Missionary (Parts I & II)

Missionary

The Fall « Missionary » Dirigible Daydreams

tagnone

12

12


PART I: SLIPPING


It’s hot, in the belly of the beast. Hot and dark.

Naomi’s running.

She’s always running these days, or nights, or whichever. Long since stopped keeping track of time, too - there’s no point. No more mission. No more people to save or protect. The dark eats time, anyway. She's known that for a long time.

A deep groaning around her echoes in distant halls. She’s in one of the lesser worm-tunnels, the dark walls hanging in on her like a hedge-maze. An old part of her flinches at the sound - a part she embraces. Reflexes. Gut feeling. That’s what keeps her alive down here. That’s all that matters.

There’s water in her eyes. Not from tears, but something else. Her heart’s beating loud in her ears, warm blood rushing in. Oxygen. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Not all that matters. A still, small, annoying voice needles away in her head. Reflexes didn’t save Martin. You didn’t save-

“Shut up,” she mutters sharply to no one, swatting in the dead air. Her head does a proverbial somersault - almost falls to the floor because of it.

Martin with his proud bravado, young and untested. Martin with his stupid quips. He’d followed her back in better days, a young recruit. Idolised her. For all his irritation, he hadn’t been a bad person. He was… kind of nice.

And now he’s dead, dead in some room in this cold tower, far below her. His name would never even be remembered.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Don’t have parents, he’d said once, the only time he’d dropped his prideful gusto, when someone had mocked him in the early recruitment days for being a Mama’s boy. Lost ‘em in Russia. His eyes had been on hers the whole time, daring her to step forward. Daring her to acknowledge his presence there, to say something about their past to someone, anyone really.

She never did.

Warm and dark. Warm and wet. Her body’s drenched in sweat. The floor squelches beneath her half-shorn feet.

What if another…

No. There wouldn’t be another flux. Naomi’s been here for weeks. There can’t be another flux. She can’t afford that. Already, her hands are shaking. She can feel another fit coming on. They are getting worse. The next one will not be so kind.

The tunnels are breathing again, breathing hot sticky breaths. Breaths to suck away the soul, Alejandro had mumbled to her back when they’d first entered the nest-tunnels. She’d thought him superstitious, then - after all, Argentines believe in all kinds of strange stories.

He had been right to fear. She knows the tunnels are alive now, beyond all prior doubt. Echoes - she has to move.


When she’d first woken up after being separated from the Captain’s group, amid the blaze of flairs and burning statues as the worms went screaming, she’d only had one question on her mind.

Why am I here?

The worms hadn’t eaten her. She’d felt them pressing in on her as they dragged her into their sticky nests, but they’re not monsters. They’re smart. They have voices of their own.

She found that out when she reached for her gun. They’d squealed, curling it away and silencing her. The others could not hear her scream, they would not hear her scream.

Weapons of the Maker, they whispered, scraping so loudly in her consciousness. Weapons of the Doom. Her mind filled with images then, visions of thousands of worms enslaved, bent, broken by a lone silver archer with hands of fire and a great bow, entire worlds falling before them into swirling black water. A snake with a crushed head lay beneath his foot.

She knew then these were not normal worms. Refugees.

You are not important to us, Maker-Spawn, they whispered. You are not important to anyone. We were promised something long ago, from a hand that is now chained, chained as with our brethren.

No, they aren’t monsters at all. They’re artists. They strung her up like an insect caught in yellow amber, her arms outstretched over a pit. A statue you’ll be, they said. A statue with eyes into for-ever-and-ever, the Moon-Pit all you see.

They’d started embalming her. Slow pain in her limbs, slimy tails coiling. Acid spit in her flesh.

The blood-sap, dark and terrible, glued her to the wall. She was about to be sealed then, sealed like the very statues she’d seen before she’d been stolen by the worms, the ones that left even their guide slightly shaken.

Then, a noise.

Something had drawn them away, away and above. A great, groaning noise. In the dark, she could see across the pit a massive white worm moving, shuddering in eternity. It was going up, up, up…

And then she was alone. There weren’t even the worm-whispers to keep her company. Only her own thoughts, her own failures.

