The reverberation of several multi-stage compression chambers enlivened by the accelerated motion of rotor blades and ejection of their contents in an intense jet stream was the only sense of humanity I was provided in the seconds that followed the emergency closing of the lower bay doors. All sensation was numbed to the point of oblivion; I had been tied hand and foot and dragged by cruel Masters to the edge of the Pit, and forced to look down. Several voices screamed through my wrist. Expeditionary-039 was increasing its altitude; this I knew by the subtle changes in my inertia, compensate as the dampeners on the small craft tried. They were angling in a northerly direction, rapidly decreasing our absolute longitude with the much-tilted oceanic planetary body which circled binary suns. Then they leveled off, and there was only the vicious abrasion of atmosphere against the civilized hammer of jet engines.
My ears were the first of the four that returned from its apprehension of Oblivion.
“Gelios! Gelios, are you there? Are Howard and Sylvanus on board?” Samuel’s excitable voice was hoarse with shouting.
“No.” I replied.
“Well, where are they? What happened? Speak, Gelios!”
But I could not speak. Could you? My ears could now verify the sensations of my nervous faculties, but this remained as yet my primary means of interacting with the universe. All other portals were closed to me. I could only see the Pit, only taste Oblivion, only smell the flatness of annihilation. My mouth hung open slightly, my eyes blurred. I offered no explanation to the fearful exasperation at the other end of the line.
There were two doors acknowledging entry into the launch bay. One leading to the prow, the other to the stern. This was in part due to the construction of the doomed craft, as it was in effect constructed for the purpose of carrying such survey vessels as I had so recently misplaced. It was a bulbous cavity supported in the stern by a receding and awkward geometric space for storage, and in the prow by such display consoles and control equipment as would allow the direction of a ship of such seemingly simple aim. The prow-side door hissed open, and I screamed in terror, unleashing the horde of dark beings festering in my gut. It was only Victor. He accosted me with noncommittal uncertainty, then proceeded to the wall of gadgetry which had fused together in places and began his affectionate assessment of the damage. I, however, released what physical remnants existed in my stomach, spreading it unevenly over the floor.
“I see there is extensive damage to the tractor beam equipment.” tutted Victor. “I will have to review your contract. Charges may be added to your account, pending a formal inquiry.” Then he turned to me. “How did it happen?”
His eyes were a solid black, with yellow around the rims. His face was an impartial square; I could not attribute any humanity to it, though in retrospect malice was the sole gravitational pull of his soul, and this I infer from numerous professional interactions with this Mouth of the Corporation. I felt his words crawl with like two black spiders into my ears, slipping the barrier of my eardrums and deep into the darkened regions of my heart. Then they squeezed, and my voice retched out in minute gasps.
“Gone.” I said.
“Gone where?” Victor’s eyes narrowed as he walked the perimeter of the keel bay doors.
“Below. The planet… took them.”
“How?” Victor asked, stepping out onto the retractable frames of the bay doors, practically daring me to open them and spill him into the upper atmosphere. Could I tell him the truth? Would he believe such a fantastic tale if I did? Or what demons would return if I uttered a description of that Hellspawn, which forevermore would haunt my waking hours with the singular, vague impression of an eye, and a maw so black and deep the sky was consumed in its hunger?
“A mouth…” I tried, then vomited again on the smooth metal floor. “A nightmare. Something from the deep…”
“Fantastic.” Victor muttered. “Foolishness.” Then his eyes snapped to meet mine. “The truth, then, Gelios. What really happened?”
“It’s as I told you! I swear by every faith, by every creed, by all that is holy, if ever there can be after the sight of that- that- monster!” My voice rose to a scream. I was half aware that my face no longer resembled that of a sane man, and Victor beheld me as such.
“Myths and inventions will not quell the terrible justice of the Corporation. Our Inquisitors are artists in the way of truth and its extraction, and your pocketbook would do well to remind your mad delusions of that fact.”
“I am not a madman,” I stated with a growing attempt at calm, and another to stand, though the world swam and I fell back onto the floor. My legs were still too shaky. “I know what I saw. The shipboard sensors will prove you wrong. Doubtless Johnson is checking the external feeds and PPI readouts as we speak.” Though my words shot out like acid, they fell to the floor like ash as I watched the triumphant sneer slide across Victor’s face.
“You seem to have a habit of underestimating me, my dear Gelios.” Victor laughed and walked to the door leading to the stern. “I am not just another Corporate lackey here to keep this Expedition in check against its baser passions. I have a thorough knowledge of certain technical fields even you would struggle to master, which isn’t saying much, I grant you. There was only one radar signature on the display: that of our good friends Howard and Sylvanus, who now rest in a watery grave purely on account of your failure, which I shall report. And have you forgotten that the keel cameras of Expeditionary-039 were removed for this orbital insertion? Doubtless, in the throes of fabricating your cunning story, you had failed to factor in this inanity. Or another;” here he stepped over my vomit and myself to the tractor device readout and pointed at one display which had frozen on its face the output history of the past few hours, “that the tractor device you pushed beyond critical capacity had captured no load at twenty-three seconds after the survey craft began its ascent. You let them go, my good Gelios, and there will be no Advocate who can save you.” Then he stomped out of the launch bay.