9. Alone (D2)

There was a massive pressure in the back of his eyes that made it impossible to ignore the beating of his heart inside his head. He felt pain across his face, like a pulsing ache that would sting even from the bite of the air. He groaned but even that was painful as the shifting muscles in his face bunched in areas that were clearly bruised. If it hadn’t turned colors yet, it wouldn’t be long.

He felt his arms stretched out above his head to the point that his shoulders and chest were being pulled into his throat and he was finding it difficult to get a full breath. He had to force his head up to keep it from being dragged along the floor but that was more work than letting it slide along with the rest of him.

Everything was foggy, no matter how much he tried to open his eyes, it was difficult to see. Even as his eyes would catch the blue emergency lights, they all appeared dim, darker than his eyes had grown accustomed to. Light after light would pass and seemed to only disorient him further, making him feel like he had started to spin once again.

He closed his eyes before he became nauseous. He couldn’t afford to feel sick right now. He certainly wouldn’t like to eat something that had puked on itself. There was no reason to provoke the…

His eyes flew open and he yanked against what dragged him. He tried to tilt his head back further to look at whatever monster was taking him to his death. His attempts to pull his arms free were futile. His body had lost its strength, its last bit of energy had been wretched out a long time back, but it still didn’t stop him from trying.

He kicked his feet down together, realizing they had been wrapped into one like a merman. Whatever was dragging him had been thrown off balance temporarily and Jimmy used the advantage to pull hard with his arms. He was about to attempt to flip over when he felt his arms yanked and snapped back over his head, causing an involuntary cry to escape him.

He heard an incomprehensible growl of words as if the monster was trying to speak to him. He stretched his neck back and saw the face of a pitch black demon staring back at him, its teeth glowing a blend of blue-ivory saliva. Jimmy looked away as he became aware of the creature glaring through his soul. He noticed something white and long close to his rear shoulder and tensed away as he saw it slither along, prepared to wrap itself around him like it had over the fat man.

He didn’t want to die, not yet. He still had something to prove. He couldn’t go, not like this. Not like Roberts. He was supposed to be better than them, supposed to survive this whole thing the way he had thrived his entire life. Milked this opportunity for all the attention he could and then put it behind him for good. His truth would have been the only one that mattered.

He growled until he began to yell and thrash, yanking away like his life depended on it, because it did. He kept on until the creature lost balance and was forced to drop him. Jimmy didn’t hesitate, immediately rolling over. He looked up, ready to charge or run. He heard the creature growl and before he knew it, another blow cracked him over the left side of his face.

The world disappeared once again.

He phased in and out of consciousness. He wasn’t sure how long he was dragged for or where he was being taken, but every time his eyes would open, he would see the hazy outline of the white fur-like skin. He would try to tug against what pulled him along but even a child would have been able to overpower him then.

He could feel his brain sloshing around inside his head. Each time his eyes went past a light a searing pain caused him to squint and his mind convinced him it was best to keep them closed. To let what was going to happen, happen.

He deserved it.

He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder, like a single tooth sinking into his skin to get a taste. He was regretting not having vomited over himself. Maybe it wasn’t too late. He whimpered and tried to cover his body but something held him firmly in place. He heard a voice say something, something he recognized but couldn’t make sense of, and then another voice.

Was there more than one? Had he been taken to be the main feast for the pack?

A surge of energy flooded his system. His eyes sprang open as his body shot up. He drew a massive, desperate breath. It was hard to breathe because of how open his lungs felt. They were demanding more but too much would cause him to pass out.

He took in the small room he was in as his entire body began to involuntarily tremble. It was a simple room, like those he had stayed at the previous times he had been to the cities, but bigger. One wall was clear, giving him a view of the vast darkness in the depths. The rest was sealed by a pewter tint that gave the room a homey feel to it. There was a desk with a terminal on it and all sorts of papers littered about but no decorations, nothing that betrayed any hint of personality of who was inhabiting the room. Other than they had no intention of staying.

He felt something soft press against his arm, causing Jimmy to flinch away from it and onto the floor.

A woman stood next to the bed he had been on and looked down at him, her eyes wide with concern and both hands up in front of her. She was in her late forties maybe, and wore only the body suit which accentuated her figure perfectly.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. Her voice sounded familiar but he couldn’t figure out why. “I’m here to help.”

He glanced at the white fluffy coat that lay on the floor. Her eyes followed his to it.

“I’m sorry I hit you,” she said, looking back at him, “I was only trying to defend myself.” She must have read the confusion on his face, “You don’t remember?”

He stared at her, eyes furrowed, questioning her words.

“You rushed me with a wrench,” she said, watching him closely. “You were screaming…nevermind. Point is, I hit you and I apologize.”

It was all a fog to him. She could be telling him the truth and he would never know.

