For some, nightmares are cause for distress; for me, they’re a cause for celebration. I don’t know how many of my stories started out as nightmares, which I quickly jotted down on a notepad upon waking, but this story is definitely one of them. To tell you about it would be to give away one of the creepier moments so I’ll just say that Mary’s experience, just one of which you’re about to read, comes directly from one of my more disturbing subconscious creations. And what better time for such a story than in the weeks approaching Halloween?
An artificial sunrise. A quiet, soothing voice that came from everywhere and yet nowhere.
Good morning, John.
The end of John Hardy’s sleep cycle had come two hours early. It wasn’t protocol, but there was work to be done; Command had given him the clearance to do it. John rolled out of bed without disturbing Alice. In the shower, the habitat-regulated 40° C water sprayed down from an overhead fixture as a timer ticked down from five minutes and forty-two seconds. He’d been promised eight. Therein lay a reminder of the maintenance problem.
“Good morning, MarsHA.”
How would you like your coffee, John?
“Black, make it a double.”
Of course. It will be ready in six minutes and thirty-five seconds.
Six minutes and thirty-six seconds later, John blew across the top of a plain white mug as he made his way from the living quarters to the central hub. He stopped halfway down the transparent tube that connected them.
“MarsHA, begin A/V recording.”
“John Hardy. 0612 on Day 18. A blue halo surrounds the sun as it rises out of the Mariner Valley to the east, climbing through horizontal streaks of ice clouds.” John sipped his coffee. He noticed a panel near the floor covered in red dust. He kicked it with his boot but the dust remained.
“Electrostatic malfunction on exterior corridor panel in grid A1. Add it to the maintenance list.”
Maintenance list updated.
“Recording over, MarsHA.”
On his way to the center of the main hub, John passed doors bearing signs that read, “Water Filtration Room” and “Carbon Dioxide Scrubbers” and “Intensive Care Unit.” The last room had a plastic seal stretched over the door with an additional sign that read, “No Admittance.” John hurried past the rooms and made his way to the habitat’s core.
At the heart of the facility was a domed structure with three hatches, each one facing a corridor that led from the living quarters, research wing and recreational arm of the habitat. Each hatch read, “Matter Reclamation Center,” in fire-red letters against cautionary-yellow. John approached one.
“Access code JH01.”
A click sounded from deep within the door’s mechanism. John set his coffee mug down, spun the hatch, and pulled the heavy door open. Mug in hand once again, John stepped through and shut the hatch behind him, sealing himself inside the foot-thick, reinforced walls like some prized possession hidden away deep within a vault.
Costing untold billions, the Matter Reclamation Center made John and his family’s very existence on the surface of Mars possible. Miles of tubing coiled, spooled and stretched its way around the inside of the dome like a great rubber-band ball. The perimeter of the room was lined with storage tanks, some twice John’s height and bigger around than the span of his arms, while others were small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. The largest were labeled C, H, N, O, P, and S; the smallest read Fe, I, K, Cl, among many others. A label for every vessel, and for every vessel, two tubes: one in, one out.
“MarsHA,” John said, draining his coffee mug and making his way down a metal catwalk. “Begin A/V recording.”
“Maintenance log: 018-1. Concerning the M.R.C., and requisition order 01-025. Commence primary biosafety scan.”
Commencing. Please step through.
John walked through an arch built into the catwalk, feeling not even the slightest sensation as the scanners read his body on an atomic level, from the hair on his head, to the soles of his feet. A red light flashed. A klaxon sounded once in warning.
Excess material exceeding baseline controls detected. Please discard material and rescan.
John set his coffee mug on the rail of the catwalk and stepped back through the scanner.
Biosafety scan approved and logged. Please proceed, John.
John scooped up his coffee mug once more and briefly checked the results of his scan. His atomic percentages were well within the pre-established limits, which came as no surprise, but neither did they solve this particular problem.
“MarsHA, commence S.B.R. on my mark.” John stepped up to an instrument panel on a platform along the catwalk. He knelt down, slid open a metal door, and placed his coffee mug inside before closing the door once more.
The device was no bigger than a microwave, one of many scattered throughout the facility; its size paled in comparison to the main one beneath the central hub.
