24. Epilogue (D2)

Do the job. Come home. 

Daniel Erickson had lived by those words for the past 23 years, from the moment his wife had first said them to him. Not once had he ever strayed. He had been true to her from the moment he met her, and in return he had kept a strong marriage with a woman who loved and respected him. A woman who pushed him forward to excel and kept the fire burning bright between them. A woman who he had never once felt the need to hide things from or felt ashamed of admitting how much he loved, to her or anyone.

But all the love in the world wouldn’t bring your money back.

The job paid well, sure, and the bonuses to his team after a mission well carried out kept things flowing, not as much as if he played by their rules, but having a woman at home who enjoyed not only the finer things in life but setting her own missions to ‘rescue starving children’ or ‘saving a wartorn country’ made it impossible to stabilize their future (something he still could not believe occurred in this day and age). He would work day after day, week after week, for the rest of his life to support her, and her kept woman aspirations. 

Or until Lumis deemed him incapable.

Every man before him had been terminated from leading security units not long after their mid fifties. It was a lot longer than he would have lasted on the field if he had stayed with his country’s military (having the top performance enhancing drugs as well as a constant eye on their mental and physical conditions made it possible), although in the long term the military would have transitioned his career to a different station. Even still, Lumis had offered to buy him from his contract and provide him much higher pay, an amount he would have never dreamed of making through the military. Yet he was not far from hitting his fifties and he had managed to save none of it.

Reality had finally set in and made him realize that something needed to be done. 

He knew Bonnie would love him, even without the money. After all, he hadn’t had any when they had first met. However, he couldn’t bear the thought of telling her that all he had gotten her used to would be stripped away, that she would need to live broke again. He couldn’t bring himself to ask her to cut down the spending or stop her dreams of helping others. He wanted her happy. He wanted her to be free.

And so for the first time in their marriage, he had lied.

Do the job. Come home.

He had promised her, like always, that he would. He would go in, do what Lumis had asked of him as quickly and safely as possible, and come straight home to her. Like always. Only this time, he had felt the guilt eat at him as the words had left his lips and now, the very same words that she had said to him, that for all these years he had repeated as a reassuring mantra in his head during missions, had turned into a poison that fed the guilt into a gluttonous terror. 

Do the job. Come home.

James Malto.

The perfect man. The type of man every man wants to be. Strikingly handsome to the point where even men question their own sexuality around him. An air of confidence that exudes from him like a gravitational pull, sucking everything in his vicinity toward him and making it grow further. Charming and impossible to dislike or distrust. 

The type of man Daniel had been trained to be wary of.

Daniel was a problem fixer. He and his crew rescued those in danger or resolved disputes quickly to let things continue as normal. Sometimes that meant going in and settling matters civilly, which required a need to know how to deal with all personality types. Other times, words would lead nowhere and he was forced to take a more violent approach and, if necessary and only as a last resort, he would be forced to kill. Whatever the job, Daniel did what needed to be done, but he took no pleasure in it.

James was a killer, through and through. Fully capable of murder, Daniel could see it written all over the man’s eyes. He wasn’t someone who sought to physically harm anyone. No. James was worse. The type of man who had been trained to murder others from the inside out. A man who lured you in through any means necessary and took you for everything he wanted. 

James Malto was the worst type of monster.

He was also the type of man who would provide Daniel the means to allow Bonnie the life she deserved. 

It’s not like the man had made an unreasonable request. He had offered Daniel an unimaginable amount of money to retrieve his AI, nothing more. Money that he could invest without Bonnie’s knowledge and let it support them after his forced retirement. Daniel had expected it to come with strings attached, a matryoshka doll that never ends, but so far since he had agreed, James had requested nothing else. He simply wanted his AI back.

No AI was worth that amount in Daniel’s eyes and he had refused numerous times, first out of principle, then out of suspicion, but finally the man had convinced him. 

“Imagine it was your wife trapped down there,” James had told him, having the nerve to invite himself to Daniel’s home and bring gifts to Bonnie. She had never been a hard woman to win over. “You’d pay anything to get her back, wouldn’t you?” 

