Photo by Antonia Lombardi // Unsplash
Still clean. Spotless. Unsettling.
Ameka’s grip tightened on her gun.
The lights flickered every so often. Industrial ticking down the hall. Minor damage—a broken console, dents in the walls, shattered glass underneath a broken lamp—but no signs of life, live or dead, other than her and the rest of the junkers.
Jamal walked ahead, Bernhardt beside him, everyone else behind them. So quiet you could hear a pin drop in the rare moments between boots on the floor.
Deck One and Two were much the same. An eerie silence that had her hair standing on end. Emptiness, like whatever had been down here had been sucked into space or evacuated months ago. If not for the bunny and what it did to their crew, she would have thought them entirely alone.
She looked over her shoulder. Charlie looked green, like he was about to vomit, and held his now-bandaged hand at his side as he walked. She’d seen plenty junkers meet their fates inside the hull of a ship, but Richard was his first, and it showed. You didn’t build that callus up the first or second time, but by the fifth or sixth you realized it was just more credits for you at the end of the day.
Jamal and Bernhardt froze just as she returned forward, and she nearly walked into them. It took her a moment before she heard it too.
A thumping in the distance. The hallway was lined with rooms—dorms, restrooms, kitchens, offices, but not labs, which must have been in the decks below. The thumping was coming from off to the right. Rhythmic, dull, vague.
Ameka motioned for the two dozen or so behind her to stay put and then ventured toward the sound with Jamal and Bernhardt. The frequency of thumping was unchanged, and if whatever it was knew they were coming, it didn’t show.
There was a bathroom a few doorways up from where they’d first heard it. The sound was louder here, and the three of them went inside as a unit, guns cocked at the ready. Bathroom stalls were empty, but the thumping seemed to be coming from around a corner, from where the showers must have been.
Slowly, they crept forward. Ameka could feel her heart pounding in her ears. Her grip was sweaty. Her muscles were tense.
They locked eyes, the thumping still slow and steady, unchanged. Then, they burst around the corner.
Well, not nothing, but nothing to fear. Ameka lowered her gun and her muscles relaxed.
A row of showers lined the wall. Beside it, what looked to be a sauna, or some chamber that closed off from the rest of the bathroom. There was a body in the doorway, a woman in a lab coat, with long, black hair lying facedown. The thumping was the slow, repetitive closing of the sliding doors from either side. Ameka watched them close on the corpse, bump it, slide back open, and then try to close several seconds later. She wondered just how long they’d been stuck in that cycle.
“First sign that anything’s amiss,” Bernhardt said.
“First sign of life,” Ameka countered. They stood there, staring at the corpse for a moment. “Wait, I didn’t smell anything.”
“And she looks awfully fresh,” Jamal said. He motioned to Bernhardt, who nodded and crept closer to investigate.
Richard had looked dead. Colin, too. She squeezed her sweaty hand around the grip of her gun, and all that tension returned. She was practically aiming down her sights at the corpse by the time Bernhardt knelt beside it.
He looked over cautiously, obviously on the same wavelength as Ameka. Then he slowly reached down and grabbed her wrist.
“Nothing,” he said before turning to them. “Still warm, hasn’t been here for—”
A scream in the hall. They locked eyes before bolting for the door.
Outside the bathroom was chaos, the kind Ameka could barely comprehend. A massive, suction-cupped tentacle had extended from one of the side rooms near the rest of the junkers. It was flailing wildly, smacking them this way and that, like a man blindly shoving his hand into a dark recess and reaching for something he’d dropped. The luckiest of the crew were sliding, crawling, running away, their shrieks echoing down the corridor. The less lucky were stuck to the suction cups that lined the tentacle, with one man already in its grasp, getting wrenched around like a child’s plaything.
Jamal’s rifle erupted. Bernhardt and Ameka joined in, him a silent, stone-like presence and her the type of wild scream she imagined her ancestors would have unleashed on the prairies during war. Those composed enough down the corridor added gunfire of their own.
The tentacle thrashed against the wall, the floor, the ceiling, whatever it could find. It cleared the floor nearest the door and came away with another hapless junker for its collection.
Though it seemed blind from the way it moved, it was obvious it knew where most of the gunfire was coming from. After a few moments of weathering the storm, it bent back on itself and rose its suctioned underbelly into the air, Ameka thought, to use those junkers it had already caught as a mess of shields.
Their gunfire didn’t slow. Anyone already in the tentacle’s grasp was a goner, and a few shots to the belly or chest would only end their suffering sooner. Ameka’s eyes were drawn to the lifeless body that hung at the tentacle’s end, the head and legs bouncing as it writhed.
The tentacle slammed down and launched the body down the corridor. Ameka yelped and fell aside as it tumbled past her. By the time she rolled to her feet, her rifle at the ready to pour, the tentacle was slithering back through the side door, leaving a mess of oozing red in its wake.
Ameka let out a long sigh. Her rifle steamed in her hands, and the metal casings on the outside had started to warp from the heat. She looked over at Bernhardt, breathing heavily beside her, and then back down the hall into the carnage.
Bodies strewn about, ripped by their rifles and smashed by the tentacle. The rest of the junkers licked their wounds and looked on in horror.
“Jamal, what the hell was that?” Ameka said.
She looked over her shoulder and he was gone.
Bernhardt scrambled toward the bathroom. Ameka followed close behind. The stalls were clear. The showers were clear. The thumping that first drew them in was gone.
Her hands were tight on the rifle, hoping against all hope it had cooled off enough to empty another volley of fire on whatever waited for them.
They burst around the corner to the doorway without so much as collecting themselves for what they might see.
It didn’t matter. There was nothing.
The sauna door was closed. The woman was gone. Jamal was nowhere to be seen.
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