This is the final entry of Maryanne Kerne, captain of The Providence.
I had hoped to make this entry back on board, but given what we’re about to do, and likelihood of our success, I thought it prudent to write it here and now. At least that way, if anyone should be unfortunate enough to come across this, they’ll know what to expect. And, who knows, maybe it will help them survive.
It had started out as a typical assignment. The company had hired myself and my crew to transport a group of scientists from Mining Colony Ulysses back to Earth Prime. The expected journey time had been eight months. We’d barely been in Cryo-Sleep for half that time before we were woken prematurely.
Maddison, our engineer, was to first to wake up and was ready with an assessment as soon as we had gotten to the bridge.
“The fuel cooler’s busted,” he announced, scratching anxiously at his pot-belly.
“I thought that had been fixed,” Grayling, my second-in-command, said hotly. Maddison had only looked sheepish. We had all thought the same, but the repair, like every other on the ship, was a bodge. To say that we had been strapped for cash was an understatement. We hadn’t had a decent paying job in several seasons, and the ship was slowly falling apart. Now our attempts to save on some expenses had backfired.
“What can we do about it?” I asked, ignoring Grayling’s growing temper beside me.
Maddison had shrugged. “There’s nothing I can do now,” he said. “It’ll take a whole team to repair the damage.”
“Are we able to get to Earth Prime?” I asked.
“No way,” Neville declared. He was a junior engineer, and mainly served as a dog’s body on the ship, not that he complained. He was a good enough kid, but he wasn’t the sharpest. “If we keep going, in a couple of weeks we’ll be blown to smithereens!” he said this last bit with a grim smile. That was his biggest problem. He took such delight in saying what no one wanted to hear.
“Can we go back?”
“Same problem,” Maddison said ruefully.
“Then what the hell can we do?” Grayling barked.
“Relax,” Bea said soothingly. You could always count on her for that. The grandmother of the crew, that’s how we saw her. She’d been doing this sort of work since she was a teenager, and God knows how long ago that was. Her hair was a steel grey, with a few rusty patches of brown remaining here and there. She had a burn on her left cheek, though to this day I never found out how she got it. And no matter where she was, or what time it was, she was always chewing on a strip of Gill-Bark. She pointed to one of the monitors, there was a soft, continuous beep and a dot flashing just right of the centre. “There’s a world not too far,” she announced. “We’ll reach it in three days’ time.” She fixed the engineer with a questioning glare. “Can we manage that?”
Maddison nodded, relief blooming in his buttery face.
“And then what?” Grayling asked. “Can you fix the cooler?”
“Not fix it,” Maddison said. “But give me a couple of days and I should be able to rig up a diverting system that can alleviate some of the stress build-up.”
“Will that be enough to get us to Earth Prime?”
“Not quite there,” the engineer explained, a faraway look taking over his face. I’d grown used to that look, it was the one that always took over when Maddison was thinking too hard. He would retreat into his own little world, full of cogs and pipes and energy filters. “But we’ll be able to reach a settlement zone, easily.”
And that was that. We didn’t have much choice either way really. The fuel cooler couldn’t be reached whilst the ship was moving, and if we kept moving we would, as Neville so aptly put it, be blown to smithereens.
Given that I was captain, it was down to me to pass on the news to our passengers. Grayling did offer, but I pointed out that he needed to be navigating the ship. The look of relief in his eyes was hard to miss.
The scientists were less than impressed.
“Why wasn’t this checked before we left Ulysses?!” one of them barked, one that I could tell would be a problem later on.
“It didn’t come up in our pre-flight check,” I informed him.
This didn’t comfort the trio, and the development made them understandably jittery. This didn’t change for the three days we spent reaching what should have been our temporary refuge.
The planet in question was sat in a Class Three zone, meaning that, if anything went wrong down there and we couldn’t get the fuel cooler fixed, then our chances of being rescued were slim. Nevertheless, as we had no other choice, we landed on the planet.
The landing was difficult; a storm was raging when we tried to break through the stratosphere, one much fiercer than any we’d faced before. Fortunately, due to the joint efforts of Grayling, Maddison and myself, we were able to land The Providence safely.
Our landing zone was a piece of cape, not too far from what seemed to be a lake, or other sort of large body of water. The storm was still going strong when we landed, and so seeing anything more of our surroundings was difficult. As soon as the ship had landed Maddison and Neville set to work on the cooler system.
The work was not quick. Maddison and Neville spent two days inside the bowels of the old rust bucket, and still came no closer to fixing the system. But at least those two had their work to keep them busy. The rest of us were left with no such distraction, and it wasn’t long before our guests came to voice their dissatisfaction.
He came into my quarters on the third morning, the one I had already began to call the Problem. With his long white hair, the pointed spectacles and the buck teeth, he was the closest to achieving the ‘Mad Scientist’ look I had ever seen. His whiny, strangled voice didn’t help make him any more likeable. “Captain,” he declared, ignoring my greeting, “this situation is completely out of hand! How much longer do you expect us to be stranded here?”
