"Who—?" I began to ask, but Helix abruptly hauled me upright. He kept hold of my wrist even after I was standing again, but his grip had tightened to the point of being uncomfortable. One glance at his face and it was apparent he was oblivious to my discomfort; whatever had arrived on the Monolith, whatever it was he had spoken of—that was all that was on his mind. Around us the armed men came to their feet or pushed away from the walls they had stumbled into when the trembling had gripped the ship, swiftly and silently reforming their ranks. The man who took the vanguard point of the arrowhead formation—the commander of the bunch, apparently—regarded me steadily for a moment, an expression of distaste passing quickly over his face, as though he were examining me for certain attributes and had found me lacking. Confused as to why such a thing would matter, I scowled and opened my mouth to ask what exactly was wrong. The commander's eyes, however, flicked to Helix, and he said in a rough voice that carried a rasp that was almost painful to listen to, "Sir?"
"They'll break into groups," Helix said. He still hadn't released my wrist, and he was still staring with eyes unfocused down the corridor. "One to head for the nest. One to clean up the xenomorphs roaming above-deck. One to take care of us."
I really wasn't liking the sound of this; I pulled away suddenly, wrenching my arm free. Helix blinked and looked my way almost as though he were surprised to see me still there. He continued speaking after a moment, his words directed to the commander. "Have Units 1 through 4 take up point position near the nest, but tell them to keep the section barriers up until absolutely necessary. Units 5 through 8 will form double-back patrols on the first, second and third decks—the same thing about the barriers applies to them as well."
The commander nodded. "And us …?"
Helix smiled, a curving of the lips that was at once both mirthless and edged, and I realized then with an unpleasant jolt that perhaps the man I'd slept with the night before had been the product of a fake persona. "We head for Epsilon Rho. From there we'll monitor the progress. You and yours are to be used only as reserve."
I saw a flicker of something in the commander's eyes at this—ire or perhaps impatience? His eyes moved to me again for only an instant before his expression became shuttered and implacable, and he nodded once in acceptance of Helix's commands. Lifting a small radio clipped to his belt, he spoke tersely into it before returning it to where it rode and then turning quickly to face the rest of his team, snapping, "Double-time."
"Come on," Helix said to me, reaching for my arm again as our escort began to quickly move out. I evaded his grasp and shook my head; he considered me only for a moment before instead beckoning me to follow him. For a moment I debated refusing—his attitude, so unlike that of the man I'd met the night before—had thrown me off base, and I couldn't help the wild suspicion and distrust I now felt. This was no carefree, easy-going man looking for a good time and a quick laugh—or maybe it was, but now there was something fierce about him, indomitable, something that spoke of great ambition and authority. And I wondered in that moment why and how I'd been so blind to such a thing ...
"Sheyn." He said, and I snapped out of my poorly-timed reverie. Already Helix stood some several feet before me, hand outstretched. I made my decision and broke into a run, catching up to him and then following as he in turn followed the armed men. My eyes centered on the black rifle slung across his back and I wondered exactly what kind of man the real Helix Sinclair would be revealed to be. We swept as a singular unit down the corridor to a four-way merge; seamlessly we shifted into the hall on our right and continued on. As we ran, I noted that the rifles were now being held in firing positions, and the sense of dread that had come upon me only a short time ago intensified greatly. It remained unspoken, but obviously whomever or whatever it was Helix had spoken of was considered highly dangerous. The mystery surrounding our current situation—whatever this situation actually was—did nothing to assuage my worry, and I wanted nothing more than to pull Helix to a stop and demand answers.
Our flight came to a halt when we reached a flight of stairs descending down. We paused as a whole, and I watched with alarm as the unit set about checking their weapons for rounds, reloading them, and switching the safeties off. I observed as three of the unit members fastened what appeared to see infrared goggles over their eyes, but my attention was drawn away when Helix held out a handgun to me. I looked at him, looked at it, and resolutely shook my head.
"Sheyn." He said, stepping close and bowing his head so that I could—just barely—here the urgency in his soft words. "You have no idea what we may run into. I'll do my best, and my men will do their best, to make sure we don't get into trouble. But I can't promise that this will go smoothly, so please take it. I'll show you how to use it; it's a simple concept."
"I already know how," I told him. He stepped back and regarded my intently for a long moment before holding out the gun to me again. I was aware of the rest of the unit watching our exchange in silence, and I awkwardly reached out and took the weapon. They observed as I ejected the cartridge and counted the rounds before sliding it home, switching the safety, and racking the slide. When I looked up again the unit had begun to move, and as Helix and I followed after I could feel the question in his gaze.
