This is not what some would call a good story. It has no ultimate, all encompassing struggle between good and evil, nor are there underlying moral values to be gleaned from its telling. There aren't really any surprising twists in it, either—this story runs a singular course, start to finish, with a little … deviation, if it can be called such, on the side. Perhaps I should also warn you that I am not a good heroine. My purpose in this tale was to survive, and only to survive. I'm not well-mannered and soft-spoken; neither am I overly courageous and valiant. I think you'll find that as far as heroines go, I am a rather boring, self-serving one.
Now that you've been warned, you're perhaps wondering why you should bother reading this. Honestly, I can't really give you a valid reason as to why you should. The story that follows this introduction, if you will, is simply my adventure as I lived it. You will have read others a lot like it, I think, and I'm not claiming that what is to come is wholly original and amazing in its insight. It's just a story—my story—about running, about fighting, about killing, about hating …
And yeah, there's a bit of that other stuff in there. You know, all that inexplicable, baffling drama that sets some hearts aflutter and gets the blood racing. Romance? Hardly. Or rather, yes—it's the harshest, most basic side of romance. It's attraction, pure and simple. Here's another warning—if you're picturing something sweet and dreamy with a handsome young man, you may want to ditch reading this now. Because what I'm talking about isn't like anything I'm sure most people write about. Using the word "relationship" is kind of stretching the actual situation—hell, the other involved isn't even human. I guess you could say there's a bit of a "beauty and the beast" vibe to this, even though I'm no beauty, even if the other is a beast (actually, "monster" is closer to the truth, I think). Don't get me wrong, though, this will deviate from most of those kind of stories—you know, where girl meets the monster, monster falls for girl, girl repels monster, something dramatic (and most likely traumatic) happens, girl realizes the error of her ways and falls for monster, monster becomes something less repulsive than a monster, and they live happily ever after. Oh, no, this is nothing like that.
Because you see, in this story the monster gets the girl, stays a monster, and as for the ending …
Well, I'm still waiting for closure.
I could give you the long, drawn out background that would reveal in great detail why I was onboard the Monolith when everything went to hell, but I won't. Suffice to say, life on Derrica 12 hadn't gone quite as I'd thought it would, and after the death of my lover in a mining accident I'd decided to uproot and pursue happiness elsewhere. Money wasn't really an issue for me; the Company compensated those bereaved by the death of its employees, and I had enough in the wake of the tragedy to live comfortably for quite some time. Money isn't everything, or so I'd heard somewhere, and it wasn't enough to make me want to stay on a planet full of fledgling colonies. And so I left as soon as I could, grieving in my own way, thinking perhaps I'd find in the stars something to fill the awful aching void inside me at the loss of the man I'd lived with for so long. I purchased passage on board one of the newest, state of the art transport cruisers; it was widely reputed to be unlike any other ship ever made. When it first was made, the old Earth vessel the Titanic was hailed as the dawning of a new age in terms of sea travel, and with the Monolith it was much the same. Maybe it was the grandeur that drew me, or the fact that I'd be with so many other humans. Whatever the reason, I paid the exorbitant fee without hesitation.
That was my first mistake.
I remember standing before the port windows of the small planetary transport as it lifted away from Derrica 12, bearing myself and several others up to the cruiser. I didn't bother watching the planet slip away; there was nothing there any longer that I felt tied to. It was the Monolith that caught and held my attention, an enormous mass of sleek, complex construction that filled the entirety of the small window, its multitude of lights like a starscape in miniature. As we drew nearer, I remember feeling an acute sense of foreboding, having a sense of being dwarfed by the gigantic cruiser. But I tamped those feelings down, and when the transport docked and the loading doors slid open, I pasted a pleasant expression on my face and stepped onto the Monolith.
That was my second mistake.
