Time, it seemed, had fragmented around me. Aware for a long while of simply existing, I would sometimes open my eyes to be confronted with the blurred, hazy reality surrounding me. Inevitably, I couldn't fight the fever and the medication that worked together to give me rest, and I would fall once again into the healing slumber. My sleep wasn't easy. I was assailed by dreams, by memories, by sounds, and they all haunted me, they all mocked me—warning me that not all had come to pass. Lost in delirium, I would open my eyes to see a frightening visage above me, a masked countenance that both terrified and comforted. Not real, something would say to me, and so I would let myself be adrift again in the darkness, the eldritch shadows.
From time to time pain would return and I would lay lost in my world of whispers and thoughts as agony danced intricately along the length of my spine and wove itself around my torso and arms. Fever heat invaded my body, inciting my dreams to flame, and only vaguely aware of my corporeal self I would thrash in the throes of whatever horror gripped me. At intervals when I became slightly more lucid I would notice the touch of hands upon my body and I could understand the related voices if I made an effort. Coinciding with these periods of time came peaceful sleep as I rested with the distant knowledge that I was in good care.
When finally my eyes fluttered open to focus first on the hanging light above me and then my surroundings, I found that I was alone. For a moment I simply lay, groggy and disconcerted, trying to pull all the chaotic threads of my unraveled memory into one coherent strand of order.
I was sitting bolt upright. Vivid recollections flooded back to me and as the memories flooded the vacant holes in my memory I started shaking my head. It had all happened, I couldn't deny it, couldn't try to pretend it away—I caught sight of my arms them, both bandaged from wrist to elbow in heavy gauze. They were a testament to all I'd endured. My head still felt fuzzy. I tugged absently on the IV embedded under the bandages on my wrist. I became aware of a soft and steady beep-beep-beep, the only other sound in the room besides my breathing, and my gaze traced several wires attached to my body to a series of monitors located not far from the bed I lay in. I let my eyes wander the rest of the room. It was undecorated, the spartan walls a pale gray, the floor metal, windowless with one steel door set off to the side. It was obviously the Piper Maru's infirmary, as the shelves and the single counter which lined the wall housed myriad medical supplies. I presently occupied a hospital issue bed, complete with raised metal rails on the sides, and all around me was more monitoring equipment as well as the IV stand. There was a small bedside table to the right as I caught a glimpse of what lay atop it an abrupt, leaden sensation settled in my gut.
It was the weapon I'd been given by the predator elder, still in its compact form. Seeing it lying there so inconspicuously drove home the fact that I had lived through events that anyone else in the world would deem insurmountable. It made me realize that I now had a considerable quandary to deal with: what would I tell people when asked what happened beneath the island, when they asked how I was the only one to survive? The truth quite obviously wasn't going to cut it.
The door opened then, swinging inward soundlessly and emitting a woman—the same I had seen earlier. Catching sight of me upright she stopped in surprise. A warm smile creased her face and she shut the door behind her before walking to the bed.
"Ms. Woods!" she exclaimed, feeling my brow with the back of her hand. "Nice to see you're finally awake. How do you feel?"
The compassion in her voice was genuine. I liked her for it. She near my age or slightly older, her dark hair rising from her head in trendy spiky disarray. It was becoming on her. She was dressed casual, in jeans and a sweatshirt, and I wondered if she was the Piper Maru's acting medical officer. Aware she was awaiting my answer, I said in a voice rough from disuse, "All right."
"All right?"she repeated a trifle incredulously, pulling away to regard me more closely. I gave her a sheepish, hesitant smile. Upon awaking I'd been concerned more with my fears and worries than how I actually felt. Now that I was paying attention, however, my body decided to make its numerous grievances known. My side was stiff and sore and the entirety of my back itched uncomfortably. My arms felt wooden and heavy, the back of my leg throbbed, and my shoulder where I'd been impaled ached dully.
"I feel like crap," I said honestly after a moment of reflection.
"And you should," she replied, nodding. "You were in very rough shape when they found you, Ms. Woods. Four broken ribs, that hole in your shoulder, arms and back badly burned, and that mark on your cheek …"
She trailed off and I avoided the sudden scrutiny in her gaze, brushing self-consciously at the scar on my cheek with the fingers of one hand. Here come the questions.
