The Reaper

The overheard rotors of the helicopter roared as they struggled over the choppy black waters of the arctic sea, fighting against the teeth of a winter gale.  White froth boiled at the crests of the waves as they grew to twenty foot swells, freezing spray whipping into a fine mist as the high wind whipped it away. Chunks of ice the size of houses rose and fell along the sharp cliff sides of the waves like the scales of wriggling, primordial snake.  Black and blue clouds skidded across the iron-grey sky, tumbling with dizzying speed on the keening December wind. The storm was going to get worse before it got better.

Jessica tightened one of the shoulder straps securing her to a seat, strands of long black hair fluttering loose around her face as the wind moved through the inside of the chopper in a cold rush that she felt slip between the seams of her coat, sending ripples of gooseflesh sliding along her spine..  

A jolt ran through the frame of the bird as it was buffeted by yet another strong wind.  

“Harness check.”  Commander Klein’s curt voice crackled through the headset.  A small gust like that wouldn’t even begin to jolt the military-spec combat harnesses the team wore, but Klein was a german to the core; methodical, precise, and more often than not, boring.  Well, maybe not boring, Jessica reflected as her hands flickered to her harness, testing the straps that anchored her shoulders and hips to the molded plastic seat for slackness or tears.  More like he delighted in routine things that the rest of them groaned at, such as checking harnesses. Or, gear inspections. Once, a year or so ago he had found a broken clasp on the belt buckle of Jessica’s backpack.  She had spent five hours cleaning the unit’s bathroom with a toothbrush for that particular offense.

“Tight, Commander.”

“Good to go.”  Gordon’s high-pitched voice squeaked over the mike.  The pudgy latino was sitting beside Jessica, his free hand pulling on the last of his straps around his waist.  A large tablet was velcroed to his other hand. Nominally for comm usage, or navigation, right now it displayed the reddit homepage.  Gordon, or Gordito, as he was referred to by everyone in the squad except Klein, was big into geek culture. Dungeons and Dragons, anime, video games and all that jazz.  He was a little chubbier around the midsection than your average NATO special forces op, but he had four masters degrees in various incomprehensible tech things that Jessica could not for the life of her remember.  She and Gordito were tight. She had been at his wedding to his husband, Benito.

“All good here, Commander.”  Brianna said. The redhead was sitting on the bench beside Klein, a Stephen King book open on her lap.  How that woman could read sitting on a helicopter rising and dropping fifteen feet every other heart beat, Jessica would never know.  Brianna was the squad’s EMT. She had gone to Harvard and done her internship at some big hospital in New York City before 9/11. Her husband had been in one of the towers, and didn’t make it.  She had signed up for the marines the next day. Jessica admired the hell out of the woman. Most of the women Jessica encountered in the service were similar to her; long standing military tradition in the family, brothers who had gone into the service right after high school, stuff like that.  Bree had a promising career as a surgeon before she lost her husband. She didn’t have to join the marines.  It also didn’t hurt that she was really nice to look at.  Even in a jacket that made her look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man. Her hair was less red and more of a burnt auburn, and she had bright green eyes that fairly glittered with smarts.  Her jawline could cut glass, and she had a wide, almost vulnerable kind of shy smile.

Jessica shook herself.  She was being a creeper.  

Bree was super into horror books. Stephen King was her favorite, but she and Gordito had once gotten into it in the back of a hummer on patrol in Afghanistan about the merits of H.P Lovecraft and his impact on modern culture.  Klein had had to put Gordon in the front seat to prevent that one from coming to blows.

And then of course, there was the Commander.  Jess had gone on three tours and countless missions with the taciturn man, and still didn’t know him well enough to make a guess at his personal life. Not for lack of trying, he was just a private person.  You had to be, Jessica supposed, to be in charge of a NATO special forces unit. She knew that he was married, because he wore an unadorned silver band on the third finger of his left hand.  She could see it now, as he performed his own harness check with the brisk efficiency borne from twenty-three years in the service. And she was pretty sure that he had kids, because he had a crayon drawing duct taped to his footlocker back on the aircraft carrier.  Either that, or his partner was a God-awful artist and he didn’t have the heart to tell them.

“How much further to this lab, Commander?” Gordito asked, wincing as another gust of wind whistled through the cab, dropping the bird five feet in a rush.  Gordon didn’t like flying. He had puked the better half of a bag of gummy worms in the back end of a cargo flight from Kandahar to Paris, much to the surprise and dismay of the group of rangers he was sitting next beside. Jess was pretty sure he wasn’t going to hurl now, though.  They’d been flying for three hours; he would have done it by now.

On either side of the cab, the ocean stretched infinitely in any direction.  It was an eternal, ice-filled wasteland, built from enormous waves of water and ice that would swallow a human soul in its crushing, freezing embrace without a second’s remorse or hesitation.

“There it is.” Bree said, pointing out the side of the helicopter.

Cerberus rose from the spraying waves in a colossal chimney stack, like a submerged nuclear factory built of pale stone, impossibly wide. Colonies of black bivalves clung to it’s smooth milky sides, crawling up the structure like ivy, flashing in and out of sight as the waves rose and fell along the stack’s smooth walls in huge sprays of angry foam. A triangular landing pad with a yellow ‘h’ painted in neon yellow capped the stack, a concrete overhang that must hold the elevator on one side.  Each of the triangle’s corners rested on the lip of the yawning abyss, jutting out by some ten feet. White hoarfrost whipped across the flat surface of the landing pad in sheets, footprints of the gale that screeched across the waves.

At each corner of the triangle, enormous dog heads growled silently at the waves, each at least fifteen feet high.  They were carved from some kind of blue-grey stone, uneroded by wind, rain or wave. Their eyes, furious and colder than the waves that rose beneath them, were black and deep-set in angry sockets.  Their obsidian lips were curved back, exposing teeth that Jessica somehow knew were razor-sharp. Cerberus, the three-headed beast that guarded the entrance to the underworld.  Jessica didn’t find the metaphor nearly as amusing as Gordito had. The massive stack certainly looked like the entrance to hell. The roar of the rotors overhead suddenly became the growl of the hounds, rapaciously hungry and angry.  

Get ahold of yourself, Taylor.  

“Gordito!” She dug an elbow into Gordon’s side, covering her mike and shouting over the whistle of the wind.

“Yo!” The chubby latino didn’t look up from his tablet.  

“What are those?”

“Uhh…” Gordon peered through his thick, coke-bottle glasses.  His vision (or lack thereof) was the butt of many a joke between Jess and Bree, both of whom boasted 20/20.  It was one of the reasons Jess was on Klein’s squad; she could hit a target the size of an apple at six hundred yards.  “Best guess, giant dog heads.”

“Thanks jackass.  I meant what are they for?”

“Oh, they help weigh the complex down.  It’s anchored to a nearby rift, but the heads are ultra-dense and help keep the strain from the anchor chains.”

