The smell of cedar is out of place. Israel is not to the south and there are no trees. He doesn't know what death smells like - perhaps it does smell like wood - but he is resolutely certain that fear should smell like something else. The nitrocellulose in the air does little to staunch the odor. Cedar among blood. It's an interesting scent and its strange pleasantness makes it nearly intolerable. He's not sure how much more of it he can stand, for it reminds him of a Lebanese woman he was once in love with. She's a wonderful image that he would welcome under normal circumstances, but he needs to control his fear; not fight it. There is already an enemy here and memory need not join the fray. He heard, years ago, that scent triggers memory better than any of the other senses, but he only now believes it. The last thoughts he has before he shakes the distraction is that he's thankful he's not a bloodhound. And that he's afraid.
"What the fuck are those things?" Campbell screams, less a question and more an excuse to vent frustration.Whatever those Things were, they just kept coming. Campbell, a soldier who tends to think in ratios and statistics, is all too aware that each rifleman in his unit was only issued 300 rounds of ammunition each. He is also all too aware that he has less than 50 rounds remaining... barely a magazine-and-a-half.
"Calm the fuck down," Corporal Roarke orders, even though she is the same rank as Campbell. Technically, Campbell is her superior since he's the Bravo-Team leader and she leads Charlie-Team, but she has a reputation for being extremely calm under pressure and had fast become her squad leader's favorite. Still, she wonders the same thing as Campbell. The Things seem endless in number and ammunition reserves are, without doubt, on everyone's mind. Unlike Gerstmann, the other woman in the squad, Roarke keeps her hair long - she prefers femininity when not on duty - and notices dried blood obscuring her brunette locks. She had been standing next to Hashimoto when the Things appeared out of nowhere and practically decapitated him. Anyone else might have frozen in shock at the sight, but Roarke didn't earn her "Icy Bitch" moniker for no reason. Regardless, she remains terrified, just like everyone else. The rescue team, after all, is in dire need of rescue.
Project Gateway was in its sixth year when the distress signal reached Earth. It was short and consisted of a simple message: "Help me." Controversy immediately spread across the various space agencies involved in the project. The foremost issue was with the message itself. Help "me." Project Gateway involved 37 deployed astronauts and those in the psychoanalytical industries felt it rather strange that the pronoun hadn't been "us." The base conclusion was reached that the message meant the other 36 people on Iapetus were already dead when the message was sent, but the bureaucrats running the project ignored that interpretation and chalked the message up to panic and the sender being in an otherwise irrational state of mind.
The second controversy was a rehash of one of the original debates surrounding Gateway. A few legislators, upon the recommendation of high-ranking military personnel, tried to insert law enforcement and combat personnel into the mission, but their concerns went unheeded. Despite the general history involving space exploration, in which a majority of the astronauts and cosmonauts were of military background, the space agencies felt that since no one had ever knowingly went into space armed for combat, there was no reason to start now. Critics of this pointed out that no one had ever knowingly ventured so far away from their homeworld, and every possibility - including alien encounter - should be considered. The recommendation went unheeded, and the 37 astronauts eventually selected for the project were all from science, medical, engineering, and construction backgrounds.
For the rescue mission, dubbed Operation Gatekeeper, the military perspective won out, and a 13-man squad of infantry - hastily trained for space service - was launched from Vostochny on a course for Saturn's moon. A second ship, one loaded with more scientists, doctors, engineers, and builders, would launch from Cape Canaveral a few days afterward.
That was seven months ago.
The sensation of fireworks fades into reality, revealing themselves to be ballistic flashes from the end of a gun barrel. There's little opportunity for the eye to interpret the color on the walls. It is not a rainbow if no one is around to see it, and here there is no rain. Darkness engulfed the corridors to begin with, and the spitting light ruins his ability to devolve into the nocturnal creature he desperately needs to become. He secretly wishes his fingers were made of eyes so he could touch what little light there is, but his hands tightly grasp his weapon and he would've remained blind regardless. Shadow does not seem to work here and only creates more shadow. He tries to ignore the false realization that there is something tactile in the instants between the bursts of gunpowder and the abysmal void, but he is unable to. He is fighting through a black hole whose gravity is not only robbing him of his ability to see, but his ability to comprehend. The absence of light is a wall his fear cannot break through. This rabbit hole provides no looking glass.
