“Catherine? Please don’t leave me alone.” The modulated shiver of Simon Jarett’s voice was met with oppressive silence.
No, no, no, no…
The settling dread dissipated his spirit. In the yawning gap between seconds and eternity, he loathed her. It was unalike his previous urge to piston cracks along the Space Gun monitor; rather, an ebbing tide that shifted powerfully underneath his adopted skin like swelling undercurrents of the Abyss. Ironically, the singular emotion felt raw and bright, overshadowing his gel-induced wooziness. He felt alive: too little, too late.
It’s my project. It’s my ARK, she said. To the end, she stayed true to her word. It was hers. The only trace of her presence was a ringing malice that lingered stubbornly at the cups of his ears. He was nothing but the by-product of her success, cast aside at the bottom of the ocean.
The detached moments of companionship and sparse phrases of encouragement read as bitter lies. Jesus, he’d lapped her bullshit right up.
Prior confliction purged by a cool furore, he saw truth now, clear as day. Dangling the Ark in front of him like bait, she had goaded him into seeing the project through himself. What else would he have done? So desperate for a companion, for a second chance: it gave him the strength to inflict unspeakable agony to the scans in Upsilon and drown out his conscience with the manic desperation for escape. Faithfully led by the brunt of her manipulations, he’d pursued her selfish, vestigial desires, all for naught.
There was a certain quality to her persuasion that inspired belief. Self-confidence and conviction that came to sway minds, en masse. He was hardly the first to fall prey to her work. Despite the grandiosity in Mark Sarang’s preach of ascension, all he left behind was another incident for his colleagues to brush under the rug.
Lips twisted in bitter derision. While it seemed irrational, in comparison to this gorish Purgatory, even death would qualify as peace. Oblivion sounded wonderful.
He searched for the purpose that spurred him. The lamb-like naivety and suspension of reason. The lax fingers at his side, once curled tight against convulsing throats; throats that belonged to abominations that were well-known and loved, eons ago. Mouth curved in the satire of a loving smile, his eyes had burnt coal in fervour for an ephemeral reality. That conviction, sluggish current of blue-black blood through his system, had long bled dry.
Did Catherine ever believe in herself? Or did doubt gnaw at her guts with ever uncertain word imparted?
It was deplorable of him, but ire fuelled the flames of his imagination. His mind eked back to the memory of Catherine’s black box. The sound byte drew forth a sickening tableau with ease. Hammer swinging down in a tight arc, metal searing into soft ivory… The nausea grew down to his toes. If she was here to voice those selfish, selfish words: he would’ve made that same mistake, too.
Warring states of anger and self-recrimination overwhelmed him, ripping static from chords, ugly and bare. His being was brushed away by the easy strokes of ocean current. He no longer felt like Simon - that happy-go-lucky fantast from Toronto - only a binary of defective code that lacked equipment to procure tears. His agony remained unheard, defunct optics dry.
His sobs whispered memories of an extinct species; bluntly demarcating sorry remnants of human failure. His feelings, existence and identity: dying embers of a candle. He was well and truly alone.
His mind sparked in a hazy recollection of former ego. One that arose between grey, fluffy sheets a century ago, warmed lazy by the bars of sun that fell between wonky slats of crème blinds. That shitty existence in his cramped apartment, with inconsistent heating and peeling wallpaper...
Oh, what he would do to return to that life.
Ashley, Jesse and him, six bloodshot eyes fixated on an ancient TV box in the early hours, toes digging into the foamy give of a peeling sofa. The slanted table at the Grimoire, stained by grainy comic prints, leftover stains of pizza grease and dark rings of dried beer.
He missed them, harboured a persistent ache in his chest that made it difficult to breathe. The pictures scattered across his room, insignificant snippets of his life: a brimming mug of coffee; warm, pink toes thrust into white sand; pastel watercolour smears, blurring the meeting of sky and sea. They were joyful moments to him, once. It felt too arduous to recall those memories now.
He had held them so dearly, especially that photo, ink worn at the edges by the irritation of meddling fingers. Him and Ashley, smiling tiredly after a long shift at work, arms around each other, innocent and young. How much did he truly remember of those captures? After the accident, looking back upon those photos felt invasive; as if he was exploring the life of stranger, yet to be weighted by the heavy knowledge of mortality.
He saw it now, the sparse insights, that gradual dissolution. He’s been fading, ever since Toronto.
He aches with desperation to call relations to mind. For surely, there was more to his memory than that tiny flat. He rifled through, hoping to extract a hidden gem, entrenched deep along the grooves of his mind. But despite the strain on his faculties, it was impossible to procure any recognizable names, besides Ashley Hall, Jesse and Matt…Mike? Any face he attempted to reform in mind was confusing, veiled by artfully placed shadows. Only provided with aggravating glimpses, he’s teased by the form of a shapely jaw, crooked nose, and the sheen of delicately-rimmed glasses. Any voice he attempted to scramble together gradually regressed into imitations of static dissonance.
Memories slipped from the net of his mind like water through silt, pooling selectively in sporadic bursts, never quite enough to provide discernment. He felt as if none of the memories conjoined, as if realizing that the collection of his jigsaw pieces would only ever fit misshapen after hours of circumspect scrutiny.
Losing integral parts of himself and facing the ugly truth of his artificiality, was terrifying. Threatened by the gaping chasm of unending solitude and a futility of existence, it was that train of thought that teetered him along the fault of madness, paving way for cyclical doubt and self-critique.
This was the buzzing anxiety that tore into his nerves and composure of thought, akin the slow, torturous work of fire-ants. He felt restless, yet melancholic; alert, yet static. He was the formation of metal parts and electricity, but heaving for air underwater and mourning a life, already-lived. He existed as a bundle of faulty contradictions; messily human, yet everything but.
His chest ached something fierce. It was a physical weight that stamped his print upon the lining of his seat, solidified his limbs into heavy stone. He felt like the manuscript of his existence had been edited beyond recognition, doused blurry in water and crinkled into waste. An insignificant little mistake, gradually losing its identity and sanity at the bottom of the fucking ocean.
Optics translated the swirl of debris in the ocean. If he were offered the luxury of feeling that unyielding tide, alternating currents of heat and ice along his being - he would allow it to tear him apart, absolve him from the limbo of this tragedy. He’d allow the ocean to separate the decayed particles of Rayleigh Herber, until nothing remained besides the hull of a deformed suit. It would bring the end Simon Jarett.
No more legacy scans, no more abominations. Only never-ending silence.
It was an imagination he could afford losing himself in. He lay back, raised his gaze to the imposing column of metal that stretched until his eyes strained to see, and thought of nothing in particular at all.
aka. the chapter where Simon finally does something other than angsting in the comfort of his chair
The resiliency of the human mind was impressive. Regrettably so.
He remembered a past life that never belonged to him. Only a year ago, he watched a video and found amusement in the curious psychology of the human mind. Left alone in a room, with only a buzzer that would inflict pain upon contact, subjects would inevitably reach up to brush along that metal, mere minutes in. Despite full awareness of the consequences, their following shrieks of pain contained measurements of recrimination and pain.
As a casual viewer, it served its purpose as mild amusement; a small fraction of congested media. Yet now, it resounded with him, more so than ever in this bleak, unfamiliar landscape. He felt hypocritical about it, masochistic in his deliberation to spring into futile action once more. He formed part of that statistic of chuckling audience. But put in the same tight spot, and there wasn’t much to laugh at, now.
Mere moments after the unsuccessful upload to the ARK, Simon would have readily lay back in complacency, observed the small accounts of marine life that permeated the base from lack of repair and improper sealant with an apathetic air. It felt like an eternity since then. The pinching agony of repressing thought had slowly swivelled towards a determined search for anything to think of at all. Eyes trail to the dark screen. He desperately wanted to know the date. How long has he been here, in his self-imposed entrapment? Amongst the blank spaces in his mind, he could only speculate from the limited accounts of his memory. Otherwise, that formed another spiral of unhelpful conjecture.
It was distressing, to not feel as helpless about the situation as he should’ve. It stung; he wanted to cling to the angst and self-pity, to drown himself in that senseless emotion. It was in his nature; this emotional, messy thing he was. His grandmother’s funeral – he was six, too young to understand the implications of death in full, but scared and disturbed enough to cry until he choked on breath and upturned his stomach over the fuzzy stretch of a blue-grey carpet. When he was fifteen, fracturing his tibia playing hockey, bemoaning the cast, the wait at the hospital, the inconvenience of crutches and everything in between. It evoked a bitter-sweet derision. He’s so far from that now, yet the mental vices have come back around to haunt him.
