The Price of Knowing
by Nick Nafpliotis
“It’s stopped, ma’am.”
Sally Watson heard a lot of things while commanding the Voyager 4 ground team, but learning that the craft had inexplicably ceased moving was not something she’d ever anticipated.
“Come again?” she asked while staring up at the monitor.
“Voyager 4 has stopped moving. It’s not even floating or coasting forward; just stopped dead in its tracks and won’t go forward. Your orders, Ms. Watson?”
The fact she’d been addressed so formally by William Gordon, the operations head on duty that day, instantly put her nerves on edge. They all took their jobs seriously and respected the chain of command, but the Voyager 4 team had long ago eased into calling each other by first names. Years of working together in a clandestine program had bonded them into a group that thought of each other more like family than anything else.
Back when Voyager 4 was still a secret, Watson and her team had been completely isolated. While NASA put out press releases about building the first ‘warp drive’ space shuttle, they were already guiding the tiny, unmanned craft far beyond light speed and into distant galaxies.
A rotating crew commanded the actual vessel from what everyone affectionately called ‘Dave & Buster’s.’ The tiny cockpit, which was still much larger than the actual craft, was located in an underground bunker a short distance from the main base. It could easily fit a ‘flight’ crew of twelve that commanded Voyager 4’s travels back on earth. Despite its video game appearance, however, the piloting of the ship was anything but a trivial task.
That’s where Watson and her team came into the picture. Frequent stops for information gathering and possible collision points had to be anticipated months in advance. Mechanical problems required solutions for which no manual or readily available set of solutions could be found. There was also no way to call for outside help when something went wrong, meaning that they were always on their own.
At first, the crew respected Watson simply because of her rank and their sense of duty. After a few months, however, her stern but supportive style of leadership had easily won them over. It also didn’t hurt that whenever a problem did occur, she was usually the first one to come up with a viable solution.
Right now, however, she and the rest of her crew were at a loss to explain how the Voyager could be stopped cold without a discernible outside force acting upon it.
“Will, are you sure it’s not an instrument malfunction?” she asked while looking at his image on the screen above them.
“Negative. Radar shows no motion and the stars being mapped by our external cameras aren’t changing position. In fact, the space in front of Voyager is completely blank. We cycled the rear cameras around and they’re seeing the same thing, so it’s not a malfunction on that end, either.”
“Can you do a power cycle and restart propulsion?” she asked, trying to hide the specter of defeat from her voice.
Gordon went about the requested task while everyone held their breath. Watson didn’t like unscheduled expenditures of hydrazine propellant, but she wasn’t sure what else to do. Unfortunately, Gordon’s exasperated sigh a few minutes later indicated that it was all for naught.
“Sorry, Sal,” he said while shaking his head. “The craft isn’t moving.”
“Is there a chance we’ve hit something with an atmosphere that the cameras aren’t picking up?” she asked, hopeful the potential disaster would at least give them a problem to solve.
“Negative…although we are just going by sight. I could try turning on the planetary mics to see if there’s any sound. That would at least tell us for sure that we were still in space.”
“Do you think it’s worth burning plutonium to power them up for this?” Watson asked, though she already knew the answer.
“Sally, I don’t think we have any other options left. Might as well try it and eliminate all other possibilities before we really start shitting our pants.”
“Go for it, Will,” she said with a heavy sigh.
“Copy,” he replied while flicking a series of levers to his right.
It promised to lead to yet another disappointment in what had been a string of them for Sally ever since the Voyager 4 project officially launched. They had come across countless new planets, many of which could have supported human life. Yet when they scanned them both with radar and planetary flight, absolutely no signs of life beyond microorganisms were ever found.
Voyager 4’s journey coming to an abrupt end may be a colossal disappointment, but at least it would end the streak of mounting proof that humans really were alone in the universe.
Before Watson could ruminate anymore upon their plight, however, a horrible cacophony of noise instantly burst through the speakers throughout the control room. Despite the dagger of immense pain slicing into her eardrum, she somehow lifted her eyes towards the main monitor. Voyager 4’s external mics would have sent any sound they picked up into the flight crew’s head units, meaning that what they were hearing right now had to be coming from inside Dave and Buster’s.