Daniel saw right through the man’s words, yet he found it impossible to disagree. He was not an unreasonable man.

“All I ask is that you bring back my Bonnie,” James had continued, placing his hand to his heart. “Nothing more.” 

Do the job. Come home.

“Captain,” came the voice in his helmet, jarring him from his thoughts. It was Cash, the youngest and newest member of the crew. He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. He needed to focus. For his crew. For Bonnie.

He hated James Malto for the slippery slope he had started him on but Daniel was still a man of his word. He would do the job, both of them, and come home.

“Find something?” said Daniel. 

“Yes sir,” said Cash, “you’ll want to see this.”

“I’ll be right there,” he said. He pinged the entire crew and said, “Progress?”

Eight of them total, now just seven, trained to the T, capable of handling anything that could come their way. As individuals they were remarkable. When they were together, they were unstoppable. Each of them had been spread out to cover more ground. Search and recover, that’s all it was. They had been told that all threats had been removed but to stay alert in case of anything.

“I’ve got Ming,” came back Suleh immediately.

Ming had been the 8th.

What Security Chief Aida had done was unacceptable. He wanted that woman fired. She was a puppet. She had allowed the executives to dictate the events of this massacre instead of standing up and demanding that a full team be sent down the moment they had lost touch with Galapagos 3. Because of her, Ming had been sent to his death alongside two other unnecessary tradespeople. Ming had been one of his best people. He hadn’t deserved that. Not so that the company could save face in the eyes of the world.

None of these people had.

“Let’s bring him back,” said Daniel.

“I don’t know how the fuck that tradesman made it and Ming didn’t,” said Jackson. 

“Language Jackson,” said Daniel.

“Right, sorry Captain. I don’t know how the fuck that tradesperson made it and not Ming,” said Jackson again, the whole crew laughing in his helmet.

Daniel smiled. 

He didn’t like bad language to flow from his people, it was a stepping stone to anarchy. However, he also knew that the occasional laugh was necessary during a mission and he was happy to let it slip from them on occasion, as long as it was for a good purpose. 

“Ming was a good man,” said Daniel.

“That he was Captain,” said Jackson, “Let’s get him home.” 

The intercom went silent. 

He knew the men were thankful. They trusted the Captain wholeheartedly. They trusted him because he was a man who would put their interests before his own. They knew that he had their back even when they weren’t around anymore. He had proved that by risking his own position when he voiced his displeasure to the Lumis board and demanded they recover Ming’s body.

“I’ll be joining Jackson and Thomas in five,” said Lewis. 

“Trisha?” said the Captain.

“Not as easy as I thought it would be Cap,” said Trisha. “These floating…I don’t know how they will clean up this whole mess down here.”

“Just focus on the task at hand,” said the Captain.

“I can drop off Jackson to you for assistance,” said Thomas.

“No,” said the woman, “I’m good.”

“Pick up-” started the Daniel.

“Captain,” interrupted Cash. “I’m sorry but you need to see this.”

Daniel took a look around the godforsaken city, gripping his rifle tight to his chest. The idea of living down here had never rested well for him, he had never even considered visiting one of the other two cities when they had been built. Walking through the bloodbath that had been left behind here made him all the more sure of his initial decision. There were some places man was not meant to be. Only the worst sort of person would yearn for a place like this. Daniel could only hope that Cash had not unveiled the good doctor’s last gift.

He entered Dr. Lagos’ home.

Daniel found Cash waiting for him near the entrance. He nodded and followed behind the man who led him toward an open space where no door belonged. The room behind bore a bright light similar to the labs the two of them had entered the station through. Cash stopped right outside the room.

“Brace yourself Cap, it ain’t pretty.”

So much for hope.

In the corner of the room was a Mark IV Translucent Metal wall streaked and splattered with thick, dark brown blood that prevented Daniel from being able to see inside. The lower rim looked as if enough of it had pooled to paint a clean dark brown line across the bottom. 

The good work of the doctor, all to save the future. Maybe the man had deserved to receive all the blame for what happened down here. 

