The Shell: Five

Five:

Throwing herself into the deep gash leading into the planet, Emily barely hid herself from a cluster of the spider-like native creatures. Though they couldn’t have spotted her, lacking eyes as they were, Emily wasn’t sure the coast was clear. Despite all their efforts, none of the research team had been able to break down the sensory organs of those aliens. With that in mind, Emily fought her protesting muscles to crawl further into the tunnels. She just needed to be low enough that she felt concealed adequately from the world outside. Even as Emily dragged herself forward hand over hand, she considered purging the pod once more. Again though, it would revoke her escape from the planet, and she was getting so close now. The tunnels were a decent haul, but it would be safer than the surface with all the predators stalking about in the day.

Then it struck Emily all at once, the spidery ones lived underground from what she could assert from the night’s adventure. Moreover, they could be anywhere if they were so good at constructing traps for their prey. The battery for her defensive shock unit was dead because of the tentacles at dawn, she was low on food, and unless she abandoned the cappera, she would have no means of distraction to escape were she caught. Her situation was getting worse and worse, but there was one glimmer of a silver lining that she could see. Those spiders only moved about during the day, which meant they only inhabited the hives at night, presumably. Pain racked her body as she realized this meant to make a clean pass through the tunnel, she would have to keep moving now.

Dragging herself up to a sitting position, Emily took the last item that sat in the pack, an overly warm jug of water. It was mostly drained, but she couldn’t help but finish off the last of her reserves. With the helmet off, she hadn’t even checked the sensors if the tunnels were safe, Emily smelt a horrible acrid odor. Likely it was from the lake the tunnel passed under, but she decided to keep the helmet off for as short a time as possible. Yet that time couldn’t be abrupt enough as she paused, noting a dark purple mark just under her clavicle. It was where the shell’s life support plugged into her and linked to the cappera. It looked infected and probably was, but again, it was another bit of upkeep that couldn’t be kept up with now. She sighed and cursed the villainous parasite, she was too weak to keep this up much longer, and it didn’t have a care in the world.

Before Emily popped the helmet back on, she noted the mushroom-shaped piece was wearing thin in parts. This was undoubtedly an environmental effect as most of the other suits not specialized for this harsh of terrain would have fallen apart by now. Yet as she looked, Emily noted they may have been brought on by the groping of the tentacles not long back. Looking over the rest of her suit, she found patches around her shins, thighs, hips, crotch, and torso. Now not only would she possibly starve or run into the spiders again but were she to take too long, the suit itself would crumble to pieces, leaving her exposed if not near death. To top it off, the cappera, that so precious of find for the Foundation, would be lost, not as though Emily cared, she would be dead too. Begrudgingly she stuffed her head into the helmet and lifted herself to a stand using the wall. Taking a moment before continuing on the charted course, Emily sent readings off to the Foundation. She sent her own with the cappera though she could check those remotely. Just as one more kick in the teeth for the Foundation, Emily wanted them to know all that their carrier was enduring for their specimen.

It took some time for Emily to regain her legs; the wall gave her support while she tread along on pained muscles. Something felt wrong inside of her, not only from a night of running, seeing those horrid things working in the pit, the devoured alien dinosaur, the tentacles attacking, or her vomiting. And it wasn’t just that she was still pushing her body and had just now run entirely out of supplies. Something felt fundamentally wrong inside Emily. She worried that the connections had become infected and that whatever kind of issues that created were responsible for the feeling as well as the vomiting. However, as she took a moment to really analyze where the pains came from and the nature of the sensations, she couldn’t be so sure. It felt more as though her entire body were ravaged to the point her bones felt weak. Liking having a severe flu virus, Emily felt she could do little more than collapse and sleep for as long as it would be necessary. When she was off this cursed planet, that would be her first and foremost, rest and lots of it.

Moving further down the tunnel, Emily finally gained strength in her legs enough to push off from the wall. Fortunately for her, it came just as the wall opened up into a drop a few feet wide. It would be just enough for the whole shell to go down, but a fall wasn’t the biggest concern. A slow, trickling waterfall of hot, caustic amber fluid dripped down the shaft from above. A number of these vents ran through the tunnel from above but were mostly to the edges of the area. It seemed odd, there were these vents here as well as back on the plain, meaning it wasn’t the acidic fluid that had made them. Then Emily put it together. The spiders used them, they must to get in and out if the trap isn’t sprung. That was how they overwhelmed the base in only an hour; there were vents not far from the outpost. Yet, there was no sign of them being here, the thick web they used was not present even slightly. Nearing one of the shoots, Emily looked down with enhanced vision and clarified that there was no way those creatures lived in the tunnel or below it. In fact, were they beneath the tunnel, they would either be dead or far more adapted to the acidic fluid than any creature had a right to being. Looking further down the path, Emily made another discovery that changed the game a bit more.

