FIREFLY Mk2.4: IN DREAMS

The Tomb

"The Faces."

That was Alan Tyler's first entry in a small game that he was introducing to his crew on board the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity. The objective was to name music bands that shared their name with a part of the human body. It was one that he had often played with the people he was working with during down-time, back in the days when he was a G-Chaser and later a Shadowrunner. His crew's musical knowledge was surprisingly acute; at least that was one thing they all seemed to share in common, in spite of coming from radically different backgrounds as they all lounged around in the comfortable common room on the ship.

"Little Feet," the griffin-like gargoyle and First Mate Alistair said.

"Nine Inch Nails," Rachel Tam, the young engineer, chimed in. "As in finger and toe nails."

"Good one," Alan muttered, nodding his approval. He had been about to call out Rachel on that choice, but she had come up with a swift explanation.

"Thumbscrew," the Hispanic weapons specialist José Lovano offered. "I played for that band when I was a teenager."

"No," Alan said flatly. "It has to be a band people have heard of. Radiohead."

"Gerry and the Pacemakers," Alistair said, with a grin.

"Objection, Your Honour!" Rachel cut in, before bursting out laughing.

"Sustained," Alan replied.

"Well, it was worth a shot," Alistair shrugged.

"The Flaming Lips," Rachel said, in-between snorts of laughter.

"Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show," José chimed in.

"What?" Alan said, indignantly.

"Well, you know," José said, "some people lose their hands, right? Well, back before bio-syntech they sometimes put hooks on the stump."

"Oh, sod off!" Alan scoffed, now trying not to laugh himself. "The hook's not a part of the body, is it?"

"It is if you haven't got a hand, amigo," José shrugged. The game was officially over at this point, as any attempts to think of names were drowned out by noisy laughter. Rachel threw a cushion in José's direction, nearly causing him to fall off his chair.

"Captain," the voice of the android pilot Bishop suddenly said over the ship's intercom, "I apologise for the interruption, but I'm receiving a transmission from the Divine Journey. Cujo wants to talk with you."

"Balls..." Alan muttered, getting to his feet. "I guess this means the end of our down-time. Everyone to your stations."

"Aye-aye, Captain," Rachel said. As she passed Alistair heading to the stairs to the engine room, both of them shared an awkward look. Both of them had apparently silently agreed not to discuss the bad decisions made which had nearly torn the team apart little over a week ago. José didn't move from the chair he was sitting on, while Alistair followed Alan into the cargo bay, up to the gantries and all the way up to the flight deck. Through the viewing ports Alan saw the rest of the Fleet Shadow of Fury; five Sangheili flagships, all of them enormous and positively dwarfing the tiny Firefly. Bishop was sat at the pilot's console, and he pushed his stringy brown hair back as Alan and Alistair entered.

"I'll patch him through to the co-pilot's console now," Bishop said. Alan nodded and sat down at the vacant seat across from Bishop's. He pressed a few buttons and on one of the screens appeared the Sangheili face of Cujo 'Mentatal. In the absence of his friend Telek 'Heros, he was the acting Supreme Commander of the fleet. The light from the nearby control consoles glistened off his golden helmet as he nodded at Alan.

"Good morning, Alan," he said, his deep voice coming through loud and clear in spite of the lack of obvious tongue in a Sangheili's mouth. The way a Sangheili's mouth was split into four mandibles which quivered while speaking was a sight that Alan was now used to, but it had made him feel nauseous for some time when he first met them.

"Is it?" Alan asked wryly. "It's a bit hard to tell out here in the Black."

"What would you humans do without chronometers, hm?" Cujo asked, returning the wry tone.

"Go barmy, I expect," Alan shrugged.

"Well, I suggest you keep your sanity for a little while longer," Cujo replied, becoming more business-like. "I'm sending your unit out on reconnaissance of another planet that's just surfaced on our long-range scanners. It's only a small rock; it shouldn't take too long to do a complete survey."

"It's a small world after all," Alan suddenly started to sing. Cujo grunted and held a hand up to his forehead.

"I walked right into that one," he groaned.

"You sure did, Supreme Commander," Alan said, giving a toothy grin, revealing two rows of nothing but sharp fangs. "Anyway, anyone going with us?"

"Not today, Alan," Cujo replied. "The system is not very large, and from preliminary scans our target is the only interesting one. We detected some kind of signal coming from somewhere on the planet. It seems to be of UNSC origin; a distress signal, in fact. There's no way to tell how long it's been transmitting, so it's doubtful that it has been answered yet."