“Is the body still in there?” asked the Captain.

Cash walked toward the wall and tapped on the terminal next to it. He looked at the captain and said, “I don’t think it’s just a body. I think he’s still alive.”

“That’s impossible,” said Daniel as he walked toward the wall and looked past the dried blood. 

A man lay inside, both of his legs and one arm gone. The flesh had been chewed through enough to tear off the rest, leaving the skin in shreds and the bones cracked like tree branches. The arm that remained had only part of the forearm left, the bone sticking out to the hand and cleaned of all meat. There was blood covering the man’s face and feces piled throughout the cell that made it hard to tell what was what. Daniel was glad he could not smell any of it. 

What the fuck had they been doing down here?

“I thought so too but the terminal is indicating lifesigns,” said Cash, an expression of deep concern riddling his face. Daniel looked at him, his lip curled. “I saw him breathing Cap.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen. They were only supposed to gather whatever remaining element Lu the doctor had kept in his home. They had all seen the video. They knew there was a chance the man was still there, but there was no way he could still be alive.

And yet, he was.

“I can put him out of his mi-”

“Get him out of there,” said the Captain.

“Cap, the man’s been through enough. Don’t you think?”

“The man’s been through enough,” agreed the Captain. “He deserves to go home.”

“We don’t know what’s-”

“He deserves to go home.”

Cash turned it over in his head. He knew the Captain would never reprimand him for disobeying orders as long as there was good reason. They were all equals. But Cash had also called him in here because he needed someone else to decide for him. He needed to know he was not responsible.

Do the job. Come home.

This was not part of the job. He knew Lumis would want the man back, but it wasn’t what he had agreed to. They had other teams they could have sent down, none anywhere near as good as his, but teams who would play for pay. The hard jobs had always been assigned to him, the straightforward ones, the ones where they knew he would go in, get the job done without asking questions and come back home. This was not him. Why was he doing it?

Cash was right, they should put the man out of his misery and carry on home. Slippery, fucking, slope.

He raised his rifle and aimed directly at the man’s remains, watching Cash follow suit.

“Open cell,” said Cash.

A moment later, the transparent metal opened, releasing the sickening smell of feces and rotting flesh that had been cooped up for months. They both gagged before ordering their AI to seal the suit and use only the oxygen pumps but by then the smell had already seeped its way through their noses and there was no way of fully ridding themselves of it.

The captain toed his way toward the butchered man. Seeing him lying here in his own filth made him want to squeeze the sensor and end the man’s misery all the more. He could see now the faint rising and falling of the man’s abdomen.

“Sir,” he said through his external speakers. “Can you hear us?”

The man didn’t move at first until his head tilted back as if smelling a change in the air. They watched the man wriggle what remained of his arms and legs as if trying to adjust himself into a more comfortable position. Daniel could feel his stomach turning and his own nerves flaring wildly at the sight of the jutting bone scraping over the ground. He tapped the sensor over his leg, unsealing a pocket that held pain injections. He withdrew one and jammed it into the man’s chest.

“Cap, this is cruel.”

“There’s prosthetics,” said Daniel.

“Prosthetics don’t erase your memory of this shit,” said Cash.

“Language,” said Daniel as he bent down to carefully pick up the man. “He’s clung on this long.”

But Daniel knew that wasn’t true. Whatever the good doctor had done to this man had kept him alive. That didn’t mean the man had wanted to stay that way. Keeping him alive could mean Daniel might be able to negotiate a higher bonus with Lumis, though.  

He could feel the guilt of the words seeping off him as he lifted the man and lugged him over his left shoulder. “You got everything?” he asked Cash, waiting for him to nod before saying, “Let’s go.”

They exited the home and made their way through the living quarters. He could feel the mangled man on his shoulder wriggling hard as if trying to break free of him and onto Cash. 

“Thomas,” said the Captain through the comms, “We’re on our way to pick up. We’ve got a survivor with us, have the medical station prepped with restraints.”