The sight of Gordon and the rest of his crew grabbing their heads and screaming in agony confirmed her suspicions…although the sounds emitting from their horribly agape mouths were unlike anything she’d ever heard before.
In the next instant, a flash of white ended the flight crew’s horrible cries while simultaneously plunging their video feed into darkness. Watson and the rest of the ground crew uncovered their ears and looked up at the monitor above them, where the video feed was still live. Red emergency lights illuminated the room only enough to see its edges.
“Gordon!” Watson shouted into her com. “What the hell just happened? Are you guys alright?”
A strange slurping noise was the only response they received. Behind the chair where Gordon had been sitting, something gleamed against the red lights. It appeared organic, as if it were the glistening skin of a living creature, but not what had been there before.
“William, talk to me!” Watson called again. “What just happened?”
“Why do you call for that which does not exist?”
The voice was his, but it echoed with a demonic, baritone resonance that caused the entire ground crew to stand up at once.
“William Gordon, what is your status?” Watson asked while trying to hide the fear in her voice.
“Why do you call for that which does not exist?” William’s strangely modified vocal cords repeated.
“If this isn’t William Gordon, than to whom am I speaking?” she shot back with feigned bravado.
“I represent those more ancient than the Great Old Ones.”
“So have you found a new show for Larry King yet?” Watson replied, hoping that the banter would awaken the man she knew from behind the demon that spoke to her now. “I really miss him on CNN.”
“You mock Yog-Sothoth, yet it is you who sought out its knowledge.”
Before Watson could respond, a priority alert began ringing on every com in the control room.
“Morris, check what that is about,” she barked while continuing to stare up at the screen. “I can’t exactly put this guy on hold.”
When she turned back towards the monitor, Gordon was standing rigidly at attention in front of the camera and staring back at her…only now he looked like a living nightmare. His soft brown hair had gone completely white along with the rest of his skin. The pupils of his eyes were dilated to a point that they overtook all color while small trickles of blood seeped out of their edges.
“You did not discover life on your journey because those before you already sought answers to questions that need not have been asked.”
“M-ma’am…” Morris stammered. “I know this might be a bad time, but Voyager 4 has changed course.”
“At the end of your realm exists that which your minds cannot possibly understand. We shall send your vessel back on a journey to show you.”
“Okay, Robert Frost,” Watson sighed with a mix of exasperation and resignation. “None of us have any idea what the hell you’re talking about or what’s going on. Please…can you just plainly tell us if Gordon’s going to be alright along with the status of his crew?”
“William Gordon’s life is no longer necessary,” the voice speaking through Gordon replied while reaching towards his chest. “He is simply a vessel now.”
Watson and the rest of the ground team watched and screamed in horror as Gordon…or what used to be Gordon…plunged his hand through his own breastbone with a sickening crack. A second later, the hand emerged holding his heart. The hole in the middle of his chest was filled with blood along with something else that appeared to be moving and writing within him of its own volition.
“What you seek is soon to arrive,” Gordon’s corpse hissed with a hint of a smile upon its face.
“Ms. Watson,” another nearby crew member whispered. “Voyager 4 is about to reenter Earth’s atmosphere.”
“What? But that’s–”
“Not possible,” Gordon replied. “But only for your infantile understanding of existence and space. For Yog-Sothoth and the many Outer Gods, it is only a small showing of their power. You shall soon experience that power in full.”
“Voyager 4 somehow made it back through the atmosphere without burning up,” the stunned crew member continued. “She’s falling towards the Pacific Ocean and away from any land masses.”
“Splash down at 49 51 south, 128 34 west!” another crew member shouted.
“Where the hell is the rest of the flight crew?!” Watson screamed at the monitor.
“When you dared to reach the end of your realm, you touched the place to which the Elder Gods banished us and forgot our presence. Your friends heard His call in such a voice as your weak minds could never hope to calculate. Their transformations into His servants were instantly made complete.”
From behind Gordon, the wet, organic material began to move. Others soon came into view, but only enough that the red emergency lights reflected off their shiny, scaly exteriors. Watson could see that they were still wearing their uniforms, but whatever bodies lay underneath them were no longer the human flight crew that had been there before.
