The exit ramp hissed loudly as it lowered to the snow-covered docking bay. With Jonathan and K on either side of me dressed in thermal suits just like I was, I stepped onto the platform. Wind blasted my face, and flecks of snow swarmed me, eagerly clinging to my fur and clothes in the sideways gust. Everything was white.
My feet crunched into the snow, and I squinted. With each exhale, our breaths condensed into clouds of fog, which were quickly whisked away by the weather. I craned my neck, gazing up at the hazy spire of grey before us. I’d landed us on the same platform which the TAU shuttle had dropped me off on weeks ago. It was even more stormy now than it had been then.
Unease crept into my chest. Being here felt wrong.
I turned back to face my companions, forcing myself to ignore the thought. Jonathan wore a blue cloak over his coat, which was lined with fur on the inside. With his gloved hands, he gripped each side of the furry hood and held it tightly over each side of his face, which was covered with a fabric mask. His cybernetic eye shone a pure white light. K wore a thick furry jacket, and had wrapped a thermal scarf around her bald head, face, and neck. The cold was even getting to me already, but they both looked like they could barely stand it.
“Let’s get inside, quick,” I said. They nodded hurriedly, and marched with me across the snowy bridge toward the entrance to the facility.
K grunted faintly, clutching the side of her head. “Ow...”
I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, and helped her inside.
When the door shut behind us, the base felt eerily quiet. The lights were all on, and the hallway felt warm. The power generator had been left on.
I shivered, but not from the cold. The smell of decay wafted in from somewhere deeper. It looked like a TAU outpost, but now this place was a graveyard.
“Come on,” K grunted impatiently, unwrapping the scarf from her head. “Take us to those secret labs, or whatever.”
Jonathan gave her a sidelong glance, removing the fabric covering his mouth, and the hood from his head. He shut his eyes. “Follow me.”
Jonathan took the lead. We wandered through the facility, and quickly found signs of the valicorr attack. Charred and blasted bits of architecture, broken glass, and human bodies littered the place. I grit my mandibles.
I gazed out a glass wall toward the white horizon. The snow was so thick that I could barely see anything. I closed my eyes and remembered the screech of that giant monster chasing K and I in the hover-car. Its pale-blue teeth. Its raw strength.
My gaze fell back to Jonathan, who led the way a few paces ahead of me. Could that monster have been one of Jonathan’s earlier experiments? The blue-tinged bones, and super strength... It reminded me of K. I thought about asking him, but decided not to. Now didn’t seem like a good time.
Then I caught sight of the ruined base of a tower. It was the eastern tower, where Joëlle’s squad had been killed. The air choked in my lungs...
Jonathan’s voice snapped me back to reality. I nodded, and followed him and K into an elevator. We stood in silence as it descended. I tried not to think about that man’s arm slipping from my grasp back in the elevator shaft, falling into darkness, or the tormented face of his wife.
I tried not to think about Omega. About my mother.
We destroyed the mothership, I thought. I shut my eyes, and forced myself to imagine something else. The feeling of the ocean lapping at my feet. The sound of fizzy soda bubbling in a glass between my ears. The sight of stars, stretched out across Astraloth’s sky.
I took a deep breath, and shakily exhaled. Then I opened my eyes and met K’s, who had been watching me with a silent, concerned frown. She smiled faintly, and I felt okay. I lifted my ears.
The elevator stopped well below the surface of the planet. It was absolutely quiet down here. Jonathan entered an access code, and the door opened to a dimly lit room.
He led us through the halls, which were uncomfortably thin. The ceilings were only seven feet tall; tall enough for most humans, but I had to duck my head a little to walk around. I felt myself getting a little claustrophobic. We were deep underground.
Even down here, there were signs of battle. TAU scientists lay dead around every corner, and plasma scoring from valicorr E-guns and swords decorated the walls. Or I guess they were Brotherhood scientists. Maybe now it didn’t matter...
“So, the valicorr fought all the way down here,” I said. “They stole the plans for the Shade Beam, but I hadn’t really considered how until now. Did they hack into the main computer?”
Jonathan replied. “Ryner had me send them an access code, so they could steal the Shade Beam prototype and its plans from the computer.”
K scoffed. “You mean you just gave the code to the valicorr?”
“I’m not proud of it,” he said.
K growled, clenching her fists. “You- You let all of this happen, didn’t you?!”
