We hunger. We die. No food. A presence, getting closer. We watch. Food! We hide. We draw close. It does not know. We attack! It fights. We win. We feed now.
* * *
"Ensign Chang, this is the Prospect. Captain Garrick speaking."
Chang cleared her throat, annoyed that it sounded more like a squeak. "Prospect, Chang. How can I serve you, Captain?"
"Is Commander Wagoner near you?"
"No, sir. He asked me to scan the corpses in the street while he investigated a nearby building. Why do you ask?"
"Go in after him, now. Draw your weapon." The tone of his voice sent a chill through Chang.
"Captain, Commander Wagoner was the armed member of our scouting pair."
"And he left you alone? Stay right there. Captain to away team, all personnel disengage from your current activity. Get to Ensign Chang on the double. When you get there, have her direct you to Commander Wagoner ASAP."
The voices of the away team echoed through the bridge, acknowledging the order.
Garrick stared at the monitor displaying Wagoner's vital signs. They were virtually non-existent. Wagoner hadn't responded to the ship's hails, which was out of character for him. Garrick hoped his best friend was simply incapacitated, or his suit damaged, but he feared much worse had happened.
"Comms, show me the footage from Commander Wagoner's suit just prior to it going offline."
"Aye sir," he said, "displaying now."
They watched as Wagoner's hands held a document up for the suit's camera to photograph, than another. Suddenly the camera's view jerked up wildly and fell to the floor face down. Garrick heard something, but couldn't make it out. The suit's camera must be too far from the source.
"Roll back a few seconds. Enhance the audio, amplify, and play back."
The computer rapidly processed the captain's request and began playing the sound. There was a loud crunching noise, followed by what sounded like slurping or spitting. It couldn't be. Could it?
"Computer, best pattern match on that audio. What is it?"
The computer ran through the audio sample, comparing it to known sounds recorded over the years by the Alliance and its member worlds, looking for matches. "The earliest sound is most likely the hood of the hazard suit being removed from Commander Wagoner's head from behind. The next significant sound appears to be a short struggle between humanoids. The final sounds most closely resemble the breaking of thin bones and chewing of a gelatinous substance."
Garrick scanned the faces of the bridge team. "Anyone got any thoughts?"
They shook their heads, except for Lieutenant Drake.
"What is it, Drake?"
"Sir, I know this is going to sound crazy, but I'm fan of the old zombie movies from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It kinda sounds like a zombie biting through someone's head and taking a bite of brains. I know how weird I sound right now, but that's what it sounds like to me."
Garrick shook his head. "Zombies, Drake? Great. Thanks. Anyone have something that's not based on old Hollywood sound effects?"
Again, they shook their heads.
"Sir, this is Lieutenant Chang. The away team's all here now. What are your orders?"
Garrick turned his attention to the monitors showing the away team POV cameras. "Armed away team members in front and back of the group. Proceed into the building carefully. We think Commander Wagoner was attacked, but we can't be certain. Find Wagoner. If he needs medical attention, abandon the mission and get him back to the Prospect immediately."
"As you order, sir," Chang said.
They watched as the POV camera displays showed the group heading into the building. A glance at the vital sign indicators showed elevated heart rates, pulse rates, and breathing. Although there wasn't a monitor on the bridge crew, it would have showed the same thing. Everyone watched in silence as the away team entered the building. Those who carried portable lighting activated it.
If this had been an Earth building, it would have looked like any typical government office. The floors were made of stone, and there was plenty of wood and decorative work all around. The furniture, desks, tables, and chairs, was very utilitarian and spartan. It was as though they spent all their money making a nice building and bought the cheapest furniture they could find.
"Ensign Harris here, sir. I found the Commander."
Garrick quickly scanned the displays to locate the monitor for Harris. As Harris knelt down to examine Wagoner, Garrick could see a chunk of Wagoner's scalp missing and his brain exposed.
"Away team, this is the captain. Get Mr. Wagoner to the shuttle and get him back here at once! Wagoner out."
