Imperial Research Center Crimson, 3565 Standard Calendar
The station had been hidden inside a dense asteroid field on the outer edge of an isolated system. There were no habitable planets around the blue star. The single human presence was a lonely refueling station that orbited on the other side of the giant sun in the habitable zone and closer to the main trade routes. Few ships ever came around to that field.
To further protect it, the research lab could only be reached through a single path calculated in the confusion of rocks crashing perpetually one upon another. The central station’s computer updated it constantly on a tiny satellite outside the field. Any newcomer had to know precisely where the satellite, only three yards wide, was to request from it the entry point and the course that led to the docking port. Going in without that path could only result in instant death. But when a ship reached the asteroid, an impressive sight rewarded it. The station had been built inside one of the larger rocks, fifty klicks wide, and the docking area was a deep cave that, from the outside, looked just like the den of a fantastic beast. Coming in at the correct speed, the ship was grappled and secured to the walls while exit tubes allowed passengers to reach the inhabited section. Two great caves, one for a hydroponic farm and the other for the research labs, had been dug with all the living quarters and control rooms between them. Gravity here was artificial, using a tiny singularity, a stable black hole, to disrupt the normal continuum of space. If some constructions of the Imperium were of grandiose scale, this one was an intimate cocoon of rock, protected, self-sufficient, capable of sustaining life indefinitely.
In the central control room, at the highest level of the inhabited part, a tall woman, beautiful and muscular, sat in a cozy chair, legs crossed, frowning at an array of consoles in front of her. She was dressed in a classy dark suit that contrasted with her pale silver skin. Her long dark hair was tied in a long braid. She wore a diamond necklace and a matching bracelet. Both had been crafted to highlight one star surrounded by four planets grouped in a ring, a symbol that could also be found on the ceiling above her. The room itself was decorated with paintings hanging on all walls over a wood flooring. A large window on one side overlooked a vast garden with apple trees, flooding the room with natural light. On the other side, another window showed the different labs from above. In contrast, the console was nearly dark, with a very few lights blinking here and there.
A door opened silently, and a man walked in without a sound. He was tall also, and there was a haunted look in his eyes when he approached the console. His eyes were deeply set with sorrow and he wasn’t shaved properly. She had known him to be muscular in the past but found him beefy today. Brother, you aren’t spending enough time at the gym! she thought in sudden disgust.
“Sister? You called me?” he asked in a muffled voice, and the words sounded harsh, as if he hadn’t spoken in a long time.
“We’ve got visitors.” Her voice was soft and musical, yet calm and betrayed no emotions. With a delicate handshake, she called up a large 3-D image in the middle of the room. In it, an Imperial battleship was blasting rocks one by one, pushing its way forward into the field toward them.
He circled the projection for a few minutes before muttering angrily. “Are they joking? Are they really trying to force their way through?”
“If they continue like this, they will find us, sooner than you’d think.” She was upset by the whole setup. She hadn’t expected to find herself trapped and chased by her own soldiers. Yet, she remained focused on the current situation.
“No, they won’t. Fools. Do they know who they attack?” He was shrieking now. “Do they know we are their emperors?” He had always liked being the older brother, playing at war.
“They seem to. They are sending threats on all channels, asking us to surrender the antidote. Maybe we should.” Guilt gnawed at her still. She showed him the video they had sent. Ten men and women, visages changing shape every few minutes, were shouting barely coherent instructions. Their nanites, a red cloud of minuscule robots only visible with her enhanced awareness, had taken hold of them and they had barely any sanity left.
“They’re too far gone. We can’t cure them anymore.” His analysis was clear, reason coming back to him. His voice had gone from anger to utter coldness in a second, and he began giving instructions. He had activated his own nanites, and a dark cloud of nanorobots extended from him into the console. Sharp and quick orders were given there on the enemy’s bridge. The crowd milled around, lost in its own madness. “They are our own forces, betraying us, turning againt us. Where are our defense forces? We should have fighters on guard.”
“Brother?” She looked at him in surprise. “The Imperium has crumbled into ashes in the last years.”
“What?” The look of surprise in his eyes could not be feigned. After having lived for so long, they had developed a way to clean away cumbersome memories. This time, her brother had gone too far, denying reality.
“We don’t know what happened. People lost control over his nanites suddenly. Some went berserk and killed everyone in sight. Other were eaten away, becoming nothing more than drops of water. Nanoplagues erupted, killing everyone in sight. Always that red swarm of bots you see on the screen.”
His eyes focused more, his hands now meshed into the console by the dark nanobots. “Yes, I’ve been working on those red bots for a long time now.”
“We are isolated here, in our most secure center. We tried to send the antidote back, but the madmen blew our ship on its way.” Somehow, they had survived the fall of the Imperium thanks to those people. They had no way back to their capital. What happened? Why did their nanites get so out of control? Why such madness? Everything seemed so quiet and stable. She had asked these question over and over, pouring over records with her console while he looked for an antidote in the gene labs. “The same kind as this crew, probably,” she added with a sigh.
“No pity for them then. Our team was unarmed, on a relief mission. Death unto their murderers.” His rage was now ice, burning cold, his eyes wild. She couldn’t bring herself to explain to him that forty years had passed since the beginning of the downfall and the murder of their crew.
The battleship had stopped a full light-seconds outside of the asteroid field and launched a plasma bolt every minute in their general direction. At a command, twelve explosions sent asteroids directly toward the ship, all converging to intercept at the same exact time. He also launched a missile from the station, hiding it behind the rocks. Her brother adjusted in an easy fluid movement the sequence of operations and took a step back, watching.
“Won’t be long now, little sister. Don’t worry.” His smile was wolfish. She had never liked that part of him, the bestial predator lurking behind the bright mind and the charismatic personality.
The battleship began blasting the asteroids into shreds, which created a swarm of little rocks heading their way, masking the missile. The rocks couldn’t breach the ship’s armor; they flew by, leaving it intact. But the missile detonated at close range, breaching the hull and destabilizing the singularity. In a split second, the black hole collapsed upon itself, carrying the ship with it. She looked at the main clock. Only half an hour had elapsed.
She looked bitterly at the empty space. “Here goes the last remaining battleship of the Imperium. All we worked so hard to build, leaving us in a ball of fire. Back to the beginning.”
Her brother began to laugh, first a cackle and then a burst of mad guffaws. He left her bridge without another word to her to bury himself in his research laboratory once again.
She sat alone, tears in her eyes, looking repeatedly at the last images, red robots flying madly everywhere.