The Shell: Finale

Six:

“Godspeed to you,” Knox came again, the recording rounding its twelfth or thirteenth playback. Emily lay in a dense mud, trying to pull herself hand over hand through to make it out of the tunnel. Her body had only been able to take her so far, and now, ever without the cappera, she doubted she could make it to the cliffs outside. There was just too much damage to struggle through. Her body was too eaten away at by the alien parasite and the infection. Had she no helmet on, she could have drowned in the pool of dense earth, but she wasn’t that lucky. Her mind had grown weak in the final hours of walking. Delusions had taken her until she believed she could hear voices. Amid a moment of clarity, Emily had turned the recording on and looped it so that she could feel almost sane still. Hearing Knox over and over again wasn’t exactly paradise but to know there was a real voice was better than the paranoia of that if.

Finally, after struggling so much to complete a task she wasn’t even terrible keen on completing, Emily was too spent to go on. It wasn’t quite giving up, her body had made the call less so than her will power. Pressing her helmet into the mud, Emily was ready to let the poisons in her body finish the job, hopefully, sooner rather than later. To her surprise, however, the recording cut out, and a staticky transmission cut in, “Doctor?! Doctor Reinhardt, do you hear me? We’ve located you on our tracking radar. Are you hurt? There’s been no movement from you in the past hour, and the window for extraction is closing fast. You’re not far from the point of retrieval. If you can make it a bit further, we can get you medical attention. Reinhardt, are you there?”

“Can’t make it… get out of here while you can,” Emily muttered back to whoever was calling on the other end.

The static flared again, but the voice came in clear, “No can do, not unless we have you or run out of time. Are you hurt or trapped? If the zone isn’t too hot, we can send down some gunners, and they will drag you out of there.”

“I’m not stuck… I can’t get up, though. I don’t think there is anything here with me, just the cappera,” she spoke back, trying to push up from the mud and failing.

The operator came back again, “Alright, we’re setting down with three of our team, they’ll find you and take you out of there. If something comes along, if you see anything before they get you, let us know. They might be coming in armed, but if they don’t know the area is hot, they won’t fire without you with them. Hang in there, doctor, we’ll get you patched up on the ship in no time.”

Emily could have laughed at the notion that she was getting out of that situation anytime soon, but to even chuckle would take a strength she didn’t have. Breathing hurt to boot, so to think she could have laughed off the operator’s remarks was itself a joke. Yet, Emily propped herself up, slowly and painfully, on her arms before crawling closer to the wall, just out of the mud pit. She slammed against the tunnel wall, back first before rolling over on her side, the only comfortable position she could lay in now. With an arm liked cooked spaghetti, she punched and slapped at the shell, breathing curses under her breath as voicing them too loud would be a strain. Emily had come long passed the realization that the stupid little worm would get her killed, but now she cursed it for another reason. The Foundation would make her into a martyr of a model employee. Someone who gave all she had and more just to complete a task for the Foundation and their ‘betterment of the future.’ This time, Emily forced a dry laugh that made her ribs creak and ache. The chuckle didn’t last long, not because Emily could not sustain it, she couldn’t, but as something invaded her periphery. 

Though she could never have noticed it while at a crawl, now that she was away from the mud pit, Emily found a crack running down the center of the tunnel. It was deep and dark, but most importantly, things were hanging from it. She had hoped it would be roots and soil or even some congealed mess of a creature that had come into contact with the acidic lake, it was not. Instead of some less than notable debris, humanoid appendages hung down, groping the air just about at head height. If she was not mistaken, based on the charcoal color of the limbs, it was another of the creatures that had tried to snatch the cappera days ago. Emily breathed in deep and commanded the radio to activate, trying to raise the operator’s signal. After a few moments, she reached the ship and, in a panic, tried to inform her saviors that there was reason to be cautious. The call came too late, the gunners were inside and almost to her. The operator would not be able to raise them on the radio quick enough.

Light came around the corner, falling directly on Emily’s mud-covered helmet. As it did, she tried to call out but only heard her echo in the suit. Their frequencies were secured, meaning she couldn’t patch in without authorization but even had she tried, the call would be too late. The first of the crew had moved on ahead of the other two, and with that poor decision came an outcome none of them expected. With a quick jerk, a flash that was almost imperceivable, the soldier was yanked into the crevasse with a dreadful scream. The howling terror did not terminate abruptly but carried on for minutes as the other two soldiers came to Emily and pulled her away from the scene of terror. Yet, as she was cleared of the mud pit and rift, the arms came down, and masses of the creatures fell into the tunnel. 

The brawnier soldier of the two took Emily, leaving his partner to lay down covering fire so they could escape. Flicking the plasma rifle to automatic, the second soldier went down with a fight that would surely grant him a one-way ticket to Valhalla, yet that would not dissuade the creatures for long. Emily felt like a fool, she had cost time, lives, and given up with ease, but in only a few minutes, the soldier had brought her to the cliffs. The open-air, the fading light of day, and the sight of a dropship stirred hope in her. But just as they came into daylight, another issue arose, as from below, another race of critters joined the humans, trying to cut off their path. 

