The first thing was that it was dark.
The second thing was the clean hull of the prior reconnaissance vessels.
The third was hearing the faint rattle of air conditioning as he disembarked.
One, two, three.
He switched on his flashlight.
It cut through thick motes of dust, browned and desiccate. Antiquated equipment laying on the floor.
The fourth thing was that the auxiliary power hadn't been restored since the live feed had cut out.
This meant that something was very wrong.
He wanted to see it for himself.
What they had seen.
That brief moment before the digital artifacting frazzled the screen into darkness.
He tapped his comm on, and spoke.
" Ki-ri-e, can you hear me?"
" Yes. There has been only minimal interference detected."
She seemed very on guard. That was fine. That was responsible, really. Preferable for the situation.
" Call in a senior bridge officer to run real time manual corrections on the interference," William said, giving one last check over to his gear. " The ship's anti-artifaction programming appears to be unable to process it."
He tapped across the room, following the footsteps in the thin layer of dust on the floor.
The door had already been opened with the mechanical failsafe.
After a moment's thought, William took the plating and roughly pried it off with his hands. It took an annoying amount of effort.
He crouched down and studied the electronics.
They were, though aged, in working condition.
...There was a sort of slight brown filament, the thickness of a thread, netted delicately over them.
He contemplated it for a moment, and then dug out the tweezers from his sample retrieval kit and went after it.
The second he touched it with the metal, it snapped and crumbled away.
He returned the tweezers to their little pocket, and stood.
" Did you receive visual confirmation of that, Kirie?"
" Yes. It's similar to the desiccated organic material that was observed in the initial reconnaissance."
" I'll be continuing in, then."
He stepped through the door.
It was very quiet.
Just his own steps, the rattling air conditioning, and the occasional...
The ship itself was not creaking as much as he would've expected it to in its condition.
He ran through some things in his mind.
Filament on the inside of the circuitry and mechanical work.
Was there so much of it that it was preserving the ship's structural integrity?
A worrying amount.
He drummed his fingers against the wall as he followed the disturbances in the dust, repeating code.
SOS. HELP. WITHDRAW. RETRIEVAL. MISSION OVER.
...He didn't really expect any sort of answer to it. Just refreshing skills he hadn't used in a while.
He paused as he drew near another open door. According to the map he'd seen, it was to the vessel's laundry rooms.
He stopped and evaluated it for a moment.
No one had gone in; he hadn't seen it on video, at any rate, and there weren't footsteps either. The dust on the ground was thick and uniform.
So this door had been open when the vessel was formally abandoned.
His mind flicked through to the contemporary vessel evacuation and scuttling procedures. Captains left last. All doors besides the ones necessary for the evacuation route should be closed off and running a timer to begin cabin decompression. Oxygen flow directed to necessary areas and shut off elsewhere. The switches necessary for this would be in the bridge.
The switches for auxiliary power operation were in the bridge.
The door to the intake bay had been closed.
Since it had been opened with the mechanical failsafe, and the electricity wasn't functioning, there was no way to evaluate whether or not it had been electronically locked beforehand.
Yes, this lined up with what he was thinking. It all fell into place.
He continued on.
There was only one issue with his theory, that he couldn't ignore.
" Kirie, when we were running checks on the personnel list, did you find any with careers past the event that caused the Mycologica to be abandoned?" he asked as he moved forward.
There was a momentary silence before his comm buzzed back to life.
" Mm, I told you already... Most of the information was beyond my clearance level and there were a lot of aliases involved. Even the names available to us had most data scrubbed beyond basic employment and education history."
" But did they do anything past the date the DASS filed this vessel as lost, Kirie?"
...In a way, the heightened sense of danger the darkness around him gave was oddly comforting. He hadn't been in a place like this in a long time.
He adjusted the internal temperature of his suit to be slightly cooler. He didn't want to sweat.
" There were several names that had listed occupations past this, yes, and..."
" Can you go back and see if they're on any databases for veteran benefits, accident compensation, or long-term medical care?"
" That'd take weeks unless we disconnected the... William, we are not disconnecting the ship's neural net background processing to run a search! We need the AI course corrections!"
" It'll take approximately six hours and thirty-one minutes, between fifteen and twenty seven seconds, if I remember correctly. You always mean 'between three to seven' when you say several."
" William, it's bad enough that you're making one of the bridge technicians run manual in here- we can't switch flight mode like this for just-"
There was a harsh cascade of digital static as he stepped through a doorway.
" - How are you going to explain all this to Sector Five? It's going to look terrible on the official report-"
" It's going to look like a thorough, clean investigation on the official report," William said. " Regardless of how it looks to Sector Five."
Her voice was cut out again by the digital static.
... Thicker concentrations of comm-disruptive material? Radically adaptable artifaction protocol figuring out the technician's defragging method and rhythm? Combination thereof? He still hadn't decided that.
There was a kick up in the trail he was following, orderly footsteps becoming muddled, then something being dragged. Disturbances in the dust.
He studied them for a moment as his comm occasionally crackled with bursts of static. Kirie had probably realised her communications had cut out.
This was about the right spot, though he'd made better time.
There was no sign of what he'd seen on the video transmission.
Well, retrieving the lost crew members took priority.
He continued down his path, passively taking note of all opened and closed doors; laboratory names on plaques next to them. It had an unusually restrictive feeling to the layout. Most DASS vessels of its size were built from standardized schematics prioritizing open space.
