The lower deck was sweltering hot and reeked of their filth. I stifled a gag by clutching my throat. There could be no noise at this point. My guts trembled and I was soaked in sweat. I was at the bottom of the ladder, standing rigid, my back tight against the rungs behind me. My breathing was slow and shallow, as I tried to remain calm and in control. I could hear them.

I cocked my ear toward the soft rumbling in front of me. It was a faint noise now, like two animals pacing nervously in a locked cage. The sound came from halfway down the corridor. This whole level was engineering and systems support. The ambient noise made it difficult to hear clearly but the sounds came from the port side, maybe from within the Power Conversion Locker. I stepped away from the ladder slowly, making a soft shuffle as I dragged my injured ankle behind me. I moved down toward the noise. The pry bar was cocked and ready.

The darkness on this level consumed the available space. There was barely a dim flicker from above that lit the very middle of the flooring. The sweat on my palms made the pry bar slippery and I stopped once to dry my hands on my clothes and adjust my grip. Then, just past the entryway to the Power Cells Housing, I heard them again. The closed and locked hatchway door to the Power Conversion Locker was smeared with blood. I put my ear to the door. I could hear noises like padded footsteps pacing the room beyond. They were in there. It sounded like two of them, maybe three. Again, I dried my wet hands on my pants and hoisted the pry bar to my shoulder. With a free hand, I only began to reach to the hatchway lock, when a weak voice behind me spoke.

“Don’t.”

The unexpected sound was shocking. Instantly, I raised the pry bar high in the air and spun around to face the voice. Before I could shout, I heard a loud chirp, followed by a high crackling noise that filled the corridor. I dropped to the deck in a mangle of useless legs and arms. The pry bar clattered to the floor. Every muscle burned and twitched. I couldn’t move. Alarmed by the sudden noise, there was a great howling and rustling behind the hatchway door. I was paralyzed, incapable of reacting.

For a while, I lay flat on my back, twitching uncontrollably. My head was turned away from the hatchway and toward the dark figure of a man hiding in the shadows. He had been curled up in the corner, across from the hatchway, just behind me, out of sight. In his outstretched hand was an EMD pistol, the amber charging light barely illuminating his face. Keeping the pistol aimed at my useless body, he leaned into the dim light of the corridor for a better look. It was clear that he could scarcely believe what he was seeing. Neither could I.

Unable to move or control my muscle twitching, I lay there on the floor and stared up at his face. It was disturbing to look at him, just across from me. A human, just like me. He was gaunt and thin and pale. He was clearly injured, as I could see bruises on his throat, deep scratches in his hands and face. One of his eyes was blackened. Dried blood smeared one of his ears and matted the hair on the side of his head. He held his free arm across his chest, protecting some great wound that had his clothing soaked in dark crimson. Stains covered his outfit, his hands, and his face. He was extremely pale. It was evidence of great blood loss. His hands shook and his body shivered. His injuries were clearly life-threatening. But it was his face that caused me the most alarm. On that battered and thin frame, was a face I would never fail to recognize. It was my face. I was staring at myself.

I swallowed and made a noise in my throat.

“Why are they after you?” he asked. “And what do they want with us?”

I could do little to reply. Instead, I made a feeble gesture with my hand across the floor toward him. He drew away from my reach.

“If you come at me, I’ll hit you again with this thing,” he said, pushing the EMD toward me a bit further.

I gurgled. My tongue was starting to move around in my mouth a bit. There was more rattling and howling from behind the door to the Power Conversion Locker.

He gestured with the pistol toward the hatchway door. “That’s the last of them. I caught them going in, gave them a jolt with this, and locked the door. I’ve been here for… I don’t know how long.”

“You,” I managed to mumble.

He stared at me, his face blank.

“Who are you?”

“Why,” he replied. “Don’t I look familiar?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re the same.”

He nodded wearily and then shook his head. In his eyes, I could see the weight of a great certainty and a terrible realization as well. He let out a long, exhausted breath, followed by a vicious coughing spell that brought up a great volume of blood that ran over his chin and soaked into his shirt. He fell back into the darkness of corner and let the EMD drop to the floor.

“We’ve been after you for a long time, Maxim.”

[Communication sent: 03FEB2186 Shinkai Maru 5]

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