"Ah, now I see why you want us out there," Alan nodded, his expression becoming more serious. "It would be best not to scare them with a dirty big Sangheili ship turning up on their doorstep. Hope they're not expecting too many familiar faces, though."

"Your world is a very unusual place," Cujo shrugged. "I highly doubt a Godzilla mutant and a gargoyle will raise too many eyebrows."

"You'd be surprised," Alan replied. Even by the standards of the strange things that had happened on Earth in the last five centuries a human that had been mutated through government experiments into a miniature Godzilla was almost unheard of. "Right, we'll go look into this. We'll rendezvous with the fleet as soon as we can."

"I'm sending the coordinates to your pilot right now," Cujo said. "Wago will be surveying a nearby system in that cluster; he can be with you in moments should you need the assistance."

"Take Wago's help?" Alan asked in mock indignation. "I think I'd rather let myself get eaten." Wago 'Tawun, in spite of being in command of the largest ship in the fleet (while Telek's ship was absent, at least), was still in the unenviable position of being the fleet's proverbial whipping boy.

"I'm sure you do," Cujo chuckled. "Still, he's there if you need him. Good luck on your mission, Alan." With that, Cujo signed off. Alan sighed, walking towards Bishop at the pilot's console.

"I should've had him join our little guessing game," he sighed.

"You think they even care about our music, Captain?" José's voice suddenly said, coming from the door. Turning to see him, Alan saw that he was leaning on the doorframe, looking at the screen where Cujo's face had been a few seconds ago with a look of disgust.

"I doubt he's entirely ignorant of it," Alan replied. "Cujo's spent a lot of time around humans; he's bound to have picked up a few things."

"Whatever," José snorted. "So what do the split-faces want with us this time?" Alan rolled his golden, cat-like eyes.

"Just when I think there's hope for you," Alan muttered. He hated it when his gunner insisted on behaving so badly – or at least in that passive-aggressive manner - around their comrades-in-arms; of the crew, José was the one having the most difficulty coming to terms with working alongside the Sangheili. It was true that humans and Sangheili had once been enemies, yet José often acted like the war was still on between them. He was also still smarting after events a fortnight ago, when his behaviour had led to him first being grounded for an away mission, and then thrown in the brig on the Divine Journey when he had tried to fight against the ship's Field Master, Dovi 'Canthon. It had taken him a week to stop limping.

"Anyway," he finally said, resisting the urge to pick a fight with José. "We've got ourselves a UNSC distress signal, so you'll probably be glad to see some humans other than Tom and his lot. Where're we going, Bishop?"

"According to these readings," Bishop said, in his usual calm and collected tone, "we're heading for... Well, this can't be right..." he suddenly said, his brow creasing into a puzzled expression.

"What's up?" Alan asked.

"According to Cujo's coordinates," Bishop replied, "we're setting down on Eletania. It's a small planet in the Hercules system in the Attican Beta cluster." Alan had wondered why Cujo had not mentioned this, but he reasoned that the Sangheili had probably given different names to the planets and clusters when they were doing their own charting of the galaxy. Perhaps they had not paid attention to this particular planet before.

"What's so special about that?" Alan asked.

"Well, by all accounts," Bishop said, "there aren't supposed to be any human colonies on that planet. According to official reports it was deemed unsuitable for habitation and too remote to justify terraforming operations. If one of our distress beacons is there, it should not be."

"I see," Alan muttered. It seemed that he was always intruding on something which others had tried to cover up, regardless of what century it was. "Well, we might as well go there and see what's what. There's always the off-chance that Telek picked up on that signal and is on his way there too; we might run into him. Set a course, Bishop."

"Roger, Captain," Bishop nodded, manipulating the console as if he had been born with it. "ETA approximately sixteen hours. Initiating slip-space sequence." Within a minute the Serenity had broken away from the Fleet Shadow of Fury and had entered the swirling slip-space portal. Even now Alan still considered himself very fortunate to have such technology and the capability to use it.

"I'm bringing up the last known dossier on Eletania," Bishop added. A few seconds later a sheet of statistics had appeared on one of the screens. The android attempted to clarify what it meant, as Alan often had trouble getting his head around the terms used in space travel and planetary surveys.