I'll gloss over the unimportant things, like the people I'd met and the room I was given. The Monolith had a 5000 person capacity, and besides that had a lower hold that could be used for transporting any manner of things. On this particular trip, the lower hold was filled with 100 head of malapedes, a creature that was a vague cross between something equestrian and something saurian. They were worth more than orwocs in terms of livestock, but the cost of raising and keeping them was greater. They were in demand for two reasons—riding and eating. Antiquated methods of travel were becoming popular again in certain circles, and the malapedes, much like their horse kin, were ideal for such a hobby. As well, malapede meat was gaining popularity because of how very versatile it was. Malapede ranching was fast becoming a hot investment, hence their presence on the ship—the herd was being relocated to a planet more suitable for large scale ranching. I remembered thinking wryly that I'd paid an obscene amount to ride onboard a luxury cruiser that not only carried some of the galaxy's most well known well-to-do, but common livestock as well. If only I'd known the role that livestock would play, I would have jettisoned myself offboard in one of the escape shuttles. But I digress.
The Monolith had a never ending supply of entertainment. My passage to Yana Opar, one of the more central planets in the system that boasted more cities than any other I knew of, would take twelve days. I had family there, a brother I hadn't seen in months. While the trip would have taken half the time on any other ship, this was a luxury cruiser with a reputation to uphold, and our route was going to be a scenic one, so to speak. I didn't mind. I was able to lose myself in all the Monolith offered—the casino, the libraries, the gymnasiums and the myriad of other things it contained that offered me a diversion from my thoughts, from my grief. Meals could be a casual, formal, or in my case, solitary affair. We passengers literally wanted for nothing. I stuck to myself, for the most part, not really avoiding people but not making an overt effort to interact. I'm not what you'd call a "people person", anyways—I'm sarcastic (to a fault, or so I've been told), I'm not afraid to state my opinions, and I have little patience and no tolerance for idiots. It was easiest and more preferable for me to stick with myself and join the crowds only when necessary.
I made an exception on the third night, when the Monolith's course brought us alongside a large comet for a short period of time for our viewing pleasure. The observation room was packed, as I knew it would be, but I'd never seen a comet up close before and decided to grin and bear it. And so I joined the masses, standing shoulder to shoulder with people I didn't really know, accepting a flute of champagne from a meandering synthetic waiter as I did so. I was content to sip and entertain myself privately through thought; my introspection was interrupted by the man standing next to me.
"I don't think I've seen you around," he told me conversationally; he stood slightly taller than I, with a head of thick red hair that was obviously in need of cutting, falling over his brow and obscuring his dark eyes. He was dressed casual, as was I; many of the wealthier patrons onboard to took pains to ensure they weren't mistaken for the common class. There wasn't a lot of elbow area in the room, but he held himself straight and made the obvious effort not to invade my space. He earned a point for that. I took a sip of my champagne—bubbly and rich and of better vintage than anything I'd ever tasted—before replying, thinking carefully about what I should say. Was he striking up conversation because he was interested, or was he just being polite? I wasn't looking to start anything, not now, when sometimes at night, alone, I still cried over the one I'd lost. Either way, I had to say something.
"I keep to myself." I said honestly. "I don't like crowds."
"Neither do I, but I thought I'd make an exception for this. Have you ever seen one before?"
I shook my head and opened my mouth to say something further when the quiet chatter in the room suddenly rose in volume. I turned with everyone else to peer out the large observation windows to see the comet appear, an enormous mass that wheeled and tumbled through the blackness, leaving a colorful, ethereal trail in its place. People were talking excitedly, pointing and jostling each other to get a better view.
"A lot of fuss for what amounts to a glorified rock," the man at my side said to me, hoisting his own glass, a tumbler full of amber liquid and large chunks of ice. "Cheers."
I smiled and clinked my glass against his, but remained silent. The entire room watched quietly as the comet slowly barreled past us, following its path through the windows. Despite my initial skepticism, it truly was a sight worth seeing. When it was gone from view, the man turned back to me and exclaimed with a heavy amount of mock solemnity, "Truly wondrous!"
"Amazing." I agreed with a grin. All around us, people were milling about, heading for the exits now that the show was over. More than one person stumbled into me, and I suspected that the alcohol had been flowing long before I'd arrived.
"What's your name?" the man asked me, ignoring the hustle and bustle.
"Sheyn." I said. He held out his hand, and after a moment's hesitation I shook it.
"Call me Helix," he said. "And it's nice to meet you."