“I can assure you, professor,” I said, doing my best to hide my dislike for the man, “that my crew is doing everything in their power to fix our problem.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Correct, it doesn’t,” I said back. “That would be because I can’t give you an answer.”
“I don’t want to be a nuisance, captain,” he said, though I didn’t believe him for a second. “But there is nothing for myself and my colleagues to do on this ship! Outside, however –”
“I cannot allow you to disembark, Professor Elmwood.”
A furious look flashed across his long face. “I can assure you, Captain Kerne,” he said darkly, “that I would not ask if I believed there was even a small chance of there being danger.” He shifted in his seat, getting ready for a long argument. “From the readings you took upon our first landing we know that the atmosphere is not harmful, in fact the air is quite breathable!”
He was right, but that’s what worried me. This was supposed to be Class Three planet, uninhabitable for colonies, and usually restricted to everyone but government approved surveyors. Perhaps that was why the little man in front of me wanted to go out there. If he could find a new colony zone, or even a new mining location, he’d be set up for life. He’d never have to apply for a new grant ever again.
“We won’t want to be out there for long,” Elmwood went on, removing his glasses and giving them a wipe. “Just a few hours, maybe a day. Only to do a most rudimentary survey. You have to understand, this is such a rare chance, captain!”
I still didn’t like it. But I promised to at least consider it, which seemed to satisfy him a little. Later on, I discussed his proposal with Grayling and Bea. To my surprise the pair both seemed in favour of the professor’s idea.
“They’re not the only ones pissed off at having them around,” Grayling said with his usual charm.
“The air’s not clean,” Bea said with a relaxed shrug, “but it’s breathable, and our scans didn’t find any signs of life.”
“So, you’re both saying I should give them the go-ahead?” I asked, still not liking it.
Grayling and Bea both shared a glance. At that moment I knew that they had, maybe not discussed it, but at least had the same thought as the scientist. And could I blame them? How often did you get the chance to explore a new world? And we all had faith in Maddison, so it’s not as if we believed we were stuck here. The storm was also finally dying. The thunder had finished the day before, and the rain was slowly following. Once it was gone completely I was sure the scientists would become even more eager to explore. That evening, despite my better judgement, I let the scientists know that they had my consent to make an expedition outside. The next day I had to put my money where my mouth was. The rain cleared during the night, and by the morning the sky was a light steel grey. That seems to be the dominant colour of this world.
Elmwood bustled into my quarters before I’d even finished getting changed, and how I wish I’d given into my impulse and thumped him then and there. “I trust you’ll stand by your promise, captain?” he asked
“Don’t worry, professor,” I said, at that point still treating him like the guest he was. “You and your colleagues are free to explore our surroundings.”
“Excellent!” the man declared, rubbing his hands together eagerly.
“But,” I said, making him pause in the doorway, “I’m sure you won’t object to having some of my crew as company?”
The flash on his face told me this was the last thing he wanted, but, I was the captain, and he had no choice but to agree.
We were just about to get into our suits when Maddison pulled me to one side. His face was covered in grease, stubble lined his chubby jowls, and by the smell of it, he hadn’t found himself much time to have a wash. “Cap,” he said quietly, “I know this is asking a lot of you, but when you go out, do you mind taking Neville with you?”
It was asking a lot of me. The one good thing about having a malfunction such as this was that it was an opportunity to keep Neville locked away. Then again, having him on the excursion would be a good chance to wind up Elmwood and the other scientists. And, judging by Maddison’s expression, he too needed a day away from the teen. Reluctantly, I nodded. “All right,” I said, making a mental note that Maddison owed me one.
And so, that was the group that left The Providence: Myself, Jonas Grayling, Beatrix Hughes, Neville Cane, Professor Vernon Elmwood, Doctor Hope Danvers and Professor Simon Task. The seven of us walked off the ship, little realising what was about to happen.
Iron grey hung above our heads, I couldn’t tell whether it was a blanket of clouds, or whether that was the pallor of the sky itself. Only a few feet away from the ship the ground began to slope down, leading to a beach-like area. It wasn’t until later that I discovered this beach was made up of pebbles, each polished to a glassy shine. The ground beneath the ship was a darker grey than the sky, and cracks criss-crossed under our feet. I couldn’t shake the fear that something lurked within those cracks, and for a long time after disembarking my eyes kept drifting towards them.
The three scientists held no such fear. They sprang out of the ship like eager children, immediately chattering amongst themselves about everything they saw. After a while their talk became too much for me, and I switched off the comm-link in my helmet. Once I did that, I finally started to relax. Ambling down the slope, hearing the softened sounds of the waves caressing the pebble-beach helped calm me. It had been a long and tiring week, but in that moment, I was able to put it out of my mind.
I can’t say how long I spent simply standing there, watching that body of water. There was another stretch of land, barely visible in the distance, but I soon began wondering what might be over there. Whether it would be the same as this side, just a strip of beach and then a grey landscape.
