Chapter 1: Salvage
"Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides."
Isaac looked up from his book as the speakers bolted to the library ceiling crackled to life. He frowned at the interruption. Ship announcements were only made when something was wrong.
“Hey idiots,” Thea declared in the same sardonic voice she used for all announcements, “Michiel wants everyone in the theatre ASAP. Captain’s orders.”
Isaac set the auto-book to sleep. “What’s going on?”
“Hell if I know. Just do it, okay?”
“Someone’s cranky,” Isaac noted with a half-grin as made his way out of the library.
“Wouldn’t you be cranky if you were an all-seeing, all-knowing AI trapped in a tin can with you seven morons?”
He learned the hard way that it was better to take her jabs with humor. Her surliness was only the result of her artifOS being a couple of seasons out of date.
Isaac made his way through the corridor, glancing to his left through the ship’s ultraglass windows. A grim panorama of twinkling lights set against pitch blackness met his gaze. His steps quickened.
The conference room they all called the theatre waited for Isaac at the end of a long, complicated series of ashen passageways. He arrived at the door and signed into the attendance touchpad. The screen flickered before his eyes.
TENJIN SHIP : CONF. ROOM 20AA “THEATRE”
// IN ATTENDANCE //
Jansen, Michiel … Captain [PRESENT]
Anand, Kaysar… Navigation Officer [PRESENT]
Voss, Duken… Medical Officer [PRESENT]
Wheeler, Xaviq… Security Officer [PRESENT]
Gao, Dr. Jino … Lead Archaeologist [PRESENT]
Temple, Remy… Research Assistant [PRESENT]
Zhang-Kallor, Isaac… Librarian [ ? ]
Shit. He was late. And the last to arrive. With a skeleton crew like the Tenjin’s, it was hard not to notice when someone was missing.
Isaac waved his wrist over the touchpad. The blinking question mark became a solid ‘PRESENT’ as the doors slid open. Inside, the crew had split into predictable groups...
Jino and his assistant Remy were murmuring together, hyper-focused on their personal touchpads.
Kaysar and Duken were having another one of their loud, passionate arguments, thickly accented German and Indian voices forever battling for victory.
Wheeler was doing pull-ups on one of the ceiling’s low pipes. As usual, his cowboy hat never moved an inch off his head.
And still, everyone turned to stare as Isaac anxiously stepped into the room.
“Mr. Zhang-Kallor!” Michiel called from the front of the room. He looked smart and handsome in his captain’s coverall uniform, royal blue, zippered pockets, and a UWF patch on the shoulder. The top half of his uniform was unzipped, displaying chest hair that peeked above his grey undershirt. “You decided to join my extremely mandatory crew meeting. Nice of you.”
Though his tone was jovial, Isaac recognized the urgency behind it. He raised a hand, half-greeting and half-apology, before taking a seat.
“Even the Doc got here before you and he’s got a broken leg,” said Wheeler, the ship’s security officer. Jino - whose doctorate was not in medicine but archaeology - replied with a curt and unamused smile. His left leg was in a cast and elevated on a second chair.
Michiel cleared his throat. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve interrupted your day.”
“Crossed my mind,” Kaysar said with a questioning look. As the ship’s pilot, he was Michiel’s number two, and the first person the captain turned to with important news. Except this time, it seemed.
Jino raised his hand. Always an academic. “We’re still on course for the wreckage site, I trust?”
“Ah, see, that’s the thing.” Michiel scratched the back of his neck. “About half an hour ago, a signal was picked up. Thea noticed it first.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” she warned.
Kaysar’s thick brows furrowed on his already serious face. “What kind of signal?”
A wave of mixed reactions from the men. Jino and his assistant grumbled with annoyance. Kaysar asked concerned questions rapidly. Beside him, Duken shook his head and rubbed at his sleep-deprived face, while Wheeler laughed in disbelief.
“People, people,” Michiel’s voice rose above the din. He didn’t get stern often. As long as things ran smoothly he was everyone’s pal, but he also wasn’t above using his Captain voice. “At least listen to my report before you have your tantrums.”
He looked at Isaac, a port of calm water in the crew’s unhappy sea, and winked. Isaac smiled back.
“You’re sure it was an S.O.S.? You’re positive?” Kaysar asked.
“Emergency signals are the most straightforward of the standard beacons.”
The AI in the speaker system sighed. “In other words, yes, you dolt. We’re sure.”
“What are we required to do?” Wheeler crossed his big arms over his chest.
“We’re under obligation to investigate and offer assistance. The transmission is flagged automatically, we would be breaking United Worlds Federation law if we ignored it.”
“Excuse me, Captain,” Jino piped up at a volume level unusual to his soft-spoken nature, “The Tenjin has agreed to shuttle my research team to the satellite wreckage orbiting Amaterasu, and only that satellite wreckage. That’s the entire point of this expedition and it’s spelled out in an ironclad contract you and I signed.”
“UWF law supersedes private agreement,” Thea said.
“But this is a commercial vessel that’s been repurposed as a small research ship. We’re not a rescue unit,” Jino replied.
“I’m afraid the lady’s right, Doc. We’re the only ship in the system. If someone needs help we can’t leave them stranded.”
Isaac searched the faces of his crewmates. They all seemed concerned about themselves, the impact on their jobs. No one seemed interested in asking the obvious. “Where’s the signal coming from?”
“A layover station called Vanguard One,” Thea said. “One of those rest and refueling checkpoints for ships on long-haul expeditions.”
“Is it far?”
“No. It’s a week’s journey to Ebisu, the planetoid it orbits.”
Isaac exchanged another look with the captain, who nodded, silently grateful that at least one of his crew wasn’t complaining. “So, what’s wrong? Why are they broadcasting an S.O.S.?”
Thea paused. “We don’t know.”
The sound of a cigarette being lit startled everyone. Isaac didn’t need to look to know it was Duken, the scruffy, eternally hungover ship medic with dark under-eye circles and sandy hair that stuck out in all different directions.
“What do you mean, ‘We don’t know’?” Smoke billowed from Duken’s lips, dragon-like. The Berlin in his voice was prominent when he was annoyed. “Isn’t it your job to know?”
“It’s my job to make sure the Tenjin’s running and you don’t all die,” Thea sighed. “Less a duty than it is a burden.”
“Vanguard One’s comm channels have gone dark,” said Michiel. “Which could mean they’re experiencing a blackout or that their satellite is fried. We could just be looking at a small crew in need of a booster and some extra supplies.”
“Or a station completely decimated by shipraiders,” Duken said after another puff.
“Let’s not joke about that,” said Kaysar.
“Why not?” shrugged Wheeler as he adjusted his Stetson, “Might as well take out all this pent-up anger on a bunch of punk pirates.”
“Much as I’d like to see that, Wheeler, there’s no reason to believe there’s been a hostile takeover. Thea hasn’t logged any illegal ships in the system.”
“Do we have access to Vanguard One’s docking registry?” Isaac wondered aloud.
“We do, but only what’s been registered up until the blackout,” replied Thea. “And it doesn’t really tell us anything. The last ship to dock was a standard transport vessel. Not unusual for a layover station.”
Duken thumbed the steel tip of his lighter as he stared, unfocused, into the middle distance. “So we could be walking into anything. Anything at all.”
“There’s that can-do attitude,” said Michiel. “You’re all being a bunch of babies. We’re going in and I don’t want to hear any more moaning about it. Kaysar, work with Thea to plot a navigational course to Vanguard One. Duken, put some medkits together. Make sure all the auto-surgery pods in the medlab are prepped. We could be dealing with injuries. Wheeler, I want you on weapons. Take our strike uniforms out of storage, too.”
Wheeler cocked an eyebrow. “Thought we weren’t expecting a hostile takeover?”
“We’re not. But I didn’t become Captain by being unprepared.”
“Sir, yes sir.” Wheeler’s gruff voice couldn’t hide his delight.
“What about the research team?” Jino asked. His assistant Remy poised a finger over his touchpad, eager to take notes. Isaac, too, perked up at this. Though he often felt isolated from the man, he was still technically Dr. Gao’s other employee.
“Continue doing what you guys do. Unless we need an extra hand with something, recon and rescue falls under the scope of the flight team. We need to deal with Vanguard One before we can resume course to your archaeo-dig. I apologize but it’s not negotiable. These are the hazards of spaceflight, we all knew that when we boarded this ship.”
Jino nodded, his face hard and betraying nothing. Remy quietly put his touchpad to sleep. They were all dismissed a moment later, each of them off to do their assigned task or continue the work they were already doing. No one could honestly say they were as calm as they were an hour ago.
Starlight illuminated the passageway that led back to the Tenjin’s library. Michiel swerved around a bend in the corridor, dogtags jangling against his chest, hoping to catch Isaac before he returned to work. He was thankful to see the librarian a few feet ahead.
“Sir,” Isaac sounded surprised as he turned to meet the captain’s gaze. “Is something wrong?”
Michiel waved a dismissive hand. “Aside from an AI with a malfunctioning personality and a ship full of whiners – present company excluded? Peachy.”
“No one really loves receiving a distress transmission. I’m sure they’re just nervous, sir.”
The boy certainly was diplomatic, a quality that was rare on a crew like this. “You can call me Michiel when it’s just the two of us.”
“Sure. Did you need something from the library?”
“Just wanted to say thank you for keeping a level head in there. We haven’t really had a chance to talk much since we left Luna station. Out of everyone I think I probably know the least about your portfolio.”
He smiled. “I guess you don’t usually have a librarian on your crew.”
“Nope. First time. The Tenjin’s a cargo ship by trade.”
“Now you have cargo that talks,” Isaac said. “Well, sometimes. You have cargo that mostly grumbles while drinking coffee and reading archaeology journals.”
Michiel leaned against the ultraglass. “Yeah, the Doc and his student don’t seem to be big fans of the flight team.”
“I’d apologize for Jino, but I met him at the same time you guys did.” Isaac’s slim shoulders rose and fell. “No way I could have warned you.”
“Academic types aren’t that great with people.” He stared, realizing his gaffe a moment too late. “Oh, except- I didn’t mean-”
A chuckle from the younger man. “It’s okay. I’m flattered you consider me an academic type.”
“Well, there are two master’s degrees between the two of us. And none of them are from me.”
Isaac’s lips parted in surprise. “I thought you said you didn’t know much about my portfolio?”
