The tiny cells, orbs with medieval pike like protrusions, fought for their existence. Now fully personified in Kate’s mind, she watched with more tightness in her chest than a rational scientist should. This was a control group after all. The warriors using a now obsolete version of her adaptation engine, they were supposed to die. Still, having watched them develop their rudimentary defenses during the desperate attempt at survival had been endearing.
AS-7 was now finishing off the few remaining orbs, and much of the sample organism had taken to extracting iron bound molecules from the dead as it always did. Kate eased herself out of the retinal projection field and the microscopic battleground dissolved from her vision. Sinking low in the chair she rubbed her eyes and let out a long held breath, trying to calm the irrational tightness in her chest.
It had been a success after all. Even the last gen Adaptation Engine could repel the most advanced samples for some amount of time. Her breakthrough engine was now able to far out evolve even the most aggressive samples.
It was long believed the enemy consumed all matter equally. But it had been learned at great cost in the last century that it was most efficient at extracting metals. In fact that appeared to be its ultimate goal with all molecular disassembly. Attempts to remove as much metal as possible in everything from stellar class warships to consumer goods in the colonies had come a long way. But it was impossible to remove all metals of course, and in recent years the effort had started to be seen as more theater than real benefit.
The last truly effective weapon against the enemy was centuries old now, and waning in its effectiveness as our weapons always did. We needed a weapon that could adapt. We needed this weapon. Her weapon.
She stared blankly for another moment, then leaned forward into the retinal projection. The sample now vaguely groping at the containment vessel’s walls, having anemic success at pulling any metal elements from them. Her hand flitted through some unseen menu in the air. An urgent icon flashed in her vision, “GAMMA RADIATION PURGE” printed below. The organism fell to pieces as she watched, a faint smirk crept across her face and she leaned back again.
After another moment her face set, clearing the melancholy, and she stood and strode from the room, the lights extinguishing as she left. She ordered up some hot tea from the machine on her counter top, and as she waited for it to pour she turned and looked at her small living space just off the main lab room. Every scientist on the station had a similar setup, or at least she assumed they did. She expected that each quarter was designed this way with purpose. Having the main entrance open into the personal quarters before you could get to each lab. Perhaps a subtle attempt to prevent scientists from showing each other their work. They were told not discuss their research with each other anyway. Or again, so she assumed, thinking back to the memory of when she was inducted. When she learned that the CDF had built this space station, around the excessively remote Red Dwarf star XAV-1170, specifically to advance her research. Just the fact that her research was even known to the CDF’s war resources council had seemed impossible at the time.
Her meandering thoughts came crashing up against the sorrow again. She blinked a tear away grabbing her gently steaming tea without looking and crossed the room to her bunk. Setting the tea on the floor without taking a sip, she waved the light level in the room down and curled up facing the wall in her bunk.
Alyson would have had her eighth birthday by now. Plus or minus a few weeks due to the relativistic effects of her travel here. Kate wasn’t actually sure how far or how fast they had traveled, so it was impossible to know for sure. Alyson would have been sad for the month leading up to her birthday for sure. The CDF would have given a vague reason for the sudden departure. Anderson would understand of course, he had even had to deliver similar news to the families of men under his command, but Alyson… she would nod her head, pretend to understand for a while. But when her mother wasn’t there for her birthday, that would be too much. The growing loneliness since she arrived felt like a brick on her heart. “It’s one year,” she whispered to herself, “I have to make this worth it.” In the dark gloom her thoughts became a confused jumbled as she drifted off to sleep.
Blaring sirens ripped her from the troubled sleep, bolted upright from her bunk. She had heard these sirens once before, as a child. The decompression alarm on the cramped refugee shuttle, her parents being violently ripped out of the gash in the bulkhead as she watched. Her hands began to tremble. Lock it down. Be here. Deal with this. It’s time to operate.
There was no rushing air; this room was still intact. The door displayed an emergency notice, but no atmosphere warning. The hallway must also be intact, for now. This room had no vac gear, if the hallway went she would be cut off from help. She palmed the door and okay'ed the emergency condition. The door slammed open on emergency mechanical systems. With the door open the siren was almost deafening. The hallway was dark except for frantically pulsating red emergency lamps, and ground illumination flowing away from her room, converging from all directions on the radiation shelter for this hallway.
A quick check in each direction and she sprang from her room, down the hallway, slamming her shoulder against the door frame of the rad room. Palming in she pushed her body through the opening as soon as the door opening was wide enough and fell to the floor. The door slammed shut behind her immediately.
Laying crumpled on the floor, unable to think, heaving deep breaths, she brought it down. I’m safe, for now. Get it under control so you can figure this out. The sirens stopped. Her breathing slowed, and she brushed some hair out of her face. As the lighting in the room began to restore she raised her gaze and saw three bodies pressed against the back wall. Staring at her.
