I asked Windsor what he was doing.
“Doing?” he replied. “Doing, my esteemed colleague? What I’m doing is what we’re supposed to be doing. Am I not a seeker after truth?”
I was mystified by this.
“My dear friend,” Windsor sneered, still clutching the pyramid. “You have so much to learn.”
“For instance?” I asked, grasping the NPX more tightly, for Windsor is an urbane and gentle fellow in an age where cruelty is all but celebrated, and the man before me showed none of his usual restraint.
“For instance, this place we find ourselves in. We believed these beings defeated the demons, did we not?”
“I don’t remember coming to any such conclusion. Let’s return to the camp and get some sleep. We’ll be out of here by the afternoon.”
For the first time I noticed Windsor was sweating. He removed his glasses and wiped his forehead on the back of his sleeve – the first time he’d let go of the pyramid since I entered the room.
“Are you all right?” I asked, rather stupidly. A wild, hunted look came into the man’s eyes as he realised he was no longer holding onto the pyramid, and he clutched it once more, dropping his glasses.
“Doctor Windsor – Michael – I think we’ve suffered greatly today, and I also think we need time to adjust to what we have learned. We are in no immediate danger. Let’s go back to the others. You look like you need rest.”
At this point, my colleague let loose a frightening wail – or perhaps it was a scream – and closed his eyes. I have never heard anything like it, and it chilled me utterly. It was an empty sound, more devoid of life than the night sky above.
“There is danger all around us! Can you not see, can you not see?” He began scrabbling at the pyramid again. “It’s all around us, wearing a skin of stone! The Ascended didn’t defeat the Demons. Neither did we, not even when we repelled them from the Earth and our religions combined to expel the taint they left behind! We can never remove it – it’s always there, a stain that spreads to become a cancer, hunting us wherever we go! We cut it out, it grows again. How long until there is nothing left to cut – the last scraps are utterly consumed, or else cut up to the point of non-existence! The Ascended realised this, which is why their entire race died – they died to escape! Their power was such, their life-force so formidable, that they continue to exist after death. They’re here right now! Can’t you see them?”
This was very alarming to hear, and I glanced around, seeing nothing but shadowed archways, walls carved with interlocking symbols, a section of wall with something resembling but not exactly the same as a Christian cross cut into it by hands that were far from human.
“I see nothing but a dead place, built by a dead people,” I said as levelly as I could manage. “I see no-one but you and I, and I think it’s time we were leaving.”
I started towards him – I’d drag him back to the camp if I had to – but he made that frightening noise again and I halted, arming the plasma rifle with a whine of building power.
“I can see them. They’re all around us, flitting from shadow to shadow like ghosts. They’re watching us from the stars. It’s like they see us, but they don’t see us, do you understand? Individually we are nothing to them. We’re ants; dust; microbes. But if that’s the case, why are they staring at you with such frightful hate?”
“That’s quite enough, Michael,” I said firmly, suppressing the nearly uncontrollable chill of fear climbing my spine. “I’ve had enough of this place and I’ve had enough of you. We’re leaving, and your consent is not required.”
At this, I pointed the rifle in his direction.
“And if you aren’t convinced, I’m sure I can change your mind by demolishing your favourite pyramid.”
“NO!” Windsor screamed, holding tight. His voice echoed down the hallways and reverberated through my gut. By now I was so on edge I nearly blasted him by accident.
“You really don’t know, do you?” he shrieked. “You are so small – so human! You are blinded by your science. You will never know the galaxy as we see it. You will never know the filth that crawls and flaps in the night, the insanity that awaits all humans upon death. Oh, but men have tasted it. The horror that was loose on Earth – that was a warm-up, a starter course for them. The Plutonia Experiment was a failure, they just don’t know it yet. We destroyed it? We banished it? Hah! It’s still out here among the stars, and it’s looking for us, and it will find us eventually. Our reign will end in the most unutterable despair, and no-one, not the Gods you humans worship, not the technology you’ve built to take the effort out of life, will save you from damnation.”
“You’ve bloody well gone mad!” I yelled. “You are babbling, Michael. Hold your peace or I will shoot you – you know as well as I that spoken daemon-fear is a crime punishable by death, even out here!”
Michael paused then and inclined his head as if listening to something. I couldn’t hear anything at all – but no, suddenly I could hear it. It was so far away it might have been nothing at all, just the ringing in my ears. It is many years since I had regenerative surgery. No-one in the furthest colonies has access to such technology. At first I blamed this, the mortal failings of my age, the tinnitus which is provoked by silence.
I realised after perhaps a minute that what I was hearing was real. It was real, damn you, I swear it! I strained maddeningly to hear it, like the sound was teasing me by remaining on the very fringes of perception. Then it grew louder – yet still faint – and I realised where it was coming from, and I turned my face to the stars with very real fear in my eyes.
That was the point at which everything seemed to collapse on me like a falling roof. I was operating beyond the fringe of human knowledge in a galaxy lethal towards mankind. I was hearing music from the stars themselves, and more abominably than anything else, this music took the form of a kind of screech, almost a scream. It rose and fell, rose and fell, its intensity gathering then waning.
“Michael!” I cried, looking to my colleague and former friend who was by now scrabbling frantically at the smooth stone of the pyramid. “For God’s sake, Michael!”
