The Centurion had gone silent six hours ago. The once bright and vibrant space station that was home to over four thousand humans living within the Tauran Nebula had gone dark. Orbiting 150,000,000 miles from a yellow dwarf star, the Centurion was a local hub for the transportation of people and goods. Like the rest stops of the twentieth century, they provided services to visitors and crew members alike. It offered basic repairs to ships, lodging for travelers, hundreds of shops and restaurants, and numerous apartments and temporary housing for those who intended to stay for a prolonged period of time. With over 200 levels, the station contained cinemas, clubs, bars, even a large amusement area complete with rides and a VR deck that could simulate practically any scenario within the safety of the floor. For those who wanted something a bit more peaceful, there was an organic park full of plant, and even animal, life.
The Centurion was one of twelve orbital stations that Earth Prime had constructed through the centuries. Dotted throughout Alliance space, they lined major trade routes between systems. Some were like the Centurion, acting as rest stops for weary travelers, and others were security hubs for the Alliance Guard. Two stations in particular, the Siren and the Icarus, were data centers that processed and stored information from all over the Alliance network. With trillions of humans and countless other races living in the galaxy, there was need for moderation of the massive digital traffic. It was due to this connectivity through the galaxy that it was surprising the Centurion had gone dark without a single distress call being sent out by any of the current five thousand long term occupants.
Derek Ward had arrived at the Centurion when it was still a thriving hub. He and his fellow crewmates had just finished a two month job collecting minerals from a distant asteroid belt. During the mission Derek acted as tech specialist, monitoring the quality and integrity of the drilling equipment, the ship’s internal systems and the Virtual Intelligence nicknamed Kat. He spent most of his time on the ship while the others manned the drillers and haulers in deep space. Mining was an arduous job and even though he wasn’t manning heavy equipment he still felt the same level of exhaustion as his shipmates; physically he was fine, mentally he was taxed. For two months they did nothing but work and sleep and so this left the entire crew feeling ‘antsy.’ After all one can’t have much privacy in a two thousand square foot living space occupied by eleven people. So when the mission was complete and they were on the way back to Earth Gamma, they decided to stop off at the Centurion to resupply and the blow off some of steam.
While Derek planned to join his crew mates when they arrived, he was just too exhausted. He told the captain, a mustachioed bear of man named William Caldwright that he would catch up with them later and to his surprise neither he nor the crew pressed the issue. After all what they all had planned didn’t involve much sleep. It was because he stayed behind that he was spared from the incident that took the Centurion. Much to Derek’s surprise it wasn't a klaxon from the station that woke him, for it never went off. It wasn't the screams of those within or the gunfire that followed. It was the light beeping from the VI that eventually pulled him from his deep sleep.
Derek stretched, the burning in his muscles feeling wonderful. A deep and powerful yawn escaped his mouth as he pulled his arms backward as if asking the universe to give him an enormous hug. The ship was quiet save for a light beeping. Sliding on his glasses he could see the dim yellow light flashing on the main console at the co-pilot's station. The sleeping area was right behind the cockpit and so the flight controls acted as navigation, communication and data processing. Though still a bit groggy, he hopped out of bed and made the short walk to his chair at the helm.
Sitting down he was instantly greeted by the dark expanse of space. Trillions of stars twinkled in the all-consuming blackness. The cockpit offered a spectacular 180 degree view of the cosmos, but for Derek this was nothing special. Having spent his entire life traveling through space, living first on Earth Beta and then moving the Earth Gamma when he was ten, the majesty of the cosmos wasn't the same as it was before Faster than Light space travel. Taking only a moment to collect his thoughts he touched the holographic display.
"Good evening Technician Ward." Kat said with her digitized voice. "Did you have a good rest?"
"Yeah," Derek said, rubbing his eyes. "What's going on? Why the sudden alarm?"
"I can no longer detect the crew within the Centurion." Kat said, matter-of-factly. Derek froze. An icy touch of dread tickled the back of his mind, but did his best to push it away. There were a number of reasons why Kat could lose track of the crew. Interference, malfunctioning locators, or they could have just turned them off.
"Kat, send a ping to the captain." Derek ordered. There was a momentary pause before the VI spoke again.
"The Centurion communication relay appears to be down." She said. That fear started to spread like fingers sliding across Derek’s neck, growing tighter. Still he managed to keep his obvious terror at bay. He knew it was possible that the communication relay could have been down, but it seemed strange that the backup systems were not transmitting.
"Kat, can you scan the coms for some sort of emergency message indicating the outage?" Instantly Kat went to work scanning all available frequencies; the process taking only a matter of moments.
"I'm afraid there are none." Kat said. "In fact there are no active frequencies within 5000 kilometers."
Derek was stunned, struggling to understand what was happening. It was possible that the primary and secondary relays were down. The station was getting old after all, having been built over a century ago. The Alliance was constantly upgrading systems and reinforcing structures, so the relays could have been down for maintenance. That wasn’t what bothered him. The real question was why were there no other transmissions coming from the station? Not even radio waves were being picked up by the communication array on his ship. It was like the entire sector was nothing but dead space.
From his position in the cockpit, he could not see the station. The Centurion was designed to have ships reverse dock into to an exterior ring that was connected to the main body of the station. Like petals of a flower, the ships were angled away from the center as a precaution to prevent someone from slamming to the ring at full speed or if in case of emergency a quick jettison. Derek tapped on the holokeys bringing up the exterior cameras. If not for the stars behind him, he would have never even seen the station; rather if it wasn't for the lack of stars behind him, he wouldn't have known the station was there. The Centurion was pitch black. The ships exterior lights were off, as were the emergency lights and the location indicators. If a vessel were traveling toward it, they would have never seen it.
"Kat, try to contact Alliance security." Derek ordered.
"Unable to connect." Kat replied.
"That's impossible." Derek muttered to himself. "Kat send out a distress signal on all frequencies."
"Unable to complete task."
"Run diagnostic." Instantaneously a holographic screen appeared before him. Information scrolled past his eyes, information gathered by the full diagnostic scan of every program and interface on the ship. Kat determined that their ship’s array was fully functional– all systems nominal. From what Derek could see, the inability to send out a distress signal was not due to a fault with their coms.
