Nebula Express DarkSF novel by John Argo



a DarkSF novel

by John Argo

Page 1.

Chapter One

title by John ArgoThe engineer's eyes radiated terror as he ran along the slowly revolving inner surface of the cargo liner Neptune Express. Close behind him, fast bare feet skittered on steel decks. The engineer heard the sinister fluting breaths of his pursuers. They preferred moving in darkness, so he avoided shadowy corners.

He ran hard through alternate stripes of shadow and wan light. The light around him was sickly dim, while in the distance brighter yellowish smears glowed. Brown and amber shadows drowned in a spattering of rusty water. His gasps left puffs of vapor. He smelled rust and decay, mud and mushrooms, as he ran through the echoing holds. The brightness of WorkPod01 drew all too slowly near. Several times, he paused weakly and doubled over. He held the heavy black gun in both hands, and took several deep breaths before he lurched on.

"Come on, you bastards," he taunted them, and his voice echoed harshly. The air in the vast holds was breathable, though it smelled flat and metallic. In places, the metal joints had separated like tissue in rusty layers, and between those sheets grew angry red and white fungus whose acidic powders burned the skin if you touched it.

The engineer looked back and spotted a grayish figure moving between shadows, from a stack of barrels, across a glittering metal floor wet like chrome, to some other black void. The engineer fired twice, and the powerful therm gun sizzled in his hand. The hot ray streaking from its barrel crackled across the air in two short bursts. The air glowed bluish, and not too far away something screamed. The scream was near-human, coming from a throat made for gulping meat rather than talking or singing. As the mudman died, thrashing on the cold wet ground inside the cargo ship, others of its kind made that strange, low, haunting flute-like noise. Whatever they were communicating among one another, the running man shuddered at its ominous sound.

He fired off one more round for good measure, though it depleted the charge in his gun and moved his desperate situation another step closer to impossible. How long before they got to him? The mudmen never failed to track down their prey.

"I'll take a few more of you with me!" he called out over his shoulder as he ran in the direction of WorkPod01. Already he could see the bright lights there, among the windows overlooking the vast cavities of the holds meant to carry people and goods between Earth, the Moon, and the colonies in the Solar System. He could hear the music, the laughter, the conversation of his own kind, and he knew he would be among them in a matter of minutes--if the gray, stitched, red-eyed shapes rising on the heights behind him did not get him first. The mudmen had neither speech nor art, but they had a strange and horrible music of their kind. They formed their mouths into small cones and emitted a deep breathing sound, like a boy blowing air over the mouth of a bottle. The quietly unnerving, nightmarish sound traveled far in the otherwise still, fetid air. Like the hunting sounds by which predators communicated with one another back on Earth-the coyote or the hyena laughing and warbling on a hill under the full moon, the wolf howling on a snow field--likewise, the mudmen whooshed and fluted and murmured among each other. Sometimes when a distant light flashed just so, the engineer could make out the ruby gleam at the back of their eyeballs. He had no idea how these creatures had come to infest the ship. He only knew they were hunting him like rats tracking down a mouse. He must reach the crew of unsuspecting technicians in WorkPod01 to warn them.

And so he ran on, already bleeding from his encounters with the mudmen. He alternately ran and staggered, hid and waited, then ran some more. His jumpsuit was torn and scorched. His hair was dirty, his face sooty, his scratches oozing. Slowly, the enormous mile-diameter drum of the ship turned as he ran. A stain of brown light with yellowish highlights slanted down among the girders and steel framework to light his path. Already he could see the narrow ladder stretching endlessly up, out of the darkness into the relative brightness above, into dazzlingly bluish white light. Behind the locked and sealed portal leading into WorkPod01 were a crew of eight technicians. They would just now be getting ready to emerge for their day's work. It would be their only day's work, as the running man well knew.

The running man threw himself at the cool steel ladder and started climbing. His clothing hung in rags and his breathing steamed about him, as did the sweat on his back. He felt the scratch of a claw on his heel and looked down. He saw two melon-shaped heads bobbing together, and yellowed horn-fangs reaching after him. Rabbit-mad eyes neither quite red nor quite blue in color, but wide open, stared hungrily after him, and he could almost make out a greenish-yellow smile in each cadaver-gray face. He kicked at their reaching hands and climbed all the faster. "Here," he said, pulling out the gun and firing straight down so he singed his own trouser leg and smelled scorched cloth, "here's a good one for you. Take this back to your queen and your hive." He fired twice more and did not look down to see what he had done. His hands were sweaty. The gun slid away, clattering, and fell down into the spattered mess at the base of the ladder. Trembling, he could struggle to keep his slick hands from slipping from the bare steel as he climbed hand over hand as rapidly as he could. He heard strains of innocent music and laughter above and couldn't help but laugh for joy at the thought of being with his own kind in a few minutes, though he knew better.

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