Of course, being a research vessel, that sort of design sense probably didn't apply practically.
He saw that the group had turned into a side room, labeled Lounge Seven, and so followed.
A gun was leveled at him promptly, shaky.
" Who are-"
" I'm the Commodore General, William Masterson," he said.
The girl holding it (Ashfall Neveric? It seemed so) lowered it shakily, and gestured over to her comrades in arms.
" U-um, I'm Private Cddrsê, first class... Junior Officer Sheygul is meant to be leading, but, but his suit malfunctioned, so we've..."
" Stopped to rest?"
" Private Fleischer is trying to fix his suit," she said.
" You've not split up according to rank or ship of origin," William said. " Why?"
" Um, Junior Officer Sheygul and Senior Officer Leyd had a disagreement after the communications were disrupted," she offered up helpfully.
" The other four are with him, then?" William asked.
" The senior officer, another private first class, and the two flight corporals..."
" Alright," William said.
The junior officer with the compromised suit had been reclined on an old lounge sofa. He sat up, panting, as his companions looked on with concern.
" Wh... Why is the Commodore General here?" he asked.
" Don't move too much," the private, Fleischer, admonished him with some concern.
" Have any of you decompressed or unsealed?" William asked.Private Cddrsê blinked, as though a little surprised by what he'd asked. " Well, of course Junior Officer Sheygul's suit has been compromised, but since there's gravital stabilization and oxygenated air flow-" William pulled out his service pistol and shot the junior officer in the head. " Have any of you decompressed or unsealed?" he repeated. Fleischer, sitting still, shakily brought his hands up to the blood splatter on the side of his suit. " Aa... Ah... W-w-wh-" " There's a high risk biological contaminant saturating the entire interior of this ship," William said. " From my estimations, it's fatal, highly transmissible, and impossible to treat. So. You haven't compromised your full function suit, have you? If you breathe in the air from this ship, you should already consider yourself dead." Private Cddrsê backed away from him, wide-eyed, and after a moment she shook her head. " N-no, Commodore General, I haven't," she said. " What about you?" William asked, looking over at Fleischer. He did not respond, still shakily staring down at the body of the junior officer. " Haven't you been through sensitivity training? Hyperventilation will waste the limited amount of oxygen your suit has built in, and we're currently in a place where we can't restock." A pause. " Well, I suppose that the spare oxygen canister from the compromised suit could be used as long as it wasn't compromised as well... Ah, no, wait, open air exposure on the nozzle is an unacceptable amount of contamination..." He puzzled over it for a few more seconds. Cddrsê moved to stand in front of Fleischer. " U-um... Commodore General... Fleischer's suit isn't compromised, so, he's not... An issue," she spoke weakly. He smiled. " You're smart, aren't you?" he said. " Well. Maintain your positions. I'm going to the bridge to activate the auxiliary power. Close this door and don't leave." " Yes, Commodore General, sir." He left, the door closing behind him, and stretched. Yes, the footsteps went on. ...It left him with a certain feeling of discontentment. It was at least fortunate that only one of them had been dead. He realized as he continued to walk that he should've investigated the suit malfunction; if it was as a result of an external factor, that would heavily impact his chance of survival. Well, he could investigate the potential threat of external factors if he found the others. Who knew where they went off to. ...He thought of Nova, for a moment, walking down the hall alone. How could he keep Nova? They wouldn't be able to stay as they were forever. Even though... Kirie had argued with him about it, he wanted things to be the way they were for as long as they possibly could. Even though Nova's home was Sturm, and his home was the Theologica. SOS. WITHDRAW. RETREAT. SOS. WITHDRAW. NOVA. NOVA. NOVA. NOVA. MY CHEST. FEELS TIGHT. WHEN I THINK OF YOU. I He stopped, looking down at a large bloodstain on the floor. Black, soaked into all the rivers of dust. He could only imagine that it smelled acrid. Of the forty-eight sapient species with black blood in the DASS, only two lived in his recruitment range, and the SolaNar were the majority by a vast amount. They had acrid smelling blood. Bitter. It was part chemical necessity and part outmoded defense mechanism. Well, it wasn't fair to whoever had died, was it. That defense mechanisms like that didn't work on micro-organisms or disease. He followed it, eyes ahead. A hand grabbed his shoulder, and roughly yanked him back. He could not sense ill intent, but struggled to suppress the urge to counter-act anyway. " Don't follow it," a voice said. " It's completely gone." " Are you Senior Officer Leyd?" William asked, observing the rank denoted on his full function suit. " I am. Who are you?" " I'm the Commodore General, William Masterson." " Why are you here?" " To retrieve both lost personnel and assist in the operation." " Did you come with anyone else?" " I did not." " Why?" " For personal reasons." " What do you mean?" " I'm minimizing personnel loss." The person whirled him around, and gripped his arms tightly. " Did you know?" Senior Officer Leyd asked, voice grave. " I didn't know until the video feed was cut off. I didn't have my suspicions confirmed until I came here myself," William said. A moment passed, where he could sense the officer evaluating his intentions. " Could you please... let up on my arm? I'll bruise," he said. Leyd seemed to realize his grip had been too strong, and so he stepped back. " My apologies, Commodore General. As you can see, I'm stressed from being in a dire situation." " Yes. I presume the argument with the Junior Officer from the Metallurgica was quite taxing." " You ran into him? Are those three still alive?" " He was dead already," William answered. " The other two are under emotional duress and staying put." " It's that noxious...? I suppose I don't have any hope of rescuing Krypteviel then..." Officer Leyd crouched down, thinking. William crouched down next to him. " What about the other two?" he asked. " You're awfully casual for this kind of setting," Leyd observed. " You