She reached out to the coat with both hands still showing and took something out of the pocket. He saw the long strand of ripped material curled next to the coat. He felt foolish confusing that for a tail.

“You might want to take one of these before that shot starts wearing off,” she pulled out a small bottle that rattled with pills and offered them to him.

“I don’t want them,” he said with a trembling voice. It was hard to speak with the jolt of energy causing his breathing to be erratic. He could barely get his words out without sounding like a fat kid who had been forced to run ten feet.

“Suit yourself,” she said, throwing the bottle on the bed. “When you change your mind, just one.” 

She walked over to her desk and he watched her hips sway in each direction in a very sensual and clearly practiced manner. His eyes shot away before she could catch him. Not far from her desk was a container with the stun baton he had chosen to cling to over his belongings. He glanced over to the pills, the urge to check what she was trying to give him present, but he could not allow her the confidence of feeling he would just bend to her.

Maybe it would be good if she felt secure by his trust, though. It may allow him an advantage if he needed it. Besides, she could have given them to him while he was out.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Patricia Watts,” she said, a warm smile spreading over her face. “You?”

“Watts?” he repeated, his breathing finally beginning to slow. “You’re…you’re a doctor.”

Her eyes narrowed as she became suspicious of Jimmy. He could see her regretting her initial trust of him. “Psychologist, yes. How do you know that?”

His breathing finally got under control and allowed him to get a full breath in before a shockwave burst through his head. He couldn’t think about anything but the lava washing through the skin of his temples and the thunder that cracked through inside his skull. He had taken his fair share of black eyes or bruised jaws in the past, but this was something else entirely. It felt like he had endured nonstop blows to the head by a professional fighter.

He felt her hand over the back of his neck as he doubled over. Her other hand shook the pill bottle, the rattle sounding like a jackhammer next to his ear forcing him to groan in hopes of drowning it out.

She stuffed a tiny pill into his mouth. “Hold it under your tongue,” she said, holding her hand over his mouth. 

He felt the sizzling as the pill began to dissolve, a bitter flavor searing through his taste buds until they went numb and took any adjacent nerve along with it. Within a minute, the numb feeling had spread throughout his body and a second, more pleasant, sensation joined it. He felt relaxed, at ease. As if nothing in the world could touch or hurt him.

He was a god.

He kept his eyes closed, basking in the warm sensation. His body was connecting with his mind. He could feel a relaxing pressure on the back of his neck as the muscles there were caressed up and down, just like Alice used to.

Each time they would be together, Alice would run her hands all over his body. Her nails would gently dig into the skin over his arms, back, shoulders. Anywhere she could reach. It sent chills over him that made detached him from everything except her. When they would finish, she would hold him close to her breasts and massage his neck. He had always loved that. In the moment it had felt amazing, but it wasn’t until he had grown older that he had realized it had all been a power play. Vanessa had made him realize that.

He opened his eyes and found the woman looking at him with concern in her eyes. She quickly must have realized she did not know him well enough to be touching him in such an intimate manner that she instantly ceased massaging his neck. He felt sad, wishing she could just keep going.

She leaned back and put on a distanced, more professional, appearance. “How do you feel?” she whispered.

“What did you give me?” asked Jimmy, his eyes gazing into hers. She matched it, observing him closely.

“For the pain,” she said, her lips leading into a playful smile. “I hit you pretty hard. Figured you would need it.”

“Never taken anything like it,” he said, his eyes finally leaving hers and straying around the room.

She stood and made her way back to the desk. “Hungry?”

The drug was suppressing the feeling of his stomach eating itself but there was no denying the feeling. “Sure.”

She opened a small refrigerator and took something out. “Cold or warm?”

He was sick of cold food. Even the thought of putting anything half frozen into his mouth made him want to wretch. “What is it?”

She pulled a packet out and read it, “Fake chicken.” When he didn’t say anything she looked at him and nodded. “Warm it is then.”

She placed a second packet on top of the table and said, “Heat these please.” Moments later, a clear dome covered the two packets only to slide back down in seconds. He watched her do everything so nonchalantly as if nothing had happened in the station.

She picked up the packets and handed one to him, smiling as she did so. She sat back down on the chair and opened her packet. “So, you want to tell me why you were so batshit out there?”

He could smell the flavors so strongly that his tongue could begin to taste it. He opened his own packet and pulled out the sandwich from inside. “I don’t remember,” he said as he took a bite.

“Right,” she said, nodding her head. She waited a moment, hoping he would expand on his words. When he didn’t, she took a bite of her own food and turned back toward the desk.

They ate in silence, Jimmy watching her in awe. She seemed so sure of herself. Every action so confident. Even how she ate, slow and controlled movements without worry. He could easily get up and silently strangle her but she was not concerned with that in the least bit.