“I suppose I know a little.” Michiel felt sheepish all of a sudden, and all too aware of their nearness. Isaac may have been known around the flight deck as “the pretty boy”, but his intelligence couldn’t be disguised. It was all over his eyes, inquisitive and searching, the color of emeralds.
“Captain,” Thea said. “Not sorry to interrupt the mating ritual. Kaysar needs you in the nav room.”
Michiel raked his fingers through his wavy brown hair. It was getting too long. “I thought I asked him to work on a nav path with you.”
“And we’re having such a swell time. He said he needs another set of eyes.”
“Is he aware that you have 57?”
“I don’t think 57 views of the same stupid metal hallways are useful to him right now, Cap.”
Isaac cleared his throat, looking just as caught as Michiel felt. “I should get back to work. Those archaeology journals aren’t going to catalog themselves.”
“Isaac. Before you go? Join us in the mess for dinner tonight.”
“Pretend the auto-chef in your room doesn’t exist. Don’t let Wheeler and his Wheeler-ness fool you, we’re actually a pretty good group to be around.”
“That’s nice of you to offer. But I work pretty late and-”
“If the Doc’s got a problem with you socializing like a normal human being he can take it up with me.” The words came out authoritative, stern. And, he hoped, convincing.
Isaac thought for another moment before his expression softened. “Alright. I’ll see you in the mess tonight.”
Michiel raised a triumphant thumb, a gesture that Isaac matched. They said their goodbyes and parted directions – Isaac toward the library, Michiel toward the navigation room deeper in the ship.
“Thea, what do you think?”
“I think a sledgehammer to the face would have been more subtle.”
“I meant about Isaac, smartass.”
“What’s the endgame, sir? Flowers and chocolate, dim lights, a locked bedroom?”
“I’m just being friendly. This is his first spaceflight.”
“Isaac’s more interested in books than making buddies.”
“Why don’t we let him decide what he’s more interested in?”
“Whatever you say.”
Isaac spent the rest of the ‘day’ - or what passed for daytime on the Tenjin and its automatic light cycles - more nervous than he expected. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the flight team, but there were noticeable differences. The notion of having a meal with them was intimidating. He’d stick out like a sore thumb, a slight and effete figure eating shoulder-to-shoulder with such a brawny and rugged crew. Michiel, Kaysar, Duken, and Wheeler had all done tours in the Crisis War, and they had the hard bodies and harder attitudes to prove it. It didn’t help that Isaac, at 25, was the youngest on the Tenjin by a good eight years. Unless you counted Remy, who was also his age, but had such a fundamentally different personality that he might as well have been a potted plant instead of another body on the ship.
It wouldn’t have mattered much if Isaac had already cultivated friendships with his employer, Dr. Gao. He and Remy were frosty and closed off, like members of a secret brotherhood, and only talked to him when they needed access to a journal or article. It left Isaac feeling nebulous and invisible, neither accepted by the research team nor a part of the flight team. As friendless in space as he was on Earth.
But perhaps with Michiel’s invitation, that could start to change.
At 6 pm ship time, Isaac logged off his work console and closed the library. Not that anyone other than Remy visited, but Isaac got some admittedly petty satisfaction out of imagining the research assistant huffing and puffing at the locked door.
His chest tightened as he approached the mess hall at the center of the Tenjin. Like all rooms on the ship, it looked like it was held together with duct tape and pure determination. It was distinguishable only by its circular communal table and the automatic cooking equipment lining the edges of the room. As rumpled and informal as the men dwelling inside.
“There’s absolutely no proof,” Kaysar was saying as Isaac entered.
His usual sparring partner, Duken, had his feet up on the table while he stirred something in his bowl. “Doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing.”
“You say that about everything. Not every paranoid fantasy of yours is worth discussing.”
The corner of Duken’s mouth lifted in a grin. He looked tired – he always did – but his expression hinted at something more ribald. “When are you just going to admit you’re in love with me?”
“When all other men in the galaxy are dead.”
At the other end of the table, Michiel and Wheeler laughed or groaned. They were all too familiar with this exchange.
Wheeler was the first to notice Isaac idling by the entrance. “Pretty boy’s in the house!”
“I swear I made him promise not to call you that,” Michiel said, pinning the security officer with a sharp look.
“Come join the cavalry,” Duken said. “Buddha knows we’re getting tired of each other.”
Isaac said his hellos and grabbed a bowl of the daily special from the auto-chef. Noodles in broth with soy-pro beef substitute. Could have been worse. As he joined the table, Michiel stood and didn't return to his seat until Isaac was seated. A gallant gesture that made the librarian go red.
“What’s everyone talking about?” he asked, hoping to deflect attention from his beet-colored face.
“Kaysar thinks that just because he’s the crew member with the longest recorded flight time that he’s the big ultimate authority on all space matters.”
“Not all space matters,” Kaysar corrected, “Just the ones that are obviously untrue.”
Wheeler spoke with a mouthful of half-chewed food. “They’re arguing ‘bout the Knights of Centauri again.”
Isaac stirred the seasoning packet into his bowl. “What’s that?”
“Thea, please tell him the fairy tale,” Kaysar called.
“The Knights of Centauri, a rumored fringe group...”
“Ha,” Kaysar pointed at Duken, “Rumored.”
“Can I finish? A rumored fringe group allegedly made up of disenfranchised ex-UWF soldiers. Basically, a traveling warrior society. In space.”
“So, they’re shipraiders?”
“Far from it. Their purpose isn’t to steal salvage,” Duken said, “It’s bloody combat. There’s a code they live by. The tougher the kill, the higher the honor. They travel the galaxy looking for other warriors, to either recruit or slaughter. All for the glory of... of...”
“Of fucking nonsense,” Kaysar finished. “Of macho bullshit dreamt by bored space crews hopped up on stems.”
Duken snorted. “Our pilot here doesn’t believe in anything he can’t see. But me? I think the galaxy’s too damn big.”
“I don’t understand,” Isaac said, fully aware of how naïve he sounded, “Why would soldiers become some kind of roving gang?”
“A bunch of UWF army fleets went missing during the Crisis War. You think all of them were happy about serving in something so pointless and devastating?”
A dark chill overcame the flight team as Duken spoke. A grim silence that no one wanted to break. They knew, first hand, exactly what he was talking about.
“And if you ask me, given enough time, and enough silence? A man can be driven to do anything. Especially if he comes across a man who’s already half-way there.”
Isaac, who spent his days updating the ship’s digital catalogue and scanning vintage texts, couldn’t imagine a life so opposite from his own. So... barbaric.
“Sign me up,” Wheeler grunt-laughed. Dumb, but it broke the tension.
“It does sound right up your alley,” Kaysar shrugged. “I think we can all agree on that.”
Isaac studied Michiel, who had gone quiet. “Captain? What are your thoughts?”
“Boogeymen,” he replied, stabbing at his bowl’s last shred of fake beef. “Boogeymen and rumors started by ship crews with more imagination than sense. No offense, Duken.”
“Solidarity,” Kaysar raised his mug.
Duken swung one of his legs from the table and jabbed playfully at the pilot’s side. Kaysar blocked the advancing limb with an open palm.
“Get your foot away from me.”
“I thought we said we wouldn’t fight in front of the kids anymore?”
Michiel glanced at Isaac and smirked. “Told you this would be better than eating dinner in your room.”
“Gotta be a rollercoaster here compared to working with Doc and his boy wonder,” Wheeler said.
“Dr. Gao’s okay,” Isaac said, “I mean, he did break his leg during flight orientation. I’d be cranky too.”
A round of guffaws. Isaac remembered he was talking to a table of war veterans, men who’d seen and incurred injuries far ghastlier than a cracked shin.
“Poor guy,” Wheeler sniffed with mock sincerity. “Seriously, though. How do you handle him all day? All demands and no smiles. Might as well be working under a synthetic.”
“He never actually comes into the library, physically,” Isaac said. “He’ll either ping a message to my console or send Remy.”
The guffaws were replaced with groans, the loudest coming from the security officer. “Remy. That son of a bitch couldn’t find a sense of humor if it was ultraglued to his touchpad screen.”
Isaac privately thought much worse about Remy, but it was nothing he wanted to broadcast. “Come on, you guys are being kind of harsh.”
The mood stiffened a little at his reproach. Wheeler’s chewing slowed down, while Kaysar and Duken exchanged a brief look before returning to their meals. The conversation meandered lazily from the quality of the noodles to the prep work being done for their emergency trip to Vanguard One. It petered out into yawns and goodbyes until Michiel and Isaac were the only two in the mess left.
“I think we’ve got a new nickname for you,” the captain said. “The Peacekeeper.”
“I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than 'pretty boy'. Was I being a total buzzkill tonight?”
“Nah. The guys like to shit talk. Maybe I should start shutting it down.”
Isaac looked at his dinner, half-finished and cold.
“For the record, the guys don’t have anything bad to say about you. Other than how quiet you are.”
“There are certain stereotypes of my profession that I’d like to uphold, thank you very much.”
Michiel grinned again. Isaac liked the way it brought light to the captain’s features, which were handsome and chiseled, but dark, somehow. Haunted. Michiel was fairly young for a captain, but as was true of many an ex-soldier, he carried himself with the burdens of someone much older.
Isaac was thankful, then, that Michiel was able to smile at all. And that he was usually the one the captain was looking at when he did.
“Sir,” Kaysar appeared at the entrance. He was in a t-shirt and jogging shorts, either in the middle of getting ready for bed or a workout. A slight panic flared his brown eyes. “Thea just received something. A video.”
“What are you talking about?” Michiel stood, tall and powerful, fully in captain mode. “Why didn’t she tell me herself?”
“She received it right as she was talking to me about something. The file’s badly damaged, she’s scrubbing it now. Didn’t have enough memory left over for cross-ship comms. Told me to pass along the message.”
“Should’ve updated her goddamn OS before take off...”
“It’s urgent, captain.”
“It’s from Vanguard One.”
A man leans away from the camera. The room is dark except for the rectangle of light from the open door directly behind him. The man could be anyone, his features obscured in black silhouette. The man’s hands move just below the frame. He tinkers with something solid and metal.
“What we found... and what we took... we are being punished for it.”
He pauses, perhaps hearing something in the distance. Footsteps? The audio is too damaged to tell.
“They’re coming. But I don’t fear death. I fear what waits after.”
A pause. He raises the object into frame. A revolver.
“Our nightmares have all spiraled off into impossible directions that will never intersect. But every last one of us heard the same voice, reciting the same words, when our realities crumbled.”