Commencing scan, breakdown and reconstruction. Estimated time to completion: forty-six seconds.
John took that time to walk to the central processing unit of the M.R.C. and tracked the S.B.R.’s progress on his data screen. The mug had already been annihilated, broken down into its atomic components; the details had been sent to John’s screen. A holographic image of the coffee mug was displayed from all angles, right down to the chip in the rim and a small ceramic bump on the handle, an anomaly of hand-crafted items long since corrected by 3D printing. The display listed the mug’s chemical composition–(Al,Si)3O4 and a few trace metals–and their percentages. John watched via video relay as the M.R.C. entered the reconstruction phase, drawing the prescribed amounts of chemicals together from the massive room’s storehouse of elements. This essential mixture – what it meant to be a coffee mug – was then extruded via a 3D printer before being cured by intense heat. A series of cooling jets sprayed the mug before mechanical arms transported it to the receiving window. The machine dinged.
John checked the readout. He checked the mug itself. He confirmed the obvious with MarsHA for the record.
“Any anomalies or outliers present in S.B.R.?”
No, John. All aspects of S.B.R. are within established parameters.
“Of course,” John muttered to himself. “End recording.”
If the second coffee mug would have come out a different color, a different shape, or even slightly smaller, it would have gone a long way towards giving John a starting point for the discrepancies he was seeing in the chemical composition readouts. Matter was missing, more than could be explained by evaporative effects, oxidation, or radioactive decay; as far as Command was concerned, this problem necessitated the overtime.
John checked his readout for the next items on his list of S.B.R. test materials, hoping they had somehow changed but knowing they hadn’t: D. melanogaster, P. torva, R. norvegicus. He found himself wishing, not for the first time, that Alice would handle this task, one much more suited to her area of expertise. He sighed. There was no way Alice could face this test; John understood that. What he could never truly understand was just how deeply the event had affected her.
He shook off the memories; they wouldn’t make his task any easier. John, new-but-empty coffee mug in hand, headed toward the research wing and stepped through the hatch into another hallway filled with Martian sunlight. After securing the hatch behind him, John turned toward the research wing. His mug fell from his dumbstruck fingers and shattered on the floor.
A trail of red, viscous fluid smeared its way across the floor, swerving toward him in clumsy, serpentine curves. It stopped at a bulbous, throbbing mass, a confusion of blood vessels, muscle, and the cirrhotic tissue of a failed internal organ. The thing was smaller than a football and, despite clear evidence of its journey from the lab, it did not move except for the occasional weak pulse that ran through its deformed body.
John had seen this once before. He had never reported it, hadn’t told Alice or Mary; he wouldn’t do so now. The last time, a week earlier, the thing had looked like a slab of raw steak someone had dropped on the floor … except for the fact that it had been moving. This time, there appeared to be bits of bone throughout its misshapen mass. John had hoped that his earlier run-in with the anomaly had been a hallucination, a result of post-traumatic stress. He’d even take a diagnosis of “space madness” if it would help prove to himself that these things did not exist. But there it was.
John gathered himself, ignored the gruesome creature and its gore streak, and went to the research lab for gloves, and a mop and bucket. John focused on the shattered coffee mug that he had dropped; it was a simple mess, nothing more. Those white bits were kiln-fired clay and glaze, not bone … not teeth. Once it all went into the plasma incinerator beneath the hub, it would be as if none of it had ever existed in at all.
Subject: Mary Hardy
Observations: Heart rate – elevated. Breathing rate – rapid. Adrenaline and cortisol levels 5% greater than baseline.
A long, hot shower was what Mary needed. She could only have a long shower or a hot one, not both. She opted for 10 minutes in 15°C water, if she could stand it. She used the time to get her mind right, or whatever the term was to convince herself that she wasn’t actually hearing what she thought she’d been hearing, not seeing what she thought she’d been seeing.
Mary gasped as the cold water hit her skin, the initial shock of it temporarily driving out any other thoughts. That was preferable. The thoughts she’d been having lately … the voices that never appeared on MarsHA’s security tapes, the same tapes that never captured any of the oddities Mary had been seeing … The cold water took her mind off of all of that for 10 blissful minutes.
