15. Inside (D2)

Throughout Jimmy’s life he had never been able to sleep with others in the same room and if he could somehow manage to doze off enough, any shift or noise, no matter how faint, had woken him in a panic. Here and now, however, it seemed his body cared more about his recovery than entertaining his anxiety.

He had expected to wake up in front of Patricia with her watching him sleep from the same position they had fallen asleep in. He found himself in the same spot, with her nowhere in sight. He sat up and scanned the room, standing up and making his way toward the open restroom when he did not find her. He felt groggy from oversleep. When he found nothing in the restroom he pulled up a blinking Nee.

“Did you have a good rest?” said Nee as he motioned for her to engage. It sounded as if there was jealousy in her voice.

“I did, thank you.” he said, smiling. “Do you know where Patricia is?”

“Dr. Watts requested I tell you she went on ahead to the labs. She asked for you to join her when you awoke.” said Nee.

He checked his mountain of boils for any alarming differences and found some type of gel that had been spread over it. Other than that, it was unchanged. Either he had been knocked out hard, or Patricia was some type of ninja. 

“How long ago did she leave?”

“Eighteen minutes,” said Nee.

It meant she had not arrived at the labs yet. He wasn’t hungry at the moment but knew it wouldn’t be long for his stomach to catch up to the rest of him. He opened the cooler and took out the first packet in sight. Right behind it he saw another that caught his attention. Coffee. It had been some time since he had enjoyed caffeine.

He warmed the packets and disposed of the sweetener the coffee brought.

“Ready?” he asked.

“I am always by your side,” said Nee with a glow in her voice that got Jimmy to smile. He had programmed her to say this. “Dr. Lagos requested I inform you that she left you a crowd control weapon over the dresser.”

Sure enough a small object, barely larger than a pistol, stared back at Jimmy. He stuffed the unopened packet in his suit pocket and switched the coffee to his left hand, allowing his dominant hand to handle the weapon. 

He instructed Nee to map out the path even though he was sure he would remember the way. His limp had died down enough to allow the regular trained sway of his shoulders to come forth. He was still quite sore but he seemed to be healing by the minute.

It wasn’t long until Jimmy reached the labs. In the back of his mind, he didn’t want to miss anything Patricia found in the first sweep. You can never be too sure of anyone. He walked by the cell where Mother lay dead and stared at the dead monkey.

At the bottom of the stairs and past the tubes, the door remained shut. He pulled Nee to his lips and said, “Where is she?”

“I read Dr. Watts on the other side. Would you like me to contact her?” said Nee.

“Yes, tell her I’m here,” he said. Nee went quiet and seconds later the solid door slid open and Patricia stood there. She grinned wide which made Jimmy relax and push most of his suspicion away.

“Come on,” she said with a tilt of her neck.

“Why didn’t you wait for me?” he asked as he entered the room after her. A few steps in and he was overwhelmed by the intensity of the light inside. He covered his eyes as the door sealed behind him.

“Did you expect me to stand around while you slept forever?” she chuckled.

“No,” he said, “You could have sat.”

She laughed with him. “Apologies my lord, won’t happen again,” she mocked. She motioned toward her, “You need to see this.”

Jimmy followed her toward the lone terminal in the room. It was projecting a series of holo pictures that appeared to be up close sections of some type of deformed human. Patricia sat in front of the terminal and expanded the shots so Jimmy could see them better. Its appendages were long and bonelike, with indents in the thick flesh like massive craters that would house tiny worms. It was repulsive to look at, sending Jimmy’s skin crawling, but he was unable to tear his eyes from it. He wanted to dig his fingers into the craters and pick them apart. Each of the limbs ended with eight jagged claws, nearly a foot long. He clutched his side involuntarily and let his fingers run over the grotesque scar he had been left with.

There was no doubting this was the same creature.

Patricia flipped to the next set of images that instantly gave it away. The vertebrae tail that seemed unending and the anemone-like tendrils that covered entire sections of the creature’s body.

“Lagos was right the entire time,” said Patricia, startling Jimmy.

“Are there images of the entire thing?” he asked.

“I’m sure there are,” she said without giving any sign to Jimmy that she would look for them. “Listen to this, though.”

She pulled up a log from the lead that had replaced Lagos.

The woman sat in a lab similar to this one with images of monkeys and decayed organs all around her. “We have finally made progress. We found what had been keeping us from discovering the minefield of Element Lu that we had predicted to find here. In a way, Lagos had been right. This ‘White Knight’ he had been raving about was real. We found it at the base of a cave that had been giving off faint traces of radiation. It was dead. All of the Element Lu we could want was in there, surrounding the creature. There is clear evidence that it had gathered all of it into this zone recently for some unknown purpose and I suspect it was because of us. There is no hint to its cause of death as of now but all initial tests bring back no life signs. I have been unable to make contact with Lumis control but am certain they will agree the discovery of an intelligent life form is of utmost importance. We will send an expedition to check for signs of additional life forms but initial scans are proving to show that this may be the only one of its kind left in the area.”

The playback stopped and Patricia began the next. The same woman popped up, her office now decorated with images of the creature. “We are unsure if this is wishful thinking on our part but we have all concluded that this creature is much older than our written history. It’s a shame we weren’t able to discover it sooner. After testing its’ genetic composition we have determined that it shares major similarities to homosapiens. It’s the strangest thing. Like a humanoid that is more fish than mammal,” the woman paused and looked away, “As, little, as I’d like to believe this, the creature seems to have overdosed on Element Lu. I can’t be completely sure of it but several samples we have taken show levels of Element Lu as if it had become part of the creature. We’ve brought in the first batch of the substance and will continue research alongside our own.”

The log stopped, making Jimmy realize how intently he was focused on it. He walked around the room inspecting all the work left in a hurry. Jimmy entered the next room as Patricia played the next transmission loud enough for him to hear it.

“I was wrong!” said the excited voice of the new lead. Jimmy had a feeling he was inside the room where the creature had been kept. On the opposite side of where he stood was an airlock half the size of the one he had been through. He ignored the mess inside the room and headed straight to it. “The creature is not dead. While testing the batch of Element Lu on the animals, we noticed the samples we took from the creature began to pulse, as if its blood had thickened in preparation for hibernation and was now recirculating.”

The airlock Jimmy inspected was big enough for two, maybe three people at any time. It was clearly used for their expeditions.