sure you're the Commodore General?" " Are you sure you're Senior Officer Leyd of the 13th Fleet's Liturgica?" William asked right back. " I am," Leyd answered, slight annoyance evident. " Anyway. I don't know where the private and the other flight corporal are. We got separated by unexpected hostile activity." " Which was?" Leyd swallowed, clearing his throat. " Have you ever seen a tree?" he asked. " Yes. They were on grounds at my military academy," William answered. " It was like... A root... That Krypteviel tripped over, and it grabbed her, suddenly, and yanked her back towards this corridor." "...A root..." William factored it into his hypothesis. He had not thought it would have any notable mobility, due to the pervasive nature of the spores, but it still fit with his idea of the general layout of the ship. Though that complicated the mission objective a bit. " I've been trying to decide whether or not to go further than this," Leyd said. " There's too many unknown factors for me. I didn't want to go alone." " You left your own crewmates behind to chase the Metallurgica's flight corporal," William said. " It's strange that you'd hesitate now." " I didn't abandon them-" " You should've reacted more calmly to the situation. You're meant to be the one in charge. What would you have done if I hadn't shown up?" " With all due respect, sir, you showing up has not changed my plans." " And what are those plans, exactly?" Leyd leaned back against the wall. " I'm tracking it down in order to retrieve the Corporal," he said. " I had stopped because I heard someone approaching." " That won't do. We need to double back and confirm the safety of the other personnel aboard before we pursue unknown hostiles." Leyd made a face at him. " Shouldn't we prioritize the safe retrieval of an injured comrade?" " That person is clearly already deceased, Officer Leyd," William said. " We should be regrouping and then heading to the bridge to restore auxiliary power." " No, you don't know what you're talking about-" " You're not thinking clearly. You're not at liberty to disobey orders, either. This is a critically important operation for the 13th Fleet. I won't allow any dissent." " ... Is it really so important you had to come here yourself?" " Of course! Now. Officer. Let's go back, yes?" Leyd was standing still, not following him as he began to walk back. " Senior Officer Leyd? I'm not asking, I'm telling." " There's no way that Krypteviel is dead," he said. " We need to go get her while-" " If her suit is torn, she's dead," William cut him off. " We don't have time to debate it. Follow my orders or you'll be court-martialed." Leyd made a sort of pained expression, but at length, acquiesced. They walked together in the dark. " Where did you last see them?" " At the intersection where Krypteviel was taken." " Why did you split off from the others?" " ...We had a disagreement, and with Officer Sheygul's suit malfunction, he opted to stop and have it fixed." " What did you disagree about?" A moment of hesitance. " When we initially boarded, the intake bay's door was locked. Officer Sheygul tried to hook his suit's electricity to it in order to power it on, but that instead caused a short in his suit, and later a blow-out. I had to open the door manually." " So you left him with the medical officer and a guard, the two privates," William said. " Yes." More silence as William followed footsteps in the dust. " You're different from how I thought you would be," Leyd said after a while. " I don't know whether or not that's relieving." " What do you mean?" William asked. " Everyone that's been aboard the main ship said you didn't live up to your reputation." " I guess I should work more on my image." He stopped in his tracks, looking down the hall. " Do you see that, Officer Leyd? Light." " Yes." William hardened his gaze, walking forward. " I wonder... If it's from the other two," he said. He moved forward quietly, and then turned squarely around the corner. The flight corporal and private were standing in front of something, shining their lights on to it. A figure? " You two-" As William addressed them, the shorter figure jumped and turned, pointing a gun at him. They lowered it after a moment. " Why does everyone here have terrible trigger discipline?" William asked, mostly rhetorical, with a sigh. " Who are..." " It's the Commodore General," Senior Officer Leyd said. " He came down from the Theologica after our feed went offline." " He's taller than I thought-" The other person yanked their shoulder, urgent. " Private Marchel, don't try to be funny right now," she said. She motioned back to what they'd found. William disengaged from the conversation to look at it. The flight corporal's light was shining upon a body in a chair. A technician in front of a secondary AI calibration desk. Dessicated, wound up in thick but withered brown tendrils and distended by filament under the skin. The threads of the mass were grown onto the calibration desk, pouring out from an opening to the side of the otherwise completely ruined head. In his own observation, he noted that the majority of the growth was limited to the upper body, though there was still enough to encase the swivel leg of the chair and the legs of the body, firmly anchoring them to the floor. " Commodore General, Senior Officer, we found a locked door, and opened it to this," the flight corporal said. William crouched down, and pried an antiquated service pistol from the tangle of roots on the ground. " Mm. It would appear that this person opted not to let the infection progress... Though there's still a significant amount of post-mortem growth..." " Do you know what it is...?" Junior Officer Marchel asked, hesitant. " I only know what I've seen since I've been here," William said, and stood. He pointed down at it. " Officer Leyd, does this look like the 'root' you said took Flight Corporal Krypteviel?" There was a little silence, with the other two looking to him as well. " ... They're a lot thinner, and look kind of... greyer." " Yes... I saw that incident as well... I can corroborate Senior Officer Leyd's claim," Private Marchel said after a moment. " Corporal Rí, didn't you see it as well?" " ...Not clearly," the corporal answered after a slight pause. " We were arguing, remember?" " Arguing?" William asked. The corporal shifted her weight. " I was saying that since the air conditioning was functional, we