Originally published in Dimension6: Annual Anthology 2020
The lifter shudders, buffeted by a sudden wind, drops several feet before arresting its descent. Its turbines blast up plumes of black dirt, churn up the silty waters of the swamp. Beyond the green of the mangrove trees, the horizon is layered in pinks and reds and oranges, the sun emerging crimson and raw from the ocean like a vast infected eye.
Strapped into the dropseat, Calhoun winces as the engines whine and roar, fighting wind and gravity. He’s five hours into the ride and his back and buttocks are stiff, the tight liner of his battlesuit cutting into a dozen annoying, itching places. Sweltering heat inside his helmet—the hiss and hum of recycled, filtered air. The command comes up and the suit’s injectors respond: epinephrine slams through his system like a bolt of lightning, like the voice of God. The juddering heap of metal howling down from the sky, the grumbles and demands of his body, the thoughts and emotions roiling through his head, all vanish in the black torrent coursing through his nerves. He feels nothing, sees nothing but the dark green expanse coming up to meet him, numbers and letters flickering yellow and blue and red in the augmented sight of his HUD.
Somewhere in the mud and mire, a treasure.
The capsule had veered off its projected trajectory, crashing in the mangrove swamp instead of the ocean. Its last transmission indicated that it survived intact. Now the beacon has gone dark, just like all communication from the first-response team sent to retrieve it. Which is unusual, but hardly unique. Ever since space research was deregulated, the agencies privatized, anything that drops from the heavens is considered up for grabs under salvage laws. Rival transnationals, biotek pirates, industrial mercenaries, freelancers—everyone wants in on the game. Most of it is space junk, or burns up on entry, but every now and then a jackpot hits: a shipment of experimental nanotech, a genehacked virus, a drought- or flood-tolerant crop. There’s good money to be made auctioning salvages off to the power bloc governments, corporate R&D divisions, even terrorists.
Calhoun worked salvage for the best part of the last decade. He knows he can be sure of two things. One—time is of the essence. The capsule’s landing brakes might have mitigated the worst of the impact, but the damage is likely extensive, the precious cargo inside either broken or deteriorating by the minute. Two—the silence from the first-response team means trouble. Someone beat them to the prize or intercepted them. The arbitrage AIs have awarded the salvage rights to Calhoun’s team, but that doesn’t stop other outfits from trying to jump the claim. Plenty of spots for an ambush in the jungle, even more places to get rid of bodies. The second wave is taking no chances.
Calhoun hates space, hates the very idea of endless black nullity poised over his head, spreading in every conceivable direction, eager to erase him. Years ago, working for a different outfit, he trained with a hull-to-hull boarding crew at the Tangiers-Kebdana launch facility. Former government military program, now financed by undisclosed sources. Zero-G training inside crushing centrifuges, combat techniques designed around blade and riot baton. He’d done all right until the first test flight, until the sweet familiar blue of the motherworld receded under his feet and he floated untethered, a fragile skin of pressured air, plastic, and steel the only thing separating him from the frozen void. The vertiginous sensation of falling forever, the eternal night like a physical presence, waiting to boil the blood from his veins, to suck the heat out of his body, to explode his insides.
Space has a thousand ways to kill you, every single one of them awful. There’s a malice hiding in the outer dark, a mindless loathing of life. Let the fools go live in the orbitals, track their footprints in the dust of the Moon, crawl across the vast and radioactive face of Mars. Nothing but bare rocks and frozen dirt, scorched by gamma rays or scoured by dead-air hurricanes. Calhoun will stay right here, in the light and warmth, where a meat-sack is supposed to be.
The lifter touches down. Bright icons paint the inside of Calhoun’s helmet. Names, vitals, compass, trajectories of fire. He tears off the straps holding him in place, picks up his charge rifle. Another toy you can’t use in space but that makes all the difference down here on Earth. The doors hiss open and the interior is a frenzy of movement—arms, legs, weapons, instruments. Messages and readings scroll across the HUD.
Calhoun moves. He’s a finely tuned killing machine—builds, neuromesh add-ons, and years of rigorous training enhance the caveman instinct—his blood excited and cooled by hormone-dispensing subdermals, his senses cranked up by designer drugs. Elevated alertness, controlled aggression, reduced anxiety. A half-second pause, then the liner of his battlesuit ripples and tightens, hugs the contours of his muscles like an overeager lover. Filtered air flows in sync with his breathing, slows it down imperceptibly. Standard hazard containment protocol: the capsule and its contents will be sterile, but the bogies, if there are any, could be using biowarfare agents.