I still stood there, even when the tide began to recede and the opposite bank became shrouded in a sudden mist. I might have stood there all day if it hadn’t been for someone rapping against my shoulder. Startled, I spun round and stared at Grayling. I switched on the comm-link, only catching the last of what he was saying.
“ – gone!”
“What?” I asked, glancing around distractedly.
“I said, Neville’s gone!”
“He’s gone? Gone where?” I pushed past Grayling, staring back up at the ship. “Has he gone back to help Maddison?”
“No,” Grayling said. He then pointed to a spot further along the beach. Seeing it made my heart sink. A helmet was sat on the pebbles, the vizor facing out to the water.
“Who let him take that off?” I roared.
“No one saw him do it,” Bea responded. “He went off on his own, just like you did.”
What was that supposed to mean, I wondered. “Let’s just try and find him,” I said, approaching the helmet. The air was breathable, we knew that from the scan. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t something in the air, something that might prove fatal. By taking off his helmet Neville had put himself in danger, and that meant he’d have to be quarantined as soon as we got back to the ship. The six of us spread out, searching up and down that strip. It wasn’t long before Grayling’s irritated growl came through on the link.
“I’ve found the bastard.”
The pair were farther down the beach, the ship behind us now just a small dot. I threw the helmet into Neville’s hands, hoping to wipe the smirk from his pointed face, but there was no such luck.
“What the hell are you playing at?”
“I found something!” he said gleefully.
“I don’t give a shit what you found,” I snapped back, feeling all the tensions and anxieties flooding back. “You disobeyed my orders!”
He looked at me with that same dumbfounded expression that always annoyed me. “You took your helmet off,” Bea said, a look of relief on her face that I struggled to understand. “We were worried about you.”
“Speak for yourself,” Grayling murmured. Now that I could understand.
“It was too hot with that on,” Neville said with a dismissive shrug. “Besides, them lot said the air was fine.” He nodded to the scientists, accusingly. Elmwood took on an offended air.
“That doesn’t mean we said the air was safe!” he argued.
“Well, it is!” He then took a deep breath, as if that would get him off the hook.
“What did you find?” Task asked, and not for the first time that week I wondered whether he and Neville might be somehow related. I couldn’t imagine too many people being that dense without the cause being genetic.
“Aww, you don’t want to know,” Neville, now acting childishly coy.
“You’re right,” I said, turning my back on him. “We don’t. We’re going back to the ship, and Neville, you’re in quarantine until we get back to civilisation.”
“I found a house.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Elmwood scoffed.
“This is a Class Three planet,” Danvers explained. “There’s no chance this place is inhabited.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I thought that was clear,” Grayling said.
“I can show you!” Neville said, pulling himself free of Grayling’s grasp. “It’s not far! It’s this way!”
“I think you’re going too far, Neville,” Bea said warningly.
“What do you think, Vernon?” the woman scientist asked, lowering her voice, despite the fact that, thanks to the open channel, we could all hear her clearly.
“You don’t believe him, do you, Hope?” he asked, incredulously.
“We won’t know until we see it with our own eyes,” she pointed out.
“Imagine if he is right though,” Task added, his eyes gleaming.
Elmwood stared at his colleagues, and for a moment I believed he might actually go with common sense. But, in the end, he turned to me. “Captain,” he said, regaining his irritatingly pompous air. “We would be curious to verify this young man’s claims.”
“They’re not claims,” Neville whined.
“Professor Elmwood,” I said coldly. “I have given the order for us to return to the ship.”
“I understand that,” he said peevishly. “However, if these claims are true, it would be a huge discovery!”
I stared at him, trying to come up with some argument. But even I couldn’t doubt that I was curious too. Besides, going back simply meant being yet again cramped inside the ship getting on one another’s nerves. At least if we followed Neville’s wild goose chase it would kill a bit of time.
“Fine,” I finally said. “But if you’re lying,” I added, turning to Neville, “then I’m leaving you here.”
He gave me his patented cocky smirk, threw off a salute, and then turned to start traipsing up the beach. I turned back to the ship, almost hoping to see Maddison waving to tell us that the ship was fixed and ready to go. But I could barely make out the battered form. The mist from the other side of the water had already reached the ship, lightly blanketing it. We’d have to be quick, I thought. If the mist got any thicker we’d lose sight entirely.
The trek ended up being barely ten minutes. Neville led us up the beach, following as it curved around another slope. When the sight of the ship was completely blocked by the second hill, we saw what Neville had found. Whilst it could, by no means, be mistaken for a house, it was certainly a structure of some sort.
There was no chance of it being natural, it had oval-shaped windows and a door. It was only one storey, standing no taller than eight feet high. It had been made out of some sort of pale cream stone, but it was weathered and beaten now, giving it a rough texture. I didn’t know what to make of it and, by the sounds of it, neither did the scientists.
“This is amazing!” Task gasped, taking a step closer to the building. He ran his hand along the door. “It must be some sort of metal, though I wouldn’t be able to tell you for certain without a proper analysis.”
“What do you think this means, Vernon?” Danvers asked.