"Hobby." I told him shortly, feeling unaccountably irritable at the fact that I'd taken the weapon even though I hadn't wanted to. I'd used similar weapons before—mostly semiautomatic 9mm handguns like this one—at shooting ranges and the occasional tournament when first I'd moved to Derrica 12. Wielding a firearm in practice or competition was nothing like wielding it in self-defense, of this I was almost positive, and a hard, tight knot of apprehension settled in my gut as I fingered the cold, grooved grip of the weapon in my hand. If it all came down to it, would I actually be able to shoot someone or something to protect myself? Would I be able to kill?
I mulled this over as we descended the stairs—the fact that we were going down really didn't bode well, or so I thought. The deck below was dark just as the one we'd left behind had been, the dimness broken only by the wild red flashing of the emergency lights decorating walls. We adopted a slower pace, with the men at the front of the formation moving low to the ground, weapons at the ready, while those behind them stood prepared to offer cover fire should it be needed. The sense of surrealism I'd felt earlier, along with the grogginess made inherent by my alcohol binge, had dissipated quickly and now I was filled with an icy awareness that had me breathing quickly, had my eyes darting from side to side in a perusal of my surroundings that was almost panicked. When the men at the point held up their hands in a sudden signal for us to be still, I came to a halt along with the others and swallowed thickly. We stood thus for long moments; I strained to hear something, anything, over the undulating wail of the alarm.
The two men simultaneously lowered their hands, and we began to move again. The tension that flowed over us all now was practically tangible, and driven by some instinct I hadn't even known I'd had I began to move in slow, cautious steps, bending slightly at the waist in preparation to bolt should the need arise. The semiautomatic I held was in fact a Browning Hi-Power, a make I'd never used before but was, I felt certain, identical to the other 9mm's in my collection. I cradled the gun in the two-handed Standard hold, one hand wrapped around the grip, the other cupping the bottom for stability and support. Should something happen, I could easily slide into the Weaver stance, which was the one I used most often when shooting during practice. Would my years of gun collecting and range shooting aid me should the unnamed, unseen beasties leap out at us?
Somehow, I really didn't think so.
I shook my head and tried to force myself to think happy thoughts. It didn't work. At my side Helix moved with stealth and purpose, reminding me more of some kind of hunting animal rather than the affable, almost goofy man I'd met the night before. His attention, like that of his men, was focused on the area around us, eyes constantly scouting the shadows and corners for the unknown. I opted to follow suit, deciding with morbid and inane humor that I'd rather see what was coming to get me rather than be surprised.
Turns out, I was surprised anyways.
It was the commander that barked the warning; I'd barely even begun to turn my head to see what the issue was when the gunfire began. The assault came head-on, our assailant rushing in from the darkness directly ahead of us. Except I couldn't see anything other than the rapid flashes erupting from the automatic rifles, nor could I hear anything other than the roar of the shots. Bewildered, scared, I swiveled around to ask Helix what the hell was going on. The expression on his face as he carefully lifted his own rifle—not firing it, but preparing to do so—whipped me back around to again stare at the empty expanse of the corridor before us all.
A spray of bullets ripped through seemingly empty air, and I watched incredulously as that air rippled and wavered, as something began to take form, shaping itself out of nothing. And in the span between one breath and the next I saw it in its entirety, a massive humanoid creature that towered over us all with a face made of metal and dark, visor-like eyes. It came rushing towards us with swiftness that belied its size; I watched as the gunfire from the armed men punched holes in its body, and I watched as it continued onwards, barely faltering. Helix began to shout as it neared the vanguard of our formation, his words garbled and distorted by the chaos all around us. The creature reached the closest of the two men and reared back; in a blurred rush of movement it hoisted the man in the air, and I realized in horror that the man had been completely impaled upon two wickedly curved, slender blades. The rest of the unit had scattered in order to gain distance from our adversary; Helix shoved me hard behind him, and unable to regain my balance I stumbled and fell.
I rolled frantically to my hands and knees and then into a crouch, and watched as the body of the dead man flew in an arc over my head, discarded by the creature. Blood splattered my face and my clothes; a scream crawled its way up my throat as I heard the body land somewhere behind me with a sickening, wet thud. The creature was lunging forwards, towards Helix and I—
A deep, hollow noise suddenly exploded, and in the somewhat narrow confines of the corridor it was almost deafening. The creature staggered, tottered, and then fell, and I felt its impact shudder the floor beneath me. For a long moment, nobody moved, and the abrupt silence was almost painful. Finally Helix said quietly, "Thank you, Avis."
The commander, standing a few feet to our right, nodded wordlessly and lowered the sleek black tactical shotgun he carried. I got to my feet slowly, and like everyone else around me made my way over to the corpse of the creature lying crumpled in a steadily widening pool of a green liquid so bright that it seemed almost to glow.
It took me two tries to get the words past the knot in my throat, "What the hell …?"
