had been broken and badly set half a dozen times, and thin lips that were made for frowning. The pistol trembled in my hand, and I lowered it as I stared at the first face I’d been able to recognize for what it was in a very long time.

“Murdock?” I asked. “You can’t be here. You’re dead.”

“That makes two of us, then, doesn’t it?” Murdock said as he pushed himself to his feet. He ascended the steps toward the half-completed marker, but he didn’t seem right. His voice didn’t match his mouth, and his movements were wrong. Looking at him was making my head hurt. It was like I was trying to watch a hologram, but the planes weren’t meshing right, and the distortion was twisting apart the meaning of the image as my brain tried to make sense of it.

“You aren’t here,” I said, cracking the side of my helmet with the reinforced knuckles of my rig’s gauntlet. The blow jarred my vision, but when my eyes uncrossed, Murdock was still standing there. My display had changed, though. Red lines of code ran up the menu along one side, informing me that every message I’d tried to send had terminated without being received. My last received message was timestamped with my entry into this underground hell. I had never been in contact with Echo at all. Murdock gave me a pitying smile, but his eyes were gone now. There was nothing in his face but gaping, scooped out sockets that stared down at me from atop the dais.

“That’s the difference between you and me, isn’t it?” Murdock said. His mouth shaped the words, but the sounds came out wrong. “When I blew my brains out, I did it right. You tried to eat your gun, and you just woke up with a hole in your head, and a chunk of your gray matter missing.”

“Makes it easier to see through this bullshit,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Even if I can’t hear the difference.”

Murdock, or the thing that was pretending to be Murdock, clicked its teeth together. It gestured me to come closer. I felt my muscles twitch, but I stayed where I was. The nightmare’s forehead creased, and it glared at me.

“Come here,” it hissed. I pointed my weapon at it. Murdock laughed. “What are you going to do with that, huh? You said it yourself, I’m not even here.”

I reached up with my free hand, and in a single motion unclasped my helmet. Before it had even dropped to the ground, I flicked the fire selector with my thumb, and pressed the cold, oily barrel of the pistol to my temple. I grinned at the Murdock thing that was only half in my reality. It wasn’t smiling anymore.

“This thing can spit out half the magazine with a single squeeze of the trigger,” I said between clenched teeth, adding a little more pressure with my index finger. “Think that would be enough to get the job done right this time?”

Put the gun down, Adam, the thing said. It didn’t sound like Murdock anymore. The words weren’t coming from his mouth, either. They were sounding in the middle of my head, and they didn’t sound remotely human anymore. I tried to squeeze the trigger, to stop the thing from talking to me, but it was like the trigger was frozen. Or my finger was. My hand shook. Every muscle in my arm trembled, and I focused every thought on sending a single, electrical impulse down my arm. Then my hand went slack, and the pistol fell from my numb fingers.

The thing that wasn’t Murdock came back into sharp focus, but the features were even more wrong now. The eyes were mismatched, and the wrong color. The chin was too narrow, and crossed with scars my old sergeant had never had. The teeth were too crowded, and too sharp. It was like staring into a broken mirror… just like every other face I’d seen since I woke up in the med bay after I put a full metal jacket through my gray matter in an attempt to get away from the things that had taken over the station I’d been assigned to.

You had me worried there, for a moment, soldier, the thing said, baring all its teeth at me. I’m not going to tell you again… come here.

I didn’t want to climb those stairs. I didn’t want to get a single step closer to that marker. But one staggering step after another my body was dragged toward the marker until I stood before the thing. The air crackled around me, and a hum that I couldn’t hear vibrated through my bones. Electromagnetic fingers ran through my veins, and probed the roof of my mouth, reaching into what was left of my brain. My vision swam, and my ears went dark. I drowned in the marker’s embrace, unable to do anything but breathe as I fell further and further away from myself.

My, my, you did some real damage in here, Adam, the voice said in my mind again. Burning fingers worked through my skull, raking through my mind as they tried to find something. With every touch, flash bulbs went off in the remnants of my brain. Flash. I saw a broken airlock staring out into the void of space, blood and viscera hanging from the shattered frames. Flash. I was staring down into a pit filled with torn bodies, the shards of bone and shredded muscle thrown haphazardly into the hole like broken, bleeding dolls. Flash. I looked upon a collection of bodies that had stitched themselves together into a collection of tendrils and mouths, all of them speaking in stolen voices that I recognized, but no longer knew. Flash. I watched Murdock’s face as his eye exploded in a shower of gore while a bullet tunneled horizontally through his skull, the wake of its passing dragged his brains out the other side of his head. He was still giving me that hard, nasty smile even as his hand fell to his side, fingers clutching his smoking gun. Flash. Flash. Flash. Each thing worse than what had come before, there and gone so fast I could barely make sense of the horror I was being made to see. I tried to close my eyes, but it didn’t matter. There was no hiding from what lurked inside the forgotten places of my mind, now that a light was shining on those memories once more.