The distant sounds are clearer now, closer. They definitely are footsteps, but not of a man. They are heavy yet fast, and are joined by a wet, inhuman scream that seethes with hatred.
The man raises the revolver to his head. His hands do not shake.
“’At the end of the black corridor’ it says, ‘You will know my name.’”
He fires. His body slumps forward and never moves again.
The footage cut to static a moment later. Michiel, Kaysar, and Isaac stood before the holovid screen for a long time, expressions drawn and colorless. The pit of the navigation room suddenly felt a lot colder.
“What- what the hell did we just see?” Isaac forced the words through his throat.
Michiel’s jaw clenched as he switched off the screen. “Thea?”
“Transmission date puts this a few minutes before Vanguard One’s distress signal. The file must have bounced around a few auxiliary satellites before making it our way.”
“Christ on a cracker,” he mumbled.
“Thea,” Isaac’s voice shook. “Who is Vanguard One registered under?”
Kaysar and Michiel gave him a look - What does that matter? Isaac ignored it. If he saw what he thought they saw, they were in even bigger trouble than he initially thought.
“Borgia Industries, initially. According to the WikiCorp, it recently became part of an independent franchise of layover stations. Each one is run by a separate franchise owner.”
“Meaning, Vanguard One isn’t owned by a conglomerate?”
“Are you sure?”
“Is that everyone’s favorite question today? Yes, for crying out loud. I’m sure.”
“Isaac,” Michiel’s brows knit in confusion. “What are you getting at?”
A knot of anxiety tightened in the librarian’s stomach. “Thea, can you bring up a screenshot? The last frame before everything goes to static.”
“Morbid, but okay...”
The holovid screen blinked back to life. The anonymous man was crumpled and still, his body taking up half the screen. An employee lanyard had shifted forward after he collapsed dead and was visible around his neck.
Isaac leaned in to get a better look. His fellow shipmates followed, seeing what he was seeing. He wanted to be wrong about what he saw, but there was no denying that the company symbol embossed along the lanyard strap was the same W and Y recognizable to every human traveling the galaxy.
Isaac could barely say the words out loud. “Weyland Yutani.”
Chapter 2: Echo
-Seven Days Until Arrival at Vanguard One-
"The Company? The goddamn Company?!"
Wheeler's fist struck the wall of the theatre. Only Isaac jumped, though every man in the room was clearly rattled by the news.
"Let's all relax," Michiel warned. Everyone was tired, irritable. It was the end of a long day and everyone wanted to be in bed. Though sleep seemed like a faint idea after the grim video transmission they all watched.
Wheeler paced around the room, flexing his knuckles.
Kaysar, still in his jogging shorts, massaged his temples. "Let the marines handle this. Ping the nearest troop ship and tell them to go nuts."
"Just because the USCM is in Weyland Yutani's pocket doesn't mean they're going to drop everything to check the pulse of some backwater layover station." Michiel leaned against the conference table and stared at the ultraplastic surface. "And just because we saw what might have been a Company employee in that video doesn't mean Vanguard One is under Company control."
Duken lit yet another cigarette. "But why did he kill himself?"
"Look, I understand everyone's concerns. I do. But we must respond to Vanguard One's call for help. Violating first responder law will mean none of us will ever see spaceflight again. Dr. Gao, your research on twenty-first century satelite wreckage sites? You can kiss it goodbye."
Jino sat up a little straighter in his injury support chair. Beside him, Remy glowered.
"Do you have something to say, Mr. Temple?"
Some snorts and murmurs from the men. Remy's eyes burned behind his translucent-frame glasses. He looked at Jino. Waited for his nod. He rarely addressed anyone other than the archaeologist. "Well, actually, Captain..."
"He speaks," Wheeler huffed in surprise. "For once."
"If Vanguard One is harboring something that's driving men to suicide and we rush head-long into it, then what good is the threat of extrajudicial punishment? We've all heard the rumors about the Company does away from Earth."
Uncomfortable silence. That meant the men agreed with him. Michiel searched the room for a sign of support.
Not even Isaac was offering help. He knew the Company's reputation just as well as the rest of the crew. Weyland Yutani had their hands in every industry imaginable: medicine, technology, spaceflight, terraforming, transport, and manufacturing. There were other, less official divisions that inspired paranoid whispers. Namely, biological weaponry.
That the Company even tried to maintain a tidy image was laughable; no modern conglomerate was squeaky clean. Plus, the disappearance of colony spacecraft Covenant a few years back had been a PR disaster. Seeing their name attached to anything – and in this case, a suicidal employee aboard a distressed station – was cause for alarm.
Thea chimed in. "Can I add something to this stimulating exchange of thoughts and ideas? If Vanguard One was truly owned by Weyland Yutani, their S.O.S. would have gone straight to Extrasolar Colonial Administration instead of pinging between satellites until it hit the nearest ship."
Kaysar looked confused. "Then who was the man in the video? The one clearly wearing a Company lanyard?"
"Could have been anyone," Michiel said. "Most likely some kind of contractor."
Duken shook his head. "Honestly, I don't give a shit who was clearing his checks. The man blew his fucking brains out on camera. Something's seriously wrong on that station."
Wheeler fixed Michiel with a fierce look. "Can you at least agree on that, Captain?"
"I agree that the situation appears direr than it did before we received the video. But I'm not letting you or anyone on this ship panic. If Vanguard One is experiencing some kind of mass hysteria or epidemic, we need to be the strong ones. Understand? We need to have our heads firmly on our shoulders. Nothing's changed from the orders I gave this afternoon. We go in, we assess, and we act accordingly. That's our duty as fellow travelers. We all swore the oath at orientation. Kaysar, we clear on this?"
The security officer waited a beat. "Crystal."
"I'm not fucking around, Wheeler."
"Sir, yes sir."
"Good. I suggest you all spend the next week preparing for our investigation. If you feel like complaining, take it out on the punching bag in the gym. Dismissed."
-Two Days Until Arrival at Vanguard One-
The mood aboard the Tenjin had darkened over the following week. No one could say they were looking forward to their destination, not even the Captain, though he kept any hesitation to himself. He had to be a leader to his men.
Michiel existed quietly in those tense days leading up to the arrival, choosing to work out in the ship's gym and study conflict de-escalation and crisis prevention texts on his touchpad. His crewmates took care of the other arrangements and only bothered him for approvals and signoffs. They were walking on egg shells around him, he sensed. They were right to.
The door of his private chambers made the tell-tale chime of someone requesting access. Michiel closed his touchpad and answered. He remembered that he was only wearing boxers and his dog tags when he saw Isaac, fully clothed, standing on the other side of the door.
"Oh," Isaac's eyes slid down the sight of Michiel's bare chest before darting to the floor. "Sorry, I can come back. It's late."
"It's fine. Come in."
Michiel pulled on a shirt and thought about looking for a pair of pants, but decided it would be too laborious and awkward. He and Isaac had the same parts. Nothing he hadn't seen before.
They sat across from each other in his living space. Although Isaac had an overall boyish look, his cheekbones were razor sharp. In the low light of the room, Michiel was especially drawn to them, the way they highlighted a face that was objectively pleasing to the eye.
He cleared his throat. "What's on your mind?"
"You said not to bother you with complaints, so I hope what I'm about to say doesn't sound like complaining..."
He was nervous. Michiel realized it was Isaac's first time in his chambers. Their first time alone in a private space.
"That was more directed at Wheeler than anyone else. Big guy, big nag."
Isaac smiled at the joke, albeit briefly. "I just wanted to make sure this is still what you wanted. Investigating Vanguard One, I mean."
"What I want doesn't matter. Like I've said, we're dealing with the law. I don't have a choice."
"There's always a choice. Especially in situations where you're putting your life at risk. Captain."
Captain. Isaac was leaning on formal terms, even though he had permission to use Michiel's name.
"I appreciate what you're saying. But I'm doing what's right."
Isaac leaned forward. His features hardened, strained. "You saw the same video I did. There's more things wrong with that station than people killing themselves. You heard it too – those footsteps in the background. That- that scream..."
"Hey now, slow down. You're letting your imagination get away from you. The audio track was messed up, we were hearing distortions. Before we watched it the guys were filling your head with tall tales about the Knights of Centauri..."
"This is your first flight, your first encounter with potential danger off earth, so your mind is filling in the blanks with fiction. It happens-"
"No, god damn it, listen to me!" Isaac's voice tremored with a strength Michiel didn't know he was capable of. He paused, composed himself. When he spoke again he strained the syllables of every word. "There was something on that video."
"There was a man and a gun. That's all."
"There was more than that!"
Michiel's voice rose to meet his. "We can sit here and speculate all the live long day about what's going on in that station. But we're not going to, Isaac. We won't gain anything from it. I've lost enough sleep thinking about how different my life would be if I hadn't lost ten years to the military. If I had stuck with terraforming like my family. If I stayed on Terran soil instead of blasting off into the black the first chance I got. We won't know until we know. Alright? We deal with things as they come or we drive ourselves insane waiting."
He waited for a reply. Isaac didn't give him one, so he softened his voice.
"As long as I'm Captain of the ship," he said, "you don't have anything to worry about. I can protect you. I promise."
Something registered on Isaac's face. Pain, maybe. Or longing. "But it's not me I'm worried about."
Michiel reached over and took one of one of his hands. The younger man was warm to the touch, his fingers like silk.
"Nothing's going to happen to me either."
He squeezed, lightly, testing this new boundary of theirs, and was relieved when Isaac squeezed back.
"It better not."
The urge to kiss Isaac was strong. His full lips, set in a perpetual and alluring pout, was one of the first things Michiel had noticed about him when they met on Luna. But now, as the librarian trembled in his room, he chose to hold back. There may have been some mutual attraction but he'd need more cues, a more open door, lest he risk a slap across the face and a report sent back to human resources.
Instead, he let go of the younger man's hand and stood.
"If that's everything, then..."
"Yes." Isaac looked flushed. "I just wanted to make my feelings on the matter known, Captain."
"Consider them known."
"Promise you'll stay safe."
Isaac lingered for a moment at the door before leaving. Michiel watched it automatically slide back into place, once again separating him from the rest of the ship, from what he really wanted to say.
-One Day Until Arrival at Vanguard One-
Isaac woke up the next morning a little later than usual. In the crew locker room, he showered alone in a bleary state of half-sleep, and then hustled to the library. It was his bad luck that Remy stood by the locked door, arms crossed and fuming.
"You're supposed to open 9 am ST," the research assistant said, ST standing for Ship Time. "It's now 9:15."
