Just like on a roller coaster, the anticipation and worry over the worst had been for nothing. Jimmy had felt the pulsing of his heart in his fingertips as he had watched the water rise, the large circular door sliding open. He had expected the bony limbs of the creature to slip through the jams as the doors opened, unable to maintain its patience for its game to step out on their own. Only the glow of the fixed lights outside the door and the vast darkness of the ocean awaited them, however.
He had pushed the trolley over the metal walkways they had built outside the labs. He imagined they had been put in place for ease of access to the areas the scientists had already explored. He had to be thankful for that, pushing a non-operational trolley through loose dirt would have been a difficulty he could not see himself overcoming. But the constant clank of the wheels turning over the walkways kept him eerily on edge.
His muscles tensed each time they rang, like the way a hammer causes an eye to twitch when someone else pummels it. He didn’t like this. He had liked the sea. Admired the noiseless escape and calm flow. Had been enthralled by the seemingly endless vastness of it all. It had once made him feel safe, like nothing but he mattered. But he could see now how dead wrong he had been.
There had never been any calm or escape. He had been looking at it through a distant lens where there was no danger. This was part of the animal kingdom, a part humans had not yet laid their destruction over. They had dominated up top, but down here there was a different ruler. One who refused to allow intruders into its midst.
They did not belong here.
The clanging of the wheels stopped, and with it, his worry over the creature using the sound as a homing beacon. His torture continued as he was forced to push the cart over dirt. Like most things in Jimmy’s life, he had built them up to be worse than reality. The trolley would have made much easier progress with its motor, however, the thick, wide wheels it came equipped with gripped down over the loose dirt in a way that created a track of its own. It was still no easy task, but nothing as bad as he had made it out to be.
The constant scanning of his surroundings ceased as the thought crept through his mind once again. Why are you trying so hard?
He glanced down at Patricia who had skipped this entire portion of their shared nightmare. She had a reason. She had family to return to, people she loved and loved her in return. Her achievements were her family and she would gladly admit her desire for public recognition of success to be her error.
He could not.
Coming down here was just another step in setting the bar higher and higher in his untoppable tower of success. Accomplishments he could easily acquire without real effort or challenge. He was able to gloat over his achievements with those he gave no fucks about because at a distance, anyone can seem flawless and unstoppable. That’s what he had truly built. A tower of illusion. A structure so high that he could guarantee protection from the realities of the animal kingdom.
He had nothing to go back to because of his own doing. He had played the game as if it were dog-eat-dog without realizing that those days were long gone. He had never given the pack an opportunity to accept him into their fold and instead he had ate himself from his own tower.
He looked at Patricia’s closed eyes, illuminated by the faint interior inside her helmet. He may have felt alone his entire life but he never had been. Jimmy reached out and took Patricia’s hand that rested over her stomach. He squeezed and found that the longer he held her, the more his mind was able to let go of the paranoia that threatened to destroy him. She seemed to return the gesture with a weak grip of her own but as he looked down he saw it was only an involuntary twitch. He didn’t care. It had put him at ease and he held her hand tight until he saw the outline of the first pod.
He should have felt gleeful at the sight of their salvation but looking at the round, egglike transports, he could only think of them as death traps.
Patricia’s words resonated in his head. “It flooded the pods, killed everyone who made it in there.”
They had not been the first. There was no reason to believe their attempt would be any different. The creature was still around. There was nothing stopping it from ripping apart the metal eggs how it had burst through the impenetrable doors inside. They could only hope it would not notice them.
Hope that it would forget the remaining two parts of its game.
The plates that lay on the seafloor and the ones that dangled off the remaining skeleton of the structure gave the area a look of an unfinished construction site. The closer he got, the more he could notice the signs of the explosion they had witnessed before the transport elevator had gone haywire on them.
It was a wreckage. Partly melted debris littered the area. Desks, chairs, massive servers, among all number of items that had once decorated the inside of the structure now lay broken, bent and melted as they were scattered out around the sea with no more use. It was as if the guts of Galapagos 3 had been ripped out and left as a display of victory to dissuade any other invaders who might think they would fare better.
He reached the closest pod and stood under the walkway that led to it. He looked around, trying to find any way for him to get the trolley up on to the remaining structure. With most of the panels off the skeleton, it wouldn’t be hard to get himself up, but unless he would grow a few feet and gain a massive burst of strength, he would not be getting Patricia and the trolley up with him.
He needed to find another way. He looked around at the loose plates and thought of stacking them up together as a sort of bridge. He knew he was just making things harder for himself. Carrying her was the only way, and he was just looking for reasons not to.
He spotted a ledge that was close to a mound he could use as a ladder. WIthout letting go of Patricia’s hand, he scooped up the strap to the bags and put them over him. He felt his back ache in protest, dreading the memory of lugging her around in endless circles. He tapped her visor and watched her face twitch before her eyes opened into little slits, enough to stare at him aimlessly.
“This might hurt,” he said, his voice sounding loud inside his helmet but dead silent on the outside. The comm worked as he watched her head barely nod. He became envious of her as her eyes closed. There was no sign of worry or fear in her. Maybe it was the loss of blood or the drugs that kept her so calm, but he was jealous of it nonetheless. The most horrific things in the world could have happened and it would never have fazed her.
In a way, it’s what he had done his whole life. Closed his eyes and had someone else deal with it all only to open his eyes and find himself on the easy path, gloating at the success of it all but secretly yearning to have the courage to try the road less traveled. He had always thought that things just worked themselves out, that when his eyes opened he would survive it all.
He had been dead from the moment he had watched his grandfather die.
“We’re getting out of here,” he whispered as he lifted Patricia onto his shoulder. He heard her groan over the intercom but paid it no mind. “We’re going home,” he repeated to her as he climbed the mound and shoved her over the ledge and onto the structure. Her legs dangled over the edge, ready to drop if his hand stopped pushing her from behind. He stretched himself on his tiptoes, feeling the boiled scar stretching as his hand gripped the ledge and the other pushed her on enough to give him enough time to hop onto the structure and pull her sliding body on before she fell.
Jimmy sat with her on his lap as he looked to his left at the small egg. “We’re going home,” he whispered again, finding the repetitiveness a comfort from his wandering thoughts. He leaned back and stared at the leftovers of the control room for the pods. It was intimidating being so close to their escape but having no idea what needed to be done to get there.
He scooped up Patricia and carried her through the walkway toward the pod. As he reached it, he got the unnerving feeling that he was being watched. He turned around, allowing his headlamp to shine its light over some distant areas. He wouldn’t have known what he would do if he found something, but he figured it was worth trying, like sending a thought toward another person that Jimmy could feel was reading his thoughts.
“Are you able to open the pod?” he said to Nee as he neared the hatch. He felt the gentle buzz on his skin, letting him know she was working on it. He stood outside the hatch, scanning his surroundings so he would be prepared for nothing.
He thought about closing his eyes and accepting their fate how Patricia had. If the creature was there, there would be no escaping anyway. However, the fear of being grabbed unexpectedly made him incapable of doing so. He needed to see the needle pierce his skin.
