|Click on image to download for free from Amazon|
by David Wailing
There were ten doors in the passage. I didn’t have to look for R25. I knew exactly where it was.
Like I said, just because you’ve broken the law already doesn’t make it any easier. Yeah, I’d been in Reese’s quarters before, and it sure wasn’t by invitation. A couple of weeks earlier, I’d planted a UNIcard in his wardrobe. It belonged to one of the Exex: the executive officers, the bosses. Whether it had been stolen or found, I didn’t know, but when it came my way, I didn’t waste any time putting it to good use. I couldn’t use it myself, UNIcards only accept their owners, as everyone knows. But possession of it would bring Integrity running, like sharks to blood.
So I planted it in one of Reese’s jackets and gave them a call.
How he got out of that, I still don’t know. It pissed me off like you wouldn’t believe. As I stood there outside his door, I swore he wouldn’t be so lucky this time.
I patted my breast pocket to make sure the sedative was still there. I had one of the onboard doctors to thank for that. It was fairly strong stuff. Even diluted by the water tank in Reese’s bathroom, it would still keep him down for two or three days. Not nearly as good as Integrity finding a stolen UNIcard, but it would lead to his credit being docked at the very least, maybe even losing his job and being shipped back Earthward.
I tell you, the nights I dreamt about that...
This is taking ages to tell, but I was only in that corridor for seconds. From another pocket I took a different codekey. Unlike the tech one, which was an electronic cylinder, this was a plastic card, but... well, if Integrity found that baby on me, I could kiss my life goodbye. That’s why I’d been so tense around the troopers. Because this thing belonged to them. Integrity issue!
It was a lockbreaker, a bypass card. Got you into just about anywhere. And Jesus Christ, the things I had to go through to lay my hands on it... But it had got me into Reese’s quarters before, and now it would again.
I slotted it into his door lock and... the light remained red.
I nearly snapped the card in two, slotting it in over and over, but the door stayed shut.
Shit! I couldn’t believe it – what was this! Why wasn’t the damn thing working? I cursed Reese and thumped my fist against his door. What was I supposed to –
– I froze.
I didn’t even know why. Hawk is like that, makes you pick up stuff that you’re not really aware of. I stood there, feeling stupid and wanting to kick the door down, but there was a…
A sound. To my right.
I strained to hear more. It wasn’t exactly complete silence in that corridor – there’s always the whirr of air vents, the distant throb of machinery, but after three years I was deaf to them. All I could really hear was my own pulse in my ears, and:
Movement! But not footsteps. What was that...?
I held my breath and listened. It was a slow and careful sound. For a while. And then:
Click click, click click, click click.
I got out of there like my ass was on fire, scrambling up the rungs on the wall. The sound was still very soft, and without the Hawk, I doubt I’d have heard it at all. But the state I was in, it sounded like a whole squad of troopers on tip-toe, about to leap round the corner and beat me to a pulp. Seriously, right then that’s exactly what I was expecting.
I hauled myself up the ladder double-time, grabbed the edges of the open ceiling hatch and pulled myself in. Once I was back in that filthy maintenance tunnel, I slowed down, trying to make as little noise as possible. I managed to fit the metal grille back into the opening without a sound.
I laid there in the dark and tried to breathe steady.
That strange clicking slowly got louder. It sounded almost like double footsteps – a pair of troopers? – but it was too soft and quiet for boots. It got nearer and nearer and then stopped. Whatever it was had just turned the corner and was in the corridor below.
In that cramped accessway, my booming heartbeat echoed in my ears. Then, above that, I heard the breathing.
And there was another sound, one I hadn’t heard since my last autumn on Earth, three years ago. The soft rustle of dead branches in the wind.
The tunnel was hot and dry, but my sweat was cold, sticking my shirt to my back. I wiped it out of my eyes and peered down through the metal grate, seeing only the floor.
I jumped as that clicking tread resumed, now sounding closer than ever. A shadow danced across the door to Reese’s quarters – misshapen, weird – the clicking stopped and something was directly beneath me!
That dry, autumn rustle came again.
I don’t think there’s any way I can tell you just how scared I was. The thing was right below, and it had obviously heard me and... Jesus, I was paralysed. Was it a chimera? What else could it be? But it didn’t sound like anything I’d seen before. Warwolves, you smelled them before you heard them, and goliaths could hardly creep up on anyone... but this was different. It sounded careful. And clever.
From its breathing alone, I could tell that it was a large beast. Huge.
Christ, I was so scared.
There came that clicking again: claws on steel. And a snuffling sound as a snout twitched against the doorframe of R25.
If that thing had my scent...
If it looked up at the ceiling...
More slowly and carefully than I’d ever been in my life, I edged backwards on elbows and knees, trying not to tangle my feet in loose cables. Trying to make absolutely no sound. Trying not to breathe.
I got my head away from the grille, which frightened me even more because now I couldn’t see anything, only hear the rumble of breathing directly below. I lay there sweating and listening as the seconds dragged by. God, how could this be happening to me, what the hell was this thing, what was it doing here?
Somehow I knew it had the patience of a big cat. It would stay motionless, sniffing the air, until finally it had its prey where it wanted it.
It hunted by waiting.
Sweat was running down my face. I could smell my own body. And if I could, it could too. I started panicking, itching to scramble along that tunnel! What was I going to do?
Calm down! I told myself. It can smell fear! You’ve gotta –
And then I remembered the capsules in my inner pocket. The shots of Hawk and Drive and... Ice!
It took tremendous effort not to move as fast as I could. In the near-dark, I fumbled to slot the capsule into my injector, then to roll up my sleeve and locate a vein. That wasn’t hard – it was pulsing like mad.
I gritted my teeth and thumbed the injector. It hissed sharply.
And so did the creature.