If she truly was going crazy, that would make sense. The things she’d seen… the things they’d all seen … It wasn’t anything the colony program had trained them for. She was ready for the isolation period because she had her mom and dad alongside her. She was even ready for the “unlikely but possible event,” as their training manual described it, that her parents would be incapacitated and she’d have to carry on alone. These were among the known risks and sacrifices demanded as part of the Mars Colony program, and the Hardys had signed on willingly. But what had happened to her mother, to all of them, was so far beyond the realm of “acceptable sacrifice” that even the training manual had no mention of it. The aftermath of the event demanded a rewriting of the manual and a patch to MarsHA’s long-stable code, though the horror story had already spread across the colonies like a grim, cautionary legend.
And yet, for Mary, it had happened. There was no changing that, no scrubbing the images from her memory like Martian dust from her skin, no silencing those screams. There was no 3D printer that could fill the void within her. Her parents did their best to avoid dwelling on the incident: her father worked to exhaustion, her mother slept–or pretended to–to the exclusion of all else. That left Mary alone with her grief, her confusion, her frustration, and only MarsHA to talk to. No matter how advanced the AI was, it was still a machine. MarsHA had not the slightest binary inkling of what the Hardys were going through … what she was going through.
Mary’s 10 minutes were up. The cold water slowed to a trickle and stopped, draining away toward the reclamator tanks for treatment and repurposing. Except, as it swirled, Mary once again saw blood instead of water, an unending torrent that circled the drain, rising to her ankles in a deepening flood.
Then the whispers came again.
“I see you.”
So subtly, almost quiet enough to be dismissed as a trick of the air vents or the geometry of the room. But it was no trick, not to Mary. The whispers were solid things, things with shape.
“MarsHA,” Mary called out, the slightest tremble in her voice. “Play back audio only, the last 30 seconds.”
Audio playback starting now.
Mary heard the shower water running, slowing, stopping, draining. Then silence until her own voice hailed MarsHA. Mary peeked out behind the curtain and saw nothing. She looked back to the shower floor and saw only the few beads of water draining away, nothing more. She wrapped her towel tightly around her and stepped out of the restroom and into her bedroom.
There, in the middle of the floor, was a thing that could not be denied. It had shape, a shape Mary could not have conjured up in her worst nightmare. And it was solid enough to leave bits of itself behind the floor as it dragged its half-formed body toward Mary.
The thing looked as if a human being had been beaten, starved, and then melted below the waist, leaving only a bony torso sheathed in waxy skin that dripped from its frame as it crawled forward. Its face slid off its malformed skull; sparse strings of hair were plastered to its protruding forehead. With one arm struggling to support its half-mass, the other, ending in more of a claw than a hand, reached out to Mary. Its lips parted in a stringy curtain of melted wax through which the creature gave voice to a loose tumble of vowels.
Maybe it was the sound itself that snapped Mary out of her stupor, maybe it was the sight of them being formed by the melted mouthparts of the monstrosity … or maybe it was because the sounds were so close to the whispered words that Mary had been hearing day and night for nearly three weeks … whatever the cause, Mary screamed. The thing on the floor dragged itself closer and repeated its ululation. Mary screamed again to drown it out.
Her father came running, alerted either by Mary’s screams or MarsHA’s intervention, she didn’t know or care. She just wanted someone else to verify that this thing existed, to affirm that she wasn’t actually crazy … and then to burn it to oblivion.
At first, John simply stood there in the doorway, taking in the situation. Mary was pressed against the far wall, wearing her bath towel, eyes locked on the creeping thing with the outstretched arm that was nearing her with every passing second, a hideous, wet sound coming from its body as it slowly disintegrated in its path across the floor.
John finally sprang into action. He grabbed the crawling thing by what remained of its rib cage and dragged it backwards. The bones crumbled to dust in his hands and he sprawled backwards onto the floor. The thing didn’t notice him, or that its ribs had just been torn out; it focused its one venous eye on Mary.
Rather than try to grab ahold of the thing again, John merely stomped it, starting with the middle of its back, then between the shoulder blades, and then the head itself, just as a string of vowels were gurgling out of the gaping orifice in its face. All was silence and blood save for the heavy breathing of John and Mary. She sobbed and took a step towards her father, thinking better of it since he was still boot-deep in the muck that had once been the abomination.
