She had to get off this rock.
It was a miserable little backwater. It barely had the necessary amenities to support life, and even that required fairly considerable manual effort and constant maintenance. It was a grueling, spartan existence, and she wasn't prepared to deal with it. That, in itself, was something she could have tried to overcome. But she was useless. Her presence was entirely unnecessary. This wasn't suffering exceptional conditions to do her job. No, this was sitting around, draining already scant resources, so her coworkers could help the actual outpost residents do their jobs. She didn't begrudge helping, but she couldn't help! Her role was to study alien life, and what they needed was mechanical and engineering expertise.
Well, no. What they needed, she thought, was to get up and go. Leave the place behind, all of them. It was quickly approaching becoming a deathtrap, and the outpost's purpose definitely couldn't be worth that. Whatever that even was; some kind of mining and mineral processing operation, as best as she could tell. She was sure it was more important than she could give it credit, but not "our lives" important. She didn't keep quiet about her feelings, but they fell on unreceptive ears. There was a mystery afoot, and a saboteur to root out. Somehow that didn't constitute all the more reason to leave to everyone else.
She didn't understand it at all. They were a supplementary research crew, not detectives or authorities. Picking up a distress signal in scant-traveled space didn't change that. Their actual mission could wait, certainly; those insects would probably still be there, and the main team could handle things without them. But surely the appropriate course of action would have been evacuation and contacting relevant authorities about the situation. It would take too long to send and receive a message to justify waiting, and resolving the situation on the ground wasn't their responsibility or area of expertise.
Nobody had listened, and now they were stranded. To the utter shock of everyone else, the mysterious saboteur had sabotaged their only means of exit. Rather unsubtly, judging from how one side of the lander was caved in. It was almost as impressive as it was worrying. She had been vindicated, but it was a very hollow satisfaction. Their actual ship continued its orbit of the rock unmarred, of course, but getting back into it would now be a lot more complicated. It hadn't had visual contact with the lander when it was damaged, being on the other side of the desolate planetoid.
Her insistence on leaving when they could had been validated, but if that bought her any extra credence in future discussions, she didn't know it. She was out of useful suggestions now that egress was off the table. It was bleak and frustrating, but there wasn't much to do but hunker down, continue emergency operations, and await someone's response to their own distress call. It would likely be a horrifically long time before anyone else came to assist them, but it was at least something they could expect before they ran out of provisions. It was a reassuring thought, although a bad sign that she was turning to a fact like that for comfort.
The mystery-solving efforts continued unabated, only spurred on further by what happened to the lander. They were still totally fruitless, as far as she could tell. Everyone had alibis for most of the vague window when the lander could have been damaged. There were no real suspects, beyond it being one of the original outpost workers. After all, this had been going on since before their arrival. Nobody had any ideas for a motive. Corporate sponsored sabotage, perhaps, but then why strand them? Why not encourage them all to leave and thus cease production? Why not use an escape to brick something vital just before leaving? Why bring so much attention to the matter of sabotage, and indirectly risk life and limb? At this point, she didn't care. She just hoped they were done.
They weren't done. Twice more, now, there had been incidents. External fixtures on the outpost damaged by considerable blunt force. A piece of excavation machinery, and a random section of wall. The head of the outpost took charge of everything after the latter incident. "It could be any one of us." He said it so sternly and matter-of-factly. Even her captain fell in line, not bringing up her team's obvious innocence. There were originally twelve workers on the outpost, and six from their diverted expedition. Her three other compatriots were still crewing the ship, up in orbit. Everyone on the surface was presently gathered together for a meeting, where the new ground rules were being laid down.
Everyone was to be with at least one other person at all times. Any and all trips outside needed to be in groups of three or more, and given prior approval. The outpost overseer and the expedition captain would manage scheduling and coordination. The motive and method were still painfully unclear, but it was clearer the saboteur was willing to potentially endanger lives. The wall had remained intact and sealed, but if it hadn't, there would have been casualties. In fact, it would almost certainly have gotten everyone killed, if the personal air supplies ran out before rescue arrived. The planetoid retained a weak, sparse atmosphere. It wasn't toxic, but it wasn't breathable, either.
