Artemis’ Bow, Chapter 1, Part 18
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And here we come upon the finale of Artemis' Bow, Chapter 1! Wao what a long chapter. An epilogue wrapping things up for individual characters and the crew of the Jackal is forthcoming, until then, I hope you enjoy the story, and have enjoyed Artemis' Bow! Fear not, more shall come!
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Walking down the dusty colony streets, things were even worse than they looked from atmosphere. The plascrete roads were cracked and in disrepair, crumbling in some places, which was fine because it seemed like nearly nobody had the money to afford a vehicle anyway. Sidewalks were well worn, as were the faces of the few colonists Artemis saw walking past. Each of them looked as though they’d given up hope, and she couldn’t blame them. They had come to this planet seeking a fresh start. A chance to make some money on the edge of civilised space. Their planet had been hostile to them from the start, and given the looks of things, Wayfarer had decided to bleed them dry. By the time the colonists realised that Wayfarer had no intention of letting them make a profit, most of them were too poor to pack up and leave. For better or worse, this colony was their home.
All of that would change, if the fungal spores were no longer an issue. If colonists were immune to spores, they could begin to create colonies for themselves, no longer reliant on Wayfarer shields. Additional companies would invest in the planet, now easier to exploit for resources, creating enough competition for the colonists to actually have a chance. These people’s lives were reliant on the kind of work Doctor Julius said he could provide.
Artemis’s thoughts were jolted as she was poked sharply with the barrel of a gun by the merc behind her.
“Don’t get any ideas,” he sneered, his pistol hidden from public view by their close proximity.
Not that it mattered all that much, the colonists barely paid attention to their little group and those that did saw a party of heavily armed men escorting a disheveled looking wolf down the road. Nobody was going to intervene. Nobody was going to save her, except herself.
Having been on comms with Aava and Demeter she had the beginnings of a plan working, but it was only a start, and it relied on oh so much luck. If she didn’t play her cards right, Artemis saw herself dead, face down in the dirt, or else swelling up like a fungal filled balloon and neither prospect particularly appealed to the already heavyset wolf.
“You’ve been quiet, Captain Wilkins,” said the other wolf in the group, the one dressed in black. “You’re not thinking up anything devious, are you?”
He had somehow managed to sidle up beside her without her noticing. Artemis flinched and tried to take a step away, but found the merc behind her quickly put an end to the notion with a rough hand on her shoulder.
She grunted, and glanced at the other wolf. He was tall, his fur dark and his eyes shadowed. He walked with a proud stride, seeming to be the kind of man that took his work very seriously. What exactly that work was, she hadn’t determined. She’d worked with company middlemen before, the types who were there to ensure everything went a certain way, but that didn’t seem to be the case this time. Whoever this wolf was, he had better funds, a strong plan, and a ruthless kind of attitude. He stared pointedly at her, and Artemis realised she hadn’t responded.
“Not a lot I can do,” she replied, motioning slightly to the group around her. “You kill me here, or you kill me at the lab. Least I can do is give my people a head start.”
The other wolf nodded. “Very gracious of you. I’ve not known many to take their end so graciously,” he paused, “but tell me Artemis. What’s to stop me from having my cruiser shoot them down once they’ve left the hab dome?”
Artemis grimaced. Nothing but the fact Julius’ lab is comm shielded.
She thought, recalling the fact they were only able to communicate to and from the lab when Julius seemed to permit it. She pushed the thought from her head and tried to shrug nonchalantly.
“Maybe you’ll have a change of heart once you have what you’re after,” she offered.
The other wolf seemed to smile a little at that, though there was no warmth to be found on his face.
They seemed to reach Julius’ lab in no time, despite the fact it took Aava a good while to get there and back. Even so, Artemis found herself sweating more than a little. Her knees and back had started to ache, and her armour was chafing in places it had never chaffed before she began to gain weight.
The lab stood unimpressively in front of her. An abandoned looking shack on the very edge of the colony; a tilting metal spire of industrial equipment, slowly collapsing in on itself. At the side was a singular door, unremarkable except for the fact Artemis knew there was a well built airlock behind it. Julius’ last line of defence against infecting the colony he had come to coinhabit. It was that airlock, and Julius’ concern for security, that Artemis’ plan seemed to hinge upon.
She came to a stop outside the building, the merc behind her gave her a rough little shove, before realising that they had reached their destination.