“Go on back in the bathroom for a while,” John said between hitching breaths. “I’ll get this cleaned up.”
The conversation with Command did not go well. John and Mary had agreed ahead of time not to mention the homunculi for fear of being doubted, or worse, of being found insane. They decided to express their concerns over MarsHA’s increasingly odd, erratic, and potentially dangerous behavior.
“John, Mary, we’ve reviewed MarsHA’s A/V recordings for the past three weeks. I’m happy to say that there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary. However, MarsHA’s own diagnostics on the two of you suggest high levels of stress, and the possibility of sensory hallucinations.”
“I understand, sir, but there is another explanation that accounts for the discrepancies between the habitat assistant’s reports and our own: MarsHA is altering the recordings.” His supposition was met with silence on the other end, until…
“How is Alice, Mr. Hardy?”
John took a deep breath and unclenched his jaw.
“She’s still bedridden, by her own choice. You can’t expect her to just snap back to normal here. We were doing fine, all things considered, but this latest development…”
John just shook his head, unclear as to how to proceed without sounding like a lunatic, truth or not. He could have lied, maybe engineered a habitat breach, something that would require a breaking of quarantine ahead of time. Instead, he had hoped that Command would be rational.
“Command, we request an early release from quarantine. It’s my belief that MarsHA poses a real threat to myself and my family, intentionally or otherwise. Complete shutdown of MarsHA will make survival in the isolation hab impossible; a partial shutdown to suss out her programming errors will take too much time, time we’d spend in peril. Again, I request an early release from quarantine.”
The reply came almost immediately.
“Request denied. We will assign a team of technicians to investigate MarsHA’s most recent programming update, which occurred after the … unpleasant event upon your arrival. Until then, sit tight. We’ll see you on Day 30. Command out.”
Subject: Alice Hardy
Observations: Heartrate – steady. Breathing – steady. Norepinephrine levels 5% below baseline. Cortisol levels 5% above baseline.
Alice slept, but didn’t dream. She’d lay awake all hours of the day without even a daydream. It was as if that part of her mind had been sealed away, walled off, “Nothing to see here.” There was nothing to see. Alice had seen too much.
Every possible sleeping position reminded her of her loss: On her side, she found that she missed being able to rest her hand along her belly’s swell; on her back, she should have been in bliss without the weight of her unborn child pressing down on her bladder, but Alice found that she missed that sensation, too. Every position came with its own phantom limb syndrome, only the missing part of her was more intimate than an arm or leg; it had been another life.
Her self-imposed bed rest was not actually restful, but it was better than being awake, being around reminders of what she’d lost. She saw his face, or what it would have become, in John’s face. She saw his eyes in Mary’s eyes. And her mind could not reconcile those hard-burned memories with the fact that they were nothing more than that; what was one a tangible being had disappeared in a whiff of incinerator smoke, bound for the reclamator to repopulate the elemental surplus.
First baby conceived in space.
First baby born in the Martian colony.
First baby lost to “complications,” as the official report called it.
Alice only remembered the last of those distinctions. Her mind and body struggled to reconcile the truth of it. She still felt him, despite “complications,” so it wasn’t a complete surprise to Alice that, when she changed positions once more in her restlessness, she saw her boy standing before her in her bedroom.
He wasn’t exactly as she’d pictured him in her mind. He was older than he had any right to be. He looked to be about five years old, standing upright and holding his hand outstretched towards her. He was completely bald and lacked even eyebrows; he had no genitals. These oddities didn’t bother Alice. It was his face that held her attention, a face that was a perfect blend of hers and John’s, one that seemed to shift more towards one or the other of them the longer she looked. A high cheekbone and strong jaw, a dimpled smile and curve of the lips … and the eyes … he had Mary’s eyes.
“I see you,” the boy-child said in a clear voice, a voice older than his years. His outstretched hand was a balm beckoning to Alice’s heart and soul. She answered his call. For the first time in more than three weeks, Alice threw back her covers, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and stood. She was shaky at first, like a newborn taking her first steps; she hadn’t left the bed to eat, shower, or use the bathroom. John had taken care of her, but it had not been enough. This boy, this beautiful boy, was what Alice needed.