"Kat, can you detect any active electronics within the area?" Derek asked. Kat scanned the vicinity searching for any equipment that was still pulling power. It was an internal program that was designed to search for any forgotten tools that they crew may have left behind while working.
"I have detected over four thousand devices that were still operating with the area." Kat said. Derek groaned. It was certainly not what he was hoping for but should have expected as much. Most people had their own com systems and while the relay system was down, there was no reason to shut down the personal network. Derek considered this before restructuring his question.
"Kat, is there any device that is not a com unit that is still functioning?"
"There are over a dozen units. One unit however appears to be transmitting and does not meet standard frequencies." She said but quickly added, "I have taken your request however and amended the parameters. I have located a single device that is being powered by an independent energy source that does not match any previously identified sources." Derek rubbed his chin. The short stubble scratched at his palm as the sound roared in his ears.
"I bet it's a high powered frequency jammer." Derek said aloud. Someone had disabled the power and the coms. The real question was why? It was extremely dangerous to cut off communication with the outside. If anything went wrong, no one would ever find out until it was too late.
It was at that point Derek knew he had two options. The first was that he could stay and wait it out. Eventually, the Alliance Federation would realize something was wrong and send help. The question was when? He didn't know how often the station notified Earth Prime with updates? The other option, which was not one he wanted to explore, was entering the station and trying to get help, perhaps even find out what happened to the Centurion and his friends.
With a resigned sigh, Derek returned to his bunk. The ship was not equipped for battle and so there were no weapons on board. The only thing he could take with him was a wrench. Derek was a tech and while he knew how to analyze data and repair virtual systems, he had no idea how to actually use any of the tools. To worsen matters, he wasn’t the most physically imposing. Weighing a meager 110 pounds at 6 feet tall, he was less space explorer and more scarecrow in a jumpsuit.
He wasn't completely incapable though, especially with Kat by his side. The captain was glad that the VI had been uploaded into the computer so that more of the crew could be used as labor, gathering more minerals and bringing in more money. Kat helped monitor the ships systems and ensure everything was running nominally, working in tandem with the pilot and tech specialist. However when Derek sold the captain on the idea of a Kat he had bent the truth slightly. While telling William that Kat was a full spectrum VI or virtual intelligence, Kat was in fact a fully functional, self-aware Artificial Intelligence capable of independent thought. He kept this secret because AIs weren't permitted in the hands of citizens. They were closely monitored by the Alliance because of how much damage a rouge AI could cause. In order to keep from anyone else finding out, he and Kat devised a plan. Derek placed an inhibitor program to limit what Kat could do while in the presence of other crew members. Once the block was lifted however, Kat could operate at full capacity.
"Is there anything I can assist you with, Sir?" Kat asked.
"End Ghost Protocol sub-routine Victor India, execute." Derek ordered as he strapped on his digital bracer. The device acted as a miniature tablet allowing him to access core systems remotely. All of the crew had one but most just used it to listen to music while working.
"Oh thank god, I was getting so antsy." Kat cried. The digital quality of her voice was still present but the cold, mechanical nature became far more fluid, more human. "Why couldn't you do that sooner?"
"My friends could have come by when I was asleep. If they knew I had you, they could report you and the Alliance would either take you away or tether you to a single point." Derek said. "You think the shadow protocol is bad, try being tethered."
"I'll pass thank you." Kat said. "So I'm assuming you are going onto the station?"
"I have to." Derek replied. "I need to make sure my friends are alright. So sync up."
The bracer activated, a three dimensional holo-display appearing over the device. A progress bar flashed across as Kat said, "Sync complete. I am now portable." The voice this time came over the bracer's coms. Before doing anything else, Derek reached into his bunk and removed a small earpiece.
"Try it now." Derek said, sliding the device in.
"How's this?" Kat replied. This time the voice spoke directly into his ear, rather than the bracer.
"Good. Come on, we have to go check out the station." Derek said. With as much courage as he could muster, he grabbed his wrench and walked over the ships space suits. With a deep breath, he began to disrobe and prepared to enter the Centurion.
The lights were out, his only source of light being the headlamp on his helmet. A quick scan of the environment indicated that the ship's life support was down. Though there was still oxygen left in the station, eventually it would either escape through an opening or be used up by any organic organism that was still breathing. So rather than wait for either, Derek suited up. The suit was designed with a rebreather network that utilized genetically modified algae. The algae would metabolize the carbon dioxide and in turn release oxygen. The suit could provide oxygen for over three days if needed. Then the algae scrubbers would have to be traded out with a fresh batch. Three days was meant to be a worst case scenario. Most of the time they tried not to spend an entire 24 day in the suit, let alone three.
The suit was formfitting, the body made of highly durable metal plating while the joints and hinges were made of flexible polymers. The sturdiness of the suit was a precautionary measure in case there was a gas pocket that projected rocks or metal at the miners. It was projectile resistant but not bullet proof. The suit was also designed with mag-boots and light-propulsion jets utilizing compressed air. While not meant for long distance travel, you could navigate around an asteroid with ease. Within the helmet was a digital Head up Display that showed oxygen concentrations for both the internal and external environments, the suit's integrity, battery life for the main operating systems and external lights and sensors, as well as a mini-map if one for the area was available. In lieu of a complete schematic, the onboard navigation would map out one so that the user could return to the point of origin if needed.
"Got anything, Kat?" Derek asked. His heart rate had jumped to almost a hundred beats per minute the moment he stepped into the docking ring. The artificial gravity had been disabled and so Derek had to rely on the mag-boots to keep from floating around.
"Nothing yet." Kat said. "You may want to relax a bit. Your vitals aren't looking the best."
"I'll be fine." Derek said though they both knew he was lying.
The ring was dead silent, swallowed by darkness. The lights from his helmet cut through the black, but offered no solace. The docking ring was connected to the station by over two dozen walkways leading into the main floor of the station. Fortunately, Derek's ship wasn't too far from one of the walkways. With each step his boots echoed, reverberating throughout the entire ring making him easy to find. The ring gave him no clue as to what was happening within the station. Aside from a few crates and boxes, the ring was empty.