“I have taken the liberty of restraining the creature and leaving Element Lu in its presence in hopes of causing the same reaction.”

Jimmy noticed faint bloody footsteps that led away from the door to the next lab. He followed them and, as the door slid open, froze.

It was a bloodbath. The lab coats were the only thing that gave any hint of the victims. The bodies were so mutilated that even recognizing facial features proved difficult. He didn’t want to think about what had happened here but he was sure the logs would have it all. This had to be the start of it all.

“James!” Patricia called from the other lab. He tore himself from the massacre and joined her. “You may want to see this.”

The image captured the new lead of the project walking through the labs with six other people dressed identically to her. There was clear excitement on their faces that they each tried to mask. “It took nearly two days but we were right. The humanoid lifeform we have found was not dead,” said the new lead. They walked next to Mother’s cell, everything was well lit. It was obvious how responsive the monkey was to one of the doctors stopping in front of her to say hi. Her little one sprang up to the wall and cheerfully threw its hands up. “Not now Bryson.”

Jimmy recognized the man. It was the same man who had sent the messages to Patricia when they had initially found the creature. “I always say hi to Mother,” he said.

“Mother is about to become irrelevant,” said another of the scientists. There was an annoyed look on Bryson’s face but he kept quiet and trailed after them.

“The creature seems to have awoken and broken free of its’ restraints,” continued the new lead as they walked down the stairs. “It’s taken the Element Lu and hid in the rear lab. It does not appear hostile in any way. We believe the creature may be confused, even scared. However, we have brought a tranquilizer in case it becomes reactive.”

The seven of them reached the lab door and stopped in front of it. The new lead turned to face the six men and said, “Ready gentlemen?”

“Jesus fuck!” said one of the men with a massive grin. “We’re about to meet possibly the oldest living creature on earth!”

It seemed like the excuse they all needed to show their excitement. “Let’s make it memorable,” said the new lead before turning around and opening the door.

As excited as they were, the fear of the unknown kept their steps slow and timid. They still had no idea what they were truly dealing with but they did know that this creature was strong enough to break through mark 2 restraints which meant their bones would be easier to break than a long, thin twig in a grown man’s hand. They entered the lab where it had been restrained. It looked identical to how Jimmy had found it, which meant they were the last people to have been inside here, until now.

“It’s in the next room, below the back table,” whispered the one who had called Mother irrelevant. He was staring down at his AI unit which had a layout of the next room in real time. The new lead placed her finger over her lips without looking at the men but everyone got the signal.

They tiptoed their way through the room until they reached the door. She stopped there and looked at the men accompanying her. She smiled at each one and was met with the same enthusiasm by each except Bryson. She ignored his distraught warning and nodded toward the rest while placing her finger over the manual door reader. The door slid open without noise. The new lead scientist entered at an angle, not allowing her back to the creature for any reason. The rest of the men followed, each of them taking position further into the room but all of them keeping a safe distance from the area where the creature was supposed to reside but it was obvious none of them could see it in the brightly lit white room.

The lead scientist frowned and turned to the man who had told them the creature was inside. He looked at his unit and pointed toward a general area. Patricia’s friend stepped forward and crouched. He raised his arm toward the others and pointed under the tables against the opposite wall. All of them shifted around enough to get a better view. Jimmy watched as intently as the seven who lived through it. He was curious to see what this creature looked like, take in the nightmare that had caused such carnage, but it was hard to make out the creature with its white body blending so well with the bright white room. It was nothing like how he had found the room just moments ago. 

Jimmy had an impulse to tell Patricia to stop the log, as if it would somehow protect her, but he wanted to see it play out. 

“Hello,” whispered the new lead. “It’s unlikely you understand us, but we come in peace.” She spread her arms out and down, palms facing forward and nodded toward the other men to do the same. Bryson kneeled, allowing his stomach to bear toward the creature by his open arms.

The creature did not move, its tendrils the only thing that gave away its position. Bryson turned his head toward the group and whispered, “It has the Element Lu huddled with it.” The man leaned closer in.

“Bryson,” hissed the lead but Bryson stuck his neck out to see closer.

“It’s like it’s trying to protect it, or,” Bryson paused as he inspected it. Jimmy noticed something move in the rear of the tables but when he glanced toward it, he found nothing out of place. “Consume it.”

“That’s impossible,” said one of the men in full voice.

“Get away from it,” whispered the lead, “we don’t know anything about it. You might be scaring it further.”

“I don’t think it’s scared,” said Bryson, finally listening and leaning back. He took a step to stand up, revealing thick, vertebrae-like links wrapped around his thigh. “I think…” he stopped talking as he turned back and saw the expressions on all of their faces.

“Bryson,” said the lead softly, causing Bryson to look at his thigh.

“Ah, fuck,” he said with no real concern on his face. He breathed deep and nodded repeatedly.

“Gentle and calm, remember?” said the lead.

Bryson reached down and placed his hand over the tail. When nothing happened, he got a gentle grip over it causing the links to shift and his hand to pull back. Bryson grimaced and cursed as he held his fist by his hand. A stream of blood began to flow down his arm.

“It’s okay, stay calm,” said the lead. 

“I’m calm,” said Bryson in a monotone voice, “but this thing is tightening up.”

“Maybe we can try to-”

“Ah!” cried Bryson as he bent over the pain. Two of the other scientists muttered something inaudible.

“Palms out Bryson. Everyone, palms out!” said the lead with panic in her voice. Bryson leaned back and spread his arms out to his side, his face tight with pain. The rest of the men did the same.

A tense moment passed until the links began to unwrap themselves from Bryson’s leg. No one said anything. The new lead gave a reassuring smile toward Bryson. The tail slithered off and stopped at a safe distance, the sharp end of it coiled away as if signifying they were now at an agreed upon distance. Bryson’s leg was bleeding profusely from the thick gashes that had been left behind.

“Come on,” said the lead softly while waving Bryson over. He grunted as he stood and limped toward the rest of them. “Let’s get out of-”

Just as he was about to take the hand of the scientist who had called Mother irrelevant, Bryson was lifted into the air. A dense spray of blood hit everyone like a loud slap that stops all thought. The lead’s eyes were huge as she stared at the jagged, sharp end of the tail protruding from where Bryson’s chin had just been. 

“Oh my god,” he heard Patricia say, her hand trembling as if she were cold. Jimmy placed his hand over her shoulder and kept watching the log as he listened to the lead scientist scream.

