Warped: Five – You First

Warped
by Andrea Speed

Five – You First

He hated EVA suits.Oh sure, technically they were just a ring of smart metal you snapped around your waist and activated, and it did all the work for you. But it felt slick inside, slimy, like a whole bunch of tiny, damp snakes were using him as a personal waterslide. Disgusting.

But Gen knew he really didn’t have a choice in the matter. It wasn’t like he could just walk out the airlock without any protection at all. But while the metal grew along his body, becoming translucent at the top so he could actually see where the fuck he was going, he grumbled, “Dar’s gone crazy, hasn’t she? She’s out of her fucking mind.”

war5.jpg“Wouldn’t you be if you had ta babysit a buncha losers?” Bruno replied acerbically.

Except for him, Bruno had a point. He hated it when that happened.

As soon as the suit had finished growing, he snapped an oxygen canister into the appropriate opening, and tested his comm by cursing randomly. Bruno cursed right back, so he figured he was good.

He waited in the airlock until the gravity and the atmosphere matched the outside, and his stomach felt a bit fluttery, like it was trying to float up his esophagus. Why the hell were they here exactly? They didn’t help people, or things as the case may be, and since Cryers couldn’t talk (not to mention send out distress signals), they couldn’t have been responsible for the transmission. So why was Dar fucking around with this?

Stepping out, the lighter gravity made him feel like he might drift away at any second, and the ground beneath his feet was strange, almost spongy, although solid enough to hold them up. Looking around, he thought about what a minor place this was, and how, in his opinion, it would be nothing but a dust bunny.

What the hell kind of a shithole world was this?!

The sky was a bile colored yellowish-green, with thick smears of clouds like dirty cotton wads, and it gave the planet a strange look, like light was being filtered through translucent vomit. Not that it mattered; the ugly light – which guaranteed that this kidney stone of a moon would clash with every goddamn color in the known universe – only revealed a rocky landscape that wouldn’t have been out of place on your standard asteroid.

The Nyorai had come down inside what looked like a type of canyon, with slate grey, jagged rock walls rising up on either side of them, and what looked like the flat, blunt altar of a mesa parallel to them. There was lots of rocks scattered across the canyon floor, lots of scree, and an occasional tangle of blue-green wiry strands that could have been a plant or type of fungus. Whatever it was, it looked like a vrig’s hairball.

He was the last one out, as he saw Kvec in his tin foil suit (Cryers could survive raw vacuum – they didn’t need an EVA suit), crouched down and holding a chunk of rock in his hands. Khal was sitting on a crate sized bolder close to Kvec, head held in his hands like he was extremely hung over, or still very wasted. He expected the third person in a silver skinned, scaled EVA suit to be Vani, but he could tell from the back of the head, the half bare scalp and half metal cranium, that it could only be Dar.

Now things had just gotten weirder, although it pretty much confirmed his suspicion that things were seriously fucked up. She rarely left the ship – what ‘facer unplugged from their “body”? – unless she was extremely curious, or extremely bored, both of which explained the side trip to this mudhole.

The head’s up display in his suit was displaying all sorts of data in bright crimson letters and numerals across his faceplate, but he angrily shut it off. Did he really need to know how much nitrogen was in the atmosphere? Nobody needed to know stupid shit like that.

As he approached, he heard Khal saying through the open comm, “ – enough about your people to do that, Kvec. Besides, I’m sure it’s physically impossible.”

“We could take some pieces back for testing,” Dar said, in her odd half-female, half-metallic voice. “Figure out what did this to them.”

Gen felt suddenly hot inside his suit, a wave of heat making him sweat, and he knew his hormones were wearing off. No matter whether he was dosed with male or female hormones, whenever they started fading away he had the same symptoms: hot flashes, general physical discomfort, all around crabbiness. And did he get any sympathy from these pissheads? No. They acted like his being a pseudo-metamorph was a pain in their asses.

Khal sighed testily and looked up at Dar, not noticing that he had joined them. “And how do we do that? Do you really think that Bruno could scan anything that wasn’t a piece of toast and make sense of it?”

