I was unaware that we aren't supposed to post Patreon links, so my first posts got taken down. My bad. Here's chapter 2 again.

“Come out.” His words seemed to resonate from every surface. The response was a muffled shriek, and a loud thump, followed by silence. Then, one word.

“Ow.” Gingerly, she emerged from the locker, and he got a good look at her. She was young, early-mid teens if he had to guess. Her gangly body, already suffering from the effects of inconsistent and low gravity, was also clearly in the unkind grip of puberty. She was all knees and elbows, and her skin–pale even for those who lived in space–and short red hair were covered in grime. She was filthy, to the point that it was impossible to tell what color her too-big jumpsuit originally was. Presumably, it hadn’t been its current dirty grey, and it was covered in stains of all hues. She gripped a crowbar tightly in both hands, held in front of her like a weapon. Her wide green eyes stared at him with a look that was somewhere between fearful, questioning and glaring. He looked her up and down, examining what he saw. No sign of corruption or madness. His grip on his weapon relaxed. The silence between them stretched. Then it was broken.

“You made me hit my head.”


“What?” He couldn’t help his response. He was surprised, and that was not something that happened often. That was the first thing she said? No questions about who he was, what was going on, or why he was armed to fight a small war? No staring open-mouthed at his mask? In the past, his appearance had been enough to reduce hardened killers to stupefied fear. He was, he had to admit, impressed.


“You startled me and I hit my head,” she elaborated, tone grumpy, although he detected an undercurrent of fear. That was good. He’d worry about her sanity if she wasn’t scared. But not scared witless, it seemed. “How’d you know I was there, anyway?”


“I heard your heartbeat.”


She looked at him blankly, as if expecting an elaboration. None came. “Ohh-kaaaaay.” She said it long, drawn-out. “Well, uh, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask two questions.” He nodded. She looked down and took a deep breath. The crowbar was still held in front of her like a sword. Or a shield. Her grip was white-knuckled. She looked back up. “Great. So, are you going to kill me?”


He cocked his head slightly, the leering mask regarding her. She intrigued him. She trembled with suppressed fear and adrenaline, but she kept his gaze. Most people he encountered in these situations were near-hysterical. She seemed unusually stable. He decided to test her, and gave an honest answer.


“Only if necessary.”


She nodded slowly, seemingly digesting that answer, then looked right at him. “Are you here to help?”

“If I can.” With that, he turned and walked towards the hatch of the bridge.

She watched him quietly as if still pondering the brief, but strange, conversation. Then she saw where he was going. “The control panel’s shot. And the crank access is welded shut. You’ll need cutting tools to get in there.”

He didn’t acknowledge her verbally. Instead, he jerked his left arm and the shield compacted and rotated, panels sliding over each other until it lay along his arm and was no bigger than a large mess tray. Part of the picture still remained – the figure and its upraised sword, haloed in light. From the bulky apparatus on his left forearm where the shield was attached, a wicked chainblade emerged as long as the girl’s forearm. It was a cutter– a standard piece of emergency gear used to cut away wreckage – but he doubted she’d ever seen one quite like this.

“Oh,” was her only response.

The cutter revved to life, and then he looked over at her and said, “I understand metal splinters are bad for the eyes.”

She stared at him dumbly for a heartbeat, then what he said registered. She covered her eyes and turned her head away. He then plunged the cutter into the crank panel. With a screech of metal and a shower of sparks and metal chips, he made short work of the welded access. Gauntleted hands tore away the remains of the panel, then reached inside and began rotating the crank. Slowly, the door to the bridge ground open.

“Do you think you could make any more noise!”

He turned to look at her, to find her splitting her attention between glaring at him and staring apprehensively at the stairwell.

“We are safe, relatively. My suit detects no other living beings for at least 200 meters.”

“So!? Do you know how far sound travels in these corridors?” Her voice was a taught whisper. “They’ll hear us! What are you even doing going in there?”

“Investigating,” he replied and walked through the now-open hatch. She dithered briefly, and then followed him.

