Marissa hung from the cold metal wall, her matted hair in front of her eyes. The corridor was dimly lit anyway, so seeing them when they came would have been impossible. She took a deep breath, grimacing as pain erupted from her right side, and she knew that the ribs there were either cracked or broken.
She arched her back painfully, her cramped muscles straining against the thick plasti-goop that held her wrists and hands, and knees and ankles immobile. It had been hours since she had been left there, hanging two feet above the floor, and she was finally making the transition from anger and defiance to fear and despair.
Lt. Marissa Greck stood at attention, her duffel on the floor next to her. Her wavy chestnut hair was pulled into a regulation ponytail, her green eyes bright with excitement, her full red lips pressed together tightly. She had a thin face with a strong chin, a slender, fit body with full hips and large, round breasts, and a flawless complexion of cafe au lait. Her dark blue uniform was snug, almost form-fitting, and her StarForce insignia gleamed.
"Lt. Greck, reporting for duty!"
The much older, overweight Chief standing at ease in front of her ran his tongue over his lips and touched his finger to his electronic clipboard. "Welcome, Lieutenant," he rumbled, turning and walking out of the shuttle bay.
Marissa snatched up her duffel and raced to catch him. The gravity on the station was fractionally higher than she was used to, and it felt like she was wearing a suit of armor. She caught up with the Chief in the corridor and struggled to keep pace.
"Shouldn't I report to the Commander?" Marissa panted.
"Yah," the Chief grumbled, "But she's too busy right now. We've got a situation."
As they were on the Flight Level, they soon came to a door marked "Pilot Quarters, B-6". The Chief tapped the console and after the door silently slipped into the wall, stepped through the doorway and into a long corridor.
Marissa saw call signs painted on each of the doors she passed, a name and rank listed in smaller type below. A little more than halfway down the Chief stopped, and Marissa saw that the door next to him had been freshly stripped and bore only a piece of old-fashioned tape with "Lt. Greck" in black pen.
"Stow your gear," the Chief said, tossing his thumb at her door. He touched his clipboard again and hurried away.
Marissa pulled again at her bonds, feeling the sweat running down her body. Her shoulders were screaming with pain, and it hurt just to breathe.
She looked down at her torn, filthy uniform and noticed for the first time that her insignia was missing. She felt tears fill her eyes.
Marissa heard a soft scraping sound to her left and gasped. She craned her neck to locate the source, but it was somewhere in the darkness. Combat training be damned, Marissa closed her eyes and went limp.
After stowing her gear in her tight, on-board quarters, Marissa checked herself in the small oval mirror above her tiny steel sink. Adjusting her insignia, she patted her uniform and headed out to meet the boys.
The lounge was at the end of the corridor, where it was on all StarForce bases. She went inside and looked around. In the corner four Lieutenants played cards and smoked cigars, two more sat watching a tri-vid, and another sat at a table talking to a Captain.
The Captain was female, with a shaved head and the darkest skin Marissa had ever seen. She approached the table and stood at attention.
"Lt. Marissa Greck, reporting to the Captain," she barked. The Captain stood and shook her hand. Her eyes were large and dark, with barely a hint of white at the corners. When she smiled, the effect was dazzling as her big shining white teeth contrasted sharply with her black, almost blue complexion.
"At ease, Lieutenant," the Captain said. "What's your sign?"
"Pointer, Ma'am," Marissa responded as her body relaxed. Call signs were given to new pilots based on their most familiar traits, in or out of the cockpit. They were frequently embarrassing, and often derogatory. Marissa claimed hers was because she always took point when flying, but her training group knew it had more to do with the ice planet they had trained on, and her body's natural reaction to the cold.
"'Kay, Pointer, I'm Captain Lenstrom, call sign "Ink". If you have any problems let me know."
"I will, Ma'am. The Chief that I reported to said there was a situation on board?"
"Yeah," Ink said, sitting again. "A patrol found an artifact floating in an asteroid field nearby. They brought it back and popped a probe into it and found biological matter inside. Sciences locked it down, and we're on a Stage 4 alert to protect against contamination," she said, and then with a broad smile continued, "Nothing to worry about."