A loud metallic pop snapped his head toward the pod where Jimmy saw air bubbles trail up with enough speed to give him the impression they were running away from the hatch. A warning maybe, but unfortunately Jimmy did not have the options they did. Not without the pod.
He put Patricia down and gripped the big bar across the hatch. Everything else may have felt lighter underwater but this was the exception. He yanked with his back and quickly repositioned his feet to give him leverage. He strained with all his weakened muscles, his body warning him that it would give up as quickly as he had started. He would have too, if the hatch had not creaked and given him a small enough opening to allow the water to rush inside.
He held the hatch in place, his muscles trembling until it gave way and pushed back against him. He let go and slowly fell back, watching the hatch open on its own at the rhythmic pace of the sea. He tried to bring his shoulders together to stretch out his back but reminded himself that his time for relief would come when they were finally safe.
He dragged Patricia as close to the open hatch as he could and pulled himself up into it. The tiny pressure chamber was barely big enough for two. He set down the bag and reached out to her, gripping her good arm tight and wishing she could wake up just enough to make this easier. He pulled her up by just the arm, sure that it would pop out of socket at any moment and she would be left with no way to wipe her ass.
As she dangled high enough, he grabbed the strap on the back of her suit and lifted her up into the pod, pulling her feet in and setting her down over one of the two seats. He placed the bag over her and stepped over the ledge of the hatch, reaching out for the hatch door with no success.
He focused on the injured woman and called her name. Her eyelids fluttered until they opened enough to make him sure she was listening. “I need to close the hatch. I can’t do it from here. You’ll have to get yourself inside.”
Her brows furrowed just enough to let him know she had not understood him. “When the hatch closes, you need to tell your AI to empty the chamber and get yourself inside” he continued. “Can you do that for me?”
She nodded but Jimmy was not confident it was not just another of her involuntary twitches. He decided there was no time to figure that out. She was inside the pod, that’s what mattered. He’d done his part and gotten her to safety.
Her eyes watched him as he hopped from the pod and slowly sunk to the platform, causing it to shudder as he landed. The entire foundation was weak, not that it mattered. All Jimmy needed was enough platform to get him back onto the pod.
He saw the automatic mechanism for the hatch and asked Nee if she could close it but after a second metallic pop, the hatch door returned to its fully open position. The mechanism was busted, either from the explosion that had melted this wreckage to bones or from Jimmy’s forcing of the door. He reached out to the hatch, stretching himself from the edge and pulling the door toward him. It was surprisingly easy but as he forced the hatch closed, he realized there would be no way for him to get himself in later.
“Seal the hatch Nee,” he said. He listened to the interior locks sealing themselves and felt a sense of pride knowing Patricia was safe.
It didn’t last long as his self preservation made him feel the folly of his selflessness. He scanned the area once more to allow his paranoia to temporarily subside and made his way over the platform and toward the remaining shell of the control room.
Nearly everything had been melted. Even if he knew exactly what he was doing, he would still have had an impossible time figuring out where everything was and how he could manually override it.
He cursed Aida for making it sound like a stroll through the park. Maybe she had wanted him to gather everything for them so he could die by the pod where they could easily recover everything themselves. She had set him up. But that was assuming he would have been able to gather everything for them to begin with.
“Nee?” he said, his lamp illuminating the pitch black metal bones around him.
“Yes James?” said her calm, soothing voice.
“Can you help me?” he knew he was just being paranoid. Prematurely finding fault in Aida so when it came time to break her heart he would have the ammunition ready.
“Of course,” said Nee. Eager to please and always by his side. One day he hoped to find someone even a trace like her. “What do you need help with?”
“I need to find the emergency fuel and manually override it into the pod,” he said.
“There is no connection at the time,” she said, reminding Jimmy that there is no such thing as perfect. Nee was beautiful in more ways than Jimmy could count, but she was not perfect. His parents were not perfect, Alice had not been, Roberts, Zoe, even Vanessa. They were all perfectly flawed creatures that Jimmy had refused to look at because he was scared of seeing himself.
“I can override it but I have no layout to help you find it,” she continued.
They had always needed him but not as much as he had needed them.
Jimmy turned to look at the pod enshrouded by the darkness. The fuel had to come from somewhere, which meant there would have to be a pump that would be attached to the pod itself. He checked the second pod some ways off and saw a thick pipe underneath, running under the walkway and all the way towards the control room.
He stepped toward the edge of the walkway, where a few panels had been blown off, and laid down to allow his head to hang off the side. The same pipe ran along the walkway toward the pod, awaiting to be inserted.
He had a feeling that pipe would end up being more of a nuisance than a relief. He followed it with his eyes under the remains of the control room where all of the pipes met and fuzed into a single area. He pulled his head up and let the lamp illuminate a large container near the rear of the room. He pushed himself up and worked his way toward it.
At least now he had somewhere to start.
Most of the floor panels around the container were missing. Some were loosened enough to nearly bring down Jimmy with them the moment his foot rested over them. He stepped carefully over each, making sure he would not go down with any.
He noticed most of the equipment and controls that surrounded the container were charred black. Melted just enough to reveal what it had once been but now render it useless. Even some of the walls made of Mark I.G. metal showed signs of abuse. The container, however, stood tall and proud as if nothing had bothered it.
The flames had licked off some of the writing over the shell and left black film over it, but there was no other sign of damage. Jimmy could see the traces of a symbol of a flame. He wiped his glove over it, removing the film to see it better. Aida had warned him of how flammable this fuel was and the reinforced container showed they had taken precautions to prevent any accident.
Clearly there was something else flammable they had not taken into account.
The container itself did not have any controls on it, or if it did they had been burned clean off, leaving no sign of ever being there. He checked the area immediately surrounding the fuel. The manual controls could not be far off, assuming they had not been wiped out like the rest of the control room. If they had taken precautions with the container, Jimmy wanted to believe they would as well with its controls.
Even if it was there, however, he would not be able to see it at first glance. Everything was covered with a layer of charred film. He eliminated anything that had signs of melting and began wiping the remaining panels clean. After a few tries, his glove took on a carbonized appearance but it proved fruitful.
In faint letters at the top of a tiny panel it read Emergency Fuel. Jimmy wiped off the entire monitor and tapped the screen. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until the screen finally flickered on.
“I found it,” he said to Nee, feeling more like he had said it to himself.
A prompt popped on the screen that read Warning: authorized personnel only. Proceed with care. Jimmy tapped accept and the next screen requested his authorized engineering identification.
Why had Aida not provided him with one?
As if to jog his memory, Nee chipped in and provided a long sequence to input. The system accepted it and put him through.
Or had he been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he had tuned it all out?
They were getting out. They were making it home. Nee asked him to find the pod number and he looked at it in the distance with pride.
He had done it.
He input the code and watched the screen read Fueling. Please be patient.
“We did it Nee!” he exclaimed.
A monotonous and loud clanking caused the muscles around his eyes to tense. All of his glee was bled dry and he was met by the all to familiar dread he had experienced down here. If this was loud enough to pierce his suit’s insulation, it meant it would travel and turn his irrational paranoia of being watched to reality.