Bryson’s body was flung down with so much force that it was split in two before it hit the ground. The tail whipped ahead and severed the arm of one of the men trying to run from the room as he tried to cover his head. One of the other men tried to aim their tranquilizer at the creature but before he could shoot, the image was pulled toward the lead scientist who ran out of the room. She ran through the lab, the men’s screams loud behind her. She passed through where Patricia and Jimmy now sat and crashing into a chair that sent her face first into the ground. She must have had so much adrenaline pumping through her as she sprang up like nothing had happened, bloodied mouth and nose, and kept running. She yelled at her AI to open the door and burst through as it slid open. She stopped abruptly to look back and rushed back to seal the door but as she reached out, the tendrils whipped around inside with such speed that she abandoned all thought and took off, yelling at her AI to close the door.

“There is an obstruction in the way,” it said in a robotic tone as the lead scientist ran up the stairs and then, “the door has been sealed.” 

The woman ran through the labs, the holo log drone trailing after her. A whip shot past the drone and into the woman’s back, protruding through her and causing her arms to fling out. She slid off the sharp vertebraes in sections. The drone positioned itself so as to keep the area in clear view, revealing the now agitated Mother as it shrieked and pounded on the wall. The tendrils kept the creature covered as it crawled toward Mother, its tail ejecting completely from the woman and coiling up inside its tendrils. It stayed by the wall for a long time as if fascinated by the tremendous fury of Mother as she and her little one pounded on the transparent wall. It slowly stood, revealing its long bonelike legs and sharp claws over its arms where the anemone-like tendrils ceased to cover. It finally extended itself to its full height, over nine feet, and caused Mother and her little one to cower back as it towered over them.

Its tail slithered back and coiled over the woman’s chest. In a flash, it took off, taking with it the top half of the lead scientist, and leaving the animals to stare at the remains.

Jimmy squeezed Patricia’s shoulder to which she reached up and held his fingers between hers. With her other hand she stopped the log and stared aimlessly at the controls. Jimmy was about to pull his hand away when she said, “I figured Bryson had been one of the first. I…” she paused and shook her head, “I guess it’s just harder watching it happen.”

“Were you and him..?” asked Jimmy, intentionally letting his words trail. Patricia turned to look at him, making sure she had understood the question.

“No,” she said, letting go of his hand and standing up. “He’s the only person I considered a friend down here.”

Jimmy felt a quick sting, as if her comment was directed at him. He wasn’t sure why it hurt, but it did.

“There’s an airlock in the next room over,” he said.

She nodded and walked toward the next room. The bloody footprints were more apparent now, as if knowing how they had been made gave them more importance. He could imagine the creature twirling in the air as it cut the corner and chased after the lead scientist, tendrils whipping about like long wet hair.

Patricia reached out to the open the blood sprayed room.

“What are you doing?” asked Jimmy.

“Finding answers,” she said with a stoic look as she opened the door and forced Jimmy to follow after her.

“We have our answers,” said Jimmy as entered the room again. Patricia stood in the same spot, unmoving. He had a feeling something was hovering over his shoulder. “This was clearly an accident.”

She whipped around and glared at him. “Negligence I could believe, but this was no fucking accident. No, they were too busy worrying about their precious public image that they turned a blind eye to everything that was happening down here.”

“No one could have expected something like this,” he said. “How much more proof do you need?”

She sneered, “And that’s why they sent you, right? Don’t be so naive James. Lumis doesn’t give a fuck about you. They were willing to risk your life with less thought than they would give a high risk customer.” He could read the anger boiling over her face, causing him to trigger his non-reactive training. Stay neutral. “You and I are nothing to them. All of these people down here were nothing to them. This whole massacre will be kicked under the rug by a bullshit story if we don’t make it out of here with proof.”

“What proof?”

“The kind that shows they knew what was happening down here.”

“Lumis isn’t the fucking bad guy here Patricia. I know you want someone to blame, but sometimes shit just happens,” said Jimmy.

Patricia curled her lip, “Maybe I’m just stupid then, right?”

“That’s not-”

“Clearly I can’t think straight because of my emotional blindness,” she growled.

“Patricia,” said Jimmy.

“It was just as much my fault as it was all of these scientists that brought this thing inside. I’m not blind enough to see that. I should have recommended this entire project terminated a long time ago. They should have taken better precautions about this creature when it was putting everyone on this station at risk. But Lumis should have known from the second time we had malfunctions at the station that something wasn’t right down here. They should have abandoned it all at the first sign instead of ignoring it for the sake of…” her eyes looked moist and lost.

Jimmy reached out to her and when she did not pull away, he stepped forward and embraced her, taking her head between his chest. “This could have been stopped,” she said. Jimmy began running his fingers through her hair. “I could have stopped this. I should have demanded the project be shut down until they fixed all the errors in the station.”

“What makes you think you would have made a difference?” he heard himself say. He felt bad the moment it escaped his lips. He had wanted to comfort her but he was too used to pushing anyone away who showed vulnerability.

She looked up at him, surprised at the harsh tone. “They would have at least been forced to hear what I had to say,” she said.

“The way everyone heard what Dr. Lagos had to say?” he said. He wanted to be gentler with her but he was at a loss for soft words. She blinked a few times. “This wasn’t your fault,” he managed to come up with.

“I know,” she said after a moment of silence, “but it still feels like it.”

He pulled away and looked into her downcast eyes. Her nose was pink and eyes looked glossed but there was no other sign that she had cried. “What do we need to find?” he heard himself say.

Her eyes shot up as if fuel had been pumped into a dying engine. “I don’t know,” she said. “For some reason, I thought it would be obvious once we were here.”

“Funny how things work out,” he said with a chuckle that clearly put her at ease. She pulled herself away from him and turned toward the bodies behind her.

“There has to be something here,” she said as she stepped over the mess and made her way toward the next room over. “Some type of log or messages between all of them.”

“And after that?” he said. She shot him a puzzled expression. “What’s the plan when we find what we need?” she stood silent as if as if her plan had been ridiculed in front of an audience of judges.

“There’s gotta be something,” he continued. He may have been willing to help her pointless search for answers so she would feel good, but he would not forget what really mattered. “You said there would be something here to get us out.”

“I lied,” she said without hesitation. Jimmy nodded and clenched his jaw so his frustration would not burst. “I figured if I got in here I would just wait it out until someone came looking.”