He envisioned himself as the subject of a psychology test. What do you feel when you see this image? What do you feel, Simon? Well, can you? The deliberately flat tone would probe. The answers that flooded his mind felt indefinite, unsure. Even the well-adjusted would find it difficult to rationalize their feelings - how could he, an antiquated scan of a traumatically-injured brain, be expected to do any better? Yet, from the pale sludge of thought in his frail mind, the words ‘resting’ and ‘peaceful’ arose. They were not words he would have associated with Pathos-II, but now they existed, as a tentative and new-found truth.
He saw where Azzaro had been coming from, the cute little details of her drawings as she sat there, surrounded by the horrors of ocean and weighed down by the heavy knowledge of a lifeless world above her. He too, felt safety in imagining himself as a passive observer, removed from the immediacy of the problem via a lens, forming but an insignificant mire along the ocean floor. In his lack of functionality, he gained an ironic freedom.
Lips downturn. He could hardly bear to escape pathology of his thoughts. Whilst the situation was irreversible, exacted upon him beyond will, there sounded a voice, remarking the uncertaintes of his pinkened and subdued form. How much of this desire for action was due his newfound life as a scan? He doubted that the Simon Jarrett from Toronto would feel remotely the same as he did now. He’d have given up, ten times over. Yet the new and improved Simon was subsumed by that relentless, machine-like drive, summoned boiling and frothing within his vessel, a smoking pot ready to overflow.
He felt restless. He wasn’t done, couldn’t be; he refused sit here in an idle wait for death’s clutches. It incited an anxious buzz in him, persuaded him to do something, anything. What exactly, he wasn’t sure, but there had to be better ways to go. Die swinging, searching for the next hurdle (and the next, and the next), rather than lose consciousness to the rhythms of the current.
He bit his lip.
He could scarcely believe it, yet…
…he peeled himself from the chair. Despite his artificial limbs, he’s unable to shake the phantom aches and pains that came with being stationary for too long. A sense of vertigo kicked in as water tugged him conversely, resetting his centre of gravity, weakening the lock of his knees. Holding onto the chair that contained him for a minute age, he settled a hand over his eyes. Drew a breath.
Jerking his head askance, he squinted at the garbled text on the omnitool. Gratefully, he found it still intact and working, despite the accumulation of debris within the dome, after launch. The screen still flickered. While the content was near indecipherable, the length of the chip name was clearly distinguishable from the default Helper Jane application. At least Catherine’s chip was still being read, somehow. He blew out a shaky breath. Thanked god for small miracles.
Gingerly, he extricated her from the port, as if defusing a bomb. With chances so slim at regaining a companion in midst of this nightmare, he wanted to maximize his chances of reviving her, which were already slim to none, judging by his limited knowledge of the new era’s technology.
Cradled to his chest like a security blanket, he slowly made his way off the platform with Catherine, taking shaky steps along the walkway towards the depressurization chamber. He didn’t resist the urge to turn back, to mark the ghost of a climactic ending of joy he experienced, ephemeral and light. One last look at the chair, now consisting of a smudge of tan lines in the distance, blurred by the murkiness of ocean. The circular opening, awash with electric lights, illuminating the final stage upon which the vestiges of humanity were sent hurtling towards orbit. Forever, amongst the stars.
If this were a book, it would have been the last page, he thought bitterly, noting the poetic justice that failed to mirror in his reality. It felt peculiar, to have a hand in that greatness, yet suffer the mundane horror of the aftermath.
The hope of fixing Catherine, of plugging her into a port and seeing that welcoming wash of aqua blue, was a nugget of hope his addled brain gripped onto. Despite his frustrations, loneliness was a sharp, hungry thing. Out of selfishness and spite, he didn’t want to suffer the rest of eternity alone. To shatter Catherine’s happy ending and to hear her voice scream expletives at him once more would render him the happiest man alive.
It took a few heart-stopping tries to brush the omnitool into the holder for a proper reading, finally it allowed access, sliding open with a jerky motion as the capsule ballooned with water. As it drained, he felt sluggish and heavy, in need of acclimatization with the introduced gravity. He noticed the heavy weight that pressed his soles, firm now, into the mesh hashes of the walkway.
Slowly readjusting himself to Phi, he noted how alien the site seemed to him. Like a moth to flame, he was drawn towards the donut-shaped control centre, where soft, comforting glows emitted from heavy-set monitors, sluggish and electric blue.
According to the blocky timestamp, he’d only been in Phi for a fortnight, at most. He didn’t know how to feel about that.
Heart palpitating wildly in his ears, he docked the omnitool into the terminal. The display flashed, attempted to load file://cxet-2!-//@2-^h£n, before defaulting to the static murmurs of Helper Jane’s voice. He brushed an idle finger over the line of garbled text, painstakingly slow. He remembered when he first found her, how legible the file-name had been. How he had missed her deterioration? The acid bite of grief stings in his nose, and sends a tremulous wave through the hurt of her betrayal.
Error EXT_READCTX570: Cortex Chip corrupted.
“Shit!” He hissed between a frustrated grit of teeth.
Okay. So it wasn’t the monitor’s issue as he’d hoped. The fragmented screen made the instructions hard to decipher in the launch dome, but the issue was now clear.
He felt the ghost impressions of his teeth as they dug gouges into a fleshy lip. Arms grasped at elbows, a mockery of self-comfort. Panic surmounted.
Fuck. He was actually alone. Catherine’s just...she was gone.
He felt himself panicking, sank down to the ground against the terminal, as if that physical connection could ground him, lead him to a solution for the mess he committed to.
Metal registering as cool and welcome on the crook of his neck, it evened his breathing and brushed fog from his mind. He debated on removing Catherine’s chip to study the extent of damage, but the fear of the breaking the chip to pieces within clumsy hands subsumed him with paralysing fear. The low-dexterity of his diving suit permitted him to do so much.
He floundered, attempting to delay the inevitable, refusing to pinpoint the obvious solution amidst the chaos – the only solution he could reach for, at this stage: structure gel. He considered the chance of an unfavourable response, of being forcibly pulled back from the brink of death, reanimated and zombified, yet it was not a debate he entertained for long at all. Pushed to the brink of death in this strange little bubble of purgatory, he’s past respecting the sanctity of life, to allow the dead to rest. It was a grim thought, to be so feral in his pursuit of inflicting another with the same pain he withstood, yet it was the only thing that kept him sane, shielded him from the flirtatious grasp of miserable death.
The site was still relatively intact, but it wasn’t without its deposits of petroleum-esque liquid. He easily located a dripping corner, and with the help of a conveniently placed pen, gouged at the protective protein-layers of sacs, hoping to strike dark liquid. He didn’t manage to extract much, only left with dark flakes and stains along the tube of the pen. Not nearly close to enough of what he required to fix Catherine. It felt absolutely infuriating. Only weeks ago, the goo dripped with a violent abundance, yet now, when he so sorely needed its assistance, it ran dry. He dragged the pen along the memory card slot - a desperate, stupid movement - and it does nothing but stain the outer casing and tingeing the opening dark.
He grit his teeth, before trying the panel again out of bull-headed determination. Same text, ERROR. It accused him, lingered a dark stain across the screen and his conscience. He wasn’t proud of those final moments. Removed from the situation, he understood his aggressive outburst for what it was. He had been perfectly happy to lose himself in the delusions of her speech when it was all working out. When the illusion dispelled, he had turned to find an easy target, and pinned all the blame on her.
The accusations that departed his lips held an aftertaste of cyanide, poisonous and raw as they crashed into her. How did she feel? As he ripped into her with those disingenuous words. They’ve dissipated so quickly, effaced like clouds after a light afternoon shower upon her absence – Christ, he missed her.
After a moment’s deliberation, he removed the omnitool and slotted it into the holster lining his belt. All hope wasn’t lost just yet. He remembered the amount of gel he’d used for his own transition between bodies and tightened his grip imperceptibly on the electronic brick. There hadn’t been enough of it, meaning that there was still a chance that she could be fixed. He would just have to find more of it.
Would it even be possible? He reached a trembling hand upward to trace along an opened map of Pathos. The path he’s taken, and the path he planned back. Relatively short, yet…all those monsters, those transformed humans – he wasn’t sure that he’d survive all that, a second time.
