The Galactic Graveyard

Summary: Across the cosmos, explorers from Earth have found nothing but the remains of extinct alien races. Engineer Iritana Muldoon and Professor Max Burrows aim to find out what wiped them out, before Earth joins them in a galactic graveyard.

Out of the Silent Planetoid

Iritana Muldoon muttered a curse in Maori while shoveling her last shells into her shotgun. The dim, flickering lights illuminated the rusted metal corridor around her like an insane disco. A humanoid figure moved beside her, temporarily evoking a primal panic until she recognized her comrade. To her right, Professor Max Burrows rushed though the corridor, frolicking whimsically in the microgravity.

The folds of his khaki smart suit enveloped him completely, protecting the lean scientist from the lack of atmosphere and temperature. The augmented reality overlay depicting his pale-skinned, brown-haired head was the sole indicator of the bespectacled xeno-archaeologist beneath. For a moment, Iritana found solace in the fact her cybernetic augmentations absolved her from the need to breath, eat, or sleep.

Iritana could still feel the stone-cold chill of the derelict station. Despite the white clouds of vapor that would regularly issue from the byzantine tangle of pipes on the walls, the outpost's heating system had almost entirely succumbed to the void. It was only the redundant systems that kept even a thin atmosphere present in the habitat. The durability of the remaining infrastructure was a mechanical testament to the toughness of Butlerian engineering. Compared with the scientists who once dwelt within its walls, the current inhabitants had little need for such trivialities.

"I'm almost out. How about you, Doc?" Iritana asked, futilely hoping her companion would have more ammunition.

"Saved the best for last, Iri," Max replied with a wide grin, popping a red cylinder onto his Tyrannosaur revolver. "After this, afraid I'm down to just the kukri."

"High explosive gyroks," Iritana said as her olive-skinned face formed a confident grin. "Good on ya, Doc. Just don't bring the whole place down."

The skittering of flailing limbs against metal echoed from around the corner. Iritana leveled her weapon at the makeshift barricade of old furniture and fallen shelves, which buckled ominously as something smashed against it from the other side. She knew they had lingered too long, with their enemies finally deducing their position. She mentally readied herself for the torrent of hostiles about to penetrate from the other side.

"At least we're near the exit this time," Max half-whispered over the radio. "How far to the surface?"

"About a hundred meters to the stairwell, assuming we can sprint through them."

Iritana saw the Professor's relaxed grin fade into a look of terror. The barricade buckled again, and Burrows lost all traces of the false bravado he had just moments earlier. His cyan eyes widened and reddened. His posture shrank from tall and confident to hunched and defensive. Despite the revolver and kukri on his belt, he crossed his arms over his chest as if shivering in an invisible blizzard. Just as he started to crouch down, a grin returned to his face.

"I'm going to take Verdun, Iri, so you might want to stand back."

"Oi, you suicidal, Doc? We're almost out!"

"No, but the odds are against us if we approach this conventionally. We don't have the ammo to blast our way back to the shuttle. The only alternative is to attack."

"Well, as long as we get away," Iritana said. Silently, she wondered what went through the Professor's head sometimes. Just around the corner, she heard the barricade buckle. "Not many scientists I know can fight like you."

"An unarmed scientist is improperly dressed."

It was then the Professor's augmented reality display shifted. His face reddened, his eyes bulged, and his teeth clenched as the nano-drug flooded his nervous system with simulated experiences. The grip around his revolver tightened into a clenched vice-grip. He trained his weapon at the corner just as the barricade buckled one final time, and gestured for Iritana to do the same.

Iritana flipped the lever in one hand, chambering a shell manually and switching to semi-auto. Her vestigial limbic system urged to exhale, but her current body did not have a traditional respiratory system. Joints within her limbs moved in ways contrary to all her human reflexes, bracing themselves for the combat that was sure to come. Her range of vision expanded to include spectrums closest to visual, her sense of smell was heightened to ultra-high sensitivity, her body was buffeted by small haptic devices vibrating with respect to micro-radar readings, and her sense of hearing could hear the distant scratching in the walls as if it were directly in her ears. With adrenaline fueled tunnel-vision setting it, she knelt in position by the corner.

"Ah, wave assaults. So charmingly predictable with them," Burrows commented.

"'Cuz they work," Iritana said.

"And if it works, why change?" he asked as he spun his revolver's cylinder.

The barricade broke as it finally succumbed to the siege of the adversaries outside. Iritana's finger slid down the trigger guard and onto the trigger. For a second, the imagined tide of enemies failed to materialize. The Professor's face turned from an insane berserker's grin to a teeth-clenched portrait of disappointment. She heard scratching from behind a nearby wall, and the lights went out in the room. It was then the enemy came.

In the newly-darkened storage room, Iritana caught frantic glimpses of her foes as they stampeded through the door. They were clad in decade-old lab wear and jumpsuits, clothing that was barely identifiable as such. Their skin was virtually freeze dried and mummified due to years of exposure to frigid near-vacuum conditions. Gray, budding growths sprouted from swollen patches of sagging skin.