Well that someone turned out to be me. He realized that he didn’t really care. He couldn’t blame her, especially when his own solution had been identical. “Well that’s not happening,” he said, “so let’s think.”

Her eyes glanced toward the airlock in the previous room.

“I’m not going back out there,” he chuckled, shaking his head. She shrugged. “What about the comm unit you took from, her?”

“You said it yourself, having parts and knowing what to do with them is different,” she said.

“You’re the one who took it anyway. Why take it if you didn’t think we can do something with it?” he said. “You said you knew where we could get parts.”

“Maybe.”

“Were you thinking of using mine?” he said reluctantly.

“No,” said Patricia, immediately bringing him relief. “The AI in the unit is functional. It would be pointless to recreate the same thing.” She took a deep breath as if afraid to admit something else to him. “There was a man who was arrested some time before all of this happened,” she continued, “there’s a chance he may have had the parts to fix this.”

“So you want us to go pick fingers again?”

“No,” she said, “all of his possessions would have been locked up as evidence.”

“Okay, that’s a start,” said Jimmy. “Where’s evidence?” Patricia raised her arm and pointed toward the airlock. “Of course,” he snorted.

“I can go,” Patricia finally said, “It’s not far. You can stay here and keep digging through the files.”

He didn’t like the idea of her going out there alone but he preferred it over it being him. “Alright,” he said, nodding and walked with her toward the airlock. “How is it that you know about this?”

“It was the first major case in the city and he needed to be interviewed before his trial,” she said. Jimmy stopped in front of the airlock and looked back at her. She shrugged. “When you meet with the same people every day, sometimes a change of pace is welcomed.”

“Not always,” he said as he thought about how she had refused him just hours prior.

She looked around the room as she made gentle nods in agreement, “Well, I guess you’re right.”

“I’m always right,” he said with a grin. She snorted as she ordered her unit to open the airlock door.

The locker room in here was tiny compared to the one he had used to exit from. There were only five lockers and a single oxygen station. Patricia entered and took the first suit within reach. It was laid out in front of a locker as if prepared to embark on the next expedition. Jimmy opened the other lockers as she began strapping herself in and found only two more suits. 

“This is the same place Lagos would take his unauthorized expeditions from,” said Patricia, drawing Jimmy’s attention toward her. “You should look through the system in the rear room, find out how many times the crazy bastard actually went on them.”

“Don’t you know already?” he said.

“No,” she said, “I had no need to prove it, his behavior said it all.”

She reached out with her hand, which Jimmy took to help her up. He picked up the helmet and handed it to her. She raised her arms and twirled around asking, “How do I look?”

“Ravishing,” he said after allowing a moment to take her in. In truth, the suit did not physically favor her, taking her feminine figure from her. However, it gave her an heir of power and fearlessness that made her even more desirable.

She chuckled and said, “I guess you’re always right,” as she took a seat in front of the oxygen dispenser and ordered her unit to fill up her suit.

It took a moment before the unit responded. “A malfunction is detected.”

Patricia grumbled something inaudible while Jimmy pulled Nee to his lips. “Nee, what’s going on?”

“The system itself seems functional but is receiving no oxygen to dispense,” responded Nee.

“Is there a way to fix it?” he asked.

“It is possible that the oxygen systems were not routed correctly. You could return to oxygen control and reroute the systems there.”

Jimmy looked down at Patricia who raised an eyebrow. “We don’t have time for all that,” she said. “There’s sixty-seven minutes of air in the suit. It’s only the next sector over, I should have plenty of time. If I have any difficulties, I’ll come back and we can try her plan.”

This was far from practical, but it was also not his own life she was wanting to gamble. “You sure?”
Patricia shrugged and said, “Just don’t freak out while I’m gone.”

Are you ridiculing me? Fuck you! Jimmy grinned and said, “No promises.”

Patricia put on the helmet and allowed it to seal along the neckline as she walked toward the pressure chamber. He thought about warning her of the discomfort she would feel while the pressure adjusted but decided he should get at least some satisfaction from watching her cope. She whipped back as if she had heard his thoughts.

“Talk to me while I’m out there, please,” she said. If she had heard him, she gave no sign of it. “For as long as the signal allows for.”

Jimmy nodded, grateful that his thoughts were safe within his mind. Patricia stepped into the pressure chamber and the clear door closed behind her without making a sound. The metallic one ahead of her released gas as its’ seals were undone and the door hummed open. Chills went through Jimmy’s body as he thought about barely escaping his own journey out there. He felt ridiculous for ever thinking he could have made it.

The sensor on his comm unit drew his attention. “Dr. Watts is requesting a communication link,” said Nee.

“Put it through,” he said into the unit. 

A moment after, Patricia’s voice came through as if she were there with him. “Could you do me the honors?”

He took a couple of steps to stand in front of the transparent wall that revealed the chamber. Patricia stood in front of him with her interior helmet lights on. She smiled and nodded. Jimmy scanned the small manual control panel and tapped the signal that read ‘Open External Chamber.’ Nothing happened.

“The interior chamber must be sealed first,” said Nee. He tapped the signal for it and heard the door to his right clang once and a loud, continuous gas noise began. When the noise finally ceased, Nee said “It is ready now.”

He tapped the main signal once again and the lights began to dance within the pressure chamber. He watched impatiently as he waited for Patricia to feel the pressure of the depths coming down on her. She turned around and faced the circular door, leaving Jimmy to stare at the back of her suit.

The big metallic cylinders on the door crossed like an X and released inward, allowing the water to slowly pump through. Pretty soon the water came through multiple areas around the chamber and a flood of water filled the room. He watched Patricia carefully as the water rose above her waist but she gave no hint of discomfort yet. 

“How do you feel?” he said into his unit as the water rose above her chest.

“Nervous,” she responded, still without moving. He gritted his teeth as disappointment set in and slowly that disappointment turned to guilt as he thought about her pulling him out of his own chamber.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Pretend you’re a pioneer exploring long-abandoned ruins.”

She laughed and said, “Great pep talk,” causing Jimmy to smile.

The water rose all the way up and the big circular door slid open to each side, revealing a small illuminated section directly in front. There was an outline of a structure not far off and the pitch black that took a grip over Jimmy’s lungs. Patricia took a few steps out and stopped as she stepped onto the ocean floor.

“Wish me luck,” came her calm tone that revealed none of the nervousness she claimed to be experiencing.