"How much do you remember of what happened?"
Not the question I'd expected, but it was one that gave me an escape from formulating complex lies to cover the real events that had occurred. I made an effort to make it seem as though I were sifting through hazed memories before I said haltingly and with regret, "Not much."
The woman made a sympathetic noise and started unwinding the gauze from the arm she was closest to. "I'm not surprised. What do you remember of the explosion? The one that destroyed the cavern?"
I was thinking frantically. I knew that Max had been carrying explosives even though I'd protested him bringing them along. They were for emergencies, he told me in his cool and unperturbed manner, and that had been that. And the drilling equipment that had been shuttled into the cavern in case it was needed—it had certainly had volatile components. I doubted anyone on board the Piper Maru knew exactly what we'd found on the island, and so I decided to take a shot in the dark.
"Something went wrong with the drilling machinery," I said slowly, watching her expression. "There was a malfunction and then there was fire everywhere. We tried to get out of there …"
"How?" she asked softly, and I could hear the compassion in her tone.
"With the sled. But then there was an explosion. Everything started coming down. I got to the sled, but no one else did …"
My voice had begun to tremble as I remembered, vividly, what had transpired after my liberation from the ice tunnel. I was still terrified, even now, sitting here safe and secure on board this vessel. Misinterpreting my distress, the woman stopped unraveling the gauze and said soothingly, "It's all right, don't think about it anymore. You're okay. You can talk about it when you're ready."
I nodded my thank. A silence fell between us both as she removed the last of the bandages from my arm. I stared at the exposed flesh in dismay. The skin was a mass of ridged, rivulet-like scars from both the alien claws and acidic blood. I wasn't a doctor, but I was learned enough to know that those marks would be permanent.
"I'm afraid those will be with you the rest of your life," the woman said softly, sympathetically, echoing my thoughts. I nodded again. She continued, "The scars on your back will be permanent too."
I'd already figured as much. "As for your ribs, they're coming along nicely, as is that hole in your shoulder. You'll retain full use of your arm, too. We got to you before the wound had festered for too long. You're going to be just fine." She patted me on the leg before walking around the bed to unravel the gauze from my other arm, removing the IV first.
"Where are we?" I asked then, wanting to redirect my thoughts from the grim path they were beginning to venture down.
"We're still anchored off the south coast of Bouvetoya."
Bouvetoya? "Why are we still here?" I demanded, trying and failing to suppress the panic in my voice. I wanted nothing more than to be far, far away from that island and everything that had happened on it.
"They're trying to piece together what happened and recover anything salvageable."
"Because Mr. Weyland left direct orders that in the event something like this should happen, Weyland Industries would make another attempt to enter the temple."
"There's nothing left of it," I whispered.
"Then they'll learn that the hard way," she said, and there was a sudden edge to her voice. Whoever they were, she clearly wasn't pleased with them.
"Who are you?" I asked then, curious.
"Anamaria Benson, Ana for short. I'm an employee of Weyland Industries—field and medical technician, to be exact. Mr. Weyland saw fit to bring me along on this little adventure."
I vaguely recalled having seen more of Weyland's employees milling about when I'd first boarded the Piper Maru. It made sense that he'd bring an entire team along to further study the temple because he'd been anticipating a successful mission.
I asked, "How did they find me on Bouvetoya?"
"Mr. Weyland specified that after thirty-six hours of radio silence a rescue team was to be launched. They found you in the middle of the abandoned whaling station."
"How long have I been here?"
"It's been twelve days since they brought you on board."
Twelve days? "Why are we still here?" I asked again, incredulous. Surely they'd have realized after this amount of time that there remained nothing of interest on Bouvetoya …
"Like I said, this has become a salvage operation. Reed is hell bent on following his father's last wishes."
"Yes, Reed Weyland. He couldn't be troubled to accompany you all down to the temple, but now that his father is out of the way …" she let her words die off, glancing up at me with an apologetic smile. "I'm rambling, and I'm sure you're tired. Why don't you—"
"I'm not tired," I interrupted her. The last of the gauze came free of my arm. The scar tissue that marred my skin was just as bad as it had been on the other arm.