"Good morning to you too, Remy." He waved his wrist over the terminal. The lock disengaged and the door slid open. Inside, the morning lights automatically clicked on.
"I have fifteen citations for articles I need you to find. I pinged them to your fifteen minutes ago."
Isaac continued to ignore his short tone. "I'm feeling okay, it just took a little longer than normal to get out of bed this morning. You know how it is. Thanks for asking."
"I need those articles. Batting your eyelashes might work on the Captain but it's not going to work on me."
Isaac waited for his console to warm up. He tapped the face of the bobblehead figure on his desk, created in the cartoonish likeness of an outer world hockey player he had a crush on.
Remy's eyebrows were sky high. "Well?"
"You know how old the ship's systems are. These consoles take a good minute to boot up. I apologize for the wait."
"Finally, an apology. I didn't think those words were in your vocabulary."
Isaac was normally more than happy to help someone find the information they wanted. That was his job, after all. But Remy's impatience and sense of entitlement could test even the steeliest of wills.
"I don't understand why, in 2107, a research ship even needs a librarian. If I had my own access to the databases, it wouldn't take me this long to get anything."
Isaac wanted very badly to remind Remy that the last time he tried searching the databases himself he got so frustrated he ended up breaking a touchpad. And that when he offered – numerous times – to train the research assistant in how to use the advanced search, Remy said that his time was too important. He also felt the need to remind him that they were currently detouring to answer a distress signal and that their research project was on hold for the time being…
But Isaac was tired that morning. Not to mention the Tenjin had only left Luna station two months ago and three complaints about his attitude had already been pinged to HR. All sent by Remy.
"You know what they say. If you want a search result, do it yourself. If you want the right search result, ask a librarian."
Remy's expression didn't change. "When can I expect these articles by?"
It would take two minutes. "I'll need to get back to you on that."
"Make sure I get them before noon." Remy left without a please or a thank you.
Isaac leaned against his chair and breathed at the ceiling. A part of him was almost looking forward to arriving at Vanguard One. A black thought if there ever was one.
His day continued as usual. He sent the articles to Remy, re-shelved some of the auto-books, and kept an eye on his console's inbox for other requests. He briefly thought about browsing the holonet for more information about Vanguard One and Weyland Yutani's possible connection to it when the door opened, making him jump.
"Did I frighten you?" Dr. Gao guided his chair inside.
"No, I... Is something wrong, sir?"
"Why would something be wrong?"
"I just don't recall ever seeing you in the library." Their correspondence up until that point had been entirely by pings. In the rare times they physically crossed paths, he was lucky to get a nod out of the man.
Dr. Gao said nothing, letting his impassive gaze speak for him. He was pushing 50 but looked younger, with nary a wrinkle around his narrow eyes or his long, angular face. The only detail that betrayed his age was the sprinkling of silver in his otherwise jet black hair. Isaac felt uneasy admitting it, but there was a resemblance to his father that he couldn't shake. Even the Cantonese accent was identical.
When the silence stretched, Isaac started to worry that he was in trouble. Had Remy said he was late to open this morning? That he wasn't being as friendly and service-oriented as he should?
Dr. Gao brought his hands together, thoughtfully, like he was considering his words very carefully. "Do not go onto Vanguard One."
"When we dock on the station tomorrow. Don't join the others. Stay on the Tenjin."
Isaac blinked, unsure if he heard correctly. "The Captain said only members of the flight team will be investigating the station."
"But if you find yourself in a circumstance where you feel you must board, I'm telling you now: do not."
"I'm sorry, Dr. Gao, I don't understand."
Jino placed his hands on his lap, sighed. "Have you heard of the affliction colloquially known as 'the voids'?"
"They might have mentioned it in training. I don't really remember."
"There's much about outer space and its effects on the human mind that are still a complete mystery. We aren't supposed to live in a cold, indifferent vacuum, yet that's exactly what we insist on doing. And there are those who cannot... to borrow another colloquialism... handle the pressure. There have been some recorded instances of individuals in isolation, such as those who work aboard refueling and layover stations, who experience a phenomenon of emptiness."
"Yes. They wake up, have their coffee, stare out of the window beside their desk. But instead of seeing a busy street with cars and buildings, or a lovely field under a blue sky, they see nothing. Absolutely nothing. An infinity of black. And then something inside them... something fundamental that tethers them to reality... it disappears. It voids."
A prickle of cold spread down Isaac's back. "That's what happened to the man on that video? He caught the voids?"
"I believe in Occam's Razor," Dr. Gao said, "the principle that the simplest solution is likely the correct one. That man's deliberate and emotionless speech, references to nightmares and a fractured reality, his suicidal ideation, all point to the voids."
"He said something about seeing a black corridor."
"Hallucinations are common. He mentioned that 'everyone' saw the black corridor, which is... interesting. Either that in itself was another hallucination of his, or is indeed a shared vision among the other inhabitants of the station. In that case, we might not be dealing with the voids. It could be something else entirely."
The chill down Isaac's back spread. An ugly feeling, dread as black as outer space.
"Did you tell the flight team all of this?"
"I've expressed my concerns to Captain Jansen. I suspect they've fallen on deaf ears. But you..." His observant eyes flickered before looking away. "You seem to have a comradery with him. Perhaps you can change his mind."
"Mich- the Captain's already heard what I had to say. He's going to follow the law to the letter no matter how dangerous it is."
"That is a shame."
Dr. Gao wheeled his chair toward the library entrance. Isaac felt the inexplicable need to put him at ease, to settle whatever nerves he had.
"I can assure you," he said, rising from his console, "there is no part of me, no version of me that would set foot in Vanguard One unless I have no choice."
"That's what scares me, Mr. Zhang-Kallor."
"That you might not have a choice."
-0 Days Until Arrival-
In the looming black, Vanguard One appeared. The Tenjin's searchlights illuminated its structure, fairly large for a layover station, but otherwise unremarkable in appearance. Roughly the shape of four giant skyscraper buildings connected by various commuter tunnels, it was a design of effiency over beauty.
"Hull structure is intact," said Kaysar from the pilot seat. His fingers pivoted from switch to button to lever, ensuring path synchronization and deacceleration worked smoothly with each other. "No signs of damage, impact, or rupture."
Behind him, the flight and research teams were securely fastened to their seats. It was rare for everyone to be present in the navigation room at the same time. Especially for an event everyone was dreading.
"No floodlights," Wheeler observed. "Windows are all dark, too."
"Looks we really are dealing with a blackout," Michiel said.
Duken laughed in a low, weird way. "Or someone- they- maybe they turned out all the lights."
Isaac peered at the medical officer. He was slurring and unfocused, but smiling.
"We okay to dock?" Michiel asked.
Kaysar nodded. "Affirmative. Emergency power is running. The station's orbiters would have destabilized by now if it wasn't. It'll support docking procedures."
"And atmo? Do they still have air, pressure?"
"It's hard to tell by remote," Thea said, "But the station being in one piece is a pretty good sign. Well, good-ish. Your strike uniforms have helmets, I'm assuming."
"We won't know until we get inside, is what you're saying?"
"And bingo was his name-o."
Michiel turned to his pilot. "Set us down."
Isaac gripped his seat's arm rests as the ship began its descent onto one of the station's docking platforms.
Kaysar flicked a few controls. "This is deep space research vessel The Tenjin to Vanguard One. We are commencing manual docking procedures on landing strut four. Repeat, we are commencing manual docking procedures on landing strut four. Please acknowledge." Dead silence. Not that anyone was expecting an answer.
"X alignment on port and starboard is green," Kaysar reported. "Brace for landing."
The ship's landers made contact with the strut. The Tenjin vibrated from the shock, producing an eerie moan that echoed through the corridors.
"Connecting airlock umbilical structure with landing strut four entryway," Kaysar continued.
Through the navigation windows, the crew watched as the ship's airlock extended until it snapped over a sealed door beside the strut.
"Airlock sealed. We're in the green, Captain."
"Good." Michiel unlocked his seatbelt and stood. "Flight team, strike uniforms are in the locker room. Let's suit up."
"And us, Captain?" Dr. Gao asked.
"Thea will be connected to us by our earpieces once we're inside. She'll update you guys as needed. But I'll need at least one of you to act as point of contact in case we run into trouble."
"I'll do it," Isaac said.
Dr. Gao looked up sharply. "No, I will. That responsibility shouldn't fall on such a junior employee."
"All due respect, Doc, the decision's mine to make." He handed Isaac an earpiece set connected to a radio receiver. "Besides, Mr. Zhang-Kallor's got a friendlier voice."
At the deck, Kaysar adjusted audio sensors. "I was hoping we'd get a feed now that we're closer. But their comm channels are still dark."
"And it's been a damn week, too," Wheeler glared at the windows. He chewed the end of an unlit cigar. The closest thing he had to a nervous habit. "Either no one on the station wants their holovid porn that badly or they really are fucked in there."
The flight team filed out of the room not long after. Michiel wanted everyone in their strike uniforms ASAP. Trailing them, Dr. Gao and Remy mumbled vague, non-commital wishes of luck before disappearing back into the research wing.
Isaac stayed behind for a moment and examined the exterior of Vanguard One. From this angle, the structure dwarfed him, making him feel as small as he looked. He'd always been the curious sort, ever since he was a boy, obsessively learning what ever he didn't immediately understand. But as his eyes examined the pitch darkness of the hull's windows, he wasn't entirely sure this was a discovery he wanted to make.
The medical officer looked up from his puddle of vomit on the locker room floor. Bits of it dribbled down his ginger scruff. He smiled, hiccuped. "When we leaving?"
The rest of the flight team was still dressing, half-in and half-out of their strike uniforms, when Duken had unleashed the contents of his stomach.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Wheeler effortlessly forced him back into a sitting position. "Jesus, you drunk?"
Duken tried to stand but only managed to trip over his own two feet. Kaysar swooped in to steady him.
"Hey. We talked about this," the pilot said.
"You're so serious all the time," Duken grumbled. "Always talking... always bullshit..."
"Bullshit? Like don't drink on the job?"
"We leave him," Michiel said as he zipped up the rest of his uniform. It was skintight and dark grey, with blue tubing that ran along the limbs and torso that provided its wearer with temperature relief, depending on the environment.
Wheeler grunted. "Who do you suggest we bring along instead? The egghead with the broken leg?"
"We can't go in with just the three of us." Kaysar had Duken's arm slung over his shoulder. The man could barely stand on his own.