"I'm Jugs," the little blond Lieutenant at the table said with a smile, and it took no imagination at all to see where she had gotten her sign. "I was assigned here two months ago, so I remember what it's like to be the newbie."
Marissa smiled and reached to shake Jug's hand, when she heard a thunderous roar and found herself in a heap on the floor. The room was dark, and voices called out around her.
"What the hell?"
"Buzzer! What's going on?"
"Anyone hurt?" Marissa heard Ink call out. She listened to seven negative responses before remembering to add her own.
She pushed herself to her hands and knees and carefully stood. She felt for the table, and when she didn't find it immediately she froze, not wanting to run into anyone or anything in the stygian darkness.
She felt a hand close on her breast and squeeze softly, and felt the presence of someone large in front of her. "May I help you?" she asked quietly.
"Nah," a deep voice rumbled, and Marissa smelled the cigar on his breath. "Just looking for the door," he said, but it was a moment later before the grasping hand moved from her breast.
There was a flash and Marissa looked over to see that someone had ignited a cigar-lighter. She looked back and saw one of the card players, a very tall and handsome card player, standing close in front of her. He smiled and said, "Fitz".
Marissa smiled back and said "Pointer". Fitz turned and made his way to the door, reaching it just as the emergency lighting kicked in.
Ink stood in the center of the room and barked, "Fitz, take your group to Command and see what's going on. Buzzer, take your group to Power and see if you can lend a hand. Jugs and Pointer form up on me." She reached the door just as Fitz forced it open, and the three raced down the corridor.
Pointer was having a hell of a time keeping up due to the gravity, but she wasn't going to slack off and give Ink a bad impression of her. They exited the B Quarters and ran along the larger main corridor against the flow of the other crew.
Pointer was jostled by a crewman and spun into the wall, losing sight of Ink and Jugs. In a panic, she pushed and shoved her way through and saw Jugs entering a side corridor ahead. When she reached it, the corridor was empty.
Pointer walked quickly up the deserted corridor, checking each door she passed. She was nearly at the end when the station lurched, sending her sprawling across the floor. She heard screams and shouting as the station rumbled, and screamed herself when she plummeted to the ceiling.
She landed on her shoulder with a crash, feeling her arm smash up into her side. She lay gasping on the ceiling for a moment, and as she brought her arms under her to stand the station shuddered again and she tumbled to the floor, her head smacking the metal surface.
She heard only her own breathing and her heartbeat in her ears as darkness descended.
The darkness in the corridor seemed to move, to grow, and Marissa watched the creature appear through slitted eyes. It was like the ones that had hung her there, black, and it looked like a roach or beetle had been crossed with a human. It stood five feet tall on thick, hairy black stalks and had a chitinous abdomen and thorax. The arms matched the leg stalks, ending in four pincer-like fingers. The head was set onto the shoulders and had large black eyes and the mouth consisted of four interlocking jaws set with small, knife-like teeth.
It moved like a bug, slowly at first, and then in a flash it was on her, hanging from the wall by its claws and feet, its face pressing to her cheek. Marissa willed herself calm, determined to play dead. She heard a sighing sound from its thorax, and the creature scuttled over her and onto the ceiling before continuing down the corridor.
Pointer pushed herself up onto her hands and shook her head. It hurt like hell, but then so did most of her body. She had no idea how many flip-flops the station had put her through, but it felt like she had been tumbling in an old fashioned laundry machine. The lighting was dim, and there were no more screams, no calls for help.
She stood and staggered painfully down the corridor, when she heard a sound from behind the door at the end. She had lost all sense of direction, but she knew she was still on the Flight level. She pressured the door open a few inches manually, and heard the distinct report of pistol fire. Looking through the crack she had made she moaned softly.
The bay beyond held crates containing replacement parts for the fighters and support craft, stacked to the high ceiling. They were mostly orderly, but a few cases had been pulled down to provide cover. The floor was red with blood, streaked with a luminescent green, and she could make out scores of twisted bodies, some human, more some sort of big black bug.
The bugs appeared to have standard bullet holes but the humans mostly looked as though they had been torn apart, ripped open by something sharp and then flayed.
She jumped when another shot was fired, and she peered around the corner further to see three people hunched behind a group of crates. Beyond them was only darkness.