Hope was a dangerous, little thing, and even compared to the burden of relive a transient nightmare, despite his awareness of the tragic fates that befell at Pathos, it was scarily worth it.
The least he could do was apologize to Catherine, right? To leave her, suspended mid-sentence, with her voice staticky from shouting, would be plain cruel.
He steadied himself, stepped back from the terminal. Back to Tau it was, then.
thanks for reading! :)
a familiar face
Chapter-specific warnings: gore, swearing, violence
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Exiting Phi, he remained weary, optics darting about in a panicked lookout for predators. However, with the absence of distorted vision, he felt secure in venturing forward. All was quiet save for his meandering thoughts, and the water was clear and calm. Whilst the aquatic life’s sudden change of demeanour sparked up suspicions, it came as a great relief, nevertheless. Bioluminescent organisms were sparsely scattered along the journey back, darting forwards with sluggish purpose. They were easy enough to avoid; but when impossible, he merely clung to the glow of warm bulbs, allowing them to encircle him in a safe perimeter. As unwelcome brightness doused blind eyes, the dangers recoiled. They retreated into the unknown, tails shining blue as they sliced jerkily through the water, diminishing blots, until his eyes strained to see.
Despite the uneventfulness, the psychosomatic terseness of his breaths sounded eerily loud in the silence, alerting him to a claustrophobic solitude. Pluming bubbles of air teased the corners of his vision, simulating the gorish figures of his nightmares and inciting tremors from the placebo effect of adrenaline. Yet, every step drew him closer to his destination, and his commitment grew stronger with the inching progression. The niggling ‘what if’ that plagued his mind was gradually cast out by resolution. Every step brought him closer to Site Alpha, and the safety of the structure called to him and pushed worries from his mind. It felt easier with nothing to lose. As Alpha loomed over him, he steeled himself to confront the horrors he wished to forget.
Midway, he paused and angled his gaze towards temptation – towards Tau. A bunch of supplies were buried there, sealed bags of purified structure gel, stun batons, power packs… The structure rendered an imposing blockiness in the brackish water, cutting through gentle slopes of the marine landscape. He stood there, wraught with hopeless deliberation, yet the dark unknown of the required trajectory had him shivering. It would do him no good to wander off.
He felt as if he were grasping at straws, acting like a stubborn cockroach, caught in a helpless, sticky trap, too stupid to lay down and die. Yet, there was a part of him, still inflamed by hope and too dissatisfied with his situation to surrender.
Survive and adapt , his mind supplied.
A step, another, five, tripping over the chunkiness of his boots, and he’s back in the glow of safety.
And again, and again.
He soon found himself in front of the doors to Alpha, and trepidation built within him. He didn’t choose to kill the WAU, and a part of him still warred with that decision. To sacrifice his arm at that point would’ve meant being exposed to the pressures of the ocean without a operating diving suit; effectively, it would have amounted to suicide. Now, with his goal complete, he deliberated. Would it be apt to end the WAU now? Perform the ultimate revenge and proclaim his last ‘fuck you’ to fate, to let the last bits of humanity die, with WAU alongside it?
He grimaced, shook his head at the fanciful thought. He doubted if he had the guts to make that decision.
He took a breath as the chamber depressurized, prepared himself for the wreckage within.
As doors slid open, the sight that met him was unexpected. Site Alpha was not how he left it. The glowing blue of the WAU had dimmed significantly, the furious dripping quelled by half. The core appeared to have withered, no longer slick with its own secretions, a dry husk that barely retained its original shape.
The lack of interference had lulled him into a façade of comfort, and when he tripped over something, the bump of a leg of all things, he lurched horribly, stumbling away from the wizened remnants of a monster that once haunted him, took reign of his thoughts and coaxed unwanted suggestions to mind. A strangled scream almost erupts from the clench of his throat, yet by some form of will, he remained static, bristled and tensed, fists gouging pressure into the pads of his diving suit.
“ You .”
His voice wasn’t the strong, hostile thing he wished it to be, yet the slumped entity twitched, a recognition of his weak accusation
When it – he spoke, the voice that emerged was not the resonant boom he was familiar with. Rather, it sounded relatively normal, raspy and weak, without the added effects of reverberation that used to clench at his mind. Though, the body it emerged from was anything but. Upon closer inspection, the figure looked like a foil from a horror game, disfigured and rotting. Simon was keenly aware and absurdly grateful that he had no olfactory receptors to smell with.
The voice rasped, triumphant, “It’s dead. I did it…!”
He was mottled with the WAU’s liquid, sprayed dark with a petrol-black and wrapped elaborately by chitinous casing. In hindsight, it wasn’t that surprising for Simon to have overlooked the slumped form.
“Good for you.” He snapped, patience at low.
He much preferred to whirl around and leave the thing be, ensnared in the cloying embrace of solidified gel, melded into the scab of the WAU’s drying wounds.
“Good for me ?” The voice was faint, but coloured with evident incredulity. An all-too-familiar anger kicked in as well, moments later. Simon stood ground, faced that disorienting timbre despite the fear it lanced through him. “My solution was fail-proof, and you screwed me over.”
The words are spat with a humanoid furore, and Simon takes a small comfort in that. Still, he dropped his gaze from the gorish body, still associated with his deepest fears. Subsumed by a cocktail of emotions, it takes a while to piece the meaning of those words together, in form of an impossibility.
Simon’s blood ran cold.
He sounded miles away, eyes accusatory as they snapped back to the remains of Johan Ross, petrified as one with Carthage’s creation.
“The fuck are you on about?” The shock sent him into impulsivity, arousing a brashness that surprised him.
Without a purpose to live for, it’s dangerously easy to let go of trivial worries and act without consideration for the consequences.
Ross laughed, bitter and faint in Simon’s mind, causing him to jolt at the unfamiliar sound. Liquid trailed from appendages as the misshapen face shifted, dislodging dried flecks of blackish-blue. It incited a faint desire to vomit despite the lack of a functional digestive system. The gloating lilt to Ross’ mirth, however, summoned enough anger to quash it.
Before he was aware of actions, he forced the brunt of his sole into the mass of Ross’ tubings. Vibrations skittered along his foot, as a brittle crack sounded. A dislodged piece of Ross’ nose flew into the hulk of his body, and Simon heard him choking on the bone. Absurdly, he gagged. Though he had nothing in his stomach to throw up, it evoked that same, unpleasant feeling, all the same.
“Ever since waking up in that godforsaken chair, I’ve been caught up in all your stupid, little games.” Simon snarled, swallowing his nausea. The aggression was therapeutic; he wasn’t just addressing Ross, now. He was itching for a fight, hoping to explode at anything or anyone that would pay him attention. Fuck Catherine, fuck Ross and fuck Pathos . He’s done with cowering in fear. He just wanted to know the truth. “Explain. I deserve that much.”
Ever since his awakening, he’d been led around by the left-over desires of the deceased. If this was another fantasy, he wanted no part in it.
Ross gasped, a wheezing inhale from the gap of his nose. He didn’t appear as cheerful now, Simon noted with a savage satisfaction. Yet, in the state he’s in, bound in calcified liquid, he hardly acknowledges the pain.
“Huh.” A pause, “so you didn’t know. Carthage has other operating bases. I thought Catherine would have told you.”
“No.” The refute was automatic, not harsh but punched out his lungs in sheer disbelief. Despite the dissent, his gears were sent whirring into motion. Catherine...knew? Ross had no reason to lie to him now. He shook his head, betrayed and filled with horrified disbelief, “all the sites went dark, way before the WAU malfunctioned.”
He remembered the flurry of notes in Upsilon, scattered across the damp floors. The horror he felt, at being the last person ‘alive’. If that wasn’t true…he’d yet been tugged along by the force of an assumed truth, for naught. He’d done all of this bullshit, and for what? Dimly, he was aware of his shaking.
“Nope.” He’s trussed tight, an atrophied formation of bare bones, yet somehow, Simon could imagine that he’d shrugged by the blasé chirp of his tone. The genial expression was in such incongruence to his deformities, that it startled him. He recalled the faded photograph he saw in Tau. Crow’s-feet on warm skin. The pink hue of a living being, running hot with red blood in their veins. Ross was once human, too. He mulled over the thought with much discomfort.
“I’ve checked – their lines are all active. I’ve been trying to find a way to establish contact, but the WAU had blocked us off.” Simon’s brows furrowed. Wasn’t that a minor hiccup in Carthage’s design. “After Impact, the WAU re-defined the parameters of facilitating human life. I assume it thought that blocking off all contact would provide a more sterile and predictable environment for it to moderate.”
