Something harsh and slithery seemed to crawl up Jeth’s throat at the gruesome sight before him. The head, arms, and legs of a man still lay on what remained of the bed, but the torso was missing, cut away from the body with the same precision as the rest of the hole. No blood stained the mattress, as if whatever had done the cutting had cauterized the wounds as it sliced through.
Jeth turned away, choking back vomit and terror. Shady had started to follow him inside, but Jeth pushed him back. “Trust me, you don’t want to see.”
Shady looked ready to argue, but then he backed off. Through the glass of his helmet, Jeth could see his face had gone pale.
They moved on down the corridor. Jeth led the way, but Shady followed close behind him. Jeth kept to the left, which seemed to have sustained less damage. There were holes on that side too, but most of them looked like they’d been made by ordinary bullets. That was good. Bullets, Jeth could handle. He welcomed them. Anything was better than mutilated bodies. All he wanted at the moment was to get out of there alive and in one piece, an expression that had taken on a new and ghoulish meaning.
A loud click sounded inside Jeth’s helmet, followed by Celeste’s voice. “Heads up, guys. Somebody’s moving your way.”
They both froze. Ahead of them the corridor dead-ended into two sets of stairs, one on either side.
“I’ll cover the left, you right,” Jeth said, aiming the Triton.
A hand descended on his shoulder. Jeth cursed and spun toward Shady. “What?”
Shady’s fingers on Jeth’s shoulder clenched and unclenched as he pointed his gun toward something on the right side of the wall in front of them. “What could do that, Jeth? How’d something like that happen? It’s not . . . it’s—”
“Shut up.” Jeth shook off Shady’s hand, trying to make out whatever had reduced his friend to a stutter.
A bulge protruded out from the wall. It wasn’t the wall itself bulging outward, but something lodged into the wall, grafted into it like some kind of weird art sculpture.
No, not something. Someone. That fuzzy sensation came over Jeth’s brain once more as he realized that it was a human head. The person’s face was turned sideways, exposing one opened eye, shining in the light from their helmets.
Slowly, more of the person came into focus. Above the head, one hand pointed out from on high, as if the crewman had gotten trapped inside the wall while reaching for something. The protrusion of a foot and knee marked the lower half of his body. Even though the guy was clearly dead, Jeth half expected the hands or feet to start moving or the eye to start blinking. He didn’t think the man had been dead for very long. No signs of decay marked the exposed parts.
Shady grabbed his shoulder again. “Something’s coming!”
Panic squeezed Jeth’s heart for a moment, and then his brain reengaged. Whatever had happened here was horrible, but Jeth wasn’t about to end up the same way. He focused his gaze toward the stairs once more, the Triton held tight in his hand.
A tiny figure appeared, standing only a little taller than the stair railing.
Jeth’s mouth fell open as he saw it was a little girl, maybe five or six years old. Pale, almost colorless hair hung around her shoulders, framing her round-cheeked face. She wore a space suit, one four times too large for her, but no helmet. Someone had pinned up the excess material on the arms and legs of the suit for her. Dirt smears marred the suit in places, but the girl beneath looked to be healthy. She stared at them with large, dark eyes that seemed all pupil and too little white.
This can’t be happening, Jeth thought. He’d been expecting some kind of monster to rival his worst nightmares. Not this. Not her. He ought to feel relieved, yet his fear remained firmly in place.
The girl’s gaze shifted from Jeth to the gun in his hand. Terror spread across her face, her eyes widening, exposing the whites. Then she turned and bolted back down the stairs, moving remarkably fast considering the bulky suit.
“Wait,” Jeth called, taking off after her. He hurried down the stairs, catching a brief glimpse of her as she rounded a corner. She moved impossibly fast. It was like chasing a shadow. He followed her down the corridor, then turned right onto another flight of stairs. He had to move slower than he wanted to avoid more holes, the destruction continuing onward. But at least he didn’t come across any more mutilated bodies.
At last Jeth spotted brighter lights in the distance. The next moment he came to a stop on a walkway overlooking the cargo bay. Two more figures stood among the haphazard rows of crates and containers below, the little girl between them. Both of the figures wore armored space suits and helmets, the dark visors hiding their faces. The one on the left looked as big as a mountain compared to the smaller figure on the right. Both carried guns.
The moment they spotted Jeth and Shady, they raised their weapons.
“Stop right there,” the big one shouted, the words muffled by the helmet, but still discernible.
Jeth froze at once, but Shady took a step forward, aiming his gun. Whether he hadn’t heard the man or was just ignoring him, Jeth couldn’t tell. He reached for Shady, meaning to haul him back, but it was too late.
The two strangers below opened fire.
JETH HIT THE FLOOR AS A STREAM OF BULLETS SWEPT PAST him. For a moment he couldn’t think in the onrush of adrenaline.
Need to get out of here. He rolled sideways, off the walkway to the floor below, finding cover behind a storage crate. Shady landed beside him a second later. Then, each taking a side of the crate, they leaned around the edges and returned fire.