"Environment suits won't be necessary for exploring the surface," he said, "but respirators are advised as the toxins in the atmosphere will cause anaphylactic shock in any non-native life-form that breathes it."

"An 'almost, but not quite' world..." Alan said, turning to the doorway. "Sounds like Pandora all over again. José, we've got a few hours to get ready for this little excursion. Tell Alistair to get himself sorted too."

"I suppose so, sir," José muttered, shaking his head. "I still don't know why you trust the puto, after what you said happened on that other planet a fortnight ago."

"I'd trust him with my life," Alan snapped, now regretting bringing the rest of his crew into confidence on the issue. "I suggest you show a bit of faith in him as well. The last thing he needs is to start thinking we're against him."

"You trust him too easily, boss," José snarled. "You're too quick to trust the Elites too. One day it'll bite you in the ass."

"Oh, forget it," Alan replied, viciously, marching down the corridor. "I'll tell him myself. You go sling your shit somewhere else for the next sixteen hours. Hopefully you'll choose a wall."

0

Eletania was certainly a very pretty planet. The place looked very Earth-like, with blue skies, grass and clouds. Most of the landmass, however, consisted of very mountainous terrain. The signal was coming from a large plateau, on top of one of the largest mountain ranges. Alan, Alistair and José stepped down the ramp from the airlock between the surface and the cargo bay, equipped with their weapons of choice and fitted with respirators. All three of them were nervous and alert. In spite of its serene appearance the planet somehow carried a sense of great foreboding, and left Alan with very melancholy feelings. There was a strong cool breeze blowing, and the three explorers narrowed their eyes as they ran away from the ship, which took off and was almost blown about by the wind as it set off for space.

The trio ran towards what looked like a large concrete dome with a flat top. When Bishop had picked up the structure on his scanners he was lost for words, for the first time that Alan could recall. This structure alone was definite evidence that someone had been staying on this planet, which had pretty much thrown the official reports out of the airlock. Looking around, Alan saw two grey block-like structures nearby, with pipes sticking out of them and leading into the ground.

"Those must be where they house the fuel supply," Alistair mused as he spotted the towers. In spite of it being broad daylight he was walking around in his flesh form; a side-effect from a very nasty encounter with dark magic. "Anyway, let's get inside and see if anyone's home."

They dashed the last few metres to the airlock door and pressed the button to open it. As it slid open they quickly dashed inside and sealed it shut behind them.

"I guess that means the power's still on," Alan said.

Within seconds they had equalised the pressure in the airlock with the atmosphere inside the bunker. All of the readings on the status monitor inside the airlock indicated that the life-support systems were still operational, so they pulled their respirators off. The inner door slowly slid open, leading to a metal spiral staircase that led down into the depths of the alien soil. Weapons at the ready, the trio stepped down for about a hundred metres. The bottom of the staircase led to another tight space with a door which someone had left open.

The door opened out into a vast laboratory space. In its prime Alan imagined that it must have been a very clean and hi-tech facility, with the blue-steel walls, fluorescent lights and rows of workstations piled high with the finest scientific equipment that money could buy. Now the place looked as if it was out of a warzone; several lights had been shot, there were blast burns scattered on the walls and the equipment and tables were hopelessly smashed. Rather disconcertingly, blood was also smeared on the walls, along with a black substance reminiscent of tar. There was a horrible smell in the air, reminiscent of the stench of a landfill.

"Jesus..." Alan spluttered, trying to resist the urge to vomit. "What the hell's happened here?"

"There's been a hell of a fight here," José said, grimacing at the scenes before him but not showing outward signs of nausea. "Look at all those blast burns and bullet holes... They tore this place up fighting whatever it was they were fighting. The question is whether or not they managed to hole up somewhere."

"I think this'd answer that question..." Alistair suddenly said, sounding like he was about to faint. He had gone further into the room to get a closer look, and as Alan and José went to see what they were looking at the horrible, festering smell suddenly became almost unbearable. When they saw what Alistair had been looking at, Alan very nearly shouted out loud. They saw what looked like human remains, the body shape still roughly intact, but seemingly devoid of skin or muscle. Parts of the skeleton and the organs were still visible, the parts which had not been completely coated by that same black oil substance, preserving them in the sticky resin. A quick glance around the chamber told Alan that there were dozens of other bodies scattered all around the chamber, all of them coated in the same oil. The group was shocked, stunned into silence by what they had seen. A full minute passed before Alan was able to recover his senses long enough to contact the Serenity through his commlink.