Simon was sickened by the way Ross talked, reserved and detached, as if unaffected by the WAU’s casual destruction. He couldn’t quite manage to keep the ugly sneer from his tone, “so that was what it was. A glorified, underwater lab test.”
Anger felt clean, arriving in a sharp, merciless burst that startled his very conscience. He was never a violent person, but trapped in this hellscape, he had the vague wish of surrendering to the simplicity of it. It was the only emotion that felt real, as he drifted between bouts of feverish dream.
The extrusions along his body and profile were grotesque, but it didn’t quite hide the pride Ross felt for Carthage and the indignation at Simon’s words. Emotions dripped from his physique, impossible to miss.
“No. Carthage wanted to save humanity. To bring on the start of a new, evolved life.”
“Like this?” Simon gestured to their surroundings with a jerk of his arm, disgusted. “You’re crazy. You’re all crazy.”
“Of course not.” The voice has the gall to sound incredulous, disappointed. “CI wanted to preserve the drive and intelligence of the human mind. The issue is that we’re weak. Improving our bodies so that we could withstand the insane environments post-Impact was our priority.”
“Yeah, alright. So how’s that been going, so far?” Simon couldn’t keep keep himself from mocking. He’d been caught up in fanatic ideas before. It would genuinely break him, to set his hopes on yet another fabricated desire, another set of tempting words.
Ross pressed on, undeterred, “the WAU is essentially dead. In months, the electromagnetic force that it’s been exerting should power down. If we can find a way to contact Carthage before the site shuts down completely, we could. We could let them know about this.”
Before him lay a creature that haunted his mind with an all-consuming horror, that dredged rational thought from him with every reverberating sentence. But now, seeing him weak and beaten down, he looked pathetic, human . The earnestness in his voice, the subtle inflexions of his tone; it mirrored that unquenchable, desperate hope that fuelled his every movement. What Ross tempted him with was everything he so achingly wished for, handed to him on a silver platter: purpose, companionship, a chance of hearing another voice, be it Catherine’s or a monster’s… It was irritating, but he itched with the desire to believe him.
Ross took his silence as a cue to continue.
“There’s should be a window of time during the EM decay that’ll let us contact them. If they watched out for the early warning signs, they’d be able to avoid all this.”
“How can I even believe you?”
Though, Simon already knew that it wasn’t a matter of belief, but desperation, the slightest hint of a chance. He desired for that too, to do something that would actually make a difference.
He felt himself slipping, losing himself to that same argument again.
He believed in Dr. Munshi, thought he could become whole and alive again. He never thought that he’d end up with his head aching so badly that he could barely stand.
He trusted Catherine, when she said that they could have their happy ending, find happiness amongst the stars.
He’s no stranger to being fooled.
As the saying went, twice was a coincidence and thrice, a pattern.
He swivelled his lens towards Ross. He was vibrating with tension, peering up at him, expectant.
“I can’t.” Ross deflated, expression sullen, angry. He jerked back, turning away from him, defeated.
Simon took a breath and continued, “I can’t do this alone. We’re getting you out of…that.” He pointed to the WAU’s viscera, grim, “then we’ll talk.”
certain points of interest:
1. simon's aggression is due to the degradation of his mental state, he's gradually becoming more monster-like as time goes by, and forgetting memories, faces as time goes by
2. catherine didn't actually betray him - ross told catherine about it when they met up in phi, but that happened after catherine was scanned so she didn't know anything about it. ross isn't too clear on the details of how it works, so he assumed that she knew and told simon about it
feel free to ask me qs!
“What’s the plan?”
The gel chipped slowly under his rough ministrations. It felt oddly satisfying, to tear and scratch at the bindings.
“We get to Upsilon.”
Simon’s heart sank, “last I was there, the comm room caved in and flooded.”
Ross emitted a sharp hiss of air between tubings, causing them to shift erratically in their confines. His face twisted in a grotesque slant, as if he were attempting to draw down his brows without the necessary equipment. Simon turned away.
“Omicron, then. We’ll have a chance there, too.”
Simon nodded, but could taste bile at the mention of returning. The other Simon was there. Relief was an ugly thing, but as it viciously burrowed into the nooks of his pores, he couldn’t afford to feel bad at all.
He’s glad he ended that iteration of himself.
It was absurd, but he’d rather face the WAU’s monsters a thousand times over before coming face to face with himself. The terrors he’d endured in the Abyss turned him into a stranger. If he’d left Simon alive, what would his reaction be? A pair of familiar hazel eyes would stare at him with hot betrayal, finally recognizing him for the stranger he’d become.
He wasn’t the part-timer at the Grimoire; the halycon son who couldn’t face reality; the friend who was the life of the party, but hazy-eyed and distant as topics grew serious. That man had been too young and dumb to leave positive impression on the world. The only news clippings of him weren’t of championship titles or academic awards; instead, they outlined the tragic tale of his carelessness, of his inability to do the right thing when it had mattered the most.
However, they were blessings in disguise. Sure, he’d been useless and forgettable, but not mean-spirited and cruel. Ashley’s death remained the thickest veil over his conscience, more so than any of his actions did here. Realizing that the only alternative to death had been the confines of Pathos fizzled all the difficulties away. Each life he took was done so amid the haze of a nightmare.
Could those Simons have parsed what became of him? This perversion of who he was, a century out of time? His hesitation to answer was telling. He’d done what he had to, but it’d disfigured his silhouette in the process: he hardly recognized his own reflection, now. Whilst retaining the namesake, he was decidedly not Simon Jarett. Not anymore. Not the one from Toronto, or even, the version of himself he’d left dead at Omicron. He existed beyond them, a series of zeros and ones, of unknown variable.
Meanwhile, Ross hadn’t deterred by his lack of response. Instead, he’d turned his efforts to casting off the repercussions of entrapment. It was a struggle for him to rise to his feet, limbs shaky like a newborn colt as he extricated himself from the organic prison. The rhythmic clanging of his efforts had broken Simon’s train of thought.
Simon couldn’t bear to touch him, even as he staggered and fell. The very sight of his withered face still brought the acetic tangs of fear and anger to his mind. Rather than attempting to summon any degree of guilt, Simon allowed him plenty time, turned his attention towards the opening hatch with a methodical slowness, mentally carving their route into the ocean.
As the scrambling thuds on metal ceased, Simon cracked the hatch open. As Ross proceeded to seal them in, the silence that followed within the stuffy space weighed upon him. He’d dealt fine by keeping his distance, but with the limited space between them, they were packed in like sardines. Ross’ presence loomed over him, and even with his eyes squinted near shut, his breaths echoed all-too loudly, and soon they weren’t heard at all. Breathe , he reminded himself forcefully. Mechanically, he forced himself to draw one, ballooning the depths of his lungs.
Deciding that there were more preferable things to do then practice urinal etiquette, he searched blindly for conversation, desperate to set the mounting anxiety out of mind.
“Are you sure that Carthage Industries is still in operation?”
“Their oscillation damping is state of the art. If this happened at CI, they’d manage to contain it.” Ross said over the hiss of flooding water.
“And the lines are still active?”
“Last I checked.”
“Weeks ago.” The words were too instigative to pass off as a casual remark.
Ross fell silent.
Simon was still smarting, from loss or betrayal, he was unsure. Reflexively, he reached up to grip tight at the omnitool, as if the physical connection with Catherine could calm his emotions, his breathing. It wasn’t as if he’d expected Ross to attack him, after all that time it took him to get him onboard with his plan.
He’s not sure what he expected, exactly, but it wasn’t, “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
The planitive quality to that voice incited a reflexive apology, one which he hurriedly swallowed. His inflexible Canadian roots were extremely uncomfortable with the impoliteness, yet with all Ross had done, he had no right to attempt to curry favour. If he sounded slightly snippy, so be it. He didn’t owe him anything. He bit down on whatever he had to say, and they’re washed in the lull of silence again.
Thankfully, it’s short lived; the doors slid apart at it, and he wrenched the omnitool out of the socket milliseconds after it pings, channelling the brunt of his frustrations, “let’s just keep going.”
Sticking faithfully to the lights, they’ve methodically inched their way towards the halfway point in no time at all. For once, things seemed to be looking up. However, he’s taken his previous luck for granted and assumed that they could walk along the perimeter of Tau and continue straight to Omicron with the added safety of floodlights. Yet, the subtle pulse of a headache gathered at his temples as they drew near.
His hackles rose.