“Now He is awakened and R’lyeh returns to the surface. Your world shall learn what lies at the edge of your universe by its end from below.”
“The splash down site is showing severe seismic activity,” a crew member shouted.
“What are you doing?” Watson pleaded with the being on the monitor. “What is happening?”
“You are learning the secrets that gave birth to your universe while experiencing its end,” the being replied. “Your final days shall reveal all knowledge that you seek while extinguishing your era of rule over this world.”
“Seismic activity is increasing to highly abnormal levels,” another woman shouted. “Satellite shows something….something rising out of the water.”
“Call NORAD!” Watson barked. “Give them the coordinates of the splash down site along with this code: Halla Piper eight twenty nine zero.”
“Ma’am, that means–”
“JUST DO IT!” she shouted while turning back towards the monitor.
“Your weapons cannot defeat the Great Old One,” the being said with a grin. “He will simply reform and continue teaching you all that you ever desired to learn. The price will be your sanity and existence, but you shall die knowing all secrets to everything. Is that not what your race has always desired: To seek out answers for all which is unknown?”
“What I’d really like to know is how to shut you the hell up and end this,” Watson shot back.
“Your end is inevitable and I am its conduit,” the being hissed with a wicked grin.
Something Gordon’s voice said pinged inside Watson’s head. A part of her wasn’t sure she could follow through with the thought that had gripped her, but it was the only option they had left.
“Vicky, is the standby tactical team on alert?” she asked.
“Yes,” the crew member hesitantly replied. “But they are on outside security, why–”
“Good. Tell them under my orders to proceed with extreme caution to the underground flight bunker and take out any living thing inside of it without prejudice.”
Vicky hesitated for a moment before picking up the phone and calling in the order. Watson looked back up at the screen, where the creatures behind Gordon’s corpse had moved further into view. One was close enough that she could see its eyes, which glowed and bright yellow, staring back at her.
“Your end is inevitable,” Gordon’s corpse said in almost a pleading tone. “It will happen one day with or without your doing. Why not at least live to learn all answers to every mystery that your species has searched for?”
“The only mystery I want solved right now is what it feels like to watch you get blown to bits,” Watson spat back.
Gordon responded with an angry sounding hiss while opening his mouth to an impossibly wide degree. A flurry of black tentacles spewed forth, writhing and slapping against the camera as they sloshed together to cover its view.
“Ms. Watson, NORAD says that stealth bombers from Argentina are en route to the site with payload.”
“That was quick,” Watson muttered under her breath. “I know the splash site’s isolated, but make sure they know to let any coastal areas within the hemisphere to be alerted to possible tsunami conditions.”
“The general on the other line says you’re facing severe punishment if this is a false alarm. He also wants to know if alien life actually crash landed on earth or not.”
“Tell him he can learn every bit of batshit craziness we’re presently dealing with during my debriefing and AFTER the threat’s been neutralized,” she sternly replied. “Right now, though, I need all of you to evacuate.”
Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned their heads towards Watson, who did her best not to look at them while keeping her eyes locked on the screen above.
“If the tac team is unable to contain the immediate threat, then we need to call a strike down on the underground bunker. It may not be able to penetrate far enough, but the fallout will definitely hit us…which means everyone needs to get the hell out of here immediately.”
No one moved. At first, she wanted to believe it was because they didn’t want to abandon her to possibly die alone. Perhaps that was a small part of it. But she knew that what mainly kept her team in place was the same thing that made her feel a morbid thankfulness for getting to stay until the possibly fatal end. Playing out before them was something historic. As grotesque and apocalyptic as it may be, the camera in the flight room and reports from that distant place in the Pacific Ocean represented the fruits of their quest for knowledge, as ugly and horrible as they may be.