Tags flare as boots touch the ground, Faber on point, Cortez bringing up the rear, the rest fanned out to lay the killing field over as large an area as possible. The capsule’s transponder may be down, but Mother took its flight path, wind speed, and degree of deviation, crunching the numbers to calculate a probable crash site. One-and-a-half clicks west from their current position, past a dense stretch of forest. Faber wears a cerametal walker, glossy black plates and hydraulics molded against the contours of his spine and extremities, his BMG .72 cradled in its recoil-brake harness. A death-dealer, a weapon of mass destruction: one thousand titanium flechettes per second, accelerated to unimaginable speed, tearing through flesh and metal alike, pulping any bogie dumb enough to wander into its operator’s enhanced visual feed. Gods of war—fire and thunder in their hands—walking the earth in the shapes of men.
Except there’s nothing to pulp.
Calhoun blinks a drop of stinging sweat from his eye, reflexively follows the dance of icons superimposed on the forest, searching for heat signatures, finding none. The pack has flown down here expecting a scrap: the satellites have not picked up any movement in the trees, no lifters or boats taking off. Whatever took out the first responders must still be here.
The absence of a visible threat is disturbing, and the mercenaries feel it, even if no one dares give voice to the thought. Tension crackles over the comm channel, nerves hum like power lines as they venture into the dark, silent embrace of the trees.
They have barely gone a hundred meters when Purcell, the pack leader, halts and raises a gloved hand. Stop. A battlesuit signal blooms in their HUDs, blinks, goes out. It’s moving, and it’s tagged to Reznov, one of the first responders. As Calhoun tries to make sense of this new development, the signal flares again, stutters away to nothing. Once, twice. If Mother’s projections are accurate, it’s heading away from the capsule.
All this is highly irregular, and Calhoun can smell himself in the claustrophobic confines of his suit, fear pheromones and aggression chemicals. Subdermals kick in, dumping stress, whittling his concentration to a laser-sharp point.
Contact, Purcell is sending over the subvocals. Alpha One, contact.
There’s no response. Or at least that’s what Calhoun thinks, and then he hears the sound. Scratching, rustling, bristling: neither word seems to fit. It’s so low that he takes it for static, until his neuromesh latches onto it, analyzes it, tries to unravel it. It’s not a noise he’s ever heard before, but it’s alive, and it’s repeating itself in a pattern. If the forest had a mouth, a throat, this is what its song would sound like. He can almost make out words inside it, a meaning.
He shakes his head, brings up the suit’s status indicators. Hallucinations. Tainted air supply, or a bad mix of gasses. Maybe sabotage. But the numbers seem fine. His sensors are not picking any outside contamination, but that isn’t much comfort. A designer toxin—a new weaponized agent—wouldn’t show up. It could be inside the suit with him, already working on his brain, on his nerves. He’s seen it happen before—gassed mercenaries vomiting inside their helmets, drowning in their own blood and bile. Pushing the thought away, he realizes the others are moving and hurries to catch up.
Purcell has decided, and it’s the only decision he can make under the circumstances: protect corporate property. Secure the salvage. Looking for survivors is a distant third priority. The pack makes its way through the bushes, mud sucking at their boots, the clicking of the compass closer and closer together.
Ahead, the sky is opening up, the canopies retreating. Calhoun sees broken branches, smashed trunks, scorched bark. Dirt and ash float in the air like mist, settle on the visor of his helmet. He can see the cargo plainly now, what looks like half a cylinder protruding from the mire. The HUD warns him of a breach in the capsule’s hull. The ablation shield is blackened and scarred, pocked with what looks like small-caliber bullet holes. Cracks along the metal seams. Micrometeor strikes, Mother chimes in, probability of NBC contamination.
A panel in the side is open, as if someone tried to get into the capsule, but was interrupted.
They move out of the trees and creep across uneven ground. Fuentes and Sanford shoulder their weapons, grudgingly pull out their utility tools. The cargo is buried deep in the mud. It’s going to take hours to dig it out, and it’s hotter than Satan’s asshole.
Calhoun’s HUD explodes with light.