For a moment the professor was speechless. He simply stared at the structure with wide eyes. “It’s an unmistakable marker of life,” he finally announced. “Whether this planet was once populated, or whether someone has visited before us, I don’t know. Either way, we need to make a better investigation!”
“See? I told you!” Neville said, his grin threatening to split his head apart.
“You’re still going into quarantine,” Bea snapped.
“Speaking of which,” I said, “it’s time for us to go back.”
“Go back?” Task exclaimed.
“Captain, surely you can’t expect us to just abandon this discovery?!” Elmwood bleated, taking a hurried step towards the building.
“It’ll still be here tomorrow,” Grayling declared. “If we stay out here any longer we’ll get swallowed up by this damned fog.”
And he was right. Tendrils were curling themselves around our legs, and it was thickening at an alarming pace. In fact, once we rounded the hill and returned to the beach, we found it had been entirely dominated by the heavy fog. Even seeing a few feet ahead of us was nearly impossible. Bea tried shining her torch, but the beam was just devoured by the bank.
“Try to stick together,” I said. “And Neville, put your bloody helmet back on!”
Whether he did as he was told, I didn’t know, I had lost sight of him, instead I tried to simply move on. The fog was completely disorientating, making even the simple task of walking in a straight line arduous. Through the comms I could hear the sounds of splashing, and Grayling’s muttered cursing.
“I can’t see a damned thing!” he announced, as if it was any different for the rest of us.
“Did anyone hear that?” Task asked, his voice quivering nervously.
“Hear what?” I turned back, but of course all I could see was that wall of grey.
“I’m – I’m not sure,” he stuttered.
“Probably just feedback from the comms,” Bea stated. “Let’s hurry and get back to the ship.”
We continued on for several more minutes, barely knowing whether we were heading in the right direction, or whether we were simply walking in circles. There was a sudden, startled yell from Task.
“What is it?” I asked, my hand reaching for the suit’s holster.
“S-sorry,” he wheezed. “Someone – someone just brushed against me, and it surprised me. That’s all.”
“Don’t blame me,” Neville said defensively.
“It wasn’t me either,” Danvers said.
“I keep ending up in the bloody water,” Grayling snarled.
“Well someone did it!” Task exclaimed, his voice wavering close to panic.
“Maybe it would be best if we held on to one another?” Bea suggested. “At least that way no one will get separated.”
“Maybe we should have thought of that at the start,” Elmwood muttered. “Now we have no idea where anyone is!”
“Someone keeps touching my arm!” Task wailed. His voice was cracking now, the disorientation he must have been feeling was driving him closer to the edge. I turned around, switching my torch on with the hopes of seeing at least someone close by.
That was when the screaming began. For a moment I thought the comm-links were going haywire, sending pain searing through my ear. I switched it off, but even with the connection cut, I could still hear the sound piercing through the thick blanket around me. I immediately switched the comms back on, panicked sweat appearing on my frown. “What’s going on?!” I barked, hoping my voice could be heard over the screaming.
I’ll never forget that sound. It seemed to never end, that almost inhuman wail of agony. I began running, it was just a reaction brought about by instinct. Other voices called out, but none of them could overwhelm that long, drawn out scream. And then it stopped. Well, no, it didn’t stop. It was simply cut off over the intercom, but the sounds of agony could still be heard hidden in the fog. That meant whoever was being attacked had taken off their helmet. Or someone else had taken it off. Either way, I was relieved to some degrees. Finally, someone else’s voice was able to make themselves heard.
“Captain! Captain!” It was Grayling, and he sounded terrified.
“What the Hell is going on?” I asked, almost shouting because the screams were still echoing in my head.
“It’s Task – something’s got him!”
“What? What’s got him?”
“How the Hell should I know?!” Grayling shouted back. “I can’t see a damn thing in this fucking fog!”
“We need to find him!” With that I started running again, this time letting the sounds of Task’s horrifying screams guide me. I didn’t want to, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Whatever was attacking him, whatever was causing him to make those sounds – well, the last thing I wanted was to meet it. But I had a duty of care.
Then there was silence. It came so suddenly I almost tripped in surprise. “What’s happened? What’s going on? What’s happened to Simon?!” That was Elmwood, his voice was choking with terror. I could imagine his eyes bulging out of their sockets and sweat dripping down his face.
“There’s no chance of finding him in this fog,” Neville said, his voice unchanged.
“We can’t just leave him!” Danvers exclaimed, sobs mangling her voice.
“What do you want us to do?” Neville asked. I winced at the sneer I could hear in his tone. “Wander around this beach waiting for that thing to pick us off one-by-one?”
“Captain,” Elmwood pleaded, “we can’t just leave him out here!”
I wanted to agree with him. But those screams rang throughout me, and I didn’t want to hear them again. “We’re going back to the ship,” I announced, silencing the other voices. “We’ll make a proper search when the mist clears.”
“But we don’t know where the ship is!” Elmwood wailed.
“There’s a light!” Bea suddenly exclaimed.
