It stepped from the shadows, a slow, meticulous movement, in no hurry to reveal its presence to the crew of Seaview; not yet, its search not over, only beginning, its potential victims unaware, unprepared for what was to come. Silent and hidden from human sight, it continued forward, dark eyes searching for prey . . . for its next challenge.
Weeks full of painful monotony had forced its hand, the crew of Seaview creating an opportunity to ease its boredom . . . to satisfy the need to eat before the biting hunger became too aggressive, too controlling. Lack of extreme appetite allowed it to take its time, a leisurely pace; it would enjoy itself . . . it would enjoy the slow kill.
The slow coercion into insanity.
Stopping in the middle of the observation nose, it stood still, an impassive expression on its pale features. With a cold gaze, it continued to search the room, watching . . . probing, gaze resting for a few moments on each man before moving on to the next, each human stimulating its appetite. A wide variety of worthy choices, a hard decision to make but it had plenty of time to make it . . . plenty of time to choose. Hunger salivating, it took a single step, moving closer . . .
Such a choice.
Reaching outward, right arm stretching forward, it uncurled long, elongated fingers, revealing a small, black sphere. Tilted its hand, the ball rolling toward the edge of its fingers, falling . . . a sudden stop before the ball rose back into the air. Snapping forward, it broke apart, separating into dozens of smaller pieces. Each one familiar, recognisable if seen by Seaview’s crew . . .
A direct course, fat and heavy, they flew through the control room, intent on a single target, hovering . . . searching. Finding solid ground, flesh beneath their feet . . . they crawled over clothes, skin and hair, human features hidden beneath a blanket of black flies. A matter of seconds; unsatisfied they moved on to their next target, continuing to evaluate each member of the crew until they came to a tall human with dark hair.
Buzzing filled the confined area, a high-pitched tone, a sound of intoxicated excitement. They returned to the creature in the observation nose. Gathering into a circle, a tight embrace, the flies returned to the shape of a small sphere, rolling back onto the outstretched palm.
Fingers closing over the ball, a thin smile crept over its face, splitting its features, skin stretching, breaking open; an ugly grimace the result. Opened its mouth, a wide cavern. Snapped its mouth shut, white, blunted teeth grinding in anticipation.
It was ready to create fear.
It was ready to feed.
Lee Crane shivered, an uncomfortable sensation crawling across his skin. A feeling of someone watching him, he lifted his head, his body turning, gaze searching the control room for the source of the unpleasant reaction as it continued to make its way across his flesh. The crew focused on their stations, their jobs and nothing else, voices silent, no whispered conversations. The room was empty of strangers, of the abnormal, no alien forms lurking in the corner. Everything appeared to be okay but something wasn’t right, an instinctive hunch. A gut feeling.
Everything felt so wrong, so off kilter, unbalanced.
At the edge of his hearing, a soft hum, the sound growing in volume and intensity. Confident it wasn’t the engines of Seaview, Crane stepped away from the navigation table, from Admiral Nelson, his XO . . . the conversed details of the upcoming mission. Tilted his head to the left, his forehead creasing with concentration. It sounded like . . . no, that wasn’t possible.
The sound of buzzing insects, the noise now grating against his nerves. It echoed off the bulkhead walls, coming at him in every direction. Muscles contracting with irritation and pain, Crane turned in a full circle, feet shuffling a slow, silent dance. Time taken, his gaze searched every niche of the control room, the nose at the front of the boat . . . the areas full of shadows.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Nothing to cause him concern.
Everything so normal.
Only it wasn’t, acutely aware he was the only member of the crew to acknowledgement the unusual noise pulsating through the control room. He was the only man making a visual search for a cause, an explanation. He was alone . . .
Not the first time someone or something had singled him out, separating him from the rest of the crew, his mind and body used for an evil scheme. He was tired of it, of the lack of physical control, of an unbalanced mind, thoughts not his own: anger, hatred, a violent need to kill. It had happened too many times.
Wanted to convince his mind there was a chance it could be something else, something tangible, possible it was a faulty piece of equipment, a mechanical failure . . . knew he was only deluding himself, adapting to the situation by coming up with an acceptable and reasonable answer.
