Chapter 4 – The Plague Doctor

Even in the far-off corner of the backwards universe they were located in, most things on Cirxci had a place; a history, a reason for existing, a name. Most intelligent things knew where they’d come from, where they stood, and had a rough idea of where they were headed in life.

Faustus was not one of those things.

The alien android had rebooted under a pile of dummy robots, with no recollection of how he had arrived there. He’d sat up, and scrounged around the unfastened cargo crates, stacked low against the walls of the small, dimly lit, storage area. Initially overwhelmed, he’d found himself strangely inspired by the overabundance of yellowing photographs he’d pulled up. After much examining and deliberating, he had hidden his decidedly unmatching face behind green-tinted, copper goggles, and a studded copper beak. He had draped his bare, metal frame in black and red robes, and put on boots, thick leather gloves, and a matching, wide-brimmed hat. He had cinched the ensemble with a leather utility belt, assumed the name; “Faustus,” from the “FOSTOS-XI,” etched into his forearm, and proceeded to hack his way out of the room. Walking out on the gleaming catwalks of a primitive, pre-infested, human colony spaceship, he’d been transfixed by the ancient engines powering the equally old propulsion systems. With nothing and no one around to object, or tell him otherwise, Faustus has designated himself sentinel, and gone about naturalizing himself… So well, in fact, that he’d convinced all life on board he had always been there, even though logs would have shown he had not.

Two tasks.” He presently hummed as he side-stepped the fuming thrusters to fall through the gaping cracks in the hull, giving Hyde the impression he’d vanished; “Two tasks. Always the same. First task. Keep ship flying. Smoothly and on course.” He squeezed through jammed passageways, avoided dangling light fixtures, and ducked past flying debris. Caught off-guard more than once, he nearly fried his circuits barely dodging electrical explosions, along with the blazes they sparked. Acutely aware there were more dead than dying, and survivors were growing scarce, Faustus was dismayed there would be no one left to berate him for more than failing at his primary duty. Despite having single-handedly optimized every engine for its particular thruster, and synced all their sensors to his, so he would never miss a beat, something had still managed to slip by undetected. Something had stopped the fans, clogged the cooling vents, and caused the engines to overheat, and explode. It bothered him. Post-infestation, it bothered him even more. He couldn’t dwell on it, however. As he navigated the deadly gauntlet towards the upper, central part of the ship, it was his second assignment he was more so preoccupied with;

Second task. Keep Eremis well. And away from harm.” Faustus had, more or less, saved the formerly human female from the insanely obsessed, unscrupulous, half-rate excuse of a, “doctor,” hellbent on keeping her as his indentured pet forever. The Maestro had pulled him out of hypersleep, expecting him to take care of their newly subjugated followers, and contribute to their fledgling hivemind. Instead, the deranged human had disappeared, resulting in a ship-wide search, and it had been Faustus who had discovered Eremis, naked, strapped to a gurney, and neither alive, nor dead; “She keeps trying to kill herself. She wants to leave me.” The, “doctor,” had stammered; “So, you see…” Unimpressed, Faustus had subdued him, put him in a coma, and locked him up in his sleeping tube. Returning to the only partially converted cyberdoll, he had grudgingly finished the work the, “doctor,” had begun. He had stayed with her until she’d regained consciousness. He’d helped her remember how to talk, then how to walk. He had, rather uncharacteristically, become quite smitten with her as well… Although he was at a complete loss as to why. What he did know, was he’d only received the order to bring her to their Maestro a few hours before his sensors had tripped, and gone haywire. Unable to refuse a direct command due to a glitch in his programming the Queen had found, and thoroughly exploited, Faustus had also refused to take any more unneeded risks. He had found her resting in her room, told her what was about to happen and, with her permission, had powered her down, and shut her off. He had recalled her telling him of the love she had for her intricately inlaid, wooden music box, and adjusted her lithe frame accordingly. He had turned her back on, and handed her the box in question; “In case of emergency. Don’t forget.” Eyes wide, she had nodded, and without another word, they had left together. Faustus had only been able to follow her this far before his servos had frozen up. Their Maestro, presumably, had sent a signal through their hivemind, paralyzing him until Eremis had been goaded to the upper levels. Less than fifteen minutes after he had regained his motor functions, he had lost his sight and hearing to blinding smoke, and blaring alarms. Less than fifteen minutes after that, all human described hell had broken loose with the first in the series of explosions. Constructed sound of mind, and body, the impervious android hadn’t received so much as a single scratch, but he’d still lost track of Eremis’ pulse in the crash. Fortunately, there were protocols to follow. The plague doctor had waited until the ship had finished putting itself to bed; had found, and brought Basha to safety first, taken care of Hyde in second and was, ostensibly enough, coming back to check up on their Mad Queen in third.