“Wait,” he hissed, stretching an arm out to halt Ross’ progress. The latter needed no warning; he’d faltered in his tracks too, alert and scanning the distance with intent. Simon’s so hyper-focused on spotting signs of bioluminescence on the horizon that when a hurtling mass dashed through the space they were stood at mere seconds ago, nearly brushing the edges of the diver’s suit, he jolts horribly.
In two quick, furious strides, Simon crossed the remaining distance, allowed the drift of the current to push him closer towards the inviting patch of intense light. Ross is right at his heels. Slamming pulsations of fear racketed in his chest. He tensed, eyes straining to lock onto a glowing target, yet all lay still. As if suspended at the top of a jumping machine, waiting for the air to be punched out of him, his entire body felt tight, wound up like a music box. At least they would be safe here, until -
Thwack ! A meaty body cuffed him right along the jut of his helmet, echoing loud in his mind as he’s forced to stagger forwards, body contorting stiff with fright and shock at the sudden contact. Was it not evading the light like the others…?
Simon sank into a crouch, wedged a foot into the sandy bottom, reading for the altercation. Two, three seconds of silence and baited breath, before Simon swore he could hear the slicing of fins through eddying water as it swivelled around for another bite.
He whipped around to his six o’clock, and the sight that met him was no less horrifying than most. It wasn’t a regular-looking creature, by any means, but there was no trademark bioluminescence to be found along the girth of its scales. It thrashed into their path with the subtlety of a hurricane, too fast for him to dodge. Froth streamed from the corners of its gaping mouth, conjoining with the trail of bubbles that leaked from its gills. Teeth gleaming umber in the lights, it was poised to attack.
Simon loosened a shout of terror and indecision, and brought his hands up to shield his face. Reacting on pure reflex, he flung a clenched fist outward in a manic desperation to push it away, and punched it straight in the gills, mere inches away from its crazy-looking teeth that clamped shut with a definitive snap. Swirls of water sprinted along the length of his arm, flattening the material of his diving suit to his borrowed skin. Half-crafted imaginations buzzed in his mind, if he’d struck out two degrees to the left...
It’s a marvel that it worked. His hand stung from connecting with thick flesh; with shock and water pressure working against him, he’s positive that the punch didn’t do much harm at all. Yet, the shock of the attack seemed to momentarily stun it. It fell back, giving them a decent breadth, as if deterred from veering into their course again. It circled directly into the glow of the lights, allowing Simon a better glimpse of it. There was a terrific gash on its side, leaking mushroom-clouds of blood, muddying the water. It’s appendages flailed in an erratic course, as if were drunk on its pain.
He doubled the pace after that, almost running; despite the imagined stitch in his side, he didn’t allow himself the mercy of a rest. Already, he felt the sensation of its beady eyes trailing their progress, as if waiting for another chance to catch them off guard. It was licking at its wounds and they had no time to waste – they needed to get to safety, before it attempted to strike again. They wouldn’t be so lucky the next time.
Though Ross remained silent, he was obviously shaken up, advancing at Simon’s spartan pace without complaint: reaching safety was their first priority. The mouth of Site Tau’s tunnel system invited them, and despite the horrors that awaited them within, Simon’s relief was tangible. Rather than attempting to walk around it and head straight for Omicron, they would be miles safer where the wildlife couldn’t follow. Simon’s pants were loud in the cramped space.
“It must have been hurt pretty badly,” Ross said, hushed, after their breaths had evened out. “Deep sea creatures are usually sedentary.”
It was simultaneously comforting and distressing, to remember that Ross was following right behind him. He’d almost forgotten the presence until the unwelcome voice bloomed in his head. He attempted to contain a jump, but it must’ve been a piss-poor effort.
“You’re not a biologist.” The anger and close quarters kept him a constant edge, already, he felt his heart kick back up again, loud and unrelentless. “If you haven’t noticed, nothing is usual anymore. Everything within the radius of the facility would’ve been affected by some degree of contamination.”
Another thought jumped to mind, not at all purged of recrimination, “how did you get around the place so easily before?” He could’ve at least helped.
“The WAU,” the voice is so filled with such a bittersweet dissonance that Simon unwittingly turns to gauge him, petty bitterness forgotten, “it was channelling most of its electromagnetism through me. I’m not sure what it wanted to achieve, but no other creature had the same control I did, so it was easy to get around. Not so much now.”
Simon imagines the throbs of electromagnetism, running hot and unrelenting through his veins, a white, constant haze of pain. He winced. It must have been head-splitting agony. Unending torture.
“It knew it you had the power of ending it.” He supplied in a hushed realization, “so it targeted you.”
“Well, it backfired. I killed it, regardless.” The quality of his tone suggested a grin, a savage self-commendation of the revenge. It’s the first time that Simon managed to fit expression with his person, remove the disparities of tone and face. He sees it, vaguely.
The only antidote Ross said to have knew of was in Herber’s body, but the finality in his tone was very believable, “how?”
“Overloaded it.” It was frustratingly curt; Simon’s curious for the details, but the misty quality of Ross’ tone rendered him acutely aware of overstepping boundaries. He kept silent.
Unlike the constant threat of bulging distortions dotted along the marine landscape, there wasn’t anything of interest in these tunnels. Merely, a mild sense of entrapment and contortion as they darted through the framework. He imagined that it would been an even tight fit for the both of them if they were in their original bodies – Simon hadn’t been particularly tall, but he had retained a careless swing to his gait throughout his adolescence, utterly mindless of the space he occupied. Ross, on the other hand, was a head above the rest of his colleagues. His withered, wiry frame was much more adapted to squeezing through the collapsed ruins of the tunnel.
With the lack of challenge or interest in the proceedings, his mind chugged and sputtered.
The question escapes him blithely – he’s so used to talking to himself, that’s he’s forgotten to curb his thoughts. It’s easier to fill a silence with his thoughts, than to let the pressure of isolation wash his voice and mind away.
“Sarang…he killed himself after uploading his scan to the Ark project, and other’s followed in his example. Was that Carthage’s influence, too?” Lips twisted. He’d sounded so sure of himself, penmanship steady as he presented his dangerous persuasion, philosophical bullcrap that ended the lives of so, so many.
“Suicide?” The shock wasn’t feigned, but weariness was slowly seeped into the cadence of his reply, “the Ark project meant little to Carthage. I doubt they were aware of it at all. Sarang’s academic position on biological individuality, on the other hand, had always been rather...particular. Maybe he’d seen the Ark as his second-best chance.”
Puzzle pieces come together. Akers’ obsession with the intracellular conversions in coral structures; his own innate desire to linger at the WAU flowers, to connect with the WAU to restabilize his vision; the pulsing bioluminescence, temporary assemblage that rang transient and intermittent, yet recurrent as it built the basis of a commutative state; the robot outside Upsilon, thirsting for gel, for the one constant that integrated them all.
“Holy shit,” he whispered.
Look at us now, Sarang.
They continued silently. Simon’s mind was still racing from revelation, until Ross voiced one of his own in a horrified realization, “ that must’ve been what changed WAU’s parameters. You said mass suicide – people were killing themselves to join the Ark. It decided to intervene; obviously, we couldn’t be relied on to keep our population stable.”
It’s painfully ironic to hear that they’d caused their own downfall, yet it captured the reality of their situation. Words emerged in tight, defeated anger, a restatement, rather than a question, “you’re saying that humanity forced WAU’s hand.”
Was it really so hard to wrap his mind around? Humankind had pillaged and conquered the earth, directed calamities and seismic changes to the way earth patterned its very atmosphere. To have staged their own downfall was merely the last chapter of the same case study, the inability to learn from mistake after mistake.
There is no reply from his counterpart. He seemed to feel no need to state the obvious.
Simon wasn’t able to refrain from voicing the other comparison that was consuming his mind, “when I was embedded with the WAU…it generated memories of my past life, of people I loved. In a way, Sarang was right about the Ark being his second-best bet.”
Once, he would’ve denied that comparison to the grave. But without the hope of ever getting onto the Ark, living in denial did him no good. Removed from the rage and the fear and the injustice, his mental faculties were clear. His exercise in sending the Ark to space wasn’t any different from what he had vowed to run away from. The futility of all he’d done, dawned upon him.
“There’s a clear difference,” Ross’ interjection was late, but expressed in a firm, unswayable manner, “the Ark was something humanity created as a last resort. I’m sure there are talented people up there, struggling to find a solution on the Ark. Or, maybe it’ll be found by alien life in neighbouring galaxies – who knows? In any case, it’s progressive action. Being hooked up and mummified by the WAU is the opposite. You shouldn’t discredit the importance of agency.”