"Mmm. I guess you wouldn't be, after twelve days of sleep. I suppose you'd like to get up and walk around?"
"Please." I said.
"Okay." She smiled again and took down the metal railing that lined the side of the bed. Mindful of my current state, she helped me hop down from the bed with gentle hands. Every muscle I had protested the movement, but I clamped my jaw together, determined to suffer in silence. When I was standing, albeit leaning against the bed, Ana considered me for a long moment.
"Your clothes are here," she said, gesturing to a small cupboard behind her. "I'll go wait outside while you get dressed."
"Thank you," I murmured. As she exited the room I hobbled over to the cupboard and withdrew the folded pile of my clothing. The only thing that remained from my initial journey where my long underwear and my thermal pants; the rest had, I assumed, been thrown out because of the holes burned, clawed, or sliced into them. There was underwear in the middle of the pile, white and utilitarian. I struggled out of the hospital gown I wore to don them awkwardly, trying not to snag the thick bandages I could feel covering my back. I opted to forego the long underwear as I didn't plan on traipsing around outside, instead just opting for the pants. There were two shirts in the pile, a long sleeved turtleneck and a dark hooded sweatshirt, and I decided to wear them both. I had to sit down in order to put on the wool socks and when that was done I combed through the rest of my belongings that had been stored in the cupboard. There were matches, some first aid supplies, spare batteries, and the small penlight I always carried. It wasn't until I'd turned to leave the room that I realized what else was missing. Inexplicably worried, I turned back and pawed through the objects again, but to no avail. The alien fang, the one Scar had given to me on a length of wire to wear around my neck, was gone.
I closed the cupboard before moving around the bed to the table where the weapon the predator elder had given me lay. I picked it up, examined it, and scouted the rest of the table for the fang. It was nowhere to be found. Frowning, I set the weapon back down before making my way to the door. Perhaps the fang had fallen from me during my rescue from Bouvetoya.
True to her word, Ana was waiting just outside. She turned as I came through the door, letting it close gently behind me. Examining my attire, she shook her head. "The shirts are big on you, sorry. It's all I had."
"They're fine," I said. She opened her mouth to say something more when a shrill ringing tore through the air around us. Swearing, she pulled her smartphone off a clip on her belt. Recognizing the number, her face contorted into a grimace. She looked back to me with an apologetic sigh.
"Reed has summoned me," she said, and there was no disguising the contempt in her tone. "I'd offer to take you with me, but you don't want to encounter him just yet. You really don't." She paused, biting down on her lip, contemplating. Finally she said, "Well, you're somewhat familiar with the ship, aren't you? Why don't you just get a little exercise and meet me back here in an hour? Just promise me that you'll take it easy."
"All right," I agreed. She flashed me another of her small, warm smiles before giving me a little wave and setting off at a brisk walk down the hallway. Alone suddenly, I remained where I was for a long moment, getting my thoughts in order, before heading off at a limping walk in the opposite direction.
My aimless wandering took me all over the place, from the mess hall that was empty to the engine rooms and back to the residential quarters. I saw several people but most were involved with some form of work and I decided it was wisest not to interrupt. The ship's engines were silent and as I made my way through the mostly empty corridors the only sound was that of my footsteps. I had to stop repeatedly because I quickly grew out of breath and my body complained with every step I took. Eventually I found the stairs that led above deck and while climbing them was a painful affair I did it anyways. Stepping out into the ever-night of the arctic, the chill air was biting as I took a breath and crossed to the railing overlooking the ice-strewn sea. It took me a moment to realize I stood now where I had with Graeme and Sebastian the first night I'd arrived on board the Piper Maru. We'd been discussing the northern lights and Graeme's children, and I had told them both not to go on Weyland's insane crusade to Bouvetoya …
I smiled. It wasn't a happy smile. I'd warned them against making the journey and then decided they stood a better chance for survival under my guidance. Tears needled hotly behind my eyes. They'd all died, each and every one of them, despite the fact that I'd decided to act as their guide …
I whirled around, my heart in my throat, to find a little girl standing behind me. She was bundled up in defense against the cold and only her large dark eyes were visible in the space between her thick, furry hood and her long blue scarf. She walked forward to stand by me where I leaned against the railing and asked, "Who are you?"