“Why are they dogs?”

Gordito looked over and grinned, his square teeth biting down slightly on his lips.  He always looked like a gleeful twelve-year old when he smiled like that. “Architectural joke?  You know, like the dog that guards hell?”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

Gordon shrugged easily, going back to his tablet. “It’s just a myth dude.  Chill out.”

Jessica sat back in her chair in a huff, pointedly staring at the floor of the cab and not the rolling waves outside. Unease growled at her gut.  She disliked the ocean; always had. Any large body of water really. She didn’t even like ponds. You never knew what lurked beneath that silty water, waiting to strike.  When she had been eleven they had learned about snakes, and Mrs. Jill had told them about a snake called a water moccasin, and how it wriggled along the surface of the freshwater ponds and marshes that surrounded Atlanta.  She had even shown them a picture of her husband, who had gotten bit on the leg. It had looked like an infected elephant’s. Jess suppressed a shudder.

“We’re getting close! Touchdown in five!”  The pilot’s accented english crackled over the comms.  

The chopper lowered over the helipad slowly and awkwardly, swaying to and fro as it was battered by the wind.  The wheels skidded along the asphalt of the helipad in a grating jolt.

“We can’t hold her in this wind! We have to turn around!” The copilot yelled. The helicopter jolted as it made contact with the pad.   

Nein, negative!” Klein bellowed back, his iron voice clipped and short  His brow furrowed as he glared at the bulkhead between Jess and Gordon, where the pilots sat on the other side, holding the microphone attached to his headset.  “Your orders are to hold here until we get back! We can cable you to the platform!”

Each of the passengers in the cabin pitched to the right as a gust of wind suddenly sent the craft skittering across the pad.  Ten feet away, the ocean rose in huge swells, eager and hungry.

“No sir! Not even cables will hold us in this wind! You can go now if you want, but we’ll have to make our way back and wait for better weather!”  

It took the Commander less than a second to make his decision.

“Get out! Go, go!”

They threw themselves from the craft awkwardly, desperately disentangling themselves harness straps and headphone sets, throwing gear bags ahead of their hasty exit.  Brianna, closest to the door, leapt into a neat roll along the concrete surface of the pad, looping her strong arms through the straps of as many bags as she could grab. Jessica hit the pad behind the doctor awkwardly, stumbling and nearly falling as she felt the full force of the gale for the first time.  Her boots slipped along the textured surface of the helipad. Klein grabbed her as he leapt off the craft, pulling her roughly forward. Gordon had two gear bags slung over his shoulder, hand in front of his face in an attempt to protect himself from the snowflakes that whistled along the wind like bullets.    

A black bag tore loose of Brianna’s grip, streaking along the icy surface of the helipad, carried by the wind like a projectile.  Jessica barely leapt over the black blur before it shot over the side of the platform and disappeared into the sea.

“Commander!”  Bree’s voice whipped past them, high and faint, like a ghost’s. Her hair fluttered behind her wildly, a red ribbon that snapped like a flag. She cupped one hand against her mouth to be heard over the gale.  “I think that was the comms!”

“It doesn’t matter! Head for the shelter!”  The Commander pointed a gloved hand at the concrete overhang at the far end of the helipad.  A pair of steel doors stood in the dim recesses. They struggled along the slick surface, teeth gritted as they leaned forward against the wind.  Behind Klein, the chopper’s rotors fired back up in a high-pitched whine, sending the craft back into the sky.

The overhang jutted forward into the helipad by six feet.  They collapsed inside the relative safety of its walls, slumping against gear bags.  Klein wiped his face grimly, swearing under his breath in german as he stared at the retreating form of the chopper.  

Ich schwöre bei Gott, wenn ich diesen Mann jemals in die Hände kriege…”  He took a deep breath, getting ahold of himself.  “Hernandez, upload the schematics for the complex.  Taylor, unpack those MP5’s. Dr. Smith, pass out walkies.  I want to breach in two minutes.”

Jessica unzipped the largest, heaviest duffel and pulled out four submachine guns, swiftly checking that the breaches were clean, the safeties were on, and the silencers were securely attached before handing them around.  She accepted the mike that Bree handed her with a smile of thanks (the redhead winked at her and Jess felt her stomach flip in a flurry of butterflies she hadn’t felt since grade school) and twisted it securely into her ear, adjusting the wire-thin microphone so it settled against the base of her throat, where it would read the minute vibrations of her vocal chords, communicating even at a whisper.  

Each member of the team shed their cumbersome outer layer, stuffing them inside a duffel.  They would leave a majority of the gear they didn’t need up here. Beneath the winter coats they each wore thermal white arctic fatigues with tactical bulletproof vests.  

“Comms test, comms test.” Klein murmured lowly into his microphone, looking out at the darkly ominous clouds that were curling into sight from the west.  

“Check.” Bree said, tucking her bright hair into a plain black baseball hat.  

“Check.” Gordon had transferred his info to a smaller tablet the size of a phone that was secured to the inside of his wrist. His silenced submachine gun was slung over one shoulder.

“Check.”  Jessica clipped six extra MP5 mags to the studs that ran along her belt.

“Commander, what are we going to do about the radios?  We have no way to contact Longyearbyen.” Concern hovered at the edge of Bree’s voice.

“We’ll have to get to the comms station in the complex. Let’s go. Guns down until hostile contact.”  Klein moved forward to take point. “Ready? One, two…three.”

He opened the door.

The room beyond was small, unlit and cramped.  The silver doors of a freight elevator were closed.  Klein pressed the summon button. Nothing happened.

“Well this is anticlimactic.”  Bree murmured.

“Hernandez?” The commander stepped to the side, allowing Gordon to take a look. Gordito swiftly unscrewed the panel with a screwdriver, clipping an aux cord from the tablet on his forearm to one of the wires within.  He frowned at the digital display.

“There’s no power.”  

“Impossible.”  Klein’s brow furrowed.  “There are two backup generators, are there not?”

Gordon tapped through a series of increasingly complicated screens, his frown deepening.  

“Yes sir, but they’ve both been set to ‘power save’ mode, and the main generator has been–” He shook his head in confusion.  “It’s off.”

“What do you mean, it’s off?  What could make a generator of that size turn off?”

“Uhhh…catastrophic failure of a major system, like say, temperature control.  A tsunami, maybe. The main generator is actually a tidal energy converter, meaning that it’s powered by the strength of the waves around it.  It could have gotten overloaded, shut itself off as a failsafe.”

“And the two backups?”

Gordon spread his hands in a helpless shrug.  Klein’s mouth tightened at the corners.

“So the lab’s inhabitants have been without power for forty-eight hours?”

“Not entirely.”  Gordon squinted at his display.  “The ‘power save’ functions on the backups still run a trickle of power to life support capabilities–air recycling, temperature control and basic necessities.”