Helix crouching before the body, reaching out and nudging it with the barrel of his rifle. "This is what I was talking about," he said. I'd already gathered that much, but remained silent as he dipped a gloved finger into the pool of neon fluid. "This is what it bleeds. These things can take massive amounts of damage before succumbing to their wounds. They're incredibly powerful, but they're very agile as well, able to move with great speed despite their bulk. Perfect predators," he said, rocking back on his heels. I stared hard at him, unable to believe that after what I'd just seen he could sound so very casual and contemplative.
"Sir." It was the commander—Avis—that spoke next. Still crouching, Helix slanted a glance at his second in command. Avis indicated the body of his dead soldier with a nod of his chin. "What about Koskins?"
Helix sighed and got to his feet and said without turning, "We leave him. It seems we've underestimated them; they breached the outer hull faster than expected. I'm sorry," he added, laying one hand on Avis' shoulder. Avis, face devoid of any and all expression, merely nodded once again.
My eyes had fastened themselves on the dead creature. This close I could see that had it been upright, it would have easily reached eight feet. It wore an odd mixture of armor and a bodysuit of thick, wire-like mesh. Facedown as it was, I couldn't see the mask it wore, but I did take note of the long black appendages that resembled hair fanning out from its skull. Each separate strand, if that's what they in fact were, was bound in several places with thick rings of metal. From a wound beneath those hair-like appendages seeped heavy amounts of its strange blood; Avis' shot, it seemed, had taken it directly through the head. Its skin appeared to have the mottled, pebbled texture like that of a lizard, but that was where the similarities ended. It was vaguely man-like, yes, but it was also undeniably and utterly alien. I rubbed then at the moisture I could feel on my face, and I shuddered as my fingers came away stained red with the blood of the dead man. It didn't take a genius to figure out that this creature, whatever it was, was also unquestionably deadly.
"Let's move," Avis said, and his rasp carried clearly even over the silence. One by one his remaining men fell into lines, again checking and preparing their weapons. I reached out and caught Helix's arm as he began to do the same.
"What are they? And why are they here?" I demanded. Despite myself, my voice wavered a little; I was left shaken in the wake of all I'd witnessed.
"Not now." He told me, and when I opened my mouth to press the issue he laid a finger against my lips. "Later, Sheyn. We need to get out of here, and we need to do it now."
"And if there are more of them? How will we know—" A sudden thought hit me. "How did you know it was coming?"
"Technology." He told me, as if that would answer everything. I knew I'd get no more from him, and so I stepped back and waited in silence while the rest prepared themselves. After they'd finished Avis cast a glance over us all before pointing ahead with two fingers and breaking into a quick run. One after the other we followed suit, with me running second to last and Helix brining up the rear. I cast one last glance at the dead soldier and the body of that which had killed him before turning my attention forwards and concentrating resolutely on not being left behind.
We reached Epsilon Rho mere minutes later, sweeping down one corridor, turning into another, and then pounding up a short flight of stairs. Epsilon Rho was the command center, Helix breathlessly explained to me as we neared, a large room centered in the midst of passenger cabins. The doors were manned by four guards, all of them wearing the same strange goggles as the men in our unit. Was that, I wondered, how they'd known the creature was coming? I didn't get a chance to ask; Avis nodded at the guards and they nodded back, one of them speaking into a lapel radio. An instant later the double doors slid open and we quickly entered.
The doors hissed shut behind us, and I felt an almost overwhelming sense of relief at the fact that there was now a barrier, substantial and with sentries, between me and whatever lurked out there. Avis and Helix had moved immediately to a large console in the far right corner of the room where another uniformed man stood and were conversing in low and rapid tones. I took the opportunity to scope out the surroundings. It looked much like I'd expect a military command post to look—there were desks and consoles with a myriad of monitors cluttering almost every square inch of floor space. There were two doors in the back, one leading left and the other leading right; the left door had a large, observation like window situated in the wall next to it. There were also, I noted, two armed guards posted on either side of the left door.
The computer equipment in the room was of the likes I had never before seen; sophisticated and complex readouts showed on many monitors, and live video footage—which, I realized upon closer inspection, came from the many security cameras onboard the ship—showed on the others. Almost every station had someone to monitor it, and I realized with some surprise that those people manning them were not part of the military, but in fact wore uniforms emblazoned with the emblem of the Company.
My survey of Epsilon Rho was interrupted; Helix called my name from where he stood and beckoned me. As I neared I realized that what I'd mistaken for another military man was in fact a woman; she was tall and dressed in the same severe navy blue uniform as the others, with honey-blonde hair cropped short against her skull in standard military-style, hard blue eyes and thin lips. She stood shoulder to shoulder with Avis as I approached, and graced me with a flick of a glance that encompassed me from head to toe and left me feeling again as though I'd been found lacking in a certain department.
"Lieutenant Crona, this is Sheyn Harris," Helix said, fluttering one hand in my direction.