He twisted and turned his neck, searching for any sign of unwelcome company. The clanking stopped, leaving its repetitive echo within his own heartbeat. He waited a moment for Nee to say something but when nothing came he looked down at the blinking panel.
“What happened?” he said.
“I am not receiving any signals,” said Nee. “Could you describe what is happening to me?”
Jimmy carefully stepped back toward the pod. He stopped at a distance enough where he could see under it while crouched. The pipe under the pod had grown and appeared to have a flexible appendage that hung flaccid and flopped about as a mechanism tried and failed to rectify the tube.
“Has anything come out of the pipe?” asked Nee after Jimmy attempted to describe it.
He bent down once again and let the lamp illuminate the spout. “What am I looking for?” he said.
“A discoloration in the water.”
He saw nothing out of the ordinary and eventually rescanned his surroundings to appease his growing paranoia. “I can’t tell,” he said as he stood up. “It all looks the same.”
“Could you reach the spout of the pipe from the ground?” said Nee.
“Not without some help.”
His first thought went to the trolley. Standing atop it should lift him just enough to get to the pipe. If he stood on his toes he might even be able to reach the pod itself.
“I believe the guiding mechanism is malfunctioning. You will need to manually insert it.”
Of course. Nothing can ever just go right. “And then what?” he said.
“You will need to return to the system and begin the fueling process again,” said Nee. “Once it is complete, you will need to detach the spout manually and return to the controls to signal permission for the pod to disengage.”
That was an awful lot more time than he wanted to spend out here. “Is there a way we can leave the permissions ready?”
“Yes,” said Nee, letting Jimmy’s worries die down. “I would be able to control the system from within.”
“No,” he said instantly, his voice cold and unwavering.
“No, Nee,” he repeated. “I said no.”
There was silence as he stood and gauged the distance. It wasn’t far, about half the length of a football field. The suit, however, coupled with the water, made the distance turn into a drawn out process.
“I should be able to help cut down your time by approximately twenty-two minutes,” said Nee, forming images in Jimmy’s head. Twenty-two minutes. Twenty-two whole minutes out of harm’s way. “The moment permission is granted I would be primed for retrieval and ready to head home with you.”
There was a cheer in her voice as if she were trying to calm him and make him see there was no need to worry.
“There’s no way to get you in,” he protested, but he knew Nee would not have suggested something without having a means to see it through.
“I can show you how to eject me through the suit,” she said.
“Twenty-two minutes,” he said under his breath.
“Yes James,” she said as if responding to a question. “Maybe more if we begin now and move quickly.”
Even five minutes was a long time in the midst of terror. One second could be the difference between life and death, and here she was, offering him an eternity. He knew he had every reason for why he should do it and only one that was stopping him.
Patricia was nothing to him, yet he was risking his life for her. Nee was everything to him…
“Show me,” he said, carefully making his way back to the emergency panel.
She guided him through a sequence of permissions until a thick tray ejected in the lower part of the panel. She ordered him to place the palm of his suit down over the tray. He hesitated, the feeling of loss and rejection coursing through him. He could see Alice all over again, her eyes filled with revulsion as he stared at her with glossy eyes. A revulsion he then carried along to every person he had ever grown remotely close to. As if it somehow would put him above the rest.
Look where he was now.
He opened his gloved fist over the tray and felt something prick his skin inside the suit. Moments later he felt a brief and uncomfortable tingle over his arm as he watched the chip float down onto the tray.
He had been lugging around two bodies and had never once complained about this one. It had been easy for this one and naturally Jimmy had favored the easy path. But the easy path was never real. It was a trap to keep those who took in in place forever. Nee’s body was just a small, translucent chip that carried only the weight Jimmy had attached to it himself.
He pushed the tray into the panel and waited for the confirmation on screen to pop up. A second later her voice filled his helmet. “I’m ready.”
Jimmy returned to the edge, nearly dropping through one of the floor panels he had previously thought secure. He hopped off the edge and allowed the suit to sink him down to the surface floor. A gentle cloud of dust bloomed around him, reflecting the light from his lamp back like headlights in fog as he crossed through it.
He pushed the trolley directly under the pod and stood over it. He felt his weight push the base into the sand enough to prevent it from wobbling. He thought it a good thing at first, but after gripping the wobbly end that had ejected from the pipe, he could see it had made his stretch longer.
Jimmy could feel a malleable rod on the opposite side of the tube. He squeezed the rubber but his suit picked up no signal of a rod, which explained why the tube hung partially limp. The fuel door was open, revealing a large slot where the tube seemed like it would fit perfectly. He stood on his toes and reached out with both hands, trying his hardest to keep the spout in line while not losing his balance as he got close.
Inches kept him from reaching it.
“Please tell me it’s just gotta touch,” he said through clenched teeth as he tried again.
“The spout should latch on to the pod on its own after being held in contact with it,” said Nee.
“Great,” he mumbled as he let the tube flop and he got off. He pulled the trolley from the sand and repositioned it closer. Jimmy pressed it down with his upper body to test how far it would dig in and once satisfied, he carefully climbed on so as not to dig it further in.
He took hold of the thick tube and touched it to the female. His hands and calves trembled as he held it in place and soon his muscles began to feel the all-too-familiar flush of overuse. Time began to slow as his strain worsened and as the involuntary twitches began, his patience wore thin.
“How fucking long?” he said.
“It should only be a few seconds,” said Nee. Her words dug through his motivation like a boy being rejected by his crush for the first time.
He let go of the tube and allowed his arms to rest on his knees. After a second of breathing, he snapped. “How long is a few fucking seconds?”
“Five at most,” said Nee’s voice, calmly resonating within his helmet and reminding him to keep composed.
He took a few more breaths and straightened. “Something’s wrong then,” he said, fighting the urge to say fuck as many times as possible in a sentence.
There was a brief silence and then Nee said, “The pod is not indicating any shell damage. The fuel spout may not be getting positioned correctly.”
He bit down his annoyance. He would have preferred she just say he was doing something wrong instead of dancing around it so as not to offend him. He was still offended, except now it was coupled with bitterness.
He would have to correct her behavior once they were free of this place.
“Okay,” he said as he reached for the spout again, “then how do I get it in correctly?”
“There are no instructions that cover that,” said Nee. “Try readjusting until the receiver latches on to the fuel line.”
“So much for twenty fucking minutes,” he said, stretching out toward the female.
“This setback is not hindering the potential saving of-”
“I get it Nee,” said Jimmy. “I’m sorry, I’m venting.”
When the pod did not latch on, he twisted the spout and stretched closer toward it.
“I understand James. We are almost out of here,” said Nee. “Soon we will be home and have an entirely different set of problems.”
The tube jerked in his hands, pulling him away from the trolley and, already stretched to the limit, causing him to lose his footing. He fell slowly to the ground and caused another cloud to form around him.
Her words echoed in his mind, nibbling at him. Those were not her own words. She was not supposed to be able to say things like that unless he programmed them into her speech pattern. He would never have programmed his father’s words into her.
“Fueling in progress,” she said before he had time to question her. “The process will take two minutes.”
