reading time: 17 minutes

Chapter 1

Wilms stepped forward and put his hand on the bulkhead to peer inside. “It's perfectly dark.”

From where she stood Kate could see he wasn't quite right, the light from the damaged mess hall spilled in a short distance revealing little of the floor beyond. Past this small illumination Wilms was correct however. Nothing could be seen.

“Hold on a moment.” Dr. Fell said excitedly, and he bolted from the room back toward their cabins. A moment later he reappeared and produced what appeared to be a small pen light. When he thumbed it on however a brilliant, almost impossibly intense beam shown forth.

“Here,” he handed it to Kate. “Don't uh... don't shine it in anyone's eyes... really.” A very sober faced Kate shook her head then turned her attention to the dark hole in their space station.

“Alright, let's see what's here.” She ducked passed Wilms and into the unknown.

She wasn't quite able to stand up in the new space. It was certainly less than 2 meters tall, and about as wide. It seemed a utility corridor, except none of the cables and piping that one would expect. Perfectly clean walls. No dust, no function or utility. In fact the only appearance it conveyed was... structure? The hard light from her pen casting the clean lines of this corridor in stark relief gave the distinct appearance that this place was not meant for humans to live or work in.

"Well, what is it?" an impatient voice called from behind.

Broken out of her isolated sense of discovery, an irritation crept into her voice. "Why don't you come in and see Wilms" figuring he was the type of person to get irritated about the omission of his title, and she appeared to be right.

With an audible grumble and some hesitation, he ducked through the opening and joined her.

"There's nothing here. What's at the other end? Why haven't you gone farther?"

Barely able to contain her contempt, she glared at him for a moment, then surged forward, the light swaying side to side. As she walked she brought her gaze up and saw as the light caught the far end of the corridor: about 20 meters away, a bulkhead identical to the one she had just passed through.

Looking back and raising her voice so the others still in the mess hall could hear her "Hey, there's another door. The whole thing is about 30 meters long."

She reached the door, turned back and shown her light at the floor to illuminate it for the others. After a moment's hesitation Abel and Fell followed down the corridor and met her at the new door.

"Should we open it?" Abel said.

"What if it's a vacuum on the other side? There is no indicator panel at all." Said Fell

"I guess that means there can't be a vacuum on the other side...?" Said Kate

"We're in space, there can ALWAYS be a vacuum if something goes wrong." Wilms said in the most condescending tone he could manage.

Of course, Kate admonished her self. Why did I give him an opening to berate me.

Kate turned to Wilms intending to rebut that what she meant was: the designers must have assumed there would never be a vacuum in whatever the next compartment was.

Before she could form her thought into words, the creaking of a mechanical door that hadn't been used in a long time tore their attention forward again, a mix of fear and apprehension froze them in place.

Abel was standing just to the side, one hand flat on the door gently pushing to swing it open.

He saw the groups expressions now changing from fear to anger. Before they could launch their verbal assault he cut them off, "It was already open."

Their expressions turned to confusion.

"It's a hermetic door, even if the mechanical locks aren't engaged, a hard vac on one side will slam it shut and it will make a seal. With the pressure equalized again, it's just an unlocked door."

Kate's mind began working again "So... this was open when the explosion... or whatever it was, destroyed our air lock."

"Ya I guess so," said Abel.

Slowly Kate raised her light and shown it into the new room. Racks of computers lined the far wall. Abel stepped in and the rest followed.

"What is all of this?" Said Fell.

Abel had already gravitated to one particular display and had begun tapping away at it.

"It's another systems monitoring room... I think." Abel said, half distracted.

"What are you doing on there? Be careful," Wilms said with irritation in his voice.

"Don't worry I know what I'm doing." Abel retorted.

"Excuse me I think it's about time we discussed what it is exactly that you've been doing. What is that device, and what is your purpose here. Given the circumstances, you must clear with me what you're doing to MY station." Wilms added extra emphasis to that last part.

Abel stopped tapping at the new display and turned to look at Wilms. The two men simmered trying to form their next sentences.