“This is it,” said Artemis, motioning to the building and the door at the front.
” The other wolf sounded almost disappointed, as though he had expected something more grand.
Artemis explained, “There’s another floor.” She paused and then added, “Let me try the door. Julius likes to boobytrap things.” It was a lie, but it sounded convincing enough to her at least.
The notion was considered for a handful of seconds, before the other wolf motioned for Artemis and her merc bodyguard to proceed. If anything went wrong, if Artemis tried anything, she would be watched. At this point, she was practically expendable, kept around only for the possibility she could have mislead them.
She walked up to the door, making sure she did it slowly, so the merc and his itchy trigger finger behind her didn’t get any ideas. Julius kept his complex locked, of course he did. As much had been relayed to her by Aava while they were walking. A keypad was vaguely concealed beneath a piece of scrap metal on the outside of the shack, and Artemis leaned in to cover it with one hand, while the other tried the door. She tugged once, and, after gently keying in the passcode she’d been sent, tugged again. This time, the door slid gently open. It was automatic, but she made a convincing enough show of force that it looked like she had pulled the door open herself. Staggering back, Artemis managed to compose herself in time to dust her hands.
“Et voilà.” She said, motioning to the cramped looking airlock.
The wolf motioned to a handful of his mercs, who climbed on into the airlock, and began cycling it. The outer door shut and, upon confirming that there weren’t any further surprises inside, reopened again to a newly emptied airlock.
As the rest of the mercs began to cram themselves into the airlock, the wolf grabbed Artemis and pushed her into the middle of them. “Come on Miss Wilkins,” he said, grinning a joyless grin, “wouldn’t do to have you miss out on any of the excitement.”
She found herself pressed up against the mercs, her flabby body jostled by body armor, the air suddenly rank with the smell of sweat and tobacco. The other wolf stepped in behind her, casting his shadow over the group before the airlock closed, and began to cycle.
- - -
Seeing Julius’ laboratory for the first time, Artemis was struck by a sense of awe. She suddenly felt a deep respect for the maned wolf, who had managed to scrape so much technology together in such a barren, dusty little colony. The laboratory itself was built, in large part, beneath the building. It used parts of what looked like a refinery or manufacturing plant that had been long, long abandoned. From the airlock, the party wound down a staircase to Julius’ observation center. Beyond that, Artemis could begin to see the labs proper, glass sealed rooms where the wolf could work with chemicals and compound manipulators. When she was asked where the rest of the fungus was, Artemis shrugged, and the mercs were ordered to disperse, moving through the multiple doors present, and into the floors below. A handful remained with the black furred wolf, keeping a close eye on Artemis as they walked up to what she assumed was Julius’ communications console.
The computer itself was a vast, u-shaped machine which incorporated various monitors and scientific devices, the function of which Artemis was unsure of. It was here, Julius monitored the effects of his presence in the colony, here he jammed outgoing signals which might have given him away and from here, Artemis assumed, he made his first contact with her, no doubt bypassing a heavy layer of firewalls.
A soft, lusty moan echoed through one of the speakers at the console, drawing the party’s attention to one of the monitors where, through a very
thick haze of spores, Artemis could just barely make the outline of what had to be a living creature. To some degree, or another. It was a positively massive rabbit girl, immersed in either the sensation of her stretching hide, or the VR headset that was hooked into her neurons. She managed the occasional bit of movement, belching more spores into the air of whatever room contained her. The sounds of her stretched and massive body made it seem as though she could explode, at any moment.
The black wolf seemed fascinated. He and the rest of the mercs were glued to the monitor, mirroring expressions of fascination or abject horror. With all eyes off of her, Artemis knew this might be her only chance. She glanced around to make sure everyone was preoccupied with the display on the screen, before bolting as fast as she could towards the stairs leading towards the airlock.
Her escape didn’t go completely unnoticed, one of the mercs was just fast enough to turn and fire a handful of shots as the overweight wolf struggled to get up the stairs. She yelped, blood splashing across the metal wall behind her, before she leaped into airlock and jammed a fist down on the button that would close its heavy, metal doors.
The black furred wolf pulled his attention away from the rabbit hesitantly. He motioned to two of the mercs still present with a finger, before pointing towards the stairs out. “Kill her. Make it quick.” They nodded, and bolted towards the stairs.