Following the walkway, Derek moved from his ship and quickly located the tunnel into the main atrium. It was while he was scanning the walls that he noticed something out of the ordinary. Angling the lights, he saw strange symbols etched into the wall of the walkway. The gouges weren't deep, but it was enough to stand out in the suits beams. Touching on his wrist, a holo-display appeared. With a few taps, he snapped several images, using the helmet's onboard camera.
"Kat can you run a scan of these?" Derek asked.
"Graffiti? Really?" Kat teased. "Getting a little worked up are we?"
"Just do it please?" Derek said flatly. The last thing he needed was lip from something that didn't even have any.
Moving along the walkway he noticed more of symbols. They weren't the same but were similar in design. The strokes were uneven, some gashes cutting more deeply than others. The person that carved these certainly didn't care about style or flair. It was a matter of getting the picture drawn and that was it. However, something about it didn't sit right with him. He had been to the Centurion before. The security force on the station weren't strict but they cracked down on vandals and graffitists. There were even cameras in the Ring. Security would have sent someone to after the person carving symbols into the wall while at the same time sending maintenance and remove the symbols. Though by the flakes of metal still clinging to the wall, these were fresh. How could they simply ignore this? Of course how could an entire station just shut down?
Traveling the span of the walkway, the walls bearing more of the strange symbols, he came to the airlock where even more markings were etched not only into the metal but the glass as well. As Derek slipped into the adjacent room, Kat's voice broke the silence, "I've located something." Derek jumped at the sudden exclamation forgetting that he wasn't alone.
"You found something in your data banks?" Derek asked, somewhat perplexed. Why would his AI have weird etchings in its hard drive?
"Not quite," Kat correct, "I found it on the net."
"I thought all communication was down." Derek said.
"The internal and external relays are down. That's why you can't ping anyone or send out messages using them, but the internal intranet is still up and running. It seems like someone simply shut off life support and cut off communications." Kat answered.
Derek touched his bracer hoping to find some answers. With the intranet still online he may be able to break into the security mainframe to get some answers, but the moment he tried to connect, all he received was an error. "Wait a minute, why can't I connect to the network?"
"The jammer, Derek." Kat said with a surprisingly mocking tone.
"Then how can you?"
"I'm not on the network."
"The ship’s coms com relays are off line but the internal VI is still active as is the internal wireless network. Calls can’t go out of the station but once you’re within range of the network, you can perform internal station calls and pings. I detected one of the nodes when we entered the Ring and gave it a shot. That’s when I found the station’s VI. I simply spoofed my identity to that of the station commander and just started relaying questions. The station’s VI is telling me the answers." Kat said, matter-of-factly.
"Wait," Derek started, "Are you telling me the station's VI is still operational? Why would someone cut life support and power and cut off the station's communications but keep a tertiary system like the VI and wireless network up and running especially if it's compiling and storing data?"
"Unlike the core that powers the station, the VI system is powered by solar panels attached to the exterior of the top floor which is the security hub. They couldn’t cut off the power without destroying the solar panels so they simply crippled the system in another way. Standard protocol during emergencies is to examine the data that was streamed out through an open channel once the distress call is received." Kat explained.
"There's an open channel? I thought you said all channels were jammed?"
"This channel is an emergency broadcast network. It can't be closed or jammed. However, it is only accessed if there is a distress call. Since no call was ever made, the data is simply flowing into file that no one is looking for."
"Can we get a message out through that data feed?" Derek asked.
"No, the feed is locked and only authorized personnel can enable it." Kat said.
"You're an AI, can't you break in?"
"Hey you're human, can't you have a baby or bench press three hundred pounds?" Kat returned, "Just because I'm a computer doesn't mean I am omnipotent. Even AI has their limitations. The emergency feed has ten layers of highly complex, fluid encryption. It would take me days to break through. I can do it, but you could be dead long before I finished."
"Alright, I'm sorry." Derek said, "I'm just getting antsy. There is something seriously wrong here. Someone went to great lengths to ensure this station got cut off from the rest of the galaxy."
"I know. Let me ask Dana if she knows anything else about what's going." Kat said but a second later she spoke. "Alright so she says the data regarding the symbols was pulled from someone with an open feed within the station. While the cameras were disabled, I think it's fair to say that the markings were probably made by that same person."
"Awesome." Derek sighed. "So what now?"
"Well standing in this airlock won't solve any problems. If anything we may be able to find someone to help us or maybe even disable the jammer." Derek grimaced. Running into danger was something he often avoided. It was one of the reasons he stayed on the ship when the others worked in zero-grav. However, drastic measures…
So, gripping his wrench Derek stepped further into the main lobby, following the carvings deeper into the station.
The lobby was a mess to say the very least. Anything that wasn't bolted to the floor, floated like satellites in space. Chairs, tablets, tables, even potted plants were among the detritus. The lights from overhead had been smash, the glass littering the air, shining like twinkling stars when his light passed over them. As Derek pushed his way through the debris, his boots echoing with each deafening stomp, he caught sight of the large three person concierge desk. For those who had never been to the station, they provided important information about the Centurion. He had stopped by there on more than one occasion and had always been greeted with a surprisingly warm smile and friendly greeting.
This time, however, there was no beaming face or pleasant hello. The desk was vacant, but it was not bare. The normally neat and bright kiosk was coated in a dark, reflective substance but it was difficult to make it out in the headlamp. Bringing his gauntlet up he allowed the built-in sensors to scan the area. The sensor was designed to analyze minerals and chemicals, so the operator could determine the chemical compounds of various substances.
"Kat, what do we have?" Derek asked, tapping on the display. As Kat spoke, a list appeared on his helmet's HUD.
"Water. Acetoacetate. Acetone. Acetylcholine. Adenosine Triphosphate. Adrenocorticotrophic hormone." At this, Derek interjected.
"Wait. Hormone?" He asked.
"Yes." Kat replied. "From my analysis, this substance has the same chemical composition as human blood." Derek's stomach dropped as he came to a very grim realization. The kiosk was covered in blood. Peering down at the floor, he noticed his boots touched the very edge of a pool that had dripped from the desk above. Instinctively, Derek stepped back, pulling the sensor out of range.
At that point it didn't matter though. The evidence was in front of him. Someone had to be dead given the sheer amount of blood that was left. The strangest aspect of all of this was that there didn't appear to be any blood floating around him so it was possible that the person had been killed before the gravity had been shut off.