He lay over the dirt as the cloud died down. It felt good to lay in silence and know it would all be okay. “Who programmed that phrase into you?” he asked.
“I did,” responded Nee. “It is part of my vocabulary.”
“That’s impossible,” said Jimmy to himself.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it were,” she said, causing Jimmy to grin. He sat up and boosted himself off.
“Of course not,” he said. “Why those words?”
“They seem to have a lot in common with your life.”
“Go on,” Jimmy said, bracing himself for a blunt truth he would never be ready for.
“I have found many similarities between you and characters in your father’s works.”
“So that’s why you always try to play them for me?”
“Yes,” said Nee as if it could not have been more obvious all along.
“Which one am I then?” he said, as he climbed back up onto the trolley.
His lamp caught the reflection of something in passing, off in the distance. His eyes drew back toward it only to jerk his head away as the lamp illuminated it.
Nee’s voice played in his helmet but Jimmy heard nothing. His attention was elsewhere now.
The white, nearly transparent, anemone-like tendrils swayed gently with the flow of the water as its frame was perched motionless, watching.
Jimmy slapped his hand against the sensor of the helmet, switching the bright lamp off. Everything went pitch black except the outline of the inside of the helmet, as well as his nose and lip. He had no clue how long that creature had been there, or if it had seen him, but he wasn’t about to wait and find out.
“We need to go,” he said in an uncontrolled whisper.
“It’s almost done,” said Nee. He wanted to turn the lamp back on but fought the urge.
“How much longer?” He reached up and took hold of the tube.
He twitched, ready to yank the pump out the moment she told him. They didn’t have thirty seconds. He needed to pull the fuel line and get to her now.
An invisible force made him take hold of the fuel line tightly in order to not lose balance. He could feel the water swaying around him as if a spoon was being stirred around him.
So much for extra time.
He felt the rush of water in one direction and then a split second later he was pulled in another. He knew he was being toyed with. It had likely watched him and the rest of the dead enough to know that there was no way they could escape it. Not here, under the pressure of the sea. This was its home and it knew it better than anything. There was no toppling its throne.
The water died down, leaving a trace of unbalance where Jimmy stood as well as a horrifying amount of dread. If the creature had stopped, it meant its’ game was done.
“Ten seconds,” said Nee, like a person yelling next to you while in an empty grand hall. The suit was supposed to be sound proof but he was certain her words had carried. He released the tube, one of his feet giving way under him and caused him to slide backwards as his other foot tried to grip unsuccessfully.
It was a good thing it didn’t.
His interior lamp illuminated the outline of a thick set of vertebrae that split through the water where his face had just been, as if not even solid matter could stop it. He watched the spearlike tip slice straight through the tube and knew his face would have split open just the same. Tiny vibrant droplets of fuel escaped the tube where the tail had made the opening.
The tail was yanked sideways, separating the spout from the pod. He watched as the vibrant fluid pumped out from the spout and spread like a cancer over the water, replacing everything in its surroundings. The fuel itself was not vibrant, it seemed to reflect off Jimmy’s interior lamp with ease, giving it a multi-colored glow in the dark. If Jimmy wasn’t so terrified, he may have stayed to admire the beauty of it.
He felt his hand hit the trolley and allowed his arm to fold with it, prepared to roll as quickly as possible. He was going to die, but at least he would knowing he had not given up.
He felt the rush of water as the creature swam toward the line, pushing his body from the trolley and onto the sand. He stopped himself from rolling and crawled as fast as the suit would let him. He couldn’t see where he was going but he kept on, knowing that eventually he would hit the rocks he could use to climb back up and onto the pod.
When he was sure the creature would not dig its tail through his calves, he pushed himself up onto his feet. He fought the urge to check behind him. A miracle had decided to keep him alive. He would not question it until he was sure he was safe.
He stumbled around toward the rocks, refusing to turn on the lamp and letting only his interior light and his squinted eyes to try and find the way for him. He had thought he would have covered the distance much faster but Nee had been right.
He couldn’t leave yet. He had to go get her.
His foot hit an incline and he realized his squinting had done nothing but strain his face. The rocks were on him and he carefully began climbing them as he whispered, “Be ready Nee, we’re leaving.”
“The pod requires more fuel to reach the surface.”
He was about to say something when his eye caught the glow of the fuel under the pod. It wasn’t the fuel that kept his attention, but the creature. It was as if a cat had discovered a laser and become completely mesmerized by it. It swam through the small amounts that had spilled into the water, allowing it to stick to its body and radiate with the reflection of the lamp. It was as if it were trying to absorb it.
“Can you dump fuel through the line without it being connected?” said Jimmy.
“That would be extremely unsafe.”
“Do it,” said Jimmy. He hopped the gap and landed on the platform, causing the frame to shake. He walked back lightly toward Nee, being careful not to disturb the platform.
“Done,” he heard Nee say. He took one knee over the side of the rail and poked his head over. He had been right.
The creature danced sporadically through the cloud of luminescent fuel. Its tendrils no longer flowed with the water but stood on point, like an addict who’s spilled their score and is desperately trying to recover as much as they can.
Jimmy pictured a boy trying to wrap his arms around his favorite teddy bear one last time, or his grandfather’s body as he sobbed before it was taken from him and burned.
“Are we good?” said Jimmy, his eyes never leaving the creature as it covered itself entirely in the fluid.
“One moment,” said Nee. She went silent for a second, then two. He hoped the creature wouldn’t decided to shift its focus back on him. “The ID provided does not have authorization to release the pod.”
The words ripped his attention toward Nee. He cursed Aida and her team for overlooking a detail like this. “Please tell me there’s something we can do,” he said, waiting for a response that never came. He felt his anxiety building. He couldn’t know how much longer that thing would stay put. He could only hope it was long enough.
“Yes,” she finally said.
“Good, I’m coming to get you.”
“Not yet,” she said, stopping him midstep. “I need time.”
“How long?” he said, biting down the worry that continued to build.
“I…” said Nee, causing Jimmy to furrow his brows. “I can’t be sure.”
Twenty-two minutes. She was always so exact with her times, always certain she could not be wrong. He pictured her lost outside of her comfortable home at his wrist, unable to know if she would ever return to it. Fighting back the fear she felt as she traversed whatever new land she was in.
He needed to be strong for her, even if he knew it was not really her fear but his own.
He stepped back toward the pod. If he had to wait, he would at least have everything ready for the moment it was released. He pressed the sensor for the door and strained once more as he yanked it toward him. It took a lot more effort than the first time around but it eventually gave way.
He poked his head in and was relieved to find Patricia no longer there. He dug around, trying to find anything that might help reel the door from the inside. He came across a small compartment that held tools inside.
A small multi-tool was propped in the rear which Jimmy withdrew and took a moment to tinker with. It was clearly made to function with the use of a suit. The buttons thick and spread out enough so the bulky fingertips would be able to press it with ease.
Jimmy cycled through the settings until the tiny screen showed a bright red flame symbol. Maybe there was no rope or cord on the multi-tool, but the blow torch would help keep his mind at ease as he searched for one.