"Helix?" I said questioningly. He laughed.
"Don't ask. I myself don't know what inspired my parents to name me. But they both worked in genetics, so …"
I smiled again, mentally noting that I'd done so more in the past ten minutes than I had in the last two months. "It's a nice name. Different."
"It is that," he agreed amiably, his eyes roaming over the room. He looked back to me and asked, "Care for a stroll?"
I hesitated. This was what I'd been dreading, but my first reaction wasn't to think of my late lover. I actually found the idea appealing. Ignoring the warning bells that heralded feelings of guilt and self-disgust later on, I slowly nodded. Maybe companionship wouldn't be such a bad thing—god only knew that I'd been moping in isolation enough since the death of my partner, thinking that I could heal in solitude. And besides, I wouldn't let this go anywhere. I'd take a walk, have a good, interesting conversation, and nip whatever might happen in the bug. Innocent enough of a plan …
As we walked, we acquired more drinks to replace those we'd consumed. And after the second glass, I felt myself becoming more comfortable, opening up more to the polite questions and the easy, affable camaraderie my new friend offered. His full name was Helix Sinclair, and he worked as a director of the "Acquisitions" department for the Company. I didn't care to question him on the true nature of his job. He was entertaining, his humor infectious enough that after only an hour in his company, I'd been reduced to laughter great enough to create tears. We walked aimlessly, following whatever route whimsy dictated, and I realized in a vague sort of manner that I'd drunk far too much in a very short time, but for some reason didn't care. I could see the gleam in Helix's eyes as well, the one that told of the effect of the alcohol, as he led me from the first deck into the lower hold. We stood on a catwalk above the large pens that held the malapedes and gazed down upon them; having never seen them but hearing a lot about them, I was rather curious.
"We're taking them to Grissop 3," Helix told me. "It's a planet that seems exceptionally suited to their needs."
"They belong to the Company?" I asked, surprised. "I thought some rich rancher owned them."
"That's what we want people to think. This is a bit of an experiment—confidential, if you will. These animals carry something that set them apart from the rest of the breed." He stared down at them and the expression that crossed his face was strangely eager, almost anticipatory. It was gone before I could be certain I'd seen it. He turned to me with a smile and fluttered one hand in the air. "But you're not interested in all that."
"I am," I said, trying to adopt an expression that would substantiate my lie, but he shook his head. I glanced down at the malapedes and suddenly felt the room tilt; I lifted my eyes and came to the delayed, sluggish conclusion that I was drunk. Helix stepped closer to me and put one hand on my shoulder, and I looked at him in confusion.
"What else interests you, Sheyn Harris?" He asked; he was close enough now that I could feel his breath, redolent with alcohol, brush my cheek. I couldn't think of a coherent answer, because my attention was caught and held by his eyes, by the feel of his hand on me, by the fact that I'd been terribly lonely for so long and that right now, I didn't feel alone.
Helix filled the silence for me. "I'd like to kiss you." He said.
And like a fool, I let him.
I'm not proud of what followed. With the false sense of security and deceiving bravado instilled by the alcohol, I let myself succumb to sensation and a yearning I hadn't even known I had. The trip back to my bunk—it was the closest—was a swift journey with frequent pauses during which we touched each other, kissed each other, held each other. I remember feeling a giddiness at the fact that I was letting myself do this; I am not, as a rule, spontaneous. Guilt flitted around the edge of my consciousness, but I locked it away and instead concentrated on the here and now. But the demons were reluctant to let me have my moment, for later, within the confines of the small but opulent room that was my home for the duration of my voyage, it wasn't Helix's face I saw above me, shining with sweat and drawn into lines of intense pleasure. It wasn't Helix's hands that roamed over me, explored me, made me catch my breath in raw ecstasy. I saw what I wanted to see—a dead man, the man I'd loved, teasing and tormenting my body until it all came to a shuddering, screaming end. And afterwards, as I lay on my side and felt the warmth of another body at my back, it was easier to pretend that I knew whose flesh was pressed so tightly against my own. Exhausted, desires I hadn't even known I'd harbored sated, I slid into a dark and unbroken slumber with a stranger's arm around my waist.