Martin…

Why am I here?

But Naomi isn’t good at staying dead, and she’s even worse at facing her own demons. She’d cut herself free within the hour using a hidden blade - the one she’s always kept in case of emergencies since peacekeeping days - the strange glue binding her still runny enough to be fought. Limped pathetically through the tunnels after that, like a chicken with one leg.

She’s crawled back into that main, dark space - scrounged on the floor for what felt like hours as the anxiety rose in her gut, her hands and knees scraped and bleeding when finally she found her prize. Her pack hadn’t been desecrated by the worms. Christ, she even had food still. This isn’t what made her cry out in anger, though. Not at all.

The Fix. It's all smashed, broken.

She staggered off into the narrow dark halls, desperate for a hiding-spot. Even as she ran, she’d felt the nausea course through her, the pains in her muscles. At last she found somewhere secluded. Somewhere safe. It’d taken all her strength to cover the entrance with slop, but she’d done it anyway.

She doesn’t sleep. She can’t sleep. A day later, the fits start.

It’s horrible, being stuck in a haze. Not knowing when it’ll stop. Knowing that the one person who’d have helped her isn’t there anymore. The smiling Doctor’s gone. Cold sweats.

That’s what withdrawal is, her better self whispers. Back when she was a nobody fresh from secondary school without a medal or feather to her name, she’d held disdain for people like this - people like her. Sobbing laughter.

Fate has a funny way of giving back, no?

There was worms all around her. Not close, but close enough to be a danger. She couldn’t help but scream at times, so she screamed and screamed into her pack, hoping the fabric would stifle the noise. It didn’t always work. She had to be creative, after that - never crawled so much in her life.

Cramps… pain… spittle… sleeplessness. Avoid being sacrificed. Rinse and repeat.

Two weeks pass.


Naomi’s been roaming the tunnels for what feels like weeks, living off of what little rations remain in her broken pack. Her stomach growls, her lips salty. It’s the last of her old rations. Even though she’s been good at pacing herself, it can’t last forever. She can’t last forever.

She can make it out of her hiding spot now, when she hears the tremors of the worms recede. The worst of her withdrawal is over. Smaller feelings remain, but nothing she can’t handle. That’s what she tells herself.

You have a death wish, you know that? her old friend Garret had told her, after she’d said that yes, she would enlist for the operation even though yes, he’d told her she’d very well might die nearly twenty times already in one sitting, and given her twice as many options besides.

Just another part of it all, I guess, she’d told him at the time, sipping her tea. And she knows she was right, death is part of it. She’d never say that aloud, of course. It’s that edge she wanted, that edge she craved. She’d been enlisted back, doing odd jobs by the pyramid for a while now. It was little more than being a glorified policeman, nothing compared to her time in the Vee, but it was enough for her. It was better for her, better than being home anyway.

Yes, she has a death wish. But she’s here now, here and alive.

It doesn’t matter that she’s been left behind. God knows she’s done that to everyone else enough already.


More time’s passed. She’s given herself a new mission. It’s not like the grand speeches she used to hear broadcasted over the radio when she was younger. It’s not like Parisian Regional Command. It’s not like her shrewd Captain’s words, the one who’s probably dead. Rather it’s fairly simple, something she knows intimately: survive.

A swig of bitter water later, and she’s gagging. It’s not the first time she’s dealt with bad water or foul food, but it’s just one of those things you don’t quite get used to. Being a ‘hero’ in the secforce doesn’t do a person much favours either. Good food for a long time. Even bland rations don’t prepare you for gutter-draught.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Her heart’s erratic now, even though it shouldn’t. She spits, glaring. The Fix again.

It’s surprising, really. How much water there is in the Tower. She’s made her camp for the night by one of the smaller pools, further away from the main worm-tunnels. It’s a place she knows the worms don’t go to, and if they do… it’s only to lay eggs. Lay eggs. That’s why she’s here.