“Can you fix the main generator?”

Gordon rubbed his face with a gloved hand thoughtfully.  “Maybe. I’ve only got a little experience with TEC’s, but if it was a simple failsafe…”

Klein nodded.  

“Can you divert some of the power to the elevators?”
“Um…hang on.”  Gordito pulled off his backpack and pulled out a wafer-thin laptop, transferring the aux cable from the tablet.  He sat cross legged and began typing furiously.

Jessica leaned against the doorframe, suppressing a shudder.  Brianna cracked several vertebrae in her neck with a swift twist.  Klein stood as thought he was carved from stone, staring at the elevator doors.  What should have been a simple check-in was becoming more and more complicated by the minute.  

“You know, in movies this takes, like, less than a minute.”  Bree said helpfully.

Gordon glared at her above the black frames of his glasses.  He looked like a malevolent, chubby owl. She grinned at him. He scowled and went back to typing.  

The light above their heads illuminated, bathing all of them in a white glow that was nearly blinding after to their eyes, accustomed to the darkness of the small room. A deep-set hum emanated from behind the elevator doors.

“Got it.”  Gordon made a triumphant fist, closing the laptop and putting it back in his bag.  

“I wrote a quick energy-allocation program.  With enough notice, I should be able to divert power wherever we need it.”

Klein nodded, pressing the summon elevator button.

“Change of objectives.  Hernandez, where’s the generator?”

“Floor thirty seven.”  

“Does this elevator go all the way to the bottom?”

“Negative, commander.  This one only goes to the first floor.”

“Find an elevator that goes to the thirty seventh floor.  We make contact, and coordinate with the inhabitants to fix the generator.  Then, comms system.”

The elevator opened behind him with a ding.

The unadorned freight elevator dropped quickly, sending them plunging into the depths of the most inhospitable ocean in the world.  Fear crawled up Jessica’s spine. One crack in the cement that surrounded them, one failed sealant, one rock that was flung harder than it should have been by the tide and they were dead.  The ocean would surge through the breach and they would drown, crushed against the walls by the pressure.

When she was a kid, her mother and her had watched a movie called Poseidon together.  It had been part of their ‘girl days’, when her father and brothers had been off doing boy scout things, before Jessica had become more interested in kickboxing, field hockey and a boy named Cameron.  In the film, a cruise ship had been sunk upside-down by some bullshit phenomenon called a ‘rogue wave’, trapping the passengers in an air pocket. Kurt Russell led a band of what her mother had referred to as ‘scrappy idiots’ in attempting to find a way out. The group succeeded, but Kurt Russell’s character drowned.  It had looked so…painful. He had struggled, rocking like he was being crushed by a fist, the air forced inch by inch from his lungs as he kicked and gaped frantically. A part of her adult, rational mind knew that it was a combination of acting and special effects. Twelve-year old Jessica Taylor, however, never forgot.  She never forgot the look of pain. She whispered in the back of her head that of the ways to die, drowning was the worst.

Because you had time to savor it.   

The doors opened into a huge, dark room.  It was warm, humid. It reminded Jessica of those Atlanta summers where your skin acquired a slick of sweat as soon as you stepped outside. It smelled of sweet decay, like rotting leaves. Definitely not what she expected from an underwater arctic lab. The team clicked on LED flashlights, panning them around.

“Are those…trees?” Bree asked, staring above them.  

“Hernandez.”  

“Working on it.”  

Blue-green light rose from strips set into the walls, washing the room in an eerie

(underwater, twelve-year old Jessica whispered)

glow.  They were in a vaulted sort of greenhouse, wide paths of cement weaving through sunken plots of dirt that boasted trees, ferns and flowers, all in various states of dehydration.  A shrub drooped over the nearest railing, petals shriveled and hanging listlessly from thin limbs. A cherry tree trunk stood silently over a carpet of fallen, yellow blossoms. Flowers wilted, ferns trailed sadly along the ground.  They were alone in the room. The only sound was a faint whirring, moving the wet air in a slight current, and a faint, barely audible hiss of static from what Jess was assuming an overhead intercom system.

The walls were made from a dark stone of some kind, with a gray-filter light that grew along the upper walls and ceiling in dim bursts.  Jess cocked her head, frowning as she tried to figure out what she was looking at…and then, in a heart-stopping moment of realization, she realized.

They were glass.  

Some sick architect panelled the entire, massive room in glass. The murky light that struggled along the ceiling were the last reaches of the sun, attempting to pierce the gloom of the deep water.  She thought she might be sick.

“They must be on a controlled irrigation system.”  Brianna said, kneeling to pick up a handful of fallen flower petals.  “It’s been a while since they’ve been watered. Jess, you ok?”

Jess had her hands on her knees and was taking slow, deep breaths.  “Fine. Just a little vertigo.”

“Drink some water.”  Klein’s voice double-spoke through the comms and from twenty feet away.  

She nodded, turning her attention to the greenery that choked the plots of mounded earth as an attempt to distract herself.

The only flowers that seemed to be thriving were a series of red-petaled almost-roses that sprouted here and there along a delicate trailing green vine that grew along the ground, wrapping around the bases of most of the trees and even along the lower walls, like a creeping ivy.  A handful of wispy, delicate stems sprouted from the middle of each, crowned with what appeared to be a halo of yellow buds. They were beautiful. Their petals were a layered palette of red; a light dusty crimson along the outermost, fading almost imperceptibly to a brilliant blood-red carmine along the center.  The yellow coronas that decorated the center looked like they were dusted with some sort of pollen.

Jessica loved roses.  Her father, a retired major in the Army, kept a garden and the backyard had always been full of the heady, perfume-laden scent of fresh roses, mixed with the sweet scent of honeysuckle.  

Klein was in hushed conversation with Gordon, bent over the tech’s forearm display.  Brianna was inspecting a young maple tree, bent lifelessly over the concrete walkway, fingers tracing the skeletal limbs that held dried and shriveled leaves.  Jessica took a step over to one of the almost-roses that bloomed gloriously over the dying outline of some kind of shrub.

It seemed that the flower had a scent of some kind.  It was a mysterious aroma; a faint floral smell like a true rose, but without the nose-wrinkling perfume finish, mixed with something metallic. A hint of…iron? There was a note of brine, as well.  Like the flower breathed the sea. Faintly, Jess thought that perhaps she should be wary of it. It seemed almost alien, out of place. She thought she remembered something about flowers, how they used color and smell to draw things to them. But something about the flower, it’s red layered petals and that scent, pulled her closer.  Her feet moved seemingly of their own accord. The color was so vivid, the smell familiar in an just-out-of-touch way.  Had she smelled that scent, once, in her childhood?

She leaned down and inhaled deeply, suddenly curious.