Now, chancing upon the reinforced elevator that led to their former captain’s quarters, he slowed his pace, and remembered to bow. Not because he cared anything at all for the Maestro or his cult-inspired, alien doctrines, but because even in the backwards universe they were located in, some things simply did not change. Said captain had been the first to wake when his ship had been overtaken by the Queen and his unruly hive. Said captain had also been the first to lose his head when he had refused to surrender. Faustus had been ordered to witness, and record, the entire ordeal. The older male hadn’t even received the opportunity to reveal his name. He had only confirmed his position, turned down the Maestro’s authority, and paid for it with his heart on a platter. Faustus stopped, and bowed at the elevator. His artificial intelligence rendered him stubborn, not stupid. He corrected himself; it rendered him stubborn, not that stupid. He calculated. Less than thirty minutes, even by Eremis’ perpetually human clock, was barely enough for proper introductions. There were no reasons why she wouldn’t still be here. With him.

Without another soul in sight, and with the red, emergency lights flickering from the failing, auxiliary power supplies, Faustus made for the landing doors. He pried them open, only to find the crushed cart blocking the way up the twisted shaft it sat in. Undeterred, Faustus reached over, sectioned off a chunk of the roof with a laser, and scaled the wall, up the guide rails, to the next floor.

…please be here…” He worded noiselessly to their fractured hivemind. Predictably, they only bounced off the thick wall of static rolling around there. Climbing out of the shaft, and unto singed carpet, he crossed the steep vestibule to reach into the keypad mounted next to the adjoining archway. Mindful of the broken glass, he sent more sparks flying as he reconnected severed wires. Slowly, unwillingly, the last set of doors slid open; “…no reason… absolutely no reason…” Faustus kept repeating to himself until he was left all but completely mute by the sight that welcomed him on the far side of the entrance.

While the remainder of the ship had ripped apart, and fallen to pieces, their Mad Maestro’s suites had not. Bafflingly, they stayed frozen in the same, pristine conditions they had been in when their Queen had claimed them as his own. The unbroken projector kept rolling uninterrupted video clips of what their awoken humans called, “home.” The furniture was unmoved from their position on the undamaged floors. The picture frames hung straight from the cracked walls. The books, along with the fake potted plants they were next to, all stood at proper attention on their untouched shelves, and the fireplace, filled with logs, patiently waited for its next fire to be lit. It was… Uncanny and disturbing. Even to the android.

“Fantastic trick with the music box.” Readily grounded a few feet from the door, Faustus’ infrared sensors automatically turned themselves on at the sound of the words; “music box,” almost immediately spotting Eremis’ left hand. Growing cold, it lay on the mantle on his right, her box’s wind-up key sticking up, and out of her upturned wrist; “Truly. A phenomenal failsafe. On behalf of everyone here, please allow me to be the first to applaud your…” The unfamiliar voice choked up, coughed, then wheezed; “… Limitless ingenuity.” Busy as he was, scanning the area, Faustus tried to ignore the sniggering sarcasm attempting to hurl point-blank adjectives at him. Already he had located both her legs at the back of the fireplace; her feet had been thrown to the opposite ends of the room, and her chest had rolled up against the plush divan. One of her arms had landed in the tiny lavatory, while the other…