Shining his light around him, he saw more pools covering the floor, gore splattered across the walls. It was clear this was not some terrible accident. The patterns and sheer volume; it was almost as if there had been a massacre. How he didn't step in any before was truly puzzling. Approaching a wall, Derek noticed five narrow streaks pulling down the length of it and across the floor toward the entryway for the main level.
"Kat, what are the odds that those streaks were made by fingers?" Derek asked. The words fell from his trembling lips as a greasy taste lingered on his tongue. It took several large swallows to keep from throwing up. In the corner of his HUD his heart rate rose from 100 beats per minute to 120.
"Derek, you need to calm down or you're going to go have a heart attack." Kat said.
"I know, I... I just need a minute." Derek said. He closed his eyes, thinking about anything other than blood.
"You know we can just head back to the ship and leave. The Hydra space station is only a nine hour flight away." Kat suggested.
"We... we can't." Derek replied. Though still rapid, his heart bead dipped into double digits which made his anxiety slightly more manageable. "At least not yet. I have to find my friends."
With a deep breath he opened his eyes. Everywhere he turned, he saw nothing but carnage. Glancing up he caught sight of sizable dents peppering the synthetic titanium alloy that the station was constructed with. Lodged within the center were small compressed pieces of metal: bullets. At least it looked like someone had put up a fight. He didn't know if that was better or worse. In the end, he just let the question fall away.
Of course in its place came a new question. This one was far more distressing. With so much gore, so much blood there was one aspect that could not be over looked: with so much blood laying around, where were the bodies?
Derek stepped into the atrium, with only his headlamps to guide him. Designed like a shopping mall, stores lined the interior and exterior walls running the entire span of the station. Clothing stores, electronic stores, bars, clubs, gaming hubs, VR experiences, even travel agencies could be found. The main atrium was the largest of the floors, the ceiling extending upward three stories. Normally when the power was on, a VR simulation of the sky from Earth Prime was visible with a sun shining down or a moon floating overhead with the constellations all around it. Over 100 levels were laid out just the same as the main atrium but lacked the VR sky. Each floors contained different shops from different companies from different planets. With over ten trillion humans in the galaxy, diversity was not an issue especially when other races had their own wares to sell.
As Derek approached the main thoroughfare, he tapped on his gauntlet. "Hey Kat, can you do a local ping for the crew?" Derek said. There was a brief moment as Kat ran the messaging program, but a mere second later a blip appeared on the mini-map at the edge of the HUDs field of view.
"I've located the crew." Kat said.
"That's fantastic." Derek exclaimed. "Where are they?"
A schematic of the Centurion appeared on his HUD displaying the massive station in two dimensions. During one of his last stays on the Centurion, when he was drunk and feeling fairly reckless, acquired a copy of the schematics for the station. Normally the schematic could be obtained through a simple request from the station security. Given the size of this station, it was easy to get lost. However the schematic Derek possessed was acquired by breaking through the security firewalls and downloading the confidential specs that contained the security layout for cameras, security doors and various access ports. Looking at the map now, he saw a cluster of red dots in the main storage bay that was supposed to be heavily monitored by station security. There were eight dots in the bay and one only two floors down in a club called The Lumerian Star.
"Whose ping is below us?" Derek asked.
"Peter Carson." Kat said.
With Peter so close, Derek wanted to make sure he was alright before trying to get to the others. Not knowing the protocol for the station in case of emergencies, it was possible that everyone could have loaded as many people as possible into the bay until help arrived. For now he had to assume everyone was safe but as he made his way down the thoroughfare toward the closest elevator shaft, his hopes were quickly fading.
Like the lobby, the mall was in complete disarray. Windows were shattered, blood was everywhere; in pools, patches and smears. More than once, Derek found blood and flesh clinging on the jagged shards of shop windows. With each step, his boots echoed throughout the cavernous level, the sound traveling far and wide. Though the headlamps cast away the shadows, they revealed nothing but horror. Along with the blood, Derek found that written all over the walls were those same etchings that he found in the Ring. Kat had asked Dana, if she could translate but she was unable to. It would remain a mystery until they could pull from a data source with the proper translations. For now, Derek simply recorded the images for future reference.
The shaft lay open like a gaping wound. By the damage on the sides of the doors it was clear they had been pried open. On the floor there was a large trail of smeared blood leading to the shaft and down into the darkness below. As he examined the elevator, Derek noticed something that, for once, brought a glimmer of joy.
According to the schematic, there was a data access panel, but the panel was flush with the wall and impossible to pry open. Taking a more direct route, Derek grabbed his wrench and reared it back. With as much strength he could muster, he brought the wrench forward. The head smashed into the wall, denting the panel but just barely. Bringing the wrench back again, he took another massive swing connecting with the panel once more.
"What are you doing?" Kat asked.
"Well you said the internal network is still online, right?" Derek asked swinging again. By now the small panel was starting to give way.
"Yes, the system is powered by the tertiary solar array."
"Well, once I get this panel off, you are going to go for a ride." Derek said.
With a one more blow, the panel went flying away from the wall. The dented chunk of metal spun away toward the ceiling, doing loop-de-loops as it drifted into the darkness behind him. Without the cover, there was a visible control panel, glowing a dark red. Derek smiled, setting the wrench aside. If the power were completely off, the panel would be dead. The red indicated it was on emergency power, the tertiary solar power, so the systems were still live.
"Alright Kat I want you to manually connect with the network and try and get into the level one security protocol. Then I want you to lock it out so that no one else can use it while we have access." Derek said.
"What do you want with base level security protocols? The jammer is preventing any signals from going out." Kat said.
"Not what I'm going for." Derek corrected. "I don't feel like prying doors open with a wrench. I want to be able to open and close doors at will. Since the main power is off, the doors should be operating off the backup power."
"Very impressive, Derek. The security system would have transferred door automation to the closed tertiary system to ensure that if the Alliance recovery team attempted to breach, they could access the doors." Kat said. Derek only smiled. He had run into similar systems as a technician. He knew that there had to be some backup that would allow security to lock down an area as well as open it up in case of emergencies. And now he would have that access. Derek removed a small node from his gauntlet and plugged it into a port designed for manual data input.