Refilling her skin, she fixes the shoddy stitches she made a while back to her pack. It’s taken her a long time (and a good deal of extrauniversal worm-vomit) to get her pack presentable again, especially after her last run-in with one of the larger worms. It’d been old and slow anyway, fat with age. She’s quick enough now to evade them, these days. Quick enough to know when they’re in her mind when she doesn’t want them to be.

She’s always been good at adapting. When she’d been younger, before the army, her father had called her an actress, his best little actress. ’Perhaps you can even go over the sea. To Hollywood. Then you can be a film star. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

Thinking on his words now, they’re strangely funny. She’s gone over the sea, alright. Her father was right about that much.

Distant screeches. The bull-worms are dancing, and their mates have come to watch. Rituals, making art - there’s only so much you can do bored in a dark cave for entertainment. She doesn’t blame them for it. It just makes this easier.

Right. Readying her makeshift spokestick, she plunges it into the water. Luminescent white blood fills the pool, filling the pool like moonlight in midwinter. The spokestick has made its mark. Pulling her catch out, she wrinkles her nose. They smell all acrid like vinegar, but it’s enough.

Naomi smiles, something she hadn’t even been sure her facial muscles could even do these days. She’ll be eating tonight: mission accomplished.


Sometimes the dark is harder to bear.

Sometimes she has to light a fire.

It’s dangerous, she knows that. Dangerous and foolish for all the wrong reasons. Her old drop-commander from Vespucci would have grilled her for it. If she’d tried to pull this back on Long Island Sound…

She twitches. None of that, she whispers. Not now. That’s a price she’ll never be able to repay. What was it that Lady Macbeth had said once in that old play? ‘Out, Damned spot?’

No. This is an honour of a different kind.

She’s made sure the entrance is sealed off, timed everything right. The worms move around the tunnels in cycles. She’s been here long enough to understand that. They bring the heat with them. They make art. Then they leave, burrowing in the sand above.

She’s cold. She can afford light a fire. She’s owed that much at least, right?

A matchbox she hasn’t used in months is in her hands. She hasn’t seen herself in weeks either. What’ll she look like? Pretty sure hair’s all over her legs, not that it matters. Her nose is busted anyway, and she knows the worms tore out half her hair when they dragged her. She’d had to set her own arm, too.

Not mad yet, though. She’s not crazy.

Worm-dung’s pretty flammable. Soon a fire's burst to life, orange and red hues dancing on the slimy dark walls of the secluded grotto around her. For a moment, it’s all she looks at: the light, the beautiful light on the walls around her. Even the water to her left drinks it in. It’s like Christmas.

Fire’s something the worms worship. A part of her now knows why. After being in the dark for so long, who wouldn’t like fire? Who wouldn't want to feel warm, safe, at peace in a sea of lonely ink?

In hindsight, firing the flares back in the cavern had been pretty stupid. Focus, Naomi.

She’s not lit the fire for nothing. Slowly she takes out her spokestick, its rusted length brittle and cold in her fingers, off-white peeling flecks of worm blood still glistening on its tip. It’s something she salvaged off of an old corpse - not a human one, either. It’s harder than stone. Enough to do the job right.

Nearing the wall, she begins her task. Like the worms, she will be an artist today, too. She’ll make her marks, her marks for all those she failed.

A triangle is what she makes first. She heard stories among the crew back at the island base of how the old spikerunner teams used to carve their names on the tower-walls, with every level they passed. A dead tradition these days, but… it couldn’t hurt to revive it now, right?

Her work is nothing like the flagrant designs of Central, theirs all dark wedged lines and flowery curves piled on top of their symbol like it’s some overly dressed birthday cake. It’s just a triangle, nothing more, nothing less.

Her hand’s wobbling now as she makes more lines.

You chose this, she hears Garret say. She keeps on carving anyway.

One mark for Nadir, the captain who read too much. She hadn’t spoken much to him at all.

One for the scout, whose ruscorp eyes were always watching.

One for Alejandro, who was always dutiful, if not impatient. She’d met him on the base. They’d known their duties, and he didn’t know much of her time in the territories. It had been refreshing.