“What happened to Dr. Lagos?” he asked. She turned her head, watching him with a puzzled expression until she began to chuckle.

“That crazy old man,” she said while her eyes seemed to get lost in thought. He was about to interrupt her when she said, “He’s dead,” and took her last bite. “I may have been too quick to brand him, but he displayed all the signs.”

“Brand him how?” he said.

“Pressure psychosis,” she said, “I always preferred calling it the depth crazies.” She chuckled to herself as she hovered her chair to a disposal and dumped the packaging inside. It made a searing sound as the package was reduced to ash.

“All done?” she asked. He wolfed down the last bite as she hovered over to him and took the package. Her eyes lingered over his until she hovered away.

“Anyway, the old man had become paranoid. He was hostile, emotionally unstable. One moment he was laughing, the next he wanted to cry or rip your head off. He just wasn’t right. He nearly killed an entire expedition because he was distracted by the white creature,” she said while shrugging. “It’s always hard to believe someone who tries to strangle you for no good reason but I guess now we know he wasn’t totally nuts.”

Jimmy nodded. He let his eyes stray from their conversation but could feel hers watching him curiously. He caught her narrowing eyes from his peripherals and returned his attention onto her. It seemed to be what she had wanted.

“You don’t look like the type to stay quiet,” she said while tilting her head to the side. “Physically, that is.”

“What other way would there be?” he smirked.

He was expecting her to correct herself, apologize somehow. Most people do when they are made to feel embarrassed over their errors. Instead, she kept watching him unfazed and unaware that she would make most people feel uncomfortable by watching them like a child staring at something they are fascinated by.

“No one ever thinks so,” he said, breaking the silence.

“Not even you?”

He scowled, making it clear that he was not okay with her question. Patricia smiled and leaned back in her chair. He didn’t understand what she was trying to accomplish but there was no way she was not aware that she was making him feel on edge.

“What block were you?” she said.

“I wasn’t,” he said dryly. “Lumis sent me.”

“So you’re part of a rescue,” she said, frowning.

Jimmy laughed, “No, I’m part of the sell squad.”

She burst into a genuine laughter that Jimmy had not expected. He felt his own cheeks joining her. “Not quite the savior I would expect, but hey! Who knows, haggling might just help,” she said, forcing him to chuckle with her.

They both laughed until they broke eye contact and their smiles slowly faded. He stared at the ground, wondering how much she could be trusted. In the video, Lagos had said she was painting him to be sick for her own purpose. She could be behind all this, or involved somehow. Why else would she be alive?

“Let me guess,” she said as she opened the refrigerator once more and withdrew a jug of water, “You were lucky enough to be sent right before the shit show dropped.” She hovered the chair toward him and handed him the jug.

“Seems like after,” he said, while shaking his head. “I’m still trying to figure out what the fuck I got thrown into.” He took a drink from the jug.

She shook her head and chuckled to herself. He stared at her, feeling surprisingly vulnerable as if he were the shit end of some joke only she knew. “After…” she mumbled.

“Yeah,” he said, nodding his head in a condescending manner. “Care to fill me in?”

She ran her fingers through her hair. “How many more did you come with?”

Answer my question. “Three,” he said. Her eyebrows raised in a display of fake amusement. “They’re dead,” he said before she had to ask the question.

“I’m not surprised,” she said in a cold tone. As untrusting and uncomfortable as he felt around this woman, he could feel himself immediately drawn to her. There was something in her carelessness that peaked his interest. “We should be too. I’m not sure how I’m still around.”

Because you did what you had to, just like me. “Me either,” he said as he shifted on the bed. “How many more of us are there?”

“As far as I know, just us,” she said, taking the jug back and taking a drink. “Tired?”

He hadn’t been until she asked but she must have been able to read it on him better than he could. “A little,” he said as he stretched his back and forced his bones to pop.

“Why don’t you get some rest?” she said, hovering back to the fridge and placing the jug back. “We can talk about this whole thing when you don’t look like…that,” she waved a finger toward him.

Like what? He wasn’t ready for the conversation to end, he still had questions for her, but she turned her back to him and gave him all the answers he would be getting at that moment. He felt annoyed, even upset, by her brash and careless attitude toward him. He didn’t like having decisions made for him, he was his own man. He would never let someone walk over him like that but he seemed to be unable to help it. She had his attention.

He kept watching her, expecting her to turn around when she became curious by his lack of fidgeting about. She didn’t. She seemed to get fully absorbed by whatever it was she was working on and gave no sign that she would be checking on him now, or ever. She couldn’t care any less what Jimmy did with his time.