"What about Dana, I don't think she'll appreciate what we're doing?" Kat said.
"Disable her if you have to. After you are in the network, you won't need her."
The AI wasted little time but as Kat worked, Derek could only stand and wait. So he simply stared out into the darkness and wonder. The station was dead silent. As far as he knew the only living person left on the station was him. Any sound there was he made it. It was his stomping that echoed throughout the darkness, it was his screams that ripped through the air. The sensors detected no other person, no other organism so to hear a sudden crash break through the silence made him jump.
He snatched up his wrench and held it like a baseball bat. Quickly he began to think of the many different things that could have made the sound. It was possible that it was merely debris clattering into a wall or shattering glass. With the gravity off, there was just too many objects floating around. However while the crash grabbed his attention, something else held it. Through the speakers of the suit, there was the distinct sound of slapping. Slapping was really only was he could describe it. There would be a slap and pause, slap and pause. Gripping the wrench tighter, Derek scanned the area, but his headlamps barely revealed anything.
"Hurry up Kat." Derek whimpered. Slap. Pause. Slap. Pause. The high ceilings made it impossible to know where the noise originated from. The sound could have come from the other side of the atrium and he would be none the wiser. Slap. Pause. Slap. Pause. He couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from, the shadows obscuring everything in sight but what he did know was that the sound appeared to be growing louder. Tapping on his gauntlet, he adjusted the audio settings of the speakers, bringing up a digital representation on his HUD. Slap. Pause. Slap Pause. The audio spiked with each sound, and though there wasn't a major difference between each point, the peaks were growing. Slap. Pause. Slap. Pause.
As Derek studied the audio he noticed another peculiar oddity. With each detection the sound wave differed. There was one point where the sound was much lower while the second point was higher and it would continue this pattern as the peaks grew in size. He quickly realized it was oscillating between high and low points, but keeping within the pattern of increasing volume. Slap. Pause. Slap. Pause.
It reminded Derek of when he was a child and would bounce a ball up into the air. With all of his might, he would slam the ball against the ground and let it sail overhead before gravity took hold and brought it back to earth. The ball would then bounce once more before dropping, eventually settling. Slap. Pause. Slap. Pause. Taking that same idea, if gravity had not stopped the ball. If there were a ceiling it would have slammed into it and then bounce back toward him. Slap. Pause. Slap. Pause.
Derek increased the audio once more. Deep within the white noise through which the slap and pause came through, he heard something else. Something very familiar. He knew the sound but couldn't figure out what it was. Again he thought of the bouncing ball. As a child, once the ball stopped bouncing, Derek would grab the ball and then slam it once more, grunting as he did so ensuring he put as much power into he could. And that was it. That was what he was hearing. It was grunting. Something was grunting. Slap. Pause. Grunt. Slap. Pause. Grunt.
The sound grew louder, the peaks growing higher and higher on his HUD. Slap. Pause. Grunt. Slap. Pause. Grunt. Closer and closer the noise drew. Derek scanned the area, but saw nothing but darkness as his meager lights barely penetrated the shadows. He couldn’t even see the ceiling. Slap. Pause. Grunt. Slap. Pause. Grunt.
Then, as the noise grew execrably closer, Kat cried triumphantly, "Done!"
The exclamation pulled Derek back to the task at hand. Without thinking, Derek dove into the elevator shaft. Flipping within the air, his mag-boots attached to the wall opposite the door. His eyes darting toward the opening, Derek cried. "Close the door now!" Kat complied and slammed the doors shut. Barely moments after the elevator closed, ponding echoed through the elevator shaft followed by muffled but very audible shrieks. These were not the cries of pain or fear. This was anger and rage. Whatever was on the other side of the doors, was furious.
"What was that?" Kat asked.
"I don't know and I don't want to." Derek replied. "You said the ping was two floors down right?"
Tapping on his holo-display, Derek deactivated his boots. Without the anchor, he was now free floating and was currently in the best place to travel the span of the station without running into whatever was other side of the elevator. With a few controlled bursts of his thrusters, Derek descended down the shaft following the schematic and the ping from Peter's tracker until he stopped at the elevator door. According to the ping, Peter was about five hundred meters away from his current position. From what Derek could tell there was another elevator between Peter and his current location. So if he needed to, Kat could open that shaft and they could use that to escape if the need arose. Though he prayed there wouldn't be any reason to find an escape route, his gut warned him otherwise.
"Open it." Derek said. Kat complied as the elevator doors slid open just enough for him to fit through.
The ceiling was much lower, lacking the extra space that the atrium possessed. With his helmet lights, the ceiling was now visible which granted Derek a sense of relief knowing that nothing was hiding overhead. If something was going to sneak up on him, it would be either in front of him or behind him. Though not a comforting thought, it was still something.
Activating his mag-boots, Derek walked down the hall, following the ping. This floor wasn't spared the carnage that the main area endured. It actually looked worse because now Derek could see blood on the ceiling as well as the walls and floor. As he passed underneath one light, he saw that the glass had been shattered; blood and skin clinging to the remaining fragments. Upon closer inspection he could even see clumps of hair as well.
After several moments of tense silence, his own breathing filling the silence of the hallway, Derek found himself outside of the The Lumerian Star. Derek had visited the club once before but didn't really care for the experience. If you thought bars were loud, clubs were absolutely deafening. Even screaming at the top of your lungs into a person's ear, they still couldn't hear you. Now that the club was silent, the normally vibrant lights and music that shook the walls and spilled into the hall absent, he actually missed them. Knowing how the club was supposed to be versus how it was now, offered chilling contrast. Derek clutched his wrench and with a deep, unsteady breath, stepped through the front door.
Trash and broken glass floated around him in thick clusters. More than once he had to push them out of the way. Blood was everywhere, and like most of the areas before, the bodies were missing. The ping however was strong, evidence that Peter should have been nearby. To his right, he saw the bar standing vacant, the shelves behind it empty. The bottles that weren't smashed floated around the room. Derek followed the ping to the source growing closer and closer with each step. It was around a booth in the far back of the club that the Derek saw he was practically on top of it. However even though the ping was there, Peter wasn't.
“Kat, am I reading this right?” He asked.