“If Jonathan didn’t do it, Ryner would have just killed him, and gotten someone else to,” I said. “Or he would have done it himself. It’s not like Jonathan had much of a choice, right?”
K shut her eyes, groaning. She clutched her head. Her veins pulsed quickly. “Yeah, you’re right. Ryner would have made the attack happen.” She grit her teeth. “Even so-”
Jonathan frowned. “Even so, I still feel responsible...”
K rubbed her temple. “I don’t understand it, anyway. Ryner’s whole plan... he gave so much power to Duhrnan, letting him take the Shade Beam. Why would he do that?”
“He wanted to create an enemy for the galaxy, so he gave Duhrnan the power to threaten it. But he intended to betray Duhrnan, eventually. He wanted to make the Brotherhood look like the heroes by taking down the valicorr.” Jonathan said.
“But really,” I said, “the Brotherhood was working with the valicorr the whole time.”
Jonathan sighed. “It’s all a huge mess. I can hardly believe I was part of it now.”
“I know,” I sympathized. “But that’s not the point right now. We need to get the plans for the Shade Beam, and reunite with the fleets over Earth. Duhrnan will bring the weapon to Earth, and likely an army along with it. We don’t have much time.” I shuffled nervously. Really, I just didn’t like being down here.
“Well,” said Jonathan, stopping at a door, “this is the computer room.”
The door slid open, and we stepped inside. I had to duck low under the doorway. Then I felt my heart get caught in my throat.
The room smelled of ozone and death. Human bodies lay strewn about, and sparks flew from the flickering ceiling lights. The room was full of metal computer consoles which lined the walls, and each one had been slashed across with a plasma sword.
“No,” I said. “It can’t be- Jonathan, is the computer...?”
“It’s fine,” he said, hesitantly. “The valicorr must have slashed up the consoles, hoping to destroy them, and the memory banks along with them. But these are just access terminals. The main computer’s physical storage is located in another room.”
I exhaled a sigh of relief. “Then we need to access the memory directly-”
“No,” Jonathan cut in. “Remember, if we tamper with the physical memory storage and are detected by the computer it will self-destruct the entire database. We just need to find another terminal to input the access code, and I know where we can look.”
Eagerly, he slipped past me, and as I turned in the doorway, K and I exchanged a glance. Since I was crouching, our faces were much closer than usual.
She smirked, playfully. “Come on, Osax.” Then she sped after Jonathan, and I followed.
We passed many unlabelled doors, but eventually Jonathan stopped at one, giving K and I time to catch up.
Jonathan exhaled. “Welcome to my secret laboratory,” he said. Then he punched in a code on the door, and it hummed open.
Blue lights flickered on in the room before us. We stepped out onto a catwalk which ringed the massive room. We entered on the top floor. It was a long, rectangular room with dark grey walls, and a three dimensional grid of grated walkways running through the center. The air was much cooler in here, and immediately I noticed our breaths condensing into faint wisps as we exhaled.
Suspended from the ceiling in countless rows and columns between the walkways were metal pods. Each pod had a glass door from which blue light shone. Many of the pods were empty, but even from a distance I could make out a humanoid shape inside one, then two. More than I could count.
“Wow,” K marvelled.
Jonathan led us through the room to a silver lift which carried us down to the bottom floor, below the walkways and all but the bottom row of stasis pods. I noticed that this room seemed untouched from the battle. There were no scorch marks, no obvious signs of damage, and most importantly no bodies. I lay my hands atop the railing of the lift, and when I lifted my fingers I’d wiped a large amount of dust from the surface.
“No one has been here for a long time, have they?” I asked.
Jonathan shook his head. “After K awoke and I realized how wrong it was to continue with the experiments, I shut down the labs. Everyone who worked here moved onto different projects at the facility.”
“And Ryner was okay with that?” I asked. “He let you shut down the labs?”
Jonathan’s lip tightened. “I guess by the time I shut down the labs, he’d already gotten what he wanted from my experiments.” He looked uneasy, as though the thought upset him. I couldn’t blame him.
We stepped off the lift. He led us straight through the middle of the dark room, past rows of pods, many of which were empty. But most contained a human, just like K. They were blue skinned, horned, muscular, and all shared some of her and Jonathan’s features. Each one looked a little different. The horns grew in different shapes and sizes, the bone ridges appeared in different formations, and each body’s form was unique despite their similarities.
