Turning to re-enter the habitat James was arrested by the sight of hundreds of small lights surrounding him. They floated gently in the currents on all sides, numbering in the hundreds, and he felt awed by their beauty until his eyes adjusted. Seen clearly, they were human fetuses.
James recoiled, thrashing again against the side of the habitat. Each trailed a thin, fragile umbilical cord behind them in the same direction, vanishing into a shadowy mass no more than fifteen feet away. James clawed at the billowing membrane of the habitat but it afforded no handholds.
One of the tiny things turned to look at James with round, black little eyes. It’s flesh was translucent and he could discern a partially developed heart. By this point it was unsurprising that the heart was not beating.
It sat still in the delicate little creature’s chest, a formless black lump radiating withered veins and arteries that spread out from it’s chest to each extremity. Only when he tore his attention away from these morbid details did he notice that the hundreds of others were now facing him as well.
Once back inside, James rolled on his back and cried. It was not so much what had just happened but the residual stress from his experience with the shadow woman before, finally released by this newest episode. “Am I losing my mind? Is it the injections? Or are they wearing off?”
Rapidly he cycled through the possibilities, rejecting each as quickly as it arose. Injections were automatic, one in the neck when you slept, administered by a mechanism in the bed. But if he went too long without one surely some type of warning would appear on the monitor?
Wiping the condensation from the membrane he peered out into the abyss at the habitat nearest his. He could see the silhouette of a prisoner huddled stationary near the edge of the floorspace. Wiping condensation from a spot opposite that one he peered at another habitat and saw the same thing.
How many were like this? It seemed at least understandable that some might refuse the injections in protest. It put the fear of god into James, who wasted no time laying himself out on the rough foam pad provided, his neck carefully aligned with the red stripe as indicated by the instructions printed below it. Overhead the unblinking eye of a tiny ccd camera monitored his face for signs of rem sleep. Upon detecting them, the needle emerged.
Cold concrete. Especially unwelcome after his midnight dip. Of course, the foundry. Of course. Soon his wits were restored and he was up and about, wandering the corridors. It was until that point routine for everything to be as he left it, so it did startle James to trip over a tightly wound cable of some kind.
In one direction it snaked across the floor, over concrete debris and waste paper. In the other direction it dropped off the first step of the spiral staircase, and edging himself over for a better view James confirmed that it trailed all the way down the steps.
Before deciding which way to follow the cord, he more closely examined it. Spongy to the touch, but firm. Like leather but more pliable. It was pale, and slightly damp. Gripping it in one hand he felt it pulsate. The realization that it was alive gave him a start, but not so much as when the entire thing rose from the floor and began to slowly undulate in midair.
Conducting the coin toss in his head, James headed down the stairwell. He thought idly that it might’ve been easier with the cord on the ground, as it now spiraled down the stairs a few feet above the stairs themselves and was a pain to edge around.
It’s a hell of a thing to expect nothing and still be disappointed. At the bottom of the stairwell, the source of the cord became at once apparent, and also more cryptic. Hovering at eye level and rippling slightly in slow motion the cord passed James and then receded down into the fog. Whatever the source, it was below that fog.
He had neither the means to see through it nor any desire to lower himself into the unknown. It didn’t even properly resemble fog, more like stormcloud cover as viewed from above. Feeling defeated, James returned to the shaft and ascended the stairs. As he neared the top he noticed movement in the cord, beyond the normal swaying. Something was at the cord’s other end. And it was moving.
Morning arrived. Such as it was, in the darkness of the deep sea. With it came the unease of waking up in a strange bed, and the sudden influx of memories from the night before washing over James like a high tide. He was usually glad to leave that place, but lately frustrated too.
Each time he felt as though he was on the verge of discovering something crucial to understanding the foundry. What it was, how he related to it, whether it was anything more than a very persistent recurring dream. Throwing his legs over the side of the bed he sat up, hunched over and held his head. The dreams couldn’t be a pressure symptom, they predated the injections, all of this.
Poking around his neck, he hit on the sensitive spot and confirmed in the mirror that he’d been injected in his sleep. He did feel refreshed. How much of that was simply because he expected to? He looked at his hands, and then at the membrane around him. No hallucinations, but also not really sure what he was looking for.
A loud crackle made him jump, and instinctively he positioned himself to drop down the central hatch. For all the good that would do. If anything were to join him in his cell, provided it had hands, the hatch could be opened from both sides and would offer nothing in the way of protection.
It turned out to be the monitor, activated remotely and struggling to resolve a clear image. Then as if there had never been any obstruction, a crystal clear video feed of Hank Kowalczyk snapped into place on the dusty little screen.
“James? James, are you there?” He realized he’d left the camera turned off from his side and switched it on. “Thank god. Are you hurt? Were you injected? Have you eaten anything?”
Sensory overload. James had endless questions of his own but none would form on his lips. “Listen, I’m working to get you out of there. The marines have assumed control of the station, I can’t say for certain whether that’s within their power. The station is Navy property, but of course it’s also a prison with just one warden.”
He let a wry smile creep onto his face as he said that. “I have no doubt of their mastery of a supercav subfighter but if any among them know how to lock me out of the Tartarus mainframe they haven’t done it yet. I can’t get a sub out to you, but the decompression chamber for returning prisoners can be flooded and opened to the sea.”
“Don’t balk, not yet. I’m very serious about what comes next. I can only keep the outer hatch open for 90 seconds before it will automatically seal and purge. The flood sensor would normally want to do that as soon as it detects seawater inside but I’ve written a recursive function into the routine that will choke the CPU, buying you that 90 seconds to get inside. Swim as far as you can with the mouthpiece, take a deep breath and pull yourself along the cable. Head for the only open hatch. If you make it, we’ll go out for beers later.” The screen went dark.
Had he imagined it? James wiped the condensation from the membrane in the direction of Tartatus. A pulsing red light illuminated the wide open outer hatch of the decompression chamber to which the prisoner transpo sub normally docked.
For someone whose tissues were full up with nitrogen, that chamber was the one safe passage back into Tartarus or to the surface. No other path, no other process could return them alive. In all the ocean, that chamber was his only possible ticket home.
90 seconds. More like 70 now. James frantically scrambled to the moon pool and, bracing for the cold, dove through it. Burning pain, convulsions, as horrid as before but now also seeming tedious, as his focus was entirely on getting through that hatch.
He bit down on the crusty rubber mouthpiece and drew in fresh air. One way or the other, it would be his last breath from the habitat. He found the quickest method of movement was a hand over hand motion, pulling himself along the umbilical. Like climbing a rope without the burden of gravity.
Stay Tuned for Part 8!