He finally gave up, scooting back over the cushion and laying out flat over the bed. He stretched his back and let himself relax enough to feel the effects of the pain pill flowing thick over his eyes. He closed them and let his thoughts spread, bouncing from the dead to the surface, his luck or his purpose, but every time it would stray back to the woman who sat in front of him.

He had always been a light sleeper. Any noise, movement, even someone just being around him would wake him. Within moments of closing his eyes, however, his thoughts began to fade and give way to dreams he would never remember.

He woke up in a sudden jolt, his mind finally remembering that there was someone in the room with him. There was no one there, though. Patricia’s seat was empty, neatly tucked under the desk as if it had never been used. He checked the bed next to him only to find it empty as well.

“Dr. Watts?” he called out as he seated himself on the edge of the cushion. There was no response, not even any type of subtle noise to let him know there had been someone that heard him. He stood, inching his way across the room, scanning everything in sight for any hints. He began to feel he may have imagined her as well.

He wasn’t sure how long he had slept for but he felt clear headed. The minor headache and pressure behind his eyes were returning which let him know that he had slept for long enough for the pain pills to start wearing off.

“Nee?” he said as he put his lips to her. He waited until she responded, a wave of relief washing over him knowing she was with him.

“Where’s Dr. Watts?” he asked.

“I do not know,” said Nee. “Her signal disappeared two hours and fifty-seven mintues ago.”

At least he knew she had been real. “Did she leave any message?” he asked as he rummaged through her dresser, “Anything?”

“Her personal assistance unit made multiple attempts to connect with me. I prevented all of them at your command.”

“My command?” he said.

“Yes James, you commanded me to only allow connections you authorized first,” said Nee. He smirked as he imagined her becoming passive aggressive.

“Right, thank you Nee,” he said, closing the drawer he rummaged through. There were outfits inside each of the drawers, neatly spread out. It felt like a massive waste of space to have something that big virtually unused.

He felt his stomach turn but he was not ready to give in yet. He turned toward the desk and saw the small container of pills on the edge. He walked over and saw a small handwritten note underneath it. The handwriting was nearly illegible, he had to piece the letters he could read to finally make sense of it all.

‘In case you need them. Don’t take more than one every twelve hours. Be back soon.’

He opened the cap and tapped the container on its side until a single pill dropped to his hand. He closed the lid and popped it under his tongue, holding it there until it dissolved and numbed his taste buds. He closed his eyes and imagined the spreading of the numb feeling as water flooding every crack and crevice of his body, forcing out all the pain and discomfort.

His stomach turned, demanding to be emptied. He placed his hand over his abdomen, as if it would somehow keep the movement at bay. He didn’t know when Patricia would return, but he also knew he needed to get this out of the way.

He opened the door behind the bed. The restroom inside was small, just as he had expected it. It had all of the essentials, nothing special. After the last few days of having to freeze his ass while taking a shit inside of a box, it felt like heaven.

He wondered if that was what had driven all the billionaires to leave their massive homes in order to live in rooms slightly bigger than these. Had they become so bored of everything that they were thankful to be provided any form of change? Vegas had made everyone want to visit and, once there, drunkenly decide to stay, but once they sobered up they would realize it was time to go home. Lumis had managed to make a Vegas where everyone had wanted to stay. A place where they had taken out all of the competition and made them thankful for it.

He allowed the machine to clean him after he had finished and got up to wash his hands. A clear bag full of fingers lay by the dispenser, some cleanly cut while others looked as if they had resisted and been hacked with brute force. There didn’t seem to be any kind of pattern to them. Women’s, men’s, long, short, skinny, sausages just like Roberts’. They were all different.

He cleared his hands and exited the restroom. He made his way to the chair and sat, booting the system up as he did. In a few seconds, the sphere was in front of him.

“Please warn me when you receive her signal,” he said to Nee. He attempted to open the system but without Patricia’s codes he was unable. “Can you get me into this?”

“This is a private system,” said Nee.

“This woman has severed fingers lying around her fucking bathroom,” he said, “I think I deserve to know what I’m dealing with.”

“This would be considered-”

“Does it look like there’s anyone around to enforce those laws?” he said.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yes, I am,” said Jimmy. “Should I put you in directly?”

“Yes,” said Nee.

He removed her from the unit and plugged her into the system. As she worked, he decided to rummage through the drawers on the desk. There were physical papers inside. Most just reports of patients unable to adjust properly to the lack of sun. As he flipped through them, one caught his eye. It was a progress report from Lagos. It seemed to be mostly gibberish. Constant talk over the ‘white knight’ watching and learning about them. Waiting.

It wasn’t hard to believe he had been disregarded so easily after one look at this. He could imagine them receiving a few of these progress reports and realizing they had a fucking nut job leading. He read a few more reports, one standing out because of its shaky writing and unclear path it followed.