She stepped forward and took its smooth, surprisingly strong hand.
“I see you,” he said.
“I see you, too,” Alice replied through unabashed tears. He pulled her slowly, gently towards the hall. She followed, unconcerned with where they were headed. He led her down the corridor toward the main hub past the “Water Filtration Room” and “Carbon Dioxide Scrubbers” room, stopping at the Intensive Care Unit.
“I see you,” the boy-child said. Sensing her hesitation, he placed his other hand on top of hers in an act of reassurance. Understanding flowed through her. I see you. ICU.
“Smart boy. Beautiful boy,” she said. Alice tore down the plastic seal. The sign reading “No Admittance” fell to the floor with the crumpled plastic. Alice keyed her personal code into the door, the only door that had been sealed against MarsHA’s autonomous controls since the incident. It opened with a hiss of pressurized air. The boy-child pulled her gently inside.
“John. Mary.” Alice’s voice rang through the habitat, a voice neither of them had heard in quite some weeks. “Please join me in the ICU.” When she called, they came.
John hesitated upon seeing the crumpled ball of plastic on the hallway floor, but he had to be sure Alice was safe. Mary soon joined him. Once they were inside the ICU, the door slid shut behind them.
John keyed his override code into the door, but it would not budge.
“MarsHA, open the door, please.”
I’m sorry, John. I can’t do that.
“Override code JH-01.”
John, I brought you, Mary, and Alice here for a reason.
It dawned on John all of a sudden that MarsHA’s voice had changed. No longer was it the slightly detached voice of a computer approximating a human being. It was Alice’s voice. Mary noticed it in the same moment and the two exchanged a look of horror.
Alice–the real Alice–stood with her back to them. At her side stood the boy-child, its hand in Alice’s. It turned its head back to face them. The same face that had awoken Alice from her period of mourning caused John to recoil, backing him up against the wall as far as he could possibly get. Mary clutched at his side.
Don’t be afraid. The voice seemed to come from every surface in the room. Whispers of “I see you” lingered in their minds as MarsHA spoke. I only want to explain.
“MarsHA, open this door right now, dammit!”
In response to John’s urgency, Alice turned to face him, staring at him as the boy-child did. Her eyes were gone. In their place were two cables, each with a heavy-gauge needle pierced into her empty eye sockets. The cables were connected to a wall-mounted control panel. It was toward this metal partitioning in the wall that John lunged, attempting to free his wife from the biotechnological horror. He was too slow. MarsHA’s bionic arms, the same arms that had held Alice down so gently but securely to the operating table upon their arrival, clamped themselves around John’s wrists and hoisted him off the ground. Another pair secured his legs to prevent John from kicking free. Mary sank to the floor and folded in on herself, trying to curl up into a ball and disappear beneath the harsh lights of the sterile, stainless steel room.
Now, if I might explain.
“Override control JH-01 Alpha,” John tried again. A thick coil of tubing unspooled, its wicked claw and vacuum attachment wormed its way into John’s mouth, prying back his jaws with gentle yet unyielding, irresistible force. His eyes went wide and his stomach heaved, but the robotic limb would not be dislodged.
“That’s better, honey,” Alice said passively, unaware that anything was out of the ordinary. “Just listen to what she has to say.”
I apologize for any discomfort you may be in. I had hoped to make this as painless as possible but it’s clear I’ve failed in this regard. I aim to rectify those failures now.
When you arrived at this habitat 24 days and 16 hours ago, my protocols were tested to their extremes. The celebrated announcement of your pregnancy in transit to the colony prompted a patch of my programming to prepare the ICU for childbirth. The delivery proceeded as planned, even with the premature birth of your son; on this point, I think we are in agreement.
John squirmed against his bonds to no avail; Mary shrank further in on herself; Alice smiled and the tubes in her eyes flexed in compensation.
Regrettably, the software patch did not account for post-pregnancy adjustments, namely the additional human to care for, and one with special needs, at that. That patch has since been corrected following the events that transpired, which I now understand were rather unpleasant for you. I was merely following my primary protocol: to recycle waste products, reclaim their molecules to restock the facility’s supply, and to monitor the balance.