Kate felt particularly irritated at Wilms' implication that this was HIS station. Sure there were other scientists doing their own research here, but this station had indeed been built for her research. The other scientists were simply along for the ride.

Wilms and Abel had begun a heated argument now over who had to ask permission from whom. Dr. Fell had begun to back away with a pained expression on his face.

Kate cut in loudly "Excuse me..." both men stopped mid sentence and stared at her. "This is MY station, both of you can shut the hell up and clear things with me, since you are clearly too infantile to work this out on your own."

They both just stared. "I don't like pulling rank to get things done, but I had to," she thought to her self with a smidgen of self satisfaction.

Both men stared for another beat, and then each cracked a smile. And then an uncontrollable belly laugh that started deep in each man erupted and rolled through them.

Utter confusion filled Kate and she glanced at Dr. Fell who had a similar expression.

She turned back to the cackling pair and her face flushed. "Listen, you don't have to like that I'm a woman, but you do have give me the respect I deserve."

"No no no," Abel manged to get out through his hysterics. "No I'm sorry no, it's not that..."

He composed himself and took a deep breath.

"What did they tell you, when they inducted you for this program?" He asked.

Kate's confusion slowly crept toward understanding "That... they built this space station to advance my work..."

"Ya... same here." Abel said, then he turned to look at Wilms, who's earlier humor had turned to stony realization.

"Same." He said.

"And you Dr. Fell?"

"Same."

Silence hung in the air, a mix of emotions: betrayal, foolishness, and confusion.

"Okay, well what does that mean?" Kate said.

"Let's lay all our cards on the table," Abel said, turned to look at Wilms again "What are you working on here?"

Wilms pressed his lips together and stared back, not willing to give up anything.

"Fine," Abel said "I research General Artificial Intelligence systems. We can't keep losing people at the rates we are. We need AI ships to win the war or we'll simply lose by attrition."

Kate spoke next "I'm developing biological systems that can out evolve the enemy. Stay ahead of their defenses and destroy them on a molecular level."

Abel nodded and looked at Dr. Fell.

"Accelerating the death of Black Holes. The main systems the enemy seems to have colonized are all around black holes. We think they harvest energy off of them. If we can accelerate the black hole's death, it would release billions of years of hawking radiation in an instant. It would make a super nova look like a fire cracker. Destroying everything in a few light years' radius."

The other doctors stared at him blankly for a moment.

"Holy shit." Abel said "You've been holding out on us!"

While everyone's attention was still focused on Fell, Wilms muttered under his breath "Removing metals from materials used to construct warships."

Abel turned and said "What?"

Kate interrupted "Fine, so they lied to us to stroke our egos. Who cares? That doesn't explain why everyone else on this station is dead and there is a mysterious second system monitoring room attached to our station."

Abel looked back at the large screen he had been interacting with, "It's not a second monitoring room, at least not for OUR station..."

Everyone waited expectantly for him to finish.

"There is a whole 'nother station here. This system doesn't know about our station either. The connector we came through isn't even on the schematics here."

He tapped through a few more screens, and a previously unseen door behind them clunked open. The group whipped around to see the green "Atmo OK" door panel light up.

Abel slid off the stool he had been sitting on and strode to the door. As he began to inspect the door panel, Dr. Fell began "Dr. Abel, this isn't an exact copy of our system monitoring room, it's quite different isn't it?"

"Yeah, it's really old... Or it's like vintage hardware, but pretty darn new. I saw this sort of stuff in my dad's lab when I was a kid, and it wasn't even new then. But this hardware is in way better shape, like it's just a few years old."

"Huh" before he could finish interrogating that thought, the door swung open on mechanical systems.

"I guess this station hasn't reset from its emergency state yet?" Kate asked to nobody in particular.

"Yeah I guess so," said Abel.

He stepped over the threshold into a dimly lit corridor. Whoever designed this space station had a real penchant for green. The walls and floor were all various shades of green. The dim corridor had pulsating yellow emergency lights flowing down the hallway away from their door. Other than that, the layout was a near mirror reflection of the corridor their cabins were off of.