The defiance in Ross’ voice was jarring. He wasn’t so much as optimistic about it, but there was a calm practicality in his voice that incited hope in him as well. Simon’s positive that it was the mere prospect of re-establishing connection with living, breathing beings that kept him motivated for so long. He had nothing to say against that firm resolve, could hardly bring himself to.
Instead, he directed his full attention to their path. As Simon recognized the familiar fork, hidden behind piles of debris, he spoke, “the path’s to the right.”
Immediately, he kicked himself for saying that. This was Ross’ territory – he could probably wander through it with his eyes closed. He doesn’t look back to subject himself to embarrassment, but the voiced assent he receives is measured and trying so hard to sound not-amused, that it only serves to irritate him further.
The water levels in the tunnels had gradually shallowed over the course of their conversation, but his spirits rose marginally as they climbed the ladder up into Tau. With his feet planted safely on solid ground, he’s finally thinking straight. Though he’s keenly aware of the monsters and various bodies that littered the area, the footsteps and animalistic growling that echoed noisily from the floor above, their current location was a small bubble of safety that Simon all but clung onto.
Though Simon hoped to linger, catch their breath, maybe, Ross was unwavering, standing stock still in the corridor as if the rooms were strictly off limits.
“We should push on,” he says, “there’s nothing for us here.”
Another form of unease gradually settled in his bones. Resurgent memories of being pushed into the meaty texture of the WAU’s interface, the mind-numbing blows of electromagnetic force, a relentless voice that prodded him along in the form of fiery bursts. Ross’ insistence was in part the tight schedule, but he’d taken a glance over Ross’ notes before he couldn’t bear to withstand the impatient nudges any longer. They’re more than enough to establish Ross’ culpability. He had to be feeling ashamed. Simon knew that he would feel the same too, if he’d made that executive decision.
Still, Ross was right; they ought get a move on. It’s easier to rip a bandage off, quick. Get to Omicron and do what they have to.
“You know about the monster upstairs, right? Is there any way you can make this easier for us?”
“Jin Yoshida.” Lips quirk bitterly, “he was the last of us to change. He secluded himself from most of WAU’s gel and flowers. Made it hard for the WAU to get hold of his body. Not until a few weeks ago.”
“That explains the speed.”
“We can get around him. The path loops around in the middle, and evidently, for all his smarts, Yoshida has yet to learn how to execute u-turns.”
It was surreal. With Catherine, she had aimed to distance herself from the situation as much as possible, only choosing to interject when necessary. It made it easy to forget that she’d known the people here. The way Ross managed to snark and poke fun at the abominations; it was evident that part of him still felt fond for the mottled crew at Pathos.
That train of thought reminded him of his original goal. He didn’t want to ask for help, but he owed it to Catherine.
Before Ross’ managed to reach the base of ladder, he called out, “wait. Do you think I can patch Catherine up using the gel deposits?”
He barely turned back to him, shook his head with an impatient flick, “it’s too close to the core. You’d risk poisoning her. Safest bet would be to get to Omicron. They have bags of it lying around. The gel should still work. It’ll take a while for the WAU’s influence to fade, after all.”
All the more reason to get to Omicron first. Right.
“Okay then, let’s do this.”
His voice was a lot firmer than he felt.
i'm not too satisfied with the pacing of the chapter - feels more like a filler to me than anything else. i can't spend any more time staring at it though.
(rejected chapter summary idea: in which simon heroically punches a fish)
warning: blindness occurs this chapter!! see end notes for run down.
They were barely at the bottom of the ladder, but Simon could already taste the buzz of electromagnetism, heavy iron sediment in the room. Despite the steep decline in Ross’ abilities, trussed and drained at the WAU’s core, the other creatures had evidently not been as susceptible.
They both looked like awkward schoolboys, treading across the plasticine-smelling carpet of the staff room as they explored the unfamiliar terrain, their footsteps deafeningly loud in the silence. The first segment of the corridor seemed clear, and Simon took the initiative, creeping forward to slide the first door to their right open. Irritatingly slow, they started down the narrow path, sticking close to the bulging walls.
A little less than halfway through their complicated loop towards the exit, Simon felt numb, limbs aching from the sheer anxiety of the silence. The hallway was suspiciously empty, yet the pulsation of force was a constant assault in his mind. Paired with the eerie with the distant slosh of water, echoing from the lower rooms, he itched for a fight.
Eyes fixated on their goal at the horizon, he scarcely remembered to turn back. Then, a muffled thud sounded: Ross was struggling behind him.
Yoshida had closed the distance between them without breaking sweat. His claws were gouged into the remaining meat of Ross’ skeletal form, chunks and flecks of black littering from his body. Simon was too invested to turn tails and abandon him, at this point. That’s how he rationalized it, for in the moment he leapt, all aggression and no hesitation; he wasn’t think of anything at all. With a snarl, he staggered forward, ready to gouge into the decomposing weaknesses of Yoshida’s porous face, where the bloom of WAU’s connections stemmed. But before he could close the gap between them, Ross groaned and with visible effort let loose a pulse of force, sending Yoshida reeling.
The pulse was substantially weaker than what he’d experienced, but it was nasty all the same. Simon grew dizzy, vision blurring. He managed to stay upright. Yoshida, who’d never been subjected to that mental check before, halts. Pseudo-tentacles writhing, he seems to reach for them, yet retreat at the same time, footsteps unsteady as he ripped himself away.
Ross shuffled towards him, desperation clear in his gait, pulling him with a remarkable force before he had the chance to fully regain balance. He’s outright flung into a room and despite the confusion and panic that has built within him from the encounter, he does his best to huddle himself in a corner and quell his noisy breathing, a split-second before Yoshida bursts into the room.
His search was a lot more aggressive this time, with accompanying howls of pain that send starbursts across his eyes. The pain had raised his hackles beyond a mere curiosity. With his eyes shut, Simon waited for the worst to blow over, imagination running rampant, filled with visions of an engulfing form looming over him, a vicious image of a damaged power suit, stained dark.
He almost elbowed the air when he heard a voice bloom in his ear, electrically charged with the energy of his runaway thoughts.
“I can’t do that again. I’ve been saving that up for a while. When you hear his footsteps fade to your left, run towards the hatch. Focus on getting it open – I’ll take care of the rest.”
Yoshida was too close for him to make affirmative singal, but he steadied himself and shifted his huddled position to a crouch.
After a slow tick of five or so seconds later, he found his chance. As quietly and quickly as possible, he made his way to the hatch. Behind him, he heard Ross amble, not quite so speedy, yet along another fork of the path. Yoshida, more comfortable in his own terrain, took the bait and slipped further into the facility.
Hands shaky, controller gripped tight, he docked it into the sensor. The door beeped, and the LED on the interface shone red.
Shit, shit, shit!
He tried again. No luck.
He angled it, so the slide was slower, and pressed it tight to the sensor.
Red lights flashed. Then to his utter dismay, the alarm went off. A piercing ring in the yawning silence.
What were their luck, for the alarm system to still be in operation, beyond all disuse...goddamn it!
He turned and saw Ross, Yoshida nipping at his heels. Locking eyes with the monster, it paused oddly, as if unsure of his next target. It provided Ross with a split-second chance to slip around the fork, for a second time. Yoshida staggered, towards him, then back, and then Ross sent another pulse, barely there in Simon’s mind. It seemed to remind the monster of his purpose, and after another second of mild deliberation, he continued after Ross around the corner.
Simon let out a held breath.
His hands, shaky with nerves, performed the necessary scan again. Finally, the hatch slid open. He wanted to feel relief, but knew that the storm hadn’t blown over just yet. The noises around the corner were now distressingly close. He turned around and saw Yoshida, herding Ross towards him. His eyes were fixated on Simon’s form. Purposeful in his chase. Simon cursed, realizing that Ross had no way of diverting him a second time, and decisively turned tail. Away from the carved path to freedom and back into the hellscape.
He emerged onto the scene with a running start, wresting Yoshida away from Ross and locking him in a chokehold. Despite the blurring static he saw with each collision, leaving his constitution papery-thin, he took infinite care not to let go. Ross deployed another pulse of electromagnetism, dagger-sharp this time, for Simon hardly felt the repercussions. It took a mere second for Ross to brush by the gap between their fumbling bodies, ending up behind the both of them.