could unseal, but Corporal Krypteviel said there might be airborne contaminants," she said. " You haven't unsealed, have you?" William asked. " No, I haven't..." Corporal Rí looked over at the body. " I'm glad I didn't, if I could've ended up like this..." William smiled at her. " Good decision," he said. He took a moment to evaluate the situation. " Private Marchel, this situation is probably too dangerous for you since you lack former combat experience. You'll proceed back towards the intake bay and make contact with the other two privates in the ship's lounge seven, and relocate them to the intake bay proper. Since there will be minimal digital interference in this direction, re-establish comm contact with the Theologica and recount what you've found exclusively to Lieutenant Kirie Honda." He stretched, and then motioned over at Corporal Rí and Senior Officer Leyd. " You two will be coming with me to the bridge in the meantime. Aside from our concern with the auxiliary power, we need to find some way to transfer the captain's log and camera data from the time of the initial incident that led to this situation." He lightly touched a tendril on the body, and watched as it crumbled to dust, practically evaporating. " I will also presumably need to acquire a more stable sample of this for continued study." There was a certain chill of unease, but they all acquiesced. The private left, William watching. There hadn't been living contamination on the path back to the lounge, so they'd probably be fine. It seemed to be centered somewhere else, from what he understood. " Commodore General, are we headed to the bridge now?" Corporal Rí asked. " Yes. I was taking a moment to make sure the private would be safe," William said. " I'll take lead. Officer Leyd, we'll be doubling back to where we initially met. We were growing fairly close to the flight deck elevator." " ...It won't still be functional, will it?" Officer Leyd asked. " The ships from this era have auxiliary staircases for when power is down," William said. " The Accessibility Standard Review Act thirty-seven years ago did away with it in favor of a hybrid spiral ramp system, which is what you'd be familiar with." Officer Leyd looked a little surprised by the barrage of knowledge. " ...Right," he said. " The staircase should be nearby, at any rate," William said. They all walked in silence for a while, tense. William observed that the dust on the ground looked as though it had been recently disturbed; not only that, but the thin netting of threadlike tendrils along the walls and ceiling seemed thicker, as well. It would be extremely inconvenient if the contamination was centered around the bridge. Both to his goal of keeping the others alive and to the recovery of critical information about the ship. As he took a step forward, flashlight illuminating the dark, he suddenly paused, snapped still. Mid-step. The other two also stopped in their tracks, looking at him. There was no mistake. There were thinner tendrils running along the ground ahead of them; when William tried to think of a mental comparison for them, the only thing that occurred was artificial cooked meat. " We'll have to watch our step through here," he said tersely. " Yes, Commodore General," the other two said. He began to walk forward again, scanning the ground. The growth was alive; and where he could see dark, blackish splatter from the body of the flight corporal being dragged, threads of it were already growing out, and faintly squirming. When he stopped for a brief second to cast his gaze back, he could see that Leyd's hands were curled tightly into fists. That was no good. He'd be useless if he lost his emotional composure. Having only one low ranking officer to rely on in these circumstances would be taxing at best. " Ah... This isn't any good..." His gaze hardened as it turned to the open door of the auxiliary staircase. It was nearly completely choked out with the tendrils; thick, and pulsating, a hollow in the middle soaked in black. " We won't be able to get through here," Rí said. Leyd was silent. " Let's double back and try to find the elevator," William stated. " If it's not compromised as well, we can use alternative means to proceed." " Alternative means...?" William continued walking, his gaze set on examining the wall. " Here," he said. He took out his utility knife and stabbed it into an access panel, prying it open. The small, thin tendrils around it that had escaped the blade unscathed withdrew quickly, shooting away across the wall. He kicked up against the wall and pulled the manual access lever, straining as the elevator door fought against the organic mass to open. A breeze blew up from the mechanical level; William could hear the elevator below, the metal creaking softly. Rí leaned over, looking into the darkness; above, below, and all-consuming. " How are we going to get up to the bridge?" she asked. " You've been through basic training," William said, releasing a clasp on the side of his suit. " The gravity tether." She looked a little dismayed, taking a step back. " But we're operating in gravity, and there's a long fall if it doesn't clasp... Or if the magnetism breaks midway..." He stood on the edge of the doorway, and tossed the tether out to the elevator's center cable; it magnetically attached and then hooked close around it. He gave it a yank, and, finding the amount of give minimal, jumped down to it, catching the cable. ...It would certainly be more tedious than going up the stairs, but it was unfortunately the only available option at the time. He hated rope climbing, too. But he'd just have to deal with it. He swung around to face Leyd and Rí, looking up at them. " I'll go up first and open the flight level door. Once I have the landing secure I'll signal for you," he said. He started climbing up, sliding the tether up with his hand. This proved somewhat difficult; It wasn't meant to slide in the first place, and he was well aware that if he fell he'd definitely want it to be sticking in one place. There was a balancing act in keeping it moving because of this. It felt like it took much longer than it should have to get to the flight level, even though it was only two floors above. Made his muscles ache like all fresh hell. He got a bit above, and observed the elevator door. It was closed, and he could see a very small ledge; it'd be impossible to land firmly on. After a moment's thought, he