Heat signatures and transponder signals, tags and friend-or-foe labels light up the treeline like fireworks. Calhoun’s neuromesh pivots him toward the apparent threat, finger on the trigger, before his brain has had a chance to catch up. The HUD’s targeting systems pick out shapes slinking between the trunks, but they can’t get a fix on anything. Over the comm, Purcell shouts at the pack to take up positions, to hold fire. Shadows move and vanish in the gloom, his eye unable to make out details, to give them coherent form. Ghosts, or some sort of glitch in his enhanced vision. But the others are seeing them too: confused voices jabber in his ears, barrels sweep left to right.
For a moment there’s nothing but the silent dance of phantoms in Calhoun’s head. Then the forest comes at them, claws and mouths and long grasping arms rushing across the clearing and the impact crater, a surging mass of green and brown. Neither human nor animal, nor anything in between, but a single vast organism with a thousand appendages. In an instant of bright, mindless panic, Calhoun glimpses faces in there, set and expressionless like masks, borne aloft the leaves and branches and knotted vines. Trophies, he has time to think, and then the ‘mesh takes over and he’s aiming and firing, muzzle flashes erasing the impossible sight on the other side of his visor.
His terror-numb brain can’t make sense of any of it. Are those dogs coming at them, or misshapen men crouched on all fours, or a tree falling forward, sprouting tumorous growths? Whatever these forms are, they’re not ghosts. No imagination could have dreamed them up, no drug conjured them from the subconscious. A voice is screaming in the comm—his voice, or someone else’s—high-pitched with hysteria. Faber looms in from the left, machine gun unlimbered, a centaur poised on cerametal legs. There’s little sound, but Calhoun can feel the vibrations in the back of his jaw as the weapon opens up, ripping up huge swathes of the advancing foliage, green tufts filling the air.
Just as suddenly as it started, the movement stops. Units respond, Purcell is saying, his voice strange and distorted. As if in a dream, Calhoun runs a suit status check. He hasn’t been hit. No one’s so much as scratched. The impact area is covered in splintered wood and shredded vegetation, but the pack is all present and accounted for. Except no one knows what happened.
What was that, Faber says, the heavy machine gun hanging in its harness. What the fuck was that? He takes an unsteady step forward, the legs of his walker sinking into the soft mud. Crouches over a smoking, unrecognizable hump which is decomposing rapidly. Purcell calls him back, but Faber remains hunched over, as if the walker has locked itself into position. The pack leader isn’t happy: every five-minute increment is tracked against schedule, and any cost overruns come straight out of their bonus. Not to mention the sizeable chunk of their operating budget that just went up in smoke, shooting the trees.
Up close, the scan shows that the capsule is buried deeper than expected, the shield crumpled on one side, the struts twisted and fused. Digging it out is no longer an option. Again, Purcell makes an executive decision: decouple the main module, pick it up with the lifter. Visibly relieved, Sanford and Fuentes secure it with nanocarbon rope, hitch the other end to Faber’s walker. All hands on deck. Calhoun puts his shoulder in and shoves, boots scrabbling for purchase in the mud. The rope strains, but the swamp is relentless, holding the cargo in a tight grip.
Stop fucking around, Purcell gasps, and Faber really leans into it, muscles and servos together, ridges standing out in his immense back. For an instant, nothing happens. Then there’s a huge sucking noise and the immense resistance Calhoun is pushing against is snatched away. He can’t keep his balance, can’t get out of the way of the spinning, twisted fuselage quickly enough. A hammer punches into his chest; the ground and sky change places.
Laughter and jeers crackle over the comm. Calhoun gets to his feet, flips his packmates off with both hands. There’s some pain, but mostly it’s his ego that’s bruised. Nothing but a scratch, if that. The HUD indicates a rip in the suit liner. He slaps a self-adhesive patch over it, gives Purcell a thumbs-up sign.
Cargo secured, the pack stalks off in the shore’s direction, leaving the site for the mop-up crew to go over. The bruise on Calhoun’s chest throbs for a while, but the suit is generous with analgesics. By the time the lifter takes off into the afternoon’s hellish glare, he’s all but forgotten about the incident. Engines thunder as they bank over the blasted sand, the forest rippling in their wake like a green sea.
He dreams of water, an entire horizon of unbroken blue, coruscating in the blaze of a great yellow star. After eternities in the lifeless cold, he’s burning, a spark streaking across the heavens, trailing dust and ash. The blue opens up to envelop him, to cradle him from one dream into another, into the rolling arms of the sea. It has been waiting for him; it has secrets to tell. But he doesn’t hit the water. Just keeps falling and falling, consumed by heat, the glittering surface and the promise of life tumbling in his vision, forever out of his reach.