“From what I can tell, he should be here.” Kat noted. Derek sighed wondering if the Ping system was malfunctioning. Taking a more practical approach, he kneeled down, curious to see if perhaps the wrist sensor had been dropped or broken off during whatever incident that occurred. It was in that moment when his light filled the void underneath the table, he understood why he couldn't find his friend. The sensor had been ripped off; rather Peter's arm had been ripped off.
Derek screamed as he jumped away, fighting the nausea that gripped his stomach with tight, cold hands. With the extreme emotions that he was juggling already, the true implication of Peter's death did not hit him right away. All he could think about was the kid he had spent so much time working with. Peter was a good kid, just barely out of his teens. He joined the crew to explore the system, wanting to get off Earth Gamma. While they didn't explore the galaxy studying life, they saw and experienced much. And now he could be dead. They all could be dead.
He was given no time to mourn his friend when he heard a sound come from behind. Unlike the slaps and pauses from the main level, this was heavy thudding like someone taking a hammer to a steel drum. Derek turned, the light from his helmet shining in the darkness, and screamed once more. The only reason he didn't topple over was because the mag-boots. He had to force his body into motion, taking several steps away from the thing that was now standing in the doorway. The dim headlamps revealed the thing’s flesh.
Every inch of it was covered with gore, blood and bile. The creature stood almost ten feet tall, its head almost touching the ceiling. Thick muscles bulged under skin that appeared too tight for its massive frame and could have easily split apart if enough force was applied. While the body appeared human the monster's face was something utterly monstrous. Its lips were sewn shut, the fabric holding tight, but as it snarled and screamed, the flesh was ripping under the strain. Its eyelids had been removed, revealing dark black sclera and blood red iris that were transfixed onto Derek. With each deep inhale the monster's chest swelled forcing the skin to stretch and even tear. In one massive hand was a hammer that resembled an enormous Morningstar, in the other, a severed leg.
"Kat?" Derek whimpered.
"I’m sorry but I have no data." She replied. Derek clutched his wrench, the weapon paled by the hammer.
Without waiting for any prompt, Kat brought up the schematic of the Centurion on Derek’s HUD. Tracing a path at the back of the club, there was an employee access that offered an avenue of escape and leading him into neighboring store. With a bright flash on the HUD, Derek was brought back to what mattered: Survival.
"Follow the path. You should be able to navigate back to the nearest elevator shaft. Once there you will be able to descend to the main cargo bay. I can open any doors along the way." Kat said.
Before Derek could even respond, the beast unleashed a roar so loud that it caused feedback in his helmet. Derek screamed and with that the creature charged, dragging the hammer on the floor as it moved. The beast closed the distance quickly, taking large strides. Derek ran as fast as he could toward the employee access that Kat outlined on his HUD. As he approached the door slid open revealing a darkened hallway but as he closed the gap pain erupted in his side. He screamed feeling himself fly across the dancefloor and into an adjacent wall. The HUD quickly went red, indicating a breach in the suits panels. A medical diagnostic flashed up informing him of the three broken ribs. The suit's onboard medical system injected a local anesthetic, numbing but not eliminating the pain.
Dazed Derek tried to regain his bearings but he only floated for a moment before another sudden pain ripped through his stomach and chest. There was another update on his HUD as well as a light tone in his helmet indicating yet another breach in addition to a cracked sternum and two more broken ribs. Derek screamed in pain as another blow struck his helmet causing the glass to fracture, effectively disabling the HUD.
"Move!" Kat cried but Derek couldn’t. The suit flooded his body with pain killers, but this also meant his reaction time was slowed. Kat, through the onboard cameras saw the beast raise the hammer up once more. She quickly estimated that the helmet could not take another hit. Overriding the propulsion system, she activated the thrusters. Derek was launched back toward the access door, just barely missing the Morningstar as it slammed into the floor destroying the metal paneling. Kat thought she was clear but the monster was faster. With astounding speed the monster snatched Derek's boot before he could escape. The plating bent under its grip and Kat knew that if given a chance it would rip Derek apart. She had other plans though.
Disengaging the foot piece of the suit, Derek slipped free from the monster's grasp and through the backdoor. The moment they slipped through into the hallway, Kat slammed the door shut behind them as they collided with the back wall. Even through the thick walls of the station, the beast could still be heard as it bellowed with rage.
"So what now?" Kat asked through Derek's ear piece. Derek discarded the last of his suit, allowing it to float away like the rest of the debris. In the dim light of his bracer he saw that the helmet was trashed. The once smooth structure was now bent and cracked. It withstood the force of the monster's hammer once but clearly it couldn't take another hit. The chest plate was dented and mangled and with a missing boot, it was nothing but scrap.
Then, to make matters worse, without the suit's internal rebreather, he was forced to rely on the station's remaining oxygen supply. While it was expansive, the air already had a tinge of copper as the carbon dioxide concentration increased. Even with the garden in the station there was no way it could recycle all of carbon dioxide. If that wasn't bad enough, he was unable to walk. Without the mag-boots he was forced to float around like the rest of the trash in the station. Somehow the monster was able to walk without feeling the effects of no gravity but Derek hadn't the slightest clue of why. It was clear though, if he ran into that monster again, though, he wouldn't survive.
Without his suit, and with a chest full of cracked ribs, Derek had no other options. He had to return to the ship and go get help. The jammer didn't have a wide range so if he got out far enough, he could send an SOS on all frequencies and pray that someone would hear it. If anything he could make his way back to the Hydra.
Using the walls as his guide, he pushed himself down the hallways of the employee access tunnels. According to Kat, the elevator was next to a store which shared a wall with the club. From behind him, Derek could still hear the bellows and pounding thuds of a hammer against metal. It was determined to get into that hallway. By the time it did, Derek prayed that he would be far away, lightyears away. Without his helmet the hallway was almost black. The little light that his bracer emitted was enough to provide light to travel but little else.
As Derek approached the employee access for the neighboring store, a door slid open. Pulling himself through, his bracer revealed that there were in a restaurant. The phantom smells of past meals lingered in the air and in that moment, Derek realized just how hungry he was. Since his excursion into the station, food had been the furthest thing from his mind. Now, with the old scents lingering around his nose, his stomach grumbled.
"I hope that's not as loud as I think it is." Kat said into Derek's ear. He ignored it, not wanted to give away any evidence that he was even out of the tunnel.