There was a long silence before Thomas said, “You got it Captain. I’ve got Suleh and Lewis. Just waiting on you two and Trish now.”

“Trisha?” said the Captain.

“I got everything,” she said, “just gotta make my way through this mess again.”

“Thomas, help her through it,” said the Captain.

“No Captain, I’m good. Get them first,” said Trisha.

“We still have a good jog ahead of us, it’ll be faster if they get you first,” he lied. 

It would leave Cash and himself waiting outside for a long while but it would also buy him time to retrieve the AI without arousing too much suspicion from anyone. He could even go on ahead while Cash suited up the man and no one would be the wiser.

“Will do,” said Thomas. 

“Thanks Captain,” said Trisha.

They exited the living quarters, the barricade destroyed just like Malto had said. He had expected nothing of what that man had said to be true, even with the psychologist backing him up. Especially not of him killing the creature that had done all of this. Daniel had seen the claw, though, the one the man gloated over, carried around his person as a trophy. The ‘reminder of the terror everyone endured.’ All it was was a means to put himself above everyone, to remind them that he had survived while everyone else died.

Bastard.

However he had gotten that claw didn’t matter. All Daniel knew was that the body had not been where Malto had said it had burned.

The amputated man began to thrash violently, lunging toward Cash with his long bone with so much force that Daniel had to let go of the man in order to not lose his balance. The bone came down first over the ground, snapping with a loud crack and causing them both to tense. He wriggled over the floor, desperate to pull himself toward Cash.

“What the fuck is he doing?” said Cash, taking a step back before looking up at the captain. “Sorry sir, I just…”

“It’s alright,” said the captain, watching the man lash about in horror. “I’ll give him another.”

He tapped his leg again and withdrew another syringe, bending over the man and jamming it into his back. The man flailed a few more times before slumping over the floor. They both watched him for a moment, giving the medication some time to make its way through his whole body. 

The captain picked up the limbless man over his shoulder again, this time not worried about being gentle whatsoever. There was enough in him to sedate a horse. The man would be feeling nothing until the drugs started wearing off.

They followed the map through the halls of the city back to the lab entrance, ignoring the dead that littered their path. He had learned to cast blinders over the harsh parts of their job and focus instead on the good they did. Never bring the bad back home. It was the most important part of their training. He could only hope the newbie had taken it to heart as well. 

Do the job. Come home.

Daniel gritted his teeth as he entered the airlock and set the limbless man down. He felt the disgust with himself building. He had lied plenty of times before, he was good at it too, but he had always done it for the good of others, as part of the mission. He had always looked down on men who were willing to do anything at the expense of a fellow human. Now, he was just as bad. Using others, lying to them, putting them at risk (even if that risk was low), all for his own self betterment. 

Slippery slopes.

“Can you suit him up?” he said, struggling with every word as they came out.

“Yes sir,” said Cash, no hesitation whatsoever. It didn’t make things any easier.

“I’ll scope out ahead,” lied Daniel, forcing himself to look straight into Cash’s eyes. “Try to find the remains that Malto mentioned.”

Cash nodded. Somehow, his lack of questioning made the captain’s shame breed further. It was too easy. He was supposed to be an honorable man. Would his crew ever respect him if they found out? Would Bonnie still love him knowing that the life he provided her was at the expense of lies?

But he would never lie to her. He would just, keep things hidden. It was for her own good. Right?

He entered the airlock chamber and flooded it, entering the expanse of darkness. Humans were not meant for certain places, and walking through the drowned abyss only reinforced this point to him further. After this mission, he wanted nothing to do with these cities. They had other teams they could send in case they ever needed it. He hoped they never would, but he would be submitting his recommendation to evacuate the other two cities. No amount of money was worth the lives of this many people.

Yet here he was, profiting over the misery of others.

He followed the metal walkway until he reached the end and then continued toward the exploration pods. The remains of the control room were just as Malto had said. The torn fueling pipes, blasted panels, everything covered in black soot. 

The man hadn’t lied, not like Daniel. The captain gritted his teeth.

Bastard.