Calhoun wakes up to the beeping of his alarm clock. Bright electric light burns down on him from the enameled metal ceiling, washes out the details of his cramped berth. Beads of condensation have formed on it as he slept. Water everywhere—on the ship, in its bowels, all around it. He tries to gather the frayed edges of his dream, to wrap himself in it and languish a few more delicious minutes, but it has fled his head. It won’t come back, no matter how hard he tries, so he gives up and rolls out of his bunk.
The berth is tiny, a rathole gnawed in the immense iron flank of a refurbished hauler, currently puttering across the vast stretch of ocean between Java and Honshu Conurb. Calhoun has gotten so used to the thrum and groan of the ship, the hammering of her nuclear heart and the pitch-and-roll of the steel decks, that he can no longer tell whether she’s moving or holding still. He rinses his mouth and inspects his face in the mirror, his bare torso. The bruise on his chest looks bigger than yesterday, red and inflamed, the scratch all but invisible. He pokes it gingerly with a finger. No pain, only a faint itch. A tracery of tiny capillaries spreads from the edges, vanishes beneath the skin. There’s a corresponding itch somewhere between his shoulder blades, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t angle his body in the mirror to see what’s happening there. It could be some kind of fungus or an infection. He makes a mental note to visit the medbay, pulls on a shirt, and heads for the mess hall.
The life of a corporate mercenary is one long boring wait, punctuated by brief, bright red bouts of violence. Calhoun scarfs down a reconstituted meal and is on his ninth hand of poker with a table of corpmercs from a competitor firm when his datalens pipes up, displaying a confidential memo. His outfit has lost the follow-on tender for a security contract on a server farm in the Caspian Depression. A collective groan goes up from the other end of the mess, where Purcell and the rest of the pack are finishing breakfast. Calhoun is disappointed—he’d been counting on the field pay and overtime—but an extra week of paid R&R in Honshu is no hardship.
Three days to port. Calhoun fills his time with mindless tasks, trying not to think about the capsule they retrieved from the swamp. He scrolls through the company’s portal, but there’s no mention of it in the unclassified feeds, nor any information about the first-response team. The morgue and the lab have logged no new arrivals, although he remembers bagging samples from the swamp and depositing them in cryo. This last makes him think for a while, and then his brain instinctively veers away from the topic. Not his problem. Someone else is paid to worry about the cargo after it’s been secured. But his thoughts keep returning to it like a tongue probing a painful tooth, as he absently scratches at the bruise on his chest. He supposes he’ll get it checked out tomorrow. They have three days at sea, and he can think of a few other priorities. There’s no point in hurrying, so he doesn’t. Plenty of poker games going on in the lounge.
Almost a day passes before Calhoun realizes something’s wrong.
He pushes across the crowded deck, past clusters of sullen, irritable mercs and techs and suits. The hauler’s great engines have gone silent, the absence of sound feels oppressive. Most of the pack is out by the fore railing, looking up at the bridge. The ship is dead in the water, a floating city on the surface of the flat, oily ocean. It’s so big that the only movement Calhoun can see—and this only when he focuses on it—is the gentle roll of the horizon.
The corpmercs laugh and make jokes, but many are nervous under the veneer of calm. Fingers tap virtual keyboards, eyes scan the datalenses for an internal memo, for an explanation.
Guess we’re stuck on this rust bucket until further notice, Adomako says, nodding to Calhoun. Ship’s been quarantined.
What the fuck happened?
They must have found the dead whore Faber keeps in the reactor room.
That’s not a nice way to talk about your mother, Faber replies, deadpan. He gazes over the railing, at the endless expanse of gray-blue. Guffaws all round, but the pack is subdued, and when they see Cortez coming their way, they fall unusually silent.
We’ve been refused docking clearance, Cortez says. She stands with her feet apart, hands loose at her sides, as if daring one of the pack to take a swing at her. Honshu is sending a biohazard team our way.
Biohazard team? Calhoun can feel the first cold fingers down his spine. Why?
Cortez shrugs. Her small face is a stone mask. They wouldn’t tell me, she says. Some sort of cock-up in port. Apparently, someone didn’t get the right permit for the cargo they’re moving. Or there’s been a leak in the hold. Whatever the reason, we’re not going anywhere until Honshu greenlights us.