Pointer pulled her sidearm and checked the charge and ammo. Staying back from the crack she called out, "Hello the StarForce personnel. I'm Lt. Pointer, how can I assist?"
"Pointer? Thank Gods!" The voice was unmistakably Ink. "Are you injured? Where the hell were you?"
"Unconscious. The flip-flops," Pointer answered. "I can provide cover for you to reach this corridor."
"Affirmative, Pointer. When I give the order step out and keep up fire into the dark."
"Understood," Pointer responded, and she pushed the door open a little further. She tensed, waiting for the order, and when she heard Ink shout, "Go!" she leapt out and trained her weapon.
Jugs was running toward her, nursing her left arm. Behind her she saw Ink, and behind Ink a non-comm pilot. She saw movement in the shadows and she fired four quick shots, and then stopped in horror as the blackness raced toward the running StarForce people.
The black-shelled bugs were racing at unbelievable speed along the floor, walls and ceiling, gaining too fast for her to react. She fired as close to the runners as she could, taking out several bugs but not slowing the tide.
Jugs bounced off of Pointer and into the corridor, followed closely by Ink. The non-comm was only a few feet away when the blackness caught him. He spun around screaming and as she fired Pointer could see his back had been ripped wide open, gore spilling out. His abdomen, chest and neck had been similarly ripped before he hit the ground and disappeared under the onslaught.
Still firing blindly, Pointer leaped into the corridor and Ink slammed the door behind her. She lay on the floor, waiting for the pounding, scratching and tearing as the bugs tore at the door, but instead heard only silence.
"What the fuck is going on?" Pointer screamed at Ink. "What are those monsters?"
"I guess they came out of the artifact. They're killing most everybody, but they like some people enough to take prisoners." Ink walked over to Jugs and inspected her hurt arm.
"This looks like its okay, though I know it doesn't feel like it. Nothing is broken anyway."
"'Kay, here's the plan. We're going to the Flight Deck and we're going to grab ourselves a shuttle. I don't know if these things are smart or not, but we have to take the chance."
Pointer nodded and saw Jugs do the same. They followed Ink down the corridor to the main and peered out at the piles of ripped and torn human bodies. No bugs were evident.
Jugs looked at the devastation and whined deep in her throat. "Can't we sneak? I mean, can't we use the ventilation system? We're dead in the open like this."
Ink considered for a moment, and then nodded. "Yeah, there's an access panel a few yards back. Let's get it open and take it to the Flight Deck. The doors should be closed, so we shouldn't have any barriers."
The three walked back to the access panel and Ink opened it. She took the lead, climbing the inset ladder to the crawlspace that ran above the corridors. Jugs went next, having some trouble with her arm, and Pointer brought up the rear, closing the panel behind them.
Pointer reached the crawlspace and saw Jugs' ass a yard in front of her, disappearing into the blackness. She had a bad feeling, and she drew her sidearm before following. After a few yards she came up within a few feet of Jugs, who had stopped. She heard the sound of the filters being removed, and then Jugs began to move.
Pointer came to the open filter port and crawled through, having to flatten herself and wriggle to get her hips past the machinery. She felt rather than saw the filth that she was accumulating as she passed through the crawlspace, and she could only imagine how pitiful the three of them would look when they emerged.
"We're almost there, I just have to remove this filter," she heard Ink whisper. She was fast approaching Jugs again, and could clearly make out her ample ass only a few feet in front of her.
"Oh Gods, I can't wai- Aiyeeeee!" Jugs screamed as the panel below her rent. Pointer saw the thick black bug arms pierce the panel Jugs was on and wrap around her waist. Jugs' body slammed down onto the panel and disappeared, falling through to the corridor below.
Without conscious thought, Pointer dived through the open panel and landed on her shoulders in a roll, coming up in a crouch, her pistol at ready. Jugs was screaming, her arms pinned behind her by the horrendous black bug. It had bent its back impossibly so that Jugs' kicking feet were well above the floor.
As Ink flew from the panel above Pointer turned and saw two more bugs flanking a Colonel. She was about to shoot them and save him when she noticed something not quite right with him. He was over six feet tall and balding, with shaved gray hair. Along his forearms there was a black shell, like the bugs, and on his arms and legs black spurs jutted out from beneath his uniform.
