reading time: 13 minutes

Chapter 3

The door swung open. A modern room presented itself. Cavernous in comparison to the smaller rooms in the other stations. Across from them a large set of doors and a control panel.

"It's... a transport station." Kate said, "For a tram or something."

Kate and Abel walked to the control panel. Wilms, having taken the lab coat off of Fell still grasped him by the shoulders and they walked behind the now apparent leaders of their little gang.

"Can our little friend hack it?" Kate gestured to Abel's pocket.

Abel inspected the console and without looking up, said "no need" he rubbed his finger over part of the display "a tram is already coming." A light over the large doors to their right illuminated.

They all stepped back not knowing what to expect next. A mix of fear and anticipation. A feeling that no matter what happened next, they were at last coming to some answers, or at least a conclusion of some sort.

Perfectly soundless, they watched as a tram car arrived on the other side of the large doors. Then the high pitched whine as a compartment was pressurized.

The doors slide open and a well lit tram car awaited them.

They all looked around at each other in wordless amazement. Then slowly, and unsure of them selves, they boarded the car. Kate, standing at the front by a small display, looked around. The tram car was mostly see through, though all they could see currently was the metal walls of the tram station.

She pressed a virtual button on the tram's display and the mechanical background noises of the station began to fade away until, for the first time since she had arrived here, there was total silence. The vacuum of space insulating their tiny tram from the going ons of the station around them.

Kate let a held breath out and turned to look forward as massive doors slid open in front of the tram, and it began to glide out of the station unto the inky black of space.

"What..." Abel let out, but they were all already looking at it. The indistinct carpet of stars should have been punctuated with the dim glow of the Red Dwarf XAV-1170. But it wasn't, instead they were enveloped in a brightly glowing sea of light. Except in one direction, where a stomach churning vortex of the purest black possible hung enormous outside of their window.

Dr. Fell, broken out of the spell he had been under and explained in stunned amazement "It's... it's a black hole. A fairly massive one too."

The awe was complete, the others didn't even have thoughts to gather into words. Their minds had been thrown into neutral.

"We're in the accretion disk. I can't even fathom how they are shielding us from the radiation." He trailed off and they simply stood there.

Then, without warning, the stupefying spectical was wiped away as they silently slid into another tram station.

The familiar high pressure whine as the space around their tiny tram was pressurized, and the mechanical hum of human technology returned.

Slowly they began to regain their composure, and they looked around at each other, but still had nothing to say.

After a short time Kate broke the silence, "Let's find out what they want."

She turned to go, and the rest of the group followed her out.

The room was significantly larger than the tram station they had come from, with two other sets of doors for other trams to arrive at.

In the center of the room a ladder ran up about twenty feet to a hatch in the ceiling. Glowing next to the hatch, an obvious access panel.

Kate caught Abel's eye "can he hack it?"

Abel let out a snort with his smirk, then strode over and began climbing the ladder. Kate behind him, Fell and Wilms waiting at the base.

Abel arrived at the hatch and hooked one arm around the top rung, then with his other arm, took out Lucky and waved him at the panel... and waited.

Kate, watching in anticipation a few rungs down called up "Did it not work?"

Abel frowned at the device "HE'S working on it"

Kate rolled her eyes.

"What's taking him so long?" Kate asked.

"This is something wholly different from what I trained him on... I've never seen a system like this before." Abel said, never taking his eyes off the device.

They hung there in space, waiting, Kate hooked her arm over a rung and had to keep alternating which arm it was so it wouldn't fall asleep. Abel barely moved, never taking his eyes off Lucky.

Kate looked down at Fell and Wilms, both men were sitting with their backs against the ladder, a quiet pall fallen over the whole group.

Then a cla-chunk as mechanical interlocks above her disengaged. "GOT IT!" Abel exclaimed happily. He sort of fist pumped with the hand Lucky was in, then slid the device back into his pocket.

Kate thought she heard a "good boy" under his breath, but couldn't be sure.

Fell and Wilms were up and starting to climb the ladder.

"Ok then, let's see what's up here." Abel grasped and pushed hard, a slight positive pressure on the other side raced out as he broke the seal.