‘It’s staring right at me. I can see it in the distance. It tries to blend in, to look like a sea anemone, but I can see it now. I thought I would grow tired of looking for it but each time I start doubting myself, it shows up. I think it wants me to know. Maybe it’s warning me. I don’t know of what, but I sure as hell want to find out. God, what would my wife think? Probably the same thing all these fucks. Why can’t they just believe me? This project is doomed. We have something extraordinary right here in front of us and instead we keep dumping resources into a dead end! I have to make them see. I’ll find a way to get in.’

Jimmy read the top and realized it had not been a report, they were notes the man had written over a report he was supposed to send. He wondered if the man had been so lost that he had actually turned in the report like this or if they had confiscated it afterwards.

He looked up at the holoscreen and saw it flickering while the broken sphere was being rearranged. It was Nee’s way of visually representing her work for him. He flipped through the papers and nearly skipped one with Patricia’s name on it.

‘Project morale is dwindling. It is apparent that lack of progress on any finding is taking a huge toll on all teams. Their inability to speak of the matter with loved ones seems to be building further frustration. The loss of Dr. Lagos has induced fear in most of the crew. Nearly all of my sessions have become about their concerns they may be developing pressure psychosis or questions over ways to prevent it from happening to them. I recommend a break to allow some of the crew to return to the surface and be with their families. They need time to regroup while we hire a new lead. I don’t see them lasting much longer.’

The sphere was whole once again. He set the papers back into the drawer and focused on the system. “Any initial findings I should look at?” he asked.

“Multiple mentions of a project named SOURCE across files,” said Nee as she visually flipped through them on the rotating sphere. “There is no clear answer I can find about what the project is.” The sphere stopped rotating and spread into a holo log. “There is a recorded conversation between Dr. Lagos and Dr. Watts after he was sent to the medical cells. Would you like to see it?”

“How long is it?” he asked.

“One minute and fifty-two seconds,” she responded.

“Play it.”

The sphere rotated and once again Jimmy was in Dr. Watts’ seat, Dr. Lagos restrained in a seat across from him in a small white room. A single transparent opening was high on the wall behind Lagos. His appearance was worse than the previous log, his eyes let Jimmy know everything he needed to.

“How do you feel Dr. Lagos?” said Patricia in a professional tone.

Lagos’ eyes flicked back and forth from Patricia’s as if searching for the right words to such a simple question. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“I forgive you,” said Patricia. “We are all under a lot of stress.” Lagos nodded without saying a word, his unwavering eye contact was unnerving. “I need to make sure you are fit to return home.”

Lagos smiled like a sad parent who doesn’t have the heart to tell their child the truth. “I always thought you were a good person Patricia. Ever since I met you, I knew. I’ve felt terrible for doubting you, even for a second.”

“I appreciate that,” said Patricia, her tone reserved, “it means a lot to me.”

“There’s nothing to find here,” his head tilted back toward the wall behind them. “It won’t let us.”

“The white knight?” asked Patricia. There was clear disappointment in her words.

“I’m not going home. Not until someone else sees it, or it finally decides it’s learned enough about us.”

“Now it’s my turn to say I’m sorry,” said Patricia as the sound of a holopad being shut down was heard. “I was hopeful that time away from work and inside a properly pressurized unit might let you return home to your fam-”

“Have you wondered about the sudden blackouts, Patricia? The lost connections with the surface or random accidents on explorations?”

“These things happen,” said Patricia. “Things are adjusting after the city being built faster than anyone would have ever imagined.”

Lagos shook his head, “When have the other two cities experienced a single blackout?” said Lagos, his eyes narrowing. “They don’t make mistakes like this, not when they have so much to gain.”

“Think about your children,” snapped Patricia.

Lagos stared at her, thrown off by her words. She stood up and blocked the image of the hololog. Only the sides of the room were visible. 

“You should say goodbye to yours,” said Lagos in a cold, lifeless, voice.

The video ended and the sphere returned. He manually flipped through the files, not really looking for anything in specific. He let curiosity take over and dove head first into Dr. Watts’ more personal files. The stills of her family, her home on the surface. Of her life.

From what he could gather, she had three children. Two young boys and a daughter who looked to be joining the teens soon. Her husband seemed simple, nothing extraordinary about him that stood out. Just from appearances, Jimmy wasn’t surprised she had taken a job that took her away from him.

He opened the communication history between the two. He was ready to open a few files but felt guilty for snooping. He was not one to invade someone else’s intimate privacy like that. He had always hated those who had done it to him. 

“Is there something else?” he asked Nee.

“One moment,” she said. An instant later a communication line popped up. A tall skinny man appeared with an excited, yet worried expression.

“Who is this?” said Jimmy.

“Dr. Jensen Steeple,” said Nee, “he seems to have been Dr. Lagos’ assistant.”