Feeling self conscious she got off the ground in a more dignified manner than she had entered with and straightened her clothes some. There was a silence that lengthened into an awkward moment. One of the bodies stepped forward to break it. A taller man with a perpetually scruffy face. Probably in his mid 30s, but no way of knowing for sure.
“Hey are you alright?”
She had seen him around of course. Dr. Abel she recalled. After all there were only ten scientists on the station currently. This one had even tried to strike up a conversation once in the mess hall. But she had decided it had a particular air of flattery to it that could only mean one thing on a space station filled with 8 men and 2 women. So the conversation hadn’t gone far.
“Yeah, are you?” There was more venom in it than she had intended, but she let it hang there anyway.
“Ya, thanks. Where were you when it happened?”
“Asleep, in my cabin…” she paused “what is it that happened exactly?
“We we’re hoping you would know that” a deeper less kind voice from the wall said.
This one she had definitely not interacted with since arriving. In fact, she didn’t even know his name. A man of average height and no interest in your opinion. 40s… maybe? But could be much older with that face.
“No, sorry… Well where were all of you when the alarm sounded?”
Another voice from the back, her eyes had adjusted now and she recognized him as Dr. Fell. A more kindly nature about him than the doctor whose name she couldn't recall. With curly red hair and a face that welcomed long stories, she had a momentary regret for not having gotten to know him until this moment.
“Well, I guess we’re stuck in here until we get the all clear or one of the service personnel comes to release the lock. I don’t think we’ve been introduced, but I am quite an admirer of your work Dr. Stanton”
He extended his hand with a genuine warmth in his smile.
Kate felt her tensed chest relax slightly, but as she raised her hand to shake his the other doctor interrupted again.
“Yes yes we’re all wonderful scientists here. Uh, how many service personnel is it exactly that you’ve seen around this station lately? By my count it’s a hard zero since the two that arrived with Dr. Fell here, left three weeks ago.”
Kate and Dr. Fell stared at him with fixed expressions for a moment, and then Fell started in.
“Well I just assume such an important station like this...”
“No, we do not assume here. This is a small station in a backwater system, intended to not be found by anyone. We are alone here Dr. Fell,”
Kate saw Fell’s expression turn
“Sure of that, Doctor?” This time it came out with exactly as much venom as she intended.
He composed himself
“Well, as sure as I need to be.”
“I’m sorry, your name is…?”
He pursed his lips and snorted
It hung in the air for a moment, and then Kate turned back to Fell.
“I agree though, I haven’t seen any maintenance techs in weeks. We should assume for now that we’re on our own until we find out otherwise. So how can we get this door open.”
Fell opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a whoosh as the door slid open. Much smoother this time, clearly no longer using the emergency mechanical systems. All heads turned to see Dr. Abel’s back. He was stuffing something into his pocket as he turned around to meet their stares. He seemed just as surprised as everyone else. Fell managed to get out a “How” and Dr. Abel just gave a boyish shrug. And maybe, Kate thought, a wink in her direction.
“Well we’ll just have to deal with that later” spit Wilms as he pushed past and into the hallway. The hallway was now illuminated with dim floor lighting, the panic of just a few minutes ago had been replaced with a palpable stillness. The normal hum of the station absent in sound and feel. Dr. Wilms crossed to the door of his quarters and it slid open. After a moment's pause and a sigh of relief he slipped inside.
Dr. Fell watched, then turned and went to go try his quarters.
“You don’t seem in much of a rush to go check on your lab Dr. Abel” Kate said in a slightly sarcastic tone.
“Na I’ve seen that room, but there is one room I’ve always wanted to check out.” And with an excited eyebrow raise he took off to the far end of the corridor.
Kate rolled her eyes to herself. She’d seen the type as a postdoc. And during her masters. And… come to think about it, all throughout her schooling and career. She shook off the beginnings of a smirk and looked down the corridor. All of the individual lab doors had the same emergency notice that she had palmed away on her own door. And then she saw it, at the far end of the hallway, the final door, the largest of them that led to the mess hall. A hard vac indicator.
“sshhiitt” came out under her breath.
Looking quickly around and realizing she was now alone, thought for one moment about going to check on her lab, but a warm spot in her heart tugged her gaze down the hall toward the far door that Dr. Abel had just opened with whatever was in his pocket and passed through. She took up a quick pace and began down toward it.
“Hey, the mess is in a hard vacuum... what are you doing in here?”
She ducked slightly as she entered the cramped room. Looking around at the various screens and racks of computers.
“What is this place?”
“I know” Dr. Abel was sitting at the largest of the screens against the wall.
“You know what?”