According to Kat the elevator shaft should be to the left of the restaurant. From there he would take it back to the Atrium and to his ship. Without real light, Derek couldn't see the gore that coated the walls of the high end restaurant. Musicians and politicians, actors and artists, all dined at Delicate, the famously popular eatery. It often took months in order to get a reservation and even that didn't mean you could get in. A simple exchange of credits and a celebrity could easily knock you off the waiting list. Now, it was merely one more room in the two hundred level tomb.
From the hallway, he could still hear the pounding of metal against metal. The beast, through strong, was dumb. This worked in Derek's favor since he could now enter the halls without the monster hearing him or seeing him. If there was one saving grace of having no suit, it allowed for much quieter travel. His biggest concern was bumping into some trash and sending it ricocheting like a bullet.
Derek quietly navigated the restaurant and floated out the entrance without a sound. He kept low to the ground in case he needed to launch himself with his feet. His legs could produce more power than his arms, thanks to his broken ribs, and any little advantage could mean life or death. As he drifted mere inches of the ground, Derek noticed something on the floor. A dark liquid, shaped like an enormous human foot. In fact there were numerous prints, all leading away from him. Without his sensors he had no idea what it was so he did what any curious man did: he touched it. Tacky. The substance was tacky. Instantly, Derek postulated theory. The creature was producing some sort of liquid that allowed it to cling to the floor. Like his mag-boots, it could travel without losing contact with the surface. He didn't know if this was clever or ghoulish, but was leaning toward the latter. No eager not to touch the "glue" again, Derek floated through the open elevator doors and into the shaft. Once in, the doors slid shut.
"Two floors, right?" Derek whispered. "Right."
Derek pushed himself up, keeping close to the wall. Traveling two floors in a zero gravity environment wasn't difficult. He simply floated upward running into absolutely no resistance whatsoever. Of his entire experience on the station that was the easiest thus far. The ascent was brief and seconds later, Kat slid the doors open and Derek floated out. His journey through the ship would be much easier. With Kat tracking his movements based on his speed, trajectory and the layout of the station, he was quickly guided back to the Ring without any issues.
The moment he flew through the door of his ship, Derek sealed it and a second later the artificial gravity kicked in and he dropped like a bird with its wings clipped. Pain ripped through his torso as the ribs he had forgotten about, informed him that they were indeed still broken.
"Are you alright?" Kat asked.
"Do we have any pain meds?" Derek asked; his voice strained.
"We currently have three stim-pens in our inventory. Each dose should stave off the pain for twelve hours, more or less." Kat said.
It took Derek several minutes to clamber to his feet, the pain refusing to yield. It appeared that the zero gravity was far more conducive to broken ribs than a gravity environment. The med bay was right of the showers, barely a five by five space that contained a chair, a miniscanner and built in drawers where the medical supplies were stored. Derek staggered to the chair, barely able to breathe. Each time he inhaled, pain spider webbed throughout his chest. Through his entire life he had never experienced a broken bone, now he had at least half a dozen. Practically falling into the chair, the scanner that was connected to it sprang to life.
Built into the structure of the chair were numerous sensors designed to analyze heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. As he leaned back, placing his head against the headrest a secondary scanner descended from the ceiling and analyzed his body structure, determined bone density, structure and internal muscle and organ activity. On the display next to the headrest was a scan of Derek and it appeared that in addition to the seven broken ribs, he also had a mild concussion.
"Derek, there is something that you need to know." Kat said. In Derek's current state, he didn't pick up on the Al's unusual sense of urgency.
"Not now." Derek groaned. "Just get the ship into deep space and send out a distress call."
"Derek..." Kat attempted to argue, but Derek wasn't having any of it. He simply closed his eyes and chose to ignore her until he was able to ease his pain. It wasn't until Derek heard the crash from the front of the ship that he opened his eyes again.
He shot up, the pain excruciating but he ignored it. There was no reason that anything should be falling down. The ships artificial gravity was operating and everything was secured for travel. From the cockpit, he heard another crash as several data pads fell to the floor. There was a pause before he heard a deep terrible growl drift through the air like a dog guarding a bone.
"Kat..." Derek whimpered.
"That's what I was trying to tell you!" She said, annoyed.
Derek looked around for any weapon he could get his hands on. To his left was a laser cutter used for emergency amputations. The laser could sever the limb and cauterize it at the same time, preventing any infections or bleed out. It looked like an ancient Earth Prime style hacksaw but where the blade was there was an empty space until it was powered on. Keeping the blade clutched tightly in his hand, Derek rose to his feet. He bit back his groans of agony as he thumbed the power. Instantly, an energy blade appeared, spanning the gap of the saw.
He stepped into the center of the ship, looking directly into the cockpit. That was when he saw a figure against the blackness of space. Unlike the station, his ship was powered and under the light, he saw the thing in clear detail. It resembled a woman but that was where the similarity ended. The bones jutted out of her skin at odd angles. The jaw, now hanging lower than it should on a human, was filled with two rows of sharp teeth. The mostly bald scalp was stretched and even split at one of the temples were a dark blood dribbled from where a single horn grew. It looked like bone but was coated in black oil. Its knees were snapped backward like some twisted flamingo. Its finger nails, Derek could see were once painted green, were now talon like extensions and each time it flexed, the claws ripped through the flesh of its palms. Scraps of clothing clung to its body. They appeared more like stings of cobwebs than clothing. Her breasts hung like sacks of limp flesh, losing any provocativeness that they once might have held. This thing was an abomination in every way possible.
"Holy..." Derek uttered. Before his thought finished, the thing lunged at him as it unleashed a feral shriek. The thing moved quickly but clumsily. Clearly it wasn't used to the gravity environment and it couldn't compensate for the added weight. Though in pain, the fear drove Derek away. The creature missed its lunge entirely. Out of reflex, Derek brought the laser cutter down and in one motion, severed the monster's head, sending it rolling across the floor.