“Play it.”

“Patricia!” said the lanky man as he paced around. “I think an apology to that old bastard might be needed.”

The next transmission read less than a minute later. Patricia was seated, her hair done up along with her makeup. She looked even more beautiful than when he had met her. “What is it?” she said.

“We found something,” said the lanky man. “I think it’s the creature Lagos has been obsessed with. The ‘White Knight’. When the comms come back up and they catch word of this up there, this project might be taking a pause.”

“I don’t understand?” she replied.

“Dr. Watts’ signal is approaching,” said Nee.

He ignored her and played the next. “It’s like nothing we’ve ever come across. You need to see it,” said Dr. Steeple.

“I’m not going out there Jensen,” replied Patricia.

“Come to the labs,” said the lanky man, a massive grin stretching over his face. He adjusted the recorder from himself to something behind him and revealed a long bony arm hanging off an operating table. The fingers were more like cleavers, freakishly long and webbed.

The next transmission played, a horrified look over Patricia’s face. “What the hell is that?”

Dr. Steeple’s grin took on a mischievous, childlike, appearance. The door slid open behind Jimmy but his eyes were glued to the transmission. “Just get to the labs,” said Dr. Steeple.

“Well you sure are nosey,” came Patricia’s voice behind Jimmy.

He felt his anger boiling, frustration for being dumped into someone else’s fuckup. Normally he would have told off the one to blame and gone about the rest of his day but this was different. He was stuck here, without a way to distance himself from it all. He was being forced to join some asshole’s experiment and did not like that he was the asshole himself.

He swung the chair around. “What the fuck was that thing?” He had meant for his tone to be harsh, accusative, but one look at her turned it into concerned. She had cleaned up completely since he had seen her. He felt a pleasant throb between his legs as he thought about her cleaning herself for him.

She shrugged her shoulders while frowning carelessly and placed a clear bag over the dresser. She removed her coat and threw it over the dresser as well, covering the bag. “How did you get into my system?”

“Answer the question,” he said.

“I just did!” she said while chuckling. She shrugged more exaggerated. “Ring any bells?” His glare eventually caused her grin to dim but not disappear completely. “It means I don’t know.”

“Bullshit,” he snarled, “You know exactly what’s happened.”

“I don’t know much more than you,” she said. Her smile disappeared. “I swear.” When he didn’t respond, she reached for the coat and pulled out the bag it had covered, tossing it at Jimmy. He stared down at a bag of severed fingers just like the one in the bathroom.

“I wouldn’t be collecting these if I did,” she continued. He looked up at her, carrying his disgusted look onto her. She grinned, “I thought you would have reacted differently.”

Like a scared bitch, you mean. “What are they for?” he said.

“The labs are sealed,” she said, lifting her hands and waving her fingers about, “Mine won’t do. Even though, you know, I know it all,” she winked at him. He glanced toward the bathroom. “Ah, that’s why. Yeah, same reason. Haven’t gotten the chance to test those out.”

“So you’re saying you’ve been out here chopping off fingers this whole time?” he said as he swung the seat around and ejected Nee from the system.

“No,” she said, moving toward the refrigerator and opening it. “I’m saying I’ve been searching for answers since this whole thing happened.” She pulled out a packet and offered it to him without looking. She knew he had been watching her and she seemed to relish it. He took the packet. “The fingers came after I stopped finding them and kept finding only dead bodies.”

He tore open the packet and watched her walk to the bed and let herself drop onto her back. He looked away before she caught him. Something about her intimidated him. She seemed so confident, like she was in control of everything around her, and nothing at all.

“What were they working on?” he asked.

She had her arms up, playing with the wrapping of the packet until she opened it and chunks of lab-grown apple spilled onto her. She sat up and let them slide to her lap before taking one and popping it into her mouth.

“Food,” she said while chewing. “Not sure if you’ve heard but we’re running out of room to grow up there.” He nodded. Galapagos 1 had been built to help solve the growing problem. With no way to colonize space yet, they had turned inward. Patricia waved the packet around. “Well, this lab grown shit isn’t doing us much good either. Anyway, they found a tiny mine of a substance on G-2 that they thought was a new natural element they would be adding to the chart until they saw the sea life consuming it like their life depended on it. Started calling it Element Lu.”

“What was it?” said Jimmy.

She shrugged again as she chewed. He found it annoying that she wouldn’t answer him straight. “There wasn’t much of it,” she said, swallowing her food. “They gathered what they could and started studying it. It defied what we knew about food.”

“How?” he said, placing one of his own apples in his mouth.