The bridge was broadly circular in shape, with a lower level of consoles and stations along the outside of the wall and a higher level accessed via ladders and a catwalk. Up there were more displays and consoles, and the general impression was of clutter and claustrophobia, despite the relative size of the space. Unlike the panel by the door, everything in here was intact and functional. In the center was a raised circular dais, big enough for the girl to lay down on and above which flickered a holo display It was currently displaying the predicted course of the ship and everything in local space. The computer was clearly flying the ship, keeping it clear of the major asteroids, but it was also clear that a course had been programmed in that would keep the ship in close to the Trojan Belt. He considered the display as he approached it. The path it was on could simply be explained as an asteroid miner looking for a good score, but it also served to somewhat hide the ship from prying eyes. He set his gun down on the console next to him, then reached down and accessed the computer. He only took him a few seconds to find the logs. The ship’s course had been set about one standard week ago, and it had been unchanged since. He checked for internal cameras but found himself locked out of security systems by an executive override.

“Damn!” While he was examining the center console, the girl had gone over to one of the consoles on the wall and had been furiously typing away at it. As he looked up, she gave it a kick and then spun around to face him. “Comms are locked! Hard-locked, too. I’d need the captain or xo’s access badge to get in. We can’t call for help.” She paused briefly. “Wait. You have a ship, right? Of course, how else would you have gotten here?” She walked over to him and started tugging on his arm. “Come on, let’s get out of here! We can call for help from your ship. Why aren’t you moving!?” Her tugging had done absolutely nothing- his armored form hadn’t moved a centimeter. He turned his head to look at her, and the sight of his mask seemed to clear her head. She gulped, and he saw her eyes scan over his weapons. She let go and backed up a step. “Look,” she said, trying to sound calm. “We have to get help.”

“I am the only ‘help’ that’s coming, girl. Believe me, no one else is equipped to face what’s on this ship.”

“But you’re just one man. Don’t get me wrong, you look really, really tough and scary, but I don’t think you get it.” She was speaking slowly now, as if trying to make him understand. “The crew has gone crazy. As in murder-each-other-and-laugh crazy. One minute they were normal, then suddenly people were tearing into each other. I barely got away, and I’ve spent the last week hiding in vents, scavenging for food and water. There are hundreds of them, and they are going to find us if we stay here!” Her voice had risen as she continued, and she seemed to be on the edge of panic.

“They are not going to find us. We are going to find them.” He replied flatly, and she shut her mouth with a snap. He leaned down, looming over her. “Make no mistake, girl. I did not come here to rescue you or anyone else. Everyone on this ship is expendable. I came here to destroy. Something has manifested upon this ship, something that is a threat to every human being everywhere. I must end it before it can grow and spread, or else humanity will be drowned in a tide of its own nightmares. The species is at stake, girl, so I need you to focus and help me.” She was staring at him blankly, and he realized he needed to give her some hope to latch onto. “I am not heartless, though. If you are still alive at the end of this, and I deem you…” he paused, “uncorrupted, then I may take you with me when I leave. Do you understand what I have said to you?”

She stared at him, eyes wide and face pale, and nodded jerkily.

“Good,” he said, turning back to the console and bringing up a diagram of the ship. It flickered to life, a rough cylinder a kilometer long, covered in antennas and growth-like protrusions of sensors and grappling arms. It expanded towards the stern to make room for engines and the machinery that allowed the ship to process asteroids for minerals. “Now,” he said, gesturing to the image. “Can you tell me where it is?”

“What the hell are you talking about!? What is ‘it’?!” She gestured at the display in frustration. “I don’t know where everyone is! I haven’t seen or heard anyone for a day. I don’t know anything!” She seemed more angry than panicked, which was good. Anger was useful, panic was not.

He stopped her with a raised hand. “I do not speak of it unless I have to, girl, and then only in the broadest of terms. To do anymore risks feeding it, making it more powerful. Now relax, and breathe.” She stared at him, then took a deep breath. “Good. Close your eyes.” She did. “Now, reach out.” He kept his voice level and quiet, no more than a whisper. “Picture the hologram. Imagine it is the ship, floating in space in front of you.” He watched her. Her brow furrowed and she frowned in concentration. Her eyes danced beneath closed lids. “There is a place on this ship, a place you fear to go, without even knowing why. Trust that fear. It is your instincts, and they will keep you alive. They already have. Do not think, just act. Now, raise your hand, and point.”