He should know better.
A change in the air, a thick weight on his shoulders as a strong odour began to fill the control room, the smell coating his sinuses; recognition just out of Crane’s reach and it nagged him to the point of impatience. So familiar . . . as though he’d experienced the odour too many times before but he couldn’t place it, couldn’t remember its origin. Unable to breathe through his nose, the odour so bad, he took short breaths through his mouth instead. His stomach rolled, shifting into a tight, uncomfortable knot of nausea.
Like a physical presence, Crane could feel the odour on his exposed flesh, an itch he couldn’t scratch. It stung his eyes, moisture forming, a protective coating. It burnt his lips, his tongue. Bile climbed the length of his throat. Sweat beaded his forehead, his upper lip, even in the unbiased temperature of the control room.
Realised with sudden clarity the noise had stopped, the smell dissipating until there was nothing left. He could hear the active sonar, the pings bouncing off empty waters. Hear the blood rushing past his ears, feel his heart pounding in chest. The only odour; the close quarters of too many men in one room, a mixture of aftershave and sweat. Recirculated air brushed across his skin, a delicate touch; a deep cleansing breath through his nose.
Everything else the way it should be.
Something had been wrong.
Something was still wrong.
Certain he’d heard his name, Crane spun back to face the navigation table, stumbling when he lost his balance. Regained a more confident stance only to find himself the focus of unwanted scrutiny, Admiral Nelson and Chip Morton staring at him, expressions full of impatience and curiosity. Like the rest of the crew, they didn’t acknowledge the loud noise that had been buzzing in the background or the foul odour no longer scenting the air. They appeared as though nothing had happened.
“Lee,” said Nelson, stepping away from the navigation table to face Crane, “What is wrong with you?”
Crane felt his muscles twitch with tension, Nelson’s tone holding a touch of frustration, annoyance, the quick temper that was so much a part of his personality. He moved back to the navigation table, resting his hands on the edge, a soft grip, the tension held at bay. A moment to think, not sure, what he could say to justify his actions. Honesty his only option, he couldn’t be certain they would believe his words, his explanation.
Took a breath, words forming . . .
Hesitation. He had to know if he were alone, if he had to fight through this situation without help, even though he was within the company of one hundred and twenty four men. He had to know if they were a part of it; the crew controlled by another force. He wondered – on more than one previous occasion – if he would feel more secure in his safety if he returned to active duty in the US Navy, less chance of injury, of aliens, sea creatures or mind control at five hundred feet surrounded by exploding depth charges.
An answer needed.
“Did you hear it?” said Crane, disbelief clouding his features, the doubt still trying to convince him he’d imagined it all. Experience warned him to disregard the nagging voice, his subconscious too quick to diagnose an acute case of exhausted paranoia.
“Hear what?” said Morton, frowning with confusion.
“You didn’t hear it?”
“Lee,” said Nelson as he stood beside Crane. He reached out, fingers brushing against Crane’s elbow, a display of concern, a change of attitude. “What did you hear?”
A sense of relief, of confidence in his friend. “A buzzing sound. Did you hear it too?”
“A buzzing sound?” said Morton, unable to hold the scepticism from his voice. “What kind of . . . buzzing sound, sir?”
Expression changing, becoming neutral, Crane kept his anger away from the conversation. Fingers found a tighter grip on the edge of the navigation table, fingertips pressing down against the hard surface, knuckles aching with the effort; a release of anger. Kept his mouth closed, unwilling to say something to Morton that would sway Nelson’s belief. It didn’t matter, Nelson taking it upon himself to say what Crane wouldn’t.
“Mr. Morton,” said Nelson, “are you suggesting Captain Crane is making this up?”
Morton stood straight, shoulders back, a look of regret on his features. “No, sir, of course not. It’s just . . .”
“A buzzing sound, sir?”
“Yes,” said Crane. “A buzzing sound. Like a mosquito or a trapped fly except there was more than one. It had to be dozens of them. You should have been able to hear them.”