"Uh, Bishop?" Alan said quietly. "I think we're going to need an evac soon. Unless the survivors are very well-hidden, something slaughtered everyone here, and I'd rather not stick around to find out what did it."

"Then that bunker is not the only place that is a tomb," Bishop replied, in a tone of shock. This unnerved Alan slightly, as the android never sounded as if he was fearful before "I have been running scans on the planet's surface since I arrived back in orbit, and... there is nothing. Eletania is supposed to have its own indigenous life-forms, but I am not picking up any signs of life. I don't understand it... I am not picking up any signs of toxins or cataclysmic natural occurrences which could have caused an extinction-level event... It's as if they have all simply vanished."

"I can probably guess what happened to them..." Alan replied. "I think you'd better see for yourself." His commlink had a camera function built-in, and so he snapped a few photos of the bodies. He hated having to get in close to take the pictures, as the smell nearly made him faint. When Bishop saw the images appear on his monitors, he was lost for words. He could not think of an adequate thesis for what could have happened to those poor souls; not without any further details, at least.

"Look at this..." José suddenly chimed in. He had gone over to one of the other bodies, and had even nudged it with his boot. Alan considered this crass and was about to say so when José held up what looked like a small, thin rectangle, made of metal with an orange screen.

"Might be a personal log," he said, forcing it into his trouser pocket. "We'll let the professor take a look when we-"

His last word became a yelp of surprise, for something had grabbed his ankle. Looking down, he saw that it was actually the outstretched, oil-covered skeletal hand of the corpse he had just kicked. Worse than that, the twisted face was looking up at him, a pair of milky white eyes like pearls fixing a penetrating glare at him. José shouted and struggled to wrench his foot free, but the putrid creature held fast. It opened its mouth, releasing a horrible, rattling breath. In desperation, José swung his other foot out and kicked the creature hard in the face. The head exploded, scattering the black oil across the walls and the overturned tables.

Even as José backed away from the corpse, Alistair suddenly held a hand up to his head, grunting in pain. Alan noticed this, and then he saw that Alistair's pain was increasing. The gargoyle actually yelled in pain, and as Alan watched he saw that his eyes momentarily flashed a blood-red colour. The eyes of gargoyle males usually shined with a white light when emotions ran high, but the taint in Alistair's body caused them to shine red instead. As more of the oil covered bodies slowly began to stagger to their feet, any attempt to understand what was going on was lost. Alan only knew that sticking around would be an extraordinarily bad idea.

"Bishop!" he called into his commlink. "We need a pickup, and fast!"

"On my way, sir!" Bishop replied, sensing the urgency in Alan's voice.

The sharp, sticky claws of one of the undead creatures stretched out for Alan, but the mutant quickly lashed out with the Technomantic whip that had served him so well. One strike with the crackling energy caused the abomination to disintegrate, sliced in half by the whip's sting. More creatures were approaching, however, and Alan knew they'd never be able to fight them all at once.

Alistair drew one of his Plasma Rifles, but the intense pain in his head was affecting his vision. He felt as if he would collapse at any moment, and his shots went wild. There was a sudden burst of rifle fire from his left, and José came charging towards him, the large ODST-issue assault rifle he carried firing away. He grabbed Alistair's arm and threw it over his shoulder.

"Come on, bird-boy," he snarled. "Don't crash out on us now!"

Alan was the furthest away from the door, and as he systematically cut down the corpse-creatures while backing toward the door he passed a sealed shutter. The lit sign above the door indicated that this lead to the 'Hot Labs'. He hoped that they would be able to retrieve some information from the datapad José had found, as there was no way that he was sticking around to investigate any further.

All of a sudden the shutter raised itself. Alarmed, Alan turned to look down it in case any more zombies were going to spring out at him. However, he didn't get to see what was down there, for a noxious gas suddenly spewed out of the corridor. The gas was a poisonous green colour and smelled foul, like old socks mixed with the type of public toilet that nobody seems to clean. Alan gagged and spluttered, stumbling and trying to find his way out of the terrible cloud. Near to the exit, José called out, his eyes wide. Something was coming out of the corridor towards the mutant.

"Captain!" he shouted. Alan tried to follow the sound of his voice, but he felt himself suddenly becoming very tired. He looked back in the direction of where the smoke had come from, and he barely had time to see a large, insect-like claw suddenly approaching him, about to strike him with a vicious backhand...