Ah… here it is.

When I opened my eyes, I stood on the dead soil of a barren world. Black sand stretched off in every direction, raked into waves by a cold wind that smelled of stardust. Twin suns hung in the sky, like two holes slowly burning into the firmament. Erupting from the earth in front of me was a marker. It gleamed like blackened steel, and stank like poison. It was beautiful in a way I didn’t have words for, but the longer I looked at it, the sicker it made me feel in what was left of my soul. My skin pebbled, and vomit crawled up the back of my throat. I was sure the thing was looking at me, but I didn’t know how.

There was no voice in my head, this time. No words rang in my ears telling me what to do. There were just images, urges, and memories that I knew didn’t belong to me. At that moment I knew the marker’s purpose, and I knew what had to be done for it to achieve that purpose. To be fully activated. I knew what would happen if I did what it wanted, but even knowing the endgame, I still wanted to do it. It was like an itch that I had to scratch, even if I knew I’d have to dig through my skin until I bled. My hands trembled as I reached for the marker, but I made myself stop. Everything around me froze in a single, crystal moment of clarity. That was when I felt something else. Electricity danced across the rim of the scar inside my mouth, and it sparked up through my mind. My eyes went wide, and my pupils dilated. My lips pulled back in a painful smile, and I clacked my teeth together.

I didn’t know what the things whispering in my mind were. Those things that had made the markers, and placed them like beacons around the galaxy. But they’d shown me the code for how the markers functioned. They had to, if they wanted me to finish the job, and start this one up for them. I wasn’t going to do that, though. I was going to do something else. Something worse.

I ran my hands over the marker in front of me, pressing what looked like solid planes. The exterior structure didn’t move, but I felt a resonance as I moved over it. I still couldn’t hear the hum with my ears, but I felt it in different parts of my body. It moved from the marrow of my big bones, crawling along my skin until it squeezed the sides of my head like a vise. Tears ran from my eyes, and blood dripped from my nose, but I didn’t let my hands stop moving. I couldn’t even see what I was doing, but I felt it. It was like music; a symphony played in reverse, while holding the instrument upside down, and doing it all off a memory of sheet music I’d glanced at for a couple of heartbeats before the curtain went up.

What are you doing, Adam? the voice that wasn’t Murdock’s asked. It came from behind me, to my left, and to my right, echoing strangely. I couldn’t tell if it was a single voice anymore, or if there were more of them. Either way, I heard confusion in those voices. Confusion, and something trembling on the knife’s edge of fear. I didn’t respond to the question with words; I just pressed more places on the marker. Phantom hands grasped at my shoulders, my wrists, and my throat, but I ignored them, pushing through the mist. Something yanked at the center of my brain, trying to pull the plug on my nervous system, but I kept going, my hands a blur as the vibrations grew discordant, and unstable. I didn't know if I was actually touching the thing, or if I was only pressing on it with my mind, but either way, I kept going. No! Stop it! Stop it!

I didn’t stop. I hammered my palms bloody against the thing, jamming my knuckles until the pressure made me hiss in pain. The dead world around me shuddered, and winds howled over the sands of the black deserts. The sky screamed, and the stars howled as I tore at the marker, unsure whether or not I was screaming, too. The world around me shuddered like glass under a sustained high note, warping like a funhouse mirror as it tried to hold itself together. Everything built to a crescendo, and I took the briefest of moments to activate my kinesis module before I slammed my fist into the final location with all my strength. I felt my knuckles break, and I heard the sickening pop of my wrist dislocating under the full force of my rig’s enhancement systems, boosted by all the extra power I could bring to bear. But when I hit the marker, the world around me went still.