Their formerly human faces were the most unnerving feature for Iritana to gaze at. Many were partially decomposed, while others were almost entirely consumed by the cotton-like substance growing on other parts of their bodies. In their hands were makeshift weapons, rusted blades and crude firearms made from piping. They were the researchers and staff in a previous life, but now reduced to spore-filled husks seeking to infect or destroy all intruders.

Iritana ended the travesty of their existence with the thunderous report of her shotgun. Explosive buck dropped a pair of rotters unlikely enough to emerge into her field of fire first. She though she saw something bright behind, her but kept focused on the swarm of techno-fungal abominations bearing down on them. The silence that had existed before had given way to a manic charge that echoed through the rusted hallway outside.

"Doc, move it!" she prompted.

More partially digested forms greeted them further down the hallway, scrap-metal knives and war-clubs raised high. These had slightly more sallow skin, as fullerene hyphae ran through their bodies like exposed veins. Paying no heed to Iritana's gunfire, the rotters emitted a war-cry that consisting of the shrill trumpeting of air passed through decomposing vocal chords. Her shotgun thundered repeatedly, sweeping anything in her way. The effort seemed entirely futile, as every fallen rotter was replaced by two more.

Iritana's AR HUD suddenly flashed crimson as a small rocket hissed through the corridor, vaguely reminiscent of air escaping a balloon. Realizing what it was, she buried her face in her hand and leapt back as it blasted past. A split second later, it exploded.

Iritana did not need to watch to realize it had detonated, as her sensors reminded her of the pressure wave. She waited for a moment after the gyrok had detonated, savoring the sounds of silence in the hallway. The Professor stood smiling and proud of himself as he surveyed the carnage.

"I waited for them to commit their full numbers," he said, crushing a rotter's head with his boot. "They're behaving dumber than normal. You'd think with this many of them, they'd have more brains for their distributed neural network."

Iritana looked behind the Professor and saw evidence to the contrary. The bright flare of plasma torch exhaust fizzled as sections of wall melted like ice in the desert sun. Cold metal cylinders protruded from the walls as she realized what she had to do. Burrows confidently strolled through the blood-splattered hallway, ignorant of the fusillade of gunfire trained at his back. She threw herself at the scientist, activating micro-thrusters and artificial muscles as the simultaneous discharge of pipe-rifles reverberated throughout the corridor.

A moment of paralyzing pain crossed Iritana's back and side as she crumpled to the floor beneath her. Somewhere under the immobilized bulk of her prosthetic body, Burrows moaned softly as he raced to comprehend what had just happened. As her damaged senses rebooted, Iritana grasped the wrist of the Professor's gun-hand and pressed on his trigger finger. While confused, his combat drug tweaked senses immediately knew what to do.

Iritana almost forgotten how the discharge of the gyrok at point blank range began so softly. The rocket engine within the bullet accelerated, slamming into the nearby wall and blasting superheated slag at the undead gunners on the other side. Like its prehistoric namesake, the Tyrannosaur revolver had a loud and powerful roar. The explosion followed was decibels higher than the musket volley and would've blown out her eardrums if she had been baseline human. The fact that Max's head was enveloped safely in his suit had briefly escaped her mind, until she lifted her fingers from his ears.

"The bastards were distracting us," Burrows muttered as he climbed back to his feet. "But good thing you spotted them, eh?"

"Doc, we've gotta move. Every second we wait here gives them more time to get us."

"Once we're on the shuttle, we'll all be laughing about this."

"We need to get there first, Doc," Iritana said, probing around the corner with her shotgun. "Whatever we pulled from that server better be worth it."

"Oh, it already is! Now, we just have one hallway between us and freedom," the Professor drew his kukri in one hand and revolver in the other. He let out a shout and sprinted ahead of Iritana. "Charge! C'mon, do you want to live forever?"

"Yes," Iritana said, annoyed. "But guess I chose the wrong field for that."

Her statement was punctuated by another gyrojet round detonating somewhere down the corridor. Burrows' artificial courage sent him darting ahead into enemy positions, and Iritana knew she had to catch him before the rotters got him. His high-pitched, kamikaze shriek and laughter resounded through the station as she pursued him. Nothing but dead rotters and maimed limbs was left in his wake, a fact made all the more disturbing when she recalled his total lack of formal military training.

Sprinting through the freshly slain remains of a pack of rotters, Iritana saw the Professor standing blindly in the middle of the hallway, black blood dripping from his kukri and smoke rising from the barrel of his revolver. An uncharacteristic sadistic grin crossed his face as he fired the last few bullets at unseen targets before him. He paused for a moment, the killer personality acknowledging her with a brief head-nod. She pulled him back behind cover as a barrage of gunfire

Craning her neck, Iritana could see all that stood between them and freedom was a thirty-meter entrance corridor. The airlock was jammed opened, but a line of prone rotters reloaded for another volley. Behind them, the distinctive shuffling of rotters converged from nearby hallways. If the rotters could not infect them, they were smart enough to destroy them. Quick estimates put the enemy surrounding them from all sides, funneling them into the kill-zone. At the same moment Iritana could see a pack behind her, the Professor's bloodlust waivered. His nano-drug could not permanently suppress a three-million year old survival instinct. He fell to his knees began to shiver, as his brain finally forced itself to cope with the very real possibility of his own death. Iritana fired at the closest rotters, but knew she had to make her last shots count.

