Cael shook his head. “Only one floor? How can you be so sure?”
It was one of the men in the doorway who spoke up. “Level 3! They all work Level 3!” He bolted down the hallway.
“Wait!” The boss called after him. The other men exchanged glances. A few began to follow.
“I said wait!”
“We need to keep calm.” Cael said weakly as more men pushed passed him.
Soon he and Alberich found themselves caught up in the momentum, and tried not to stomp on any bare feet as they ran. There was so much shouting through the halls, it made it impossible for them hear the boss, who trailed behind. The hall curved in a gradual arc along the side of the ship until they were suddenly stumbling down impossibly steep stairs. They reached the 3rd Level hatch just as the men got the locks cleared and were flooding in.
The ceiling was low, like the basement with the water filtration system. It was exercise hour and about five hundred head of cattle could be seen milling slowly in a great circle. The mesh floor allowed for manure and urine to fall (or get power hosed) through to the filters without catching the animals’ hooves. While it helped to keep conditions sanitary for the animals, the smell still knocked Cael and Alberich back once they entered the doorway. The ring of troughs separated cattle away from the walls and gave the men a few feet to move around room’s edge. A man, still suited up and dirty, was startled from his dozing not far from the entrance. The boss shoved his way through.
“Bozhe Waala! AREY! Have you been down here the entire time?!”
The man rolled to his feet and stumbled backward. His eyes darted between the sixty half naked men, blinking hard in confusion. Finally, he saw the boss step in front of the group.
“I-I-I came here to watch the floor during the emergency! What’s going on?”
“Why didn’t you come up when the shuttles re-docked?”
“W-What? What happened with shuttles?”
The nearby cattle, startled by the sudden appearance of so many shouting men, had begun to drown them out with their own bellowing. The boss slapped the paneled ceiling and shushed everyone. They immediately quieted down; training overriding their own anxiety, as panic on the floor can lead to trampled, dead cows.
The bossed dropped his voice to a hiss, “Didn’t you hear any communications all this time?”
“I forgot my headcom. Why didn’t someone come and get me?”
The boss rubbed his bald spot. “Gah!” He turned to the men behind him. A few of them had grabbed the UV lamps.
“W-what’s going on?”
The boss grabbed one of the lamps and turned back. “Take off your suit.”
The men started hissing, “Take it off!” “Just do it!” “We need to see.”
The man took another step back. “Arey. You guys are acting crazy.”
Cael could just barely catch glimpses of the scene in the space between the tops of the men’s heads and the low ceiling. He cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Forget about him for now.” Everyone turned to look at him. “Look at the cows. That’s what you all came down here for.”
The few UV lamps were passed to those closest to the floor.
The boss spoke up, “Someone by the door dim the room.”
Cael watched one of the infected men by the door pop open a hidden panel in the ceiling. His eyes met the crouching Alberich. He was sweating again, breathing hard but still in control. They both moved further down the narrow walkway behind the men to get a better view of the room.
The lamps were switched on and aimed across the room. There were several gasps among the men. All the cows appeared to have splatters and smears of luminescent yellow up their legs, on their faces, and down their hind quarters.
“W-What the… that was NOT me!”
Everyone turned toward the new confused man, and his suit lit up like the sun.
“AAeeii!” He danced around tearing off his suit, only to reveal more bright yellow stains on his skin and underwear. “WHAT IS IT? GET IT OFF!”
“Arey! Shut up!” The boss grabbed the dancing man and shoved him to the wall, but he continued to struggle. “You want to cause a panic?” He hissed, “Shut! It!” The man had a wild look in his eyes but he quieted down. “Good. Now, when was the last time these phuu’ar cattle were cleaned?”
“I-I-I’ve been down here by myself all day. I can’t clean the whole floor by myself!”
“Just as I thought. Someone turn on the emergency overhead showers.”
Another panel was popped open and it began to drizzle over the floor. Much of the yellow smears dulled, and looked to be rinsing away, yet many cattle still had bright spots along their hide.
“Look at that.” The boss let up off the man he had pinned to the wall. “I must have been some kind of parasite.”
One of the men he had appointed as a shuttle leader spoke up, “But we’ve been dousing them with the pesticides like all the other levels! I don’t understand.” His eyes glowed and bled shiny tears. “Why us?”
The boss could only shake his head. “They must have picked it up on the ranch, or at the docks.”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
The boss shook his head again. “I don’t….”
“They must be destroyed.” Alberich’s voice boomed from behind the men.
Cael turned to the large man, crouching absurdly in the squat room. His eyes were focused but unseeing.
“Alberich, what are you remembering?”
He looked to Cael, “Not now.”
He gripped the edge of the trough and leaned on it as he moved forward. The men instinctually moved back to give him space.
“There is no cure. There is no pesticide that can kill it. You must destroy it so quickly, so utterly, it has no chance to adapt; because that’s what it does. It adapts.”
The men were stepping over each other to move away from Alberich and the infected both.
“Alberich! We can’t do that. Never mind the cattle, you can’t suggest the men kill each other?!”
“There is no choice.”
“They’re brothers on this ship. You heard the boss. We’ll isolate them. We’ll get kistes at the next port and put them to sleep until….”
“Until when?! There is no cure. Putting them to sleep will not slow the Legion down. Change the environment, kill the host, it will adapt and survive. You must obliterate them.”