What was he hiding inside of his AI that he was willing to pay so much to retrieve it? It had to be something that he knew would tarnish his reputation…or the reputation of others.

Daniel climbed onto the walkway and commanded his AI to make a connection with the fueling terminal as he made his way to it. When the connection was confirmed, he pulled up the files regarding the mission, searching for Malto’s AI number.

“My name is Nee, Captain,” said Malto’s AI after he had ordered his own AI to establish contact with her. “Has James sent you for me?”

Daniel had felt disgust when the thought had crossed his mind that Malto might have some type of ungodly relationship with his AI. He had heard of people like that but usually they were sick individuals, men, and sometimes even women, who at a glance you could read their disorder. Malto was different, he was well put together and the thought had not crossed Daniel’s mind until he had already agreed to it all. Once he gave someone his word, he followed through.

Bastard.

“Eject from the terminal,” said the captain, “we’re taking you back to your master.”

“Of course,” said Malto’s AI with a hint of glee in her tone. Somehow, knowing that he was not just retrieving private information made him feel even more guilty.

He ordered his AI to sever the connection and had the tray under the fueling terminal ejected. On it sat the tiny chip that held an unimaginable amount of power. Only a few years back, these AI had been nothing but ways for people to amuse themselves with a new toy that also happened to carry out certain commands. Now they had become full blown personal assistants, able to adjust their personalities to match with yours to serve you best. It was no wonder that some people would confuse these machines for a sentient being. 

But they were just that, machines. 

Bonnie was real. Bonnie was his wife. If Malto wanted to spend an insane amount of money to get back his machine, Daniel wouldn’t question it. It was not his business. He would do the job and then come home. To Bonnie. It was all for her. The money would be for her.

“Cap, I’m at the rendezvous site,” came Cash’s voice.

“Checking out the pod ruins,” said the captain, taking the chip and inserting it into his suit through his glove. He looked to his right and saw a metal plate, bent and shredded through like it was plastic. Just like the entrance to the labs. The sheer amount of force it would have required to break through this metal…It was time to go back. 

“Found anything?”

“Not so far, but Malto wasn’t lying about this either.”

“The man is an anomaly Cap,” said Cash. “The doctor too.”

“Yes they are,” he said, thinking about the psychologist. A very striking woman who had reminded him of Bonnie. Strong, passionate, caring. Someone he would not trust himself around. He had found himself getting jealous over her as he watched her interact with the other survivor. She was a woman millions of miles beyond Malto’s caliber, yet she seemed to treat him like a distant lover.

Bastard.

Daniel was not a cheater, he was a man of his word. Sure he had had his opportunities before, even his urges, but he had always reminded himself that he had Bonnie back home. Something more beautiful than the world itself. The psychologist could keep the abomination of a man. It wasn’t his business and he shouldn’t care. 

Didn’t care.

At least it was over. His job was finished here, all of them. He was ready to come home. He would never have to see Malto nor the woman ever again. This was for Bonnie.

He reached the edge of the closest ledge and allowed himself to sink through the water and onto the sand only to begin his journey back toward the rendezvous point. 

“I’m glad that James made it back safely,” said Malto’s AI inside his helmet, something that should not be possible. His own AI would have had to allow the connection to linger. “I was getting wo-”

“Sever connection,” commanded Daniel. 

“My apologies Captain,” said his own AI in the stock voice they were issued with. “It got past the restrictions I put in place. It appears to be malfunctioning.”

“I don’t care, just keep it from doing that again,” he said, distaste filming his mouth. He did not need another reminder feeding his guilt, let alone a slip up to reveal it to his crew. If they found out, they would never trust him again. 

Once doubt pokes its head, it leaves a trace forever.

Daniel’s boot snagged on something, forcing his other foot forward to prevent himself from falling. He stepped back and regained himself. On the ground lay a pearly white skeleton that reflected back his light. He bent down, strapping his rifle to his back, and began waving his hand over the sand to uncover the skeleton. Thick strands, about the circumference of the cardboard roll of paper towels, moved with the disturbed sand as they were exposed, eventually dancing along with the glinting grains in the water like albino dreadlocks.