“We didn’t hear anything,” said Nelson. “Are you positive you--”
“Yes,” said Crane, snapping his hand through the air in a display of anger. “I heard a noise that didn’t belong on Seaview.”
“It could be a medical thing,” said Morton, his body shifting back into a more natural posture.
Chip Morton. Always the optimist.
Crane shook his head and said, “No, it isn’t a medical thing.”
“Then what was it?” said Nelson.
“I don’t know what it was. I only know that it sounded like insects. There was something else, Admiral. There was a foul odour. The smell was like a . . . I don’t know,” said Crane, his voice rising in volume, his frustration palpable in his body language. Rubbed his fingers across his forehead, over his skull, pushing thick strands of black hair out of place. A loud release of breath, he lowered his arm, palm against his stomach, fingers playing with one of the buttons on his shirt. “I don’t know. I . . . I don’t know.”
“A smell?” said Chip.
Pressing his lips together, a subtle show of impatience, Nelson said, “Chip, go and check with the crew stations. Ask them if they heard or saw anything that can explain the noise Captain Crane heard.”
“Aye, sir,” said Morton as he moved away from the table, heading toward Kowalski at the sonar station, pausing as he passed Crane. “Lee, I didn’t intend to--”
Crane waved him off. “It’s fine, Chip, don’t worry about it.”
Morton nodded and continued toward the sonar station.
“Lee,” said Nelson, taking Crane’s elbow, leading him away from the navigation table toward the small table at the front of the observation nose. A more private setting, their conversation hidden from the rest of the crew. “Why don’t we let the doctor examine you just to be safe?”
Crane pulled away, snatching his arm from Nelson’s grip. “You don’t believe me.”
“I didn’t say that. Just because no one else heard the noise or noticed the odour doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I just think we should rule out a medical reason before we begin to look at other causes.”
“And if the other cause is an immediate threat to Seaview and her crew?” said Crane, taking a step back, away from Nelson. “We can’t waste time, Admiral. Not now.”
“Lee, I do believe you heard something. Whatever it was . . . is, I’m more concerned that it’s a threat to your health and one else on this boat. I think it would be best if you saw the doctor first.”
“There’s no need, Admiral. There’s nothing wrong with me, I feel fine.”
“You can’t be sure of that, Lee,” said Nelson, his shoulders slumping. Another tactic required. “If I had heard the noise and you didn’t, wouldn’t you be making the same suggestion? That I should go to sickbay.”
Felt the defeat, Nelson’s common sense turning the tide. Crane nodded as he rubbed his hand across his stomach. “You’re right, of course, Admiral, but I also know you’d refuse to go to sickbay until you ruled out everything else.”
“Touché,” said Nelson, a soft laugh escaping before his expression turned serious. “I could make it an order, Captain.”
“Yes, Admiral, you could,” said Crane as he crossed his arms over his chest. “And then I would have to refuse . . . Do I need to continue?”
“No,” said Nelson, body language silent, a moment of doubt before he expressed his feelings. Shoulders back, a determined expression on his face, he continued, “All right then, Lee, we’ll do it your way first, but I reserve the right to order you to sickbay if I feel it necessary. In the meantime, we’ll check for another cause and if we find nothing to explain the sound and the smell, you’ll go and see the doctor. Agreed?”
“Agreed and, Admiral . . . thank you.”
Nelson frowned. “For what?”
“For believing me. I wasn’t sure what you would think.”
“After everything we’ve been through over the last four years, anything is possible.”
“Including a brain tumour,” said Crane.
“You’ve been suffering headaches?”
“No. No. Nothing like that. I just--”
On the fringe of his peripheral, shadows shifted, a solid motion, Crane’s attention drawn toward the left corner of the observation nose. Nothing there but shadows and light. Gaze steady, he waited for repeated movement. Still nothing. Whatever had caught his eye remained stagnant.
“Lee, what is it?” said Nelson as he turned and followed Crane’s line of sight. Frowned in confusion before turning back to Crane.