“No such thing,” said Jimmy. 

“You really know how to please a woman,” said Patricia, sarcasm dripping from her words. 

“I’ll have Nee search through these computers while you’re out there,” he said.

“Good idea,” said Patricia as she was swallowed by the maw of darkness.

Jimmy watched for a moment, making sure she wouldn’t suddenly change her mind and turn back. “I’m going to shut the flood gate. Just in case.”

“Sure, whatever makes you feel safe,” she said.

Jimmy tapped the sensor and the gate began to close. He didn’t bother to watch it seal completely. He turned around and headed toward the blood bathed room.

He walked past the dead and asked Nee to open the final room. Inside was the smallest lab of the four, easily recognizable by the logs they had just watched. It was more like a big office with a small section dedicated to conduct minor experiments. He sat in the big extravagant chair in front of the system terminal and asked Nee to boot it.

“You don’t seem like the artistic type,” said Patricia, her voice beginning to sound distorted.

“I’m not,” he said in a cold tone he hoped would be enough to dissuade her from pressing on. He asked Nee to search through the files.

“The canvas in your bag,” she said. “Who’s is that then?”

There was some relief knowing she had not just chucked his digital canvas, along with Vanessa’s picture, to make space for her body parts. He wouldn’t have blamed her, survival is more important. “Did you look through it?” he asked.

“I snooped, yes,” she said. He felt his stomach tighten. Only Vanessa had ever learned about that canvas.

“You should have asked for my permission,” he said.

“Like you asked for mine when you had your AI illegally break into my system,” she chuckled back. He knew he had no way of defending his point, but that didn’t stop him from feeling wronged anyway. “I should have known it was important for you and should have asked, you’re right.”

“It’s not,” he lied. Nee pulled up a list of files she deemed important but he was unable to focus on them at all. He wanted Patricia to drop the whole thing and pretend she had never seen anything. He was scared over what she would say about his work, but he was also curious. He stared at the fragmented sphere as he tried to find a way to brace himself for her commentary.

“When I met my partner, he used to like to paint,” said Patricia, breaking the empty buzz in the room. “I bought him a digital canvas for our first anniversary. It was an older generation one, nothing like yours. Since he had told me for the longest times ‘One of these days I’ll strip you down and paint you in all your beauty.’” She mocked her husband’s voice as one of a large, dumb brute. Even though Jimmy had seen the man, his mind created an idea of an oaf kneeling by Patricia’s side playing with toys as she worked with a patient. “He still has it and to this day, the bastard’s used it only once. He painted a dead bug,” she laughed, her voice growing more distorted.

“You don’t pick what you paint,” said Jimmy. “It’s not like writing. It has to come to you.”

“Well it seems like it never came,” she said. “At least he still says that one day he will, even though that day already passed a long time ago.”

“Doesn’t make you any less beautiful,” he said instinctively.

There was no response. He thought about calling to her, hoping the connection hadn’t ended but her voice broke back in, “If it makes any difference. Whoever’s work that is in your bag, it’s a million times better than anything I’ve ever seen. That is beautiful.”

His heart beat faster and he found his face unable to control the growing smile over it. Everything else in life he had chosen, he knew he was good at and needed no reassurance from anyone. This, was something else entirely. It was a terror that haunted him. A panic that would suck the confidence from him at all times except for when he was lost in the act of making them. He had always been able to look at something he did and know whether it was good or not and it had ensured he always stayed at the top. Always, except with art.

“James?” said Patricia’s muddied voice.

“Thank you,” he said. He had always wanted to publicise his work but the fear of repercussions had always held him back. The need to prove himself to his parents was strong. Strong enough that he knew if he put his work out and it was a failure, he would never be able to repair the damage between them. To them, their public image would be tarnished by the artistic failure of their child. He had sometimes thought about doing it out of spite. To show them he didn’t need them, but every time something prevented him. He had been able to live so far with their private rejection of him, but a public one, he could not be sure.

“It’s yours then?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. There was a silence for a moment until her voice was heard but he was unable to make sense of it. “Patricia?”

A second later a noise like flowing water came through the unit, “…hear…”

“We’re losing signal,” he said. He was more concerned about not hearing her opinions of his work than being unable to communicate with her.

“…entered the facility,” he heard the muddied words. “The p…mostly intact. I think if…them.”

“Be careful,” said Jimmy, checking the air time she had left. Forty-one minutes. It was taking her longer than she had expected, or she was consuming oxygen faster than she should. “Can you still hear me well?”

“Yes,” he barely made out.

“I’ll talk for as long as the signal let’s us,” he said. “But I need you to focus on what you’re out there for. Got it?” The sound of distorted flowing water was heard.

“Nee, how is the signal?” he said.

“Weak,” she responded. “It will collapse completely with not too much more distance.”

“Is there a way to strengthen it?”

“Not with my power split between tasks,” she said.

He realized he had been holding her on standby over the information inside the new lead’s system. “Is there anything that could incriminate Lumis?” When Nee did not respond after a moment he said, “Anything that could show Lumis was at fault somehow, or they knew what was happening.”

The sphere began to spin faster and faster, breaking off in blocks as Nee’s representation of her scanning the system. The muddied flow of water cut in again, reminding him he had Patricia on the other end.

“I’m here Patricia,” he said, “just give me a moment.”

Nee spoke the moment his words ended, “There is nothing. Lumis was aware of the complications in the facility and made multiple attempts to correct them. There are messages from Dr. Watts and Dr. Steeples suggesting the termination of the project after the incident with Dr. Lagos. It seems Dr. Jones was unreceptive to the idea and began her own unauthorized explorations, totaling eight since she took over Dr. Lagos’ position.”

“Store them to your core. It might help Patricia get over her notions.”

“There are logs between Dr. Jones and Dr. Watts showing she was fully aware of Lumis’ intentions to shut down the project and end the explorations,” said Nee.

Jimmy chewed on the inside of his cheek. It had to be a guilty conscience that made Patricia want to find blame in Lumis. Maybe she was trying to cover up her own hand in this.

“Erase it all,” he said, standing.

“Done,” said Nee. “Would you like me to reroute power now?”

Jimmy tapped the sensor to confirm and stepped out from the room. “I’m not sure how well you can hear me but I found some things you might find interesting,” he said as he made his way to the initial room where his bag was. “I’m having Nee reroute power to the signal so hopefully you’ll be able to hear me better.”