One for Laura, the woman with a kind smile and a brighter mind. She’d only really gotten to know her too late, and by then the woman’s ears had been shot. Another friendship lost, only this time it wasn’t Naomi who was too broken to carry it.

Her hand pauses before the end. It’s the top of the triangle. Only one person left. The fire embers still burn hot as ever, even if her heart’s all cold.

Martin.

The spokestick barely finishes the mark before it slips from her hands, clattering to the floor of the cave. Little echoes follow.

There’s no protocol stopping her from crying, but she can’t get the tears out, anyway. She’s known Martin. Known him for longer than she’d like to admit. She remembers him, back before Vespucci. He’d just been an errand-boy then in Dublin: a little boy with red hair, a wry smile so full of pride for his country, one left untouched by war.

Oh, Martin. Martin, that last-minute loan from the garrisons in Bahrain, the one who’d never thrown a grenade in his life but sure as Hell knew how to shoot better than any of them. Martin, the annoying trooper with too much mouth and pride to follow orders right - the one she might have saved, if only she’d checked his mouth-guard.

He’d never said it, but he didn't have to. She knew. She’s always known it, despite all her attempts to ignore that fact. He’d joined because of her.

It’s not sadness she feels - that’s what she tells herself. It’s numbness. She’s not shed tears in a long time. She can't start now. Too many lives lost. Too many walls to break.

Not worth it. There would be no mark for her.

After a long while, she stands up. The fire’s almost out, and she can feel the temperature in the cavern warming again. The worms would be coming back soon. Her mission - she can't forget that. Picking up her spokestick, she stamps out the dying blaze and walks away. She doesn’t look back once.


Naomi’s been living off of eggs for a while now.

She doesn’t know why they’re edible. It’s a dangerous gamble she plays. She’s heard enough stories from Central’s higher-ups of interactions with other life… not so kind to stomachs. Different chitinous structure, something in the proteins, whichever.

The meat is rotten, and she’s fairly sure her stomach barely agrees with it, but it’s fine. It’s sizable. It’s keeping her alive. So what if it makes her stomach cramp anyway? Losing the Fix had given her quite a lot of those already. It’s nothing she can’t handle.

That doesn’t mean she can’t try for something better, of course. That’s why she’s here now: hiding in the side of the tunnel, the dead pit barely covered in the centre. To catch a little worm, that’s all she wants. One enough for a feast, damn the mental consequences. Two, three? She’d live for a long time yet.

She’s checking the perimeter of one of the side tunnels when she hears the trap snap. For a moment, it’s like time’s turned back. She’s back there all over again, searching through the woods on Shelter Island. There’d been a preserve there once, before the war. Her fellows-in-arms, they never saw the traps set for them.

It’d been too late. Traps and grenades. Hellfire in the woods. Naomi can still see the whites in their eyes, up close like yesterday.

Funny, how she uses both now. Or used. She’s not in Paris anymore.

Where she expects the whining of a worm, there’s just… shouting. Loud, angry shouting in a language she does not know. Right. She’ll have to be careful. Quick.

Readying her spokestick, Naomi edges toward the main tunnel. Her feet are light enough to know she won’t be heard. She still remembers the stealth training back in Ireland well - her battalion had been looked down upon by most in Vespucci for all but said training, and for that she’s grateful.

It doesn’t keep her from being surprised when an arm closes around her throat, her spokestick knocked out of her hands with a fierce swipe.

The arm’s strong, clad in a strange, biological metal, twisted and textured with protruding lines that dig into her skin. She can’t breathe. She can’t breathe. A glove hand’s over her mouth, seven twiggy iron fingers, clenching hard with a padding like glue onto the flesh of her gaunt cheeks. For a moment she feels panic building, building, the stupid anxiety left over from withdrawal she hasn’t quite managed to get rid of properly - then it stops. Her training kicks in. Eyes still.

Head up. She slams her head backward, pushing up on the legs of her captive to do so. In surprise they drop her to the ground with a dull thud. The legs she kicked, they aren’t strong legs, she can feel that now. She’s not sure they’re human either.