That killing everyone outcome was probably a sign of poor station design, but she wasn't an engineer. Maybe there was a good reason the station wasn't assembled out of separate airlocked chambers, so a breach in one segment couldn't leech air from the rest of the building. But she had a feeling the only reason was "savings". Regardless, it was yet another reason to leave the miserable place behind at the earliest opportunity and never come back. She couldn't imagine a single noteworthy thing about the glorified asteroid, other than that someone had bothered to name it after some religious figure and construct an outpost on it. Why? It would make more sense to mine space rocks that were nearer to inhabited planets. And given that someone had made that stupid decision, who in their right mind was bothering to foul it up?
At first, it had seemed like the buddy system was working. There weren't any further incidents for more than a week, although the investigation efforts had stalled out just as much. She had taken to volunteering to help watch the airlock doors on the handful of occasions where a party needed to head out. She didn't have anything better to do, and that was a way in which she could actually be of assistance. She was sitting in the reception room with her expedition's captain, who was attempting to teach her poker, when someone sprinted up to the door on the camera feed. A single someone. The captain snapped to attention at that and pulled out her radio to contact the rest of the outpost crew. They were watching the doors, not operating them, and the person entered the airlock as normal.
Almost as soon as the airlock stopped hissing and the inner doors opened, the person started speaking. It was a bit difficult to follow, since his obvious urgency had him attempting to speak more quickly than he actually could. The fact he was out of breath and only stopped to remove his helmet halfway through hadn't helped. Still, the gist of it was clear. A horrifying monster had apparently run up and attacked one of the other two with him, and the third had stayed behind while he ran.
He was one of the outpost's workers, a maintenance technician or something like that. He was panicking, and it seemed pretty clear why. The captain did her best to get him to sit down and calm himself, to explain what had happened again. To his credit, he did his best to, but it was obviously unnecessary. She looked at him with pity, despite what had obviously just happened. He was the saboteur, got caught, and in the panic had attacked the two that found him out. Now he was grasping at straws to explain it, settling on some ridiculous story of an alien monster. The captain made a good show of acting like she took it seriously, and reassured him until the others arrived.
It wasn't long before they did. Everyone in the station had come when called, a few of the hastier ones trying to crowd the airlock's antechamber. The outpost head, their de facto overall leader, was one of them. He interrupted everything to demand a personal explanation. The captain had just begun to recount a summary when someone stuttered out an attempt to grab everyone's attention, pointing to the screen. The other two people outside were coming back. Or rather, one was, carrying the other. There was a suspenseful silence, broken only by the noises of the airlock at work. It stretched on and on, and then finally snapped when the inner doors slid apart.
Everyone else started talking again, and she just sat back and watched quietly. The first one back looked relieved to see the others return, and even moreso when it was made clear the limp one was unconscious but breathing. That turned into confusion when the other denied seeing any giant, alien monsters. But, to her own surprise, he didn't allege sabotage or foul play. Apparently, the unconscious man had fainted, and the other bolted. He imagined it was to get help, and just did his best to get him back. In turn, the monster talk left him looking incredulous. Neither of them looked like they were faking the emotion, as best as she could tell. Things quickly devolved into a chaotic mess.
"I think he's had a nervous breakdown, or something." Hearing that, the head of the outpost creased his brows. It was just him and her standing across from each other in an otherwise empty room. Her captain was elsewhere, coordinating how to handle the three workers. They were being put in some kind of lax quarantine, until everything could be figured out. "And you're sure?" The question put her on edge. It had the air of an interrogation.
"No. I'm a life scientist, not a psychologist, and not a doctor. I can't diagnose him with paranoia or cabin fever or space madness. This isn't a professional opinion. I just think it's obvious. My professional opinion is that this atmosphere can't support life as we know it, and life as we don't know it wouldn't be a big animal monster. It should be weirder. And quite likely microscopic. And in my unprofessional opinion, I don't think he's lying. Because what possible reason could he have for that? It's an absurd claim. The other one—" "Steven." She rolled her eyes. "Yes, Steven, he didn't accuse him of any wrongdoing, or suspicious behavior aside from running towards the airlock when the other one fainted. So, he imagined it." She shrugged to punctuate the statement.
He didn't look satisfied. "So you don't think it's even the slightest bit suspicious that—" "No, stop. Of course I think it's suspicious, I'm not an idiot. But it's also ridiculously, obviously absurd. Why would he lie? And, if he was going to lie, why would he go with that? If he's the saboteur and genuinely that bad at subterfuge, I'm sure you and your amateur detective cohort would have caught him by now. If he wants to look crazy, he succeeded, but that gambit isn't going to get him much, because we have eyes on him now. For his own safety if nothing else. If you're still suspicious, sure, fine. But you can get a better sounding board. Now, do you have any more questions where my technical knowledge or expertise uniquely qualifies me to give an answer?" He frowned and furrowed his brows, but didn't speak up. She took that as grounds to leave. The last thing she wanted was to get wrapped up in the little intrigue that was brewing.