"Doc, behind me!" she shouted over the staccato pounding of gunfire. "Ya ready, mate?"

"O-oh, no," Max raised his hands over his head as he began sobbing. Verdun could overwhelm even augmented nervous systems, as it was intended to motivate transhuman soldiers on suicide missions. "Make it stop!"

A bullet grazed her calf as Iritana stumbled towards Max. Ignoring his sobbing and whining, she tossed him over her shoulder. Reflexes honed to perfection on the rugby fields of Waitangi Station descended upon her as she knew exactly what she had to do. Turning her empty shoulder and shotgun to face the firing squad, she charged forward with a war cry of her own.

"Utu!" she shouted with the fury of a haka line. The gunners did not react to her ostentatious display until she closed the distance, leaping to their feet and drawing melee weapons. They clustered in front of the broken airlock door like swarming vermin, but Iritana paid them no heed. Their bullets ricocheted off her armored torso as she charged, leaving only hornet-stings of pain to mark their passing.

The rotters bore a far heavier cost for opposing Iritana's assault. As she gained ground, her shotgun barked its last few rounds, an agonizing appetizer for a fatal main course. The cyborg plowed through the first rank of them without stopping, trampling one underfoot. With a quick pivot, she rammed her shotgun through the neck of one rotter and pressed the muzzle to the one behind it, using her last shot to blast its deformed skull into a soggy paste of fungal growths and eroded bone.

"What's going on?" Max asked, his senses undoubtedly twisted beyond natural limits. A well-aimed axe blow was stopped after she swung Max around, using his flailing legs to kick the beast in the head. Her mad flurry of blows forced the crowd apart as she forced her way into the damaged airlock. She grabbed the Professor's kukri and swung like a mad dervish. Gangrenous limbs flew through the air, as their bodily fluids forming into nearly perfect spheroids in the microgravity.

The door had been stuck opened when they had entered, but Iritana had a highly effective style of dealing with malfunctioning machinery. Rotters began to climb over each other, trying to force their way into the closet-sized airlock at the edge of the station. Feeling the cold, clammy hands of the technological undead on her shins, she unceremoniously dropped Burrows. Hacking at them with the kukri, she smashed her other hand into a busted control panel. A lucky rotter managed to climb through, just as the airlock door closed and smashed its head into a pink pulp.

For a moment, Iritana expected the rotters to start burning through the walls to continue their relentless pursuit. A quick check of the research station's schematics showed that was indicated unlikely. Recalling how the infection spread, Iritana knew they'd have to spend at least a day in decontamination after being exposed to rotters. The pressure in the airlock began to equalize as the Professor's mental fugue cleared. She bent down to help him up, but he leapt up after recognizing the dolphin-shaped shuttle nearby.

"W-what happened?" he asked. "I remember the drug kicking in and-"

"Had to get you out after it wore off," Iritana replied, walking towards the shuttle. "But we made it. Shuttle's ready to go."

"Thanks to you," Max Burrows said, tagging after her. "But I just noticed something interesting while recovering."

"Like how abusing combat drugs isn't good for your brain?"

"But they did helped us get out," Burrows replied.

Iritana did not care to correct him as to how they complicated their escape, as her curiosity drove her to listen patiently. She sealed the doors to the cramped shuttle and began to run down the launch checklist. Diodes on the instrument panel came to life as the engine purred to life.

"Anyway, I skimmed over their last experimental record. Before they quarantined the place, they reported the outbreak started amongst those studying Overfactor artifacts."

"Just like Ashton Habitat."

"Precisely," he said as a contented grin appeared on his face. "More interestingly, the contaminated artifacts came from the same dig site as Ashton and were delivered by the same ship."

"Those cunts again," Iritana said. "Look, Doc, you really think those dodgy artifact dealers are worth chasing?"

"If my theory is right," Max paused and exhaled deeply. "They aren't just smugglers, but accessories to the greatest attempted murder in history."

"And what murder is that?"

"Why, the attempted murder of civilization itself. All transhumanity is at risk, and we're the only ones who can stop them."

Iritana would have asked Max to elaborate, but she was in no mood to discuss violence and death after their recent brush with death. While the Professor undoubtedly had a lecture he was eager to give, she decided to keep him in suspense and let his interest shift back towards more mundane concerns. As the shuttle pulled away from the desolate planetoid, Iritana stared off into the black void projected onto her cockpit. Reflecting upon the dead and desolate void, she could not help but shake the unsettling possibility that the Professor was right.