Eric S. Brown has had around 300 short stories published in the last 3+ years in the small press and beyond as well as 6 chapbooks and the paperback collections Dying Days, Portals of Terror, Space Stations and Graveyards, and Madmen's Dreams as well as the novel Cobble (pending from Mundania Books) and the e-collection Poisoned Graves from Double Dragon Press.

Melanie Logue lives in the UK and used to run Dark Angel Rising magazine.

 

Last Light

by Melanie Logue & Eric S. Brown

 

The bullet knocked McLaughlin’s head back as brain matter splattered the wall behind him. Dr. McLaughlin was dead and Gregory had crossed a line from which there was no return. He looked around the room at the shocked faces surrounding him – hoping, stupidly, that Natile wasn’t there to see. He cursed himself and wished suddenly that the murder had been planned. He’d made a sloppy, amateurish job of it and as the base’s security chief; he could have rigged it all so that maybe he wouldn’t even have been a suspect. But now, there was no option but to try to buy him some time and get the hell off Poseidon 11.

His fingers danced on the key pad control panel beside the lab’s entrance, locking the door to anyone outside. It would take them a while to cut through it because no one else knew the level 1 codes - or at least, he hoped they didn’t. Turning his attention to the base’s internal sensors, he frowned. On his wrist he wore a master link to them so he could keep track of any part of the base as needed. Already he could see the blinking light that meant his own men racing towards the lift three levels above, coming to arrest him. He fiddled with the sensor controls erasing his own signature on the screen and hastily installed an encryption code so that the commands could not be over-rode even from the main controls in his own office if they tried.

He tore off the cover of the air vent with his bare hands and heaved himself inside. While they wasted their time getting into this room, he would have at least a little while to move around the station and find Natile. He would have to tell her what little he knew and hope that she would understand. It wasn’t safe for her here. If he did nothing else, he could get her out.

He still didn’t know what had made her apply for a job down here in the dark, where even the fish were butt-ugly. It wasn’t the company, for sure. Most of the guys down here were no-neck thugs and desk jockeys. Women were way in the minority. When Nat had walked into the refectory with her tray that day it had been like an alien species entering the room. Gregory had been almost ashamed to call himself one of their number; the catcalls, the crude remarks, the whistles - as if they’d never seen a woman before. Nat was cool with it. She’d just put her tray down on the table next to his and stood with her arms folded, surveying the room. Then she’d sat down, glanced at Gregory out of the corner of her eye, and muttered, “Assholes.”

Nat was something else. Something special. That was why he wanted to get her out.

At first, when he’d taken over as chief of security, he’d been impressed with the level of secrecy. Walked round with his chest stuck out like a pigeon, strutting, thinking he was really something. Never wondering why they’d been so keen to impress on him just how confidential this work really was. He’d just assumed, hell, the Government paid his wages on time, why worry? Fatal mistake. Gregory was good at his job. The best there was. He’d thought that was why they wanted him. Wrong. They wanted him because he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Their tame Rottweiler, walking round the base snarling and showing his teeth, keeping his gang of slick heavies in line, was what he was. That was all they wanted – muscle. That was what griped him the most. All the crap about aptitude, specialist skills, experience – he’d been fed a line. At six foot five, with his fiercely-cropped dark hair and pale eyes, Gregory just looked mean.

Inside the lab, he paused to catch his breath. He was getting out of condition, shut up in the cramped confines of the base. He worked out, sure, so did all the guys, but it wasn’t the same. He slumped against the wall, his shoulders prickled by a vague feeling of unease. He shouldn’t be in here. That had been drummed into him since day one. Do not enter the labs. Do not pass “go”. He felt like a kid in his parents’ bedroom. The labs didn’t look evil. They looked pretty damn’ harmless, all white and chrome and strip lighting, family photos and kids’ pictures tacked to the cork-boards on the walls. He found himself looking for Nat’s workspace, see what she had tacked to her pin board, and grinned. Yeah, Gregory, like she won’t see enough of your ugly mug during rec, she’ll want to see it grinning down at her at work too.

There was someone moving in the little room off the main lab – the store room where all the real bad gear was kept. Last thing he wanted was some wise guy coming out of there with a bottle of acid. Crossing silently to the shadows cast by the half-closed sliding door, he waited, crouching, listening. Someone walking – crossing from shelf to shelf – he could hear them breathing, hear the clink of glass and the gentle swish of pouring liquid. He raised the gun and reached round the edge of the door to grab the white-coated shoulder.

