“Come on, Gruber!” Stuart Beacham begged, kneeling on the deck of the observation dome, lost in his circle of holograms. One showed the ancient ship just below the Betty and Six, a gleaming, multicoloured ship, closing fast and somehow morphing its shape. Stuart couldn’t shake the feeling it wanted to swallow them whole.
The perfect time for comms to go on the fritz. Daisy’s voice had cut out a few minutes back, and she wasn’t answering his typed questions.
To top it all off, Gruber was taking his sweet damn time cutting Six’s engines loose and far enough back Stuart could start the light show. No light show, no protection from the engines going boom. No engines going boom, and the Betty and Six and everybody on board were easy pickings for the Boomers now and The Guard ship coming soon.
So where was that angry Santa Clause looking hobo motherfu--
An animal roar echoed from somewhere below. Stuart froze. Every hair on his body stood straight.
“Gruber!" he whispered again. “Where are you!"
A shadow fell over him. “Move,” Taggart shouted, reaching down for him. “Now!"
Stuart gagged as Taggart lifted him by the collar of his suit and threw him, high and far. He tried to scream and gag at the same time, and a dozen feet or more later he hit the ground, without making a sound.
He rolled painfully, and scrambled to his knees. Stuart trembled, looking back at Taggart, but his protector looking the other way now.
Stuart’s hands rubbed his teary eyes. Just as he pulled his hand way a black monster of cracked tentacles and weeping black ooze exploded up the ramp. It bellowed a challenge as a flat metal box strapped to its exoskeleton fired da beam of light.
Stuart screamed as the beam of light cleaved Taggart in two and kept on going, hitting the glass wall and sending up a wave of steam.
A honeycomb pattern rippled outwards from the blast, the damage exposing the technology wired to the inside of the transparent sphere.
Stuart stumbled back on his hands. His suddenly fear-slicked palms slid out again and again, and he stared up at the mass of angry roars and whipping black tentacles.
“No,” he whispered hoarsely. “P-please…” He slipped again, fell in a heap. Ssqueezed his eyes shut and waited for the end.
And opened his eyes.
The creature was still and silent.
He turned his head, and saw Taggart, still on his feet. Staring down the monster.
Taggart held out a hand, fingers splayed, toward the thing. Stuart watched as every tentacle began to shake. Soon, its entire body rustled like leaves in a windstorm. Pops and hisses and bone cracks filled the air.
Stuart watched it fall apart, piling on the Observation deck like a mound of ash.
He got to his feet, having a serious discussion with his brain about not wetting himself.
Taggart looked bigger than he was, and more powerful, and angrier…and less human. Stuart shook his head, having a second serious discussion with his brain about not running away from the man who’d just saved his life.
Then, Taggart fell to his knees, gasping and falling forward onto his hands. Stuart ran across to him.
“Holy shit, Taggart! Let me see how bad...” Stuart touched the man’s space suit where a black scorch mark bisected it. He lifted the suit up and it came completely apart from the bottom half, falling to the waist. Stuart stared at unblemished brown flesh, showing muscles, ribs and a six pack from the movies. “I saw you get carved!"
“Yeah, I got carved.” Taggart laughed, real surprise in his voice. He pointed a finger at the heap of ash, then sagged, dropping his hand. He grunted, and stiffened, squeezing Stuart’s arm painfully. “There’s something in my head Beacham! One of those 'Light' things."
Stuart heard a sound like an iceberg shattering. He looked around. The digital images overlaid on the observation dome were jittering everywhere.
Taggart didn’t seem to hear the sound. His eyes were focused somewhere far past the cracking walls of the observation deck. "It's scared. It's on the run. It's letting me talk instead of taking me all the way over, because it wants us to trust him.” The man shuddered. "Not sure about trusting him, but he's showing me stuff we need to know!"
Taggart squeezed Stuart's arm, hard. “We gotta hold off! Wait for the wreck to catch up with us before you do your thing!"
“Why, so it can eat us?” Stuart shrieked back, terrified of the monsters and Taggart and vainly annoyed at how his voice shook.
“Nah,” Taggart grinned, shaking his head. He visibly released, and let out a deep, steady breath. Easily, he threw his weight forward and swung to his feet, holding out a hand for Stuart. “That’s not the plan."
The sound of ice cracking came back, louder now, and the displays all around them winked out.
"The walls are coming apart!” Stuart yanked Taggart all the way up by the hand and pushed him forward. “We gotta leave, now!"
They ran for the ramp.
Ben counted to five and tapped the comm unit mounted on the wall beside the elevator. “Beacham!” Beacham, this is Gruber! You’re a go!"