Silence as the pack ponders this latest piece of news. There are other corporations renting space on the hauler, taking advantage of the free-trade zone laws. Inspections are few and far in between, and most shipping officials can be bought off for a nominal fee. Deliberate tampering with sealed containers is also not unheard of, but even as Calhoun considers this possibility he knows it makes no sense. For no reason he can identify, his mind goes back to the dogs that attacked them in the swamp. He has no answers, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to get one from Cortez, who seems intent on staring him down.
On the way down to his cabin, the itch makes itself present on the edge of his consciousness: his skin feels hot and throbbing, almost feverish. Maybe he’s coming down with something. He should have it looked at before it gets worse. But when he climbs down to the medbay level he keeps moving, deeper into the cavernous space of the ship, a creature seeking comfort in the warm, oil-smelling dark.
Two hours until dawn and the pack is suited and armed, navigating the labyrinth of the hauler’s corridors and gangways, orders sparking across their infrared visors.
Purcell woke them up in the dead of night, issued the bare minimum of instructions. An extreme prejudice contract, taken out on one of their own lab techs. The tag is usually reserved for eco-terrorists and saboteurs, but Purcell refuses to tell them more. Before the pack leader switches to subvocals, Calhoun catches something in his tone, a thickness and halting quality to it that he’s almost certain is raw fear. The unspoken is on everyone’s mind. A couple of years ago, a floating lab owned by Glasser-Kamada, a biotech conglomerate, was targeted in a neurotoxin attack. Suspected sabotage by a rival, although no arbitrage motion was ever filed. Weeks later, after the site was secured, someone on the salvage team leaked the security footage. Calhoun has only watched it once, but every detail, each twisted, contorted face, is etched in his memory. His is a dangerous job, but there are different ways to lose one’s life and dying from a weaponized bioagent is probably at the very bottom of his list.
Calhoun and Krylov take the starboard branch corridors, following the progress of the others in their visuals. Start at the core of the ship and spread outward. Leave no nook unsearched, no bulkhead door unopened. Locate and eliminate the threat.
Calhoun fidgets inside a suit that suddenly doesn’t fit quite right. His vitals can’t seem to come down into normal ranges: temperature elevated, pulse and respiration irregular, strange readings in his hormone panels. Eyes sensitive, burning from the dancing lights in his HUD. Chemicals pump into his bloodstream, but the suit’s efforts seem to be having a contrary effect: tiny slivers of glass tear him up from the inside, fill his head and guts with nausea. The endless maze of corridors robs him of all sense of direction. A memory emerges unbidden from the back of his mind: a vast honeycomb hurtling through the emptiness, huddled shapes trapped in a dream akin to death, the last remnants of a far larger whole vanished untold eons ago. Fruiting filaments reaching up through the passages, releasing clouds of spores into the darkness beyond the womb. He has no idea where the image comes from, but that doesn’t make it any less vivid.
When the scream comes, followed by the sharp rattle of gunfire in an enclosed metal space, Calhoun picks up his feet and races after Krylov, following the tracer lines converging in his HUD.
The long corridor should open into one of the container areas, but it’s sealed off by a dark bulk. Friend-or-foe tags identify it as Faber, seconds before Calhoun’s hazy brain recognizes the figure waving its hands at them, motioning them back. Stand down, Purcell hisses in the comm. Stand down. We have the situation under control.
Faber’s arms hang at his sides, a machine pistol clenched but forgotten in one gloved hand. Face invisible behind the visor.
Don’t look, the big man says, doing his best to block their line of sight. A different voice, older, stunned. Go back to your bunks. We got this.
Calhoun’s HUD has gone silent. His unaugmented vision catches a glimpse of wet, dripping gangways, something like frayed rope twisting down the metal staircase, chunks hanging like fruit on a fuzzy, ropy vine. Some of them look like leathery masks, crude but evocative, mouths open in silent screams.
It all means something—the blind chase through the tunnels, the viscous gleam on metal, the absence of any explanation for this predawn escapade—but Calhoun doesn’t know what. He sits on his bunk, dazed, his blood boiling with a witches’ brew of spent adrenaline and synthetic uppers and something else, something that’s crept inside him and that he can’t put his finger on, but that’s here to stay. When he tries to pull the suit off, the liner sticks to him like a second skin and there’s a faint pulling, tearing sensation along his spine, from his sternum to navel. A sudden release and warm liquid sluices down his back and sides. There’s no pain, only a sense of being unencumbered, as if a crushing weight has been removed from him. Marveling, he gets up, watches himself in the mirror. Examines the wet liner in his hands.