In the airlock, Artemis was panting. In part because of the exertion put upon an overweight, out of shape body. In part because she’d just been shot, and her world was spinning. She clutched at her side, the bullet had grazed one of her love handles. As she touched her wound, her vision lit up in flashes of bright light, pain rocketing through her body. She resolved not to do that again and stumbled into the streets.
This, this was the most important part of her plan. The reason why she had to pretend the door had been unlocked in the first place. If she didn’t have Julius’ access codes, she couldn’t do what she was about to do next.
With a bloody paw, Artemis mashed her codes into the keypad on the side of the building. Once she was authorised as Julius again, she only had one thing left to do. She pressed a small, innocuous, red button labeled ‘lock’.
A set of heavy bolts slid into the place, locking the airlock until it received the proper authorisation codes again. Indeed, Aava had told her over commlink, the entire building was now completely locked down. With Julius as meticulous about security as he had been, there was only one entrance in or out, and under lockdown no communications would be permitted from his console. It would take them hours to get through the heavy airlock doors without the proper equipment, maybe days. By then, Artemis and her crew would be long gone.
She tried for a smile, but another spark of pain jolted through her torso, so instead Artemis’ gritted her teeth and spoke into her commlink.
“Yes?” Both replied instantly, each sounding a strange mix of anxious and excited.
“I’m coming back.”
- - -
Back in the laboratory, the black furred wolf was starting to figure out that things weren’t going quite to plan. The mercs he’d sent further into the labs reported them to be clear of any of the materials he was looking for, and the two he’d sent after Captain Wilkins were still pounding on the door of the airlock, which had obviously been locked, somehow.
In truth, the wolf reflected, it would have been better if he had gone ahead with that firefight with the Wilkins crew. He could have captured them all and, through torture and drugs, reduced them all to babbling mounds of fat, fur, and muscle without the will to concoct troublesome plans. But that would have taken time and time had been very much of the essence. Up until now, that is.
The wolf adjusted his suit and pulled on the hems of his gloves. He had taken a gamble, and the dice had rolled in favour of his opposition. It would not significantly impede his plans. He would be able to order the cruise-class vessel in orbit to shoot down The Jackal and thus he would be rid of Captain Wilkins, the troublesome Julius, and any surplus mushrooms the crew had kept hidden from him. It may take a day or so to break out of the sturdy little bunker that he was trapped in, but such would be his just desserts for not playing things safe, as he should have.
In fact, the dark furred wolf thought smugly as he turned back towards the communications console, hands clasped behind his back, there was really nothing that could be done to hinder his little victory.
And then the bunny exploded.
He felt it through the floor, before he saw it on the monitor. One moment, there was a spore filled rabbit, moaning as the colony within teased upon the pleasure nodes in her brain, and the next, the screen was dark. Flooded, completely, with spores. He squinted, unsure if the host had somehow ruptured, or if this was instead some colossal expulsion, but was unable to make anything through the thick, thick haze. It was a dark mist of spores so cloggingly dense it seemed to act almost as a liquid.
A liquid which began to pour through the vents of the laboratory.
The dark furred wolf knew that he had been contaminated the moment he stepped into Julius’ laboratory. It was made to keep the spores from getting out, with little regard for the contamination of those within. But with minimum levels of exposure it would have taken days before any visible effects began. Now, however, with the spores pouring from the lab’s vents like a heady liquid, flowing across the floor before muddying the air, symptoms would progress much faster. For the first time in a long time, the dark furred wolf began to panic.
He started barking out orders, getting the mercs moving, but he had already done the calculations in his head. They weren’t going to get out of here. And by the time help had come, it would be too late.
And that was before he realised that his comm signals were being jammed.
- - -
Locke was thinking about switching clients. Sure, Wayfinder paid well, but nothing paid this
well. All the otter had figured out for certain was, after his Wayfinder paid insurance fixed him up and out of this mess, he needed a vacation.
Squeaking had become a constant companion to the mercenary. At least after the first hour. Whatever it was that had started pouring from the vents, it affected everyone similarly. The wolf wouldn’t say zip about it though, so nobody was really sure what was going on. All they really knew was, after the first hour, they started squeaking.