Dar seemed to shrug inside her suit. “I can.”

Gen was glad that Dar was wearing the full EVA suit. Sometimes she didn’t, exposing her bare mechanoid arms and legs, making her look like some weird ass cybernetic skeleton. Why she refused to have synthflesh put on her limbs he had no idea, except she thought it was “useless” and “purely aesthetic”. So what the hell was wrong with that?

Gen noticed that the chunk of rock Kvec was holding was red and semi-translucent; in fact, most of the scree scattered across this part of the canyon floor was red. Slowly, it dawned on him that these were the remains of Cryers, and this wasn’t just a comet blasted chasm on a random moon, but a graveyard. Weird. What could blast a bunch of Cryers to rubble?

And if they could do that to Cryers, what could they do to them? Fuck! Why the hell were they here?!

“There’s something wrong,” Dar said, looking around in the slow, deliberate manner that indicated she was in scanning mode.

Khal scoffed. “No fucking kidding. We have a bunch of shattered Cryers.”

“No, I mean how did they broadcast? Do you see any radio or ansible equipment here?”

Even Kvec, who seemed paralyzed staring at the piece of his fellow rock person, started looking around. But Gen hardly needed to turn his head to know that here was no such thing on the ground. So either whoever had done this picked up their equipment and took it with them, or this wasn’t the group that sent the signal. Which was more disturbing?

“Oh, I see,” Dar said, apropos of nothing.

“What?” Gen asked, looking around. He didn’t know why he bothered; he probably wouldn’t see a damn thing.

“Over there,” Dar said, before walking towards the far canyon wall.

Both Khal and Kvec stood and looked at her, and Gen asked, “What’s over there? I just see rocks.”

The canyon wall was an unbroken expanse, with just one of those shrubby hairballs breaking up the rocky bulwark. Dar kept walking, and didn’t bother to look back at them. “Extremely sophisticated cloaking hologram. I could only pick it up in the ultraviolet frequency.”

He turned on his HUD again, and looked towards the cliff walls. The readout told him nothing he actually needed to know, it just gave him the mineral make up of the rock, and, because the display was personalized for him, how much the raw ore would be worth in the current market. (Not enough to buy a spare oxygen canister. What a shithole planet this was.)

“Our HUDS can’t pick it up,” Khal said. “Are you sure it’s not a sensor anomaly? There’s a lot of weird radiation around.”

“My hardware’s more sophisticated than yours,” she replied, with the dismissive arrogance of all ‘facers. She didn’t stop walking towards the wall, and he, Khal, and Kvec all glanced at each other (well, Kvec looked in their direction – he couldn’t tell if he was actually looking at them. What kind of self respecting being didn’t have obvious pupils?) as she continued on. They watched, partially enthralled and partly hoping she’d smack headlong into a wall.

But the moment she neared the wall, she walked right through it, with no impact, ripple, or cessation of the image. After a moment, she stuck her head out, and the image remained solid, so it seemed like she was just a head embedded in the rock, a macabre trophy. A head encased in clear smart metal, half flesh, and half machine, with a bulging sensor node telescoping out of her eye socket and glowing a cool, neon blue. “Are you coming or not?”

Like they had a choice; like they had anything better to do on this shithole of a moon.

Khal led the way, followed by Kvec and himself, and Kvec hesitated a moment before walking through the cliff face, which allowed him to do the same thing. Or would have, if the very thought of doing something Kvec did didn’t irritate the piss out of him. So instead he closed his eyes as he walked into the wall, waiting to feel something.

It was the stupidest damn thing ever. Whenever you walked into or through a complex (as opposed to cheap) hologram, you expected to feel some resistance, but it was never there. There were holographic force fields, but they hummed and made your hair stand up on your arms, so you always knew what you were in for. The fancy holograms should have done something; it seemed like a rip off.

He opened his eyes to find himself in what appeared to be a dimly lit cave, the only illumination coming from Khal’s HUD lights, Dar’s sensor eye, and weird patches of green fuzz on the wall that glowed of its own accord. Some kind of weird bioluminescent lichen or fungus? He didn’t pay attention to his HUDs scan of it.