"A civilian." Lieutenant Crona said, and that one word held something that sounded an awful lot like contempt. I bristled and narrowed my eyes. Something told me that I wasn't going to like Lieutenant Crona very much.
"Yes," Helix said, and there was an underlying tone of exasperation in his own voice. "I brought her here. I'll be responsible."
"We've gathered the rest of the civilians in the southeastern hold. They are completely safe." Crona said without taking her eyes off me. "Perhaps she should be escorted there …?" As she trailed off, her gaze flicked to Avis standing motionless at her side, and I realized that he was in fact her commanding officer.
"She stays," Avis said after a moment; I'd seen Helix give him a negligible shake of his head. Avis didn't sound as though he wanted me to stay, but again I felt relieved. There was no goddamn way I was leaving this place, not without an entire army at my back. Crona glanced at the gun I carried and shrugged her shoulders, but I got the distinct feeling she wasn't happy either.
"Should she be armed?" She asked then.
"I'd prefer to keep it, thanks," I replied sharply. I hadn't wanted it to begin with, true, but now I did. I really did. And yes, that makes me a hypocrite.
"She knows how to use it," Helix said, and I felt a surge of gratitude towards him for defending me against people who obviously didn't think I belonged here. Truth be told, I didn't think I belonged here either, but hey—here was much, much better than being out there. He went on quickly, before anything else about me and my shortcomings could be said, "Has the recovery team returned?"
"Yes." Crona said, and suddenly she seemed eager, almost excited. "Not ten minutes ago."
"And?" Helix prompted; it seemed to me as if his whole body tightened in expectation.
"They got one. Come and look." Crona wheeled around and marched to the observation window I'd noticed before with Helix hot on her heels. Avis followed at a more leisurely pace, and I trailed behind. I had a funny feeling that I knew what was going to be beyond that window …
I was right.
Standing in a line, we looked down into what looked to be a modified medical lab. Like the control center, it contained state of the art equipment; monitors and electronic charts cluttered the walls, shelves and counters with a myriad of paraphernalia lined the walls. And as I'd expected, on an examination table that seemed larger than most, lay another of the creatures, held down by several bands of what looked to be thick, tempered steel. The monster was still alive; its massive chest rose and fell erratically, but my attention was diverted and immediately captured by the fact that it wore no mask.
"My God, it's ugly," Helix breathed, but there seemed to be no disgust in his tone, only a deep appreciation for the creature as a specimen.
I had to agree with him. As though it were able to hear us, the creature haltingly turned its head in our direction. Pretty it most definitely wasn't; from beneath thick, jutting brows gleamed two deep-set, oddly colored eyes. The lower half of its face consisted mostly of four mandibles framing a toothy maw; the mandibles moved independent of each other, twitching and moving in an almost prehensile manner. The skin of its face was similar in appearance to that of its body—pebbled, mottled green and dark yellow in color, with what seemed to be small growths of the thick, black hair like stuff growing along its brows. Longer strands fell from the back of its large head, mostly black in color with the occasional piece of white or grey.
Seeing us, the creature's eyes narrowed, and I shivered at the raw animosity I saw there. It's mandibles flared as though in preparation to roar or scream, but the sound became choked and mangled in its throat as its body tensed suddenly, arching against the metal constraints.
"What's happening to it?" I asked as its body fell limp again, as those eyes centered on us where we stood and radiated nothing but pure rage.
"Do you see those metal nodules attached to its body?" Helix asked me. I took a moment to locate them—small, arrow shaped metal fixtures attached to wires that looped over its body almost like a net—before I nodded. Helix continued, "Those are what are keeping it down. They work on the same concept as a M-18 taser, except they deliver a much more powerful and debilitating punch. Considerable amounts of electricity are being systematically and continuously administered throughout its body, numbing its muscles and paralyzing it."
"It's actually a net," Crona said without removing her eyes from the creature. "We devised its creation from studying a net-like weapon of their own. Because they can literally take a ton of abuse, the easiest way to subdue them—that is, to take one alive—is to render it immobile. "
It was a moment before her words registered. "Wait a minute—you knew about these things?" Even as I asked the question, everything fell into place: Helix's enigmatic words, the military presence onboard the ship. "Jesus Christ," I whispered, moving my wide eyes from Crona to Helix, "You lured them here."
There was a silence before Crona snorted. "Very good. You do catch on quick."
I flushed angrily, but my eyes were on Helix; I was almost struck dumb by the implications of my realization. "Explain," I told him in a voice that sounded strangled to my ears.
Crona opened her mouth again, but Avis laid a warning hand on her shoulder and drew her away with him, leaving me alone with Helix. He regarded me mutely for long moments, and there was no sign of remorse, of regret, on his face. He looked completely calm, almost serene, in the face of the accusation I'd just leveled upon him.
"Alright," he said finally, glancing down at the restrained monster that had been allowed to live, to breathe, to hate. "I'll tell you everything I know."