Nestled in the heart of the underground path was an entirely inorganic structure that would have obstructed her way, were it not so violently torn up. It looked, for lack of better words, like a crude spacecraft made of a non-metal material. The thought of a spacefaring vessel being made of anything but high-quality alloy was undoubtedly foreign to Emily, but so was every other aspect of the craft. It looked like a series of rings linked like a chain, only connected directly by brief contact points. The outside gleamed like volcanic rock, and within there were no screens or even the indication of hollow displays but a great deal of crystal-like pieces set into the interior. If what was written here and there on the inside and outside were in a language, it was one neither Emily or her scanners could place. However, the ship was derelict and desolate, which meant it was more than safe for Emily to approach and climb inside.

The only passage through the tunnel was to traverse the alien ship, but Emily took her time in doing so. It wasn’t an extremely comfortable place to rest, but to give herself a minute, without parts of the suit on was enough for her. Sliding off the helmet afforded her a breath that was not heavily scented with acid; somehow, the ship had kept out that effect. Painstakingly, Emily dropped off the right shoulder pad and covering for her arm. There was a dark network of veins running down the arm, getting more frequent and clotted closer to her torso. Lifting off the breastplate, Emily exposed the horrible truth to herself. Though she had her suspicions of an infection, there was nothing that could prepare her for what she saw.

The plug running from the shell into her breast was barely in, puss and a thick, black syrup leaked out, nearly forcing it from her. A cluster of darkness sat beneath her skin, swelling tissue to roughly twice its normal size. Worse still, three more plugs across her body felt like they were burning with the same sensation. Yet, the infection wasn’t the only trouble. Looking to her stomach, Emily could hardly tell whose body she was in. She had never been in great shape, a little chubby with a fair amount of muscle beneath the extra weight, but now she was the exact opposite. Bones could be seen without difficulty, she had dropped an exorbitant amount of weight in only days. Perhaps Emily had noticed some weight loss the last time the suit was off, but now it was far more than a suspicion. Emily felt like she was going to be sick, there was a certainty that she would die even if she made it off-world, but Emily was confident that all this was the fault of her little cappera.

Purging the shell would be one command, and then there would likely be a short span of time until she expired. There was no way she could lie to the Foundation. Even if she got aboard without the cappera, the ship would be ordered to either remove her or not treat her injuries. And then, even if she miraculously survived her injuries and made it back to a fleet ship, she would likely face jail time for destroying a specimen. Talk of those incidents were rarely acknowledged, hushed whispers no one care regard as more than rumors, but the word still got around. The state of her body was a reminder or a clencher, really. Emily had to get up and move as fast as she could if she even wanted to survive this ordeal.

Replacing the armor, knowing precisely what was going on with her body or how soon her atrophied flesh could give way, however, was a damning thing. If her morale could not get any lower, the knowledge she was little more than walking dead meant quite the hit to her hope. Nonetheless, she had only half a day’s walk to make it to the low cliffs that led down into the center of the planet. The fact that nearing the exposed core of an alien world was the safest place

to extract now that the Foundation understood the dangers of landing said a lot about Yhoriel. They would risk lives if they could just drop workers in like the outpost had been, but jeopardizing a ship was big money. Not as though those at the top were worried about those kinds of expenses. They just knew it was harder to justify and could mean the loss of precious cargo.

Emily took one last look at the ship before she began down the path again. There was little inside that could help her. If she could identify even some of the material still packed in the ages-old craft, Emily would have surprised herself. However, all she could note were coils of some organic substance, the crystals that lined the walls, and globs of dense paste that leaked from canisters stored in almost every compartment. Whatever could be salvaged would not be worth the time she wasted in trying to collect it. By the time Emily had anything of worth, the extraction window would be passed, or she may just as well have passed on. With still shaking legs, Emily forged on through the darkened underground passage.

Raising the level of exposure through her helmet, Emily just barely kept proper footing through the pitch-black tunnel. It was sometime after leaving the alien ship that she finally received a status log from the science team. The message had likely been delayed a time as she was underground, and the signal would need extra time to find her receiver. Though older models wouldn’t have received the notice at all, the model Emily wore had a more robust antenna capable of subterranean communication with ships in space. Allowing the charts to display in full, Emily paused to glance over everything and couldn’t be more upset with the results. It wasn’t that the cappera was in bad shape, it lacked fundamental nutrients at the moment, but it was no long-term issue. The readings they sent back concerning Emily herself were what attracted her ire. They were content in saying she was perfectly well, no weight drop or infections, no form of physical or mental issues cropping up at all. The notion they would send down a clean bill of health for her made Emily want to abort the specimen right then and there, but cooler heads prevailed. She had the last stretch to go, and could only hope it was a short one.

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