“Okay, so, this is weird,” Gen noted, once his eyes had adjusted. The cave was actually a tunnel not so much carved out of the rock as hollowed, the walls smooth as glass and the ceiling gently arching overhead. Save for little dots of green, it was impossible to see what was farther down the tunnel.

“This was lazed,” Dar said, looking up at the ceiling.

“You mean burned out? Why the hell would MoSys do that?”

“Why are you assuming this was MoSys?” Khal asked, like a born smart ass.

Kvec patted his chest with an open hand, like he had a cough. “Your people?” Khal replied, either getting it or getting a visual message that Kvec only sent him. “I guess it’s possible, but only because we know a bit less than nothing about them.”

“Yeah, for all we know, giant space bats did this. We aren’t exactly the Explorer Corps, are we?”

For some reason, Khal gave him an evil look for that, and Kvec flexed his fingers like he was annoyed. What? It was true! They were just a bunch of losers – and him – wandering around, waiting to get captured or killed. It wasn’t much of a life. But then again, what was?

Dar started wandering down the tunnel, not programmed with enough sense not to. “Khalil, are we alone?”

He just stood there, while Kvec decided to follow Dar down the tunnel. Gen made to follow him, but pretended to pause to stare at Khal, because honestly, if there was a flesh eating alien down there, Dar and Kvec could deal with it.

Khal was staring past him, through him, a strangely puzzled and vacant look on his face. “What the hell ..? Hey guys, I sensed so much agony I couldn’t think straight. Now I’m not getting anything. What the fuck is that?”

Gen shrugged. “They died. Duh.” He turned away before Khal could give him an evil look he didn’t deserve, and edged down the tunnel, moving cautiously but trying hard not to seem like a pussy. He hadn’t heard any screams, so that was a good sign.

Or was it?

“Does this thing go anywhere, or is this some elaborate practical joke?” Gen asked, just to see if anyone else was still alive.

“We have discovered the outlet,” Dar replied, her voice emotionless and utterly devoid of anything approaching inflection.

“What, like a port?” he scoffed. “Would it kill you to speak System Standard sometime? Shit …”

He came around a bend in the tunnel, and almost walked into Kvec’s broad crystal back. “Hey, you big oaf, would you move -” he complained as he squeezed around him, to look at Dar’s “outlet”.

He instantly regretted it.

The “outlet” was a large circular room, about the size of a small space station hangar deck, with a smooth domed ceiling. There was no green moss in here, but there were emergency strip lights, still giving off a pale yellow glow. They showed a scene of utter devastation: consoles broken down to splinters of hardfoam, tangles of fiberwire and smashed sensors spilling out of its ruptured frames like guts, shattered glasteel sparkling like frost on the slick stone floor. There were also twisted beams of metal, narrow but solid, growing out of the floor like diseased trees. But none of that was quite as shocking as the blood sprayed all over the walls, mostly red but some greenish-black, some of which had pooled on the floor like a coolant spill. There were pieces of what looked like flesh dangling from some of the bent rods, like hats their owners had hung up and left behind in their haste to leave. But there were no bodies …

There were no bodies! Holy fuck, what was this?! Did something eat them?

“Oh shit,” Khal moaned, sounding like he was going to heave. He reached out and leaned on Kvec, who didn’t seem to notice or mind.

Dar walked around, head moving slowly as she scanned the scene. “Curious. I don’t recognize this configuration.”

“Meaning what?” Gen snapped. Between seeing this, the ebbing hormones, and the certainty that they had walked into the nest of some flesh eating alien monster, he was in no mood for her usual cyborg shit.

“It’s possible this was MoSys, but it’s equally likely this is foreign.”

“Foreign? You mean alien, don’t you?”

She gave the slightest shrug, not bothering to turn and face him. “That’s what I said.”

Gen shook his head, looking back down the tunnel, almost expecting to see some big jawed monster waiting there to eat them all. “We are so fucked.”

He hoped they ate Dar first.

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