"That's exactly what we're going to do. I'm not risking a research team member in there. They're not trained for this. And you?" Michiel pressed a finger onto Duken's bare chest. "Buddy, we've all tolerated this long enough. Everyone in admin warned me about signing you to the crew, telling me you weren't a professional, that you're a drunken fuck up. But me? I believe a man contains multitudes, so I took a chance."
Duken still had trouble focusing on what was in front of him, but his smile gradually disappeared.
"If you ever feel like proving everyone wrong, I'll be the first person applauding you. Until then? Get to your chambers and sober the fuck up."
The Captain grabbed an assault rifle from the rack Wheeler had set up and pressed it to the magentic seals of his uniform. He left a moment later.
Burning from Michiel's words, Duken pushed off of Kaysar and staggered toward the door.
"I'll help you to your room," Kaysar said.
Duken flung his hand up and down dismissively. "Just go save the damn day already, would you? I know where my room is."
The door slid shut behind him. The two remaining men shared an uneasy look.
"That's fucking fantastic." Wheeler pulled the uniform's lower half over his bulky legs and sealed them to the belt. "The only man who knows how to treat a fatal wound is sauced out of his mind. How UWF hasn't revoked his medical license yet-"
"Hey," Kaysar cut in firmly. "You have no right to judge him."
"I don't? I served in the same war as he did, as you did, as Michiel did-"
"We served as soldiers. Duken was a field medic. He's stared into the faces of things you only saw in passing. If you have any thoughts about how he's dealing with it, I suggest for once in your life keeping it to yourself."
Wheeler stared, stunned. Kaysar had never talked to him - or anyone on the ship - like that before.
They put on their uniforms in silence.
By the airlock, Isaac quietly watched the three remaining flight team members – Michiel, Wheeler, and Kaysar – make final adjustments to their uniforms and helmets. Their tension didn't surprise him, but their silence did, especially Wheeler's.
"Make sure that thing's switched on at all times," Michiel pointed to the receiver strapped to Isaac's hip. "There's extra batteries in storage. Headset working okay?"
Isaac tapped the padded earpiece and mic that extended in a curved line at his mouth. "Loud and clear."
"We'll be keeping up the chatter once we're inside. If you've got dead air any longer than five minutes, shout."
"And if I get no response?"
"Worst case scenario, send in Duken. He'll have sobered up by then."
Wheeler looked like he wanted to say something. He turned to the airlock instead, punching a couple of buttons before the portal opened. He and Kaysar stepped inside. "Ready when you are, Captain."
"In a second."
Michiel gestured for Isaac to follow him a few steps down the corridor, away from prying eyes and ears.
"If you go a significant amount of time without hearing from us, I want you to ask Thea to initiate Hyperion protocol."
"It'll set navigation to auto. You'll be on course to the nearest security outpost. Once there, they can escort you back to Luna station."
"You're asking me to leave you here?"
"I'm not asking, Isaac. I'm telling you as your Captain."
Wheeler stuck his head out from the airlock. "Hey, can we be done with the teary goodbyes? We'll send a postcard."
Isaac wrapped his hands over one of Michiel's. Fingers threaded together, warm even under the ultraprene threading of the glove. "Come back in one piece."
"Roger that," Michiel said.
It would have been a good time to kiss him, Isaac thought, were it not for the helmet or the fact this man was in charge of everyone's safety and, therefore, had more on his mind than a goodbye smooch with a subordinate. But there was a softness in his normally cutting gaze, one that arrested Isaac to the spot.
He watched – because what else could he do? – as the Captain nodded in farewell and joined the others in the airlock. The portal shut and, after a pregnant pause, he heard the entryway into Vanguard One shudder open with a metallic moan. Footsteps. Then another shudder that sealed them inside the station, away from the safety of the Tenjin.
Isaac adjusted his earpiece with shaking hands.
Chapter 3: Vanguard
In the navigation room, Isaac sat in the pilot's chair and stared at the station that towered over their ship. It didn't feel right to be in the library or in his chambers, and somehow the visual of Vanguard One made him feel more in control. If only slightly.
"Tenjin, this is the away team. Confirm your receipt of our audio feed," Michiel's voice said from his earpiece.
"Audio feed loud and clear, Captain."
"Ship fall apart since we've been gone?"
"Believe it or not, the Tenjin was able to survive those ten minutes."
Wheeler snorted. "Why don't we just put the prettyboy in charge for the rest of the expedition?"
"I can hear you, Wheeler."
"Mr. Zhang-Kallor has a feed from all three mics," Michiel explained. "So don't say anything you wouldn't want lasered onto your tombstone."
Isaac heard their footsteps against metal flooring. Repetitive and hollow. "What are you guys seeing in there?"
"Corridors, empty. I think we came in through one of the service entrances." Kaysar seemed more nervous than his two colleagues, his breath out of step with the rest of him.
Wheeler, however. It was like he was taking a stroll through Central Park. "Anyone mind if I light this cigar?"
"Ah, to hell with the both of you."
Something small and mechanical booted up, accompanied by a quiet whine. "The portable atmo reader's online."
"What's it saying, Kaysar?"
"Everything's green so far, Captain. Just as breathable as the Tenjin. Artificial gravity is 1-to-1 terran standard. No unreactive gaseous compounds detected either."
"Meaning the air isn't poison."
"So I really can smoke a cigar in here."
"Flick that lighter and I'll throw you out of the airlock myself."
As Isaac listened to their banter, his eyes traced the towers that jutted from the station base. Intimidating, all hard angles and straight lines. Not a single window light was on. Without any hint of inner life, Vanguard One looked like a corpse, drifting aimlessly through the vacuum of space.
"How's visibility in there, you guys?"
"We've got our flashlights," Michiel said. "There's emergency lighting but it's weak. Like I suspected, there's been a blackout. Doesn't explain the lack of people, though."
Someone winced. It sounded like the pilot.
Michiel continued. "Our first order of business is finding a station map. Then we'll head to the core and reboot all systems. And hopefully find someone along the way who can tell us what's going on."
"Hopefully," Isaac repeated, his voice barely above a whisper.
Duken squinted and glared as the door of his private chambers opened. Isaac walked in, looking healthy and focused – two qualities that seemed impossibly out of reach at the moment.
"What do you want?"
He was surprised by how injured he sounded, like his voice had been shot with a rifle and left by the side of the road.
"Here," Isaac thrusted a glass of something opaque in his hands. "Drink this. You'll feel better."
Duken grudgingly accepted the glass. Isaac sat by the edge of his cot and studied him, the way a nurse would a patient.
"What is it?" He smelled citrus, ginger, and something tropical he couldn't name.
"Best hangover cure in the galaxy. The auto-chef didn't have everything, but it should put the wind back in your sails."
Duken took a sip. It didn't kill him. He finished the rest in one gulp. "Not bad."
He handed the glass over and fell back onto his mattress. The drink was already clearing his head, but the haze in his eyes remained.
"Where'd you learn to make that?"
Isaac started to answer but looked uncomfortable, a slingshot of emotion that came from nowhere, so Duken changed the subject.
"How much did I embarrass myself in the nav room?"
"You've been worse."
"Ah, how flattering." He had plenty of bad mornings, though none that burned him with shame. The morning of a recon and rescue mission, however? In front of his boss, his colleagues? That made him want to swallow a bullet.
Isaac must have read his mind. He said, gently, "They're in the station now. They're fine. And they don't hate you, for what it's worth."
"I'm gonna get written up. Again. Wheeler wanted my head on a pike. They need me in there."
"It doesn't sound like anyone else is on the station."
"Oh, yippee. No wounds for me to dress. Doesn't that creep you out? That we're docked on a place that's completely abandoned?"
Isaac's stare went to the window, where the corner of a dark commuter tunnel was visible. They couldn't see where it ended. "We don't know that it's completely abandoned yet."
Duken laughed, bitterly, without humor. His German accent curled the edges of his words. "Look, kerl, you don't have to act tough around me. At least I knew what I was signing up for. You, though. You went from graduate school to this shit show without a breath in between."
Isaac started to laugh when something drew his attention. His finger went to his earpiece. "Captain?" He listened for a beat. Duken could faintly hear Michiel's deep voice, strangely tinny through the receiver. "Okay, got it. Keep me updated."
"What's going on?"
"It's a complete blackout inside. They're looking for a station map so they can find their way to the core. It's taking longer than they thought. How's your head feeling?"
"Better. Much better, actually."
"Good." The librarian smiled and started for the door. "Tell Thea to ping me if you need something else."
Duken, to his surprise, felt a stab of upset at Isaac leaving. This was the first significant amount of time they had spent together and he rather liked the younger man's company, his easy smile and friendly, non-judgmental manner. Mostly, Duken didn't want to be alone with his own thoughts. But that admission mortified him, so he put on a brave face and nodded.
"Sure. I'll seeya. Oh, whoever you learned that hangover cure from? Tell him I said thanks."
Upon leaving his room, Isaac wondered how Duken would have reacted to the revelation that the magic hangover tonic came from his father, a lifelong alcoholic who died from delirium tremens in a hospital room on Gateway Station. Timothy Zhang had been a charming and intelligent man, but by the age of 55, his demons had claimed him. Consequently, Isaac had never touched a drop of alcohol in his life.
Being the child of an alcoholic made him acutely aware not only of his surroundings but of the people within those surroundings – the timbre of their voices, their engagements with reality, their shifting moods. It was how he noticed, over the week, Michiel's growing stubbornness, the crew's silent anxiety, and Duken's odd behavior that morning. Isaac would have been happier to be aloof and oblivious, but it simply wasn't in his genes.
By the time he returned to the nav room with a cup of coffee, Isaac realized more than five minutes had passed since he last heard from Michiel and the others. Ten minutes, as a matter of fact. Frowning, Isaac engaged the receiver's talk button.
"Captain, this is Isaac. Come in?"
He waited a beat. Silence.
"Captain, repeat, this is Isaac. Report your status."
Outside, Vanguard One stared at him, immovable as a mountain.
"Kaysar, Wheeler, report your status. This is Isaac..." His palms started to sweat. The longer he went without an answer, the tighter his chest constricted. "Thea, radios are still working, right? I'm not actually going crazy?"
He expected a snarky reply, but nothing came. In fact, Isaac couldn't remember Thea saying anything since the away team left for Vanguard One.
"Hey. Thea. We're replacing you with a MU-TH-UR mainframe."
Any reference to a Mother AI usually sent Thea into a furious rant that lasted long after everyone told her they were kidding. But the only thing Isaac could hear was the soft hiss of circulating air.