I span round desperately, and when my eyes landed on the dim, yellowish glow a grin spread across his cheeks. “Can everyone see it?” I asked.
“I can! I can!”
“I’m already heading there!”
“Everyone do the same,” I commanded, already breaking into a run. I promised myself that, when I got back on the ship, I’d give Maddison a massive snog. I didn’t think he would venture out of the ship’s guts and notice the fog. Nor did I even for a moment think he’d have the brains to turn on the lights. But here he was, guiding us home.
That was Bea’s voice, and the fear in it had been unmissable.
“Bea? What’s the matter?” I stopped yet again, turning every way, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
“Maryanne,” she said, slowly. “I don’t know what got Task, but it ain’t done.”
“Bea, Beatrix, where are you?” I began walking, hoping that I would see her emerge from the fog. Hoping that it would clear at the last minute. Hoping that all this was a dream.
“Get to the ship,” she commanded. “And, whatever happens, don’t turn back. Understand?”
“Beatrix! Where are you? Just come back to the ship!”
And then she was there. The fog cleared like a grey curtain being pulled aside, and behind it was Bea. She stood with her back to me, her head tilted up. I called out to her, but I saw her hand reach up to the neck of her helmet. She switched off the comm-link.
At first, I hadn’t noticed the shadow lurking within the fog, but when it moved a lead weight fell into my stomach. It was at least eight foot tall, and that’s all I can tell you. Only Bea was looking at it directly, and she had no opportunity to share what she saw.
Something that had to have been an arm whipped around in a curve and ripped Bea straight off the ground. From the way her neck snapped when she was suddenly lifted up, I can only hope that she was killed on impact. I remember screaming out her name and running straight at the beast, foolishly dreaming that I could do something. But a figure intercepted, grabbing me by the midriff and dragging me backwards. All I could do was watch helplessly as Bea’s limp form was hauled back into the fog by that beast.
Then we were inside and Grayling, the one who had stopped me, threw me to the ground and slammed the door shut. He ripped his helmet off, leaned against the door and pressed the heel of his hand into his eyes. “Fuck!” he growled.
“What happened?” Neville asked, springing to my side. “Where’s Bea?”
“It got her,” Grayling said, his voice haggard.
“What the hell was that thing?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
I started to look around, still in a daze. Along with Neville and Grayling, both Elmwood and Danvers had managed to escape. But we weren’t inside the ship.
“Where are we?” I asked, struggling to my feet.
“Inside that building we found,” Elmwood explained. His face was ashen and his hair was drenched with sweat, several strands plastered to his forehead. “This was where the light was coming from.” He pointed up to three orb curved bulbs set into the ceiling.
Seeing as they had all done the same, I too removed my helmet. The air inside the room was stale and ancient, only slightly better than the recycled air provided by the suit. The building consisted of only one room, thirteen feet long and eight feet high. A silver-topped table sat in the centre of the room, around it was several three-legged stools, one of which was occupied by a silently sobbing Danvers. But what immediately caught my attention was the writing on the right-side wall. The language was like nothing I had seen before, just a series of jagged lines and dots carved into the wall. I had no time to wonder what it could mean before the scientist was yet again babbling.
“Can’t you radio to the ship?” Elmwood asked, addressing Grayling. “Maybe your engineer could pilot the ship to us!”
“The suits aren’t fitted with long-rage communications,” I explained, rising to my feet, unsure whether I had any strength remaining in my legs. “We have no way of getting hold of Maddison.”
“What if he decides to come out looking for us himself?” Hope asked, her voice cracking with dread.
“There are no more suits,” Grayling stated.
That was at least one small mercy. Maddison would never leave the ship without a suit, even if the computer says the air was breathable.
“So, we’re just stuck here?” Elmwood exclaimed. “Well, how do we know we’re safe?”
“We’re about to find out,” Neville declared.
“What – what do you mean?” Danvers asked, her eyes puffing up already from the tears.
“It’s here!” He was staring out one of the windows, a small, almost eager smirk dancing on his lips. I leapt to my feet and pounced onto the second window. Grayling joined me, his eyes squinting out into the fog. We stood there for several moments, staring at nothing. Something suddenly leapt at the window, sending Grayling and I stumbling back in shock.
It was at least as thick as Grayling’s neck, with a slate-grey skin that was only slightly distinguishable from the mist around it. The skin was coated in a translucent film, little drops fell as the arm trailed across the window. I felt the breath catch in my throat as I saw three curved claws, each standing at around six inches. They looked sharp enough to tear a man to pieces with little effort, and right then they were clicking against the glass. It was almost as if the creature was politely asking to be let in. I don’t know what material the windows were, but not even a scratch was left. I heard Grayling release a sigh of relief. The creature, seemingly disappointed, drew its arm back, vanishing into the mist.
“Whatever this place is,” I said quietly, “it must have been built to keep that thing out.”
My eyes again lingered over the carvings on the far wall.
“Did you get a look at that thing?” I asked Grayling, keeping my voice down.