He tapped the sensor trigger, causing a cone of bright blue flame to rush out. Tiny bubbles danced around it as if worshipping their god before floating up to the task they were given. It was mesmerizing, drawing his attention the way only fire knows how.
He let go of the sensor but held the multi-tool tight in his grip. He tapped the one on his helmet and allowed the bright lamps to illuminate the metal wall and squinted to protect his eyes from the burn of the sudden brightness. He turned toward the skeleton of the control room and let the light shine over the areas where the panels no longer held together.
It didn’t take long to find something he could use. At the end of the walkway, against a wall that still held, hung a coiled up line. He didn’t know what it was used for but it would have to do. If it had held up after the explosion, he could only hope it would hold up for his task.
He placed one foot over the rim of the door and swallowed down the coward within him before pushing himself off and floating down onto the walkway. The rails shook as he landed which reminded Jimmy to hold the multi-tool tighter in his hand.
He took a few steps forward and felt his foot tremble before the panel it rested over gave out under him. Without thought, he lunged forward, barely getting his body over the platform ahead. His legs hung over the new hole that had been left in the walkway. He pulled his legs in and rolled them onto where his torso lay. With his head now near the edge, he scooted toward it and looked down at the panel floating down toward the fuel covered creature.
He didn’t wait to see what happened. Jimmy stood and moved as fast as the water would let him. With each step he took he felt the platform quake under him. At any moment, the entire structure would likely collapse under him and he could only hope that he had enough time to get Nee.
His finger twitched over the multi-tool as his feet moved him on without much effort. The flow of water propelled him forward, making him feel slightly off balance as his steps worked with foreign momentum.
The panel on Jimmy’s right burst from the frame and slammed into him with a sudden force that threw Jimmy from his feet and into the opposing wall. It had happened so fast he had no time to register any of it.
He groaned, placing his hand over the wall as he used it to help push himself off but the panel that had smashed into him now crushed him against the wall. When he realized he would be unable to push the panel off he decided to squeeze himself down and crawl out. He tapped the sensor on his helmet as he crawled to turn off his lamp.
Four impossibly sharp blades dug into the panel near Jimmy’s face. Claws. As quickly as they dug in they were pulled out and reinserted close to his legs.
He watched the claws carefully, sure that it would pull out again and this time dig through the metal and into him. They closed in together over the metal, crushing it with ease and gripping it like a bowling ball.
Jimmy crawled enough to stick his head out, enough to see the creature. Its’ long, bony body was bent over the platform facing the pod as its anemone-like tendrils pricked up like a balloon over hair. It looked as if it were watching the pod, ready to pounce at the sign of anything.
With the creature this close his mind was fresh out of ideas. He knew he needed to move. Eventually the creature would realize he was there, but if he moved, it would also notice him.
He breathed a few times and swallowed hard. Sometimes the better option is the one with less shit.
He dug the heel of the boots into the panels and slowly pushed himself out while allowing his eyes to stay on the creature. Jimmy knew he had to be making noise, just because his suit muffled it all didn’t mean it wasn’t happening. The creature, however, seemed completely unaware of it.
Its attention seemed solely on the pod but by the way the tendrils slowly moved like a camera constantly adjusting to catch its surroundings, it made Jimmy think it may not be focused on anything at all. He had the feeling the creature had no idea where anything was.
It jerked its bony body toward him, stopping Jimmy just as he was about to pull his leg completely out of the panel. The glowing tendrils all pointed toward him, looking like hundreds of eyes straining hard in darkness.
The long vertebrae-like tail slithered by his leg. He thought about yanking his leg and running but chose to stay still, out of rational thought or sheer cowardice he couldn’t say. The sharp point came close to the middle of the panel and stood on point. It dug through the thick metal and drew a line across as easily as if it were slicing through margarine.
Jimmy swallowed hard, resisting the urge to pull his leg out. He watched as the tail got an inch from his foot and slammed itself into the metal. Maybe it was frustration or maybe it was continuing to toy with him. It sliced through the metal once again and ripped its tail out.
He heard a piercing shriek that caused his face to bunch as he felt his eardrums on the verge of bursting. The creature turned around, the tendrils still facing Jimmy as if they had a mind of their own. The tail slammed close to his midsection causing Jimmy to breathe short bursts of air. He thought about it slicing through him like the metal, spilling his guts into the ocean and letting them float as he watched.
Impulsively, Jimmy squeezed the sensor trigger of the multi-tool. As the tail began to slice, it passed through the torch and transferred the fire onto itself.
The flame did not care that it was surrounded by water. It trailed along the tail and cooked anything touched by the rainbow glow. The tail stopped only millimeters from his stomach before ripping itself from the panel and flailing up, slicing through the panel and splitting it in two. Jimmy pulled his leg free before the weight of the creature brought the metal down over it.
The creature’s tail flailed through the water without direction, desperate to put out the pain it experienced as the flame licked further up its body consuming everything that glowed. In a blink, the entire creature burned bright.
Jimmy scooted back, trying to put as much distance as he could between he and the tail that was wildly shredding anything it came in contact with. The creature spun around in hopes the flames would die down but the fire refused to die, instead hugging it tighter. The anemone-like tendrils dropped down as if dead, the creature no longer interested in anything but ridding itself of this pain.
The sound pierced through his helmet again, disorienting Jimmy and causing his eyes to roll back. It was as if he felt the pain the creature experienced, the shriek causing all his nerves to prick up and go haywire. He shuddered at the thought of his own skin slowly melting as he was submerged in the very thing that was supposed to help him.
He forced his eyes open and turned his body over, crawling toward the coiled up equipment. The shriek went on without pause sending waves through Jimmy’s bones like fever aches that would leave a person bedridden.
Except resting through it was not an option.
“We need to go,” he said through clenched teeth as he pushed himself to his feet. His whole body trembled, threatening with each step to give out under him.
“I need more time,” came Nee’s soothing voice.
The shriek pierced deeper, jumbling his thoughts and dropping him to his knee. He fought through it and checked back, catching the fire-licked creature spinning in the water with such speed that it gave the appearance of lava flying through the air and throwing tiny specs of magma around for all to catch.
Jimmy gripped the coiled hose and ripped it off, nearly taking the entire wall with it. “We’re out of time Nee,” he said. “Please.”
There was a drawn out silence, even the creature’s shriek seemed to stop.
“You’re out of time,” she said, stopping Jimmy midstep. “There’s never been any for me.”
Jimmy felt the words bite deep into his heart. He opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out. He clenched his jaw, biting back the welling tears around his eyes.
He blinked back the tears as he realized that the body aches had disappeared. He looked at the demon in flames, still spinning its whirlpool but no longer the glorious spectacle it had been moments before. Only small sections of it were visible, the rest of it was once again absorbed by the darkness of the abyss.
“I can’t leave you,” he said, his eyes glued to the creature.
“An entire lifetime will pass but I will always know you never left,” said Nee.
Jimmy turned toward the console where Nee rested. He blinked, unable to process her use of his mother’s words. His mother’s song played in his head as a melancholy smile found its way through him. He had always thought them empty words meant to please the crowd.
They had always been meant for him.