Whish flew high above, swooping down and staring nervously at the engine room full of humans below him.
The Manta had skipped over the Observation deck, telling Gruber he’d rather buy the farm with him than two strangers working their science-ey mojo. “Besides,” Whish had whispered, sinking to perch on a coolant pipe next to Ben’s head. “If the Boomers make it to Engineering, what’s it matter if they fillet me here, or if I go twenty minutes later when they blow the whole ship?”
Those words kept echoing in Ben’s head as he shouted for Six’s resident genius to answer his damn call.
“Beacham!” Gruber shouted a third time. “Daisy, where are you!” Nothing but silence. Daisy’s voice was coming and going as power brownouts chased each other around the ship.
Keep it together, Girl, he thought, sending good vibrations through his hands into the walls of his ship.
Ben looked around engineering at the tired faces of Nishioka, Bosteder and Patel.
Barrowman leaned against his back, sweat pouring down his black and red lumberjack shirt. Usually, Gruber would flatten the man, but the mech pilot was exhausted and so was Ben and right now he didn’t mind the contact at all.
The elevator opened, and Beacham and Taggart, yelling with each other at the top of their lungs, stepped out, Taggart promising the short Native American “it isn’t here to hurt you!"
“Why should I trust you?” Beacham asked. Then answered, “okay, yeah, you saved my ass and all but…who the hell are you in there? And why do you care about the hulk?”
Taggart’s face was lit with hope. “It can save us both!” Taggart pleaded.
Beacham smiled weakly at the crew members of Six crowded into the space, before meeting Ben’s eyes and jerking a thumb back at Taggart.
What the hell was the idiot talking about, Ben wondered, and took step closer. The hair on his forearms stuck straight out after a few steps, and he froze in his tracks.
"You know what I'm saying," Taggart said, grinning back at him. "You can feel the thing hitching a ride in me, can’t you?"
“I heard about this,” Nishioka said in a low monotone. He stepped forward, his short cropped black hair flat with sweat. "Just settle down, Taggart," he said, one hand tugging a syringe free from the side of his pack. "You just need a little rest."
"Back off, he's right!" Beacham stepped in between Nishioka and the security officer. He looked around. “News flash: that ain’t Taggart."
Ben's eyes narrowed. “No, it ain't, Beacham. Something's using his body!”
“I’m no puppet!” Taggart shook his head. “There’s someone in in me, but I’m here too."
Ben cocked an eyebrow. Lights showed up for brief time, taking people over. Usually when things went to shit. But... "Never heard of one of you time-sharing a brain before."
The squat, bald-headed guy in the mech suit with 'Bosteder' stencilled on the chest stepped to Nishioka's side.
"Somebody want to explain better?" he asked.
“Taggart's got something in his head," Beacham said and turned to Ben. "It's playing nice because he wants something: he says we need to wait for the hulk. Apparently it'll save us. Like, ‘Jehova’s Witness' save us."
Ben snorted. “That right? You here to save us, boogeyman?"
Taggart barked a laugh. “I hear you. I get this thing in my head ain’t no saint, I can feel it hiding shit it doesn't want me to know, but it’s not lying about this! It's giving me enough access to tell, 'cause it needs us on it's side. And maybe because I felt that thing out there for myself, before this thing sublet space in my head, ands it is here to save!”
Ben appraised Taggart. He was that sensitive? That made him valuable.
Ben got pissed at himself for the thought, and he got more pissed when he decided to keep just how valuable he was to himself.
But this was Farlost.
“How do we know that relic's here to save? What’s that even mean?” Ben asked. “And don’t just grab my name from my skull, trade names proper.” The others gathered in a semi circle around Beacham and Taggart. Ben turned around tugging hard on his ear, thinking it through. “What do I call you. ‘Light'?"
The creature inhabiting Taggart ignored Ben’s request for a name. Ben furrowed his bushy eyebrows.
“LIke I said, I heard'a your kind speaking through folks, but you ain’t much for sharing. So I’m guessing you need our help for somethin'. Ain't that new!” Ben walked back to Travis, nose to nose. “You can get hurt now, can’tcha?" He guessed. "That's why you're playing nice."
Taggart swore. “You’re pissing it off, but I’m telling you, you gotta trust! That ship is our way out! The whole reason that ship came to Farlost was to… save!"
Taggart fell to his knees, then, and Ben watched his face change. Pain laced his features, and the eyes looking out at him were somehow changed. “Oh, it’s pissed!” Taggart hissed.
“Okay, what’s happening?” Patel asked nervously.