"Alexa Woods," I replied, quickly wiping the tell-tale moisture from my eyes and striving to make my voice even. "And who are you?"
Benson … "Is your mom Anamaria?" I asked.
Cora nodded, still facing the ice covered waters that surrounded us. "Yeah."
"I didn't know they'd let children onboard," I said, more to myself than to the child.
"They didn't want to, but mom didn't want to leave me behind. She said I'd like this trip."
I heard the plaintive note in her voice. "And do you?"
She turned to me then, leaning against the metal railing. "It was fun at first. But then there was the accident, and now everybody's sad and working all the time."
I didn't say anything, because I was fighting off a heavy tide of sorrow once again. The little girl watched me a moment longer before turning to stare again at the sea of ice. After a moment she asked, "You were in the accident, weren't you?"
"Were you hurt bad?"
A pause, and then, "You're all better?"
A smile pulled at the sides of my reluctant mouth. "I'm getting better."
Cora nodded and then asked, "Have you seen the monster?"
I stared hard at her, smile suddenly fading, and when I spoke my voice was low, terse. "What monster?"
She ignored my question. "Mr. Gerdol saw it first, and everyone made fun of him and said he drinks too much. I didn't believe him either because he's not a very nice man, and my mom doesn't like him. But then …"
I swallowed thickly. "But then …?" I prompted almost silently.
She turned to regard me with solemn eyes. "I saw it too. Two nights ago. Down by where all the rooms are."
"What—" My voice cracked, and I had to clear my throat before continuing, "What did it look like?"
She thought for a moment. "Like ... water, kind of. It was moving, but when it stood still I couldn't see it anymore … am I crazy?"
"No," I said, wrapping my arms around myself in order to stave off a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature.
"Do you believe me?"
Her earnest tone made me close my eyes. "I think I do."
"You won't tell my mom, will you?"
The sound of her gasping, followed by her frantic footsteps, made my eyes snap open again. She had bolted away from the railing and ran down the stairs I'd come from. I whirled around to shout after her when I saw something from the corner of my eye—
—the alien tooth dangling by its wire. It seemed as though it were floating some several feet away, but the longer I stared the more I could make out a definite shape behind it, a shimmering of air—
And then there was the sound, that deep and guttural growl that I'd hoped never to hear again.
I took one step toward the stairwell, and then another. A part of my mind was laughing with wild, horrified abandon, because the creeping sense of dread I'd felt was merited—the nightmare wasn't over. The other part was afraid. As I reached the top of the stairs the growling intensified, and suddenly the shape I was so dreaded materialized out of the shadows, shaping itself into something corporeal.
It was Scar.
"How …?" I breathed. The last I'd seen of him, he'd had one of alien creatures clawing its way free of his chest. "Why are you here?" I whispered then, trying very hard to suppress my urge to turn heal and run headlong after Cora.
He fell silent, head tilted to the side in the manner I was so familiar with. After a moment he tossed the fang to me. I caught it by the length of its wire. I stared at it, so very confused, before raising my eyes to the hunter before me.
And found that two more had materialized behind him.
I almost leapt backwards, would have tottered and fell down the stairs had not I suddenly reached out with my arm to keep myself upright. The two predators behind Scar I had never seen before. They had the same marks on their masks as Scar—the same mark I now carried on my cheek—and all three of them wore similar armor. Bones, skulls, and other strange objects decorated their bodies, but one thing struck me in particular about the three of them: they carried no weapons that I could see.
I had opened my mouth to voice another question when abruptly the two new hunters vanished from view, their invisibility coating them like some sort of fluid. Scar remained where he was a moment longer before inclining his head to me with a rattling trill, turning and concealing himself from view. I strained my eyes to watch the shimmer of air that indicated his presence as it made its way further down the deck before being disappearing completely. By the time I remembered to breathe again, my entire body was trembling.
I uncurled my white knuckled fingers, staring down at the tooth in my palm. Fighting a surge of pure panic, I stared hard at it, trying to convince myself that what had happened wasn't what I feared. There was no denying it, though—the predators were on the ship to observe, and I had the very unnerving impression they were observing me. Observing me, and obviously waiting.
Waiting for what, I didn't know.
I didn't want to know.