The scent was warm, heavy and rich and filled her senses like a cloud, blooming through her sinuses in an unstoppable wave.  Roses and fresh-shucked oysters, her mother’s kitchen after she had baked cookies, sweet and safe, her father’s toolshed, sawdust and woodsmoke and his laugh, his wide warm laugh.  It smelled of home, of her childhood.    

It smelled like her first boyfriend’s mouth had tasted, sweet and wet, or the sweat-soaked air of her college apartment as she greedily spread the legs of her first girlfriend, her tongue gliding along the soft inside of smooth thighs, of passion and sex and lust and deeds done in darkness.  A ripple of goosebumps slid along Jessica’s arms, heat growing in her pelvis.

It smelled of blood.  

Hot and fresh and wet, soaked in iron and fear.  It smelled violent, angry. She could feel it’s fury, swelling through that scent in a sharp sting.  Her pulse quickened and adrenaline shot through her gut in a lighting flash. She felt high, like her brain was trying to press from the top of her skull.   A voice with no origin whispered to her through that scent, twisting through her consciousness in a rush, dominating her senses. Commanding. Ripples of gooseflesh moved over her arms.  

And then it was gone. The scent faded as she exhaled, replaced by the hot, moist air of the green room.  Jessica blinked, shaking her head. She felt a little dizzy, and stepped back from the almost-rose reluctantly, a rush of vertigo shooting through her head.  A part of her wanted to smell it again, to feel that rush of memory and lust. To hear the voice again, that powerful, commanding voice. The flower had a tiny pool of liquid swelling inside the cupped center, she realized abstractedly.  It was dark, and red.

Faintly, fear about the flower threaded through her gut in distorted surges.  No normal rose flourished in these conditions, nor smelled anything as complex as that.  She ignored these thoughts, though, as a wave of peacefulness washed over her in a buzzing wave, a droning that seemed to emanate from the base of her skull and reverberate along the inside of her brain.  Her anxiety about the ocean turned down like the volume knob on a stereo. Everything was going to be fine, now. The flower was probably an experiment of some kind. Yeah, that was it. She breathed deeply.  She felt so much better, now.

“Dr Smith, Taylor, on me.”  Klein said quietly, his voice drifting through the oddly lit room.  The room was darkly ominous, shadows creeping beyond the stretches of blue-green light.   

They moved through the room in a tight formation, Klein at the lead.  Jessica scratched her wrist idly. A tall archway was set into the wall at the far end, beneath a darkly painted mural of swirling colors and shapes.  Something was huddled on the ground. It looked almost…

“Body!” Jessica hissed, hand going automatically for her firearm.  “Eleven o’clock low.”

Klein dropped to a knee in a rush, the iron sights of his gun already trained on the filmy darkness that lay beyond the unlit arch. “Taylor, Hernandez, guns up.  Dr. Smith.”

Jessica and Gordon each  took three wide, strafing steps and collapsed to a similar stance to the Commander’s, MP5’s held at the ready.

Brianna rushed forward, flipping the fallen figure over.  His white lab coat was smeared in blood. It streaked the floor below him.  Bree grabbed his wrist, looking for a pulse with one hand, already rifling through the pouch clipped to her belt for a pre-packed syringe with the other.  After a second’s hesitation she set his arm back down on the ground, all signs of haste lost.

“He’s dead.”

“Oh that super doesn’t bode well.”  Gordon said, flexing his grip on the pommel of his sidearm.  A bead of sweat rolled down his face.

“Cause of death?” The commander didn’t look back from the dark hallway ahead, his gun roving in a tight line. Brianna rifled quickly over the dead man, peeling his blood-covered clothes away with a wet, sticking sound. Gordon gagged.

“Lacerations to the torso.”  Brianna said clinically. “Three along the spine, one deep puncture between the rib.  Internal bleeding, or they punctured a lung. Maybe the heart.”

“Cause?”

“Looks like a…blade of some sort.  Serrated, or rusty. Ragged edges along two of the three along the spine.”   

“Commander.”  Jessica pointed with the barrel of her MP5 at the hallway.  A pair of haphazard, staggering footprints led into the hallway, clearly from the dead man.  The red flowers continued to grow along the walls beyond the arch, blooming in red bursts along a single vine that slowly disappeared into the darkness.  The footprints followed the wall, just beneath the flowers.

“Dr. Smith, what are those flowers?”  Klein traced the thin green vine that crawled along the wall.  “I don’t like the look of them. Why are they the only ones that grow beyond the confines of the greenhouse?”

“They’re harmless, sir.”  Jessica said, before Brianna could open her mouth.  Why did she say that? She hadn’t meant to say anything.  The words had popped out of her mouth seemingly of their own accord.  It was about the flowers They weren’t dangerous; far from it. She needed to protect them. Turn attention away from them. Klein turned to her, raising an eyebrow at the uncharacteristic unusual outburst.

She scratched her wrist.    

“Taylor?”

“I smelled one earlier.”  She shrugged. “It’s just a flower.  My dad had some in our garden. I think it’s a type of rose.”  

“Dr. Smith, do you concur?”

Brianna looked at one of the flowers sprouting around the trunk of a drooping ash tree, leaning precariously.  “It doesn’t look venomous. If Jess smelled it and she’s fine–”

“I am.”

“–than I think we’re alright.  It might just be a weird design thing. Or an experiment.  Weren’t there a group of biologists down here experimenting with low-light growth?”

After a moment’s thought, the Commander nodded.  Jessica felt a surge of triumph. The red flowers were important, somehow.  She could still remember the smell, imprinted in her memory, just beyond the horizon of recall.  

“Dr. Smith, find some ID on that body. Hernandez, get some power into that hallway.  We’re moving on.”

Gordon paused, licking his lips. “Uh, commander?  Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Klein raised a single eyebrow.

“I just mean…you know, with losing the comms, and finding a–” Gordon exhaled shakily. “–a body on the ground.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to get back to the surface, get reinforcements?”

“Negative.  With the loss of communication with the mainland, and with that storm coming in, the safest place for us is down here.”

Not even a little bit true.  Jessica thought, faintly amused. She blinked.  Where did that come from? She hated the ocean.  Five minutes ago she would give her left leg to be back on the surface. There was something, something, that lurked in the corners of her consciousness, something utterly alien.  The harder she thought focused on it, the louder that droning, buzzing silence became, whiting out any strong feeling she had like the static that hissed from the intercoms overhead.  She let it go. It didn’t seem that important.

Gordon nodded reluctantly, adjusting the fit of his glasses.

“Let’s go.”  

They walked through the dark hallways, lights flickering to power overhead when they walked beneath them, turning off behind them as they travelled inside Gordon’s power cell.  The vines followed them through the hallway, blood flowers blooming every few feet. Dark rooms twisted and branched off from the corridors, full of desks and beds and computers. Papers were still stacked neatly on desks, laptops stood open, plugged into dead power outlets.  Whiteboards with incomprehensible diagrams and notes hung on the walls.