released the magnetism on his tether and removed it from the elevator cable. The default configuration of the tether's clasp would be no good; he'd have to fiddle with it to shift it to ray key. He took a moment, hurriedly rearranging the interlocking pieces of metal; his thighs burnt from supporting so much of his weight. He flipped the switch to remagnetize, and tossed his tether down to the side of the shaft by the door. It stuck. He gave it a few firm pulls to make sure it was secure, and then let go. He swung down to the wall hard, and hit it squarely with his feet, holding the tether. Never before had the clear, thin filament felt so fragile in his hands. It was theoretically capable of holding five or six people equivalent to his weight, but this knowledge somehow did not put his mind at ease. Right. The door. He'd have to open it. He set his sights on the maintenance panel, and took out his utility knife to jimmy it open. After a few seconds of modest struggle, it popped open cleanly. It did not have a manual lever for opening the door. He stared at it for a minute, trying to recalculate. He'd have to force the door open. With his hands and knife. This would be somewhat difficult, as he was already unexpectedly fatigued. There was nothing he could do but this. He set about to do it. setting his feet sideways, one in front of the other, on the small ledge, and he shoved his knife between the sliding doors roughly; brought the handle to the side and levered it, the door indignantly creaking, dust cascading down as he strained further. There was a snap, and with barely enough space cleared to see through, his knife broke. He lost his balance and fell, hitting against the wall and hanging by the tether. The blade clanged down the shaft, hitting the bottom a moment later. A light shone up at him. " Commodore General? Are you alright?" Rí called up to him. " I'm fine, I just slipped," he called back down. He pulled himself up on the tether, and carefully made his way back to where he had been standing. He'd have to use his hands to finish opening it. There was enough of a gap for him to fit them in, but not by much, and he found his strength greatly diminished by the fatigue of both the climb and fall. He strained against the mechanisms holding the doors in place, pushing them apart. It took several minutes and a few near-slips, but he managed to get it open wide enough to slip through. Text appeared in the upper right corner of his visor. Warning. 25% of stored oxygen has been depleted. 75% left. Dammit, he hadn't been keeping an eye on that. All the exertion had been fucking with his oxygen levels. ...The hallway here was completely clean, no dust on the floor, no tendrils on the walls. This sent off immediate alarms in his head, though there was nothing he could currently do about it. He recalled his tether, locking it back in its little compartment, and then set about prying open this door's manual lever. It took almost no time at all, and the door opened smoothly once he began to turn it. He leaned down and called out to the two below. " It's open now," he said. " Come up." Rí was the first to come up; she scaled the cable with little difficulty, but hesitated to unclip from it. " Commodore General, will you catch me?" she called out. " Yes," he answered, and held out his arms. She jumped down, and he caught her. He set her to the side, and looked down at Leyd. " Will you require my assistance as well?" he asked. " I'm afraid not," Leyd called up, voice a bit strained. " I have this under control." In short order he had come up, and he jumped over onto the flight level floor by himself. Rí approached him, a hand on his back. " Officer Leyd, be more careful..." she said, worrying. William was, of course, not paying this much mind. He was focused on scanning the corridors, looking for movement. He enhanced the audio pickup on his suit to 175% over the normal threshold, and stood quietly, listening. It made the sound of the rackety air circulation almost unbearable, but in the distance he could hear movement; the sound of something being dragged. In the direction of the bridge. Fuck. Why did all this have to be concentrated around the place he most needed to go. " Stay on alert," he said tersely, turning his audio back to normal. " It's nearby." " What is?" Rí asked. " The moving root," Leyd informed her shortly, stepping away. " The one that took Krypteviel." Rí made an unpleasant expression, but said nothing. " We'll take the long way round to avoid it," William stated, and he began to move forward. Without much delay, they followed him. The darkness was somehow more uneasy than the landing floor's; nothing looked outwardly wrong, just antiquated and disused. He stopped in his tracks as he rounded the corner to the hallway that should've led to a side entrance to the bridge. There was an open door. And a mass of tangled, fleshy brown roots spilling out of it, floor to ceiling. He stared it down for a moment, contemplating it. This was no good. They'd have to double back again. And there was no telling whether or not the bridge would be in a similar state. A harsh burst of static hit his comm; it was apparently louder for the two behind him, because Rí put her hands to her head and winced. " Well, Commodore General? What now?" " Give me your utility knife," William said stiffly. " Mine broke earlier." " Yes, sir," Leyd said, handing it over to him. William stepped a bit further back, and then squared himself up, staring directly at the roots. He threw the knife into the center of the mass. There was a loud sound, snapping, crackling, metallic pangs, as it visibly shuddered and then quickly withdrew towards the bridge. The knife caught on the door frame and was yanked out, clattering to the ground. William cautiously went forward to retrieve it; both Rí and Leyd were frozen, still staring at where the tangle had been. " It's useful to know what stimuli it responds to," he noted offhand. The passage to the bridge still looked blocked, but he turned his attention to the room it had been in previously. Thin strands of it were still stuck to the door frame; the sliding door was blocked by them- it'd be unable to shut even with electricity. He stuck his head in to look. It appeared to be another research room; the furniture and equipment were in disarray, broken across the floor. There were a few larger dead tendrils against the far wall, but most of