I glanced to K. Her gaze wandered up and around the entire room. I could only imagine what she was thinking.
“So, this is where I was made?” K wondered. She stopped, gazing up at the array of pods.
Jonathan and I stopped too, turning to look at her. “Yes,” he replied.
“And there are three hundred others, waiting in those stasis pods?” she said quietly.
Jonathan nodded slowly. “Yes. Each one is a genetically engineered clone using my DNA as a baseline. But they are all unique. To accelerate the process of designing the perfect weapon and make full use of our facilities here, I thought we should make an entire batch of bioweapons, each with slight variations in genetic makeup. By testing each individually and comparing results and findings, we could quickly narrow down potential problems and solutions.”
I followed K to a nearby pod. There was another being inside, just behind the glass. They looked like they might have been K’s sibling, and in a way, I suppose they were. Their eyes were closed, and their expression neutral. They stood inside the pod with their arms, legs, and forehead held in place by straps. They were lit from the bottom of the pod by blue light which weirdly highlighted their features. K gently placed her hand on the glass, and leaned in to get a better look.
“Careful-” said Jonathan.
“I’m being careful,” K retorted. “I just... She looks almost just like me. Even the horns... but they’re not quite the same.” Silence filled the air. “They’re just like me...”
I tried to find something to say, but all I could manage was, “Amazing...”
We each stood in silence not knowing what to say, until K turned to Jonathan with a determined look on her face.
“What’s going to happen to them?” Her voice was clear.
He pursed his lips. “I don’t know.” He stared at her solemnly. “I really don’t know.”
“You created a people,” I stated, the gravity of it all finally dawning on me. “K, and her siblings... they amount to something of a new species-”
“Hey! I’m human!” said K, indignantly. She glowered at me, and I recoiled.
“I- I didn’t mean it like that, K. You’re human! But, you know... you are different.”
Her expression softened. “Yeah, guess you’re right, Osax.” Then she looked back at her sister in the pod. “We’re human... but we are different.”
Jonathan spun around, facing away from us. His neck craned as he looked up at the array of pods and clones. “None of them have ever been awakened, because... the galaxy isn’t ready for them. They are too powerful. Too different. And furthermore, they were intended to be weapons used by the Brotherhood. If the TAU knew of their existence, they would want them exterminated.”
“But the TAU didn’t want to kill me,” said K.
“You’re a single anomaly in their eyes. The TAU probably isn’t too afraid of you on your own. But if they knew your origins, and if they knew about the other clones...” He cleared his throat nervously.
K winced, and clutched her head. “Ah, jeez!” Her veins pulsed violently.
I felt myself involuntarily wincing as well. “You don’t look so good,” I said. “The headache is getting worse, isn’t it?”
She nodded, inhaling sharply.
Jonathan stepped toward her. “There are pills you can take to relieve headaches; some of them work very well on humans, and while your DNA is different it shouldn’t be so-”
“Yeah, I’m kinda turned off of pills for a while,” she growled, clearly agitated. “We’ve been talking too long, lets go get the plans.”
“Right,” Jonathan said. He sped off across the room, and I walked up to K. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, and helped her walk.
“I can walk just fine, Osax,” she said, glancing up at me.
“Sorry,” I replied sheepishly, withdrawing my arm.
We walked in silence for a moment.
“Actually,” she said, still clutching her head, “you can keep helping me.” She gave me a sidelong glance.
I placed my hand on her shoulder again, and guided her gently. We caught up with Jonathan through the doorway to another room.
It was a small, cozy office for one, and Jonathan plopped onto a swivelling chair. He grabbed the edges of a wide desk and used it to roll his seat forward. There were several computer monitors mounted on the wall on adjustable armatures. Jonathan flicked a few switches and the computer screens flashed on. The computer terminal whirred and hummed as it came to life, and Jonathan immediately began typing in the access code.
“This is going to take some time,” he said.
“Yes, a three hundred character string of numerals would take a while to input. It’s not incredibly efficient,” I said. “What if you need to access something from the memory core quickly?”
He snorted a laugh. “Someone thought it was a good security system. And with the Brotherhood, sometimes it’s impossible to pin who’s responsible for what decisions. I thought about complaining many times though, trust me.”