“The squatter inside Taggart, that Gruber called a Light, is an alien. Just saved my ass from a Boomer.” Beacham swung around to Patel. “Sentient. Non-corporeal.” His face was contorted. “Scary as hell. A boomer was on top of us. He just ...waved at it... and it turned to dust."
Taggart grabbed Beacham by the collar of his suit. “It’s gonna help us. Tell them!"
Beacham started to shrink away, then caught himself and stopped. Ben watched the scientist nut up. “Give us more to go on,” he said, stepping in close.
Taggart’s expression turned to stone again, and he stood, smoothly.
Or rather, something stood him up.
“Listen, all of you. Zeus will catch you and destroy you. If you escape it today, it will catch you tomorrow, but if you abandon the ship below us, the Guard will recover it. What’s on board will make the Guard unstoppable!"
Ben wiped the sweat from his eyes. When he took his hand away, Beacham was looking at him, face pinched with stress.
Everyone else was looking his way, too.
“You think I’ve got the answer?” Ben laughed. "Arrivals and Lights are ghost stories, not day to day shit!” He looked around the gathered faces, and rubbed his his hands together. “You run from the Guard. First chance you get! You don’t wait around."
Taggart shook his head slowly. “We can’t abandon it. It’s our only chance to survive!"
“You want us to throw in with you?” Ben choked out. “We don’t have a clue what you Lights really want! Other than you're as old as dirt, and sneaky pieces of shit, all of you!"
“But you're still listening to it,” Barrowman murmured close beside him, clasping a hand to Ben’s shoulder. “Yeah, you know more than us, but you can tell it’s scared, right?"
“Is this the thing that showed up to everyone, right after HHL-6 went FTL?” Murray Barrowman’s skinny partner asked. “Who you see?"
Murray waved dismissively. “Old boyfriend."
Ben’s eyebrows rose at that.
“My mother,” the skinny guy admitted.
“So it's scared, and it needs us to help it. What the hell scares Lights?” Ben sighed.
He stopped with a jerk.
There was only one other thing he knew of that made things disintegrate, he realized.
“I get your freaked here," Barrowman continued, calm and unflappable. “So tell me: do Lights lie?"
Ben stared him. “Huh,” he said, surprised he hadn’t thought of that before.
He looked back at Taggart, dug through all he could recall about the Lights and answered truthfully.
“They show up out of thin air, possess people, and apparently they can cold-cremate you with a look. But I never heard one story about them suckering you, pulling your leg."
He felt his shoulder relax. He felt Murray’s warm hand on his shoulder, too, but filed that away for later.
Beacham tugged a hand through his hair, looking from Ben back to Taggart. “Seriously? We’re gonna wait for that Salvador Dali Transformer to catch up?"
Ben chewed his lip. “Yeah, I think we are."
“Ah, ffffu...” Beacham started, more scared than defiant.
“Engineer Gruber,” Daisy’s voice interrupted from the air. “I have restored shipwide communications. Are we ready to execute?"
Ben looked around. “No, Daisy.” He swallowed hard, and leaned into Barrowman’s hand, his guts churning. "We wait."
“Thank you” The thing steering Taggart said, and then the man’s eyes rolled back in his head and the man’s body fell onto Beacham, out cold.
Travis held his pistol ahead of him with his good flesh arm, peering through the tentacles pushing through the blast doors. They groaned and moved slow, but they moved. More black tentacles filled the space and the door moved open faster.
We just have to hold them off a little longer, he told himself. Just long enough for the others to get away.
He held his ruined replacement arm against his chest, feeling phantom pain from flesh he hadn’t had in decades, and ignoring it.
He watched Lou roll the ring all the way around her beam weapon, just as the he let the hammer fall.
Together, they kept on firing as wriggling alien death poured through the door.
In the malevolent, sickly light of the Thorn, the ancient hulk surged past the drifting drive section of Six on a pillar of light. It’s body swelled, throbbing with brilliant, sliding colours as it curved around the joined hulls of the Betty and Six, holes appearing in its form to make way for the ships’ drives, pods and towers. Then it wove itself together around the two hulls, pirouetting like a whale in an ocean of black, impossibly, quick impossibly graceful.
Moments later, a black shield winked into existence below the ships. Almost simultaneously the drive section ignited.
Protected from the worst of the explosion by the shield, while channeling the energy and momentum to goose the ships faster and farther away from the thorn and the chasing Guard ship, all three now escaped the thorn’s gravity, and the Zeus’s reach.
The Thorn made one more feeble, angry pull as the ancient hulk changed its shape again, knitting the ships together as the terrible acceleration mounted.
When Daisy replayed the sensor feeds later for her crew, all agreed the radiation, bent gravity and stirred up solar winds sounded very much like a roar of fury and hatred.