Crane grimaced when the buzzing noise returned. A sudden explosion, an onslaught of sound piercing through his eardrums. Groaning in pain, his upper body bending forward, Crane slapped his hands over his ears to block out the sound. It didn’t help, the volume growing in stature, the pain increasing. He stumbled, knees buckling . . . felt trembling hands on his shoulders, a physical crutch holding him up, keeping him from collapsing to the floor.
“Lee! What’s wrong?” said Nelson, placing his hands on Crane before turning his head, his gaze toward the control room. “Chip! Get the doctor. Now!”
Morton hesitated before moving to the nearest intercom handset, snatching it from its resting place. The request for medical assistance given, he rushed back to join the admiral at Crane’s side, ready to support the ailing captain, to catch Crane if he fell any further.
An ache began to form at the base of his skull, spreading through the muscles in his neck as the level of pain grew. Short, sharp breaths through his nose, a rotten odour filling his sinuses. His stomach clenched with nausea. The bile returned to fill his throat. Too difficult to take a breath, it felt as though he were choking. Equilibrium broken, Crane lost all sense of balance, his world tilting at a sickening angle.
Something was seriously wrong.
Maybe Chip had been right . . .
A sudden stop.
The sound, the smell making an abrupt departure, so quick it left Crane feeling dizzy, faint. The pain remained, stationary in its level of intensity. Could feel a humming vibration in his ears. Legs weak, he lowered his hands, palms against thin thighs. Limbs trembling violently beneath his touch, Crane released a stuttering breath. He wanted to sigh in relief but couldn’t, the pain still there, the cause unknown.
Nelson stood still, eyes wide with concern, a hint of fear. Relaxing his hold, fingers no longer pressing into covered flesh, Nelson lowered his upper body, gaze searching Crane’s pale features, the hazel eyes. “Lee, what’s wrong? What happened?”
The pain was unrelenting, spreading past his ears and further into his skull. Skin and flesh stretched tight, Crane thought his head was about to split in two, explode at an outward angle. Heart pounding against his chest, a lump of fear in his throat, he struggled for breath.
“Let’s sit him down,” said Nelson nodding to Morton as he began to ease Crane toward the nearest chair, Crane collapsing down into it.
His strength gone, Crane fell forward, forehead making a painful landing on the table. Grunted in surprise and pain. Turned his head to the side, right cheekbone pressing against the hard surface. Looked into the concerned gaze of Admiral Nelson. Physical relief consumed Crane, the pain finally easing, a slow outgoing tide.
“Lee?” said Nelson, his impatience changing his tone, disguising his fear. “The doctor is on his way.”
“The noise . . .” said Crane, a need to explain. He didn’t need the doctor, certain there was no physical cause. Raised his left hand, pressing the fingers against his left temple, massaging the dull ache that had settled tight across his skull, his forehead. “It was too loud.”
“Lee,” said Morton, standing by Crane’s right side. “There wasn’t a noise. We didn’t hear anything.”
“I heard it,” said Crane, staring at Nelson, gaze imploring the man to believe him. “Admiral, are you sure you didn’t hear it?”
“I’m sorry, Lee. I didn’t hear it.”
Crane nodded in acceptance. “Did anyone hear anything?”
“No,” said Morton, coming around to Crane’s other side to sit on the edge of the table.
Refusing to look at Morton, Crane said, “Are you sure?”
“Lee, they didn’t hear anything other than the usual.”
“It can’t be mechanical,” said Nelson, crouching down beside Crane, right hand resting on the captain’s shoulder. “That rules out most things. Lee, I’m ordering you to sickbay.”
“There has to be something wrong with him,” said Morton, his insistence colouring his tone. “Unless . . .
“Unless what?” said Nelson, expression full of curiosity as he looked up at Morton.
“Unless we’re dealing with another alien and you have to admit, Admiral, they do have a tendency to congregate around Lee.”
“Too often,” said Nelson nodding in agreement and returning his attention to Crane. “Lee, I insist on the doctor examining you. He should be here in a moment.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” said Crane, adamant, insistent as he began to push his body upward off the table. Elbows weak, it took all his strength . . . everything he had. Vertigo, a nauseatingly slow passage of time . . .