“I love you Nee,” he said as he turned and ran toward the pod. He knew her interaction protocols would reset her and revert her back to her default settings but she had to know. It’s what was best for her.
He hopped over the broken panel, straining to keep hold of the hose. As he planted his feet firm he thought he heard her voice saying “I love you too James,” but there was no usual tick signaling the end of communication. He couldn’t be sure but he hoped his mind had been playing tricks this time. He would not be able to leave her otherwise.
He felt the walkway tremble each time his feet landed. As he neared the pod, he watched as one of the clamps holding the transport up broke loose. A moment later, the second clamp split and caused the pod to sag. He resisted the urge to ask Nee what was happening. When the third clamp broke, Jimmy forced his suit to go faster and although the water did not allow for much, within his suit things still moved at normal speeds.
He turned his head as he saw movement only to find the creature no longer above. It had doused its coat of fire and returned once again to the realm of shadows.
The last clamp burst allowing the weight of the pod to sink it down. He had pictured himself being slick and throwing the hose through the handle as he slid into the chamber and reeled it in all in one go. Instead, he watched the pod sink further, his desperation rising. He took the last three steps and jumped after it, gliding through the water without any ability to correct course.
It looked as if he were going to shoot straight through the open hatch and he braced himself for it only to have the pod slam into the ocean floor and tilt the opening in another direction. His boots hit the edge of the pod and slid like if it were coated with pam. He tried to throw his free arm into the opening but managed to pull it back as he caught the edge of the vertebrae splitting through the water and into the pod. His helmet hit the metal hard enough to crack his visor.
He grabbed on to whatever he could as his body slid down the pod. His hands found the hatch handle and clung to it tight. He looked up and found the creature crouched over the opening, its body charred and patched as if maggots had set into its skin and feasted on it while it was still alive.
The thing faced him, its tail sliding out and stretching into the open water as the remains of its tendrils flailed about like badly butchered strings of meat. Jimmy had expected to stare into the endless orb only to find it gashed and disfigured. It looked like the creature had carved through its own perfection as it burned. A dark fluid spilled from the cuts and coated the surrounding water like a growing fog.
Jimmy didn’t wait to see what would happen once the tail stretched in full. He stuffed the end of the hose into the handle and let go. His body fell slowly, reeling along the hose with it as it uncoiled from his arm. The creature crouched toward where Jimmy had just been as the tail probed the area with its tip, occasionally jabbing to test the water.
It was blind.
We can make it. He thought to himself as his feet touched the ground, sending up a cloud of dirt. He stepped backwards so as not to land with his back on the seafloor and regained his composure only to have a massive shockwave push him back and then yank him to his left as his arm was squeezed tight.
The creature stood in the middle of the newly formed cloud, its tail wildly slicing into the ground where he had just been.
Jimmy slid over the dirt, never letting go of the end of the hose. His arm felt like it had been pulled clean of its socket. As his body came to a stop, forcing a pained groan as his arm was pushed into the dirt, the creature stopped mid stab and turned to him with such speed that Jimmy felt his throat clog.
He remained as still as he could, refusing to even turn his head to check what had yanked him to safety. The creature once again dragged its tail over the area, jabbing sections to make sure it missed nothing. It crouched further and extended its long, bony arm toward Jimmy. If he moved the thing would hop on him faster than he could blink. As much as he liked to say he did not believe in luck, it had been the only reason he had made it this far. Luck had run out and Jimmy would be left to die with a thousand holes through his body.
Jimmy counted each of the stabs the creature made as its claws dragged its charred body closer. He wanted to move, take control, do anything, but he could only watch as the creature breached the distance. He was petrified, even scared to swallow the bile he felt growing in his throat. He had been so confident that he could dig himself out of any situation, so sure he was the reason why things always worked out around him.
Now that he was truly on his own, the claws digging through his innards seemed to be the only possible outcome. There was no more shitting on anyone else so he could come out on top. He was a coward.
A selfish, narcissistic, psychotic, distrusting coward.
The creature inched closer, its tail already ensured that no area around it was left unpierced. It was determined to find its prey, the games were over.
Jimmy didn’t know if it could experience the desire for revenge but it seemed like that was all it wanted. It had toyed with them, taken pleasure from displaying its superiority over them. Something Jimmy was all too familiar with.
He had idolized becoming a lone ruler. A self-sufficient god able to accomplish it all without the need for the cretins. A god who would flaunt his power and the people would worship him for it. Staring directly at the very thing he had idolized, he felt nothing but repulsion.
The creature stopped, its body twisting towards the control room. Jimmy allowed his head to slowly turn enough to see what had captured its attention.
The fuel line flailed about, pumping its fluorescent fuel into the water. It dispersed a flood of the fuel only to stop suddenly and jerk again dumping out another.
He was not alone. Not yet.
The creature blasted through the water toward it, leaving sand to spray over Jimmy with enough intensity to make him feel his suit had been pierced with holes. He didn’t hesitate. He gripped the hose tight to help himself up and felt the sharp pain in his left shoulder intensify as the line pulled him. The end had coiled around his arm so tight that it had dislocated his shoulder.
He bit down hard and ran toward the pod, testing the loose end of the hose. He felt it tug the other side and cried out as it lifted his arm. He raised his head toward the open hatch and saw it wasn’t far but the pain made it seem like he would be climbing a tower.
A loud screech blew through his helmet, forcing his attention toward the creature. It floated mid water, furiously slashing at the tube that had pumped the fuel.
Jimmy wrapped the loose end around his good arm and climbed up, keeping his jaw and stomach tight in an attempt to distract from the shockwave that burst through his opposite shoulder. His body begged him to stop, that the effort was not worth the outcome, that they could find another way, but this was not one side convincing the other that exercise was good for the long term. A second screech through his helmet proved that.
He wrapped the hose tighter and tucked his bad arm as close as he could to his chest as he planted his feet tight over the metal. Once he reached the latch his shoulder had gone numb. He used the last stretch to grip the side of the door and, with his foot, leveraged himself over the latch. He glanced at the creature. It had torn the piping to shreds and looked like it had gone mad. Like it was unable to comprehend how it was being fooled and choosing to destroy everything in its path because of it.
It had built a life that it felt it could live with, only to have others intrude into it and remind it that it was far from perfect.
Uncoiling the hose slightly, Jimmy pushed himself up by his feet enough to reach out and grab the inside rim of the pod. He pulled himself up the final stretch and allowed his body to drop in head first. Relief set in as he floated down only to be torn away as the hose over his bad arm reached an end and yanked on it. He cried out as the agony set in and he desperately stretched his body out to find his footing and relieve it. He felt the pod shake as his boots touched down over something, causing him to slip and flail as he tried to regain himself.
His mind berated him to make himself useful and take the pain away. Jimmy knew it wouldn’t matter, it wasn’t over. He positioned his feet against the bottom rim of the hatch door, temporarily causing the pain to double, and then coiled the loose end over his good arm. He took both sides of the hose in one hand and pulled with all his might.
He had to close his eyes to bare the fire he felt within his shoulder, his sore back and legs had become a remnant of the past. He repositioned his legs further from the door and within a moment the hose in his hands gave way. He used his back to pull as he attempted to wrap the hose around tighter as he saw the watch rising, getting closer.