He shook his head. “All I saw was you,” he answered. “Did you?”
“It’s big,” I answered. “And strong.”
“How did we not know it was there?” Grayling asked, running his hand nervously through his crew-cut. “It didn’t make a fucking sound!”
“Task heard something.”
“Yeah, but not until it was right on top of him!”
That was a mystery I wasn’t too interested in solving. At that moment all I wanted was to wait it out. “Whatever it is,” I said with a shrug, “I reckon it needs the mist. It would have attacked us before otherwise.”
“So, you want us to just wait?!” Elmwood asked.
“Until the mist clears,” I said, staring out the window, searching the depths for the creature. It was still out there, the prickling on the back of my neck told me as much.
Hours passed and the mist did nothing but thicken. I don’t know how long we were trapped in that room, waiting for the fog to clear, but it was long enough for the hunger to take over.
“Is there nothing to eat?” Elmwood asked, jumping to his feet suddenly.
“Bea had the emergency pack,” Grayling explained.
“If we wait here much longer it’ll be starvation that does us in,” the scientist muttered darkly.
“Better than being ripped to shreds,” I pointed out with a sharp glare.
“I don’t know,” Neville said quietly, still watching out the window. That usual, provocative smirk was still on his face. Deep down I couldn’t decide whether the boy was actually enjoying all this. It was an idea so revolting that I couldn’t stomach facing it, but nor could I shift it either. I turned away from him, instead focusing on the younger of the two scientists.
She had stopped sobbing, probably due to exhaustion. Her face was a sickening pale colour, whilst her eyes were red raw. Her hands trembled in her lap and she looked at me with the expression of a lost child. “I just want to go home,” she mewled.
Don’t we all, I thought.
I don’t know when, or how I managed to fall asleep, but what I remember next was Grayling gently shaking me awake.
“What is it?” I murmured, my eyes bleary and my joints aching.
“You should see this,” the man said.
I rose, tottering slightly, to my feet. The other three were sound asleep. Elmwood was curled up in one of the corners, Danvers had her head resting on the table, and Neville had fallen asleep at his post. One elbow was perched on the windowsill, and a thin line of drool dangled from open mouth.
Grayling pointed out the second window. My heart sank. For a brief moment I had thought I was going to find the mist had cleared, finally allowing us to escape. But it was as thick as ever. No – wait, it wasn’t. Once the last thorns of sleep had left my mind, I realised that the fog had lightened somewhat. Not much, but I could at least see a few yards ahead. And then I saw what Grayling was pointing at. It was a round, grey satchel. One of the straps was torn, and there was a couple of red splatches along the bulging body, but I still recognised it.
“The emergency pack,” Grayling said, a small, determined smile on his lips.
“Why’s it over there?” I wondered.
My second-in-command shrugged. “It must have come off when . . .” The words died on his lips. “It doesn’t matter,” he finished. “I reckon this mist isn’t going anywhere soon, but there should be enough food in there to last us a few days.”
I nodded. I didn’t like to think that way, but I had a feeling we were going to be trapped in here for a while. I didn’t know what this mist was, whether it was a natural occurrence on this planet, or whether it was a freak phenomenon. But either way, if we didn’t act soon we’d end up starving in this little outpost.
“I can run out, grab it, and be back in a matter of minutes,” Grayling assured her.
“I’ll do it.”
We both span round. Standing up, a resolved look on her otherwise demure face, was Hope Danvers.
“It’s fine,” Grayling said, “I can do this –”
“But – but I want to.” Her eyes screamed anything but that. Despite the abject terror she was then feeling, she still took another step forward. “Besides,” she continued, staring Grayling in the eye. “I’m probably a lot quicker than you.”
No one could argue with that. Grayling was six-foot-six and had a barrel belly that was growing bigger by the day. He was past his prime, and the grey flecks in his short hair only added to that point.
“We don’t know if that thing is still out there,” he pointed out.
“It is.” Neville was now awake, once more fixing his gaze onto the bank outside. It seemed only Elmwood was reluctant to re-join us. A flicker danced over Danvers’ face. I rested a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s all right,” I said. “Jonas will go.”
He nodded at this, but the grey pallor that had come over his face told me all I needed to know. Hell, even I was too terrified to even think of volunteering. What sort of captain did that make me?
She gently but firmly brushed my hand away. She took a deep breath, then fixed me a steely stare. A swell of respect rose up in me. One I knew I would never feel for Elmwood, nor could have ever felt for Task had he lived.
“I won’t be long,” Hope announced.
I nodded wordlessly. I unclipped the pistol from its holster, then handed it to Grayling. He took it obediently. “I don’t know if that will do anything,” I said quietly.
“Only one way to find out,” he growled, gifting me a small smile. The pair of them stepped up to the door, putting their helmets back on. We didn’t know if there was any need for them out there, but at least we’d be able to talk through the comm-links.
I gave Grayling another nod, and then turned the handle. The door was heavy and was at first unyielding. But, after shifting my weight, it begrudgingly slid open. Grayling wasted no time in stepping out, gun held up by his face. Danvers hesitated, but only for a moment, and then she too walked out. I pushed the door shut, hearing a swift intake of air as the door sealed shut.