Avoiding it might have been a little easier if she didn't hear someone shriek.
The shriek had apparently come from her captain, which was surprising. Not as surprising as seeing the knife stuck in the gut of the unconscious man when she made it to the room. She wasn't a doctor, but she knew something about first aid, and rushed over. Someone else came in shortly with an actual medical kit and some knowledge of her own. The knife was small, a piece of cutlery, not a weapon or maintenance tool. It also wasn't stuck in anything especially vital, although no stab wound was good. The other woman wound up doing most of the work, herself assisting as requested. It felt horrifically stressful, but it looked like they might have saved him. She let herself breathe a sigh of relief, as she felt the heartbeat hammering away in her chest. She looked down at her hands, and they were shaking a little. Right.
Everyone gathered together in one place again, when the news spread around. It apparently wasn't known who the culprit was, although a lot of blame was pointed at the man who had cried monster. She wasn't sure why the buddy system they were all supposed to be following didn't clear things up, but right at that moment, she didn't entirely care. She needed to go and lay down, in the presence of at least two other people.
When she got back up, everything was tightly regulated. She approved of that. Things had broken down in the surprise and confusion, and that had nearly allowed a murder to happen. Apparently he had pulled through, and returned to consciousness, which were both reliefs. He didn't know why he had collapsed, but said it definitely hadn't been an attack by a giant alien creature. She hoped the stab wound and murder attempt had been broken to him gently, as much as that was even possible. There was a palpable sense of tension, and even more suspicion abounded that the man with the monster story was at fault. That still didn't feel right to her, but what could she say? They just needed to be careful, stay together as much as possible, and avoid doing anything rash. That way, there wouldn't be any more surprises.
As if to taunt her, while she was having her breakfast, a message came in from the ship in orbit. It was in position to see the outpost again. And, accordingly, it could see a large, unidentified object, sitting motionless not far from one of the walls. And, apparently, it looked like some kind of alien life.
Looking at it, terrifying and monstrous weren't inaccurate descriptions, although not what she would have used. It was certainly alien. It was also definitely a corpse. For all the exotic differences it must have had from terrestrial life, it looked close enough to an organic creature. It was massive, and had a peculiar body plan. A somewhat round torso, with three leg-like limbs on one side, and another two legs on the opposite side. In place of the central leg on that side was something that looked vaguely like a head, although it was difficult to tell for certain. Making too many parallels with known anatomy was potentially misleading, when dealing with something new. Also, whatever the segment was, it looked as though something had erupted from the top of it.
It was split open, and chunks and fluids had pooled out. It really looked like it was the cause of death, although she had to keep in mind it could have happened after. Offspring bursting out, possibly? If it was in fact dead, but that wasn't a doubt she wanted to seriously entertain. Upon closer inspection of the damaged head, it seemed like it had split along a sort of star pattern. Five lines radiating from a central point. The splits were certainly traumatic, rather than a preexisting division. It was a series of tears made from inside and forced apart, not a mouth or sphincter. She frowned, and finally stepped back away from the thing.
"I don't know how you can stand to be so close. That would give me the heebie jeebies even if it wasn't so... gruesome." The woman who had helped with the knife said that, making a point of not looking at the thing. Two other people were accompanying them, although they were silent for the moment. She shrugged her shoulders, exaggerating it so the bulky suit didn't obscure the gesture. "It's gross, I'll grant. And macabre. But it's fascinating, you know? Obviously, I wish it wasn't dead, but... Maybe that's for the best, in this case. It attacked someone. And considering the way the lander had been smashed, I think this might have been our 'saboteur'." There was a small chorus of muttered agreements over their suit radios, and they turned around to head back to the base. But she couldn't shake a feeling like she was missing something.
Steven. Everything clicked, as soon as she saw him. That's what was wrong. If the monster was real... The unconscious man might not have noticed in time, or forgotten. He had been knocked unconscious for long enough that that sort of thing could happen. They weren't equipped to do much medically, no more than check if he had a concussion. But Steven? He must have seen the thing. He must have done something to escape it, or fend it off, and drag his coworker back with him. But he pretended like it hadn't happened. No, there was only one explanation for just what was going on. She only wished she had pieced it together before she was staring at Steven's corpse.