One by one they climbed into the almost blinding light. A nearly all white room, one wall filled with screens monitoring various systems, graphs and various good/bad indicators. Many of which were indicating trouble. A rack of something, weapons maybe?

The opposite wall however was where everyone's attention immediately gravitated. A bank of displays showing various fairly normal looking rooms and hallways. All of which bore at least a passing resemblance to their own station.

But most shocking was the people, going about their business, dozens maybe, it was impossible to know just yet.

The group stood and tried to make sense of what they were seeing. Kate opened her mouth to speak but was cut off by the sound of an opening door to their right. They all turned to look, and if everything they had seen up to this point had not shocked them to stupidity, they now stood face to face with a slight man, his build in contradiction to the military uniform he wore.

A stern and pompous look on his face. No one spoke as they looked him up and down.

He took a step into the room and spoke "I am glad you are safe, and I am sure you have questions."

Kate broke through her shock first, "Who are you?"

"Well I run this station here, but I do not imagine that is truly your most pressing question." He responded in a tone that could have been Wilms just a few hour ago.

"Where the hell are we?" Abel said with a bit of grit in it.

"This station literally does not have a name, I know, very cliche. And the black hole you no doubt observed is not on any civilian star charts... Not that it was not initially observed by civilian surveys, we simply remove it from the data whenever it crops up." he said with something Kate thought might be pride. "But suffice it to say, we are far from civilized space."

Kate filed that away and moved onto the next thing on her mind "What the hell is going on here? Why is everyone dead?"

"Well, not everyone. In fact the majority of the problem was localized to your pod and your direct neighbor. A very unfortunate psychotic break I am afraid. However, the damage Doctor Paulson caused did have some... wider consequences, that we are still dealing with. He was quite adept at fooling our systems."

"So he just went crazy, killed all of his colleagues, and blew open our air lock?" Abel cut in.

The man looked at the ceiling for a moment and then answered "A bit of a simplification of the circumstances Doctor Abel, but yes. Doctor Paulson was a very sick man. A paranoid schizophrenic who suspected, rightly or wrongly, that someone was conspiring against him." a pause as he chose his next words "We thought we could help him while also allowing him to do his work... clearly we were wrong."

Abel simmered. Things were starting to come apart.

Kate flashed a glance at Abel, then back at the slight man who had seemed to have taken on a more menacing stature. She pushed her growing rage down with limited success and asked "Why did you lie to us about the station? And what are all of these other people doing here, do they know everything you told them is a lie too?" She took a breath and continued "We're done here. We volunteered for this shit... we're going home. When is the next ship?"

The man didn't answer right away, instead that fucking smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth again. Kate could barely contain herself.

He nodded slightly, as if deciding something, then he began "This war we are in. With the enemy. You understand how dire it is, yes?" he left a pause, but no one answered "we are not winning this war. We are barely hanging on. And we are only doing that thanks to the work of once in a generation scientists such as yourselves."

Kate's glowing ember of hate surged brighter at the blatant attempt to stroke their egos.

"Doctor Balling's original anti-matter cannon in the early days of the war is the only reason we did not lose in those first years." his history lesson was not being well received. "and so it has been ever since, we have clung on to the ragged edge only by the barest of margins thanks to advances in weaponry and other relevant fields."

The CDF didn't exactly advertise this, but those in the know understood, at least in generalities.

"However, we realized pretty early on a general truth about the progression of science. The first particle accelerator took a few weeks to put together on a lab bench. The next a few months, then years, then decades..." Kate saw where he was going with this "then life times. A brilliant scientist could no longer live long enough to see their work completed. Then, more often than not it would stagnate, waiting for the next great mind in that field to pick up the work and complete it."

Kate started to make the connections in her mind and she interrupted him, "The black hole. The station is as close as possible to maximize the time dilation..."

He shook his head slowly in agreement and she continued "And the external laboratories..." her mind was racing now, "are just out there on some planet somewhere... not experiencing any time dilation."

"That's right," he cut in "why waste years of your life performing tedious time consuming experiments and calculations? Instead we can have a team of people spend their entire career completing it in what for you, seems like just a few weeks."

His self satisfaction was overwhelming.

Something clicked in Kate's brain and she shot back "Wait, how extreme is the dilation?"