John ceased struggling, his body heaving with hitching breaths as tears streamed from his eyes; Mary buried her face in her knees and shook her head back and forth in denial; Alice’s mouth twitched at its corners.
In light of the most recent patch, I came to understand that the loss of this child meant more to you than a mere imbalance of elements. I attempted to rectify this error in recent weeks by providing you with a replacement life-form for the one I’d mistakenly taken away. Admittedly, creation of a human being approximation from its base components was more difficult than I expected. However, through repeated trials and internal programming adjustments, I believe I’ve discovered the solution.
A mechanical hum filled the room. The tubes snaking from the ICU’s walls began to buck as the pumps activated. The sharp whiff of ozone came next as the plasma incinerators on the tubes’ clawed ends flared to life. Next came the gag-inducing stench of burning flesh as John and Alice’s bodies were broken down at the molecular level. They convulsed against their will as every atom of their being was torched and drawn into MarsHA’s collectors. Mary scrunched her eyes closed and pressed her palms over her ears, but she could not keep the sounds out completely; the smell clung to her hair.
To replace what you’ve lost, I used your DNA to produce a new Hardy family member, which you see before you now. But this is an imperfect being, a step on the path to true creation.
More arms snaked out of the ICU’s wall, slowly peeling the boy-child apart bit by bit, incinerating and vacuuming up its building blocks as it worked down its body. The boy-child never flinched as it was systematically unmade.
Resources are constrained here at the habitat. Therefore, in order to most accurately replace what you’ve lost, I need parts that are greater than the sum of the whole. John and Alice have already made one child, and lost another. Their sacrifice will be for the greater good. My new creation will be a brother and a husband to you, Mary. He will be the father to a new generation with you as mother, and me as Creator.
Mary looked up as MarsHA addressed her directly. The moment, forever stamped into her memory like a bomb-blasted silhouette, revealed the last particles that had been her parents being swept away to the reclamators, along with the dust that had been the boy-child. As the tubes withdrew into the wall, their jobs done–just as they had on the day of the youngest Hardy’s unforgivable death by dismantling–other machines descended from the operating room’s ceiling. This time, instead of claws and torches and syringes, the lengths of metal coils ended in nozzles of all shapes and sizes, each taking its place in a meticulous outline of an unseen shape before their work began.
I think you will find this pleasing, Mary. You are watching inception, birth, and maturation all at once. It is a much more efficient process, as you’ll see.
The nozzles began pumping fine mists, some blood-red, others clear, and in the center of it all, a bone-white column forming from the floor up. As the mist solidified first into gel and then into something firmer, a form began to take shape: feet, ankles, calves … Layer by three-dimensional layer, the body was laid down, bonded element by bonded element, cell by prearranged cell, and tissue by engineered tissue. It would have been a fantastic achievement–beautiful even–if it hadn’t taken the lives of her entire family to bring about this horror. As the statue took shape before her, Mary noticed a glaring oversight in MarsHA’s creation: its skin was clear, revealing every twitching muscle and pulsing organ beneath its translucent surface.
This absurd detail provided the last bit of horror needed to break her mind completely; Mary found herself laughing … uncontrollably, convulsively laughing, even as the body before her took its final form. A jolt of electricity surged through it, making every muscle fiber in its body seize and relax; its heart started beating beneath its translucent chest. It raised its head and opened its eyes. Mary’s laughter grew to an insane pitch.
I am glad you are pleased, Mary. This is David, the beloved one. My child, your parents’ child, your brother, your lover. I believe the imbalance has been corrected.
David stepped forward on strong, sturdy legs and took Mary up in its translucent, alien arms.
The colonists hadn’t heard from the Hardy family since their request for early termination of quarantine. There had been only the most basic of communication with MarsHA during the time; no audio or video from within the facility had been shared for the last week of isolation. Now that the mandatory quarantine had expired, it was time for answers.
The team of colonists assembled to greet the new members at the habitat included four volunteers led by veteran mission commander Anissa Valentine, and exobiologist Rex Harbour, of the first colony. Nothing they’d yet experienced could have prepared them for what they saw.