As the hatch hit the halfway mark, he saw the sharp, ivory claw rise over it and slam it down. Jimmy was pulled toward it, losing his footing and slamming his visor against the edge. A bigger crack spread over it. He screamed from the pain, involuntary tears welling at the rims of his eyes. His entire body felt it this time and his mind made it worse by picturing his flesh stretching to the point of severing his arm clean off, just as Patricia’s had.
He already had one sickening scar. He would not return home a complete abomination.
Jimmy fumbled with the multi-tool in the sealed pocket. He strained to tilt his head down enough to see where his hand was reaching. His nerves already on edge, he grew frustrated and slid his hand around, tapping for the sensor to unseal the pocket.
He could see the creature from the edge of his visor, crouched low as if now that the beautiful shroud that had covered its body had been seared away, it needed to be inches from anything it was trying to sense.
He felt the pocket give way and stuffed the gloved fingers into it. He brought the tool next to his shoulder, positioning the spout directly where the hose tied itself. He didn’t care if he had gotten the fuel on himself. He pressed the sensor, instantly releasing the bright blue torch onto the hose.
The creature shrieked, shaking Jimmy’s nerves before he felt the blow at his side. His body hit the interior door of the pod. He slumped down against it as his body took a second to register the pain, but when it did all Jimmy could do was take short breaths to keep himself from passing out. He would not be using that arm anytime soon, but at least it was still intact.
He felt the vibration of the claws hit the frame of the hatch. The creature covered the opening, its body too large to fit through.
Its tail, however, was not.
Jimmy’s eyes scanned desperately for the multi-tool. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
The tail shot between Jimmy’s legs, coiling through them and over his abdomen, just as he had watched it do to Roberts. He could feel the desperation the fat man had experienced and Jimmy felt the guilt from leaving him to die.
Whether he had liked the fat man or not, Roberts had not deserved to be abandoned. Jimmy could have tried, he could have done something but he hadn’t. His cowardice had been no excuse. They were thrust into shit, but Jimmy had chosen to live in it.
The tail continued to slither over his body, his thoughts bouncing so quickly from hope to denial to preparation of the soon to come death. He knew deep down that there was no one else who deserved this more, yet he still did not want to go.
So he began to pray.
Pleading to some unknown force. Maybe it was the White Knight that he begged to. Maybe it was a god absent of our senses. Maybe it was his own consciousness. He was ready to negotiate with anything out there if it meant keeping his life. He promised to turn things around. To right all his wrongs and admit all his failures and shortcomings.
The tail squeezed into the suit and a bell played in his helmet.
He had always known what he had done wrong. The side of him that could be seen as ‘evil.’ He had always hid it by denying the existence of a moral ground. There had never been such a thing as good or bad. Only him.
But there was a reason why he had been forced to justify certain events to himself, something he had become very good at.
The tail squeezed harder, picking him up off the metal and closer toward the open hatch. Closer to the charred orb that had once looked so mesmerizing, so perfect, but now was just a vile mess that clung on only to finish what it had started. Unable to let go and start fresh.
“Please,” Jimmy said, unsure if anything was listening.
The pod trembled, causing the creature to suddenly stop and lift its body as if scanning its surroundings. Jimmy took the opportunity to glance around for the multi-tool. He saw it on the edge of the seats, its wristband hooked to a corner, preventing it from falling. He stretched his good arm toward it. The pressure of the tail made it painfully hard to stretch but Jimmy refused to give up. It was inches from his fingers, inches that his other arm would have.
The creature’s attention returned to him as it felt him wriggling. Jimmy made a last swing attempt only to have all his breath sucked out of him. The tail squeezed so tight that he felt as if his flesh was ripping inside the suit. He kept his arm outstretched, refusing to give up even as the tail drew him further away and his vision began to blur.
The white knight was crouched over the hatch frame, one long, bony, hole-filled arm reaching in as Jimmy was pulled closer. His eyes tried to focus on the long claws but everything was fading. With what consciousness he had left, Jimmy reached out toward the creature’s hand. He had no intention of trying to stop it, he only wanted to make contact.
His gloved fingers brushed against the claws that instantly wrapped over his hand. It did not squeeze or try to cut him, only enveloped Jimmy’s hand into a fist. Jimmy gasped for any air he could still draw.
Jimmy felt his hand being moved around slowly, his abdomen loosening. He forced himself to blink, trying hard to regain his vision. When his eyes came back to him, he watched the pitch black of the sea turn into a light show. He couldn’t make out what was happening but the shrill and desperate shriek of the White Knight made him alert.
He felt its grip on his hand release and watched as it prepared to jump, bright blue flames dancing all around it. Jimmy used his hand to shield his eyes from the light. The creature continued to shriek in pain, the way it had when Jimmy had burned it before. The tail loosened enough to allow him to fully breathe, but as he did so he was yanked toward the fire.
Jimmy’s helmet slammed against the edge of the hatch. He heard the crack spreading over his visor, his eyes watching as the branches formed on their own. He heard another shriek before his body was pulled again, barely giving him enough time to throw up his arm in front of his helmet.
He cried out as the metal dug into his forearm. The creature was in flames, the fire following the trail of patchy flesh running along the tail toward Jimmy. It refused to let him go, even as it burned alive, it refused to accept defeat.
Or it knew it would die and refused to die alone.
Jimmy stretched out his trembling arm and pushed back against the hatch. This thing was hundreds of times stronger but he wouldn’t let it take him without a struggle. He felt the creature pull him again and his elbow buckled. His forearm kept him from slipping through the opening. He would be broken in half before Jimmy would allow this creature take him.
He felt the creature pull harder, digging the metal further into his forearm. Jimmy glanced down at the tail, expecting to see it wrapped tighter over his suit only to realize that the pressure warning had stopped ringing within his helmet. The flames crept down the tail, closer toward him, clinging to the creature’s skin like a lover refusing to accept a sudden breakup.
The pod trembled violently. His teeth chattered alongside the vibrations of the pod as his forearm ground into the hatch. Jimmy screamed at the pain but refused to give up, fighting back in any way he could.
He felt the suit loosen around his waist and legs until his forearm no longer felt any pain and he found himself dropping away from the open hatch.
He squinted his eyes into tiny slits as he floated and watched the white creature blend into the torch of the pod engines. He could see the background moving behind the creature. When his back hit the wall, he shimmied himself close to the seat alongside the multi-tool.
He snatched it up and cycled through the tools until a shriek forced his eyes toward the open hatch. The creature was bent in, it’s shoulders tilted to allow one of its arms and the now hideous orb inside. It was enveloped in flames, screeching like an injured animal. Its other shoulder seemed to be stuck as it tried to force it through. It was no longer concerned with taking Jimmy with it, only getting inside the safe haven.
It pushed so hard against the opening that Jimmy was sure either its shoulder would give first and allow it through or the metal would. He felt pity for the creature, even guilt, but he would not be fodder just because of it.