Something was wrong.
There was always the chance that some minor malfunction had occurred. Maybe the away team finally made it to the station core where radio signals got fuzzy. Maybe there was a dead battery, a broken mic, a disconnected earpiece. And maybe docking with Vanguard One made some imperceptible system somewhere on the Tenjin reboot, rendering Thea offline until some other imperceptible system completed a cycle of something somewhere.
Yes, those were the chances. But as Ship Time continued to tick by, they looked less and less like probable answers.
He checked and re-checked the ship's speakers. Still, Thea said nothing. Rebooting the console in the nav room was also a waste of time. He had no clearance to fiddle with anything else on the ship, systems-wise, only the captain and the pilot did.
Isaac checked in with both the away team and Thea every five minutes for another hour. Then another. And another. Still, nobody answered him. Then the day was almost over and he couldn't take the silence anymore.
He charged into the corridor that fed into the residence wing. Without Thea working properly there were a number of crucial functions on the ship that would be impossible to do. This included their emergency failsafe, the Hyperion protocol, in case things went south.
He really didn't want to think about things going south.
Isaac re-entered Duken's chambers, expecting him to be aware and focused now that his hangover was gone. Instead, the man was sleeping.
"Duken. Hey. I need y-" He stopped at the pill bottle tipped over the bedside table. A handful of small blue tablets scattered across the surface. Isaac nudged the man, felt for a pulse. Alive, but not sleeping. He was unconscious.
Fuck. He really shouldn't have left Duken alone.
Back in the corridor, Isaac tried the radio again. And then Thea. Still, no answers came. He was bordering on panic by the time he reached the archeology workroom, where Dr. Gao and Remy frowned up at him from their research stations.
"The away team, th- they're not answering their radios."
Dr. Gao wheeled toward him, face hardening. "How long?"
"Hours. I- they're-" He was surprised at how difficult it was to form words. "Thea's not working, either."
"What?" Remy shot up from his chair. "Oh, Jesus. You're kidding. This is some sick joke, right? Thea? THEA?"
"Where's Duken?" Dr. Gao shouted above his assistant.
"Knocked out. Pills."
"Remy, be quiet," Dr. Gao warned. "How do we get Thea back online?"
"The only people who know that are in Vanguard One."
"What? This is ridiculous."
"This isn't our job! We're researchers!" Remy removed his glasses and rubbed furiously at his eyes. When he put them back on, his pupils were swollen and red. "Captain Jansen and Ka... Kay... the Indian one are supposed to know."
"His name is Kaysar," Isaac corrected through gritted teeth, anger stinging him. He wondered how Remy referred to him in private. The younger Asian one with the attitude? "And if you aren't going to help, then shut up."
"You can't talk to me like that."
"No, I can't. You should probably file another complaint to HR."
His nerves suddenly gone, Isaac turned on his heel and left the workroom. He knew what he had to do.
There were no other strike uniforms in the locker room – at least none that weren't coated in Duken's vomit – so Isaac chose a flight jumpsuit instead. It was the kind worn by pilots from the training academy Kaysar graduated from, and for some reason a few of them had been left in storage. Faded blue with odd belts and buckles here and there, it wasn't pretty, but it was functional and would keep him warm. There was no attachment for an oxygen helmet, so he'd just have to take Kaysar's word on Vanguard One having a breathable atmosphere.
He caught his reflection in the mirror. He looked like a little kid playing dress up, someone's younger brother pretending to be an aviator or a mechanic. If the situation was anything other than dire he would have laughed.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Isaac spun, surprised, as Dr. Gao appeared at the far end of the locker row.
"I'm going into Vanguard One."
The man shut his eyes. The last thing he wanted to hear. "I told you..."
"I know what you told me."
"And you know what Captain Jansen told you. You must activate the Hyperion protocol and get us out of here."
"Even if I wanted to, I can't with Thea being offline."
"Then get Duken to fix her."
"Duken's a medical officer, maintaining AI mainframes isn't part of his portfolio. He'd be just as clueless as we are."
"He could still go into the station in your place, that's what he was supposed to do before he drank and doped himself up."
"And even if we got him to wake up he'd be high out of his mind. Our crewmates have been missing for nearly a day and our AI is broken. This is an emergency."
Dr. Gao set his jaw, knowing that Isaac was right. Being in a wheelchair with a broken leg, he was in no state to go into the station himself, and Remy would be the last person to volunteer to do anything that wasn't in his immediate self-interest. There truly was no other option.
It had to be Isaac.
"If you go in there, you're going to die."
Isaac stared at him, hard. He was equipped only with what he could find – a few emergency flares, a flashlight, the radio receiver and its earpiece. A bottle of water. The weapons locker didn't work on his RFID wrist chip, and even if it did, he wouldn't have known anything about handling a gun.
"You don't know that."
"I know that you're making a mistake."
Isaac snapped the last buckle into place. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."
He walked all the way to the airlock with Dr. Gao trailing behind, warning and pleading with him every step of the way. Isaac tried ignoring him, focusing instead on what he was about to do. If he were in Michiel's shoes, lost in a vast station with no way to communicate, wouldn't he want someone coming back for him? Wouldn't anyone?
If Dr. Gao had been physically able, he would have thrown himself in front of the portal to prevent him from entering. Instead he was helpless to watch as Isaac stepped into the airlock.
He turned to look at the doctor one last time, seeing the anger and worry stretched tight across his face.
"For a librarian, you're being awfully stupid."
Isaac couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he shut the airlock behind him, finally cutting Dr. Gao out of his line of vision. It was just him now, alone with his fears and rapid heartbeat. He looked at the sealed entrance to Vanguard One and pressed enter.
As he stood waiting for the entryway to rise, he couldn't help but think of Remy's words. This isn't our job. The research assistant was right. Isaac was being paid to make sure books, journals, and articles were discoverable, that information could be accessed at anyone's request. Nowhere on his job description did it mention investigating the disappearance of his colleagues on an abandoned space station. He had no frame of reference for this task, no education, no training. Only instinct and the shaky notion that he was doing what was morally right. What choice did they have on the Tenjin? Wait, starve, and run out of oxygen?
The entryway into Vanguard One parted to reveal a dark passageway, minimally lit with red emergency lights that intermittently blinked. Isaac took a deep breath, switched on his flashlight, and stepped inside.
Chapter 4: Abandon
Isaac stepped into the darkness of the Vanguard One entryway. His stomach lurched, every part of his being requiring micro-adjustments to the change in atmosphere and setting. The beam of his flashlight crawled over the ultrametal surfaces of the floor, walls, and ceiling, revealing nothing more than a utilitarian corridor that snaked into directions unknown.
If he hadn't forced himself forward, his body would have been content to stand at the sealed entrance forever. The corridor – undoubtedly some kind of service tunnel – was intermittently illuminated with the red flash of emergency lights bolted onto its walls. The radial symmetry was hypnotic, coaxing Isaac further into its dark labyrinth.
Relax, he told himself. Breathe. You can do this.
A nice, encouraging thought, but in practice he wasn't sure it held up. He had three crew members to find in a vast, multi-level dungeon floating in the hostile vacuum of outer space. Could he actually do this?
Isaac followed the corridor with slow, halting steps until he came across a junction. The hall split in two directions with signs helpfully pointing to each area: maintenance access on the left, and, somewhat disarmingly, a food court on the right. With visions of a creepy, wet boiler room in his head, Isaac went with to the right. He supposed it made sense for Vanguard One to have a food court, given that a layover station was essentially a giant mall with a hotel attached to it.
He pushed through a heavy set of double doors and found himself standing in a vast, pitch-black room. Small tables and plastic seats were scattered in front of him. Isaac heard the sound of churning water before his flashlight beam caught the fountain twenty feet away. Surrounded by fake trees, it definitely screamed 'food court' to Isaac, as did the empty brand-name fast food storefronts that lined the room's oblong perimeter. After months skulking around The Tenjin, it was startling to be in a space so wide. It was the sort of space that didn't make sense without any noise or activity or people.
Isaac swallowed a rising lump in his throat, moving quietly as he traced his flashlight beam along the empty room. Where was everyone?
The fountain sputtered mindlessly, ignorant of the emptiness that surrounded it. Isaac drew a curious finger across the water's surface. Pleasant and cool to the touch. He wished he was back home, on Earth, taking a bath. If only.
Isaac wiped the damp finger across the canvas material of his jump suit just before he heard something, a soft hissing somewhere above him.
He looked up and found a vent set into one of the walls. Air rustled through it. Isaac blinked, then sighed, relieved the noise's source was something so mundane. But it made him wonder, why the station's atmosphere and oxygen systems were online but the lights were dead.
With nothing left to do or see in the deserted area, Isaac looked for an entryway that would take him deeper into Vanguard One.
The man who called himself Mr. Midnight looked up from his comfy seat in Vanguard One's central control room when one of security monitors lit up with activity.
"Again?" he asked aloud. For a station that was essentially dead, it had seen its share of visitors the past couple of days. Most recently, there was that trio of men that came from landing strut four. What was that ship they docked called again? The Ten Cent? The Tenjin? Whatever. It didn't matter. They were all easy enough to take care of. Mr. Midnight's gorgeous little pet made sure they didn't get too close to his secrets.
But even a few days before The Tenjin docked, Mr. Midnight noticed another cabal of men had invaded Vanguard One, his precious castle. They wore armored suits, wielded swords, and had strange, garish markings on their faces, like war paint. He'd never seen anything like them before and had no idea what they were doing on his station. Some sort of roving warrior group? When he listened in on their conversations, he surmised that they were looking for his pet – they wanted to capture it, fight it, or kill it. Mr. Midnight couldn't, and didn't, let that happen.
He wondered, briefly, if there was some sort of connection between the sword-wielding men and the men from The Tenjin. Was it a coincidence that both groups had arrived in his labyrinth of nightmares within days of each other?
The man took his feet off the dashboard and concentrated on the monitor that fed him footage from Tower 2, the commercial habitat of the station. He hadn't yet allowed power to be restored to Tower 2, so the images were conveyed through the ghostly green of a night vision filter. He could tell some interloper was moseying along the first floor, through the food court and into a feeder corridor that led to the reception and administrative offices.
