Chapter 4: Cold Welcome
Shell thought her presumed host was an astronaut in a spacesuit at first glance. Despite the proportions of the suit being similar to the spacesuits she had seen before, the pack was much smaller and hung from the small of the back. The suit itself had ISA's logo on the shoulders, but the helmet itself was empty underneath the lifted visor. The empty head of the spacesuit had a camera, speakers, and microphone protruding from it arranged in a crude facsimile of the human face. Where the suit began and machine ended, she had no idea.
"Welcome, Dr. Penrose," the robot said in its crudely synthesized voice. "I am Central Control, the AI of the base speaking through Service Unit 42 and your personal guide. Your ID says it is my priority to escort you to Operations, and then to the Mediator. You may call me Central,"
"Hello, Central," Shell said, awkwardly waving. "Where are the other people?"
"No other registered human visitors are present in this sector. Once we arrive at Operations, I can run a full scan of base population if you would desire."
"So this entire base is automated?"
"Yes, but it was intended from the beginning to provide habitation for humans and lycanthropes."
Shell eagerly nodded. If ISA had developed von Neumann machines or sufficient automated industry, it was little wonder how they had been able to construct such a base on a distant world covertly. All they would need would be a lycanthrope to open the way, and perhaps an initial robot or set of machine tools to start the fabrication process.
What Shell could immediately tell from the aesthetics around her was they were drastically different from the transport she had arrived on. Gone were the soft aesthetic white walls and bright lights, replaced by engraved shapes of burnished bronze and dim illumination. The power conduits and pipes were worked into the decor, their presence betrayed only by an occasional access hatch. Something rattled within the walls, causing her to momentarily glance to the side. The hall stretched on long before her, before terminating at a distant wall of similar make.
Shell could not suppress the gasp from her lips as the scale of the place became apparent. While she could only see a long hallway with metal bulkheads on either side, its length hinted at the cyclopean grandeur of the colony. Buried under the blood-iron sands of a forsaken planet was a subterranean estate that few would ever be aware of, much less behold. In however long or short her life lasted, she felt a hollow comfort in being able to experience it. She felt as though she had stepped into an underground Art Deco palace, awaiting only the proper signal to return to life. Only a slight feature marred the corridor's appearance. As Central walked, Shell noticed a layer of dust kicked up by the robots not-quite-human gait.
"Been a while since anyone cleaned around here, Central?"
"This is the primary airlock and port sector, so it is logical that dirt would accumulate here. However, it should not be harmful to you."
"That's reassuring to here. How many people are in this base?"
"I am not at liberty to disclose that. But in addition to the human staff, there is a complement of drones fully able to staff the base in their absence. This base is ISA's primary exoplanetary outpost, so no expense was spared in its construction."
"This rock doesn't look too impressive to me."
"Appearances can be deceiving. In addition to research performed at this base, automating mining is able to recover rare earths, such as iridium, from nearby impact craters. Typically, when a lycanthrope guest departs for Earth, the transport is loaded with data updates and ore for processing."
"They probably can't fit much into that tiny thing to make it economical, unless I'm seriously underestimating either its size or the costs."
"This venture is not solely about cost. It is about discovery."
Discovery of what was the question that did not escape Shell's lips. The dearth of activity and movement in the corridor aside from Central and herself was not what she expected from a structure undoubtedly as massive as the rest of the outpost. If ISA truly had constructed an automated space colony with architecture with the grandeur beyond any historical colonial palaces, she expected to see at least another living soul. Of the many things that did not make sense, that was one of them. She supposed that if they depended on lycanthropes for transport, then there was a natural bottleneck to the number of people available on the base at any time. The fact the transport craft she had arrived in had substantial cargo storage hinted at the fact that humans were largely extraneous to the process.
"Central, can I ask you something?" Shell asked.
"What is your question?"
"How long since the last lycanthrope visited here?"
"I am not at liberty to disclose that. Sorry," the robot said in an oddly almost human apologetic voice.
"How long will my mission take?"
"It may be highly variable. The Mediator is extremely busy."
"Tell me about him, assuming it is a him."
"The Mediator is the administrator of this colony, and I am not at liberty to disclose more."