He stared down at the monstrosity responsible for the massacre at Galapagos 3.

“Cap, this dude is waking up,” said Cash in his ear, but Daniel was too focused on what was in front of him. “If I give him another he might OD.”

“Trisha, how much longer?” said the Captain, unable to tear his gaze from the ghastly white body.

“We got her in our sights already,” said Jackson.

“Might as well call it being on board,” said Trisha.

“Thomas, I’m sending you a new location,” he said, immediately ordering his AI to send it. “I need you to pick us up here.”

“What about this guy?” said Cash.

“Bring him to me,” said the captain. He kept waving his hand, exposing more of the creature’s unimaginably long and bony body. He followed it all the way down to the creature’s hands. On one, all of its claws gleamed with their sharp edges, the other, however, was just as the bastard had said. All intact except for one.

“He ain’t making it too easy,” said Cash.

“Stick him and get over here.”

“Everything alright Captain?” came Suleh’s voice.

Daniel hadn’t realized his voice was betraying him. He had felt composed, but slowly he began to feel the increased pounding of his heart. Under normal circumstances, a finding like this would have caused nothing but a command to his AI to place a note on the location for the cleanup crew. But these were not normal circumstances. What he saw now was opportunity. 

The man Cash carried would have been a gift for Lumis. A sign that he would consider certain orders if it meant a higher bonus for he and his crew. Bringing back this…thing…that was something else altogether. 

He would be providing Lumis the means to wash themselves clean of this mess. Not just shift blame like they had tried so far with the good doctor, a disgusting thing in the eyes of Daniel, defiling the name of a man no longer with them, but truly give the masses what they wanted. 

Retribution.

He may not agree with everything Lumis did, but he knew they did what they did for the greater good of mankind. He didn’t need to agree with everything. Lagos would be cleared of his name and he and his crew would be given whatever they wanted, as long as they agreed to play the part Lumis painted for them. The heroes that reentered the abyss and enacted vengeance for everyone’s loved ones. 

Which meant they would be paying the bastard just the same to stay quiet.

It was all for Bonnie.

“Yes,” he said finally. “We’ll be needing to make room for another passenger. A large one.”

Do the job. Come home.

“Hooooly shit,” said Jackson as the transport pulled up above the captain. The man hung from the open hatch and let go before the transport dropped down, sinking to the ocean floor. The engines blasted sand into the water and completely uncovered the creature.

“Language,” said Daniel patiently.

“Sorry sir, but he deserves this one. Look at the size of this mother fucker!” said Trisha, walking down the open ramp with Suleh right behind her pulling a trolley.

Slippery slopes.

“This is one creepy looking son of a gun,” said Suleh as they surrounded the creature.

“Thank you Suleh,” said Daniel. Suleh turned to him and winked.

“Look at this tail!” said Jackson, taking hold of one of the sharp, bony wedges on its tail and raising it up. 

“Leave it Jackson!” said Trisha.

“Wow this thing’s heavy! Thomas, Lewis. You guys gotta see this.”

“Jackson!” said Trisha again, getting all their attention. “Leave it.”

“What? We gotta pick it up to get it on anyway.”

“We’ll see it when you guys have it on board,” said Thomas.

Daniel motioned to Suleh who pulled the trolley next to the creature’s corpse. “Trisha, get one of the legs with Jackson,” said the captain.

“You sure those are legs?” said Trisha, twisting her face as she looked the creature over.

“It doesn’t matter. Careful with the claws. Suleh, help me here.”

He bent down and tried to dig his hands under the hundreds of albino dreadlocks near what he figured was the top of the creature. He had no idea what to expect, he didn’t even know if this was the front or back of it as he had found no head to direct him. His gloves found a grip over the back of the creature’s skin and he looked up at Suleh, waiting for the man to do the same. 

“Ready?” he said as they all got into position.

“Let’s do this,” said Jackson.

“One,” said the captain, looking at Suleh and then the other two, “two, three.”