Wagoner tapped a comm button on the display built into his chair. "Medbay, I need an emergency team at the shuttle bay when the shuttle's back from the planet. Commander Wagoner has been attacked by something. It looks like part of his skull is missing."
"Dr. Wilkins here, sir. I'll personally lead the emergency med team. We'll be ready in time."
"Thanks, Doc. I don't have to tell you I'm in trouble if you can't save him, right? He's got a wedding to go to in a few weeks."
"Understood, sir. We'll do all we can. Wilkins out."
* * *
This new host, much better. More intelligent. We learn. We grow stronger.
* * *
Wilkins pulled a sheet over Commander Wagoner's head. "Wilkins to the Captain."
"Garrick. How's Kyle?"
"Sir," Wilkins said, letting out a breath, "I regret to inform you that Commander Wagoner is dead. I've tried everything I can. I think he must have been too far gone when the crew got him back here."
"Didn't they use the emergency freezer cell in the shuttle?"
"They did. Until I complete an autopsy, we won't know what killed him or exactly when he died."
Garrick's voice cracked a bit, and fell to just above a whisper. "Understood. Proceed at once. I'm on my way down."
Garrick stood, holding on to the arm of the chair. He couldn't believe Kyle Wagoner was dead. He'd lost his best friend and his second in command at the same time. Garrick scanned the bridge and found the most senior officer on deck. "Carlton, you have the bridge."
Carlton saluted and moved to Garrick's seat. Garrick was in the lift and on his way to Medbay by the time Carlton sat down.
* * *
Dr. Wilkins examined the hole in Wagoner's head. The micro-scanner said the hole was consistent with a humanoid bite pattern. The exposed brain tissue seemed to contain some kind of microorganism and a an unfamiliar neurotoxin. The EEG seemed to pick up random, low-power noise. There was no discernible pattern to it. Wilkins attributed it to a fault in the scanner.
Having completed his autopsy, Wilkins gathered the samples of neurotoxin, brain tissue, and microorganisms into a sample case. He snapped the case shut, and ran down the hallway to the Biology lab to have the samples analyzed. The damage to Wagoner's brain wasn't extensive enough to cause death, so the key to what killed him must be in the samples.
* * *
It is time. Our host shows us many more are here. We will take them. We will grow.
Wagoner, or rather what was left of Wagoner, sat up on the autopsy table. Weakly at first, he slipped off the table and stood up. There was a uniform in a closet. Wagoner put it on. It would draw too much attention to walk around without a uniform.
* * *
Wilkins returned to the lab to place Wagoner's body in the freeze chamber for its return to Earth. The cloth that had been covering Wagoner's corpse was lying on the floor in a pile. The closet where Wilkins kept a spare uniform, just in case an autopsy got a bit messy, was open and empty.
"Wilkins to Medbay staff. Has anyone been in the autopsy lab?"
One by one, his team replied that they had not.
"Wilkins to Captain Garrick."
The door opened. "Behind you, Doc. What's wrong?"
"I don't know. Either someone on my staff is playing a little joke on me, or Commander Wagoner's body got up off the examination table, put on my spare uniform, and walked out of here."
"Garrick to Security. Send a search detail to Medbay at once. Begin a ship-wide search for Commander Wagoner."
"But sir, we received word that the Commander was dead."
"So did I," Garrick told her. "but it appears that the reports of the Commander's passing were a bit premature. He may be sick. He may be delusional, drugged, or something else. Or he may just be scared and confused. Approach him carefully, and assume he's harmless unless his behavior dictates otherwise. Are we clear?"
"Yes, sir. Detail on the way to you, searches to begin ASAP."
Wilkins had been conducting his own search of Medbay while Garrick talked with Security. He could find no trace of Commander Wagoner's body.
* * *
The host mind says they will look for us. They must not find us, not yet. We will find them when we are ready. The host says to go to the Environment Processing room. Few will be there at this hour.
* * *