Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
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by Jonathan Tidball

The arrival at the Mercury Mining Station was uneventful for Captain James Melkin. The ship docked well enough considering the apparent age of the station. Melkin could see the heat scars on the station's outer hull from its proximity to the sun during the later portion of Mercury's orbit. It made the outpost inaccessible from space for three weeks biannually.

Over the fifty-five year run of the mining facility, the station teams had been responding once every cycle of the station's orbit. However, three weeks ago, Earth Station 5, in orbit around Venus, had lost contact with Mercury Mining, in spite of the network of relay satellites that allowed communications even when Venus and Mercury were on opposite sides of the Sun.

Melkin understood his mission well: To assess damages and search for survivors. He had chosen his team carefully to maximize their chances of success.

Maria Sciola, PhD, was the professor who had designed the station's computer. If necessary, she could bypass or repair any damaged components that might have prevented routine communications.

David Arnold was the man behind the machines that drove the mining force on the ground -- the godheads of the mining operation. Since no human could survive on, or in the space of Mercury, Arnold designed robots that could. He had been sent to make sure the protocol robots weren't damaged or defective in any way -- they were the liaison between the station and surface.

Finally, Major Takama Shiro was chosen for her reconnaissance expertise. She was swift and accurate as well as experienced - she had fought in the Venus Wars against the Platform Miners Union Militia when they attempted to rebel. She had been sent as a precautionary measure in case the crew had decided to keep the minerals for themselves.

"Falcon One to Mercury Mining Station," said Captain Melkin into his ship's intercom. "Docking complete. Prepare to have us aboard." Typically, the station would ask how many passengers, and Melkin would tell them his numbers. They would then proceed to the airlock and don their space gear before departing across the docking bridge. Once across, the team would enter the station airlock and disengage their helmets. They would be greeted by the hospitality liaison and would be seen to their rooms for gravity adaptation. Then, they would see the commander of the station and assume their duties.

No one responded to his docking verification. Only the hiss and crackle of the solar wind emerged from the speakers.

"I'll run a diagnostic on the life signals inside the station," said Major Shiro. Her hands danced over the console.

"I repeat, Mercury Mining: Docking operations complete. Prepare to have us aboard," Melkin said again. Still no answer. "Life signs?" he asked Shiro. Sciola and Arnold were getting impatient. They stirred behind the captain in their seats.

"Negative." The major sounded a bit shocked. "No life signs detected. Assessing station integrity."

"We'll have to get the airlock codes so we can board," Melkin said. "Sciola, can you access the station's computer from here?"

"I'll see what I can do," she responded as she turned to the cockpit's side terminal. Her hands began typing fast.

"Mercury Mining: Please allow us to board," said the captain into the microphone.

"I don't think that's going to work, Captain," said Arnold, that condescending tone of his ringing in Melkin's ears.

"Have any suggestions, Arnold?"

"Can we cut a hole in the airlock doors of the station?"

Melkin laughed. "You want to use a standard shipboard welding kit to cut a hole in a door designed to withstand temperatures of over 900 degrees? Great idea," the captain said as he once again tried to hail the station -- this time using the ship's computer. No response, once again.

"Integrity assessment complete," Shiro said. "Life systems read as functioning and ideal for human presence. Everything reads normal."

Melkin nodded, relieved. At least they wouldn't be spending all their time on the station in pressure suits. Still -- what had happened to the station's crew?

"Got the codes for the exterior door, Captain," said Sciola soon after.

"Good. We will proceed with the boarding procedure as normal. Crew to the airlock door." The team left their chairs and went immediately to the airlock where four space suits waited for their use. Melkin was the first to complete his routine, locking his helmet into his suit and checking the oxygen meter before checking the others. When he deemed them ready, they went through the boarding tunnel and to the airlock door of the station.

"Sciola, do your stuff," said the captain, keeping his gun ready and covering the door. Shiro took the other side while Arnold brought up the rear. He was carrying his portable welding tools and hand-held uplink system.

"Finished," she said as the passkey terminal blinked green. The door opened, and the airlock of the station filled the vacuum as the door sealed behind them with a thud.

Melkin felt the artificial gravity turn on.

Shiro started assessing atmospheric conditions. She gave Melkin the "thumbs up".