The temperature dropped, and a small pressure began to press on his head. The runes on his armor glowed slightly, and his talismans shook as if in a gentle breeze. He had been right. The girl had power. He resisted the instinct to draw his weapon. Slowly, eyes still closed, she raised her hand and pointed. She opened her eyes, and he could see the astonishment written on her face when she found her hand pointed unerringly at a point on the holo-diagram. “The main processing chamber,” she said, voice a whisper. She lowered her hand and then began nervously rubbing it. “How did I do that?”


Ignoring her, he focused the display on that point. It was a huge space, easily the biggest in the ship. While the ship didn’t have any advanced internal life-sign scanners, it did read ambient temperature as being several degrees higher in there than usual. “Large open space. Signs of life. Very good, girl.” He zoomed out, expanding the view. “It seems the fastest route would be the main elevator.” He selected it, and a shaft running the length of the ship flashed red on the holo. “Locked down. Very well, then.” He grabbed his weapon off the console. “Stairs it is.” He strode towards the bridge exit. “Come, girl. Let us be about it.” He stopped at hatch, looking back. She hadn’t moved. “Girl! Come.”

She didn’t seem to hear him. She was still staring at the display, absently rubbing her hands together. Finally, she turned to face him.

“What is it? Is it a monster?”

She looked right at him, maintaining eye contact through his mask. The levelness of her voice surprised him. He decided to give her the truth, “Yes.”


She nodded and swallowed, absorbing that simple statement. Then she looked at him again, “Are you?”


He was silent for a few moments. What did he say to that? He sometimes asked that himself. “When necessary.”


She had no response to that, and so he continued walking towards the stairs. “Come, girl. The descent into Hell waits for no-one.” He entered the stairwell and she was soon out of sight. He heard her run to catch up.

------------------
The central stairwell ran the length of the ship, and wrapped around the shaft of the main spinal elevator. It was wide enough for five people to pass abreast and was brightly lit by fluorescent-white strips like the rest of the ship. The decks were arranged vertically on top of each other to take advantage of thrust gravity–a not-uncommon design feature on older ships built before recent advances in artificial gravity. The pair descended, away from the bridge, passing decks of workshops and living quarters, mess halls and supply closets. There was even a rec area with a small theater – everything the crew and their dependents would need on a long mining cruise. It was like a small town set loose to drift across the void. It took some time, as he stopped frequently to investigate various decks. Everywhere there were signs of habitation. Food lay out on tables, going rotten and stale. In one bathroom a faucet had been left half-on, the steady drip-drip-drip echoing through the corridors. Outside a small classroom, the walls were covered in children's drawings. But it was empty. There was evidence that lives had been lived here, but there were no signs of life.

There were signs of its violent end. Bloodstains marked the walls and floors in some places. Often there were streaks indicating that the bodies had been dragged away. Uniformly, every streak pointed back towards the stairwell. He asked the girl if she knew anything about this. She shook her head. “The bodies were there, and then they were gone. It must have been while I was hiding. And before you ask: no, I don’t know where they went or why they were taken.” His only response was a nod. He hadn’t really expected any other answer.


They were about half an hour into their descent when he stopped suddenly. The girl ran into him and started to protest, but he shushed her with a curt look. His ears strained. He had heard something.
Scritch-scratch. Scritch-scratch. There it was. A scraping noise, as if of metal on metal, just audible over the background hum of the ship. Now that he listened, he also heard low, indistinct muttering. There was someone there, just a few flights below.
“Stay close, girl. There is someone up ahead.”

“What?” she whispered, then stiffened. She glanced over at a sign on the wall, as if to check what level they were on. She turned back to him. “Maybe we should go around, then? We can use one of the secondary shafts, go down a few levels, then cut back over to the main stairs. Come on!” With that, she started to walk over towards one of the exits. He grabbed her arm, stopping her. She struggled against his grip, futilely, frantically. She truly did not want to go further.


“We do not deviate from our path. If someone is there, then we must see to them. It is possible they can be helped.”


She looked up at him, disbelief warring with hope on her face. “You really mean it? You can help them?”