His face was twisted, and along his cheek bones and jaw was more of the black shell. But it was his eyes that made her shiver. They were bulging from the sockets, the pupil, iris, and whites missing. It looked as though his eyes had been replaced by great hunks of pomegranate.
The Colonel pointed at her and back over her shoulder and said, "That one and that one."
Pointer fired once, watching with satisfaction as the Colonel's head exploded. She turned and fired on two more bugs behind her before his body hit the floor. The bug grappling Jugs was skittering away, using her as a shield. She fired along with Ink at the bugs that threw themselves at them, and saw one take a shot directly in the head at point blank range before its body slammed into Ink, throwing her to the floor. She picked off two more that leapt onto Ink, but before she could get him a third had landed on her and neatly ripped her open from groin to throat with a single swipe of its arm.
Pointer watched in shock as the bug then bent in low and proceeded to lash Ink's open cavity with its arms, sending blood and tissue flying in all directions as Ink convulsed and screamed.
Ink stopped screaming, her lungs destroyed, and turned her blood smeared face to look at Pointer. As the life faded from her eyes she mouthed, "Run."
Pointer turned to face the remaining bugs and raised her sidearm, only to have it batted from her hand. Her arms were suddenly pulled behind her and her feet lifted from the floor as the bug carried her at high speed down a darkened corridor.
Pointer watched the ceiling panels fly by above her, still too shocked to do much of anything. Suddenly she was thrown to the floor, and caught up and put up against the wall. There were three bugs with her, the one who held her against the wall, her feet two feet above the floor, and two others. Each of the two grabbed one of her arms and stretched them out against the wall. They leaned their horrifying faces close to her wrists and she waited for their bite or sting.
Instead they began to make a gurgling noise, and Marissa watched as they extruded a thick jelly that covered her wrists and forearms and the surrounding wall. After a few moments she found the sticky gel had hardened into a kind of plasti-goop. They skittered around and repeated the process on her ankles. When they finished, they regarded her momentarily before skittering off in different directions.
Marissa cried for help for nearly an hour without response, and then she hung her head and began to cry.
Marissa heard footsteps coming closer. Human footsteps. "Help! Please, help me!" she cried, struggling again against her bonds. The figure stepped from the darkness and Marissa sighed with relief, before screaming.
It was Fitz, but not Fitz. He was still tall, thickly built and heavily muscled, and he would have still been handsome, except for the black armor plate on his cheekbones and jaw, and the bulging pomegranate eyes.
"Hello Pointer," Fitz said casually. "I'm the one you knew as Fitz. You may continue to address me as such, though I have become so much more."
"What happened to you?" Marissa cried, closing her eyes against the horror he had become.
"I have evolved," Fitz said softly. I wish I could offer you the same, but our new biology doesn't work that way, not yet."
"I don't want to be a monster like you! They tore apart the Captain!"
"She wasn't compatible. Very few are, you know. It is the same with the males. Those who can be changed are changed. Those who cannot are disposed of. For the females it is different, as I have said. Those who are capable of taking our new seed are spared for breeding, and those who are not, well, you saw."
"I'm not breeding with anyone!" Marissa screamed, hatred twisting her features. Fitz laughed softly.
"Yes, you will. Our kind gestates in the womb only eight weeks, in multiples of six. You are expected to produce as many as thirty-six children each year for the next twenty or so years, though you may exceed that expectation."
"Males, as seed carriers are able to transform, but the females, the egg carriers must remain in their original form for the first generation."
Marissa felt the bottom drop out of her stomach, and she hung her head and whispered, "No."
"Of course, this whole conversation may be moot. You passed only the initial examination. If you do not pass the subsequent examination you will be disposed of."
Fitz put his face close to Marissa's and he extended his tongue. She turned her face, lifting her head away from him, and she cried out in horror as his tongue elongated and twisted until it stuck ten inches from his gaping mouth. The wet tongue slapped across her cheek and slid roughly across her lips and nose before retracting into his maw.
"I hope you pass inspection, Lieutenant. I look forward to breeding you." He watched her for a moment and then walked on down the corridor, leaving Marissa hanging there alone.