“It wasn’t a fat, protein, or carbohydrate. It had no minerals or vitamins. Nothing,” she said. “Yet when the rats ingested it, it became everything.” She placed the remaining pieces of fruit in her mouth and crumpled the packet. Jimmy impatiently watched her as she smiled back. “It became all of the nutrients the rats were lacking. There was no weight gain, no lack of energy, not even a desire for other food. It was as if it was reading the body and adjusting itself to its optimum levels.”

“Like a perfect food,” said Jimmy under his breath.

“Exactly!” said Patricia, “Not even mother’s milk had that sort of impact on the body. Most of the team that came here had spent years researching and experimenting how we could use a mother’s ability to adjust the nutrients in her milk from the signal the saliva of her infant would send through her areolas. They knew what they were doing.”

Her eyes strayed as if lost in thought. “And you?” asked Jimmy after giving her a moment. He wanted her to continue and knew he would get much further if he made her feel special. She looked into his eyes without moving her head. There was something sad in her eyes, something she was trying hard to hide.

“What about me?” she asked, tilting her head.

“You weren’t part of the team,” he said. Her eyebrows bunched, creating clear creases over her forehead but she made no attempt to stop him. “So why are you here?”

“Someone had to keep them all sane,” she said with a smirk.

He watched her intently, the way she had done to him before. “Someone,” he said, causing her smirk to falter for an instant. He let his own billion dollar smile flash. “Lumis tends to hire only the best.”

She laughed and allowed herself to scoot back onto the bed. “That’s sweet,” she said, using the pillows to prop herself up while crossing her legs. “Was that compliment intended for me, or you?”

Their eyes locked onto each other’s until Jimmy finally broke contact and said, “Why aren’t we living hunger free by now?”

“Because curing one hunger just led to another,” said Patricia. “Did you see any fish out there?”

Jimmy tried to think about it. In the pitch black he had seen nothing, even when he had turned on the lights, he had only thought to see a white creature.

“No, you didn’t,” she continued. His thoughts scrambled to find a memory of seeing any fish on their way down the transport elevator. He refused to accept someone else’s word for it. “On G-2 they took the trace amounts they had found and watched the fish go insane. They became hostile toward each other, eating each other alive. Lumis installed programs on the screens so people wouldn’t see the fish behaving like that. Eventually, they disappeared.

They had already found this place and started building by the time Lagos and his team saw the adverse reaction in the rats,” she continued. Jimmy shifted in his seat. He felt the eerie chill crawl over his body. He realized he had been squeezing the packet of apples tight in his hands. “From what Chavez told me, when they ran out of the substance, the rats went crazy too. They would go days without food and when the hunger would finally hit, they would be unable to perform even the simplest of tasks. Their only thought was food, but they refused to eat anything but that.

Chavez began taking unlogged expeditions outside G-2. She was desperate to find more there since Lumis would not allow her to search the G-3 area until the city was finished. Her rats began to attack each other too and eventually they began to eat each other.”

“What the fuck?” whispered Jimmy.

“They were desperate to find any trace of the stuff. Any little trace they could,” said Patricia. “Worst of all, when the other rats ran out, they began to eat themselves.”

Jimmy shook his head. “Unfucking believable,” he said. “So what? You come here and decide it’s a good idea to feed that shit to a person?”

“No,” Patricia scowled. “Our only goal here was to gather as much of the stuff as we could and hope to understand it further.”

“You all sure fucked that up,” he said as he raised his arms and spun the chair.

“They never conducted any human trials here. Not even rats,” said Patricia. “Everything that happened out there had nothing to do with them.” She shook her head. “There were complications with this station, even before it was built.”

“What kind of complications?”

“Power outages, comms outages, countless accidents, deaths on the job, you name it!” she said. 

Jimmy pursed his lips. None of that had been released in the news, yet there had been a delay in in the official opening of the city. He remembered watching the CEO of the company hired to build this make a statement that they had miscalculated the amount of work and would bring on a second team to help make up the time.

“The comm outages became a staple of this shithole,” continued Patricia. “It seemed like every other week they would need this repair or that. We would go a few days without the comms, a week, two. Eventually no one made a fuss about it anymore. We just got used to it.”

“You’re still not telling me what led to all this,” he said.

“I did,” she said, cocking her head curiously. “I. Don’t. Know.” 

He clenched his jaw tight to keep from losing his temper.

“If you want my opinion, though. I think whatever Lagos saw out there was one of the rats, desperate to keep its food.” she said.

“Your reports said you had found nothing,” said Jimmy.

“Not nothing, just much less than expected,” she readjusted the pillows and allowed herself to lay back. “I know you have more questions James but I’m tired. Walking around scared to death while chopping fingers can be pretty heavy stuff. I’m sure you understand.”

“How much were you expecting?” he said. She propped herself up on one elbow and turned her hip to the side. It looked like an invitation for him to share the bed with her, or maybe it was wishful thinking on his part.