The infected men had begun pushing their way out the hatch to the stairs, others running down the walkway to the hatch on the opposite side; but still others, uninfected, stayed to listen. The boss was still shaking his head.
“Alberich, no! Listen to me! This is a memory! A pigeon memory, right? It’s going to pass like the others.”
Alberich looked back at Cael, his face contorted into an expression of what… disgust? Superiority? As if talking to Cael was beneath him. It reminded him of his first conversation with Lukas back on Bhara.
“If you do nothing, everyone will become infected.” He turned to the boss, “You think these men are still alive, but they are only puppets, pretending to be your brothers until it’s your turn.”
Cael could see some men beginning to nod in agreement. He reached out to Alberich, “There’s still a chance….”
Before he could react, Alberich’s large hand had Cael by the shoulder and he was slammed against the wall. He slapped weakly at the tree trunk of an arm, and tried to kick out for leverage, but Alberich could not be moved. It quickly became a struggle just to breathe. Alberich turned back to the boss.
“Think about the consequences.”
One of the uninfected men pointed toward the cattle. “Arey! Look!”
About a hundred cows had stopped the slow walk around the room and were now angling toward the men, seemingly to watch the scene. Alberich’s voice had been echoing throughout the room, but instead of getting scared off, these semi-glowing animals had maneuvered closer.
“Bozhe Waala… what are they doing?” The boss stepped back.
“It’s because of him.” Alberich pointed to the new man they had found down there. Unlike the other infected men, he had been too confused and scared to run. “He’s one of them.”
“The Legion have been listening through him, and because they understand through him the infected cattle now understand.”
“I… how?! I’m not doing anything, I swear!” He began to back away but several uninfected men grabbed him, trying as hard as they could to touch only non-glowing skin. He cried out.
“No.” Cael wheezed through the pressure on his chest. His vision began to dim, but he heard the cattle start to bellow again.
“Do you see? Do you believe me now?!” Alberich’s voice grew distant in the darkness, swallowed by the raising panic of the bellowing animals.
Silence. He could breathe. Cael jerked himself up into a sitting position. He was back in the kitchen; his heart raced with adrenaline, his throat, chest and shoulder ached with each gasping breath. He hid his face in his hands against the harsh, overhead light until the pain behind his eyes subsided.
Slowly, he pulled himself to his feet, and looked around. The dining hall on the other side of the serving counter was dark with a faint smell of manure and spoiling food. He noticed a large figure sitting at one of the tables, head down.
“Alberich?” He croaked.
There was no response, so he walked around the side entrance and into the room. Cael crept gingerly up to the figure and lowered himself down on the bench next to him.
His head turned toward the kitchen light, “Cael?” His face was a grimy grey, streaked with tears.
He took in a ragged breath. “We… I… I convinced all them to hunt down the Legion infected. They had all run off and were hiding.” He sniffed and rubbed his face along his arm. “The men used the cattle prods and the boss even held them at gun point as we locked them into the 3rd level.” His face scrunched up. “We should have kept them there, like you said; isolated them.”
“We… There’s this switch they can pull in the Ko Thri in case of emergency. The entire floor, they were able to torch the entire floor at once. It only took a few minutes, but… the screaming. That lasted forever.”
Cael didn’t say anything.
“Why did they listen to me?”
“Do you remember? The pigeon memory, any part of it?”
“No… only that I was so sure I was right; so angry at you for interfering when I knew you had no idea what… I don’t….” Cael watched the large man break down again. “Why did they listen to me? What have I done?”
Cael sighed and rested a hand on his shoulder. The kurta was damp and gritty.
“We need to look into getting you a clean set of clothes.” He carefully straightened his posture. “I could stand a wash myself.”
Alberich nodded and sniffled. “Everyone’s sleeping now. You should have the showers to yourself.”
“You’ll be okay by yourself?”
He went back into the kitchen and pulled his hard shell suitcase out from one of the lower cabinets.
Cael entered the shower room hugging the suitcase to himself. He set it down on a nearby bench and carefully began to undress. He unbuttoned his shirt to reveal bruising that started at his should and stretched across his chest. He couldn’t see his back, but was sure the bruising extended there as well. After a thorough shower, using the hanging bar of soap, Cael used scarf from his case to dry off.
Someone had brought back one of the UV lamps to the showers before he had gotten there. He double checked the hallway before closing the doors and turning off the lights. It was pitch black, but he closed his eyes as he fumbled with the lamp to switch it on. Cael looked up to the ceiling and opened his eyes. He could already see the reflected yellow glow across the ceiling. He tried to calm himself. That was to be expected. Everyone showered in here not too long ago, there’s sure to be some Legion skin cells collecting around the drains.
Cael took a deep breath and looked down. His heart dropped and then ran off again with a new shot adrenaline. It wasn’t as bright as he had seen with the other men, but there were definite yellow spots glowing through his skin.
“Shit.” There were four or five down the front of his torso. “Shit, shit,” more on his back; none on his forearms but a couple up by his shoulders. “Oh God,” his legs were just as bad. He turned on the nearest showerhead and started scrubbing himself again in the light of the UV lamp. He could see a little glow in the runoff, but the spots remained. “Shit! No, please!” He scrubbed with the bar, then let the soap fall way and began scratching his skin raw.
Something caught his eye and he stopped scratching to look at his spots more closely. At the center of each glowing patch, he could see a faint scar.
“You have got to be kidding me.” The roach bites.