"Then what can you disclose?" Shell asked as she ceased walking forwards. Part of her yearned to see how far she could push the machine's simulated patience before the facade of civility was dispensed with entirely. Another part of her wanted to see just how much punishment the robot's suited body could take. She guessed that whatever mission ISA had sent her on would have much more to it than a simple briefing. If an offer sounded too good to be true, it was.
The robot turned suddenly, pivoting at an unnatural angle as if expecting her to resume walking. The intelligence guiding the construct opened and closed the helmet's visor, as if to get a better look. Her instincts registered the peculiar angle of the robot's cameras at her face like a technological glower. Its authority had been challenged, and Shell knew the interesting part would be coming soon. She tensed herself for any coming events, tightening her grip around the wrench in case she needed it. While she had a much more powerful form waiting at her behest, she fired saving energy would be in her best interest.
"I can disclose that the mission is simply beyond this door. I understand you may have reason to distrust ISA, but my priority is simply to ensure the continued survival of this station," Central said in a conciliatory tone as the robot's hands were raised and empty. "I will go ahead of you, if you wish."
"Please, do so."
The robot said nothing as it bounded towards the circular bulkhead at the terminus of the corridor, each step reminding Shell of a ballerina. She wondered if such a machine could function in Earth gravity, but doubted it. As the door began to open, a blinding sea of light flooded the corridor. Central walked into the opened doorway and began to turn around. She shifted her own cadence into a hustle and entered what she presumed to be Operations.
As soon as Shell passed through the entrance, her instincts began screaming at her. While she saw no other movement in the room, she immediately sensed that something was amiss. The center of the room was a metallic cylinder wreathed by winding staircases on either side, with opaque windows obscuring the innards. The gaudy decor was overwhelming with that light-saturated central chamber, as it was engraved in a manner clearly evocative of a rocket-ship on a launch pad. She had no doubt that the central structure was the control center, as it dominated its surroundings like the panopticon's guard tower. Whatever transpired within was as enigmatic as what said beyond the other three bulkheads.
"No response from Operations, so commencing manual check," Central said. "Please, remain behind me."
Innately yearning for comfort in numbers, Shell followed behind the robot as it began to climb the stairs towards the entrance.
"The primary Operations room designed with its own atmospheric systems, so that it continue functioning in the event of a catastrophic failure," Central said, continuing its explanation as thought to calm Shell's nerves. "Often times, we use cathode ray tube systems and other analog electronics here due to greater radiation resistance."
Two automatic doors slid opened after the robot pressed a panel on the wall. Shell could easily see how the anemic space between the doors could act as an improvised airlock, but it was what laid beyond them that piqued her curiosity as her heart rate rose. She smelt the warm and fetid air that rushed to greet her nostrils, and touched the smoothed metal on the inside.
The interior of the room was underwhelming contrasted with the exterior. A dozen empty swivel chairs sat ringed around desks containing an anachronistic combination of bulky and flat-screen monitors, all completely blank and unpowered. Desktop computers and antique dial phones sat side-by-side. Nothing had stirred within the room for a long time, as a thin layer of grit was undisturbed the floor and furniture. A small cubicle sat in the center of the room, with the title "Mediator Howard Carter" on its opened door.
Central stood outside the door, raising his visor and then closing it. "That was...unexpected."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Shell asked as she pushed passed the machine and into the office.
What Shell first noticed was an office like the others surrounding it. A blank computer screen sat beside a cluttered desk. A space helmet of a style like the one comprising the robot's head sat beside a keyboard stained with an unidentifiable substance. The primary difference was that the chair was occupied. Assuming the figure was the Mediator, she turned the chair around to see the man she was supposed to meet.
Something metallic tumbled to the floor as the chair turned around. Shell looked down to see a rusted revolver tumble to the floor below. The Mediator was clad in a spacesuit identical to Central's, save his helmet was removed. As she looked at his head, she immediately knew why. His flesh had rotted away a long time ago, leaving only a mummified husk that his microbiota could not digest. From the wound atop his skull, she could easily tell that the Mediator had shot himself. Empty eye sockets stared at her as a lipless and skeletal mouth smiled at her as if welcoming her. It was out of surprise that she shoved the corpse back as terror swept over her body. She grabbed the revolver from the floor and leveled it at the robot. "Talk, or you're next!"