Part 8

Xander's booted feet pounded the floor like a pair of hydraulic pistons, each step powered by clamouring fear and panic. Turning one corner, then another, then another, he tried to evade the bizarre cloud that hurtled along just yards behind him. Lights around him flickered and died as the entity continued its relentless pursuit, a literal darkness snapping at his back with each leaping bound.

With his breath beginning to come in ragged gasps he shrugged the backpack from his shoulders, leaving it to be swallowed into the wave of blackness as it fell to the deck. He scrambled frantically up a flight of stairs, throwing himself into a dive at the last moment as the cloud seeped upward between the spaces. He hit the deck with a grunt of pain, but rolled to his feet, continuing to run.

Chancing one, fleeting glance backwards he saw he had widened the gap ever so slightly. Enough for a door to close perhaps. Jinking to a right hand corridor he started running for the nearest section door he could think of. It didn't take him long to reach it, propelled forward by the strength of born desperation. Swinging out with his hulking wrench, he smashed the door control as he hurtled through the opening. The bulkhead doors closed again, but he had no way to stop and secure them.

Pushing his leaden limbs onward, he looked back at the sound of the doors sliding open a few seconds later. The blackness came flooding through again, seething and writhing with increasingly violent motions. Still, he'd bought himself time.

But time to do what?

He knew he'd never be able to outrun the thing indefinitely, but without anymore pipe-weld strips there was little prospect of sealing a doorway, or even having time to try. Think for God's sake! His mind whirled with schemes and plans, each one more ridiculous and impossible than the last. All the while his legs were slowly numbing under the constant hail of impacts, the shadow creature closing inch by inexorable inch. What could he do? Where could he go?

Desperately he tried to draw on the knowledge and experience from years of engineering work. There had to be something, some piece of equipment or design quirk that he could exploit to evade his pursuer. Then, like a firework exploding in his head it hit him.

The furnace chambers!

Cursing between gasps for breath, he altered his mad dash toward the nearest stairwell. If he could make it to the engines there was one, foolhardy, potentially suicidal option that might just save his life.

Clearing his head, Xander forced himself to concentrate on the fastest route through the labyrinthine maze of the Gehanon's halls. Getting lost now in the mind bending arrangement would almost certainly prove fatal. Careering down several flights of stairs, he tripped and slammed heavily to the floor at the bottom, jarring his wrist painfully. With a roar of pain and anger he scrambled back to his feet, cursing his own stupidity as he bumbled onwards.

A reassuring number one passed him by, emblazoned on the wall of the corridor. At least he knew he was on the right deck. With the ceiling lights above beginning to flicker and die as the creature closed in, he put on an extra burst of speed, furious adrenaline coursing through his veins. The titanic bulkhead connecting to the main furnace chamber lay open ahead of him. His chance.

Increasing the distance between him and the cloud creature he flew through the gaping doorway, grabbing the left side of the frame with one hand and swinging himself towards the bulky control console inside the room. With a wordless cry of exertion he reached out with his right hand and slammed his fist down on the large red button in the centre of the panel. Xander threw himself backwards to the floor as the foot thick blast doors of the furnace bay slammed shut, just before the blackness reached the threshold.

Scrabbling frantically to his feet, he broke open the control panel and shorted out the main door circuitry. That would buy a couple of minutes at least. Whirling with his back to the door, he swallowed hard at the sight of the gigantic vessel's main engines.

The chamber he had sealed himself in was truly colossal; seven decks high and a hundred yards across. The four enormous cylinders of the furnaces themselves were built into the far wall, arranged in a square pattern, their cores sitting dormant for the moment. Criss-crossing gantries connected them in a latticework of folded steel, like a huge metal spider web. Over a decade had passed since the accident and still the machines looked coldly, painfully familiar. He could almost see the engine crew of the Gehanon going about their tasks, like ghosts in his mind.

 The furnaces, however, were not Xander's main concern. Letting his eyes flit around the cavernous space for a moment, he spotted the main engine controls at the far end, directly beneath the furnace arrangement. Sprinting, he crossed the room in a matter of seconds, almost slamming straight into the controls when he skidded to a halt.

Glancing back and forth, he searched desperately for the emergency failsafe he knew had been built into the massive system of superheating furnaces. Grinding his teeth together in frustration he cast a quick look up and around the room as he tried to remember, sifting through the memories of that fateful day. The vents themselves were there, built into the walls of the chamber at various heights, so the mechanism that released them had to be there too.

A burst of relief surged through his body when he finally located the trigger he needed, a small lever situated on the far right of the main cluster of buttons and screens. Darting over to the control, Xander removed his tool belt and used it to lash himself to the nearest handrail. Tugging at the belt a few times he nodded in satisfaction. Then an ominous clanging sound echoed through the furnace chamber. He turned around.

The massive blast doors had opened ever so slightly, and the cloud of blackness began seeping through the crack like an oily flood. It slithered towards him, pulsing and heaving as it crossed the space between them, its mass broadening into a pincer of malevolent energy.

"C'mon, c'mon," Xander muttered, gripping the rail tightly with his left hand, the other clutching the lever in readiness. "Get in here you son of a bitch." The darkness complied, flowing towards him at an almost leisurely pace as though it knew he was trapped. Gritting his teeth in preparation, Xander exhaled hard, closed his eyes, and slammed the lever down in a savage motion. With the blaring of alarms and the creak of metal, the emergency heat exhausts built into the walls of the chamber opened, venting the atmosphere out into space.


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