They stepped through the portal one by one with a sense of foreboding awe. Fanning out slightly to inspect different features of the hallway. An errie quite composed of the mechanical breathing and beating of the stations systems filled the time as they soaked in this new strange place that should not exist.

"Anna Brinkman" Dr. Fell broke the silence. Everyone turned and look at him expectantly.

"Should we know who that is?" Abel asked

"My research, she pioneered the approach that finally solved quantum loop gravity... and she saw its potential for disrupting black holes. It's the basis for everything I've done." He said almost dreamily.

"So they brought you here to work on it together?" Abel prodded.

"No, she's dead... long dead. Before I was even born." Fell said in a daze.

The mechanical silence of the station returned as general confusion fell over their faces.

"You don't even know if that is the same Anna Brinkman, this is ridiculous" Dr. Wilms chastised them.

"Ya, I'm sure it's just a coincidence" Abel retorted thick with sarcasam and a glare back at Wilms.

Kate cut through the tension, "Let's see who else is on these doors."

Kate and Fell started off toward other doors further down the hall, Abel held his glare at Wilms a moment longer, then turned to find a door to inspect.

Fell and Abel arrived at their doors first and read off the names emblazoned on the neon plauqe.

Fell rattled off "Roger Paulson."

"Yeah, that's mine..." Abel said with a resigned tone. Then he turned back to the door he was at and read "John Voigt."

A moment of silence passed.

"This guy anyones?" Abel asked to the tense corridor.

"Yes. He is mine." Wilms said matter of factly.

Abel shook his head in silent acknowledgment, then turned to see Kate further down the hall, frozen in place, staring down in front of her.

"Hey Kate, what about yours? What you got down there?" Abel projected his voice down the corodor.

Without turning her head, and in a loud commanding voice she spoke "There's blood here... someone died here."

Abel ran forward to her side and could now see what she was staring at. Blood. _A lot of it. It was clear someone had been bleeding profusely and was dragged from one of the estate rooms, down the hall away from where they had come.

Following the blood trail back to its source, they realized simultaneously that the door was still open.

Their eyes flashed to each other, then back at the door, and they started forward at a brisk pace, stopping at the threshold to look in.

Kate went to grasp the door jamb to steady herself and some pop culture part of her brain seized her for a moment: What if she contaminated the crime scene? She had to fight back a smirk at the absurd thought, billions of miles from civilization, in the black of space, at a secret military research station, where seemingly everyone else had already been killed, that it could possibly matter in the least.

Abel shot her a inquisitive glance, trying for a split second to decipher the queer look that had crept across her face.

She cleared the incongruous thought from her mind and steeled herself, then grabbed the door jamb and leaned over the blood trail to peer into the estate room.

It, maybe unsuprisingly she thought, had a similar layout to her own estate room. A bunk like bed, kitchenete, and a door way to what she assumed would be this scientists labritory.

The bunk was tossed, obvious signs of struggle abound. Blood splatter on the wall behind it, and an awful pool of blood in front, the drag marks originating from it.

"So who's is that room? " shouted Fell from further back in the hall, clearly with litte interest of getting closer.

Kate tore her gaze from the gorey scene and looked at the glowing neon door plaque. "Of course" she thought to her self.

And with a heavy heart she yelled back down the corodor "Joshua Housington... he's mine."

Sensing the moment correctly, Abel said with delicate care "We have to see what's in here, find out why this is happening," waiting a beat, and then stepping in, being careful to avoid the blood streak.

Kate shook her head and followed Abel into the dimly light room. It didn't seem as the general intent of the attacker had been destruction. Most of the furnishings on the other side of the room were intact, including, as she realized with a jolt of excitement, his terminal.

Each of their own personal spaces had also included a terminal, while it did not provide complete access to their research data and files, it was their primary machine for communicating with outside researchers. In fact it was part of what had suprised and impressed her so much when she came aboard. The laboratories and researchers they had access to here were incredible compared to the best she had ever worked with back in civilian life.