Then K groaned, and my ears shot back. “Ugh, my head,” she said. “This is seriously bad right now...”
“What can I do to help?” I asked, trying to sound calm. Jonathan was too focused on the code to pay attention.
K shielded her eyes from the white lights of the office. “It’s too bright in here. I’m gonna wait outside.”
She made for the exit, and I followed her, watching as she stumbled clumsily to the doorway. She’s fine, I thought. This is just another headache. She hasn’t even passed out. She’s gone through worse.
The sound of Jonathan’s typing was completely muffled as we shut the door behind us. We waited outside the office in the blue-tinged bay of clone pods. We sat with our knees up and our backs against the wall next to the door, side by side. She kept groaning and blinking. I was eyeing her carefully, trying to breathe slowly to maintain some control over my adrenaline levels. But watching her wince in pain and begin to sweat was making me nervous. Everything’s fine, I told myself.
“...How are you holding up?” I gulped.
K screwed her eyes shut, and she pulled her knees in closer. Her fingers massaged her temples in vain. Then drool seeped from her lips and around her pronounced tusk-like teeth. A wave rippled out from her core, and she collapsed to the floor with a thud.
My heart stuttered.
“K?!” I shrieked.
I scrambled on my hands and knees, and rolled her onto her side. She was completely limp. I couldn’t see the veins on her head anymore. One of her eyes was half open. They were completely still. Her lips were parted slightly. My breath fogged as I panted in panic. But I couldn’t see any comforting cloud of breath coming from her mouth.
My hands scrambled to her wrist, pressing, feeling for a pulse. Nothing. I tried her neck.
The door hissed open, and Jonathan stepped out with a smile on his face. “I’ve got the schematics!”
“K’s dying!” I cried.
His eyes lit up with fear, and his mouth dropped. In a flash he was by her side with me. I was too panicked to think of what to do, but Jonathan whipped out his holo-gauntlet and started scanning her. I couldn’t look away from her body. She looked dead. I willed my muscles to stay still, but they started shaking.
“She’s...” Jonathan swallowed hard, and looked up at me. Our eyes met, and I saw tears welling in his eye.
“She can’t be,” I said. “She can’t be dead!”
Not her too, I thought. Not now. I wasn’t even sobbing, but tears started to stream down my face. My heart hurt. Actually hurt. I jammed my thumbs into my thighs until they hurt as well, trying to distract myself.
Jonathan was breathing heavily. He scanned the room frantically. “Osax, listen to me.” We locked eyes. “Help me get her into one of the pods.”
“Okay,” I said, shaking.
My muscles felt sore all of a sudden. The two of us bent over, and grabbed K by the shoulders. We lifted her heavy body off the ground and carried her to one of the empty pods. Her head bobbed, and her feet dragged across the floor.
Jonathan let go of her, and I held her full weight in my arms. Her head draped back over my arm, and I stared at her blank face, my ears dangling on either side of her head. We stopped next to the pod, and the corners of my vision began to darken as I hyperventilated. The pod beeped coldly as Jonathan punched in a code. Then gas vented from it, and the glass door swung open.
Jonathan grabbed K’s arm, and together we carefully moved her body into the pod. Jonathan started strapping her limbs and head in place, and I tried to help.
“Will this help her?” I asked.
With the last strap in place, he quickly shut the door on her. He pressed a few buttons on the side of the pod, and it lit up from within with a blue light. There was a high whining sound from the stasis pod.
I pressed my fingers against the pod, then let my face fall against it. My nose pressed against the cool glass as I looked at K, suddenly so distant seeming in the weird light of the pod. My breath fogged up the glass, and I stayed there, breathing quickly.
Jonathan replied. “I don’t know, Osax. My scanner said... that her heart had stopped.”
“I know.” I felt like I was going to sob. I stared at her, unblinking. It was so sudden. How could she be gone?
Jonathan laid a hand on the glass as well, peering in at her. He frowned, and though his lip quivered, he didn’t cry. He was straining not to. “I just thought, maybe... If her body is in stasis then her condition won’t worsen, so maybe...” He breathed a shaky sigh and finally a tear rolled down his cheek. “I don’t know...”
Then I sank to my knees. I whimpered, my hands sliding and sticking to the glass as I fell, and lowered my gaze. I curled inward. I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
“You can’t be gone, K,” I muttered. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”