I snatched up my own helmet and then stared out the window. Danvers and Grayling stood side-by-side, a foot or so outside. They both looked to their left, and then their right.
“It looks clear,” I heard Grayling announce.
Hope nodded and then scurried ahead towards the abandoned satchel. Her head kept bobbing up, as if hearing noises in the distance. But she didn’t stop, not until she reached the bag.
“What’s going on?” I turned around and saw Elmwood struggling to his feet. He took a bleary survey of the room and then turned pale. “Where’s Hope?” he asked, his voice almost becoming a shriek.
“Gone to get us some food,” Neville said cheerfully.
Elmwood leaped to my side, almost barging me out of the way. His lips parted in a panicked grimace, revealing yellowing, crooked teeth. “What have you done?” he yelled.
“She’s fine,” I snapped back. “Grayling’s with her.”
“And what chance does he stand against that thing?!” He then started banging on the window, screaming out Danvers’ name. Grayling turned, startled at the noise. When he saw Elmwood’s panicked face in the window, he began to swear.
“Can you shut him up, Captain?” he asked.
“Is everything all right?” This was Danvers. She had the bag in her hand, but at the sound of Grayling’s voice had paused.
The scientist snatched the helmet out of my hand, raising it to his own face. “Hope! Hope, what are you doing? Get back here right now!”
“Don’t worry, Vern,” Hope said, beginning to trot back. “I think we’re –” For a moment she froze, paralyzed almost. And then she spun round, a terrified gasp crackling over the link. “What was that?” she asked.
“What was what?” Elmwood asked, petrified.
“It was nothing,” Grayling barked, nevertheless raising the pistol again. “Just hurry, Hope. Get back to me.”
“Some – something touched me,” she said, facing the wall of fog and backing away. “Something touched my arm!”
“I didn’t see anything!” Grayling insisted. “Now, just turn around and get back here. Now!”
For a minute I thought she’d do that. I thought she’d turn back and start running and the pair of them would burst back through those doors, safe. And she did turn around, but that was as far as she got. The last thing I saw was her pale, terrified face. She stared directly at me, her eyes almost seemed to accuse me, declaring that what happened next was her fault. In that moment, that horrifying moment, I realised what had happened. The thought made me sick, and even now I can’t quite believe it. But I knew then that the damned thing had set a trap. It had laid us some bait, and like fools we had fallen for it without even thinking.
Two arms burst out of the fog bank, almost seeming to materialise out of the coils of iron grey. They were twice as long as Danvers and glistened with that transparent ooze. In a flash they had wrapped around her body, squeezing her screams into silence, and then she was gone. Dragged back into the abyss. It had all happened in a split-second, and for several moments we all stood in silence, stunned.
It was Grayling that recovered first. He released a roar of fury and began firing into the mist. The yellow bolts punctured the fog, but it was impossible to tell if any of his shots hit. The beast was as silent as always.
“Grayling!” I shouted, tearing the helmet out of Elmwood’s paralyzed fingers. “Grayling, get back here! Get your arse back here, now!”
But he ignored me. Maybe he couldn’t hear me over his own roars. He kept moving forward, listening only to the rage he felt. The bolts kept firing, hitting nothing but wisps of grey until, finally, the magazine was empty. With a final, impotent yell, he hurled the empty gun into the fog.
“Jonas,” I said, softly, ignoring the tears running down my cheeks. “It’s over, she’s gone, she’s –”
“Let me in.”
His voice was low, almost silent, but I could hear the panic he was struggling to contain. His head had snapped down, glancing at his arm. I couldn’t see anything, but he kept on looking. Slowly, he started backing towards the door. “Captain, let me in, right now!”
I dropped the helmet and marched towards the door. A hand clamped down on my arm, holding me back. Elmwood was staring at me, spittle dangling in the corner of his mouth and his eyes perfect orbs of madness. “You can’t do that,” he hissed.
“Let go of me!” I wrenched my arm free, but Elmwood darted in front of me with the speed of a rat. His back was against the door and he was glaring at me, a crooked grin on his face. “You mustn’t open this door!”
Even with the helmet on the floor I could hear Grayling’s pleas, his voice was rising with terror. I felt my hands ball into fists. “Professor Elmwood,” I said through gritted teeth. “Move away from that door.”
He refused, shaking his head rapidly, beads of sweat shot off the end of his hair. I threw myself forward, grabbing hold of the scientist’s bony shoulders. I don’t know whether he was simply stronger than he looked, or that his frenzied state had given him a temporary boost, but the man in that moment was able to stand his ground.
“Neville!” I yelled. “Open the door!”
“Don’t, boy!” Elwood screamed. “If you want any of us to live, don’t open that door!”
But it was too late. I was too late.