“Bombers are within range,” one of the crew members nervously stammered. “They’re reporting that a large stone structure is beginning to emerge above the–”
“If they bomb this place, it will not be nuclear,” Watson interrupted through clenched teeth. “Not this close to a population center. But it will be enough to kill everyone on the base, which is why I am ordering every damn one of you to GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”
Everyone in the control room gingerly rose from their seats and began to file towards the exits. Above them, the tentacles that had shot forth from the mouth of Gordon’s corpse began to recede, leaving a slimy residue on the monitor while bringing the nightmarish scene inside the flight control room back into view. Behind Gordon, the creatures that used to be his flight crew stood motionless, their skin still glistening against the red emergency lights. The thing occupying Gordon’s remains looked tired, but still managed to remain rigidly upright, as if it was somehow willing the lifeless sack of flesh and bones to maintain a posture of smug authority.
“She makes you flee so that she can be the only one who knows,” the being hissed.
A part of Watson hated that he was right. While the safety of those in her charge was by far the primary concern, a small portion of her mind felt mad with curiosity. She’d always yearned more than anything to know what wonders lay beyond our solar system. The answer may have now revealed itself to be terrible, but it was still there, waiting for her to grasp it.
But unlike the ones before her in many distant, and now lifeless, worlds, Watson carried a key element that prevented the quest for knowledge from overriding all desires for herself and others: Humanity.
“The only thing I want to know is a kill confirmation for you and whatever else is inside that flight room. Tactical team, are you in position?”
“We are,” barked the gruff voice through her earpiece. “Ready to breach on your command.”
She gave the order. In the next instant, an explosion lit up the control room on the monitor above her. In that brief flash of light, Watson saw that each member of Gordon’s flight crew had turned into something that resembled a fish more than a man or woman. Beside her, a media monitor flickered to life, showing a news broadcast about the bizarre stone structure rising out of the Pacific Ocean. Its grotesquely angled structures and massive center doorway momentarily stole her attention from the gunfire that tore through the speakers throughout the control room.
She wanted to watch; to see what rose out of the depths from at the end of their exploration. The men and women attempting to destroy the cause of that terrible event, however, was where her attention quickly settled instead.
The sounds of screams mixed with strange, guttural gurgling accompanied the report of automatic gunfire. The creatures may have appeared to be from the pit of Hell itself, but they were dying just like anything else that was put in the path of a hailstorm of bullets.
Two of the beasts managed to leap out of the way and onto the ceiling. One dropped down onto a soldier’s head and quickly twisted it off in one sickeningly quick motion. A barrage of bullets brought it, along with the torso of their decapitated comrade, to the floor. The other creature hopped from one part of the room to the other, evading gunfire for a few seconds before a shot split its forehead and dropped it to the ground, as well.
Gordon’s corpse had already opened its mouth again, spewing forth more black tentacles that wrapped around the two nearest soldiers and pulled them violently forward. A line of shots rang out, followed by a horrifying shriek which grew louder and more forceful as the barrage of bullets did the same. After a few seconds, the hellish noise ceased and gave way to a dreadful silence, punctuated by three bodies falling loudly to the floor. One of the previously ensnared soldiers instantly got back up, screaming and backing away. The other lay motionless on the ground, his broken neck turned at an unnatural angle. In front of them was sprawled the corpse of the man who used to be Gordon, his body ripped to shreds along with whatever form of evil had been spawned inside him.
“All targets are down,” the breathless leader of the tactical unit panted into his com.
Watson looked over at the monitor, which now showed a pundit frantically ranting at the camera from inside a television studio. Below him scrolled a message stating ‘Nuclear detonation initially ineffective.’ She was about to tell the tactical team to retreat when the camera cut away to a satellite image with the words ‘Unidentified structure and creature present within it vanish back into the ocean.’ Watson took off her headpiece, fell back into a nearby chair, and sighed.
“SALLY!” Vicky called from a nearby Honda Accord.
Watson quickened her pace, as much to escape the armed guards behind her as to rush towards her friend. They embraced while others gathered around to do the same.
“Did you hear?” another crew member excitedly panted as he ran up to her. “After they dropped the first bomb, some type of creature rose up out of the ocean. They said it looked–”
“I’m sure I’ll find out all about it, later. In fact, I’ll probably have to, anyway,” Watson replied with a grin. “Right now, the only thing I’m interested in knowing if all of you are alright.”
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