“… Hivemind said our deposed captain kept a revolver next to a bible, would you believe…” As slowly, and unwillingly, as the sliding doors he had just jerry-rigged open, the plague doctor swivelled his beak towards the source of all the unwanted vocalizing. Another human male. This one with sunken eyes as black as its thick mange of messy hair. It sat on the floor next to an antique gramophone, asphyxiating itself on the half-burnt cigarette that hung between its dry, cracked lips. Sweating profusely, it had taken off its shirt, exposing a death-defyingly skeletal body that did nothing to hide the painful protrusions, source of its ailments, that crawled up and under its skin. In its weakened state, it struggled to pick up the ammunition scattered about between its splayed legs; “I was about to put this rotting bag of a human shell out of its misery, and move to my new one…” It snorted, blowing smoke out of its nose as its shaking fingers lost their grip on the bullet they’d been holding on to. Sucking in another puff, the human put its revolver on the ground. Holding on to its one wrist with its other hand, it focused all its dexterity and strength into grappling another into its chamber. Only partially loaded, it nonetheless opted to pick its weapon back up. It tilted the chamber closed, knocked it into place with an enclosed fist and, using both its hands, took the safety off, cocked the hammer, and aimed the barrel at Faustus’ goggles; “… But since you’ve conveniently returned to us, why don’t I sabotage you, and take…” It choked on the smoke growing stale in its lungs, coughed until it retched, and spat out as it wiped its mouth with the back of its hand; “… yours instead? Fair trade since you clearly fucking…” It inhaled breathable air; “… fucking sabotaged my replacement before you sabotaged Mother too.”

…Eremis isn’t yours…” But the plague doctor stopped himself short; the word, “Mother,” making him realize the human, “shell,” was playing unfortunate host to what remained of their Maestro. Something, or someone, somewhere had reduced his fully adult, alien form to a few handfuls of larval insectoids… Which were now colonizing this pitifully helpless male as the Queen grew his strength back. Faustus disabled his upper functions. The hivemind, as they all knew, was the Maestro’s brainchild above all else. Although it sounded disconnected, there was no telling what he could, and would, pick up on. Especially from so short of a distance; “Little late for that, doc… If there’s nothing more for you to add…” He tightened his fingers around the trigger.

“Basha is outside. Waiting for his new reactor.” Unaccustomed to improvising answers, the shock that made the shell drop its revolver nearly shocked Faustus as well. Graciously, aside from his inexplicable sensitivity towards Eremis, the android was immune to such trifling trivialities. Taking advantage of the weakened human’s snaillike awkwardness, Faustus took three strides in its direction. Raising his arm up with his palm turned outwards as though telling it to, “STOP,” the plague doctor instead pulled up its sleeve, and hit it square in the face with an altogether different kind of smoke cloud.

…only human…” Faustus watched it fall limp against the wall, the larvae under its skin already rising to gather in its abdomen, as its speech slurred beyond comprehension. The android put out its cigarette, and picked up the discarded revolver, emptying it of all its bullets before slipping it into a belt pouch. He then stepped over its legs to grab Eremis’ arm from behind the gramophone. From the back of the sofa, he placed it on the couch, then went around the room collecting her various body parts. Unlike remodelling her, which had been a bloody, indescribable nightmare, pulling her together after the alterations he had made to her metallic skeleton was child’s play; her ankles screwed into her calves, her thighs clicked into her lower torso, and connecting her arms to their respective sockets was simple… But that had been the entire point; “In case of emergency. Turn your key.”

With his infrareds still turned on, it was next to impossible to miss the larvae hatching by the dozens in the panting shell’s gut; making it swell as though it was pregnant by another human. Faustus needed Eremis’ head, however, finding it glowing almost as vividly as the sun through her thick hair. He was also pleasantly surprised to discover it had wrapped around her right hand, and carried it along as it had tumbled into the bedroom. Gently picking up her face, he untangled her hand free, and returned his treasures to the divan where the rest of her sat. Latching her wrist to her forearm, he lay her head in her lap to straighten her folded spine, and tighten the magnetized series of bolts that would keep her frame upright. Once again taking hold of her face, he flipped her head upside, checking to make sure her cerebellum was intact, and her brainstem wasn’t fried. Satisfied with what he saw, he carefully aligned her neck to her shoulders, then let it slide through his expert hands to click into place with a subtle hiss. The barely discernible static shimmer that moved down her skin, and made her seams disappear without a single scar, was the only sure sign she’d received no major internal damage… But Eremis didn’t wake up yet.