“Another body!” Brianna called out, tensing like a hunting hound, staring at the corner of a conference room.  A woman slumped against a blood-streaked wall, hands splayed in her lap. Her blue and white blouse was shredded, and her pale skin was blood stained.  She had not died well.

“Jesus.”  Gordon paled, turning away.  He had always had a weaker stomach than the rest of the unit.

“Cause of death?” Klein asked, taking two huge steps closer to Bree, his gun also trained on the woman. Brianna knelt down, performing a cursory inspection. “Lacerations.  Two, no..four to the–wait, jesus make that six to the torso.  She bled out.”

Jessica twisted, inspecting the striped carpet.  “No blood trail. She must have died here.”

“Or was murdered.”  Gordon said bleakly, risking a brief look at the woman.

Bree, Klein and Jess all turned to shoot him the same skeptic glance.

“What?  Are you seriously going to tell me that the dude out in the greenhouse and this lady happened to, what, fall down some stairs holding a particularly sharp butter knife?  Come on.

“He’s got a point.”  Bree murmured. Klein nodded, exhaling deeply through his nostrils.  

“Agreed.  Alright, from this point on treat this like hostile territory.  There were five hundred civilians housed in Cerberus, along with seventy-five NATO soldiers. They’ve got to be somewhere.”

They moved on.  They found two more corpses on the first floor before they found a bank of gleaming silver elevators, each mortally wounded in similar fashion to the first two.  By the time they found the elevators, everyone was tense, pulled taut like a wire. Bree was pale, and she checked the syringes in her pack reflexively every ten seconds.  Gordon made jokes, constantly adjusting the sights on his MP5.

“This is some straight up resident evil shit here.”  His normally high-pitched laugh was even higher, and carried a faint hint of hysteria.  He nudged Jessica, moving at his shoulder. “You know, like the first one where Alice goes into the The Hive, and discoveres the–”

“Oh my god, Gordito, shut up.” Brianna whipped around, glaring at him. Her green eyes glowed in the lights like a cat’s, glinting and narrowed.

“I’m just saying–”

“I know what you’re saying, and I’m saying to knock it off!”

“Enough.”  Klein cut them off with a snap. “You’re acting like children.” He rubbed a gloved hand over his closely cropped black hair, shot with grey at the temples. “This is only three.  Where is everyone else?”

The only sign of the Commander’s strain was the sharpness in his tone, and the line of tension in his broad shoulders, drawing closer to his neck like they were being winched upwards. His mouth was set in a straight line, and his eyes never stayed in one spot for more than a split second.

Jessica, oddly enough, was perfectly calm.  In light of the circumstances, it seemed perfectly reasonable that the majority of the people wouldn’t be up here. They’d be in the lower levels.  Not all the way down, no, that was too deep. Perhaps the middle-ish.

Thirty seven.  The thing in the depths of her brain whispered in a heady buzz that vibrated in the base of her teeth.  Again, she didn’t question it. Yes, that made sense. If anyone should ask, she should remember to say that they’d find what they were looking for on thirty seven.  Or, what was looking for them.

Her wrist itched again and she peered down, faintly curious.  A small rash of tiny red bumps rose in a streak along the inside of her left arm, starting at the base of her thumb.  The skin around the bumps was red and inflamed, probably from the scratching. She shrugged. It didn’t seem to matter all that much.  She made a note to ask Bree for some cream later.

“These should take us to the generator levels.”  Gordon said, looking at the readout on his wrist.

These elevators were smaller than the one that led to the surface, with polished wood floors and pages printed up on the walls with ads for seminars, classes and focus groups, listing conference rooms and dates.  A three-headed dog growled on the corner of each posting.

Gordon plugged into the cables behind the summon button and began to type on his laptop.  After a minute, he looked at the Commander, frowning.

“I think these lifts are busted sir.  I’m not getting any juice flowing through them.”

Well of course not, Gordito.  Wrong elevators. Jessica thought.

“Of course.”  Klein sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “Where are the stairs?”

“You’re joking.” Bree said flatly.  Jess giggled, covering her mouth as the redhead shot her a vicious look.  

“There’s another bank of elevators at the far side of the complex, two floors down.  I can re-route power to meet us there.” Gordito looked up, eyes wide and solemn. “What, you don’t want to hump down eighty-three flights of stairs?”

“Race you, Dorito.”  The doctor said sourly.  Gordon laughed, a rush of genuine warmth.

“Where are the stairs?” Klein asked Gordon.  

“Down that hallway on the right, about sixty feet.”  Jessica said, prompted by the hives that answered in the basement of her awareness.  Klein and Gordon both stared at her, eyes alight in surprise.

“What?  It’s not that complicated a layout. Stairs are almost always in the corners or in the middle of a floor, right?”  She lied. She didn’t question the buzzing anymore. The thing, whatever it was, was perfectly friendly.  It knew the answers. It was almost like a voice, Jess realized in a peaceful epiphany, that droning hum.  If you listened to it long enough.

“Pretty complicated to me.”  Gordon muttered mostly to himself, giving Jess a sidling, analytical glance as he packed up his laptop, which she returned defiantly.

The door to the stairwell was exactly where Jessica (the voice) had said it would be, set into a wall. Klein opened the door and stopped dead in his tracks.

Mein Gott.” He whispered, the blood draining from his face in a rush.  

“Commander?  What is it?” Gordon moved behind Klein, peering over his shoulder.  He blanched, turned on his heel and threw up, hands on his knees.

Jess grinned, overcome with sudden, rushing amusement.  Gordito and his weak stomach. A bubble of laughter shook her frame and she shook with the effort of keeping it suppressed.  The voice thought that Gordito’s weakness, his humanity, was funny, so she thought it was funny. She took two steps and peeked over the Commander’s shoulder.  

A woman hung from the concrete ceiling, swaying gently over the landing.

Her face was blue and swollen, her eyes bulging. The fingers of her right hand, covered in a sprawling red rash, were pinned brutally outwards with nails through the joints in the bone, tied to extend outward, pointing down the stairs.  Her fingertips were dipped in dried blood. She was naked, and had been opened from pelvis to collarbone to expose her entrails, which hung in a grey-blue bundle that looked surprisingly like uncooked sausage around her knees, and her lungs.  Her ribcage had been hastily, or poorly, removed; the stumpy ends of her rib bones were fibrous and uneven, like a tree branch twisted off still green. Her heart was missing. An almost-rose was set gently into the rough cavity, petals blooming beautifully around the death and decay.  The vines and sprouting roses grew along the bare concrete of the stairwell, twisting upwards along the railing and walls, limbs as thick around as Gordito’s wrist. The woman gaped at them, eyes open and full of hurt. A rust-colored puddle of mostly dried blood pooled at her feet.