A snap of movement in the darkened corner of the observation nose. Body frozen, limbs stiff, his gaze shifting away from Nelson, Crane watched as the shadows became active, moving with the motion of Seaview . . . back and forth. Back and forth, an unfamiliar feeling of seasickness. Neck muscles tight with tension, the dull ache still throbbing through his skull, Crane forced unfocused eyes to concentrate on the area containing some form of life; it had to be, no other explanation. Coerced, manipulated, controlled by something else; shadows didn’t move on their own initiative.
A solid shape stepped forward.
For too many desperate seconds, Crane feared he had actually lost his mind. But he understood, with regret, this wasn’t an illusion. It was real, as real as everything else they had encountered over the previous four years.
It looked human . . . almost, the slight difference enough to clench Crane’s stomach with fear, with dread. It wore human features, slightly crooked, out of place as though the owner was unaware of their correct positions. Like, a mask created, different pieces put together in a haphazard way; the nose not centered, the distance between the eyes too great, a mouth too wide set too far to the left, the thin lips almost invisible. A hairless scalp, the flesh pale, damp, an impression of illness. A dark coat hid its body from view, Crane grateful; if its body was anything like its face . . .
It was an unsettling image, too close to comical.
But, its most disturbing feature . . . the number of flies circling its head and upper body; too many too count. Buzzing in tandem, they moved too close together, clumps of insects hiding the creature’s face for seconds at a time before breaking apart, becoming individuals once again.
It stepped forward, the insects moving away, creating an opening, a doorway.
Smiled . . . a wide, thin gap stretching across its lower face.
Weakness forgotten, Crane stood up, too quick. Balance broken, he stumbled back, arms reaching out to grip the nearest available object for support. Admiral Nelson. Afraid he was going to fall, too vulnerable on the ground if the thing came even closer, Crane held on, fingers digging deep into flesh, a grip he was unwilling to release.
“What the devil . . .” said Nelson as he tried to pull his arm from Crane. “Lee! What is wrong with you?”
Unable to tear his gaze away from the creature emerging from the corner of the nose, Crane, knowing he would receive a negative response, said, “Do you see it?”
“See what?” said Morton as he stood up to his full height, his own gaze searching their immediate area. “What do you see?”
“That,” said Crane, nodding toward the creature . . . alien. He didn’t know what it was. Didn’t know where it had come from: the bottom of the ocean, another planet . . . another dimension, he couldn’t know. Not enough information to form an adequate answer.
Arm still in Crane’s tight grip, Nelson turned, standing beside Crane, blue eyes searching for the cause of Crane’s distress. “Lee, what do you see? Describe it to me.”
Shoulders slumping in disappointment, Crane said, “You don’t see it.”
“No, Lee, we don’t,” said Nelson, head turning to look to the control room. “Where’s the doctor! He should be here by now.”
“I’ll find out,” said Morton, moving away, back into the heart of Seaview.
Crane, hearing the words, understood Nelson’s intention. He released his hold on Nelson and stepped away from the admiral, a protective distance. Distracted, his gaze shifted away from the creature to look at Nelson, shook his head in denial and said, “It’s real, Admiral.”
“I believe you, Lee.”
“No. You don’t.”
“Look again, Admiral,” said Crane, turning his gaze back to . . .
It stood directly in front of him, fetid breath ghosting over Crane’s features. Lungs froze, breath catching in his throat. His heart pounded against his ribcage, a painful punch. Eyes wide, Crane could only stare as it lifted its right arm, fingers extended forward. Tried to move away, his limbs too heavy, too drunk with anxiety. Couldn’t understand his reaction; fear had never controlled his actions, only encouraged them. A quick conclusion; the creature was responsible for his inability to move, to react . . .
Feared for a moment it was reaching for Nelson.
“No,” said Crane.
It smiled, its head shaking from side to side. A single word whispered. “You.”
Fingers, a cold, confident touch, pressed against Crane’s forehead . . .
Dark emotions embraced Crane, a feeling of loss, of a life ending. A short, sharp breath, a sudden realisation, a premonition from deep within. He could feel his own life moving away from him, creating distance . . . a beginning to an end. A physical vacuum on his body, draining him of energy and presence; the need to sleep overwhelming. Closed his eyes . . .