Faustus stepped back, his eyes zeroing in on the dying shell despite themselves. A veritable hive, its skin was positively aswarm with activity while its stomach had distended to over three times its size, and was still growing; “… whole life… sacrificed… gave him… for what… only a sack of… fucking flesh…” It grunted as its back arched, seemingly unable to decide if it wanted to ball up its fingers, or clutch at its midsection. With larval insectoids still accumulating, and increasing the strain on its already lamentable body, it wasn’t much longer before the human’s ticks, which had grown into twitching, became full-blown muscle spasms; “… n-n-o… n-n-not wha-… what I w-want… n-not… no… stop… s-s-s-top… I s-s-said… s-s-said… s-s-s-stop… stop… oh god… oh sh-shit… oh shit no!” It let out an ear-piercing howl of agony. Both its hands flew up to smash over its left eye as an insect twice the size of an adult thumb burrowed up its cheek, and crawled from its tear duct in a torrent of blood that almost ripped its eyeball out of its socket. Desperately trying to swat it away or kill it only incurred more of the larval imago’s wrath; it swiftly moved to its expiring host’s forehead, and sprayed burning acid directly into its pupil, liquefying it. Mesmerized by the not entirely unexpected, turn of events, Faustus shook his head, and repeated his tasks to himself. He turned away from the drama writhing around on the tiles to pick up Eremis’ left hand from the mantle, while the shell kept shrieking loudly enough to make the glass in his googles vibrate. It would be her next, the plague doctor knew. He had to get her up, and out of the room before their Mad Maestro decided to make his actual appearance.

…here we go…” Faustus reattached her left hand as the shell’s screams returned to coughing, more retching, then choked gargling. Glancing up, he saw it had rolled itself over, and gotten up on all fours, drool dripping from its mouth as it heaved. Done wasting time, Faustus took the key out of her wrist, put it back in, turned it one way, then the other. Nothing. No sound, no movement. Not even an eye-blink; “…come on, doll. We need to leave…” Faustus tried again, and again, and was about to try for a fourth time when he was distracted by a loud gasp. The inhuman moaning that followed was accompanied by the sound of something ripping, and a heavy thud as something else spilled all over the floor. Faustus knew well enough not to look up. He knew. Having yet to re-enable his upper functions, the buzzing that suddenly erupted came from behind the sofa, not the inside of his head. The shell had finally outlived its usefulness, and what Faustus could only assume was the Queen himself flew in lazy circles around the ceiling light as his brood covered the human like a sheet. With his infrareds, he watched them make a quick meal of their former host; dissolving its skin, and absorbing all the nutrients its body had to offer until there was nothing left but a desiccated corpse.

With Faustus still crouching by Eremis, the Queen floated down from the ceiling like a mutated, iridescent brown leaf coasting on a wind current. Having grown to the size of a hand, he landed on top of Eremis’ head with four wings, six feet, bulging eyes, two sets of hard antennae, and an engorged stinger covered in barbs even the android didn’t want to touch. He perched himself as close to Eremis’ forehead as he could without falling off, and stared at Faustus as though daring him to attempt something.

“She’s not yours.” Faustus said, but the Queen either didn’t hear, didn’t understand, or didn’t care. Already at a loss as to what to do about his unresponsive cyberdoll, there wasn’t much else Faustus could do as the Maestro’s brood rose like a black cloud to fill his suites. The plague doctor stood up, and backed away, hoping she would come to… But only caught what he thought was the most meagre of smiles as the swarm concentrated itself, and barrelled into him; driving him out of the room and pushing him all the way to the edge of the elevator shaft. Not stopping until they were done, the bloodthirsty brood knocked him over as they completely knocked out his operating systems; this time effectively rendering him as unconscious as his precious lady on their way down to their Mothership.

Faustus blacked out before he slammed into the top of the elevator cart.

”Why were you smiling, Eremis?”

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