Green tendrils, like capillaries lifted from under the skin, have infiltrated the layers of kevlar and cerametal, twined with the fine circuitry of the suit. Pale yellowish liquid, mixed with dark rust spots of blood, pools at his feet.
The tendrils are part of him, part of Calhoun, growing out of his skin. Thin and delicate, but tough, moving as his muscles contract, swaying in the stale air of the cabin. The bruise on his chest is a large red welt threaded with black, hot to the touch. It is here that the tendrils are thickest, clinging like old ivy, reaching up over his shoulders, spilling down his legs. When he caresses them with a finger, they retract reflexively, then embrace the exploring member, their touch gossamer soft. Bumps pulse slowly in his armpits, on the sides of his neck, swollen lymph nodes being repurposed for a new use.
It’s inside him, whatever arrived from space, hitching a ride on the ruptured capsule. Changing him, first from within, then on the outside. Some part of Calhoun is screaming in horror and outrage, but the larger chunk of his consciousness is taking this transformation in style, coming to terms with this altered existence. It’s impossible not to admire the efficiency of the organism. An intelligent infection, stripped down to the bare-bones minimum required to ensure survival, capable of crossing the gulf between the stars in a suspended dream-state. Latching onto organic life already adapted and evolved to its environment, its ecological niche. Wearing its host like a well-fitted glove.
Whatever is happening to him, Calhoun doesn’t think medical attention is an option anymore. He thinks back to the gunfire on the upper deck—the lab tech the pack was hunting would have been among the first to receive and inspect the capsule without the benefit of a biohazard suit. Calhoun must be careful, very careful.
He raises his arm, rotates it at the shoulder. From its root to its fingertips, it’s a miracle of evolution: the interplay of joint and socket, the articulation of the fine digits. An ancient design adapted to an upright posture, a wondrous structure built to endure the demands of surface gravity, to manipulate and bend, to produce structures like this bed, this sink, the ship around it.
He lies down on the bunk, head filling with fragmented images. Calhoun’s memories, the recollections imprinted into the brainstem of his passenger, woven into a single, tight tapestry. War and killing, the acrid taste of fear and wrath, burning and destruction. Blue horizons meeting, the watery expanse beyond the ship, spreading as far as his new eyes can reach. The endless trek across that other sea, the one above the heavens, a sleep that began when this pale blue planet was but a ball of mud and fire. The creak and slosh of the motionless hauler, the inaudible hum of the network in the HUD and its channels, extending across the world, touching the satellites that dance through the frozen dark without making a sound. So much to explore, so much to learn. The sound wraps him into gentle arms, cradles and rocks him like the waves, ushering in the blackness of oblivion.
Open up, Adomako says, making faces for the peephole camera. He’s holding two cases of imported beer in his huge hands. Poker tournament on level four. The boys and girls from Kabinda Extractives just got paid and I want to get at their money.
When the door clicks open, Adomako shoulders his way in, lets it close behind him.
It’s dark as a grave in here. Hey, you sick or something? I haven’t seen you at all last couple days. He wrinkles his nose. You better turn the air on, my man, he says, glimpsing Calhoun’s smiling face in the corner of his eye. It’s like—
Then his brain catches up to his eyes and the cases of beer hit the floor, fizzing and spilling foam. Some gets on Adomako’s new shoes, but he doesn’t notice any of it. All he can see is Calhoun’s face, pale and shiny, suspended above what looks like a human figure and a tree, with a gnarled, composite trunk, roots spreading across the tiny cabin. Calhoun hangs from the ceiling. Calhoun is wrapped tightly around the sink and the pipes, fans a lattice of fine red capillaries across the walls. He sprouts from the electric sockets, hangs from the air ducts like a creeper-plant. All the cabin is Calhoun and Calhoun is everywhere, breathing with the rhythm of the ship, rustling in the currents flowing through the ducts.
Adomako sees all this and he continues to stare as the bigger tendrils caress his shoulders, the back of his neck, wrap themselves around his ankles and wrists. Even as they invade his mouth and throat, stopping the scream that’s building up there, a part of him continues to stare, rapt with fascination. This part will keep seeing it, reliving the unthinkable horror of it, long after he’s been subsumed and taken apart and digested, long after he’s been made part of the great transformation taking place. Calhoun tastes the building madness, the fear hormones in the flesh of his prey, and feels a dim twinge of regret, but he can’t help himself. He’s growing. Soon he’ll be pushing past the confines of his cabin, and a growing body needs its fuel. It’s as simple as that.