The thing outside had been bad enough, and it was huge. This was worse. It was another star pattern, centered on a point in his back. A spoke went out to each of his legs, up to his shoulders and bending to trace out the arms, and the last one traced up the length of his spine to his skull. He was splayed out on his stomach in the room, and it looked like he had been torn apart from inside. It was stomach-turning. Someone else had already thrown up.
She hadn't been the first to find him. She asked, and apparently that had been the head of the outpost, a short while earlier. She took a deep breath, and tried to compose herself. Her hands were shaking again. Then she ran, getting as much distance as she could, as quickly as she could. The people with her protested, but didn't actually follow. Good.
It didn't take long to find the outpost head. He was in the room that passed for headquarters, alone for the moment. She took a few seconds to catch her breath, and forced herself to speak up before she was totally done. "That was definitely a weird alien monster out there. I was wrong. I thought it was impossible, but that was easier when I wasn't staring at it in the flesh." She took a few more deep breaths, then. She tried to still herself.
He looked a little taken aback, and then nodded. "It's hard to believe, but... I guess we were all wrong. I'll have to apologize, once this terrible mess is over." She nodded in response, and took a step forward as he continued. "It's terrible. Have you heard what happened to Steven?" He had a faraway look in his eyes, then. She made a noncommittal noise, and took another step.
She stepped past him, and he didn't seem to notice. With shaking hands, she pulled out a knife and drove it into the small of his back. She pulled it free, and then stabbed again, repeatedly. He howled and staggered, and a flash of panic settled over her. But she looked at her knife, and saw blue-green smeared on it along with the red. A nervous laugh trickled past her lips, before she yelled at the top of her lungs for help.
It had taken some frantic explanation, but people had actually been willing to listen to her. With more appropriate tools than a kitchen knife, they had made an incision and killed the thing that was latched onto his spine. It was tan in coloration, and covered in a kind of carapace. Long limbs or feelers or nerves extended out from its central trunk, their edges lined with serrations. Proper surgery to safely remove and study it, if it was even possible, would have to wait. But that was fine. She was pretty confident he would be okay.
Things were solved, finally. Not everyone agreed. Some were worried there could be more of those things, puppeteering any one of them. But nobody had a good idea for how to test it that didn't involve exploratory surgery, and that wouldn't be the best of ideas. Most everyone was just shocked by what had happened, unsure of what to make of it or what to do about it. In the end, there wasn't much to do other than keep the station running, cremate Steven, and wait.
It was a miserable, harrowing experience, but eventually it ended. Another ship arrived, responding to their distress call, and lent the use of their lander. After some debate, it was agreed the research expedition and the outpost's crew would all get aboard the research ship, and head to the nearest reasonably populated planet. They needed to report to relevant authorities and have them decide just what to do, rather than try to figure something out themselves. This was bigger than them.
They had landed on the planet, but quarantined themselves on the ship. Their story was understandably a tough pill to swallow, and it would apparently take some time to work out exactly how to respond. She could appreciate that. She was sitting in her cramped quarters on the ship, writing in a notebook. Her penmanship was poor, the lines unsteady. Her hands were shaking, worse than before. And her movements were stiff, besides that. But it was legible, and that was what mattered. Eventually, she managed to scrawl out the last couple of sentences. "You should be fine. The remains will continue to deteriorate, and should be absorbed by your body without issue. Sorry about this."
She leaned forward in her chair, and let out a sigh. She reached out a hand to feel the heartbeat under the skin, pumping at a normal rate. Her heart was beating very fast, a tiny staccato rhythm. The hand fell, dangling limply and no longer responding. Sensation and responsiveness ebbed away, and then she began to molt. The carapace was already soft and split open easily. It took more effort to burrow out and break the skin, but she was much smaller now. She perched on the woman's back, unfurling her new wings. Her heart pumped quickly, the hemolymph coursing through her veins and hardening the wings. By the time the woman began to stir, she could fly easily enough.
She stopped to look at the human whose body she had been using for the past few weeks. She loomed so large, now! The human turned towards her, eyes widening. She braced herself to take off if she needed, but the human's eventual response was to smile feebly at her, before turning to the notebook. She fanned her wings, and hopped about the desk, testing her new legs. This was much better than what she had been before. The human, after a short while, stood up and shakily walked across the room. She rummaged in a bag, and pulled out something to wrap around her back. She watched for a few moments, but then hopped over to look at the notebook.
In a smooth, flowing hand that put her scrawl to shame, the human had written her a reply.