“About the mess hall, this is apparently the systems monitoring for the station”
He pointed to a screen showing the layout of the station, emergency indicators flashing at the margins, and the mess hall flashing red with atmosphere warnings.
“Fuck, you know what that means…”
“Yeah” he said
“Look the auxiliary airlock is open” He pointed at the far side of the mess hall on the screen.
“Can you close it?”
“No it looks like there was some damage, so it’s preventing any function. Unless...”
“Well I don’t know, it looks like there is some sort of containment protocol on the air lock and ventilation systems that can even override the damage prevention lock outs… but that’s weird. Why would we need…”
As he trailed off he looked up and caught a faint expression on Kate’s face, barely perceptible.
“Huh” he said to himself
“Hey what's this room” came from outside. Dr. Fell and Dr. Wilms were peering in. Kate turned and ducked passed them, the conversation continued as she walked briskly to her door.
As with the other cabins, her door slid open when she approached. She walked directly to her lab and stopped in front a rack of hard plastic cubes. She picked up a cube labeled “gen 5-1a” and began to pace. Finally sitting down on her bunk, turning the cube over in her hand and feeling its contours. She stopped for a moment, nodded her head, and then walked back to the lab. Donning her class 5 contamination suit and respirator, she then grabbed a laser scalpel in one hand, and held the cube in the other. Rubbing her now heavily gloved finger over the cube one more time she then smashed it hard against metal lab bench, and then again, and again. She began to sweat as she smashed her life’s work mercilessly against the hard metal surface.
Finally she stopped and held the cube up to her visor and inspected it. The surface was badly scuffed, but essentially intact otherwise. She spun it in her hands and held her breath. And then she saw it, on one edge the semi reflective coating turned rough. It was barely perceptible. She placed it down on the table with the rough patch up. Catching the light now it was apparent that some exterior shell of the cube had been breached.
She crouched down some what and linked one arm around the sturdy leg of the bench, and picked up the laser scalpel in the other hand. Looked around once more, and then thumbed the scalpel on and dragged it across the rough spot of the cube. For a moment nothing happened. Then all the doors in the station slammed closed and huge vents in the walls violently ripped out every single molecule of air. One second later the vents slammed shut and a second set opened and rammed in one atmosphere of oxygenated nitrogen gas into the room. It hit her like a wall of water, knocking her to the floor. Then there was silence once more.
She looked around and found the cube lying nearby on the floor as well. It’s side melted shut with the self sealing tech that she had developed as a postdoc. Prior to it, work on massively self replicating biological system was so prohibitively difficult to get approved that progress was impossible.
Taking the suit off she jogged back to the main hallway. Down at the other end three heads were sticking out of the small maintenance door.
“Holy shit are you alright?” came Abel's voice
“What was that?”
“I don’t know” she lied
“Well whatever it was, the air lock in the mess is closed now. Know anything about that?”
She just shrugged and tried to fight back a smile.
Dr. Wilms glanced between the two of them. and let out an “Indeed” hot with anger.
They gathered down at the bulkhead. The mess hall door now clear to enter. They looked around at each other. The levity from a moment ago now dissipated. Each of them having realized what was probably on the other side of this door.
Kate looked at the faces of the three men she had been forced into this moment with. She could see it, that contagion, fear, beginning to take root.
Nope. Lock it down.
She turned and without ceremony palmed open the door.
Maybe they looked surprised at the suddenness of it, she didn’t turn to find out.
The smell of ozone that always accompanied a recent hard vacuum filled their nostrils. Their eyes scanned across the largest of this space stations rooms. It was empty. Everything that had not been bolted down, and some things that had, ripped out into space. It was obviously a violent event. Deep pits in the walls where heavy objects had impacted on their way out the airlock. Long gouges along the floor and ceiling. And all around the airlock… It looked like the inside if a garbage disposal after someone threw in a handful of ball bearings.
The interior air lock itself was still partially open. Scorch marks indicated an explosive had been part of what ever did this.
Kate and Abel stepped over the threshold wordlessly, and Dr. Wilms followed. Dr. Fell stayed clutching the edge of the bulkhead.
“This couldn’t have been the enemy.” Dr. Wilms said with an air of disbelief in his voice.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it was.” Abel added.
“And they don’t use explosives” Kate said
They looked up and down the room for a moment in silence.
“Hey, what’s that?” Dr. Fell was pointing to a corner near the badly damaged air lock.
“It’s uh, it’s the expansion port, for future additions to the station.” Abel said, clearing his head of whatever macabre thing he had been thinking about.
“Ya but, it appears it’s been expanded on already.”
The four doctors looking and now fully comprehending this.
Their small space station, in the middle of nowhere, seemed to have an extra room, and the door to it was open.