Believing he was dead, Crane opened his eyes.
Found himself standing in the middle of a small room, the walls white, the ceiling low. If this was Death’s waiting room, it was too bland in its decoration. Couldn’t help but notice the severe lack of family relations waiting to greet him, to welcome him to the other side. Death wasn’t what he’d imagined; it deviated too far from his expectations, childhood stories . . . religion . . . this didn’t compare or compete with what he’d been told, what he’d been taught as a child.
Turned in a slow circle, gaze searching for a door, a window . . . something to allow him to escape the room. There was nothing, every wall the same, a solid obstacle. Nothing he could do, Crane already feeling claustrophobic, he moved to his left, sat down – his back to the wall – and waited.
For what, he didn’t know.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“Captain Lee Crane.”
Heart beating an erratic rhythm, legs trembling with sudden anxiety, Crane stood up. Keeping his back, his weight against the wall, he turned his head to look to his right. There was no change in its appearance, the creature wearing the same horrific mask, the same thin smile, its flesh coated in a layer of moisture.
He wasn’t dead. Removed from Seaview and taken to another location. He could be anywhere. If he was on another planet, another dimension . . . too difficult to find his way back home. A tight painful breath, his chest heavy with the burden of fear, an emotion he struggled to control. He didn’t understand, couldn’t understand; he’d seen worse, experienced worse . . . why was this any different?
Why was he so afraid?
“You do not understand.”
No, he didn’t. He was confused, afraid and as much as he wanted to question its intentions, to comprehend the situation he was in, Crane wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answers. He had no other choice, no other course of action, damn sure a physical confrontation would only result in injury, pain inflicted. He needed answers. A better understanding of what was at stake could provide him with a way out, an escape back to Seaview.
It could also confirm his worst fears . . . no escape, his life ending here, in this cold, impersonal room at the hands of a creature that could only have come from someone’s nightmare.
Trying to push the fear aside, Crane found his voice, only a slight resemblance to his usual confident tone and said, “No, I don’t. Why am I here?”
“I am hungry.”
Not an answer he’d expected. Understanding began to grow, acknowledgement he didn’t want to accept. Refused to listen to the suggestion . . . the violent images pushing through, revealing his ending, his life taken by a creature who wanted nothing more than to feed on his flesh . . . he shivered, body cold, mind attempting to retreat into darkness.
“No,” it said. “We do not feed on flesh.”
Crane couldn’t stop the thoughts, the questions, a single word from forming. “We?”
A nod. “Yes. We have no need for human flesh.”
Its statement finally filtering through his fear, Crane felt a moment of relief but the small voice at the back of his mind made itself known, a negative influence. If it didn’t feed on flesh, then what did it eat. His confusion grew, too many conflicting thoughts, too many questions created.
“What do you . . . eat?”
“We feed on fear.”
Putting on a front, a false bravado, Crane stepped away from the wall and faced the creature. It continued to smile, as though it knew what he was thinking . . . it did. It had repeated his thoughts, his words. More care needed, any plans for escape kept to himself . . .
“We are already aware of your intentions, Captain Crane,” it said. “There is no escape. Not for you. I am hungry and I will need to eat soon. Your fear will grow and when it does, I will feed.”
“You think I’m afraid of you?” said Crane, his question asked without strength, without conviction or belief. He was afraid, the fear beginning to control . . . becoming too aggressive. Legs still trembling, it was taking everything he had to stand straight, his shoulders back, an impression of bravery, an unplanned act. Couldn’t convince himself he was succeeding.
“Everyone is afraid of me. Including you, Captain.”
“You sound confident of that.”
It stepped forward.
His fear growing, Crane took a step back.
“We create your fear,” it said. “We control what you feel.”
“How? What did you do to me?”
It raised its right hand, fingers extending outward. The small black ball rested without movement in the center of its palm. Using its left hand, it nudged the ball forward, a slow progression before it rose into the air, hovering. The ball flew toward Crane, breaking apart as it gained distance . . . dozens and dozens of flies, the small room filling with the sound of insects. They found direction, moving outward, finding purchase on the walls of the room, covering them, turning white to black; left the ceiling and floor bear.