Daniel felt the creature shift in his hands, as if the dreadlocks had tightened over his gloves. He let go and flung himself back causing the three of them to tip it nearly over him.

“What was that?” said Jackson.

“It…” said the captain. “I…”

He looked at all three, back on their feet and staring back at him with concern.

“You sure you’re alright Captain?” said Suleh.

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Let’s just get this over with already.”

They got into position and tried again, this time managing to get the creature up and over the trolley but not without strain. Daniel could only imagine how much this thing weighed if they were struggling this much with it down here. 

They pushed the trolley up on board, closing the ramp and allowing the chamber to unflood.

“Want us to pick you up, Cash?” said Thomas.

“I’d love that.”

“Be there in 30.”

They opened the doors and wheeled the creature through, Lewis immediately joining them as they entered. The captain watched as the four of them tried to unload the creature only to decide it best to leave it on top of the trolley. He went back through the doors, allowing them to seal and the chamber to flood once more.

“I see you,” said Thomas as the captain lowered the ramp and walked toward the ledge, holding on just like Jackson had. Cash stood with the suited up half man over his shoulder and the big bag of element Lu at his side, waiting for the ramp to reach him.

“No need to touch down,” said the captain, holding out his arm to Cash. Cash threw the half man over the ledge and took the captain’s hand to boost himself up. The captain dragged the near empty suit back with him to the top and closed the ramp. There was no way the man could feel anything at this point. “We got him.”

Thomas met them inside, along with the other four, surrounding the creature as if taking notes for a medical exam. The captain immediately worked on strapping the survivor into one of the open seats, choosing to leave the suit on him so the rest of them did not have to look at him.

“I’ll be honest,” said Lewis, “I was picturing something totally different.”

“I wasn’t really picturing much,” said Trisha.

“That’s cuz you got no imagination,” said Jackson, once again gripping the tail. “I think our boy had it pretty damn close. Looks like vertebrae to me.”

“Where’s its’ head?” said Cash as he set down the bag of element Lu and removed his helmet.

“Don’t know,” said Jackson. “Probably tangled up in these squishy things.”

“Please don’t,” said Trisha as Jackson started digging his hand through. 

“We should probably strap it in so it doesn’t move around during ascension,” said Thomas. 

“I doubt it’ll be moving,” said Jackson. “This mother fucker is heavy as shit.”

“Language,” said Suleh, copying the captain’s voice.

“At least lock the trolley in place,” said Thomas before heading back to the transport controls. 

“You heard the man,” said the captain.

Lewis touched the controls and locked the trolley. He left for his seat next to Thomas, followed by Trisha and Jackson, leaving only Cash to stare at the creature like a curious child at a museum. The captain sat in the seat next to the half-man and strapped himself in, purposely leaving his helmet on.

“Still good?” asked Daniel to his AI without anyone being able to hear him.

“Yes Captain,” said his AI. “You won’t be getting any outbursts from it.”

He removed his helmet and breathed out. He watched Cash inspecting the long white dreadlocks.

“Cash, strap in,” said Thomas.

“Hey Cap,” said Cash, turning around to look at him. The captain nodded. “Didn’t the tradesman say he had burned this thing to a crisp?”

“Language Cash!” mocked Jackson.

“Sorry,” Cash laughed as he made his way to his seat, “tradesperson.”

“You can’t believe anything that comes out of their mouths,” said Trisha.

“Sounds like someone’s bitter!” said Lewis. “We could have told you he was bad news.”

Daniel looked at Trisha as they continued to tease her. She turned away from him like a daughter embarrassed to admit her wrongs. He could feel the disappointment building in him but decided he was in no place to pass judgement. 

He turned back to the creature, the long, smooth dreadlocks perfectly intact. There were no burn marks anywhere, no charring, no sign of any form of injury other than the missing claw. As little as he liked to admit, the bastard had lied about nothing else, even going as far as taking  blame for the deaths of his colleagues. There was no reason for him to lie about this.

And yet, it felt good knowing he had.

“It doesn’t matter. Job’s done people,” said Captain Daniel. “Time to go home.”

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