“Enough that we wouldn’t have known where to put it,” she said. “We should have been surrounded by it for miles.” She laid down again. “We found less than the first site, yet all of our readings said it was all around us.”

“How’s that possible?” he asked.

“It’s not,” she said in a dry tone. She had made it obvious that the conversation was over but just in case he hadn’t caught on, she added, “Feel free to snoop through my private system some more.” She waved her hand as if to tell him ‘fuck off’ without having to say it. Jimmy was sure he would have preferred the words. 

He adjusted himself in the seat and watched her on the bed. He felt a longing to talk, a fear that without her, he may begin to see his nightmares come to life once again. He thought about crawling into bed with her, placing his body close to hers, running his fingers over her suit with enough pressure so she could feel the tickle along her skin. Undoing the sections of the suit one by one as his nails ran through her bare skin, she pretending to be asleep but her mind unable to think of anything else but having him inside her. Her gasping as his hands ran over her hips, taking the suit down further, gripping her thighs and ass with undeniable desire. Another gasp accompanied by a soft moan, inviting him in, letting him know she could wait no longer.

His suit began to get uncomfortably tight. He tugged at it and attempted to adjust himself down but only made it worse, bending his penis into an unnatural position.

He closed his eyes and tried to think of other thoughts, hoping the erection would disappear, but no matter how grotesque the thoughts, his mind returned to Patricia. The urge became overwhelming and he got up, walking along the edge of the bed. His erection was as clear as the carribean sea water and he made no attempt to try and hide it. He hoped she would grab it as he passed next to her and reel him in herself. He opened the door to the restroom and just before he walked in he caught, out of his peripherals, what he thought were her open eyes, watching him.

He breathed heavy inside the restroom, taking off his suit as he turned on the steam shower. He made sure to leave the door unlocked, just in case, and then hopped in. Without the suit on, he smelled much worse than he would have imagined. He pictured Patricia coming in and taking him like that, her own body filthy and odorous like his own. A lust-filled fuck that became even more exciting because of the base nature of it all.

He took the time to clean himself well and when he finished he returned to the seat in front of the system. Before he could browse through the system, he heard a loud snore that forced him to turn around and laugh. He found it amusing at first but quickly realized he would be having a horrid time sleeping around this woman.

He spent the next few hours sifting through her database but found nothing significant. It was mostly interviews with other crew, reports of their mental health or accounts of their desires and lack of motivation. He quickly became more intrigued by her own personal files.

The messages between she and her children and husband were miles different than those among all of her colleagues. It was almost as if it were two completely different women interacting within one body. She was cold, one-tracked, even robotic with her colleagues. She showed them no emotion, no personality. She had created the image of the professional and intended everyone to see her as such, but in reality she was nothing like that.

There was still a clear distance Jimmy could recognize between she and her loved ones, but it was packed down by an undeniable amount of care and affection. She maintained a playful connection with her husband, a closeness Jimmy envied. She loved and needed them. They had become an integral part of who she was.

Why the fuck did you leave them to come here? 

He felt the pressure in his head returning. He wasn’t sure how long it had been since the last pain pill but he didn’t care. It was better he never feel it.

Hunger crept on him soon after. He had been so engrossed by her files that he had forgotten to feed himself more. He finished the remaining chunks of apple and dug through the fridge. It was filled with food packets, making him wonder if she had scavenged these after the fact or if she had kept them stored like this so she would never have to leave her room.

He pulled two out, figuring he would have one ready for her once she was awake. He could see her being the type to lock herself away so as to not be forced to make relationships with new people. It reminded him of himself in a way, except backwards. He would have locked himself away, only after charming everyone in his vicinity. She hadn’t completely distanced herself, however.

Lagos’ assistant had caused her to break her professional mould. He had spoken to her as a friend, playful and full of secrets to share. He had his suspicions why, but preferred to have more concrete answers. He placed the packets to warm and swung his chair back to dig through the system more. This time he would search for something a little more, incriminating.

“Find what you were looking for?” came Patricia’s voice from behind, startling him.

“No,” he said, swinging his chair to face her. “Just more questions.”

“That’s life for you,” she chuckled as she rubbed her eyes.

The nutrient heater uncovered the packets. Jimmy tilted his head toward it, “I warmed an extra one in case you woke up.”

She smiled and stretched, “It’s why I woke up,” she said as she swung her legs off the bed. He picked it up and offered it to her. “Not yet, let me clean up first.”

“Hope you don’t mind,” he said. “I used it while you were asleep.”

“I know,” she said, opening the door and unzipping part of her suit before the door had a chance to seal.

He stared at it, wondering what she had meant. Maybe she had really been watching him. Maybe she was inviting him in with her. Jimmy grinned as he envisioned the possibilities.

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