A tremor shot through Charlie’s body, like he was finally more tentacle than man. His limbs were rubbery and misshapen, his head oblong, his neck stretched so thin Ameka could see the tentacles coming up through it before they left his mouth.
She pulled the trigger. One more junker down.
She spun, saw some other half-woman, half tentacle had pinned Bernhardt to the ground. She pulled the trigger again, ripped the thing into a mess of green gore.
All quiet in the lab other than Ameka’s racing heartbeat and the junkers slowly making their way towards her. There were only a handful left. They were battered, bruised, covered in the blood of who knew.
Master is downstairs. Charlie’s words echoed in her ears. Cut off the head and the rest follow. He knew where Master was because he knew he was turning. And he’d been turning ever since seeing that bunny upstairs.
“Are any of you wounded?” Ameka said to what was left of her crew. Charlie hadn’t been hurt badly, but still gave in. Jamal must have been worse than they first thought, because his was almost right away. “Check yourselves for your own blood.”
Quiet as they searched for wounds. Ameka watched them, watched Bernhardt closest and was relieved that he couldn’t find anything. He walked over to her so they could observe the rest of the handful left.
Ameka looked over at him, saw him pointing at her arm, trailed his fingers to a splotch of blood near her elbow.
They both just stared at it for what felt like an eternity. She didn’t remember getting cut, but everything happened so fast with the tentacles. Could have been Jamal. Could have been upstairs and no one noticed.
Slowly, her hand to her elbow. She covered the blood for a moment, scared of what she might see when she wiped it away.
Clean. Bare skin. Intact.
They sighed and locked eyes. If she was about to become one of these things, she’d rather he shoot her in the face right then to get it over with.
A soft voice, a tremor. She knew what it meant before she looked. One of the junkers had been cut on the back of her leg. It wasn’t serious. Entirely treatable, really. Expectations of a full recovery. Except not here.
Everyone looked to her. She knew she should have just ended it then. Had her hand on the trigger even, but the look in the woman’s eyes tugged the part of her heart that she thought only cavs had the power to reach anymore.
Ameka pulled her rifle down and reached for her pistol. The woman looked like she was about to bolt before Ameka extended he grip at her.
“You feel anything weird and you do it yourself,” Ameka said. “I see anything weird and you don’t do it first, then I’ll do it.”
The woman gulped and took the gun. So many new people on the crew that Ameka didn’t even know her name. Supposed it wasn’t all that important now.
“We keep going,” Ameka said to the rest of them. “It’s one deck down. We need to end it before it gets the next ship that comes along.”
Stunned disbelief. She could sympathize with not wanting to carry on. With being too scared. With thinking the risk far outweighed the reward. Could be true, if she were being honest, but back upstairs she was staring at trying to rebuild the crew she’d spent years with or finding a new line of work entirely. Neither was something she wanted to face.
“Look, we can’t go back. This thing has been waiting here for months. If we leave now, it’s just going to wreck the next ship that passes by instead.”
“But we’ll live,” the woman who she’d given the gun to said.
Maybe us. Probably not you. “You think it’s going to just let us leave?” Ameka said.
The woman opened her mouth to respond, but as she did the door back upstairs slammed shut. It seemed Master had been listening, which made sense if it was controlling the ship.
Creaking behind them. Ameka turned to the sound, saw a door on the opposite wall sliding up. They all just watched it, expecting some beast to crawl through, but it was nothing but darkness. Cavernous darkness, beckoning them forward.
Faint sounds came through the doorway. Shrieks, maybe. Inhuman. High-pitched, scratchy. Perfectly in sync, almost like dozens of monstrous voices singing a chorus.
The song built as the junkers approached the doorway. Ameka fought off a shiver and made sure her rifle was fully loaded. Bernhardt did the same beside her. The woman with the pistol, one with a bent-up table leg, and a few who had picked up the rifles left by their fallen comrades followed close behind.
Stillness on the air. Ameka looked at every vent they passed, just waiting for a tentacle, until realizing that Master was beckoning them forward by leaving them be. Why, she could only guess. Perhaps because it no longer saw them as a threat.
Darkness in the stairwell, with faint lights flickering on halfway down. The shrieking, funneled by the bare, narrow walls, bounded in her ears. Every step was forced. She had to keep wiping her hands on her pants to free them of sweat.
At the bottom, a solid door with a single, circular window. Rubbery, flimsy people staggered beyond it, staring back at them from the other side, their screams permeating, Ameka now realized, through at least six inches of concrete.
The door shuddered and then moved. What was left of the junkers fell back, weapons raised, but the rush of rubbery bodies never came. Instead, they shuffled in place, just watching, waiting. The tentacles in many had already ruptured. The rest, even in the darkness, Ameka could tell were ready to split.
Off in the distance, a massive, tentacled beast sat on a pile of crates and lab benches like they were a throne, its limbs strewn about and disappearing into the sea of people at its feet.
The sea parted for the junkers, created a long walkway to Master. Ameka led the way, with Bernhardt close at her heels and the rest behind. No one said a thing, or perhaps they did but she couldn’t hear over the shrieking of those under Master’s control.
Their eyes followed the junkers, and once past they filled in behind. Ameka focused only on the beast ahead of her, wondering just why it had let them into its lair.
Master’s row of eyes lit at her approach, and the shrieking died in an instant. Silence, heavy, foreboding silence. Ameka wanted to run back to the stairs, but when she looked over her shoulder they might as well have been on another ship entirely.
Ameka nearly screamed. It wasn’t Master’s voice, so much as the voice of every creature in the room in perfect unison. Scratchy, hoarse, and bloody.
“You’ve done well.”
She gulped and looked from those around her back to the rubbery, tentacled beast. The stares of those under its control bore into her, made her feel small and weak.
“Why are we here?” Bernhardt blurted out beside her.
“Join me and live,” Master said, its collective voice deafening in Ameka’s ears. “Go free unharmed. Get more of my children for this ship.”
So that was it. So little threat that it trusted them to be the front to get more under its control. “And if we don’t?” Ameka said, though she had a feeling she knew the answer.
Ameka looked to Bernhardt. He nodded back at her, and they opened fire.
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