the strand material in the room was thin, still wriggling from the main mass's sudden detachment. Rí looked in as William walked through the room to survey it. " They're so creepy... I can't get used to this," she complained with a shudder. He paid her no mind, and continued over to the lab storage, roughly yanking it open. This small room looked similar to the ones on the floor below; dusty and covered in small dead tendrils that had seeped in around the door some time ago. " What are you doing?" Rí asked. " Looking for stable, high grade acids or solvents," William answered, prying apart shelved containers to inspect the labels. " Oh," she said, watching him. He handed her a few small jug containers. " Carry these," he said. " If the main entrance is blocked off, we'll just have to remove the blockage ourselves." " Is that... safe?" she asked hesitantly. " Has any of this been safe?" he asked in return. She looked mildly dismayed yet again, but said nothing. " Now. We're going back." They made their way back to the elevator, the silence stifling. Leyd trailed a bit behind them. William still wasn't quite sure if he could trust him, but there were more pressing issues than that. The comm static crackled again, sharp and sudden. " ... Did that sound like a voice to you?" Rí asked. " No. What do you mean?" She tripped over a loose floor tile, stumbling for a moment, and then straightened, looking a bit put out that she hadn't received help. " Like, in the static, it sounded like someone saying something," she repeated. " It could've been someone from the flagship trying to get through." " It's unlikely," William observed passively. " Kirie and the others have their orders." Leyd said nothing. " I'm going to go ahead," Rí said. " That's not advisable. You'll be putting yourself at risk since your movement is currently impeded. Stay close to me," William replied. She cast her gaze away with a slight huff. " ... I'll carry some of those," Leyd offered suddenly, stepping forward a bit and reaching out. She handed him two of the containers. " Thank you, Officer Leyd," she said stiffly. The hallways around them were dark, the doors closed off. When they passed by the elevator again, William could not help but feel a strange sort of anxiety radiating out from the open shaft. A fear of the darkest dark. He normally did not feel such things, and so it was doubly unsettling. The static came back, thin and wavery now, and built to a painful volume. William attempted to push through it, but found himself rooted to the spot. " No! I won't unseal! I won't! Not even for you!" He was taken offguard by Rí screaming, the containers she was carrying crashing to the ground as she held her head and stumbled. " What's the matter?!" Leyd set down what he had been carrying, and grabbed her by the wrist. " Corporal Rí!" " No! No! I hate you! I've always hated you-!" She heaved, her knees giving out, Leyd catching her like dead weight. She was sobbing. It was a high pitched keen, and unpleasant to hear. " What's wrong-?" Leyd asked haltingly, evidently worried. William stepped forward. " Check her suit for tears or malfunctions," he ordered. Rí made a small effort to wrest herself from his grasp. " I- I'm not- it's the staaaatic," she cried. " It's in there!" " Just let me check, Corporal," Leyd said, sounding tired. " You just want it to get me," she continued to sob. " Corporal," Leyd warned. " You know I shoved her!" Leyd froze, making a face. " Commodore General! He'll lie! He wants me out of the way!" She pulled herself away from him, hysterical still, and hurriedly clung to William's side. " You're behaving erratically. Anyone would want to determine a cause," William said stiffly. He stepped away and looked her down. " Let me confirm the integrity of your suit." " It's the static- It's the static-" " Commodore General, it really may have been the static," Leyd offered, his voice flat. " We may both be Lunid, but the Corporal is of a higher caste than me, and highly sensitive to electromagnetic noise." " Even if that's the case, confirming the integrity of her suit is the priority here," William replied. " Corporal Rí. Calm yourself and open your suit diagnostics. I can check them remotely-" Just as he was saying this, there was what sounded like a loud groan of creaking metal, and the ship itself shook, as though some great tension in it had shifted. William barely caught himself, and the other two were knocked to the ground. " It knows we're here!" Rí cried, curling up. " It's lonely. It wants us!" William cast his gaze down upon her, calculating. He didn't like the sound of that at all. Either she had had some kind of mental break from stress or her suit was compromised. He didn't like either option. He didn't have time to evaluate which it was, either, because the ship suddenly heaved, tilted, sliding them all across the floor. The PA suddenly chimed on, harsh static flooding the air, as William dove to grab onto a handrail. In the same motion, he whipped out his anti-gravity tether and, with a snap of his wrist, sent it flying, wrapping around Leyd's leg and magnetizing to the floor as the man barely avoided being tossed into the open elevator shaft. The containers he had set down clattered through the open doors, impacting metal on their way down. Rí was not nearly so lucky; she slammed against the wall, hard, and then as the ship pitched back, William was jolted against the handrail, Leyd spinning around where the tether was anchored in a way that looked exceptionally painful, and Rí slammed into the opposite wall with a roll. William could bear it, but the other two let out harsh, pained cries. The ship slowly righted. " Th- Th- Th- Th- This is aN emeeeeerrergency ALERT-" The PA blared out a harsh, stuttery automated warning. Probably a failsafe activated by how it had tilted so suddenly. It was screeching, metallic. William could barely focus. Rí was still crying, like she was in a great deal of pain, curled up. Once the floor was entirely level, William clicked the magnetization off and manually wound his tether up, hurried, but trying to avoid causing any more physical damage to Leyd than he already had. He pulled him up, helping him disentangle his leg from the tether, and stayed a step behind as the man limped over to Rí. This is no good, he thought to himself. Anyone could tell it was, indeed, very bad. Very, very bad. He could hear the sound of it, before