I was back in the underground vault, standing on the platform that had been the focus on this entire laboratory. The tube was shattered, the machinery inside sparking and broken. Huge chunks of glass littered the dais, and spilled down the stairs. The marker itself had gone silent. On closer inspection I saw it was cracked in some places, and fused to slag in others. Very little of the damage looked to have been caused by what I'd done; it looked, instead, like internal pressures as feedback from contradictory orders and commands had caused the thing to tear itself apart in a thousand little ways. Enough to undo the assembly process, and snap apart the connections that had been made, rendering it all-but-inert. My breath hissed over my teeth as my rig tried to set my wrist, and started immobilizing my fingers as the onboard systems analyzed the damage I’d done to myself. My suit jabbed me with anesthetic, and my arm went unresponsive below the elbow. I was grateful for that. I turned away from the broken marker, and faced the room, half expecting one of the horde of flesh-warped nightmares to put an end to me. There was nothing there, though.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. There were puddles of bubbling slurry, filled with chunks of gristle, shards of bone, and half-melted organs that were still recognizable if I squinted and tilted my head to one side. Even the flesh that had crawled along the walls was curling away like sheets of dried up paper, sighing as it crumbled away to dust. I surveyed the room, but the only thing still upright and moving in the mess was me.

Again.

I descended the stairs, retrieved my sidearm, and holstered it. Then I picked up my discarded helmet, and pushed it back into place. I felt my rig seal it in place, and the holographic display booted back up. No sooner had the system come back online than an incoming message lit up, and demanded my attention.

“Go ahead,” I said. This time a projector opened, and a horror show stared at me. A warped collection of features, none of which made any sense when compiled together as a whole. I had to glance down at the neck and chest, reading the symbols of rank on display to ensure that what I was seeing was my contact.

“Lazarus, is that you?” Echo asked.

For a moment, I wasn’t sure how to answer that. I thought of the alien vista that had flashed through my mind’s eye. I thought of the size of the voices that had reached for me, echoing across gulfs of space I couldn’t even contemplate. I thought of the mountain of corpses my own kind had built as a monument to the grotesque hunger of the things that lurked on the other side of these twisted sigils. I thought of the black hole in the middle of my head that was eating a little bit more of the man I’d once been, sucking down the memories both good and bad until all I understood was an endless, eternal now. I took in a breath that smelled like blood, and tasted like bad dreams.

“What’s left of me,” I said. “For whatever that’s worth.”

More Stories From Neal Litherland

If you enjoyed this tale, then please consider leaving a comment or a like, and sharing it with other readers! This is the latest installment of my Table Talk series, and if you wish to help me keep putting out new stories then consider becoming a Patreon patron, or just buying me a Ko-Fi as a way to put a tip in my jar for a job well done!

But if you're in the mood for more of my stories, check out some of the following examples!

- Old Soldiers: The Hyperion Conflict devastated the planet, but humanity survived. So, too, did the Myrmidon; genetically-engineered shock troopers who stood on the front lines of the war. Pollux has been trying to escape the horrors of that war for a decade, now, and he may be able to do so... until a shadowy conspiracy makes a move on him. Reassembling the remains of his old squad, he prepares to do what he was made to do, but there is a question in the back of his mind. Is this really happening, or is it all in his head?

- Where The Red Flowers Bloom: When Japanese forces sent a small garrison to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, none of them expected to so much as see the enemy before the end of the war. But there is something on the island... something more dangerous than an entire fleet of American warships. Something that bullets simply will not kill.

- Broken Heroes: Rann was sent out to retrieve a lost weapon, but now he and the squad who came with him are surrounded by the colossal, insectoid creatures that claimed the forest. When a brave act crashes him through the ground and into an ancient bunker, he finds something far more potent than he could ever have hoped for... something that wants to finish the fight it started so long ago.

- Field Test: When Inquisitor Hargrave came to the world of New Canaan a few days ahead of an ork rok, she promised them a weapon that would destroy the greenskins. When that weapon was unleashed, though, none could have predicted just how powerful, or how dangerous, he truly was.

- Beyond The Black: The Emperor's Hand: Gav Smythe has fought daemons and traitors in the Emperor's name all his life... but this may be the greatest challenge the ogryn has yet faced!

- Waking Dogs- A World Eaters Tale: For my fans of Warhammer 40K, this is a story I felt compelled to tell about one of the infamous World Eaters remembering who he once was.

- Broken Chains- A World Eaters Tale: The sequel to Waking Dogs, we see that Crixus is taking his personal crusade seriously. Word is beginning to spread of his deeds, and his old sergeant Atillus realizes that the time may have come for him to pay for the decisions he made so very long ago.

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About the Creator

Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

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Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary

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    Neal LitherlandWritten by Neal Litherland

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