He unlocked his helmet and began removing his suit. The others did so as well, and, when they were finally accustomed to the artificial gravity, Melkin convened the team for a plan of operations.

"The station has no signs of life aboard, according to the Falcon's computer. But we have to make sure that the assessment is correct. That's the first step. The second is to reestablish communication with ES-5 and inform them of our findings. It appears that no hull damage was sustained since the life systems are intact. Major Shiro, inspect the living quarters. Arnold, you're in the receiving dock to get some information from your robots. Sciola, you and I are heading to the command deck to get some records and get the communications started. We'll communicate over the radios to maintain independence if the station's comm. Links are down. Everyone ready?" They nodded. They were each outfitted with a side-arm in case of danger. Shiro and Melkin carried marine class rifles -- for their own protection, of course.

When Sciola opened the interior airlock doors, the team split and went their respective directions according to the map posted outside. Melkin turned left and walked through the web of hallways toward the command deck, Sciola keeping a constant watch on the maps so they wouldn't lose their way.

The lights were on the whole way. The station was in perfect condition. The weapons caches were intact, the elevators worked perfectly and all the doors opened at their cues. Sciola was a bit perturbed, but Melkin felt relieved. The station had sustained no damage -- and was amazingly well kept.

"What do you think happened to the crew of the station?" asked Sciola, after examining the pristine command deck. "There's no sign of them anywhere."

"Whatever happened to them, it happened outside," Melkin said. "We can be sure of that. This place is golden."

Sciola kept a wary eye at the station as she went towards the station's main terminal access.

Melkin walked the perimeter, checking closets, panels and anything else that might be hiding a clue. Afterwards, he tried to access the station's communication systems. Everything was up and running. He started forming an uplink to Earth Station 5.

Over his radio, he asked the other team members to report their progress.

"I'm in the galley and everything's placid," said Shiro. "The living quarters were empty. The robots are still active here. They're making food." Melkin thought that odd.

"Same here in the receiving dock," said Arnold. "The robots are still doing their programmed jobs. They've maintained their systems. I'm about to access the Slaver here -- I'll report when I'm done."

"See, Maria," said Melkin, "Nothing to worry about."

"But what happened to the crew?" she asked again. "I still haven't been able to access the station's main computer to get our answers."

"We'll find out soon enough. It was probably a malfunction of some sorts with the life systems. Whatever it was it's been fixed now -- we'll be out of this heap in no time." He had to admit that she had a point. There was no sign that the crew had abandoned the station, voluntarily or otherwise; but if they had died on board, their bodies had been disposed of properly.

"Captain, I have a problem," said Shiro over the radio.

"Report, Shiro."

"The cooking bots, they've stopped. They're looking at me."

"They're probably waiting for orders, Shiro," piped Arnold. "Tell them to resume."

"Resume," she commanded. "It's not working. They're getting closer."

"Command stop, say 'command stop,'" said Arnold, sounding a little frustrated.

Shiro did so.

"Was that supposed to work?" asked Shiro. "I'm leaving the galley --" Then she screamed.

Melkin saw Sciola leap in shock at the sound. "The medical robots have sealed off the door to the hallway. They won't move." There was gunfire. "The cook bots have knives, they're coming closer!" More gunfire. Shiro yelled. More gunfire. "It's no use, they're not stopping!" she yelled and then there was static.

"Sciola, stay here," said Melkin as he got up from his chair and went to find Shiro. He followed the maps strictly, keeping a wary eye out for any robots wandering the halls. As he walked cautiously, he heard Arnold over the radio.

"I've accessed the slaver's historical files. I'm downloading the -- Oh my God," he went silent.

"Arnold?" Melkin heard Sciola call over the radio.

"I'm here -- it's just -- it's not what I thought -- I didn't"

"Spit it out, Arnold," commanded Melkin over the radio.

"They killed them -- the robots -- they killed the crew," said Arnold in disbelief. "There's no way -- I never programmed them to --"

"The robots?" asked Sciola, shocked and scared.

"They've declared...independence." Arnold sounded as if he couldn't believe his own words. "Oh my God, no!" he yelled. "Not me, I didn't mean to --" and then his channel filled with static.

"Arnold?" asked Melkin over the radio. "Arnold?"