Her sudden swing in mood confused him. “Perhaps,” he answered at length. “But I must see them first. Now, stay behind me, and follow close.”
Keeping his shotgun up, he moved smoothly forward, covering each angle of the stairwell. Eventually, he came around a bend in the stairwell and onto a landing and was confronted with a scene of murder. Several bodies were strewn across the stairs leading down from the landing. They had been shot, their wounds showing clear signs of the low-speed, heavy fragmenting rounds typically used onboard ships. The one exception was the dead body on the landing itself. It was a young man, about the girl’s age, and he was lying face-up on the floor. It was a toss-up to what had killed him: he was covered in scratches and bruises, and his eyes had been gouged out, but it was likely the gunshot wound in his side that had finished him.

The perpetrator of all this carnage was obvious: she was the only one still alive. It was a woman, of perhaps 40, dressed in the dark jumpsuit and light armor of a security officer. Her hair, long for a spacer, was clearly once intricately braided but was now messy and ratty with grime and blood. It hung in front of her face like a curtain. She was sitting on the floor, back upright against the wall. It was clear she had been forced into this position by the fact that one hand was cuffed to a pipe. Marks on her wrist and the pipe showed she had tried to pull herself free, to no avail. She was filthy and had clearly been here for days. She was surrounded by discarded food and drink packets, which at least helped explain how she was still alive.
She was also the source of the scratching noise. She had a small knife and was meticulously carving something in the deck. She was surrounded by such carvings– they covered the floor and the walls within her reach. Each was identical. It showed a sideways diamond, with a circle in the center. It looked like an eye. He knew that symbol. He approached her slowly, gun trained, but she didn’t seem to notice. She was too engrossed in her task, intent on it with a single-minded determination. He paused a few feet from her, observing. Her weapon, a standard pistol, lay next to her on the deck. It was empty, according to the ammunition counter on the side. She still didn’t notice him, but now she was starting to twitch. It was subtle at first, but eventually, the jerks overtook her whole body.

“No!” Her voice was hoarse. She took her free hand and banged it against her temple repeatedly. “Get out! Me, not you! Get out!” Frantically, she rolled up her pants leg. What he saw there did not surprise him. The same carvings, this time in flesh rather than steel. She began carving a new one, repeating the same phrase, “Me, not you! Me, not you! Me, not you!” She sucked in air against the pain but kept cutting, and when she was done she flopped back, gasping for breath. It was then that she saw him, looming over her, and her knife fell from nerveless fingers. She scrabbled for her gun and raised it, pointing it at him with a trembling hand. “Who are you?!”


“Mom?” He turned to see the girl poking her head around the corner, as if afraid to come any farther. The woman dropped her gun immediately.


“Becky! Oh my God honey, you’re still alive!”


“Are you... you, Mom?”


“I think so, honey. For now.”


Becky crept from around the corner and approached her mother cautiously. When her mother made no sudden moves, she came up to her and knelt beside her. Her mother reached up with a trembling hand and cupped her daughter’s face, using a thumb to wipe away the tears that were tracking through the grime on the girl’s face. “Oh sweety, you’re filthy.”


Becky gave a weak laugh. “So are you.”


Now that they were together, he saw the resemblance. The same hair, same skin, same green eyes. The woman turned to look at him, seemingly unconcerned about his mask and weapons. Like mother, like daughter, it seemed. “You never answered my question.”


He thought for a moment, then did something that surprised himself. Letting his shotgun hang from a strap on his armor, he took his helmet off and hooked it to his belt. “Sebastian,” he said. “My name is Sebastian.”


Both women stared at him before Becky broke the silence. “You are not what I was expecting.” He raised an eyebrow at her, but he knew what she meant. People saw the weapons and the mask, and they didn’t picture a man in his late 20s with close-cropped hair and plain, square-jawed features. The one thing that stood out was his eyes, which had a pronounced gold ring against a dark blue iris. They could seem to change colors, depending on the light. “I was picturing scars, and burns, and missing teeth. You look very...normal.”


“Becky,” her mother chided weakly. “You’re being rude. I think he has a very kind face. I’m sorry Sebastian, the girl lacks manners sometimes. She, she does, she...” Her eyes started to cloud, then with an obvious effort, she shook her head. “NO! GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” She banged her head back against the wall several times, before letting her head lol forward, panting furiously.