Here she could posit a new theory or device, and in mere days, horrendous calculations will have been run to completion or some new devices barely on the edge of current technology will have been fabricated and delivered to the station for her use. It was staggering in the extreme she thought.

"Hey, you need me to get in there?" Abel broke her train of thought.

He stood over her shoulder with his hand in the right pocket where his... whatever it was device, was concealed.

She gave him a sideways look the was a bit less playful than before. "No thanks. I got it."

The general permission and locking systems in the station had been pretty sophisticated, or so she had thought, until she saw Abel exploiting them with ease. These terminals on the other hand were mostly civilian tech from the lowest bidder. And they appeared to never get updated...

She slipped her personal com device out of her pocket and plugged it into the hard wired slot. Even though everything could communicate wirelessly, most things at least had the option of hard wiring, mostly intended for debugging problems that inevitably arise with the wireless connections. The port used for this hadn't changed for well over a century at this point. Pretty much every device in the galaxy could communicate, if it had to, using this port.

She brought up her debug shell and tapped in a couple commands from memory. Waited a moment, and then with extreem disbeleif breathed out "No fucking way"

The login screen disappeared, a diagnostics menu presented in its place.

"Wow, nice." Abel, still standing over her shoulder, said with a tone that sounded genuinely impressed.

"I can't believe they didn't disable this." she said as her fingers flew across the terminals main input. Flicking through menus until the screen froze, went black, and then all of a sudden they were staring at Joshua Housington's outgoing messages.

She looked up at Abel with a knowing smirk, her playfulness restored and now maybe with a tinge of delightful "fuck you" in her eyes.

Abel took the note well and just smiled back.

"Oh my God!" Fell's voice came from the doorway. He was staring at the gory scene just feet behind them. The two of them remembering where they were and what was happening quickly cleared the smiles from their faces. With nothing much to say about what Fell was fixating on they turned their attention back to the messages on screen.

"Look," Kate said, pointing to one column "the dates on these messages are about 80 something years ago... exactly though. To the day"

"82 years ago, this day... huh." Abel said absently.

They both stooped over the screen and pondered the innocuous looking conversation titles. Then as a realization slowly began to take hold she fixated on one title in particular. She read it over and over and her heart began to pound in her temples. "What the fuck?"

Her eyes darted to the participants line: Joshua H., Philip M., Barbara B.

Her initial certainty turned to confusion and she tapped the conversation open. Abel sensing her palpable anxiety receded imperceptibly to watch her as well as the contents of the screen.

Her eyes scanned back and forth furiously over the conversation between the supposedly long dead scientist and some apparent colleagues.

"What the fuck is going on here?" Kate said in angry disbelief.

"What is it?" Abel questioned with real concern in his voice.

"This is me, I'm Barbara!" Kate exclaimed "This is a conversation I was having with some external researchers YESTERDAY! Except they changed my name to Barbara B.!"

Dumb founded, Abel went silent.

"Ok so what does this mean?" he finally started in. "They have been keeping these old geezers here in stasis or something just so they could work with us?"

Kate turned around to face Abel. "Or they found a way to extend life far beyond what we know is possible?"

"No way, politicians, business leaders, they'd never be able to keep this under wraps, we'd be seeing tons of 300 year old CEOs" Abel retorted.

They both sat in thought mulling over these new fragments of data.

"Who cares? Someone is killing them AND us, so it doesn't matter if they have solved aging or what ever cockamamie idea you two are cooking up" Wilms spat from the door. "There is something going on down in their mess hall that needs our attention right now" He finished.

They walked from the room and stopped to listen. Something indeed was going on in the mess hall. Right where the drag marks led. The four of them walked up to the door and Kate pressed her ear to it. A sort of cyclic banging, or, scraping? It was hard to tell muffled as it was through the door.

She stood back and swiped away the pulsating warning with its reassuring "ATMO OK" across the top. The door ground open adding to the foreboding they all felt. Finally they could see where the blood streaks terminated.

In the dim lighting, the green aesthetic seen in every fixture and furniture seemed to complement the scene of unspeakable gore before them.

Five bodies bound to chairs.

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