He picked up the bag and pulled the small digital canvas from it. He was glad to see it in tact. Not because of the work stored in it, he could always make more, but because he knew now that if they were unable to find another way out and had to wait, he would at least be able to have this outlet.

He placed the canvas back in the bag and withdrew Zoe’s busted up unit. At least Patricia had removed the lingering piece of arm it had tried to fuze itself with. 

“I have rerouted all of the power I can James,” said Nee. “I do not believe Dr. Watts will be able to make out anything you say. The messages I am bouncing back are coming back severely distorted.”

He turned on the busted up unit and said to Nee, “At least knowing someone is on the other side can be a comfort.” The unit prompted him for an override passcode which he put in without hesitation. Zoe had joked with him about setting her passcode to the day they had first slept together. According to her, he would never be able to figure it out because he couldn’t care to remember, but Jimmy remembered everything. He had been through her things more times than he would ever admit to anyone. 

“My grandfather was a very practical man,” said Jimmy as he tapped through into her visual memories tab. “Considered himself to be a very hands-on type of guy.” 

He flipped through the silent moving images, many he recognized since she had shared them with him. He realized the time stamps were out of order and it was impossible to tell which was newest. Looking at all of them jumbled his memory, reminding him why he had began sleeping with her to begin with. Zoe hadn’t been one of those girls he had taken because they had chased after him. He had wanted her and had gone out of his way to get her, even though in the end she hadn’t made it all that difficult.

“My grandma died before I was born,” continued Jimmy. “So him being so hands-on and not having anything to do, he took me on as his project. He wasn’t shy about admitting it, hell, the old man was proud of it. He would state it as if he was creating the greatest fucking thing this earth had ever seen.”

Jimmy played a holo log Zoe had taken of the two of them talking on her bed. He didn’t remember her recording it, but after a few moments of him watching himself with his nose digging into whatever he was reading, he understood why. He manually lowered the volume so it would play as background noise. Her questions weren’t of any importance, not to him.

“I grew very close to that old man. Spent almost all my time with him since my parents were obsessed with their own projects. It’s funny how that works. My dad had begun to write because of the freedom he believed he would receive from it but it was the last thing it gave him.

“Anyway, the old man died when I was about twelve or thirteen. I was alone for some time after that. My parents tried to comfort me but they had never liked my grandpa so it was hard for them to understand. My dad had never been close to him so it didn’t help that all of a sudden the old man had taken an interest in me. I think it made my dad jealous,” Jimmy snorted, “Jealous of his own son.”

The sound of metal clanging rang faintly in the distance causing Jimmy to look up from the unit. He turned his head and scanned around the room until laughter from Zoe’s unit drew him back. He watched as he rolled over and kissed her passionately.

“I made a…friend…who, thinking back on it now, was probably a bit unconventional,” continued Jimmy. “But she helped me through a rough time of my life. Even if my parents didn’t agree.”

Jimmy tapped out of the gallery and went into her communications. Just as he had expected, most had been with her and customers. People like them didn’t have many ‘friends,’ but it was clear that she valued close relationships more than he.

“When I lost that person, I tried to turn to them. I shouldn’t have been surprised by their reaction, but I was. I had wanted their comfort, for them just to listen and care but they made it all about themselves instead. My mother used me as an opportunity to publicise her recently released album, while my dad took it upon himself to ostracize and vilify my…friend, even though I had asked them not to. It sure as fuck got them to the front row of the public eye.”

A sharpening of knives rang over the ceiling. Jimmy got chills over his body. He tried to tell himself that it wasn’t real. That he had been over this already and none of the times had it ever been real. He forced himself to ignore the noise and focused on the unit.

“I was never the idea of the proper child for them. Maybe I reminded my old man of his old man too much.”  

He stopped on a transcript of a chat Zoe had with her parents and read through it. They were so supportive of her and all her choices. His own communications with his parents were direct and showed no sign of emotion. From the outside looking in, it would appear like a race to see how quickly they could get their message across to get off the line.

A long, dragged out metallic scratch stretched his nerves thin. He scanned the room, trying to find where it had come from but found nothing alarming. There were no air vents or food networks in here. There was no way the creature would be able to crawl through inside. His mind was conjuring up punishments. It was not real.

“Nee, did you hear anything?” he asked into his unit. Just in case.

“No James,” she said. 

He knew there was no reason why he shouldn’t believe her, yet he had heard it. It had sounded so real. There was always a chance that she was becoming faulty. He rescanned the room and shook his head as he forced his attention to Zoe’s unit.

He tapped the transcript and let it play, hoping it would distract his mind enough to keep him from focusing on the sharpening blades. The log recreated the individual captures of each party and joined them together, making it appear as if they were sitting in the same room even though he knew they had been miles apart. All of them sat with sincere smiles. It was obvious how happy they were to see each other. Nothing like the forced pleasantries he and his family would force themselves through.

“I got another promotion!” said Zoe like a little girl beating the boys at their own game in the playground.

“That’s incredible honey!” said the man who Jimmy knew to be her father. He had seen him in other logs Jimmy had hacked through.

“What kind of promotion?” said her mother, a woman who looked like a pleasantly aged version of Zoe that Jimmy knew he would never be able to trust himself around. 

“I’ll be surveying regions with the trade crews to find out which products should be further developed and why,” said Zoe.

Jimmy saw a hint of disappointment appear over her mother’s face. “That’s exciting,” said Zoe’s mother, “so you’ll be able to keep traveling then?”

“Yes, but they’ll also be giving me ten more days of paid vacation,” said Zoe with a smile as if she had anticipated her mother’s unspoken question. “Which, of course, I’ll be spending with you guys.” 

Zoe’s mother closed her eyes as if she had realized that she had been selfish in thinking her daughter had not considered them. “Plus,” continued Zoe, “they let me choose the group I want to survey with, which means I won’t have to leave Jimmy for long periods either.”

Jimmy’s stomach tightened. The idea of having to travel with her all year round was dreadful. He felt bad the girl had died, of course. She hadn’t deserved that. But he felt relieved that he hadn’t been forced to give up his own freedom for the sake of her promotion.

“I take it things between you two are going well,” said her dad.

“I think so,” said Zoe unexpectedly. He would have thought she would have said things were amazing and how in love they were with each other. After all, that’s exactly how she would act. “He’s a project, I guess. Kinda how like you were for mom,” she said, smirking.