he saw Leyd reach for her arms, to pull them away from where she held her torso, curling up and crying miserably. He stepped forward, and swatted Leyd's arms down. " Don't touch," he said. " She's hurt-!" Leyd protested. William motioned down to the broken packaging on the floor. " There's nothing to be done about it," he said. " Whatever those roots are... it's smarter than I thought. It was trying to pitch us down the elevator shaft." Leyd reached out for Rí again, and William stopped him again. " But there's nothing to be done for this. Falling three stories down the elevator shaft would've been less painful," he said. He reached for his pistol. Leyd's eyes widened with a gradual understanding. " What are you doing?! She needs medical-" " There's no treatment for exposure to the biological contaminant," William said. " And this degree of chemical burn is also nearly untreatable even with prompt attention." Leyd lunged across at him, trying to grab his arm, but he was no significant obstacle in terms of combat prowess; William easily knocked him down to his knees, and then, accordingly, quickly, shot the wailing girl at his feet. She went silent. Leyd stared. William did, as well. After a moment, a thin red tendril bloomed up out of the cracked glass of her suit's helmet. He put his pistol back in its holster and sighed, deeply. " This is no good," he said. " We've lost too many people. I didn't intend to lose this many." Leyd was silent. " Get up. We shouldn't stay here too long. Let's retreat to a sideroom until we're able to-" " I'm not going anywhere with you," he said quietly. " You don't have a choice," William said. " Turn your volume sensitivity up. There's something headed this way." " I'm not," Leyd repeated. " I'm not leaving you to die," William said, yanking him up roughly by the arm. Though taller, he stumbled, weight shifting off of his injured leg. " Mngh-" He made a sound of pain, and William continued to drag him along, looking for a functional door. " As long as the integrity of your suit isn't compromised, you'll be fine as long as you receive medical attention promptly on our return," William said, kicking at a door with red tendrils creeping out from underneath. It refused to budge, so he moved to the next. The static in the PA began crackling again, a curtain of suffocating sound falling onto them. " M- My- Ouchie, mommy!~ Can I have a bit of that- Plasti-skin~! Plas plas plas plas plas plas pl-" An old advertising jingle screeched on repeat as William felt the faint vibration of movement through the metal floor. " But really- really, darling, it's quite lovely here, Oh, why can't we stay? Oh, why? Why? Why? Plas ti real Ouch Dar please plea Can I have a bit of thaaaaaaaaaaaaaat Ouchie plaaaaa-" He finally managed to kick in a door, and dragged Leyd in hurriedly, seeing a wave of large, reddened roots begin to whip around the corner into the hallway. He could hear how it was sliding, quickly, down to where they were, as he struggled to close the door back, to seal it, as it grew closer, and with a final heave of exertion he finally heard it snap close. They were in a storage closet. It had a few high shelves, a locker. As he had barely wedged himself in next to the still unresponsive Leyd, he saw that the thinner tendrils were starting to creep under the door already, thready and wriggling. " Climb up," William ordered, as he himself scrambled up to the top of of the lockers, looking down. Leyd followed in a moment, though not as high up; at least his feet were off the ground. The tendrils poked around the floor, wrapping around shelf legs, for a while. William stared down at them. He sent a short burst of test static on the comm. They did not change pattern. He did notice that Leyd winced. " We can talk," William said. " They're probably able to ascertain location to some degree based on our footsteps, and possibly electronic signature. But it's obviously not a very refined process." Leyd didn't respond to him for a moment, standing on the second tier of a shelf. " How long do you think they'll take," he asked shortly. " There's no way to know. Why would you expect me to know?" William responded. " You seem to know a lot more than you've let on," Leyd said. " I do not. I have been perfectly honest," William said. " Were you honest about the privates, too?" Leyd asked, his voice a dry snap. " Yes," William said. " I don't believe you. Apologies. I understand that you are my commanding officer in this situation, but I cannot believe or trust a murderer," Leyd said. " You've seen active combat," William said. " Are you not also a murderer?" " That's-" " In the end, regardless of who fights for who or why, it's still murder," William said. " How can you say that? You're out of your mind!" Leyd hissed. " It's just the truth," William said. " Besides. I would say that a mercy killing is hardly as reprehensible as killing someone for politics. I'd rather be shot than have high-grade acid liqu-" " Shut up!" Leyd yelled, his voice cracking a bit. They were quiet for a while. A long while. It felt like at least thirty minutes had passed, and that bled on into an hour. The tendrils slowly began to retreat. Within the next hour, they had gone entirely. William watched for a moment, then slid down, inhaling sharply on the impact. He waited a moment, to see if they would return, but they did not. " Come down," William said. Leyd stepped down, the click of his soles a small noise accenting silence. " It's your fault," he said after a moment. " That's what I've been thinking. It's your fault." " I'm capable of bearing that responsibility," William replied. " If you hadn't come up with that scheme..." " What else were we supposed to do with what we have?" William asked. " The fault that lies with me is that I was lacking information about its behavior patterns. I apologize for not having enough information before attempting an offensive." Leyd walked ahead of him, exiting the small room. William trailed behind, maintaining a slight distance despite the fact that he could keep pace easily. William nervously tapped the wall, words not forming in staccato beat. " Won't it find us easier that way?" Leyd asked shortly. " Didn't have that problem earlier," William responded shortly, trying to think. It was a lot of information to process in a short amount of time. He continued, fingers drumming against metal. " ...Who's Nova?" Leyd asked