Childish letters, looping and hasty, were scrawled along the grey concrete;

 

reap what you sow

 

“Oh my god.”  Jess whispered.  She wasn’t really that disgusted, but if she didn’t have a reaction it would provoke suspicion.  She was more…fascinated with the corpse, the way her organs looped neatly into each other like pieces of an elaborate, organic machine, how the dark-red fibers of muscle that surrounded the frayed ends of the woman’s lungs fused to white stretched of bone.  And above all, the expression on the woman’s face. Equal parts anguish and surprise, both so pure and unadulterated it was almost like seeing them for the first time.

“Who would do this?” Klein said hoarsely, all vestiges of the ironclad commander gone.  He stood, stripped of the power of speech. Everything vanished in the face of a simple display of cruelty.  Jess (the voice) took a small step to the side, relishing in every second of the man’s despair.

“Who’s ‘the reaper’?” Brianna asked, taking in the corpse with a brief, analytical view.

“Who cares?” Gordon said, strangled.  “Commander, this is the last straw. Can we please get the hell out of here?  We can huddle up topside in that concrete bunker and wait for backup. I’ve got ‘The Holy Grail’ downloaded to my tablet.”  He turned to the commander, pleading.

“We need to keep going.”  Jessica said firmly. “There could be survivors.  People in need of help.” The voice buzzed its gentle approval, and she reveled in it.  

Gordon shot her a betrayed look, which she ignored.

“We’re two floors from an elevator that can get us to the generators.  Gordito can flip them back on, plug into the mainframe computer and we can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Klein nodded.  He suddenly looked bone-tired.  “She’s right. It’s the mission. Let’s go.”  

They filed past the corpse.   Klein, Bree and Gordito edged along the railing, keeping a wide distance from the dead woman’s gently swaying limbs.  On the landing below them, another body hung from the ceiling, slit open from pelvis to collarbone like the first. Klein stiffened, Gordito whimpered and Brianna breathed inwards sharply, but they didn’t slow.  Already accustomed to violence, Jessica thought, amused. How swiftly standards re-adjust.

They were so close.  The moment was approaching; Jessica could feel it.  The voice drummed quicker the deeper they went, murmuring excitement with every step.  

Two flights down, Klein gently opened the unadorned door set into the wall, Bree and Jessica’s MP5’s trained over both of his shoulders.  The hallway beyond was dark, lit only by a single line of flickering spotlights set into the arched ceiling. The vines were much thicker here, the size around of a grown man’s leg, and the almost-roses bloomed to the size of basketballs, carpeting the walls and floor.  They were beautiful.

It was perceptible colder.  Klein’s breath misted in front of his face as he glanced over his shoulder.   

“Hernandez, lights.”

Something in the shadows moved, darkness within darkness.  Brianna hissed in warning. Three safeties clicked off in unison.

“Hernandez, now.”

A man shuffled below the yellow cone of sputtering light from the stygian gloom beyond.  His hair was wild and writhed away from his head in twisted shambles. He began to walk down the long hall, shuddering in painful, crippling steps.  His white lab coat was smeared with stains and torn at the shoulder.

“Halt!” Klein said, his voice sterile and robotic.  He stared unblinkingly at the apparition. “This is a NATO special forces team.  We are here to help. Identify yourself.” The corner of his mouth opened and he hissed.  

“Hernandez.”

“Working on it.”  Gordito whispered, typing frantically into his arm device.

One of the man’s legs ended at the knee in a swath of dark, dripping bandages.  There was something wrong with his face, covered mostly in shadow from the overhead lights.  The silhouette of something unnatural.

“I am telling you to stop!” In the silence and still of the complex, Klein’s voice boomed and echoed unnaturally loud.  The man quickened his shuffle, raising his head to the lights, illuminating the skin of his face.

Red petaled almost-roses bloomed on his cheeks and forehead, bursting through the skin in bloody, swollen bursts, fluttering in the sallow breeze that moved through the lab. As he walked, he touched one lovingly, adoringly, ragged edges of his fingertips barely grazing the outermost petal. They made Jess think of the pictures of infected pimples her brothers had delighted in tormenting her with as a child. The skin of the apparition’s face that wasn’t covered in the almost-roses was red and angry, covered in the same red rash that each of the others had had.  The same rash that Jess had.

His voice whispered gleefully across the empty hallway in a breathy, unending chant, now audible as he closed the distance between them.

“We call him the reaper, don’t be a weeper–”  

“Permission to fire, sir.”  Brianna said coldly.

“Identify yourself!” Klein commanded.  The man spread his blister-covered lips in a grin entirely devoid of humor or humanity.  His eyes glittered from dark sockets insanely. He was quick-stepping now, shambling through the flower-infested hall.    

“We call him the reaper, don’t be a weeper–”

Sir, he’s going to attack us! Permission to fire!”

“Denied! Stop where you are!”

“We call him the reaper, don’t be a weeper.  Our friend from the dark–”

Hernandez damn your eyes where are the lights!”

“Give me a minute.”  Gordon moaned, squinted at the display on his arm.  A bead of sweat shimmered along his top lip.

The infested man broke into a crumbling run, squelching his ruined leg against the vine-covered floor, ignorant of the bandage-covered stump that left bloody impressions wherever it landed.  His hands contorted into claws as he reached for them, hurtling down the darkway. His chant rose to a fever pitch, strained and hoarse.

We call him the reaper don’t be a weeper our friend from the dark–”

Brianna’s suppressed MP5 coughed in a single shot that still reverberated through the cold, still air.  A red mist burst into the cold air as the ragged man grunted in pain and spun on his one good foot like a top, slamming against a wall as he lost his balance.  

“Doctor Smith, stand down!” Klein snarled at Bree.  “He could be under some kind of psychotropic.”

Brianna opened her mouth to vehemently protest, but was interrupted by a howling, mad laugh.  The ragged man clawed back to his feet, gripping one of the nearby vines that slithered along the walls.  Half his face was a bloody, disintegrated mess, dripping blood and brains. He grinned a half grin, exposed jaw muscles flexing to move bone that wasn’t there.  The man pushed away from the wall, stumbling once more towards them. His one good eye stared at Klein. He was within ten feet and moving with astonishing speed, clawing through the air as his words tumbled over themselves, hasty and reverent. His voice bellowed like a frenetic drum.

We call him the reaper don’t be a weeper our friend from the dark–

This time it was Klein’s gun that coughed in a sputtering asthmatic wheeze.  The man dropped in his tracks, falling forward in a limbless, lifeless roll. The light faded from his one good eye, his face upturned to the ceiling, half in and out of a sputtering yellow spotlight.  His last breath rattled from his lungs, carrying his last words with it.

“–he’s come…to make his…mark–”

The man fell still.

Klein lowered his gun and whirled, face contorted in a rare display of heated rage, an angry flush growing along his high cheekbones.