From the comm-link came a mangled yell of fear and horror. Neville was staring out the window, his face blank. I was staring at Elmwood. The man was blubbering, but still stood firm against the door. There was a thud against the door, and then another. There was one final, strangled scream from Grayling, and then the noises died out. When they did, the scientist sank to the floor, sobbing.
“I could have saved him,” I said quietly.
Elmwood shook his head, wiping his eyes along the sleeve of his suit. “It’s not in the mist,” he wheezed, his voice choked with tears. “It’s not in the mist!”
“What are you talking about?” I barked.
But he wouldn’t answer. He simply sat there, hugging his head and rocking like a child. I looked up at Neville, hoping that maybe he could make sense of the professor’s words. But he took no notice of either of us. His only interest lay in whatever he could see out that window.
After that the three of us didn’t speak again. I retreated back to my corner, dragging the helmet with me, holding it in my lap as I sat down. Eventually Elmwood crawled away from the door, his eyes not looking up from the floor. And that’s how we remained, the three of us each in our own corner, stewing in the silence and trying to ignore the cramps in our stomachs that grew stronger with each passing hour.
Our silence was interrupted only once. A crackle burst out of the comm-link, shocking the three of us. I snatched up the helmet, hammering my thumb against the speaker. “Hello? Hello?!” I shouted. “Is there anyone there?”
But there wasn’t. That flurry of static was all we had. I don’t know whether it was Maddison trying to get hold of us, perhaps he had boosted the ship’s signal, or whether it was just a malfunction of the helmet. Either way, after that, we were once again dragged back into that mournful, patient silence.
I think that sound hurt me more than anything else I’d heard. For me, at least, it was the sound of finality. It told me that, despite the hopes I may have had, there was no chance of salvation. That was the final thought lingering in my mind when I fell back to sleep.
The next thing I remember is being shaken awake. It took an effort, waking up was the last thing I wanted to do. But, eventually, my eyelids flickered open and came upon Neville. He had finally shifted from his spot and was now so close I could make out the little black spots that decorated the end of his nose.
I felt myself instinctively recoil, trying to pull myself up and away. There had been something in his eyes that sent a wave of horror crawl up my spine. Then I realised why, he hadn’t been asleep. He must have been sat up watching for hours, I began to doubt he’d even blinked. His eyes were bloodshot, almost drowning out the white. And the dark circles made a stark contrast to his pale, thin face. Yet the look in them was anything but lethargic.
“I’ve been thinking,” he declared, a smile flittering across his lips. “We can’t stay here much longer.”
I raised my head up, glancing out the window. Even before I looked up I knew what I was going to see. The thick curtain of grey still dominated the view.
“The fog’s not shifting,” he announced. “And I don’t think it will.”
“What are you suggesting? We just make a run for it, and to Hell with the consequences?”
Neville shrugged, a suddenly mature look on his face. “What other choice do we have? Sit here and wait? Hope that rescue will come before we starve to death?” He shook his head, almost laughing at the idea.
I had no argument. The pains in my stomach was growing, and the hydration filter in my suit was well beyond its replacement date. But I also had no argument for the fear clutching my heart, and Neville could see that.
“There’s three of us here,” he said, nodding towards where Elmwood was sleeping. “Including Maddison, ‘cos I doubt he’s left the ship, that’s four.”
No, Maddison would have waited. Even after us being gone for so long, he wouldn’t venture outside. He’d have sent out a distress signal and done the same as us, wait for the mist to fade. And he would wait, not just out of loyalty.
“The ship needs four people to man it,” Neville said, finishing my thought. “But, at a push, you could do it with three.”
He stared at me meaningfully, and I suddenly understood what he meant. If it came to it, one of us would have to become a sacrifice for the other two.
“You know how quick that thing is,” I countered. “And we’ll still be lost in that mist!”
Neville shrugged. “I’m willing to try it.”
I looked into his face and realised that I too was willing. I nodded, quickly, not wanting to give myself time to think again. “All right,” I said, “but it has to be soon.”
He nodded. “I’ll wake Elmwood, tell him what we’re doing.”
I agreed. If I never had to speak to that man again I would be a happy woman. Instead I’m writing this. I don’t know why, maybe I thought that, by writing everything down, making myself live through the last couple of days again, it would help in some way. Help me make some realisation about that thing outside, give me an idea as to how we could escape it and make our way back to the ship. But all it’s done is make me question whether this really is the best option, whether running out that door will truly work out. But Neville’s urging me on now, he doesn’t want to waste any more time. Call me crazy, but I have a sickening feeling that he might be looking forward to this.
As I finish this, steeling myself to face that mist again, I can’t help take a final look at the carvings on the wall. Whilst I’ll never know exactly what’s written there, I’m almost certain it’s the same as what I’ve written here. A warning about what’s out there. Perhaps it holds more, maybe even an explanation. But I’ll never know.
And now Neville refuses to wait any longer. It’s time to leave. If anyone should find this, and should understand it, I’m sorry. Because that means you’ve fallen into its trap, just as we did. And did we survive? We, the final members of The Providence? Well, I’m about to find out.
Captain Maryanne Kerne.