Morning wasn't kind.
I awoke when he did, and in that instant it took me to remember everything I was flooded with a mixture of guilt, shame and sorrow. And so I feigned sleep as I felt him stir beside me, as he brushed an errant lock of hair away from my brow and laid a soft kiss there. He rose then, and with my eyes tightly closed I listened to him move quietly around, gathering his clothes and donning them. It was only when I heard the soft hiss of my cabin door sliding shut behind him that I shifted into a sitting position, wincing as muscles abused from the activities of the night before protested the movement. I remained motionless for a long time, trying to assign reason and logic to what I'd done.
A part of me was preening at the fact that someone had obviously found me attractive; I am not by popular standards what you would call beautiful. I'm taller than most women with a sturdy, solid frame—no willowy, whip-thin vixen am I. My hair is dark brown and refuses to be simply straight, curly or wavy and instead mulishly insists on being a mixture of all three. Because of that, I tend to wear the length of it—which falls to about the middle of my back—in a braid. My face is oval, with a strong definition in the lines of my jaw and cheeks that keeps me from being delicately pretty. My eyes are hazel, either green or brown depending on the light, and I find them too large. My late lover said they were the most expressive eyes he'd ever seen. I know I'm not what you'd call a stunning beauty—I'm too plain for that. But I know I have my own brand of comeliness, should people take the time to search for it, and that was enough for me.
Was that what Helix had seen, or had it been the alcohol that had ultimately brought him into bed with me? It was a question I didn't really feel like debating, as I already felt bad enough. Sometime during my deliberations a steady, percussive throbbing had begun in my temples and had blossomed quickly into what I recognized as a hangover headache. Feeling utterly miserable at the fact that I'd betrayed the memory of the one I'd lost, I curled in on myself and lay down again, squeezing my eyes tightly shut. The tears came soon after, and when I'd worn myself out through crying, I fell asleep once more.
It was while I slumbered that the chaos first started, I learned later. It had begun with two crew members failing to report for shift change; they had been in charge of monitoring malapede herd in the lower hold overnight. An exploration into their whereabouts by other members of the crew revealed their bodies lying contorted on the catwalks above the hold—the very catwalk Helix and I had stood upon mere hours before. The manner of death had baffled the Monolith's resident doctors, for it seemed as though something had erupted with great force from within the two men, breaking out of the cage of flesh and bone. The two men weren't the only causalities, however—the entire malapede herd, all 100 head, had died in a similar matter.
The question of whether or not something infectious had been brought aboard by the livestock arose, and so it was that that the lower hold and first two floors were immediately put under quarantine. All passengers on those floors were told that there was an issue with the air quality above-deck and that the problem was being addressed with prompt and due diligence. For those of us that actually were above deck, we were informed that the there was an issue with the air quality below us. It was handled like this in order not to create a panic—this was the Monolith's maiden voyage, after all, and bad publicity had to be avoided at all costs. It was known by the ship's command that the Company were in fact the owners of the malapede herd, and so it was that Helix and the seven other members of his department were sought out to be questioned about the possibility that the livestock had carried something incredibly virulent and deadly. Helix and associates, however, were nowhere to be found.
Only four hours after the discovery of the crewmen's bodies the first of the creatures were sighted in the lower hold. It was shot and killed—with noticeable difficulty—and as three men attempted to retrieve its corpse several more of the creatures appeared. The three men fell, and an attempt to rescue them resulted in the swift and gruesome deaths of five more men. By the time it had been pieced together that these creatures were in fact the very things that had burst from the bodies of the first two dead men and the livestock, it was too late—the creatures, the aliens, had swarmed out of the lower hold en masse. Those residing in their cabins on the first deck had no idea what was coming for them.