“Doctor Smith, if you ever disobey a direct order from me again so help me god, I will court martial you back down to a private–”

“You can’t court martial me if we’re all dead sir and besides–”

“Do not interrupt me, Brianna!”  The Commander roared, spit flying from his mouth.  Behind him, the lights in the hallway clicked to life, flooding the eerie, vine covered hall in soft white light.  Jessica blinked in surprise, taking an involuntary step backwards. She had never heard the commander raise his voice to one of them like that. Klein held up a finger, glaring at Bree, his voice lowering to a soft, tense vibrato.  

“From now on you obey my orders to the letter. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir.”  Brianna said sullenly, looking down at the floor.  

“Good.”  The commander looked over to Gordon, who was still pressed against the stairwell wall. “What took so long with the lights, Hernandez?”

“Sorry sir.  There was a breach in the code.  Hard to fix on a five-inch screen.”  He waved his forearm, attempting at a smile that Klein did not return.  The Commander’s lips were pressed into a thin, white line.

“Which way to the elevators?”

“Uhh–” Gordon peeked at the map display on his tablet.  The buzzing voice whispered the answer to Jessica immediately but she kept quiet.  Soon enough the time would be here. No need to cause undue suspicion. “Down that hall, take a right.  Should be on the left hand side.”

They found three more corpses on their way to the elevators, hanging from the ceiling.  They smelled them first, the air suddenly tasting like deep, pervasive rot.  They hung in fifteen foot intervals, hastily tied steel wire digging into the sagging, peeling skin of their necks. Directly beneath each, an almost-rose bloomed in startling vigor, petals caked in streamlets of dried, rust-colored blood tracks from the dead. Klein halted at the first corpse, eyes fixated on the roses and the thick, twisting vines the grew on.

“There are no ordinary flowers.”

You think? It took all her effort not to throw her hands up in the air in exasperation.  The penny finally drops.  For a leader of a NATO special forces team, it took him way longer than it should have.  Didn’t matter now though.

“Team, avoid these flowers.  I don’t like how widespread they are.”

They found the elevators just down the hall.  The doors opened with a soft ding as they approached.  Klein glanced sideways at Gordon, who shrugged.

“Motion sensor, maybe?”

Klein grunted doubtfully, but motioned with his free hand for everyone to get into the elevator, backing in last, his barrel covering the flower-infested hallway.  

“I’ll get it.”  Jessica said, and pressed the button marked ‘37’.  The voice hummed in triumph as the doors closed and the lift dropped slowly. Triumph and something deeper, something darker. Hunger.

They were on their way.  She felt the antsy tingles of anticipation twitch at her fingers. She wondered what the voice had in store for them. It had been leading them here, she had no doubt about that.  The broken elevators on the first floor, nudging Jess towards the stairs. If they had continued down the stairs for some reason, she felt sure that there would have been something the adjust their course again.  What joys awaited them on floor thirty-seven?

“Commander.” Bree’s voice was subdued, and she stared straight ahead at a poster advertising an ice cream pop-up.  

“Dr. Smith.”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

Klein sighed.  “Under the circumstances, I think that’s a good idea.”

“It’s just that…with everything we’ve found so far–the bodies, the weird flowers–sir, it seems like it would be better to go topside and wait for assistance?  Storm or no storm?”

Klein stood like a statue at the twin doors, staring at the burnished metal. For a few seconds, as was his custom, he didn’t respond. When he did, his voice was unusually gentle.

“Doctor Smith, we cannot abandon the souls trapped down here. There may still be people in need of our help.  The generators are on this level. A little further, and we can turn back on the power and re-establish comms with Longyearbyen.” He turned and smiled widely at them, the tension and stress melting away from the corners of his eyes in a rush.

“Courage, team.  We’re in this together.  Just a few more floors.”

“Hell yeah.”  Gordon said, nodding.  “Just a little spooky shit, that’s all, right?”

He nudged Bree with a shoulder and the redhead smiled and nodded.  

It came to Jess in a moment of perfect clarity, like the peal of a small bell that cleared the fog of her thoughts.  She knew where they were headed. Deep beneath the ice, beneath the crushing embrace of the black water, she understood.  The flowers, the smell of blood and sex. The vines, thin at the surface, more and more numerous the deeper they went.

And the voice, from the flower.  That beautiful, terrible, voice that had commanded and thundered through her veins like iron, and had buzzed in her head like a bee hive.  

We call him the reaper

40…39…38…

The lift shuddered to a gentle stop.  Klein turned his head and gave them an encouraging smile.  “Here we–” The elevator doors to floor thirty seven opened and a freezing rush of water crushed the four people inside in a  single, bone breaking wave.

There was no floor thirty seven.  Beyond the doors the hallway extended some fifteen feet, littered with the remains of the cracked and shattered walls.  The ceiling, the rest of the complex was gone.  

Gordon’s arm snapped behind him with a thick crack and the chubby man convulsed around the broken limb, twisting and jerking desperately as he kicked towards the elevator control panel, bubbles streaming from his lips, pulled back in a silent scream. There were lights, Jessica saw in a calm, detached glance, relaxing so the expected crash of water didn’t shatter her bones right away.  Blue lights, like the LED strips in the greenhouse above them. It illuminated the drowned hallway like the aquariums she had gone to with her family in Atlanta, a deep blue-green.

The elevator panel, of course, was dead.  

Klein slammed against the rear wall of the elevator from the force of the water, pinned to the cold metal.  His gun, seconds ago clutched in a tight, white-knuckled grip, spiraled away through the water and sank to the floor, useless.  

Brianna’s head was thrown against the cold metal of the elevator wall with an ugly splat and the beautiful redhead immediately went still, sightless eyes staring in horror and surprise.  A ribbon of crimson blood leaked from one ear, turning immediately to a silty cloud in the murky water. Jessica thought that maybe she should feel sad that the doctor was dead.  She tried for sadness, but it eluded her. Perhaps she had felt it, at some point in her life, but it was a mere echo now, a shell of emotion.

The moment was here.   She could see the red flowers, huge and blood-red in the hallway.  The vines they grew on were as thick around as oak trunks. No longer the vibrant green of the thin tendrils above, these were the pale grey borne from centuries without the touch of the sun.  Veins as thick around as her wrist carried dark liquid. The muscles of the enormous tubes pulsated with excitement, convulsing, sending shudders through the cold water.

Thin white tentacles, like elongated maggots, entered the elevator, trembling with excitement, moving with the nervous anxiousness of a first-time lover, slipping along the floor and walls. Hundreds upon hundreds of tiny, jagged barbs lined their tuberous skin, blindly writhing along.    

Beside her, Klein braced and lunged for the opened doors, already grabbing for the flailing figures of Gordon and Brianna, his eyes narrowed against the salty sting of the seawater, moving in a determined streak past Jessica.

