The system search had been a dud. After spending close to a week surveying the planets and their many moons, the crew had come to the conclusion that there was nothing that they could discover among them, at least not safely.
One of the gas giants had a series of a couple of dozen moons, one of which was large enough to support regular life, and indeed, it had a passable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. There were what might have been structures on its surface, long eroded and gone into disrepair – or might have been old hills, hollow and pockmarked. Despite the atmosphere, the radiation levels on the moon would have been downright deadly to any of the crew, and they didn’t have any atmospheric probes handy.
The rest of the worlds were quiet, and free of any detectable life-forms. Given that the ship was not well equipped to land and take-off from anywhere with appreciable gravity, more direct exploration was not in the cards. Thus they had returned to the outer reaches of the system, hovering near the spiky ball of a hyperspace gate and the strange, oblong structure that they were all referring to as a space station.
Ahrottl and Gerry were pouring over the records that the drone had produced of the station. The structure was one and a half cubic kilometers in volume, rectangular and blocky, and made of what appeared to be a nickel-iron alloy. The probe had discovered large spaces on one side that suggested docking bays, and several darkened circular panels that might be ports. Visible light would not penetrate them – at first – suggesting shutters.
The remarkable thing, however, what had them excited, was that after making a few passes around the station, the probe had noted power output in the form of visible lights. Reviewing the holo records, the crew had originally noted whitish lighting flooding the docking bays, and some of the circular panels on the outside of the structure.
Ahrottl manipulated the image of the glowing panel, wiggling her whiskers in frustration. It looked like there was the ghost of an image inside of it. “I swear, Gerry, I think they’re windows.”
Gerry nodded. “At first I thought that they might be guides or warning lights, but I can see what you mean. Tommy, can you bring the probe around to one of them?”
“Yes sir. It will take a few minutes.” Tommy replied. They continued to turn the images that they had every which way, examining them idly while they waited.
“So what do you think?” Ahrottl asked.
Gerry shrugged and pushed his glasses up his nose. “I still don’t think we should go inside, if we find a way in. Sending the probe in would be safer.”
“Would you let an alien probe into your space station?”
“Would you let a bunch of aliens into your space station?” Gerry retorted. “I wouldn’t, unless we’d established some kind of communication. We’re receiving no signals from it yet, at least none that we’ve been able to identify. It looks like the lights are on, but nobody’s home.”
They watched as the probe scanned the surface, occasionally coming across strings of the unfamiliar script. “What if they don’t try to contact us?” Ahrottl asked.
“Then we try and have the AIs contact them. Failing that, we send a probe inside, if we can. Then…”
“The probe has arrived at one of the windows.” Timmy pointed out. Given the image that was now showing, no one was questioning his use of the term.
The circular port seemed to be roughly two meters in diameter, and a soft whitish-yellow light was being emitted from within it. Ahrottl and Gerry could see clearly inside – what appeared to be beige, tiled ceramic floor, and what could only be high-legged and high-backed couches.
“I don’t think that we’re going to be hearing from them.” Gerry said in a raspy voice. He took a shuddering sigh, and Ahrottl stilled at what he was pointing out.
As the perspective of the image shifted, she could see figures splayed out across the floor. None directly beside the window, but further in, where she could make out what was probably the juncture of a corridor. Bodies, almost certainly. Two long arms, two long legs, trunk, and a head. To Ahrottl they looked like…
“Humans? Are those humans?” She asked in wonder.
Gerry squinted. “No, they can’t be. It doesn’t make sense.”
“But it does look like humans.”
The door of the bridge slid open. Maria, shaking sleep from her eyes, stumbled out. “What’s this? Ohhhhhh…” Her gaze followed theirs to the images on the holo from the probe. “They look like Vessels.”
Both Ahrottl and Gerry turned around to her with quizzical looks. Vessels, in the context off humanoid beings, was the term used for the vat-grown bodies that the Awakeners employed. Bereft of sentience and self-will, these husks were used as transportation and tools to manipulate the environments of their fungal creators. They resembled humans and Zig closely with a few key differences.
“You’re right. Their knees look like they bend the other way.” Ahrottl pointed out.
“Unless someone was trying to hobble them.” Gerry added.
“They don’t look decomposed. Could this have been recent? What happened in there?” Maria asked. “They sure don’t look like they’re sleeping.”
“Considering dried circulatory fluid on the floor and walls, I’d have to agree.” Mother Sueprior said primly. “As to age of the bodies, we won’t be able to tell unless we examine them more closely.”
Maria shuddered and Gerry grimaced. Ahrottl stayed stilled, but for her whiskers, which were making furious figure-eights as she thought. “Could this be an Awakener experiment gone wrong?”
“Hull metal composition is similar to Awakener make. There is no other indication of their indigenous technologies, however. The lighting, for instance, is far brighter than is their preference.” Mother Superior supplied.
“Also, the Awakeners aren’t exactly known for resorting to physical violence. The similarities may be coincidental.” Maria noted.
“Maybe.” Ahrottl was unconvinced, though. Something was bothering her about the scenario. “Should we check the other ports? Maybe we’ll see some activity.”
“Doubtful.” Mother Superior said. “Remember, the lights on the station were off from the time we arrived until when the probe made its first close sweep, approximately four hours after we departed for the inner system. I would say that it’s likely that we will see similar scenes, or no activity at all, in the other ports. It is best for us to search and examine, though. Tommy? Please move the probe to each of the available ports in turn.”
The five of them watched, mostly in silence, as other windows offered similar views. A collective gasp rose as they witnessed one rise into view with a figure leaning against the glass, trails of dried, crusted blood smeared beside it as though it was attempting to claw its way out into the vacuum. Maria spoke up.
“I’ve seen enough. We know… we know something happened. Shut it off, would you?” The holo vanished. All three organics looked at each other. Maria got up and moved to sit on Gerry’s lap, and Ahrottl scooted over next to the chair, leaning against her knees.
“What do we do?” Gerry finally asked, his voice cracking.
“Try and send a probe in.” Maria said.
“What if that doesn't work?” Ahrottl asked.
Gerry pursed his lips until they turned white. “We try the gate.”
“We have no idea how to use it successfully. It could have killed you – or all of us – last time.” Maria said, frowning.
Gerry shook his head. “If you want to walk into that-“ he foundered for a word.
“Abattoir.” Ahrottl supplied. Both of them gave her blank looks. “Slaughterhouse?”