Whatever had her is yelling again, yelling in that strange, foreign tongue. Dust fills her nostrils. She doesn’t have time to look, she has to find her spokestick. Thankfully, it hasn’t fallen far.

Scrambling over the dust, she hears clanking as the figure behind her clambers up. In the faint darklight, she can just make out a strange sort of… suit? It’s hard to say. The thing is bellowing down, looming over her with an imposing sense of grace.

The air is getting warmer. The worms.

It’s stupid, what she says next.

“We’re… going to die if you keep…” she whispers, voice cut off by more shouts from the suited figure in that strange tongue of theirs. Tufts and spores shower into the air in front of her. It takes her a second to realise that whatever protests the creature had been making have long since disappeared, replaced by a bizarre choking sound. Laughter?

She holds out her hand, hand flat and outstretched as she backs away. All laughter dies after that.

In its hand, something flickers to life - it’s a… sword of some sort, thin as waxpaper and sharp as a blade of grass, all made of golden light.

She can see the thing before her now more clearly in the flickering halflight of the blade. Its suit is built like one of those old diving suits out of the 1800s, only covered in strange mottled patterns - like butterfly wings. Through the crystalline helm on its head, she can see its face: a moth’s face, golden-brown.

The creature is moving forward almost like it’s a dance, a dance she’s not privy to. Her hands close around her prize, and a smile graces her lips. Showtime.

Almost there, almost… the ground beneath them shakes, source unknown. Naomi holds tight onto the wall, but Moth-Man had been lunging forward. It’s not long before the tables are turned - she’s got the thing pinned. It tries to slash at her leg, but she kicks the sword away.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Keeping her heel on the thing’s back, she plunges her spokestick into the helm, only for it to freeze up impossibly, so cold her fingers are burning black.

Shit, fu-” the helmet shatters, her spokestick with it. Something’s cut her arm, badly. For a moment, they’re both on the ground together, dazed.

A shower of unknown curses. Moth-Man… Moth-Man’s very, very angry, now. Naomi’s panting. What to do, what to do… Her fingers close around a box she’s forgotten she had.

Like moths to a flame, no…?

Time to test that theory. She strikes a match holding it up. The moth suddenly stills, eyes spellbound. All she can hear is heavy breathing from lungs that arent her own, breathing that sounds suspiciously like dying.

She flings the match forward, right into the Moth’s face. The first thing she hears after that are the screams.

Like wildfire, the entire thing goes up in smoke, the smell of waxy hair and silkiron permeating the tunnel in its wake.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Her heart’s hammering fast, now.

Dead. It’s dead.

She picks up the sword. Already its light is dissipating in her hands, until little but a small round metal ball remains. Pocketing it, she staggers up. There’s barely any time to catch her breath - she knows that now. Though the shaking’s stilled a little, she knows the worms are coming.

Suddenly, she hears a sound that’s suspiciously like an ugly, mewling alleycat. The dragging of heavy flesh echoes behind. The worms are coming.

Shit, the trap!

Racing over to the main tunnel, she looks into the digsite. Something’s squealing inside it - a tiny creature, with wide, bluish-white eyes, like a cave-fish’s in the gloom. She can feel cold iron shackles around its limbs - whoever it is, they’ve been a prisoner. Perhaps to that moth?

Its leg is stuck. She can’t see much of it, but she knows it’s in pain. She can feel it. She can feel other things to - that something about this creature is important. That she’s been meant to find it.

It’s been too long since she’s actually done her job right, anyway. Old, dead water drips down the tunnel-walls around her in some faux anticipation when she makes her choice.

Against her better judgment, she saves the creature. It squeals, it twists in her arms, it scratches at her, but she keeps her hold.

Who knows, maybe it’s edible.

She’s barely out of the passageway when the worms surge in behind.


Naomi’s panting, the living bundle she picked up from the trap still squirming and kicking at her as she runs. She’s fallen into some dark hole. There is no light. The matchbox fell somewhere when she ran. If another moth-creature came for them, she would be unprepared.