“Nat!”

She dropped the bottle she was carrying and spun to face him. “Shit, you scared me, Gregory!” Stepping out of the harmless-looking clear liquid on the lino, she gave him a wry smile. “You owe me a new pair of shoes for this. Careful. This stuff gets on you, you’ll know about it.”

”Nat,” Gregory started but she cut him off.

”Greg, why is there blood all over you? Are you okay?”

”I. . .” He glanced away, and she ran her hands through her hair, eyes widening.

“So it’s true then. It was you who murdered Dr. McLaughlin. I thought that was just another of Dirk’s bad jokes when they announced it over the comm. Greg – what’s going on?”

He stared at her, unable to answer. Finally he found the courage to speak. “I
have to go, Nat. I have to get to the surface and as far away from here as possible.”

”I know,” she answered softly, taking his hand in hers. “I know exactly how you feel. Will you take me? I’d like nothing more than to be out of this place.”

Before he could answer the lab’s door dilated and Dirk stepped inside. Dirk was
next in line for command of the security forces on the base after Gregory. He was even bigger than Gregory – six foot eight – and looked like he’d been stitched together from bits of security guys who hadn’t made the grade. His sense of humor was notoriously weird, bordering on the sick, and broadcasting to the base that his boss had off-ed the chief lab-rat would have been just his level of wit. For a moment he stood in the doorway with his piggy eyes fixed on Nat’s chest, grinning wetly. Then shock registered on his face as he saw Gregory standing at her side. He went for the semi-automatic holstered on his belt.

Gregory slid around Natile, his foot lashing out and upwards. It caught Dirk in the throat and sent the big man stumbling as he gagged and sputtered, fighting for air. Gregory didn’t give him time to recover. He moved in, landing a blow straight to Dirk’s face. The lab echoed with the sound of crunching bone as Gregory’s blow shattered Dirk’s nose. Gregory hurled his former second in command to the floor and fell upon him, his fists pounding again and again into Dirk’s face until the man lay in a pool of his own blood and Gregory’s fists glistened with red wetness. He tore Dirk’s gun free of its holster and got to his feet.

Natile stood there looking down at Dirk with an expression of contempt, and then took Greg’s hand, pressing her lips against his bloody knuckles. Her eyes gleamed with excitement when Gregory glanced down at her. “He never stood a chance against you, did he?” she said, licking her lips. “You’re a hell of a guy, cowboy.”


Gregory grabbed her by the hand and pulled her out into the corridor, dragging her
towards the lift. “What the hell’s the matter with you, Nat?” As its doors closed behind them, he hit the button that would take the lift down to the docking level. It lurched as it started its descent. “Don’t you even want to know why?” he asked.

She shrugged. ”Why what?”

”Why I murdered McLaughlin. . . ”

“I’m sure you had a good reason, Greg.”

He stared at her. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew all along, and you never said anything.”

Natile said nothing.

Gregory slammed a fist into the lift’s wall in anger. “Damn it, Nat! Why the hell didn’t you tell me? If his fucking little virus got loose it could be the end of the whole freakin’ world! People wouldn’t even know they had it until it was too late.”

“You’re head of security here, Gregory. I thought you knew what we were working on. I didn’t think you wanted to carry on talking shop even when you’re off duty.”

“Nobody said a word,” he snapped. “Have you got any idea what your little project’s supposed to do, Nat? It’s a hundred times more easily transmittable than the flu, airborne, and lies almost completely undetectable until the host is exposed to strong UV light or the sun, then the host just bursts into flames. They die in a matter of seconds, cooked alive. All that’s left is a pile of ash, Natile. Ashes. Like Dracula in the movies, but real life. It’s not some Goddamn high-school science project in a test tube!”

She reached out and touched his face lightly with her fingertips. “Gregory, believe me when I tell you that they won’t be able to carry on with this project without me. McLaughlin is dead. Please, let’s just worry about getting to the surface and out of this place.”

He glared at her. “And then what?”

Nat smiled slightly. “Hey, whatever. With your muscles and my brains, we could take over the world.” She nudged him in the ribs. “Come on, big guy. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

He shrugged her off. “Don’t you care what’s happened?”

“McLaughlin was an asshole and he had it coming to him.” The lift doors opened and she stepped out, taking off her lab coat and screwing it up to fall in the corner of the aluminum cage. “Survival of the fittest, Greg. They paid my wages – doesn’t mean I have to agree with what they do down here. I’m sick of the lies, the secrecy . . . the cold.” She glanced up at the pressurized panels above her, holding out millions of tons of freezing sea water, and shivered. “Guess that makes me unprincipled, huh?”