For Emily, it was the most dreadful and defeating sight to see the giant hand-like spider creatures clamber over the ridge and fill the platform. Some went for her and the soldier while others began to climb onto the ship. There was no turning back as the cave entrance became filled with the creatures forming a wall of hands. Emily noticed, however, some had crude mouths fixed with two knife-like sets of teeth that were unbroken by gums or gaps. The gunner set Emily down and raised his plasma rifle, seeing no way out that didn’t involve quick marksmanship. Aboard the ship, the only other crew member beyond the pilot made the same realization and began manning the turret on the ship’s underside. Squeals and screeches began to roar across the cliffs, the sounds and vibration undoubtedly attracted more and more of aliens to what would soon be a feast of human flesh. 

To herself, Emily could only think that this was the very opposite way she would have wanted this to end. Dying alone in the cave with the specimen was far superior to costing more lives than had already been sacrificed for the Foundation. Yet, as her thoughts of the end came, the tides changed unexpectedly. Though more of the spidery things had come up, many of them seized on the easier prey that lurked in the dark tunnels. Those creatures could do little against the webbing that cuffed arms together or to the cliffs. In short order, those that weren’t attacking the cave dwellers were swatted by human firepower, clearing the way for Emily to be extracted, the cappera intact. They made no time for safety precautions; once everyone was loaded in, the dropship was off and returning to the carrier. Below, Emily watched a world ravaged with savage creatures but undoubtedly dominated by one more uncivil still. Were it up to her, the whole planet would be nuked from orbit, but the Foundation was definitely against any such notion. There were still creatures they could exploit down there. They just needed some more chumps to go down there and extract the specimens. Emily would not be among them. 

Emily didn’t make it to the carrier ship, she lived, but everything had gone black as she looked down on the madness on the planet. They had been quick to strip the shell from her suit, and once the researchers had made off with it, the medics saw to Emily. As they opened her rig, they found the skeletal girl’s chest almost entirely shifted to a dark violet. Viscous rivers of apricot puss were leaking from the epicenters of infection. It took multiple hours of surgery to extract the plugs and attempt to combat the infections. Around the implant points had been clusters of nematodes that had likely worsened the issue. They could have come from the specimen or, they thought, contaminated alien fruits. After a night of long, grueling work, the medics were able to stabilize Emily and allow her to revitalize amid a medically induced coma. Emily woke from the coma sometime later, aboard one of the fleet ships of the Federation, where she could finally lay eyes on the cappera once more.

A shrivel mound of fuzz and legs lay in the medical equivalent of a shoebox on Emily’s lap. She didn’t even register what it was until the director’s man put it to her bluntly. Waving a report in the air before slamming it down on the table between them, Jarrel began, “You reversed the flow on the life support, that much we can tell, as to when we are more curious about. The report says you had been sending up data the whole time, data you could neither have altered nor faked. What we want to know is how you did it. They don’t care about why they want to know how and when.”

“I… I don’t know anything about that. If I wanted the little monster dead, I would have just purged the container, right? I didn’t want to mess up this mission, I got as far as I could without breaking down, and still, that was only barely enough to get me and this thing back. I don’t know what happened. Maybe the suit malfunctioned when I fell or when I was attacked. The report they took should have all of that in it, whatever happened, and whenever it did should be something the techs can figure out,” Emily reasoned, flustered but too tired still to put up a good defense.

Jarrel folded his hands and eased back in his chair, “Look I don’t care to hear the excuses. I was sent down to ask questions and get the answers they wanted. If you can’t give a good reason why you allowed the specimen to die, it doesn’t affect me at all. You’re going to be doing life for your decision to destroy Foundation property. You have a good time with that life you so desperately clung to, miss Reinhardt.”

As the slick-suited man left her hospital room, Emily tossed the emaciated creature in its box against the wall. There wasn’t much she could do, that meeting had essentially been her chance to appeal her case, and it had gone as well as it often did for one in her situation. Now the question was less of how she would live out her life but where. The Foundation had private prisons that functioned with their own rules, but just the same, they had nut houses strewn throughout the galaxy. Sometimes people would see or learn more than they should have, and the Foundation knew just what to do with those people. Suicide was another way out, but that wasn’t the doctor’s way. She wanted to live to pass on hard truths about the Foundation. Even now, Knox’s message played in Emily’s mind; however, it fit a new mission now. A sort of revenge for those who had lost their lives on that unknown backwater world full of monsters. She was the only one who could carry on the story of Knox and Mona and all the others from Yhoriel, and she would do it.

Quietly, Emily whispered to herself, “Remember, you are the only one who can do this now. Keep yourself safe, keep the message safe, spread it, and all will be fine. If you’re worried, know that they are with you. If you think you might get hurt or your story has been compromised, hold onto the report as evidence. It will take time for it to spread to the right people, but your journey will take time as well. Godspeed to you.”

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