He quickly tapped through the multi-tool until he found the image he wanted. He took one step at a time toward the creature, trying to keep his balance as much as the shaky pod would allow. With enough distance to jump back if needed, he placed the multi-tool to the side of the once flawless orb and pulled the trigger.
A thin, bright laser, about the length of a finger, shot out and dug into the orb. It took only a moment for the bare skin of the creature to begin to bubble. Jimmy had expected the thing to jerk or scream, fight, but all it did was continue to struggle its way inside. He traced the laser slowly over the orb, leaving a seared dark line surrounded by boiled flesh. A dark liquid streaked out, slowly at first only to quickly create a sickening aura around Jimmy’s hand.
The creature began to thrash forcing Jimmy back to avoid its claws. Without hesitating, he shoved the multi-tool back into the thing’s orb and watched the skin sizzle once again, his guilt and sadness toward the monster taken with every line he ran over its skin.
Jimmy ran the tool over it like an angry butcher.
It took a moment for him to become aware that the creature was no longer moving. The orb was turned toward him, the dark lines carved around it like proud scars that refused to heal. If there were eyes behind it, it seemed to stare aimlessly at Jimmy.
It had never seen anything.
Its claw held held on to the seat while the flames continued to burn over its arm. Jimmy stood at the edge of the hatch door, the pod trembling wildly. He cocked his leg and brought it down with all the force the water would allow him. It must have been quite a bit for he felt his foot sink in with the creature’s shoulder. He kicked down again and again until he could see past the creature and into the abyss.
The pod was no longer on the seafloor. They were high in the water and only going higher. With one more kick, it looked like the creature was hanging by a thread, struggling with its claw as the rest of its body hung outside the haven to be charred. He didn’t think there was any strength left in it, if it hung on it was involuntary. It was dead.
He took careful steps toward the seat, hooking his arm over the bars inside and gripped the multi-tool tight. He placed it close to the skinny wrist of the creature and watched as the laser tore through. He smirked as he watched the flesh over the wrist snapping. He could take home a trophy from this nightmare. He could show the world how he had taken down the creature that had killed the entire city of Galapagos 3.
The claw released, batting the multi-tool away, and sunk through his foot. It took a moment for the pain to sink in all as the suit’s alarms blared. As his head throbbed, Jimmy kicked down past his foot, digging the claws further through tiny bones. He squeezed his eyes shut and continued to kick until the creature’s wrist gave completely and snapped clean off.
He cried out and clenched his jaw, forcing his eyes open to watch the creature sink into the flames. The suit continued to remind him of the breach but he could not tear his eyes from the nightmare. His skin was getting tighter, as if it were ripping from the inside out but he needed to make sure.
The creature sank past the flames until it landed onto the ocean floor. The proud and ruthless monster gone, the fire on its skin illuminating it for Jimmy as the pod got further away. He couldn’t believe it, or maybe didn’t want to.
The alarm continued to blare, finally catching his attention as he watched the branches over his visor grow further. He held onto the bar, afraid at any moment the pod would jerk and send him to join the White Knight, and forced himself down over the closest seat.
At least he would be with Nee once again.
He leaned over and glanced back down. The creature lay in the same spot, the flames continuing to outline its body in the darkness. He hoped she would be okay.
“Nee,” he said into the comm. He waited a long time but received no response. “I’ll be back for you.”
It was an empty promise. He had no intention of ever returning to the city, or the other two, but he was ready to pay whatever it would cost for the cleanup crew to bring her back.
Once the throbbing inside his head became unbearable, Jimmy lifted his foot over the edge of the seat and gripped the massive claw. The suit had sealed around it as much as it could but it was not enough to allow it to properly regulate the pressure within. At least he had gotten his trophy.
He yanked on it, instantly crying out as he felt the small bones in his foot snapping further.
“James?” he heard Patricia’s tired voice in his helmet.
“I’m here,” he said after he regained himself.
“Thank god,” she responded. It was genuine relief and he found a smile forming over his lips. He was glad to hear her voice. “Is everything okay?”
No. “We’re going home,” he said. He took a deep breath as he prepared to take the claw out. “I need to figure out how I’ll close the hatch. Then I’ll join you.”
He toyed with the idea of leaving the claw. It would cause no harm if left in there until the professionals could look at it.
His nostrils flared wide. He placed his foot over the other and squeezed his eyes shut, counting after each breath for seemingly no end until he told himself he was just stalling. He shook his head and recounted. As he reached three, he pulled as hard as he could. The pain in his shoulder, the soreness in his back, the scar at his side, they all vanished with the rest of his senses as the tiny bones within his foot split and shifted, tearing the muscle from its home. The feeling itself was agonizing beyond belief but knowing he could stop it at any moment took all his spirit from him.
But he didn’t stop.
His eyes opened and he watched the claw separate from the boot and stretch the material that had formed over it to seal the suit like skin. A dark gush of crimson followed the claw creating strings of it as it dispersed into the water. The material snapped before instantly resealing itself.
He took a moment to compose himself, eventually realizing he had been squeezing the claw hard enough to crack someone’s hand. The way he held it made it appear as if their fingers had interlocked. As if he had reached out to help it. He shuddered at the thought and nearly let it slip from his grip.
None of this had been his fault. He had done what was necessary to survive, and survive he had. He tapped the sensor to the container where the multi-tool had been and placed the claw within. He needed to get inside and take care of his foot. He rocked forward to stand and was met by an outstretched arm directly in front of him.
Zoe’s eyes pleaded for help. Begged for him to not let her die. Jimmy’s body trembled as he felt all the guilt rush him. He stared at her hand. She wanted him to take it, to admit fault. To acknowledge that he could have saved her but had instead chosen to let her die.
“No,” he said, curling his lip defiantly as he stood and looked out the hatch. He could still see in the far distance the burning outline of the translucent creature. Zoe’s figure hovered over him.
The speed of the pod was keeping the hatch door halfway extended. Jimmy placed himself in a way he would not fall through the hatch and reached out but his good arm was unable to reach the handle. He focused instead on the inner part of the hatch door.
He could feel Zoe’s presence looming over him. Waiting to admit his guilt as if it would help her pass on to some other world better. Jimmy knew she was only a hallucination. One that would pass when it was over and he would continue to ignore it for as long as it did not turn violent.
He managed to close the door enough to get a grip on the hose and reeled it in enough to grip the handle. He pushed himself back up, ready to seal the hatch as his eyes caught sight of the dark abyss. The tiny burning figure was gone, replaced by an empty darkness that gave no sign of the creature ever being there. The brightness of the burning engines made it hard to focus on something so far and so dark.
He had watched it burn. There was nothing more to worry over.
He allowed the mechanism to seal the hatch, glad that the creature had not damaged the frame enough to prevent him from joining Patricia inside. He plopped down on the seat and closed his eyes for a moment.
“Are you joining me?” said Patricia.
He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. Zoe sat across him, watching in silence. He met her eyes. “Just catching my breath.”
He reached out to the door and pressed the sensor to unflood the chamber. After a prompt warning him it could be dangerous while the pod was operational, the water pumped out. Jimmy’s eyes stayed on Zoe’s the entire time, her arm stretched out to him as if offering help.
They would never leave, not until he finally took it.