Both her parents laughed as they looked at each other. The dad took his wife’s hand and squeezed it before turning back to Zoe and saying, “Well at least I can be confident you’ll always challenge yourself.”

“Are you enjoying the project at least?” said the mom still chuckling.

Jimmy was unsure of how he felt over people talking about him as if he were some sort of game. He was glad he had never agreed to meet them. He would have ended up as the object of their entertainment and inside jokes without ever being aware of it.

“Very much so,” said Zoe. “He’s extremely difficult at times but as long as I just give him his space, he settles things down on his own. I’m learning to give him his freedom more and it seems to be working. He’s become a lot more affectionate towards me. He talks to me more, about personal stuff.”

“Have you talked to him about your own life?” said her mother with concern in her voice.

“Not yet,” said Zoe. “He seems to need a listening ear right now. He doesn’t really have anyone he’s close to.”

“And when are you thinking of doing it?” pressed her mother.

“Soon,” said Zoe with a smile. “I’m not concerned, he’ll understand. He’s very ambitious in his own way. I can see it. Just can’t figure out toward what.”

“Good,” said the dad before her mother could press further. “Then we’re happy for you.”

“Me too,” said Zoe. “I have a good feeling about him.”

Jimmy’s heart wrenched inside his chest. He had never realized he had meant enough for her to discuss their relationship like that with her parents. Even if they were close and shared nearly everything, to set it in stone that she was attempting to make their future work. She had committed herself to it in the presence of people who could ridicule or judge her if her ‘project’ failed and she hadn’t even realized how close that failure would come. He had already begun to sabotage things by that time.

A loud noise pulled his attention from the log, its remnants echoed all around the room. Jimmy’s adrenaline spiked and he set Zoe’s unit down over the desk as he stood, listening to where the sound had originated from. He flinched as the scratching tried hard to tear the panels above him. As fast as his eyes turned to the spot, his ears revealed the noise coming from elsewhere. Zoe’s parents talked in the background and even though they were right there next to him, they sounded like a senseless drone fighting to distract him from its master. 

He waited for the scratching to come again, desperate to find their source. If he could find out where they were coming from he could try to prepare himself against whatever would come, or at least prove to himself that it was all in his head. But only the echoes remained, and soon even they began to fade, giving way to Zoe’s log to pull him back.

He stood behind the seat, not allowing himself to look at the unit just in case.

Zoe’s parents were talking about something in her father’s personal life but Jimmy couldn’t bring himself to care enough to figure out what it was. He turned to pick up the unit and was about to shut off the log when he saw Zoe turn around with an alarmed look and interrupted her father mid sentence.

“Sorry dad, I think Jimmy’s almost here,” she said.

“So let’s finally meet this great project that’s kept my daughter so enthralled,” said her mother with a big smile.

Jimmy checked over his shoulder, unable to shake the feeling that something was hovering around him.

“Not today,” said Zoe with a look of embarrassment. “I’ve asked him but he’s not ready.”

“Okay, that’s understandable,” said her father, placing his hand over his wife’s back. “When should we expect you back?”

“A month or so,” she said checking behind her again. “They’re having problems with their communications systems down there so they’re sending me with what they need to fix it. They don’t want the locals getting spooked.”

“As long as we get to-” started the mom.

“Shit, he’s here. Love you guys, wish me luck tomorrow!”

Jimmy saw himself in the background walking in and setting his bag of belongings down. He had trusted Zoe to respect his privacy and trusted that she would, but he had ingrained the habit to never leave his bag around anyone he was involved with. Watching himself in the background, he began to recognize the exact day. It felt strange to pull up the memory of how it had happened in his perspective in comparison to hers.

“Safe travels honey, we love you,” said the dad.

Zoe smiled warmly and the transmission ended, bringing her image to the forefront. It looked as if she were smiling directly at Jimmy, causing a pang of sadness to wash over him. She had been good to him. She truly had not deserved what had happened to her. Jimmy watched her turn with her big beautiful smile to greet him, only to be met with a nasty scowl.

The log disappeared, leaving the image of the look he had greeted her with in his mind. He hadn’t remembered himself treating her so hostile that day. He had thought he had covered his dissatisfaction well. He wasn’t sure how she had put up with him.

It had to be wrong. A defective log or badly captured somehow. The unit had been severely damaged after all. He had never been cruel to her, only stern. It’s the entire reason why she had stayed with him. She understood he needed his freedom, she had said so herself. That’s all he had been doing at the time. Reminding her he needed it at the time.

She should have ran faster.

If she hadn’t tripped and reached his hand moments sooner he could have saved her and they could have gotten through all this together. They could have proved they worked well together and returned to the surface so he could meet her parents and do all the shit normal people are supposed to do. Maybe for once he could have made a relationship work.

“You could never have made our relationship work,” whispered Zoe over his shoulder. Jimmy jumped, tripping over the seat and falling to the ground. His eyes went wide with fear as he ignored any pain that came from his wounds and stared around the room at nothing.

“Fuck,” he mumbled under his breath. It had sounded so real, identical to the voice he had grown accustomed to. The voice of the girl he would never be able to speak to again. Never be able to touch or kiss, or make new memories with.

A laughter drew his attention to the opposite edge of the room.

“Who are you trying to fool?” shot Zoe’s whisper in his ear. He flinched away and stared at a crushed and blood stained Zoe crawling closer to him. Her entrails dragged behind her as her bones tore out from her skin and cracked with each motion in a way that made Jimmy tense. He could imagine the pain she was in as she moved. “You’ve always met me with that face, you know?” He realized he had been curling his lip in disgust and immediately made it disappear. “Only when you wanted something from me did you ever show me that charming smile of yours,” she mocked, her own lips breaking apart into a torn and crooked smile.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he backed away.

She grinned wider, revealing a bloodied mouth full of missing teeth. “Oh baby, you’re not fooling anyone.” His back hit something and stopped him, forcing him to watch her drag her guts behind her. “You wouldn’t take me at my best, and yet, you try to pretend that after you’ve torn me apart, now you want to have me?”

She gripped his legs and pulled herself onto him. He felt her blood and intestines heavy over his legs, smearing him all over. He wanted to squeeze his eyes shut but could only bring himself to squirm as she mounted him. 