I was awoken by the emergency claxons—their harsh blare was enough to make me leap from bed in a state of utter confusion. The red light signifying I was too head to the rendezvous point on the uppermost deck was swirling madly, bathing my darkened room in spasmodic, bloody flashes. Dazed, still feeling weak from the effects of the previous night's binge, I set about clothing myself before stumbling out the door. I wasn't the only one confused—the hall was filled with passengers headed for the gather point, all of them wearing expressions that ranged from bafflement to fear. I fell in with them and we moved as one for the elevators and the stairs, a mass of living, breathing bodies acting like a herd of animals rather than rational beings. It seemed to take forever to reach the elevators, and when we did we filled them to maximum capacity. I was becoming more alert, the fear and worry of the others around me serving almost as a refresher. I was as agitated as the rest of them and began to wonder as they did—would we have to abandon ship? If so, were there enough escape shuttles? Was this just a drill?
When the entirety of the Monolith suddenly juddered as though struck by something, throwing us hard against each other, we realized as one that it wasn't a drill. A different siren began to sound, this one with a continous high-low wailing that started my heart racing and my breathing to quicken in its pace. We all knew it for what it was—it was the alarm that signified we were under attack. The elevator lurched downwards alarmingly but then began to rise again, and there was no longer a tense silence in the elevator. One woman was weeping loudly, hysterically; another was crying large silent tears. The man next to me was whispering a rapid-fire prayer over and over again, and I stood ramrod straight in the back, staring at the doors and willing them to open. When they did it was a race to get out first; I almost fell from an errant shove. Righting myself, I stood still and let the others pour around me, refusing to panic because I knew panic in a situation like this could be deadly. There was a row of elevators, eight of them, and from each spewed forth passengers that were terrified, worried, confused. We were on the uppermost deck now; I could see the lights of the command deck not far above, could see the commotion of the people within. And then my eyes were drawn to men in uniform that stood in an organized group not far from the elevators, each of them cradling black rifles in their arms; standing motionless as they were, they contrasted sharply with the wheeling, surging crowd of passengers. I took a few steps closer and abruptly stopped, for standing at the vanguard, a similar rifle hanging across his back as he addressed the other men with agitated hand gestures, was Helix.
For a moment I contemplated approaching and asking him for all he knew, but then I remembered things from the night before—absurd things to recall at a time like this—and turned away, following the general direction of the passengers as they headed for the gather-point, which was in fact the observation deck. It was Helix's voice saying my name that jerked me back around, and I turned to watch him jog over to me.
"Not that way," he said.
"It's the gather-point." I said dumbly; everything was beginning to seem slightly surreal.
"Trust me, Sheyn," he said, and leaning in close he planted a quick kiss on my cheek. He drew back, and I noticed in a detached way that his eyes were sparkling with something akin to anticipation. He seemed excited, but when he caught hold of my wrist I resisted.
"What about them?" I asked, waving a hand at the others all around me.
He shook his head. "They'll be fine, but I want to be sure that you'll be okay." When I still didn't move, he leaned in again to say softly and urgently in my ear, "Last night was a beginning."
My heart skittered at this; how stupid it was to be affected by a man when by all rights I should have been fearing for my life. But his words had the affect he wanted them to, and when he began to move again I followed him, led by his hand on my wrist. The armed men he had been speaking to had broken into three groups, ranks of five in each. Two had begun to leave, moving with the swift, quick precision of men trained in combat. The last group remained standing where they were, and they watched Helix expectantly as he approached with me in tow.
"Let's move," Helix said. The men formed an arrowhead and began to march quickly; Helix and I trailed behind. There was a tension about these men that made the hairs on my arms stand on end. Helix glanced down at me and flashed a smile meant to be reassuring.
"Why the weapons?" I suddenly remembered to ask.
"Against?" We reached a corner, and Helix pulled me to a stop. The five before us crouched low to the ground and eased around the corner, each covering the other, until the last waved for Helix and I to approach. Annoyed and a little alarmed that he hadn't answered my question, I demanded, "What the hell is going on?"
"You'll see soon," he told me, fingers tightening on my wrist. I opened my mouth to ask for a better explanation when the ship shuddered again, sending Helix reeling into the wall and throwing me to the floor. I lay there stunned, the hall around me dark but for the wild, crimson flashing of the emergency light; when the world reoriented itself Helix appeared above me, holding out one hand with an expression of triumph on his face.
"What's going on?" I asked again, fear making my voice strained.
Helix had been staring down the hall. He looked back at me, and a small, jubilant smile flickered across his lips.
"They're here." He said.