“For our sake!” he all but screamed. “For our sake, oh please, let me be wrong, let me –”
The pyramid began to light up from the inside. I don’t know how else to phrase it. The thing started to glow with a gentle, pale light. It was getting brighter by the second. Suddenly it was too bright to look at and I turned away – Michael did so too, throwing his arms up to shield himself from any possible attack – but before my eyes closed I caught a glimpse of something that terrified me beyond my ability to explain.
“Aiieee!” Michael Windsor screamed. “I see it now! I see the battle hex that waits for me when I die! Oh, the Egyptian ruins surrounded by a lake of fire – I shall roam these worlds, and many others, forever when I die!”
A bolt of light leapt from the squared-off tip of the pyramid and streaked upwards into space. It travelled at a velocity faster than any starship. When the light vanished – at a point somewhere in the Taurus constellation – the vague screaming noise ceased. We were in darkness again. The pyramid was inert once more.
I know this may not sound as frightening as it was at the time. I can only say that some dormant sense was awoken in me and I will never again be able to journey through the void without the most intense feeling of horror.
“You bloody idiot, we didn’t need to see this!” I all but screamed at my crazed colleague. “We were leaving, you bastard! How can I forget what has happened here? Answer me, you piece of shit! We’re leaving – you’re coming with me!” I moved into a weak-legged run towards Windsor, who was once again scrabbling at the stone. “Stop that at once! What are you doing, you fool?”
We started to squabble then as I dropped the rifle and made a grab for him. He resisted, but I managed to pull him back, landing on my arse with him on top of me. I pushed him off and started to reprimand him when I realised that his fingers were covered in blood. I stared at his hands without knowing what had happened. At first I thought he’d broken his fingernails and torn his flesh in his effort to damage the pyramid. Why would a man do such a thing?
Then we both looked at the pyramid – and horror flooded my guts. I bent sideways and retched until my stomach was empty.
He’d made a hole in the stone. The bloody fool, he’d uncovered the horror that lay beneath!
I staggered to my feet, the rifle forgotten on the floor. We were in utter, soul-jangling danger. We must leave. We were doomed if we stayed a moment longer.
Michael Windsor turned to face me from his crouching position. Our eyes met, and in the infinity of dread that followed I screamed like a maniac, my throat feeling like it was tearing itself up.
My friend was human no longer. His eyes were awful, horrible, the humanity drained out to make room for a hatred that went beyond infinity. His mouth…oh God, his mouth. It was a red hole in his face. Blood leaked from his nose. Was it my imagination, or was he skinnier, more wiry than before?
The noise he made…that gasping, whining moan…that was real.
I turned and fled from the creature that had once been a man. I could hear that corrupted, shambling wreck coming after me, slowly, surely, his moans echoing through the miles of darkened corridor as if knowing where I was even when he couldn’t see me. I still imagine now that he’d have walked through walls to get to me if he was able.
The place was corrupting itself around me as I ran. The shadows were haunted. I could hear whispering coming from all round, but when I tried to focus on it, it stopped.
I had lost my automap – it was attached to the standard map lug on the gun – but I have a mem-chip which engaged a remote connection at my mental request. The mapper spoke its guidance directly into my brain, no need to wear primitive earplugs or sensor equipment, and I found the environment-tent with lights still aglow inside it. I buttoned the air-seal and the tent opened, revealing a ghastly scene.
I still feel my sanity tearing loose at the roots when I think of the carnal acts those men were performing on one another. To combine cannibalism with a blasphemous mockery of the act of love…further still, to add such violence…I cannot stand it! I cannot!
I was the only man left untouched by the evil of that place. I ran blindly, shrieking, into the night, leaving behind the ruins, the men I had known as friends and colleagues for many years, dreading hearing the slapping of naked feet against the hard ground behind me as I covered the half-mile back to the landing craft.
I slammed into the metal hull, hammering the airlock until the computer – which must have been on standby mode – belatedly realised I was there and granted me access. I was so frantic, I didn’t go through contamination procedures; I ordered the computer to let me through, then I threw myself into the pilot’s chair and made a hasty launch, ignoring the computer’s repeated and genuine demands to know where the others were.
And now I drift here in the night of which I feel such mortal fear. The shuttle’s propulsion died many days ago. There is no sign of the Dauntless which has not responded to my distress signal. In fact, I can’t seem to reach any ship, and in my darker moments I suspect I am being blocked by the dark things that live in space.
I will not allow the computer to put me in deep sleep – too many dreams of rape and mutilation, which even now are beginning to stain my waking moments.
Every hour brings me closer to the fire that claims us after death. I feel that the men are waiting for me, to anoint me in my own blood, violated and scarred. Such overwhelming horror! I can never again find joy in anything.
I can only pray that I am wrong, that the revelations of that terrible place were lies. We can never go there again – the very future of life as we know it depends upon this!
= Date: 15 May 2219 // Time index: 13:56 solar time
[Report heavily fragmented]
The wreckage…must be. Blue power armour, scatterings of debris, including one object that…computer believes is a human limb. A leg, if you want me to be precise. …computer trying to keep me sane, but…fire! Oh God…his mouth.
…American ships, the Constitution…the Sarasota. …Freedom class starships should be able to get here in five…
I don’t know if they’ve received my hails. What are they doing here, and…
…oxygen starvation. I’m hungry.
…gnaw on that leg.