“We mean nothing to you James,” came a voice in his ear that caused him to hit his head on the side against the wall. He groaned as he looked at Vanessa, beautiful and perfect as he remembered her. “We weren’t so perfect when you were with us, remember?”

Images of his relationship with Vanessa flooded his mind. The last few weeks they had been together, before he left. He could see the disgust he had felt toward her. The same disgust he had felt with Zoe inside the transport elevator. It was as if that time had completely disappeared from his memories. Things hadn’t been like that, though, he had loved Vanessa. She had been-

Zoe pulled his head toward her. “Fuck her, kiss me!” she said with her lips cracked and mouth bloody. He tried to pull away from her but Vanessa stretched her arm across his shoulders in what normally would have seemed like an affectionate embrace, but in this instance was only an unwanted advance.

Vanessa leaned in, her lips at the base of his neck while one hand explored his chest and the other his back. “Don’t worry my love, I won’t be jealous,” she whispered into his ear as the hand over his chest reached further down.

Zoe scooted closer and reached down to help Vanessa as they undid his suit. He tried to wriggle out but they both held him in place with such force that not even his neck could move. Zoe’s hand gripped his face hard enough that he could feel the imprints of her fingers being formed into his cheeks. She pushed them together forcing his lips to pucker as she held her own face centimeters from it, her shredded up tongue thrashing like an uncontrolled hose on a fire hydrant at full blast. He could feel the fresh thick blood splash over his face and he clenched his jaw to prevent her from trying to do the same inside.

“Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted?” said Vanessa as she sent her own slimy tongue slithering around his ear. “Kiss her the way you and I used to.”

Zoe pushed her tongue through his lips and filled the front part of his mouth with the metal taste of blood. He gagged as his eyes squeezed shut and he clamped down tighter.

“Open up, I don’t want you to miss a moment,” said Vanessa.

The grip over his face tightened like a shock to his body. It felt as if the bones on his face were being crushed as her fingers pried his jaw open. He cried out in pain and with the smallest gap in his final barrier, he felt her tongue reach deep into his throat and fill his mouth with rotten flesh. He gagged repeatedly as her tongue thrashed inside, making him unable to breathe.

Vanessa moaned in his ear, sending chills of revulsion through him. “Just how I remember,” she mocked. “You were always so good at this.”

He felt another hand pull his face toward Vanessa and another tongue shove inside his mouth. He opened his eyes and saw her big, bright blue eyes gazing into his own. There was a deep pleasure he could see, one that he had dreamed of since the moment he had left her. 

She pulled away, revealing a face torn apart worse than even Zoe’s with blood dripping from her chin from kissing him. His eyes went wide with horror.

“What’s wrong Jimmy?” said Zoe as she reached down for his crotch.

“You don’t like the way you left us?” mocked Vanessa.

He felt his eyes water, he could feel their hatred rooting inside his mind. His own hatred for how he had used them. He felt Zoe slip him inside what was left of her, causing a strange mixture of pleasure and disgust within him. 

“James!” cut in Patricia’s washed out and desperate voice. “Can you hear me?”

Zoe moaned as she said, “Nee, could you please shut that up?”

“I can do more than that,” came Nee’s voice from his left. He turned and found Alice, a blue hue radiating off her body. She reached out to the unit and got it to respond to her. 

This isn’t real. He told himself. She’s an AI. She has no body. None of this is real.

The moment she touched him he would be able to reassure his mind. The other two had touched them before and his mind had taken those moments and used them to play its tricks. 

Nee stopped tinkering with the unit and cupped his face as she gazed into his eyes. Her touch felt real, a gentle caress over the painful bruises left just moments ago. Without a word, Zoe lifted herself from him and Nee used her free hand to help her off. Nee looked at Vanessa who smiled politely.

“You deserve it more than we do,” said Vanessa.

Nee straddled Jimmy. He could feel her weight over his legs, just as he remembered Alice. She leaned close to him, hovering over his neck, breathing over his skin and sending a tingling sensation over his body. He could smell her just the same. There was no way any of this was real, none of it made sense, yet it all felt real. 

Nee stroked his face as she pulled back and gazed into his eyes. “This is as real as it gets James,” she said with an apologetic tone that made him tense. He needed to guard his thoughts better, they could clearly hear him. Nee chuckled and kissed him with a passion even he found hard to resist. “There’s no need to, I know you better than anyone else in the world,” she whispered over his lips as she slipped onto him and caused him to shudder. She closed her eyes and raised her head back.

“How romantic,” said Zoe, her body now whole and without damage. She looked as she had in the log. “Maybe you won’t fuck this one up.”

Vanessa laughed beside him, her own appearance repaired. “This is Jimmy we’re talking about,” she said as she looked at Nee with envy. “He’s barely dipped his feet with her and he’s already wanting us again.” She leaned in close to him, a sad look in her eyes. “Let’s be honest with ourselves here. You’re the only person you’ll end up with.”

She gently nudged his chin toward Nee and found himself in the exact position as Nee had been. Eyes closed, head back, hands over Jimmy’s legs rocking back and forth, just as she had been. He shuddered as he saw how much this other him was enjoying it. It looked down at him and gazed into his eyes just as he had into all the countless women in his life. The look was so convincing, so powerful, that even Jimmy felt himself getting lost in the security of it all.

“But you’ll manage to fuck that up to,” echoed a voice all around him.

The other him’s expression turned to disgust. It slammed Jimmy’s head back against the wall as it wrapped its hands around his neck. Jimmy’s vision went black for a moment. The fingers tightened over his neck, forcing him to gasp for air. There was a twisted pleasure in both Jimmy and his double as Jimmy struggled to breathe.

He tried to pry the fingers free before he choked but they were tight as if a machine had bolted them to his neck. He used his nails to carve an entrance through his skin so the rest of his fingers could slip through. His vision began to get hazy but he refused to let himself pass out. He swung his fist as hard as he could, feeling the crunch between his knuckles and its face.

Other than the nudge of its head, it had no effect. Jimmy felt it move on top of him and realized it had never stopped riding him, and by the look in its eyes, it would not, even after he was dead. Jimmy shoved his hand onto its face and dug his nails in place as his other hand swung into its jaw repeatedly. Each time, his vision grew darker but with each hit he could see the rage mixed with misery fill its face.

He felt his arms reach a heaviness he had never experienced before. His mind was so fogged that he could no longer think and all he could do was accept what was happening. 

His body went limp and he slumped to the floor.

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