The Breath of a Dead World

Summary: A space explorer awakens under strange circumstances, fleeing unknown creatures.

I woke up in a firefight at the end of the universe. Iridescent flashes ripped through the darkness as gyroks, rocket-propelled smart bullets, sought exposed flesh. Naked and exposed, I wove between rows of stasis pods, seeing the flatlined vitals in all of them. The mummified corpses slept blissfully unaware of the gunfight around them, and enemy pursuing me. In the insane strobe light of muzzle flash and ignited rocket, I saw the weapons held in not quite human appendages. I was lucky to find a supply room, where I barricaded myself inside. I heard things pounding against the door, and then rumbling in the walls. In those frantic moments, I tried to make sense of my surroundings.

I was Doctor Sophia Han, science officer on the Marquis Incorporated Intergalactic Expedition. We'd sought to send a seed-fleet to set up extragalactic colonies, and I stayed behind to set up an outpost on a rogue planet drifting between the Milky Way and our target. We were to rotate in shifts of cryogenically freezing and thawing humans and cyborgs, overseeing the automated construction crew as it produced habitants and ships for us. I'd gone to sleep, expecting to wake up in a bucolic agrarian O'Neill cylinder. With the strangely dense core, it would have a load of minerals.

I saw the light of a plasma torch carving through my makeshift barricade. I searched for anything I could use as a weapon: a signal laser, a utility cutter, or even a heavy crowbar. I saw another exit, and I ran through it. If I hadn't gone full cyborg, I'd have been very exhausted and very dead. I tried to access the nearby mesh, but something tried to access my core systems. I futilely tried to resist, but it was a cyberattack unlike any my own defenses were prepared for.

"A new toy," came the strangely familiar voice inside. "Come play with us."

The shadows down the corridor grew closer. A message played in front of my locked optic sensors. It was part of a repeating signal, being blasted out across the universe with the full power of our reactors. It was Thomas, frantically shouting while two people behind him hastily barricaded the door. "Once the drills reached the core, it started."

He checked behind him, shouldering a bullpup carbine. "First the malfunctions, then the nanoswarms, and now the mutants."

He stared directly at the camera, as though locking eyes with me one last time. "This was no planet. Whatever it was, we woke it up."

The doors behind Thomas buckled. Gunfire erupted behind him. "Stay away. I repeat: Stay away!"

The message cut off, and I knew I never had the chance to stay goodbye.

My locked body did not respond as they approached. I struggled, trying to regain even my emergency reset. Behind me, they slowed. They were utterly silent for a minute, as I wondered what evil things they intended for me. I was liberated from the mortality of age, but dead might be preferable to what they intended.

One of them walked beside me, slowly and curiously. A tendril dragged on the ground behind him. "We will have fun," said that voice.

When I saw his face, I realized why it was so familiar. The thing I saw used to be Thomas, or otherwise wore what remained of his form. I immediately wished I'd died peacefully like the others. The rest of them gathered around me, eager to induct me. That moment was the first and last time I regretted my decisions.