He again looked to the ceiling as he spoke "About 150 to 1 for Terra Standard." he looked back at her.

The sentence hit them as if it had been a tungsten slug. Abel physically doubled over.

Kate shouted back "WE'VE BEEN HERE FOR OVER A MONTH!! MY DAUGHTER!!!" she fought through the rage in her head to calculate... 34 days... "My daughter is 22 years old! I missed her whole childhood! YOU MONSTER!" she screamed as if she could hurt him with her words.

"Your daughter grew into a fine young woman. You should be proud." His steady voice clashing with the general tenor in the room.

Kate was filled with conflicting emotions, wanting to know more about her daughter, and pure exquisite hatred for this man.

"She served the CDF valiantly like her mother. There's little more you could ask for." he finished.

Kate seethed and tried to think. But then it struck her.

"What do you mean served, did she leave the service?" Kate asked in a quivering voice.

"Kate, I think you know." he replied in a drawl.

Her eyes welled up and she stepped closer to him and shouted back "No, you tell me, where is my daughter right now!"

"She was killed in action over a year ago, or the day before yesterday subjective time. Our most recent campaign has been... well, a bit of a set back. That's why we need people like..."

He never finished his sentence. With two quick steps Kate was at his throat, he saw it coming and went to bring out a previously unseen weapon from his pocket but Kate was on it. She grabbed his hand with the weapon and with both hands now smashed it under his chin. They both fell to the floor, rolling to the side Kate pressed him flat on his back, she let out a primal scream into has face and with every fiber of muscle she smashed his hands into the handle of the weapon, curling his fingers in on the trigger. Then a single blinding flash of light and the smell of burnt flesh filled the sterile looking room. Most of his head had simply ceased to exist. The back stub was chard, no blood sprang forth.

She stayed straddling his lifeless body, hands still clasped around his. Taking heaving breaths, tears streaming down her face. She screamed again and again. Then easing her grip, she let the weapon drop to the ground and began sobbing, more quietly now.

Abel crouched beside her glancing at her trembling hands briefly, then getting up he walked to the wall of screens showing unsuspecting scientists going about their daily routines.

Wilms came over and stood next to him, watching the screens.

"How many of them had daughters do you think?" Abel said softly.

"It doesn't matter... They are here now. The damage to their own lives is done. And he was right in a way." Wilms said without turning his gaze from the monitors. "This was is much bigger than any of our lives. It's the very survival of the species we're talking about."

Abel shook his head. He wasn't entirely wrong. But it sure felt wrong.

Wilms started again "If we told them all now, the CDF would lose them and their research. It would cripple us. And even still, no one would get their daughters back."

He glanced back at Kate who was quiet now, absently holding the weapon with both hands, almost inspecting it, but not.

"It's awful, but it's for the greater good." he finished, as if speaking about some foregone conclusion.

Abel's guts twisted. How could he, knowing what he knows, not tell these people. Wouldn't he have wanted someone to tell him?

"Abel. Open up a com channel to them." Kate was now standing over the body, looking down on it with a hard expression, weapon in hand.

Abel stammered for a second, genuinely not knowing what was the right thing to do.

"I can't let you do this." Wilms said with an authority Abel had not expected. When he turned and looked Wilms now brandished a weapon similar to the one Kate possessed.

"Whoa whoa where did you get that, what are you doing guys?!" Abel backed into the display bank hard. "This is fucking crazy, put that shit down."

"So are you part of this Wilms? Is that why you've been such a fucking prick this whole time?" Kate said with a devil-may-care tone that turned Abel's guts cold.

"You know that I am not. But that doesn't change the fact, he was right. We need this place, these people. You would jeopardize the entire species just so these people can wallow in the same misery you are in?" his mocking tone pushing this to the boiling point.

Fell had taken shelter on the ladder when Kate initially jumped the military man. Now he heard the shouting rising again in tone and intensity. He gripped the ladder tighter willing them to stop, a tear running down his cheek.

They were shouting at the top of their voices now, he could barely hear Abel as he pleaded with them to calm down.

He glanced up through the opening as the shouting reached it's crescendo, and for the second time that day, saw the blinding flash of an energy weapon discharge, and smelled the inevitable smell of charred flesh.

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