Sleep, buried within the bones.
The voice faded as she woke from a restless slumber. Details of the dream slipped from Cole’s mind as she pulled from sleep, and all she recalled was being in a grey place, a damp and mist-shrouded land of dead trees and pale water and walls made of brambles and thorns.
Where did the voice come from? she wondered. She recalled no speaker, nothing living at all, not even herself: just that colorless dead island in the middle of an even deader swamp.
Within moments the dream was forgotten. Diaz, one of the soldiers, leaned over from the seat next to her and smiled. The transport shuddered and almost pushed him right into her, and even though she shook awake and drew back as far as the seat straps would allow she still caught scent of his sour breath and sweat. There was practically no ventilation in the GX50 transport, and now that his smell clung to the inside of her nostrils and mouth she knew she’d never get it out.
“Sorry,’” he said.
“It’s okay,” she answered, though she hoped her face indicated it was anything but. He looked like he wanted to say more, probably make some small talk like he’d tried back on Nova Station, but Cole looked away and pretended to be preoccupied with something else, which seemed to do the trick.
The interior of the transport was just barely large enough for the seven people seated within, and the entirety of the aft section had been reserved for weapons and equipment. Black steel shuddered and hissed like a den of reptiles with each lurching motion. With only the mist and water-shrouded front window the passengers were largely bathed in darkness, and Cole could only make out the outlines of the four men and two other women trapped in there with her. She’d been screened for claustrophobia when she’d been recruited for the mission back in New Texas, and now she knew why. The stuffy air was made doubly unreasonable by the gnawing chill, a side-effect borne of internal cooling units which according to Captain Goss had worked overtime in order to combat the damp heat of Zone 66. Rawlins insisted the area had been much less temperate 200 years ago, back before the Exodus, but increased temperatures now rendered the entire Zone unstable. It wasn’t beyond saving, not yet, which was why the Republic had sent the seven of them. Any colonization of the planet had to start with Zone 66.
Two teams would have made more sense, Cole thought: a military recon unit to make sure the area was safe and then a scientific survey team to prep the site for the Bridge, but the powers that be wanted to move quickly, and they seemed to think a joint task force would not only work faster but would also save the taxpayer’s money. Cole knew that Tina Lee shared her sentiments, but she and the biologist had quickly learned to keep their opinions to themselves, as the military aspects of their team did not take kindly to criticism of the government, something which had certainly changed since her father’s time in the Republic Army.
“I’m sick of this place already,” Corporal Black said from Diaz’s other side. She looked her namesake in midnight fatigues and with short-cropped jet hair pasted to her scalp.
“I heard that,” Diaz agreed. “Gotta do the deed, though.” He gave Cole a look, as if to indicate she was somehow responsible for them being there. She looked to her left at Tina, who was still sound asleep, and Rawlins, who had his head bowed either in sleep, contemplation or prayer, all three of which were activities he partook in regularly. Captain Goss was just out of sight in the darkness between the hold and the cockpit, where Jones’ silhouette could be seen hunched over the light of the control console.
“This better be worth it,” Black repeated. Cole couldn’t shake the feeling the two soldiers were trying to goad her, so she closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep. The ruse worked, and the two stopped talking, and very soon all she heard was the rumble of the ship and the howling swamp wind.
Cole tried to focus on the task ahead, catalogued the site requirements she needed to verify, mentally ticked off the atmospheric variances they’d need to take into account, the minimum power requirements and how the conductivity of the marsh would affect the output generator quotient, but the rocking motion of the GX50, as rough and unstable as it was given the turbulence and pressure storms, gradually overtook her senses. She was reminded of riding the rails when she was young, passing over cities made to resemble the ones her grandparents had been forced to leave behind.
She soon fell asleep, thinking of home.
Her rest was short-lived. If she’d dreamed again, she recalled none of it, but she woke with a vague sense of unease, and her motions were sluggish, like she was back in that primordial swamp. She swore she heard insects buzzing in the dark.
The craft continued to rock and shudder in the tempest winds, and the cool air forced her to curl the arms of her black jumpsuit and grip her own shoulders beneath the cross-fitted seat belts. Her back and neck both ached from sleeping while sitting up, and her eyes were numb from the utter blackness. Cole waited a moment for her vision to adjust, and found with surprise that it didn’t. Darkness as thick as oil pushed against her, and instinctively she put out a hand to see if she could brush it away, but she was blind, and for a moment panic surged through her gut as she wondered if she’d developed an acute sickness, some obscure disease of the abandoned world the team hadn’t been screened for.
“Hello?” she said as loud as she could, for fear she wouldn’t be heard over the rattling motion of the vessel. No one answered. She was about to call out again when she became acutely aware of how thick the insects buzzed around her, a cloud that seemed to hover just inches away in the gloom even though they didn’t actually make contact. Cole suddenly found she could hear little else.
A sense of panic flooded her chest. She would have imagined her eyes shut if she couldn’t feel the cold air from the vents. She put her hand across her face and reached out, and nothing in her vision changed.
“Tina?” she said, and she reached over to take the biologist’s hand where it should have been resting in the seat to her left, but what her grip found weren’t fingers. Or anything solid.
Her first notion was that someone had been sick, since the substance her palm fell upon was wet and warm and the consistency of shredded meat, but as if it had waited for the contact to issue its scent the odor which returned when she drew her hand back in alarm was sickly sweet and rank at once, the dense odor of recent decay. She remembered stumbling across a dead dog in her youth, killed by teens who’d been driven off before they could collect the bounty of their kill, and the sickening ripe now on the tips of her fingers was the same.
Her chest tightened, and something deep and stone-like fell to the base of her gut. The sudden violent motion of the ship made her cry out.
“Captain Goss!” she shouted, not realizing until too late that maybe something had killed Tina, and that the only reason she’d been spared was because of this utter black. Hands shaking, Cole stared blindly into what might have been an infinite darkness and did her best to unstrap her safety belt, reasoning that if something or someone was inside the vessel and intent on doing her harm the least she could do was move from her current position.
The harness was stuck. Cole struggled and pulled on the central snap-lock, which proved difficult with slick hands. She smelled something burned, like meat held too long over an open flame, but mingled in with that charred stench was an earthy smell akin to recently dug and worm-ridden soil.
She was acutely aware of how hard her heart pounded in her chest, and a sudden chill overtook her in spite of the proximity of the unseen heat source. Cole desperately pushed on the strap release, but found it wouldn’t budge.
What feeds is not forgotten, a voice said, the same voice, she knew, from the remnants of the dream she’d had before. Cracked and ancient, without gender, the soiled tone seemed to wrap around her. The words crept inside her skull like vines. So quick is the flesh to fail.
A blast of light exploded through the cockpit to her left and swept through the small transport. She saw.