Straker flattened his hand against the tube, so close to the hand on the other side. His hand. I’m sorry. He looked into his own eyes. I’m so sorry. The words clogged in his throat, stifling him.
And it understood. The head moved in acknowledgement, the eyes closed and the hand drifted away and disappearing into the cooling murky liquid. Straker stood there, waiting without hope until a movement caught his eyes
The dome had started splitting, a dark crack opening in the smooth surface, and thick and stinking mud from the river bed beginning to slide down the pale walls. He turned, horrified at the sharp crack of splintering glass and the gush of fluid, and saw a cylinder crack open, spewing its contents out onto the spongy floor; a young man. Dark haired, thin, writhing on the floor as wires disconnected from his spine and the umbilical ripped from his abdomen leaving dark blood spurting uncontrollably.
Waterman. Straker knelt beside him, in a desperate attempt to staunch the bleeding, to ease the pain, before he realised the sheer futility of his actions. He stroked one hand over Lew’s forehead in supplication, asking for pardon for what he was about to do, even as he pulled his gun from his shoulder holster.
He could do one thing. And so he did. Cold, efficient, his hand rock-steady, he pulled once on the trigger, a hard pull, his aim sure. No thought of the dangers of firing a weapon in such a confined space; he did what was necessary.
He had two spare magazines. That would be enough. Prepared for anything, and he rubbed his eyes fiercely, tightened his fists, nails digging into his palms, short though they were. One long shudder of revulsion at what he was going to do.
Then he began.
The ones around Lew’s smashed tube first, tears blurring his eyes as he aimed at the children who were half-hidden in the cloudy fluid. He moved onto the other clones. Keith, with one cylinder empty, and Straker’s hand betrayed him with a tremor as he recalled the sensation of Keith’s throat crushing under his fist. He was aware that tubes were cracking and shattering as they broke open to let fluid gush onto the floor. Other sounds now disrupted the dome: soft thumps as small bodies fell, and harsher thuds as the older and bigger clones dropped to the floor, misshapen and distorted, tangled in wires and dripping with the remnants of the nutrient liquid. But no screams of agony, no cries of pain. At least they were lifeless.
He was a good enough shot, even in his despair, to ensure that death was instantaneous. A welcome release. Waterman, Ford, Jackson. Stand in front of the next tall cylinder, don’t look too hard, don’t think about who it is, how old it is; just aim at the head, pull the trigger. Move onto the next one while behind him the cylinder cracked apart. He did not look back at the bodies. He moved with methodical steps from one to the next. Paul’s turn. His gun ran out of ammunition. He threw the empty magazine away, slotted the next in place. The last two Foster replicants. Then Alec.
He faltered. Alec. As he had known him when they first met years ago. Vibrant, alert, alive. But no. His Alec, the real Alec was out there, alive and waiting for him.
He blinked, rubbed burning eyes and forcing himself to focus. His finger tightened on the trigger. Tighter.
He moved on.
His own clones now, and he stood in front of his younger self once more. The eyes watching him again, but the hands now clawing at its scarred and stitched abdomen. A thick spittle of blood trailed from the open mouth. Blackened blood. The first signs of death floating in thick globules in the liquid. Disintegration had started.
It was enough. The pain was obvious. He could do nothing to help. He swallowed, hardened his mind to his finger pulling back the warm curve of metal and then turned away.
The lanky and awkward teenager released next, and then…
John. This was John as he remembered him. And what man was enough of a monster to murder his own child let alone a baby. There had to be some way to save them. But then he saw the blood, saw the perfect mouth open in a scream.
And he freed them both, first John and then the tiny infant, before he fell to his knees in the mess of blood and fluid and shattered debris that flooded the floor, flinging his gun away to scoop up the tiny bodies and clutch them to him as he rocked back and forth in distress. Even with two of them it was such a small burden, so light and insignificant.
The insistent buzzing of the radio broke though his quiet weeping as he cradled them together in one arm, reluctant to lower them to the water-logged floor that was filthy with bodies and alien foulness. He dragged one sleeve across his eyes and swallowed. ‘Straker,’ his voice thick and unrecognisable.
‘Time’s up. Get out of there now Ed. Five minutes at most here. Do you need help?’ Paul’s voice was urgent.
He stood up to lay his children on the cold surface of the centre console. Warm and soft, their small naked bodies exposed to the chill air and the encroaching mud. He ignored the others even as he knew that what he was doing was irrational and pointless, but it didn’t stop him stripping off his jacket and tugging his sweater over his head. It would be sufficient. It was all he could do.
It seemed as if he had been in here for hours, an eternity spent in killing, but it had been a mere five minutes. Five minutes. So much death. He lifted John once more. The bullet had left one neat hole in the forehead, just a small hole, not that large a hole. He bent to press his lips to one warm cheek and then wrapped his jacket around the boy, before lying him down again. Then his baby son, now snug and safe and warm in his sweater. The tiny face exposed, eyes closed in sleep. He would not take these small children back to be cut open and pawed over by scientists. He would let them sleep here, undisturbed and in peace.
Then his fingers stroked across lips with a last parting caress before Ed Straker said goodbye and stepped unseeing over the lifeless clones, heedless of the thick mud and slime that was reclaiming the space and covering the bodies.
He walked into the airlock without looking back. The door slid shut, enclosing him once more in the access tube and he waited for the hiss of air, waited for the other door to open in front of him.
He was willing to wait now, to allow his heart to cease its painful thudding, to allow his arms to forget that sight weight that he had held with such care. He ran a hand over his eyes and took a breath to steady himself. Through the transparent panel he could see Sara talking to Alec, could see Keith Ford being helped out of the dome back to the world above.
The confined space did not distress him this time. He was drained of all emotion, all fear. Nothing could be worse than what he had faced, what he had done.
Nothing worse than holding those bodies.
Seconds passed in silence. There was no hiss of air, no need to swallow to equalise the change in pressure. Perplexed now, he reached out to place his hand flat on the panel as he had done before, expecting to feel that throb as it responded to the contact. Nothing. No change, no curved door sliding away. He spun around, fearful once more, to look back at the space he had left. Large cracks had appeared and thick mud was beginning to spread across the floor, hiding the blood and muck and horror, and burying the clones. The two small bundles wrapped in black were still untouched and he was glad.
It was clear now that the domes would soon disintegrate and that their cohesive shells would fail. No need for Skydiver to use a missile, no need for explosives to destroy this vile place. Earth to earth. A decent burial for innocents who deserved some measure of respect. And Ed Straker, atheist, bent his head and murmured a brief prayer from his childhood before turning back to wait.