Gregory sighed. “Yeah, well, I guess I’m just as bad. But Jesus, Nat, couldn’t you have said something?”

She leaned forward and kissed him lightly. “Come on, Greg. No disrespect, but they didn’t hire you for your smarts. What were you gonna do if you knew? Nothing. Same as the rest of us. We don’t exist, Gregory. You, me, Dirk – we’ve all dropped off the face of the earth. Who’s going to take our word for anything?” She paused, looking up into his face. “We stopped being real when we came down here. Haven’t you noticed anything about our happy little crew? No family. No friends. No one to miss us. Any of us. So it doesn’t matter that we’re all buried at the bottom of the damn’ sea, because nobody knows we’re here!”

“But –" He started to walk, blindly, heading by instinct for the emergency escape pods in the docking bay. “The pictures in the lab, the child’s paintings, someone must have – “

She shook her head. In the fluorescent lights her pale skin was almost greenish. “No, Greg. They were there when we came. Someone went to a lot of trouble to give that impression. After all, we wouldn’t want the little lab-rats to know they were in a cage, would we?” She laughed bitterly. “What did you think you guys were here for? To stop people from getting in? Six miles down in the middle of the North Atlantic? No, Greg.” She tossed her hair back defiantly and her eyes shimmered with tears. “You were supposed to stop us getting out. To stop me getting out. McLaughlin’s name is on all the papers, but without me this project is – “She giggled. “Dead in the water, you might say.”

Glancing round, he couldn’t see any guards on the docking bay. If what she said was true – surely they’d make sure there was no way off Poseidon 11. The pods were barely large enough for two adults, especially not one adult of his size, but Nat was as small and slim as a teenager which was hardly surprising, since she ate like a bird. “What are you thinking?” she whispered, tugging at his hand like a child on a treasured outing.

“That you’ll be cheap to feed, when we get out of here,” he hissed back, buoyed by her confidence. He circled her fragile wrist with his fingers. “It will be good to see some color in your cheeks, girl.”

She gave him a sudden flashing grin, kissed his cheek, and streaked for the pods. He expected a volley of shots, Nat to fall like a swan in a bright pool on the cold metal of the dock. Instead he saw her shape flicker against the glistening curve of the pod side, and beckon him. He hurled himself after her, the soles of his combat boots ringing deafeningly loud in his own ears.

“It’s so Goddamn’ quiet,” he whispered. “It’s not right.”

She grinned up at him. “Yeah. It’s like hide and seek, Greg. They know we’re here. But they daren’t risk firing till they’re sure. Not –" she looked wicked – “with a couple million gallons of sub-zero salt-water just ready to come through the roof as soon as the pressure seal is breached.” Widening her eyes, she fluttered her eyelashes impishly at him. “Imagine that. Whoever would think of a terrible thing like breaching the pressure seals when we leave?”

“You’re not taking this seriously, Nat,” he growled.

“On the contrary. Serious as your life.” She nudged him. “Open it up. Let’s get ready to roll.”

Gregory took careful aim with the pistol he stolen from Dirk’s corpse and aimed at the weak spots in the structure of the bay’s ceiling. His gun barked as he emptied the clip into the thin stress lines of the metal above them. He could hear his guardsmen screaming from wherever they hid in the dimly lit bay as water exploded into the station in a massive explosion. He felt Natile’s hands on him, jerking him inside the pod. She already had the engines going as the bay became a flooded wasteland. The pod streaked downward and out of the bay as he strapped himself in beside her. It roared out of the station into the darkness of the surrounding ocean and then began its ascent towards the surface. Gregory looked back through the pod’s window, not even bothering with the pod’s senor array, to see the docking area of the station imploding on itself. The grinding and heaving of the metal could be heard even over the pod’s engine. He said a prayer for those still aboard who may have been innocent like himself and unknowing of the terrible secrets of what had been going on down there.

As the pod streaked upwards pretty much on autopilot, Natile leaned over and embraced him. She hid her face against his shoulder, trembling, as the pod broke the surface, water cascading down its tinted plastic windows. The calm sea on the other side of the glass was scarlet, wet as heartblood with the last light of the dying sun.

“Sssh,” he said softly, touching her hair. “It’s okay. We’re clear. It’s gonna be fine.”

The last thing he saw as she raised her face to his was the wounded light of sunset gleaming wetly on her bared fangs.