And not just squeaking, either. Growing. The otter padded down his middle, it was bulging out in a way that would look pregnant on a girl. He walked up to one of the glass partitions of the lab, hoping to catch a glimpse of his gravid reflection as the other mercs tirelessly chipped away at the inner airlock door. He pressed a brown furred digit into his stomach (having removed his armour after the first half hour), and was fascinated by the way it felt hollow as he pushed in. As though it were filled with air. Pushing a little harder replicated the feeling on a larger scale, and pushed a loud belch out of his mouth, which earned him a couple of glares, but Locke didn’t really care at this point. The mission was gone to shit, they were all infected with some strain of something or another. The only thing to do was wait until MC realised shit had been compromised and came to pull their asses out of the fire.
He stood profile to the glass, looking at the way his stomach pooched out over the waistband of his pants. Locke had always wondered what he’d look like with a pot belly, now he knew.
- - -
Rubbery. It had taken him a few more hours, but with the squeaking as his constant companion, Locke finally figured out what it sounded like. Rubber
. Not so much a balloon, but the heavy, rubbery squeaking of some sort of water-bound plant, he figured.
He had stopped trying to keep track of his growth in the glass of the laboratory some time ago. They had all stopped moving, some time ago. It was just too much effort. Locke ran a lazy eye over his body, trying not to move. Anything not to stir up all the gas, all the spores
he felt building inside of him. Moving seemed to accelerate the growth and, given the size of some of his companions, that was something he was going to try to avoid.
Not that he wasn’t already huge. The otter sported the kind of stomach only surgery could pay for. It was massive, larger than one of those novelty sized beach balls. Large enough to push his legs well apart, as he slumped up against one of the laboratory’s walls. Large enough that he had trouble seeing some of the shapes of his co-workers over it, but that was perhaps a blessing in disguise, given the way some of them had begun... grunting
It wasn’t just his stomach that had swollen, either. Somehow, whatever was happening to his middle was spreading to the rest of him. If he cared to lean past his bloated love handles, he’d have seen his ass and thighs had swollen up behind him, although not nearly to the same degree as his gut. Likewise, his arms and fingers were a little puffier and he could swear he was developing a second chin, though it was hard to tell given how his moobs pressed against him.
Most of his clothes were in tatters, his equipment placed neatly to one side for when the medics arrived. He had a handheld PDA which he’d managed to salvage from his belt before moving became a question of logistics, and had been trying to keep himself entertained on it for the last couple of hours. But it was getting difficult. And not just the boredom of playing the same games, over and over. There was something else. A haziness in his mind. His thoughts would become lost, as he listened to the grunting and groaning of his companions.
He hadn’t seen his boss in some time. The wolf retreated further into the laboratory when signs of infection became clear. Maybe he was trying desperately to find some sort of cure. Now, he was no doubt trapped like the rest of them. Locke really couldn’t drum up the desire to give a damn anymore. All he cared about was the rescue squad. And the strange spikes of pleasure he sometimes felt, when he focused on his growth.
- - -
Moving was out of the question. Locke struggled to reach his PDA from where it sat between his moobs. It stared at him from between cleavage he never knew he’d grow, defying his will and the length of his now stubby, rounded arms.
It didn’t matter.
He was huge. The otter had ballooned in size, growing to be like the rest of his squad. Not that he could see them, through the dense haze of spores. His gut had crept across the floor in front of him, until it was large enough that it swallowed his legs entirely, pushing his muzzle to be tilted up permanently. Now, all he could see was his gut as it grew, his moobs, and the growing ring of inflated flesh that had swallowed his neck. He couldn’t see much of his arms, when he tried to move them he jostled his now gigantic body in a way that sent shivers down his spine and spikes of pleasure shooting through his brain. He could feel his feet, somehow they were still exposed to air, pushed out either side of his massively inflated gut. They were attached to the rings of flesh his calves had become, but beyond that, he could no longer feel his upper legs. They were probably around somewhere. Filled with spores, like the rest of him.
He belched from time to time. And gods, the bliss. It felt normal. It felt right
, to be belching. As though every idea of politeness had just been a waste of time. As though it had been to deny him his rightful pleasure, up until this point. Gas and spores escaped from behind him from time to time as well, but he preferred the belching. The belching felt right.
Every now and then he heard one of his ex-coworkers moaning. The grunting had stopped. All real movement had, in the end.
It didn’t matter.
They were as mounds on the fog. As it should be. No longer did he feel hunger, or thirst, or pain. He was content, for the first time in a long time.
Perhaps, if the rescue team ever did arrive, they would become content, too.
- - -