One of the maggot-tendrils shot upwards and latched onto the Commander’s leg in a burst of blood.  A blast of panicked air burst from the german’s mouth as he instinctively shrieked with pain, kicking with his other leg like a crippled fish, still desperately trying to save Gordon and Bree.  He sank slowly, agonizingly. The first tentacle latched onto his arm, sending him thrashing against the floor in a twist of powerful muscle. Blood rose from his skin as a dozen infinitesimal, jagged barbs ripped his skin away like tissue.  A convulsion rocked him in a racking shudder, from head to toe, like a child’s ragdoll being shaken as his lungs literally squeezed his body for oxygen. The white, writhing tentacles pulled him out of the elevator, Gordon still clutched in his white-knuckled grip.  

Jessica knew what waited for them.  She kicked through the water, ignoring the burning fire that raged through her own lungs.  It didn’t matter anymore. She twisted in the water, catching one last look at Brianna’s unblinking face.  So beautiful, the way her hair undulated in a red cloud around her drowned face, mixing with the blood that was coming out of her nose now, too.  It was mixed with a silvery, shimmering gray fluid that sparkled like mica.

A wriggling, barbed worm seized her along one shoulder.  Pain ripped through her torso in an debilitating, far-away splash of agony. She was now being pulled, turned to see her reward.  

She was awaited by the Reaper.

It was at the end of the hall, where the concrete of the complex shattered and fell away, exposing the endless night of the crushing black ocean.  A sea monster from the nightmares of a thousand children, its head was of impossible, primordial size, dwarfing the massive complex with huge, powerful tentacles covered in blooming red flowers and ugly, fleshless skin. Sightless fish writhed around the contorted, stretched limbs, delighting in the scraps of dead skin they peeled away.  An affliction borne from the infinite abyss of the depths. A single eye the size of a city bus cracked open and stared at her in the blind fury of a hungry animal.

The calm buzzing that had filled her vanished in the sight of that single great eye.  Jess felt her senses return, felt the pain and devastation crushing her body. Terror, raw and as cold as the icy touch of the freezing arctic, clawed its way through her gut.  

Please not like this.  Any way but this.

Maybe she was dreaming.  She would wake up, in her bed on the destroyer and she would tell Gordito and Bree about this terrible nightmare and they would laugh about it.

She never thought it would hurt this much.

The barbed worms, another form of terrible, nightmarish tentacles that anchored the beast to the underwater complex, pulled Klein and Gordon towards the end of the hall.  Gordito was still struggling, kicking and lashing out, bubbles streaming from his nose and mouth, screaming at Jessica to help him, but all that came out was garbled water-sounds.  Klein was dragged limply along, his fingers trailing behind him. If he wasn’t already dead, he was close to it.

Mother, save me.  Please.

The beast opened a cruelly twisted and scarred beak, revealing row after row of serrated teeth in a demon’s grin.  It closed on Gordon and Klein as the maggot-worms delivered their bodies dutifully, shattering the bones of their torsos with careless ease. Gordon’s wedding ring fell through the cracks in the cement in glittering spirals, dropping without a sound to the black emptiness of the ocean below.  Bones, muscle fiber and intestines were all ground to a terrible mash in that awful mouth. She was being pulled closer by the wriggling, barbed worms.

Now she convulsed as her heart pounded against her chest and her lungs burned in an oily, spreading fire.  Spots danced in her vision, white and growing. The beak opened again, only this time she was close enough to see the pulsating muscles of a terrible gullet, see the rot and remnants of her friends spread out over those cruelly serrated teeth.  

We call him the reaper.

 

 

Jess gasped like a drowning woman breaching the surface, lunging towards consciousness in a panicked flailing of limbs, immediately smacking one of her wrists against the unyielding metal of the bulkhead above her.  She hissed in pain, recoiled, lost her balance and promptly fell to the floor in a tangle of bedsheets, swearing violently.

It had felt so real.  Her shirt stuck to her shoulder blades in a cold sweat.  The lab, the dead people…she took a deep, shuddering breath, grateful for the dull pain throbbing in her wrist.  It connected her to this world and not the cruel, twisted one of corpses and black water. A spasm of leftover nerves shot down her spine as she remembered the nightmare in pieces, fragments that spun and caught the light before burning away, as dreams do.  

The flowers.  The zombie scientist.   

Above her, Gordon clumsily jammed his glasses on his face, peering out over the edge of his bunk.

“Jess? Whatsa matter?”

She inhaled deeply, tasting the recycled, cool air of the destroyer’s A/C scrubbers.  Her pulse leapt in the fine skin of her wrist.

“Nothing.  Just a bad dream.”

Bree slid smoothly from her bunk, kneeling beside Jessica and gently twining her fingers around Jess’s wrist.

“That sounded like it hurt.  Let me see that.”

“I’m fine.” Jess protested.  She felt mildly silly, now that she was awake. Bree nodded patiently and carried on with her examination anyway.  

“I told you not to have those taquitos after midnight.”  Gordito grinned, placing his chin on his pillow. “What was it about?”

“It was–there was a monster–we were called out to investigate this…this underwater lab, I think, but all the people were dead…”

“That sounds horrible.” Brianna murmured.  “Just a bad bruise. Ice it before PT, you should be fine.”

“That’s not a nightmare.”  Gordon pronounced. “Nightmares have, like, scary shit in them.”

“Shut up Gordito.”  Jess grumbled, picking her sheets up one-handed and throwing them back into her bunk..  According to the digital clock above the door, it was three in the morning. An hour and a half before PT.  There was no chance of getting any more sleep this night, she knew that much. The thought of revisiting that place…she closed a mental door on that instantly.  She grabbed a thick sweatshirt off the chair beside her sleeping bunk.

“Are you sure you’re alright, Jess?”  Brianna asked, concern etched in her face.

“I’m fine.”  Her voice sounded unsure, even to her.  The freezing touch of the water stayed with her stubbornly, refusing to fade entirely.  She was sure that if she fell asleep now she would go straight back. “I’m just going to get some air.”

“You want some company?” Gordon’s voice was already heavy and slurred with sleep, and Jess smiled in spite of herself.

“Nah, I’ll be alright.  You two get some sleep, I’ll see you at oh-four thirty.”

She all but fled the dark room, pulling the sweater over her head as she navigated the cramped hallways and staircases that wound their way through the destroyer’s interior.  

Three floors up she put her shoulder to the door leading to the deck.  The cold wind of an October morning threw her hair up in a rush, clearing the lingering remnants of the dream like blades of grass before a harsh gale.

It was still dark outside, but against the distant horizon she could make out the thinnest line of grey, outlining the blooming shape of a cloud bank.  The moon, heavy and bright, was already beginning to spin away, it’s yellow glimmer illuminating the crests of the calm northern Atlantic waves. Jess leaned against the railing, breathing that cool, crisp air slowly as she watched the dawn break.  The dream was gone.  She sighed in grateful relief.

 

Picture credit: earthtimes.org

 

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