The same odour penetrated Crane’s senses, a returned feeling of nausea, of pain. Headache growing, the pain increasing beyond a tolerable level, Crane collapsed to his knees. Fear bit at his chest, decreasing his ability to breath. Pressed the heels of his hands against his ears, the sound becoming hollow . . . distant.
“I can taste your fear, Captain Crane.”
Not willing to give it an opportunity to feed, Crane fought to control his emotions, his fear. He couldn’t do it, disappointment embracing him, draining the very little strength he had left. Vertigo pushed him to the right, body falling, his side hitting the floor with a soft thump.
“It is the odour the insects create,” it said. “It causes fear in the human body. They help us to feed and once we do we allow the insects to take what’s left.”
His mind letting go, Crane began to laugh. This couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be real. But it was and there was nothing he could think of to do that would stop it. Stop it from feeding and giving his remains to the flies. A picture formed; his body decomposing, flies laying their eggs, maggots hatching . . . he felt sick.
He felt defeated.
“You understand now.”
He did. All too well. The odour, it was like a drug. Understanding why it was so familiar. There were hours, days when the sickbay on Seaview reeked with a similar smell. It was the smell of death, of sickness, blood and morphine. A nauseating combination.
This thing hadn’t caused his fear, relying on a drug to do its work . . .
The insects grew quiet, tranquil but the odour remained; a reminder of too many things he would rather forget. Of too many deaths.
The creature moved closer to Crane, stopping, looking down before speaking. “You think I am a coward.”
Pain subsiding, the nausea relentless, Crane made a valiant attempt to stand. Made it as far as his hands and knees. Couldn’t go any further, body weakened, strength no longer available. Settling back into a seated position, he lifted his head, his gaze.
“Yes, I think you’re a coward.”
Expecting a reaction, a confrontation, Crane held his breath, clenched his jaw, the muscles tight. He waited for physical contact, for it to strike out with a closed fist, its foot but nothing came. It stood above him, silent, Crane unaware of its intent.
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Then read my mind!”
“I want you to tell me. I want you to hear your thoughts spoken.”
“Why? What difference would that make?”
“That, I will not tell you.”
A feeling of anger, the emotion passing, the fear still dominant. “I’m only afraid of you because of the drug. Without it, my fear wouldn’t be this strong. It wouldn’t control me. And without that fear, you wouldn’t be able to feed.”
“How does that make me a coward?”
“You can’t create this fear on your own. You rely on other means because you know that without it, I would fight back with everything I am to escape from you. You’re more afraid of me than I am of you.”
Crane flinched back when it reached down toward him, couldn’t stop himself, afraid the creature was finally reacting to his words. A cold, damp touch against his forehead. It caused a spike of pain to tear through his skull. Pulled his head away, a quick, violent disconnection. A sudden result, the strong feeling of fear draining away.
For a moment, he felt empty of all emotion before the fear returned, not as strong, Crane able to control it, to use it to his own advantage. There was also anger, overriding the fear. Strength returning, Crane stood up and faced the creature. His gaze fixed, he refused to flinch away, to divert his eyes. Allowed his thoughts to correspond with his feelings, expressing his own intentions without the use of words, his voice not necessary.
The creature stepped back. “You fear me but not in the same way. Not enough to satisfy my hunger. I will not feed on a fear that does not exist in its own natural form. You have won the game, Captain Crane. You are free to go. I will find someone else.”
“No, you won’t,” said Crane, moving closer, a smile crossing his features when it stepped back from him. “You’ll leave my crew alone.”
“Do not goad me into something you will regret, Captain. Even if I were the coward you believe me to be, I can still kill you without the use of physical force.”
“But you won’t.”
“You are an arrogant man, Captain Crane.”
“You’re mistaking concern for arrogance. I’m very protective of my crew. If you try to take one of my men, I will do everything in my power to stop you.”