“Mom!” Becky shook her frantically. “Mom, come on! Snap out of it!”


Sebastian knelt down next to the woman. He swiped his index finger in the blood seeping from the fresh carving on her leg and quickly drew a pair of crossed arrows on her forehead. Her eyes went wide and she gasped, turning to him. “You have to kill it. Please! That’s why you’re here, right?!”


He nodded. “I have come to destroy it, and expunge all traces of its existence and influence.”


She nodded furiously. “Good, good! You must!”


“I will,” he vowed. He looked into her eyes. “I can also help you be free from it if you wish.”


He saw in her eyes that she knew what he meant. Slowly, she nodded. “Thank you. I only ask one thing. Take my daughter with you when you go.”


“If I can, I intend to. That’s all I can promise.”


“That’s enough.” She turned to Becky, who was looking confused. “Listen, honey, know I’ve always loved you, and I always will, no matter where I am or what happens.” She reached back with her free hand and awkwardly untied something at the back of her neck. She pulled out a wooden charm on a leather strip and pressed it into Becky’s hands. “Here. With this, I’ll always be with you. And so will all your ancestors. Be strong for us, and yourself.”

Becky was obviously confused and was growing frantic. “Mom, what are you talking about?! We’re both going to get out of here!”
She just smiled at her, then turned to Sebastian. “Karen O’Casey. You gave me yours, seems only fair I give you mine.” The blood mark on her forehead was beginning to disappear as if evaporating. “Hurry! I feel it coming back!”

He nodded respectfully. “Farewell, Karen O’Casey. You are strong, and your daughter is stronger. Be proud.” With that, he reached forward and, with a swift motion, snapped her neck.


The sound of vertebrae cracking echoed through the stairwell like a gunshot. In its aftermath came silence. Then, a scream.


“BASTARD!” She swung the crowbar at him. He had been expecting that, and the blow rang off the armor of his raised arm. “You killed her! Why did you do that, you said you were going to help?!” She swung at him furiously. He easily caught her wrists and dragged her in close, pinning her in his armored hands. Her furious flailing eventually degenerated into sobs, and the crowbar fell from her lifeless hands. He let go of her wrists and put his hands on her shoulders.


“Becky, listen to me,” he shook her gently. “Your mother was gone. Her mind was barely her own, and it wouldn’t have been for much longer. She would have tried to kill us. There is no coming back from it. It is not a disease that can be cured with medicine, it is far too old and powerful for that.” He shook her again. “No, look at me, not her. Me, not her.” Puffy eyes turned to him. His face was gentle. “This was the only way. Your mother knew that, and her final thoughts were of you. I told her I’d take you from here if I could, and that was all that mattered to her. I intend to keep that promise. Now collect yourself, and let’s keep moving before…” he trailed off. She looked up at him. Turning her head, she followed his gaze down the stairwell.


He knew she could hear it too. A low rumbling, coming from below them. It sounded like rushing water, and as it got closer howls began to ring out. His eyes narrowed, and his mouth set in a grim line. He stood up, and moved to the top of the flight of stairs, standing there like a statute. “Pick up a weapon, girl. We have company.” He saw her cast around for something. Her gaze fell on her mother’s knife, but she didn’t pick it up. He didn’t blame her. Instead, she picked the crowbar back up. She seemed to be developing an attachment to it. She set herself and looked at him. She was as ready as she could be. He nodded and turned back to face down the stairs, preparing himself


The gates of hell are open night and day,” he spoke softly, barely audible over the howling that echoed up the stairwell. “Smooth the descent, and easy is the way.” With a motion of his left arm, the shield extended into a circle that covered his forearm. With his right, he grabbed the helmet off his belt. “But to return, and view the cheerful skies,” With a swift, smooth motion he donned the helmet, its grotesque mask replacing his pleasant features. “In this the task and mighty labor lies." The last bit issued sepulcher-like from his helmet’s speakers. He readied his shotgun, cradling it loosely. “Stay close behind me, girl.” He turned his head slightly, looking back over his shoulder at her. “Be ready to defend yourself.” She gulped and nodded convulsively, knuckles white on the crowbar. With howls of animalistic hate, the crew of the Benjamin Hembrooke rounded the corner and were upon them.