Boom. A bull-worm surges above her, but it can’t come any closer. It can’t fit through the pit. Her scent is hidden with wormblood, anyway. They would not find her here.

Dursh Raga, its mind-voice whispers. Bugger off, says her own. Her stomach’s queasy.

Even as she chunders, her mind is racing. A part of her yearns for the half she left behind, back before she got separated. She felt powerful, with the Fix coursing through her veins - powerful and in-control for the first time in a long while, purposeful and secure. But it’s gone now, it and all the warmth it brought - the real Naomi’s back instead.

Faded names flit through her head, pictures of the Naomi others know. The battered yet triumphant war-hero, the star of the Grensidhe Irish Regiment, drop-commander Rust’s favourite in dangerous peacekeeping missions across the eastern seaboard. The star of her battalion.

No one cared for the drunken whispers of the twenty-something veterans that came out of Shelter Island alive alongside her, lonely and babbling in the pubs and streetcorners back home - little but a cache of money and medals and feathers to their names. Names on a list. No one heard the real story - the one so shadowed by time and everything else that’d happened in the wake of a fallen America.

That’s fine, of course: such a stain on her country was better covered up, anyway.

Killer, the darker voices in her whispered. You could have stopped it. She could hear the radio chatter so clearly now. Her own voice, hoarse and bloody. Her drop-commander’s last words as the life slipped from his eyes on the snowy beach, urging her to use his radio; urging her to use the code. B-502. Termination. There had been defeat in his grey-green eyes, lost and sad.

There’s a muffled squeal as she feels the thing in her arms try and call out. She elbows it. It’s still squirming bad.

“Quiet,” she mutters softly. The worms move above her, and at last the creature stills. Haunting white eyes open, a dim light filling the pit. She quickly wraps… whatever it is, in thick, dense cloth, stuffing it into what remains of her pack. When the deed’s done, Naomi kneels down carefully, half-shod feet sliding in the muck.

God, what to do, what to do…

Eventually, her brain gives up, and she slumps into her spot, curling to rest. The haze of the residual drug still clouds it, even though the worst of the withdrawal has passed. She’s not thinking as straight as she used to. Shivering. She wants the Fix, wants it more than anything, but can’t.

Creature is strapped in, anyway. It can’t escape.

A part of her hates how slow everything feels, how everything’s off-balance. She’s been known as adaptive her whole life, but it’s like losing the Fix has dialed up her failures to eleven. Everything’s so loud, so hazy, so bright, so dark. Everything bubbles up in the pain, in ways she hasn’t confronted in years.

Oh well. Naomi’s always been good at pushing things down.

“Don’t have time,” the words slip out like streamwater. “Not for this.”

There’s no reply in the dark. The creature makes a scuffled chirping noise from her sack. Naomi only turns away, curling into a fetal position on the floor, blood pumping through her veins. Deep places. They wear on the mind.

She’s almost asleep when she hears it - well, feels it is a more apt description. Something’s grasping her arm. Poking it. She pushes them away, sleep taking her once.

Angels, she thinks. The angels have come for me, to live again.

The black haziness swims before tired eyes. She’s weak. She wants to rest, and it’s cold, God - it’s so cold. Through the black haze, she sees coldwhite eyes staring down at her, twin stars. Beautiful eyes. Something’s pressing on her chest, but it feels a million miles away.

Be on your guard, her better half whispers. She’s too tired to listen to it. The pressing weight is enticing, an embrace - a beautiful embrace.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Sleep, a voice murmurs in her mind. It’s her father’s voice, soft and caring as he’d been before the war, before she’d been broken. Far away above them, she hears the worm-songs keening, cutting through the deadwater air like the wolf-howls in the mountains of her childhood.

All the while, the four blue stars glimmer above her. A cold, wet hand presses down on her ear, something soft and fuzzy sliding in.

So beautiful…

Sleep. It’s a command, now, high and strong. The ancient dark calls her, calls her like a friend.

Then she slips away.


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