Simon loosened his grip, ready to turn tail, but Ross strides forward with intent. With WAU enhanced limbs, he shoves Yoshida forward with a startling amount of force, sinking Yoshida’s body sideways into the wall of plushy WAU deposits, already littered with the stinking masses of decaying and withered parts.
As soon as flesh connected, the WAU reached out, greedy for another body to siphon power off of. It engulfed the form with vigour, invading the open helmet and seeping into the spaces between tubings. On its last dying breath, the WAU could hardly be bothered to desensitize Yoshida from pain. Both Simon and Ross watched on, entranced as Yoshida grew limp, a choked, wordless scream his last utterance as he sank into the mass.
Simon now felt absurdly grateful for his own experience; the WAU had not been half as violent with him. Yet, it spared no mercy this time around. The pressure on Yoshida’s body was awesome to see, a quick yet brutal process. Wrung out like a human dishtowel, they could hear Yoshida’s limbs twisting and cracking under the force, as the WAU drew the inanimate corpse into itself.
The sudden victory, if they could even call it that, left them standing rather awkwardly in the corridor, panting with left over exertion. Though Ross’ tiredness wasn’t audible, when he directs speech to him, it slurs out of breath. Staticky with interspersed breaths.
“Did you manage to get it open, at least?”
“Yeah. I think the omnitool is failing us, though. We have to get to Omicron soon.” If they don’t get there before it gives out on them, they’ll be cut off from the complex.
They made their way towards the hatch, now invitingly available despite all the difficulties that presented before. Not long now, until they reached the climber. Then, they could contact Carthage, and fix Catherine.
He dreaded it, as much as he was anticipatory. What if Ross was lying about Carthage this whole time? For what, though? More likely, Ross was lying about Catherine. Maybe she couldn’t be patched up, at all. He worried at his lip.
The voice jerked him out of his thoughts, and absurdly, he felt guilty about contemplating it.
“Your helmet is cracked.”
Simon surveyed the damage with timid fingers. Surely, the material at his fingers snagged at the formations of a crack. It seemed superficial – there’s no water entering his suit at this point, but there was a real danger of it filling, choking him. At this level of pressure, he’s unsure whether his optical unit could withstand that. To be left without vision, totally dependent on someone that was fully prepared to kill him days ago – it scared him more than he was willing to admit.
“It’ll be fine.” His lack of verbosity was telling, “let’s just keep going.”
It’ll be fine.
They emerged from the hatch, and stuck by the blue waver of lights.
Ross was uncharacteristically subdued. Though he hasn’t volunteered much in their past conversations, he hadn’t been so morosely silent, either.
It was then that he came to the unpleasant realization Ross died on this very path. The panicked timbre in that memory shares little similarity with the static rasp of his current voice, save for the accent. He imagined that the WAU altered much more than just appearance. Gradually, his physiology has been perversed, too.
Or, Ross had forgotten how his voice sounded like, too much so that he now struggled to recreate it. That was a possibility too.
He snuck a glance at Ross, not subtle enough, evidently. As the sharp gaze he’s returned with constituted of half-accusation and incredulity, deeply mortifying for the both of them. The elephant in the room. He dropped the gaze like a scalding poker.
It’s stupid. He should have let the dead rest. But his stupid mind had to wander. Now, Ross was aware of his knowledge. The tension smothered them like a blanket, more pronounced than the weight of the ocean, gradually fissuring the crack in his diving suit.
This was the monster that tried to kill him, yet the sharp influx of shame was a sudden feeling that subsumed him; an unfamiliar, yet not entirely unwelcome caress.
He’s not good at dealing with this.
His mind returned to Ashley. However vague his memories of her were now, more nightmare than reminiscence, but one thing that rang true was that she’d weighed heavily on his mind: his anchor, his desire, his guilt, his love.
Ross’ reaction was so painfully human. He could see it, despite the monstrous, hulking form that faced him.
He couldn’t have known, had every motivation to invade the privacy of people he thought as long-dead. But connecting that fragment to the person in front of him seemed excessively intrusive, all things said and done. Even with Catherine’s black-box, to have to depart such uncomfortable and private information to her had emulated stirrings of guilt. Catherine, had shut that train of thought down quite quickly, unemotional and efficient. Yet he now wondered, what she had felt. If, in those last seconds of his abuse, had felt that she’d failed her team and the world.
He felt just a bit more terrible.
Before he knew what he was doing, he spoke.
The soft understanding to be found in his voice followed the context his thoughts, too timid and raw for the situation, displaced from mental context. Yet, the emotions that project from the dissonant image of Ross’ disfigured body evoke some doubt of that analysis. Empathy is an overrated pathology.
“Not blaming you.” It emerged reluctantly amused, despite the situation. He must’ve realized then, how absurd the apology was, coming from him. “Just – I’d never listened to any of them. Didn’t think you’d care to, either.”
As a psychologist at Tau, he had lived it. Known the hallways intimately, the people, the work. Could remember the whirr of life in the facility, the humming harmonies of the now-dilapidated machines. He wondered if there was a softer side to him, like the various members who pinned details of their life onto walls for a future voyeur. Family, friends, beliefs – all of it crumbled to dust.
To have to deal with the sad echoes of what the place once was to so many, he could understand why Ross doesn’t want any reminders. It gnawed at him, the pity. It was simultaneously irritating and difficult to stay mad at the only other emoting being in his vicinity, fully human or not.
They’d maintained a weird mood along the path towards the climber, but all awkwardness was forgotten as they realized that something wrong was with it.
A cord could be seen, floating lax and peaceful in the water. While there remains three connecting the climber, to operate it like this would overload the other three, and they’d risk losing their only path up.
“We’ll have to climb it.”
Simon stared at Ross. Though he has no discernable features, Simon could imagine his face plastered with a sceptical glare, an eyebrow raised.
“I’ve done it before.” Ross paid him no mind, looks upward as if mapping out the steps.
“What if the creatures come for us as we’re ascending?”
His tone was grim, he’d made his mind up. “We’ll have to risk it, won’t we? We can’t get up any other way.”
And then, he laughed. Simon stared on, in amazement. “If anything happens, I can trust your right hook, can’t I?”
He doesn’t know why he’s so focused on that breathy chuckle, but he hasn’t heard laughter for so goddamn long. Also, he’s realized that Ross is a fucking lunatic. How he could laugh at anything in context was…
Ross, realizing his incredulity, sighed, “I still have the pulses. It’ll work on the fish, as long as they don’t attack too quickly.”
“Okay. You can lead, then. Since you’ve done this before.” He’s petulant.
Ross didn’t reply, but as per suggested, took the initiative, much less apprehensive about the plan than he was.
They make their way up in slow increments, but only a few tens of meters up, Simon realizes that there’s something wrong.
It sounded like snow, cracking under the heel of his boots as he skied with Ashley on the Blue Mountain Resort. The fire, as he’d laughed in embarrassment next to Matt…(his brother!, he remembered with a start), ribbing him about his new girlfriend when they camped in ’07.
The memories crashed upon him so vividly, that it took him a few moments to place the sound. It was only the wobble of a translucent line at the corners of his optical unit that clues him in. He’d only had a second to experience the settling dread; seconds later, his helmet was filling, pressure from the leaking water caving the glass front of the helmet in.
The sudden loss of vision was startling, and he floundered, barely managing to keep himself steadied on the flimsy cable. He tugged on it like a lifeline, the only thing grounding him towards the projected path.
“Ross!” The cry was instinctive, positively drenched in panic that Ross halts.
There’s a pause. Ross must’ve realized the extent damage, as he’d blindly directed his face up, towards the reasoning presence in an endless sea of dark void.
“It’ll be fine.” His voice sounded soft and calming, breaking through the static hum in his mind. Though he was reluctant to admit it, the rasp of his voice was much welcomed and helped him to find reason, a source of comfort in the haze of distress.
He mind wheeled to Akers, eyeballs abandoned, covered in flies and maggots. How mad was he, to have given up his sight?
“Shit…!” He moaned. He’s entirely submerged in panic. Ross was forced to grab at him, hands hard and tacky on his shoulder, pressing hard with the lumpy structures of imbued gel. He realized that he’d been flailing and forced himself to stay stagnant, to allow himself to float with the eddying current.
“Sorry, I –” He’s stating the obvious, but talking was the only way he could stay calm at this point, “I can’t see anything.”
“We’re almost there.” Ross said. “There’s nothing around us, we can take our time.”