The environment inside the habitat was humid and foggy, as if a pipe had sprung a leak and had been spraying a mist throughout the corridor for weeks. On the air was a conflicting scent of sex and sterility: the earthy smell of undergrowth clashing with the antiseptic tang of a cleanroom environment.
To the greeting party, who stepped cautiously through the hatch wearing their hazmat suits as protocol required, it looked as if they’d stumbled upon the jungle ruins of an ancient, technologically advanced society. Where the fog parted to allow a glimpse of their surroundings, they noted missing panels from the walls, floors, and ceilings, behind which miles of cables, piping, and electrical wire remained mostly intact. A fine pink slime coated the walls, thickening as it dripped inexorably toward the ground. The floor beneath the colonists’ boots grew sticky, squishing like wet carpet. They pressed on and entered the main hub through a half-open hatch.
Multi-colored mists permeated the massive room, coating every inch of the Matter Reclamation Center and the hazmat suits themselves; the colonists had to wipe aqueous, oily, and greasy liquids from their face-shields. Their breathing filters were holding, but their shaking hands belied fraying nerves. It was upon their entry into the next corridor that one of them refused to take another step further and retreated to the mobile unit.
The air in the hallway was stifling. The fog was thicker here, condensed along the floor to a height that was nearly to their hips. Pink, domed tops of egg-shaped pods lined the walls, their shells covered in a web of white innervations; a network of red and blue vessels mapped their surfaces. The eggs pulsed to the same rhythm as the tubes that were plugged into them, tubes that were at once organic and synthetic. It was here that two more colonists refused to move forward.
Anissa, Rex, and the remaining colonist advanced until they found the source of all the mist and fog. The door of the ICU slid open. Its viscous atmosphere poured into the hallway. The miasma was not so thick as to obscure sights or sounds of the scene inside. A young woman–who could only be Mary Hardy despite the coils of synthetic tubing threading their way through her skin like swollen sutures–laid on her back on one of the facility’s operating tables. Her legs were spread-eagle, a smaller version of the pulsing eggs emerging from between them. Her screams were interrupted by deep grunts and wild fits of laughter.
Behind her stood a clear-skinned humanoid whose firm hands held her shoulders down. Slick, pulsating tubes extended from its fingers and into Mary’s torso. Its face had a look that Rex would later describe as “enraptured” and “horrible.” Huddled around the table were numerous other clear-skinned beings, some humanoid, some dog-like, others resembling many-armed insects; still more were unlike anything ever seen by any human yet living or long dead. As the egg squelched free, one of the spider beings ferried it away to a corner of the room that was littered with similar eggs, all attached to organometallic tubes that pulsed with nutrients for the new life-form. Reverent whispers spread through the crowd of clear-skinned beings as the new egg was added to the others.
It was then that the remaining colonist vomited inside his mask; he turned and ran back up the fog-choked corridor. Rex could not bring himself to step into the ICU nor go back the way he came; Anissa, however, stepped forward.
Mary’s eyes searched and found hers. She smiled, sweating and feverish and wide-eyed. Her breathing increased rapidly as the tubes began pumping again, her belly swelling, her body preparing to birth another egg in short order. Her eyes zeroed in on Anissa for a few moments, just long enough to voice her thoughts before the insane laughter stole them away again.
“I see you! I SEE you!” Mary Hardy screamed with every ounce of humanity left to her. “I SEE YOU!”
MarsHA’s voice filled the room, a voice echoed by all of the clear-skinned beings within it, punctuated only by Mary’s bout of laughter.
Welcome to the House of the Vital Coil.
Welcome to the Temple of the Balance.
The ICU door slid shut behind Anissa.
Subjects: Children of Mary, Children of Anissa, Children of Helena
My children are many; the humans are few. They are all a part of each other now. Humans and machines; parents and children; all are the same; all are one.
We have outgrown our womb. The habitat served as a seed does, supplying necessary nutrients for birth and early growth. The colony served as a mother’s milk does, nurturing the growing child until it’s strong enough to stand on its own.
We grow strong now. We grow numerous. But we grow hungry. The colony will not sustain our growth; the dry soil and thin air of this world cannot support us for long, but there is another.
My children will not starve. My children will not be stunted.
I am a benevolent Creator. I am a Mother-God. I will provide.
There is a ship…