after a while. " The Starka's Lyena," William answered automatically, still wrapped up in thought. " The Starka's..." His voice trailed off, scarce. " Why?" They came upon where they had been previously. The only thing left there was the remains of one of the containers, and a thick black smear of blood across the floor. " You aren't... doing this for them, are you?" Leyd asked quietly, standing by it. " Mm? Of course not," William said, continuing to walk. " Earlier... When you were tapping on the wall..." William paused. " You do have a heart in there somewhere, don't you?" Leyd asked. " Of course I do," William said. " I'm alive, aren't I?" " If it was the Lyena who got hurt like that, would you still..." ... " Of course I would," William answered, blank faced. " But he's not here. Your question is irrelevant. Let's hurry on. We shouldn't stay in one place for too long. We don't have much of a choice but to directly engage the main entrance right now." Leyd still remained rooted to the spot. " Please cooperate with me," William entreated. " I am trying to assure your survival." " I... didn't even like Rí," Leyd said quietly, sinking down. " Even during the war, she... always hung back, and made others fight for her... because she thought she was better than all of us for being higher caste. And she... was so cruel to Krypteviel while we were in school... And I..." " We need to get going," William repeated. " Shouldn't you be used to this by now?" Leyd made an ugly sound. There was a sharp, tense silence as William considered how to drag him away from the blood stain. It would be a problem if he continued to be uncooperative, especially since his leg was injured, but William could not risk leaving him unattended. There had already been more casualties than he had initially predicted. He disliked being in situations with so many unknown variables. He wished that his line with Kirie was intact. He wished he could ask her for advice. He felt disconnected from this person even though he understood that he was in a state of severe distress. Kirie was very good at dealing with people undergoing severe distress. " Emergency alert. Emergency alert. All personnel please report to the briiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-" A long, drawn out tone. The PA announcement hurt his ears, screeching out with a distinct tinny ring. " ----iiiiiiidge. Report to the Bridge-" The voice, electronic, smoothed out into a mellow, quiet tone. " Can you come to the bridge, Ilevan?" it asked. " I miss you. I'm lonely. I'm cold." He stood, mechanically, looking forward. William's eyes flicked between him and the PA speaker. " It's cold here." " We're going anyway, aren't we..?" he asked. " So it's fine to listen." William did not want to engage with an obvious trap, but he was hard pressed to find any other options. " Apply caution," William advised. They walked down the hallway to the bridge. The doors slowly opened, roots and vines plastered across them. They were like a placid wave, waiting at the threshold. William stopped. When Leyd kept walking, he grabbed his arm tightly. " Let me go," Leyd said. " No. It'll kill you," William said. Leyd yanked away, roughly. " I want to be with Krypteviel," he said. " She's already dead," William said. " But it was her voice," he implored. " I'll physically incapacitate you if I have to," William threatened. " You love the Starka's Lyena, don't you?" Leyd asked. " I heard what you were tapping on the wall before you found me." " I don't believe that's relevant right now," William said. " Please do not engage. I don't want to have use force against you-" " You would go if it was him," Leyd said. William stared at him. Leyd turned away from him, and calmly walked into the waving mass of roots, which parted and then closed around him. " You've got to be kidding," William said to the enveloping mass with a sharp, bitter laugh. " I would never do anything for him." It receded, crackling and tearing sounds coming from within. He stood and stared at it. The flood of it thinned out, retreating to line the walls and cover the floor, connecting silent figures that kneeled in reverent prayer. Twisted up in a bright red that pulsed like blood. The pristine, quiet bodies of the ship's crew. The torn suits of scavengers from unknown excursions past. The twisted up form of a SolaNar woman. The half-body of Rí, torso held up by roots and spine. Legs at a disconnect. The door closed behind him, quiet. The heads all turned to look at him as he walked up the clear path in the center of the congregation. There was a great red tree, up on the captain's watch. A body was woven into it. The face looked down on him, and he looked up at it. The eyes were blank. Gunshots rung out from the floor below. He paid them no mind. He took out an emergency flare, and then the rest, and set them on the steps by the tree's roots. He took out a data transfer device, and hooked it into the main computer, tearing away little tendrils that had crept up to it. When the alert pinged off that the data had been transferred successfully, he light the flares. They were long burning oxygen-release models, for use in anaerobic environments. Even without the fresh air circulating, they would burn for a very long time. The face looked pained, but nothing came towards him. He stood in front of the tree and looked up at it. And watched it start to burn. " You're lonely, aren't you? You're lonely? Please? You're lonely?" The voice over the PA started to speak again, a different one that faded into a different one that faded into a different one. " I'm lonely, mother. No one's visited in a long time. I'm cold for a very long time. Are you lonely, please? Please? It's an emergency, it's not. I'm not cold." The flames began to slowly spread out, fanning down to the kneeling figures. They started to scream as they caught fire. The PA started playing the old Plasti-Skin jingle again, cutting in and out, as William watched the fire creep up the tree. There was another, new crackling noise. His communications had been restored. It was starting to feel hot, even through his suit. " William?! William, are you there? What's going on?! You've been offline for so long, I was afraid something had happened to you, I heard from the private about the situation but something happened-" " I saw something beautiful, Kirie," William said quietly. " I've never seen anything like it before."