Confusion quickly became anger. It bubbled in Mr. Midnight's veins, turning his skin hot and red. How could this keep happening to his beautiful Vanguard One? Why did these strangers keep invading his space, his home, his kingdom? Who was this hooligan? It couldn't have been another one of the sword-and-war-paint men, they had been kept to Tower 3 and thoroughly slaughtered by his pet. Nor could it have been someone from that rude Tenjin trio. The last he saw of them, they were in no position to be standing or walking.
The anger cooled until it became resignation. He would have to forsake his carefully cultivated atmosphere so he could see the face of his new enemy. Mr. Midnight wanted to enjoy the sight of this intruder dying, painfully, and begging as the life drained from their pathetic body.
The more Isaac explored, the less comfortable he felt. A station of this size just shouldn't have been so silent and empty. It was unnatural, and deeply uncomfortable.
He froze as a deep hum echoed from somewhere in the station. He was in a nondescript hallway that followed a short set of stairs he found just north the food court. Signage overhead indicated that he was about to enter reception and administration. He'd been wondering if that's where Michiel, Kaysar, and Wheeler had ended up when a series of lights blasted overhead.
Isaac threw an arm over his eyes, squinting and blinking at the sudden, startling brightness. The power was back on. But how?
Feeling a sudden need to get moving, he rushed until the passage opened into a large, ornate lobby. His boots echoed on the marble floor as he spotted a reception desk beside a bank of elevators and behind several leather lounge chairs.
Hope surging, Isaac raced to the desk's console and tapped the power button. If Vanguard One's holonet was operational again, he'd hopefully be able to read the employee and staff pings and solve the goddamn mystery of the mass disappearance. But the console just beeped mournfully before going back to sleep.
So the lights worked but the communication devices didn't. Why? Something about the whole situation felt oddly deliberate. Like he was being watched from the shadows by someone with the power to pull strings. It was an unpleasant and paranoid thought, and once it entered his mind it was difficult to dispel. Even beneath the jumpsuit, which felt more restrictive now than it did when he first put it on, his skin was covered in goosebumps.
The reception desk itself was a disaster, the chair overturned, spilled coffee that was now dried and sticky, and a mess of pens and office accessories scattered across the teak surface. Who was working here and why was everything in a state of disarray?
"Mysteries, mysteries," he muttered, absently tapping his flashlight against his thigh.
He thought about trying the console's power button again when he heard someone cry out.
Isaac didn't hesitate as he ran toward the source of the sound. He slammed through a door, down a narrow corridor, into what looked like a collection of offices and administrative spaces. The voice came again, closer now and definitely male, groaning in tremendous pain.
"Who's there? Can you hear me?" Isaac called.
"Huh- help! Isaac?!"
Isaac shot through the open-plan office, noting in his adrenal rush that it was a slaughterhouse, equipment shattered and broken, exposed electrical wires spitting white sparks, and dried blood spattered against every possible surface.
"Jesus Christ." The words escaped his lips as he searched the office in a frenzy. There was more blood than he'd ever seen in his life. It stank, too, metallic and rotten.
Closer, Isaac could hear the suffering in the man's voice, and nearly jumped out of his skin when a crimson hand lurched from the floor and grabbed his ankle.
He could have fainted. The Tenjin's largest, toughest crew member was sprawled on the carpet, his strike uniform shredded. Exposed skin was cut and bruised in painful splotches of yellow-ish red. Isaac couldn't even begin to imagine what could have done this to such a big man.
After some moments of struggle, he helped bring Wheeler into a sit, propping him up against an overturned desk. His eyes, swollen and black, finally connected who he was seeing.
"Hey pretty boy," he managed to say, coughing.
"Wheeler, what the fuck – where did – how-" The words escaped in jittery, panicked slivers. He stopped himself and tried to breathe. He didn't normally have to be the strong one on the crew, that was Wheeler's job. "How bad are you hurt?"
"How bad do I look?"
"Being honest right now might actually kill you."
Wheeler tried to laugh but only managed another painful, wracking cough. "Bastard."
Isaac gave him the water bottle from his satchel. He watched as Wheeler drank, noting that he didn't appear to have any open wounds. The copious amounts of blood everywhere didn't come from him...
"What happened? I stopped hearing from you guys hours ago."
Wheeler finished the bottle in two huge gulps. "We got separated."
"After we noticed our radios weren't working anymore, it was the weirdest damn thing. The power came back on, lights and locked doors opened. But after a while, the power cut again. Kaysar was in another room at the time, checking things out, but when the power failed the door slammed shut and locked all on its own. Michiel wanted to circle back around and see if we could free him from another room somewhere. I wanted us to stay by the door in case it opened again. Michiel said no, he didn't want to stand around. He left, and then…"
Wheeler's voice disappeared, as did something behind his eyes. A memory was scratching to the surface, bringing with it a quiet, devastating trauma. "Then… I heard something… in the room. With Kaysar."
Isaac suddenly felt cold. "What do you mean, something?"
"I couldn't see it. It sounded big, heavy. Tall. I heard Kaysar's screams… I heard… I just ran, okay? I ran because I was hearing something really fucking bad. And the power kept going on and off, on and off. And it was following me. I didn't want to look behind me. But I could hear it following me. I couldn't find my way around, I just ran and ran - it was like a nightmare. Then it grabbed and threw me or I blacked out here, I don't remember."
Wheeler shivered at the raw memories. Isaac took him by his shoulder and knee, two places where he wasn't injured, and held tightly.
"Hey. Stay with me. You're here now. It's okay."
"Nuh- no." His head shook. Spit and blood shook off his face. "Not okay. We have to get out of here. Back on the Tenjin. Get Thea to take us back the fuck home."
"Where's the room you said Kaysar was trapped in?"
"NO." Wheeler shot forward, innate strength blasting through his physical pain. He grabbed a handful of Isaac's flightsuit and balled it up in a bloody fist. "You're not going back there."
"If there's a chance he's still alive-"
"Tell Thea to take us home!"
Wheeler's desperation and madness was startling to Isaac. He was so cool and stoic usually – just what exactly had reduced him to this? Isaac explained, reluctantly, about the situation on board The Tenjin, how Thea had gone M.I.A. Wheeler shook his head and laughed, a strange, almost childish giggle.
"We're fucked," he said, his voice at its highest register, "We're fucking fucked."
Mr. Midnight had thrown a switch. It was that easy. He smiled, watching power return to Tower 2 room by room, corridor by corridor. Many lights blinked and hesitated, too damaged to properly illuminate. Of course. The initial panic that he incited on Vanguard One a week ago turned the station's residents into panicked mobs. He delighted in watching them turn against each other as they were picked off one by one. There was resistance, there was struggle, gunfire and death. And the station's infrastructure suffered for it. Unfortunate. But necessary.
On the monitor, Mr. Midnight watched a young man in a pilot's jumpsuit stop dead in his tracks as overhead lights burst into view. The jumpsuit hugged his body pleasantly, revealing a lean, athletic frame.
Not what he was expecting at all.
Unlike the previous intruders, who were brutish, hairy, and ugly, this one had silken, almost androgynous features. His appearance pointed to both East Asian and European ancestry, with sharp green eyes and dark hair that fell over his forehead in a beguiling wave.
It was rare for him to be so utterly transfixed by another human. He liked this new feeling, the way someone's appearance made his stomach twist and his heart race. He continued to watch the young man adjust to his bright new surroundings. He observed steps being taken, confused glances being thrown, questions being shouted that would never be answered. The innocent confusion only stoked Mr. Midnight's lust.
As the attractive stranger entered Tower 2's reception area, Mr. Midnight's eyes wandered freely down his body. He wondered how he would feel, secure in his arms, as the boy pressed himself against Mr. Midnight's strong, muscular frame. The mere thought drove him crazy.
Mr. Midnight decided right then and there that this new player in his dark game wouldn't be another victim. The young man would be a playmate. His playmate.
Smiling again, he leaned back in his seat and ran the scenarios through his mind. He'd make sure all the pieces and players fit together in the correct order. He would make them. There were knights and pawns in Mr. Midnight's kingdom… but he was more than a king, he was their emperor.
And once everything was in its rightful place, he could finally open the Black Corridor and show everyone how meaningless their lives truly were.
Chapter 5: Disorder
Isaac had just entered Vanguard One's commercial retail bay when he thought he heard something behind him. A rustling or a scuttling, something hard and sharp against metal. His flashlight found nothing but empty space. He wanted to call out, ask if it was Wheeler following him, but he knew that was unlikely. The big man had passed out not long after Isaac informed him that Thea had malfunctioned. Whether it was shock, blood loss, trauma, or all three, Isaac couldn't say. He wasn't a medical professional. Isaac had debated what to do for several agonizing minutes before deciding to leave him with another bottle of water, search for Kaysar and Michiel on his own, and hopefully return with better news. Wheeler still had his weapon on him, that enormous assault rifle, which Isaac didn't even think about taking. It was safer with its owner. Guns scared him, and he didn't know the first thing about safely handling one. I'll come back soon, he'd said to Wheeler's resting face. I promise.
Whatever he heard in those dark corners, it had been his imagination. Apparently.
Isaac's gaze returned to the area he'd just entered, a large, multi-level collection of retail stores. Layover stations had to generate revenue somehow, and fatigued space ship crews eager for new distractions were a fruitful (not to mention captive) audience.
The lighting didn't seem to be at full capacity here. Overhead lights were off and only a handful of the retail storefronts seemed to retain power, and even then, their neon signs struggled and sputtered. Isaac kept his flashlight forward as he advanced. Much like the administrative offices, everything here was trashed and looted. He couldn't see any blood, thankfully, but a rank odor filled his nostrils, like rotting meat exposed to the sun.
Grimacing, Isaac advanced up the unmoving escalator onto the second floor. The smell was even worse here. He forced himself to speak.
"Michiel? Sir? Are you in here?"
Only the soft hiss of circulating air answered him.
Another noise made him jump nearly halfway up the nearest wall. A metal door, somewhere in the distance, either bursting open or slamming shut. A survivor? Then he caught moment out of the corner of his eye, a shadow flickering just out of sight. Isaac's flashlight roamed until it found the display window of a clothing store. Naked, featureless mannequins stared back, betraying no emotion.
Isaac's heart thundered in his chest. He could have sworn he saw someone moving. Did they go inside?
He edged passed the security gate, his boots crunching broken glass. The clothing wracks were largely empty, as if the store had been ransacked, and a few more mannequins with torn shirts and missing limbs had been thrown carelessly to the ground. Somewhere near the back of the store, an overturned lamp blinked erratically.
"Hello?" He repeatedly, only this time he could barely breathe. The rotting smell was stronger than ever here, and when his flashlight beam caught the bloody, wide-eyed face staring back at him, he immediately knew why.