“Sorry.” He hardly knew what he’s saying at this point. He didn’t know why he was apologizing.
“No, it’s my fault. I forgot about it. We were ascending too quickly.”
“Just tell me that we’re there soon.” It’s not a whimper, but came close. His limbs moved robotically. Up, up… his mind instructed. To safety.
A glaring lie, but Simon took the words for what they were. The more they climbed, the more the thudding simulation of heartbeat calmed. He bumped into Ross.
“Sorry.” He sounded distracted. “We can’t enter this way.”
“What do you mean?” He snapped.
“The climber operates as a system. Doors don’t open unless the climber is here too. We’ll have to circle around to the main entrance.”
The dread rose again.
“Isn’t there a maintenance control or something? I – I can’t do that.”
“Only ID’d controllers allowed. You’ll be fine, just –” His hand gripped his wrist, a biological shackle. For a ridiculous moment, Simon interpreted that as an intention to tug him along the rest of the way. But then, his hand hit something above him. The grooves catch on the pad of the diver’s suit as he grasped for purchase and found none. It took him another second to realize he was palming the climber door to Omicron.
“Just head left. I’m right next to you.” He explained.
Slowly, he kicked his legs awkwardly, dragging his torso left until his shins brushed at solid ground. He didn’t know what felt worse, Ross deliberately allowing him to muddle his slow way around the vicinity, or the slow guidance he voiced whenever Simon was pushed away from the wall by a strong drift, addlign his sense of direction.
He’s afraid to voice anything, lest he changed his mind. There’s no reason for Ross to keep him around – their progress felt snail pace at this point. He was just lucky that the though of abandoning him hadn’t come to Ross’ mind yet.
“We’re almost there. Hand me the controller?”
“No.” The refusal was instinctive. He bargained, “I’ll get there and open the door for both of us.”
Ross seemed to catch on. His voice sounded loud, exasperated, “I’m not going to leave you.”
“I don’t know that.” As it emerged, Simon already knew that it was the wrong thing to say. He could take it forcibly from him, if he tried. The tang of fear tasted heady in his throat. A harsh antiseptic burn.
Ross didn’t reply. Simon tensed, ready for action, but there remained none. Simon took that as his cue to continue along the wall, hand now gripping steadfast at the omnitool, at Catherine holstered comfortingly at his belt. Ross didn’t stop him. He hoped it was not because he’d upped and left.
The verbal direction came, this time, more subdued, “the door’s to your left.”
He wound around the metal infrastructure that lined the path, slipped onto the ledge with a bit of Ross’ assistance. They pop the hatch open, and he took the omnitool out, outstretched it blindly.
“Take a step to your right, you’re there.”
He did so, fumbled for the tell-tale divot of the sensor, and scanned the omnitool. The chamber hissed, flushed, and the door whizzed open after two heart-stopping tries. They were in.
Simon wasted no time in patting around at knee-level for a ledge to settle on, a table, maybe. He sat. “Ross, I – you need to help me. Please .”
Ross was clearly wavering. He’s itching to contact Carthage first, but Simon’s need for sight was so integral – every second he stewed in darkness, he felt the delirium and madness flirting along his psyche.
“It’s easy. I just need a cortex chip and some structure gel, that’s all.” Simon said. His voice wavered. He wanted to be confident, but Ross could so easily refuse, and he’d be left to his own mindless devices.
He’s done with him, after all.
The lack of response is infuriating. He’d rather go stumbling around Omicron himself than to talk to someone who won’t respond.
He stands, balance teetering, mind set in just stumbling off away from here, from Ross. It was that that made the decision.
“Fine. Stay here.” It wasn’t mad, but quite short.
Simon handed him the omnitool, “thanks.” The passive-aggressiveness was easy to ignore, given the favour he was doing.
Footsteps fade, and he’s left there, feeling bereft. He was rooted to the ground, fearful to shift even an inch for fear of stumbling and falling.
Thankfully, Ross’ voice tuned in, distant and static with poor reception – he figures the fading strength of his electromagnetic force meant that he was no longer able to communicate over longer distances.
“So, you know me from my files, but I hardly know anything about you.”
Immediately, Simon felt suspect. “Why do you want to know?”
“Well, I’m curious, it’s only fair that you provide me some information in return for all this.”
He knew that Ross was ribbing him, but he felt obliged, “nothing much to tell. Car-crash, brain scan, and so on and so forth.”
“You use really…odd phrases, you know.”
“Excuse you,” he commented dryly. “Back in my day they were the rage. I’m young and hip.”
“Yeah?” It’s obvious, Ross was fishing.
He sighed, “I lived in a shitty flat in Toronto. Managed a bookstore with friends after graduating a few years ago.”
“You’re very young,” he sounded shocked.
“Come off it, you thought I was a grandpa, two seconds ago,” Simon retorted. He didn’t want to focus on regrets. As the beat of silence drew on, no response forthcoming, he deflated. “You’re taking it too seriously.”
“Sorry, I just…you’re in your twenties?”
It’s irritating and immature that he felt a need to clarify himself, “twenty-six.”
“Jesus,” Ross muttered to himself, as if unaware of the open connection.
He sighed, “well, I died a century ago, so I’m also a hundred and fifteen.”
A long, long pause.
“It’s confusing,” Ross amended. Truce .
“Well, it was confusing for me too. Still is.”
“How about you, then?” The mood has cooled into something mildly unpleasant, and Simon loatheed to lose that rare, amicable atmosphere, “tell me about yourself. Married? Kids?”
“The two loves of my life, Garcia and Penny,” he brightened. Simon envisioned cobalt eyes widening with excitement, the shine that would have once accosted them, “the girls are absolute gems. We used to go camping all the time. We’d drive up to Penzance, and the bay would stretch on for miles.”
Simon’s silent. He felt like an intruder, as if accidentally stumbling upon a log of private thoughts. He was still irrationally possessive of his own memories, which came few and far between.
“I used to think the ocean was so welcoming. It was why I volunteered to station at Pathos in the first place. Now…” A pause, then triumphant exclamation, “alright, I’m done here. Coming back.”
He had nothing to say. Wasn’t capable of uttering a word. He’d lost so much to the cruel hands of time yet, so has Ross. He swallowed.
Footsteps neared, and Simon wasn’t so apprehensive anymore. He wondered if this had been Ross’ plan all along, to open up to him and make him feel comfortable. A new wave of gratitude awashed him. Without sight it’s miles easier to place that voice with the photograph he found at Tau. The warmth of those eyes, as they stared into the distance, a dreamer’s gaze.
The remnant discomfort, however, stems from another source. Though he’s stuck in a nightmare’s play where all the characters were deformations, purgatory’s creations, he couldn’t help but feel unnerved by the unnaturalness of his own body. Without the humanoid casing of his diving suit, he took on the amalgamated form of a stranger’s decapitated body, electronic parts, and black, pulsing blood. He shuddered.
Ross kindly directed him into the chair of another diving chamber, hands on his shoulders. The electronic click of a button, and he feels the machine strip the suit from his body.
Ross, sensing his apprehension, conversed as he worked, “he who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
The dark mirth stretching at his non-material features weirdly. It’s not a great source of comfort, word for word, but the strangely apt is quite right for the situation. He imagines Ross can hear it in his voice, “I don’t think he meant it so literally.”
Deliberately engaged, Ross’ hands didn’t stop working as he faintly conceded, “well, neither did I.”
He hesitated, and savoured the words before he permitted them to emerge. Surprisingly, he found that he meant every word, “you couldn’t have known. If you’re right about Carthage, about what they were trying to do…then I, I believe you.”
He’s not able to voice the words Ross truly wished to hear, but from the lingering of his digits as he rearranged Simon’s pieces, Simon was positive that he’d caught the message.
Like emerging from smoke, his vision flickered back online.
“Can you get me another suit?”
“I’m on it.”
He’s already halfway there. He felt warm, filled with a plain gratitude for the help.
Finally repackaged in the suit again, Simon released a breath of tension that he wasn’t fully aware of. He captured Ross’ arm in a fist, forced him to look at him. The sunken baubles in his head seemed like black holes from afar.
He’s all choked up.
“You’re welcome.” The reply was deep and rough with static.
Simon burned with it.
woah, three chapters in close succession. i surprise myself at times.
(warning cont.: simon's optical unit is damaged as they traverse the climber. ross has to guide him to and patch him up at omicron. quite emotional on simon's part so if you have bad experiences concerning blindness then i'd advise you to skip.)