He screamed, dropping the cutter. Now free from his hand, the laser deactivated as it clattered against the hard metal floor. Nausea washed over him with tidal force. Dropping to his knees, he threw up what little he had. The sudden muscle contraction sent a powerful shockwave of pain ripping through him and he threw up once more. Kneeling there, over a puddle of sick everything came crashing into place. In that single moment as pain subsided, nausea ebbed and with came a dawning realization. With just his brief foray into the station, he knew that his friends were dead as well as thousands of innocent people. To make matter worse there were monsters; real physical monsters. Once existing only in bad dreams, they now existed in the cosmos. Derek wanted to scream, to curse the universe, but he simply lost himself to sadness and wept. He let everything out and simply cried for the loss of his friends and the nightmares he and they had endured.
Kat left Derek to mourn the crew as she overrode the docking clamps and within moments they were moving away from the station that was once one of the greatest in the galaxy. While navigating, she also took control of the floating medical scanner and maneuvered it away from Derek and toward the monster. As a human, Derek was prone to allow his emotions override his logic. Kat was not bound be emotions. Ever since detecting the brute from the station, she had wanted to get a closer look. The thing resembled humans but did not share any characteristics with them. The scanner should detect any difference the two may share.
Shortly after departure and receiving a shot from one of the Stim-Pen, Derek dragged himself to his bunk. Turning away from the thing that lay on the floor, he simply passed out from sheer exhaustion. Kat, using one of the miniature mobile lifters that she hacked into, picked up the corpse of the creature and jettisoned it into space. The results of the scan provided enough information that there was no need to keep the organism.
Though the analysis showed no indication of infectious material, she didn't want to risk it. After the scan, the body was useless, from an investigatory perspective. They were not equipped with examination tools for biological analysis so the best Kat could do was get basic information. The creature possessed human DNA and though the structure and form differed from a human it was, for all intents and purposes, human. It was mangled and horribly disfigured but it was a human at one point.
The other half of the equation became clear after moving the body. Attached to its hip was a digital recorder. It was exactly like the body cams that the Alliance guards were ordered to wear to ensure there were no incidents like there used to be back in the twenty-first century. Seeing it, Kat determined that the thing was once a crew member of the Centurion. Protocol dictated that the hard drive was not be deleted until the end of one’s shift and the data uploaded for safe keeping. If the woman still had the hard drive then Kat may be access it. Breaking through the security would be no problem. It took less than a second to bust through the encryption.
The moment that Kat analyzed the data, she knew that this was something wasn't right. It wasn't that its data was corrupted, far from it. Everything was in perfect order with no sign of modification to the device. What she 'saw' was something her data banks had never processed before. She had terabytes and terabytes at her disposal, entire histories at her virtual finger tips, but this was something completely unheard of. Though not human, she knew the concept of fear and understood how Derek, how people, could see this as terrifying.
It wouldn't be for another four hours before Derek awoke to discover what really happened on the Centurion. He awoke the calls of an Alliance officer responding to their distress signal. Their cruiser was still hours away and with nothing else to do, Derek insisted on seeing the digital recording. Kat tried to prepare him as much as possible before allowing the playback, but there was no preparation for what he saw.
The image was shaky. Even with built in stabilizers it was difficult to make anything out. According to the identification built into camera, the woman was Corporal Lisa Hendricks. From what Kat and Derek could tell Lisa was being dragged, seeing mostly a dark red glow that illuminated the otherwise darkened area. The light wasn’t from the security lamps which wasn't surprising since the power had been cut. Instead it came from another source that was outside of the camera’s view.
Once the camera ceased moving, there was a slight pause before it shook violently as the camera, as the body, was readjusted. In this new position, the camera allowed him to see the room with terrible clarity. She was in was one of the loading bays of the Centurion and all-around the camera’s field of view Derek saw bodies lying on the floor and suspended by hooks from the ceiling. In the center of the room surrounded by the innumerable corpses was a freestanding doorframe. What made this innocuous structure even more horrifying was that the frame was constructed out of body parts; severed arms and legs bound together. This frame wasn’t empty though. Within that space there was a brilliant light that glowed red, the source of the light that not only filled the bay with that dark crimson but also revealing a nearby figure. Dressed in a robe, hood pulled up obscuring his or her face, the figure held what appeared to be book, an actual physical book.
The audio was garbled, spoiled by what sounded like wind which didn’t make any sense because the station was an airtight environment. There were vents but nothing that would distort audio in such a way. Derek spent little time considering this because his eyes were drawn to one of the dead men that hung from a hook lodged in his shoulder right under the collar bone. From the doorway, something stepped through. It was quick, the image blurred by movement and matter how slow they played the video, it was impossible to get a clear read on what it was. What happened next though, was what mattered.
The body began to convulse and shiver. The legs twitched and then the arms, followed by the legs and head. Within seconds of movement the body began swell in one place, twisting in others. The arms and legs bulged and then bent, but not at the joint. The bones snapped in three places, but the arm continued to flex and bend. Skin ripped open, exposing dark muscle tissue and sinew. The fingernails didn't extend as he once thought. Instead new talons ripped through the nail beds pushing away the original and sending them falling to the floor. This man's torso bulged like a balloon swelling with water. It was with a grim thought that Derek recognized what was happening. It was like when he slides into a jumpsuit; the fitting of the arms and legs, as he pulled the suit onto his body. Whatever the thing was, it was sliding into the man, wearing the man as a meat suit. Once its head snapped up, the skin tearing around the jawline, Derek stopped the video. It was all he could handle. Afterward, he clicked off the monitor and waited until the Alliance arrived.
For four weeks, Derek was questioned about what happened and held until finally one day he was let go. There were no charges and, in fact, he received hearty compensation for his help: 50,000,000 credits. When he was released by the Alliance, he moved back to Earth Gamma, certain he never wanted to leave again. Kat remained with him, the Alliance never suspecting the VI was self-aware since the Ghost protocol was reactivated long before they arrived.
In the end the Centurion was condemned by the Alliance, claiming that a massive radiation leak resulted in the deaths of all five thousand on board. Derek and Kat were the only ones to survive the fall of the Centurion, but could never speak a word of it to anyone due to a very strict confidentiality agreement that he was more than happy to sign. The last thing he wanted to do was relive the horrors of the station.
No one ever learned of what happened for several years, until one day the Alliance planet of Earth Delta suddenly went quiet and all communication ceased. The only message to be broadcast before the total global blackout consisted of three words: We Have Arrived.