A corpse sat a few feet away. Isaac had initially mistaken it for a mannequin, but as he got closer he saw the body's dead, cataracted eyes, its grey skin webbed with veins that no longer functioned, and the deep gashes that raked through its midsection to reveal torn flesh and broken bone. Its face revealed the corpse to be male, one who died in utter agony, his face frozen in a rictus scream of pain.
Isaac threw a hand over his mouth, overcome with the sight and the smell hitting him at once. His first time seeing a dead body... and it hadn't been a gentle death.
He tumbled backward. He needed to leave, get back to Wheeler, back to The Tenjin. The feeling that he was way out of his league was faint before, but now it thrummed in every vein and synapse of his body like a thunder storm.
Isaac started to leave when he saw something standing a few feet away from the entrance of the store. Something, not someone, because this figure was taller and stranger looking than any person he'd ever seen. Cloaked in shadows, he couldn't quite make out the details, but its limbs were long and powerful looking, its skin like black oil, and even though it seemed to be crouching, it easily towered over him.
As his flashlight crossed the figure's screeching, alien face, Isaac knew his life would never be the same.
No. This was wrong. This was all wrong.
Mr. Midnight stood from his chair, furious, white hot flashes of rage burning his eyes like fireworks. His pet wasn't supposed to be in Tower 2. It was certainly never supposed to cross paths with his new playmate, the pretty young man in the tight jumpsuit. His pet would kill the man, or secrete him to that mystery chamber that Mr. Midnight couldn't get into, to do whatever it did to those unlucky souls it didn't outright murder.
Either way, Mr. Midnight's playmate was being stolen right out from under him. He made the rules, damn it. Pets were supposed to obey.
Heart pounding, he paced across the control room, trying to clear his mind and think calmly. Could he do anything to save his playmate? He wouldn't get to Tower 2 in time even with the commuter cab running at full speed. Could he turn off the power again? In environments with total darkness, he noticed his pet had a tendency to disappear or even hibernate. But would that even work when the animal was trailing active prey?
Time's a ticking, he told himself, his mind's voice a lilting falsetto, Act now or he dies in your kingdom, Emperor.
Mr. Midnight had one hand over the switch to turn off Tower 2's generators when something on the monitor made his breath stop in the middle of his throat.
Without a second thought, Isaac spun around like lightning and raced toward the exit at the back of the clothing store. Behind him, the hideous, terrible thing followed, its clawed limbs tearing up the floor as it gave chase. It was unlike anything Isaac had ever seen before, and too much for his mind to take in at once. His flashlight had only illuminated its black, glistening form for a few moments, but it was enough: the grotesque dorsal fin-like head, the metallic, disturbingly human teeth seeping with viscous fluid, the encased exoskeleton of its midsection, the segmented tail that ended with a razor barb...
Most unsettling of all was the creature's lack of eyes, and how despite this handicap it was still able to see directly into Isaac, as if it could register his beating heart. The alien – for that's the only thing it could have been – seethed with hatred. There was no other way to describe it. It seethed. It could only have existed to hate, to disembowel, to destroy. One glance was enough to understand that its only purpose was death.
Isaac slammed through the back exit and into a short hallway and toward to a door at the very end – marked EMPLOYEE WASHROOM. The alien behind him screamed. Isaac doubled his speed, expecting at any second to feel those long, disgusting claws slicing through his back.
He pushed the washroom door as hard as he could, relieved beyond belief that it easily swung open, and shoved it closed with all his might. A split second after throwing the deadbolt home the beast heaved itself against the ultrawood frame. Startled, Isaac flew backward, landing hard on his butt and spilling the contents of his messenger bag.
BAM! The alien hit the door again. The frame splintered, not yet giving, but it was only a matter of time. Its shriek reached an angry crescendo, so high and deafening that Isaac couldn't think straight.
His panicked hands grabbed for something – anything – he could use as a weapon. The spilled items on the floor seemed hopeless against the clawed death machine: bandages, an empty water bottle, an emergency flare.
Fuck, his mind screamed. I don't need a flare, I need a fucking flamethrower!
The door buckled. Its hinges screamed loose. He had only seconds.
Isaac's hand found the disinfectant medical spray. A tiny handheld bottle, an aerosol nozzle, nothing even remotely capable of stopping -
Isaac's shaking hands uncapped the flare's tube container and struck the exposed end against the lid, like he was striking a match, just as he had been taught during mandatory spaceflight emergency training. Orange-red sparks burst from the tube as the washroom door finally exploded inward in a shower of broken ultrawood. Isaac only caught a glance of the creature's ugly, hateful lips pulled into a sneer before he pressed the aerosol nozzle to the flare and unleashed a brilliant stream of hot, blinding fire. Suddenly it was all Isaac could see, a pyrokinetic wall of orange and red white. Beyond it, the alien halted in place and shrieked again, its anger no match for its primitive instinct. Isaac kept his finger on the aerosol nozzle, pressing until he felt bone, not daring to let his fiery shield down.
He pressed and pressed until the can ran out of disinfectant spray and the flare's sparks died. By then, the monster of a million nightmares had long since disappeared.
Mr. Midnight couldn't believe what he had just seen.
The pretty young man hadn't struck him as particularly strong or even clever, yet he had managed to outmaneuver and successfully defend himself against a perpetual death machine with legs. But it only served to make his playmate that much more appealing. A survivor's instinct... it might even prove useful.
Mr. Midnight began to ponder his next move when a flash of movement from one of the monitors caught his eye. A man. Someone he hadn't seen before. It wasn't his playmate, he was still cowering in that washroom, visibly traumatized from meeting the alien creature. And it wasn't another one of the original Tenjin trio...
His eyes narrowed at the image of the armored man navigating Tower 2's service tunnels. Something was strapped to his back, long and metallic. A sword.
"That piece of shit," Mr. Midnight pounded the console table with a clenched, reddened fist. Another one of those bastard knights who hijacked the station a week ago. What were they called? Knights of Cen... Centauri? Impossible. Surely his pet had done away with them by now. This one had probably been hiding and only emerged when the power came back on.
Urgh. This new player to his game, this knight, was going to royally fuck things up. It was only a matter of time before he'd meet the young and handsome playmate. It was inevitable, they were simply too close to not cross paths. The knight would probably try to steal him away, play the dashing hero, and then attempt to make an escape.
A cruel smirk curled Mr. Midnight's lips. Escape. A hopeless thought if there ever was one.
Isaac didn't know how long he stayed in that washroom, shaking on that cold floor. Minutes, or maybe hours. Time took on a frozen haze when the mind and body were in shock.
A beeping noise emerged nearby. Confused, he looked up and saw a hospital bed, and in that instant he was in a clean white room. The beeping came from a monitor, attached to the unconscious man carefully tucked under the bed's crisp linens.
Isaac rose from the floor, confused, but somehow entirely clear of mind, as if this was always meant to happen. He approached the bed just as the man's bloodshot eyes opened in tandem with his mouth. A painful, furious scream emerged from his father's throat. Isaac shoved his hands against his ears and stumbled backward until he hit something cold and metal and-
A partition. A men's washroom partition. A sink, a mirror, items from his satchel still scattered across the tiled floor. He was back where he was supposed to be.
But his dad had been so vividly there. He could hear the low, mournful wail, could still smell the alcohol on his breath...
Distant footsteps drew him back to reality. He waited for several moments, listening. It wasn't the alien creature. The footfalls sounded human. Another survivor?
"Michiel," Isaac whispered. Or hopefully Kaysar. Or even just a random survivor. But he really wanted to see his Captain again. Not just to be under the gaze of his warm, comforting eyes, but to feel some form of reassurance. Isaac rarely felt safe around other men, but he knew Michiel was capable and strong. He would know how to get them out of this batshit crazy situation.
Please be alive, he begged. I can't do this by myself. Please, please, please.
He gathered his fallen items and re-entered the hallway. He saw no traces of the alien, aside from a slimy, transparent sludge its hands and feet – if you could even call them hands and feet – left on the floor. The viscous trail went right, so Isaac chose left, praying that his fellow survivor could be found in the same direction.
Isaac walked until his legs ached, and then he walked some more. If he stopped moving, he risked becoming easy prey for that nightmare creature, whatever and wherever it was. At this point he had no idea where he was on the station. He tapped his receiver a couple of times but his radio, predictably, wasn't working. Someone had probably set up a signal dampener, he thought. Probably the same whackjob who kept messing with the station's power.
Then he smelled something. Forest and fresh soil. Something reeked of Earth, but he couldn't for the life of him understand why. When Isaac pushed into the next part of the station, he understood.
HYDROPONICS & GARDEN SECTOR was the sign that stood proudly above the entrance to a giant room full of vivid green flora. Isaac clicked off his flashlight. There was no need for it here, the room was bright white between the trees and vegetation. Hydroponics was a standard feature of any station, where the oxygen and nutrient production was a necessary life support process.
Isaac felt a sense of calm for the first time since he boarded. His trembling fingers brushed crisp, wet leaves. He filled his lungs with pure air. Breathed in, breathed out-
-and then a man grabbed him from behind, pulled him back against a tree and covered his mouth.
"Shhhhhhhh." The man he couldn't see roughly silenced him.
"Get off me!" The words left Isaac's mouth but they were stifled behind the man's hand. He was wearing some kind of thick, plated glove, almost like a gauntlet. He struggled against the man's grip, but he was far stronger than Isaac. His outfit felt like it was made of the same material as the gauntlet, covered in heavy, protective plates. This wasn't the strike uniform worn by the Tenjin's missing crew. Isaac could see the profile of a chiseled face from the corner of his eye, followed by a strong jaw and a stubbled cheek. It was no one he recognized. This man was a stranger. And he was wearing...
Armor, his mind whispered. Like a suit of armor.
The next thought that crossed his mind seemed so outlandish, but he couldn't help but make the connection. Was this a Knight of Centauri? Were they real – and had they actually boarded Vanguard One?
Although the man held him in place, he didn't seem interested in subjugating Isaac. Rather, it was a gesture of protection. After several breathless moments, his hand lowered.
"Be quiet," he warned.
Isaac wanted to yell out and cry, but his words escaped in whispers. "Who are you?"
The man's other gauntlet-covered hand pointed to something off in the distance.
"Look," he grunted.
Isaac's blood froze when he saw it. A glistening black figure crawled across the garden's domed ceiling. The alien. It was coming their way.