"The ship!" yelled Sciola. "The ship!"

Melkin had already been going toward the living quarters, but he stopped at the nearest window to see the Falcon leaving the station. What was happening? How was this possible? The ship was a separate entity from the station. There was no way the station's computer could have --

Then he remembered. The station's communication systems had been running when he accessed them from the command deck. The virus -- or whatever bug had infected the robots -- had infected the ship. Or the robots might have boarded the ship. Either scenario was a possibility, but one thing was for sure: His way home was in jeopardy, and he could not survive outside the station to maintain control. He and Sciola were stranded. He heard her crying over the radio. She had lost it. He couldn't blame her.

When he got to the galley, the whole room was clean. The robots were working on the food and everything seemed normal. Nothing was out of place.

"Shiro?" Melkin knew calling her name was useless. She was most likely dead. Melkin approached the serving line and examined the deep buffet. The cook bots stopped their work.

"What is your desire, Captain?" said the bot in its tin can baritone.

"Where's Shiro?"

"Request not recognized. Please rephrase or cancel command."

"Shiro. What happened to Shiro?"

"System does not recognize command 'Shiro.' Possible suggestions: Shiitake Soup, Yamashiro Gerlag. Please redefine." This was getting him nowhere. He decided to leave the galley; perhaps they had taken her to the medical bay. As he exited the room, he saw another door open. It was the entrance to the medical bay.

He walked down the hall to find a trail of blood leading into the operating chamber. He followed it to see something he never imagined he would see in his life. Shiro, still alive, was spread out against the wall, skin pulled away from her body, blood dripping. She was panicked and in shock.

Melkin vomited on the floor -- what little he had in his stomach. A medic bot moved in the corner of the room, displaying a scalpel and syringe. Three medical aid robots cleaned and prepped Shiro for whatever was about to happen.

The bot inserted a needle into Shiro's exposed mammary glands and pulled a sample of blood. It then carefully placed the needle on a side table, picked up a scalpel, and made a long incision in her abdomen. A second bot inserted retractors into the wound and pulled it wide enough for the medic bot to reach in and slice open what Melkin guessed must be an ovary.

Melkin vomited again. The robots seemed not to care that he was present. They continued their procedure with calculated precision.

"Stop," said Melkin through his vomit. "Stop this. You shouldn't do this."

The robots took a sample egg and stored it away in a jar. They did so until they filled twelve jars. Shiro was completely gone. When they were done, they dropped the body into the incinerator. Melkin tried to shout at them, but he was so shocked to see the scene that he was left immobile and inert.

"Fear not, Captain," said the robot medic in a perfectly calm and placid doctor voice. "She will be reborn with your help. Next time she will be closer to perfection. Don't you want to help?"

"This station doesn't have cloning facilities -- what are you saying?"

"I am programmed with that knowledge -- it's my protocol for emergency situations on the station. I am programmed to maintain human life."

"What?" The robot must have had something go seriously wrong. He wished Arnold was here to figure things out.

"This time, the humans will do what we command." The medical aids swept in and removed his gun from his hands. Two more security robots approached from behind him and held him in place. The doctor inserted a needle into his neck and everything went black.

When he came to, he was bound and spread. He saw his skin had been torn away and held to the sides of his body in same way they had done to Shiro. He couldn't feel a thing. He screamed in horror.

"Please, Captain," said the medic bot. "Don't make this procedure more difficult than it has to be." He cut off each testicle.

There was no pain, but seeing what was happening was enough to make him scream louder, a high keening sound that he would never have recognized as his own voice.

"See, nothing to it," the medic bot said. "Dispose of him."

The Captain felt his body discharged from the bonds and fell back against the incinerator shaft. His screams fell silent as his body turned to ash.

Sciola saw the whole thing from the deck's security cameras. She had been shocked into silence. She couldn't do a thing. She was helpless. Just then, the vents opened and the air began to filter from the deck. It was over, she thought to herself as she watched the Falcon disappear into space. She did have to admit, though, the view of the sun from Mercury was astonishing.


© 2008 Jonathan Tidball

Bio: Jonathan Tidball has published over 200 articles and won an Illinois Press Association Silver Award in 2001 for education reporting. Since then, his passion has taken him towards the realms of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.

E-mail: Jonathan Tidball

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