Crane refused to move back when it stretched its arm forward. Instead of touching his forehead, its long fingers reached around to the back of his skull. A tight grip on the back of his neck, pulling Crane forward, closer to the creature . . . too close. He could smell its breath as it opened its mouth. Knew with sudden realisation what it was doing. One last attempt to cause a natural reaction. Kept his fear under control.
“We will meet again, Captain Lee Crane. One day in your future, I will return.”
Lids heavy, Crane closed his eyes . . .
Opened his eyes.
Disoriented, Crane took a long moment to reacquaint himself with his surroundings. Everything familiar. Bulkhead walls, a soft thrum of engines, a slow movement of motion, faces he recognised: Nelson standing on his right side, close enough to offer comfort if needed; Morton behind Nelson, standing at the ready.
Seaview’s doctor perched on the edge of his vision.
Memories flashed through his mind, a slide show of ugly images. It had let him go, allowed him to return to Seaview. It had also threatened a second meeting . . . to take another member of Seaview’s crew.
He moved to sit up, strong hands pushing him back down onto a gurney.
“Take it easy, Lee,” said Nelson.
“I’m all right, Admiral. It didn’t hurt me.”
Nelson shook his head, a grimace of impatience. “We’ll let the doctor make that decision, Captain.”
The doctor stepped up to the gurney, stopping beside Nelson. “How do you feel, Captain, and please, be honest with me.”
Fought with his conscience, a moment of regret. Knew it would be more beneficial if he told the truth. “I feel fine . . . apart from a headache.”
“You must have hit your head when you fainted,” said the doctor.
“Fainted?” said Crane. “I didn’t . . . wait. I’ve been here all this time?”
“Of course. Where did you think you were?”
Seeing the doubt, the suspicion passing over the doctor’s features, Crane pulled his gaze away to stare at the shadows resting in the corner of sickbay. Had any of it been real? His body here on Seaview, a physical form lying unconscious in sickbay; in that small, white room in mind and spirit only. Had he imagined it all, his own nightmare creating the creature, the flies? The odour and noise? The pain?
“Do you remember what happened before you collapsed?” said Nelson as he placed a hand on Crane’s shoulder, a show of support, of trust.
“Yes,” said Crane, still watching the shadows, waiting to see if something existed within the darkness.
“What do you remember?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“You’ve never lied to me,” said Nelson.
“I’m not even sure I believe it.”
Turning to face the others, Nelson said, “I’d like a few minutes alone with the Captain.”
“As long as he stays where he is,” said the doctor. “I don’t want him up and about before I’ve given him a complete examination.”
“For a fainting spell,” said Nelson.
“I’m sure he didn’t faint for the fun of it, Admiral.”
“I didn’t faint,” said Crane, sitting up, pushing away the hands that tried to hold him down and swinging his legs off the bed. He felt too vulnerable lying down, in a position for restraint if the doctor decided the captain of Seaview had lost his sanity. “I’m fine and quite capable of sitting up without falling off the gurney.”
Nelson smirked, pride showing in the simple expression. “A few minutes doctor.”
The doctor nodded in reluctant acceptance and followed Morton as he left sickbay, closing the door on his way out; their privacy assured. Nelson turned back to face Crane, and said, “Tell me what you remember.”
Nodding, Crane told the admiral everything, his mind distrusting his own words. Described the creature and its intent in vivid detail. The white room. The insects. The odour it used as a drug to induce fear in its victims and the more he spoke, the more details he gave the admiral . . . his belief grew. Now certain it had happened.
“Do you believe me, Admiral?”
“Although it’s a fantastic story, I do believe you,” said Nelson.
“But do you believe it happened?”
“Yes, I do.”
“It said it would come back.”
“When it does . . . if it does, we’ll deal with it. Lee, it’s possible it was only making threats. It could have been another attempt to make you afraid of it without the use of the drug.”
It was possible it had been nothing more than a threat, Crane willing to believe Nelson’s assumption, the man rarely wrong . . . he had to believe it. If he didn’t . . . the thought of its return would ground him down into insanity.
“Lee, it’s over now. You’re back where you belong and without injury. Let’s be grateful for that.”
Crane nodded. “I am, Admiral. Believe me, I am.”