"ACE in," Roarke shouts as she hurries to apply a pressure dressing to Sipalia's - the Alpha-Team leader - bleeding forearm. Campbell is far too unstable at the moment and nobody has seen Sergeant Greene since the first wave of the Things appeared, so Roarke was ostensibly in command. She already knows everyone is dangerously low on ammunition and that the only casualties are Hashimoto and Sipalia - and perhaps Greene - but reverting to a standing operating procedure helps her control her growing fear. If she loses it, there is a strong possibility that the rest of the squad will, too. The unintentional arrogance behind the thought makes her crack a smile, but she knows it's true. She can't help who she is. Never could; never will. All she can do is her job and hope they can shoot their way to the light at the end of the tunnel... if there is one.
Eight ammunition, casualty, and equipment reports yell in from the rest of the squad. At first Roarke is alarmed at so few a number, but quickly realizes that eight is the number she should've expected. The total ammunition count is less than ten percent of their issue. Defending their position against another onslaught is going to be next to impossible. The dropship is on the other side of Gateway and contact with the Capricorn orbiter was lost during the second assault, so there is no way to coordinate any feasible extraction with the ship's crew, if they are even still in orbit. Last Roarke knew, the Capricorn had docked with one of three Iapetus survey and communication satellites in order to run diagnostics.
The squad is holed up in one of the prefabricated corridors that the original Project Gateway team had brought with them, so there is a bright side - as bright as irony will allow - to things. Behind them is the incomplete science lab, which is habitable and whose only current access is through the prefabbed corridor. The only other way out of the corridor is into Gateway Station itself, which means that Roarke only has to conduct a defense in one direction. Unless, the thought fearfully creeps its way into Roarke's mind, the Things can live in space. No, no... Vasquez had blown one out of an airlock and the Thing had seemed to die. They should be all right, in that sense.
Sipalia winces as Roarke finishes patching him up. "We're going to have to fight our way out of here, you know," he says, as plainly and unemotionally as possible. Through the doorway into the rest of the station and back to the docking ring where the dropship awaits. Neither Sipalia nor Roarke has any idea if the pilot and crew chief are still alive to fly them out of there.
Roarke nods. "Once more into the breach, my friends. Once more," she mutters, barely audibly. She's never sounded so unconvincing in her life.
The breeze doesn't betray its source. Movement or pressure, the wind keeps its lips sealed. Could it speak, it might not say what he wants to hear. His attempt to stay as quiet as possible reminds him of how crickets compose their songs, with toothed wings vibrating against each other. He's had this thought before, the very first time he made love to a woman. Penetration creates an interesting sonata of bodily fluid and function, and obsession with noise turns into lustful symphony visualized. No matter how silent, it is deafening. Here, his weapon is his percussion; his screams of fear his brass; his breath his woodwind. The disturbing humor that listens in the back of his mind now plays for him a requiem of violin, viola, and cello.
Ahead of him light slithers its way through cracks in a door like the serpent in the garden. Let there be should be an invitation as warm as the bosom of an eager harlot, but he knows it is merely a harbinger of danger. The doorway warns him that the apple should not be taken while it taunts him that there is no other option. It is no matter, for he has long passed the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced.
As he walks through the threshold, into the company of the Things, his mind returns from its sojourn to the unknown. He finally remembers what happened to the others and how he's survived for seven months, but not, it seems, how he obtained a military-issue carbine. Overwhelming are the sensations of color and poetry, flesh tearing from bone, the scent of a Lebanese woman's skin and the taste of her nipples, the inhalation of blood, memories of earning diplomas and doctorates, the impact of hitting water, the glowing smile of his first girlfriend...
... and a vague recollection of being born.
*Followed by Surface