But he can’t stay here. Something has changed.
Barely an hour has elapsed before he picks up the message on a classified channel, a streak of electric blue across his consciousness. It’s not intended for him, but he sees everything, hears everything through the hauler’s comms. Someone in the outfit must have figured things out, checked the surveillance feeds, and now they’re coming for him. Purcell and Cortez should not have taken so long to put two and two together, but corporate spin doctors probably kept them in the dark, fed them information on a strict as-needed basis. Whatever the reason, it’s bought him valuable time, allowed the infection to work its change.
Calhoun hasn’t spent much time pondering his situation, planning, examining motives. Truth be told, he hasn’t been doing much thinking at all, not in the old sense of the term. New senses, new perceptions, new insights blossom and bear fruit in his expanding mind, multiply and swarm like schools of silvery fish in murky water. His brain, or the equivalent of his brain, has spread through his main bulk and myriad cavities, into the countless appendages sprouting from this central mass: an enormous increase in intellectual capacity, billions of new nerve cells, thousands of new ganglia and nuclei. All independent but connected, indestructible.
He shapes an appendage like a hand, wriggles the false joints in near-perfect mimicry of human motion. Cut off from the body, the hand can become a new Calhoun. Feed and survive and proliferate, reason for itself. Himself. Themselves. Any part of him can do the same. An infinity of Calhouns sing under his outer layer, their voices united in the same message.
It’s time to go.
The corridors are silent this late at night—or so Calhoun would believe, were he not able to taste the thoughts of the converging pack, hear the frantic exchange over their subvocals. In this environment, their shape is an advantage. Calhoun has learned how to pull himself into bipedal shape but lacks the motor control over the rearranged muscles and is unaccustomed to the weight and drag of certain parts. His awkward gait quickly degenerates to a shamble. The pack is almost upon him; within minutes they’ll have all the gangways cut off. Time for a change of plans.
He uncoils himself at the top of a staircase and over the railing, plummets down to the service levels, startling a couple of bleary-eyed night shift stiffs who flinch and jerk away, uncertain what they have seen. As panicked commands arc through the comm, Calhoun is moving away from the light, into the depths of the ship, listening for the lapping of water on the other side of the iron walls.
Shouts go up from above, but Calhoun isn’t stopping. The ocean calls out to him, deep and dark and full of life. Safety. His body is now sleek and compact, lined with flipper-like growths. Gills flare at the join of head and torso; weight is redistributed, openings sealed, bladders inflated.
He sees the dance of rainbows on the oily black water, monstrous machinery suspended overhead, bristling with great articulated arms and claws. The hauler’s maintenance dock is flooded: small vessels bob on the placid surface. He can only hope that the valves are open, that the pipes are wide enough for him to squeeze through.
Gunfire erupts before he can reach the water, rattles around the maintenance dock like angry hail. The pack is rushing out of one of the elevators, suited and armed to the teeth. Calhoun feels the impact of bullets as he flings himself into the water, the surface closing over him, the lights receding, the abyss yawning underneath. Already his new body has assessed the damage, constricted the vessels around the affected tissues to restrict the flow of vital fluids. Enzymes work in the dead flesh, digesting it to amino acids and carbon compounds, absorbing them in the surrounding cells. Calhoun shuts off nonessential metabolic functions and focuses on movement and speed, his vague form scything through the inky water like a torpedo.
When he breaks the surface, the hauler is a speck of light in the distance, the sea a vast plain of black glass. Stars glisten in the sky like diamonds, each flare a marker on a journey as old as time. Something like nostalgia takes hold of Calhoun, a profound sense of belonging. But there’s no time to examine this feeling closer. He has fed recently, but the shapechanging consumes a tremendous amount of energy. With practice, he supposes he’ll get better at it. Right now his every cell cries out for nourishment, and he knows where to find it. He has the stars to guide him, after all.
Calhoun’s many eyes take in the firmament one more time, memorizing the stars, storing their positions away in the matrices of his mind. Then he’s back underwater, moving fast, aimed like an arrow at the warm, teeming ports due east, heeding a call only he can hear.