Many years ago the oracle at Fadelfea made a prophecy. The artificial intelligence there analyzed a collection of badly damaged artifacts found during construction at the station. The oracle then broadcast a single short message before going silent: When the skies are streaked with fire, beware creatures which swarmed like ants upon the earth, for madness follows. Having no supporting evidence to substantiate or interpret the oracle’s obtuse claim, the system filed the message with no consequence.
I was with the rabbits when I saw the meteors. There was a burrow a hundred yards from the station and when there was a break in the maintenance schedule I went there to unwind. I moved slowly until I was crouched among them. They knew I sometimes brought leaves from plants they liked and I watched as one circled around my feet, anticipating treats. They were the only animals I had ever seen up close or touched.
I heard several deafening cracks in rapid succession. A group of meteors streamed across the daylit sky above. They quickly disappeared behind the canopy of trees around me. I sat very still and listened, but there was no sound of impact. The rabbits continued eating at my feet. The wind blew gently in the leaves. And I concluded the rocks must have burnt up in the atmosphere.
I needed to get back to work. I walked through the thick underbrush towards OP 756. The station was rooted at the crest of a ridge, bordered by a lush valley and surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of dense forest. Its purpose was to relay communications from the northern outposts to the more populated control centers in the south. My job was to make sure it operated at peak efficiency. And the maintenance schedule called for me to get to work cleaning the power cells.
The next three days passed normally. I was the only one at OP 756 and each day was busy. It wasn’t until the end of the maintenance cycle that I had time to visit the rabbits again.
I could tell something was wrong as I approached the burrow. The rabbits were there, but the brush in the area had been disturbed, trampled by something much larger. The scene put me on edge. Something had intruded on my sanctuary, threatened the rabbits. I scanned the area for proximity beacons, but there was no one there. It was unlikely there was anyone within 100 kilometers of the station. But something had been there.
From across the valley a storm rumbled closer. The weather was supposed to get rough that night. I had to get back to secure the station’s equipment. As I walked back to OP 756 I kept looking over my shoulder through the heavy underbrush.
Night fell and the storm intensified. Lightning flashed dangerously close to the station. The wind whipped through the dark trees. I walked the perimeter to make sure everything was battened down. That’s when I saw it.
At the edge of the treeline, in the underbrush, two eyes shone. A flash of lightning illuminated a dark figure crouched beside one of the large trees. Another bolt of lightning struck dangerously close, followed immediately by a deafening crack of thunder. I heard a loud creaking sound, looked up, and was suddenly running towards the shadow at the edge of the forest. I crashed into it, knocking us both deeper into the woods as a large branch crashed into the ground where it had been waiting.
I shook my head clear and looked down at the figure. It wasn’t moving. I picked it up and carried it back to the station as the storm continued. I laid it down on the floor in one of the storage rooms on the generator level, where it was warmer. It was an animal, like the rabbits, but it looked like us. It didn’t have fur like the rabbits, but wore fabric around its pale frame. Its skin was dirty and pulled tight across the bones in its face. Its eyes were sunken into its skull. And one of its legs was badly torn. Blood seeped into the cloth around the wound.
I waited in the dim light of the storage room, feeling helpless. I’d never seen an animal like this before. Hours passed before it stirred and opened its eyes. Suddenly it scrambled away from me as fast as it could with its injured leg, slamming into the wall behind.
“I can’t see. Turn on the lights!”
My system popped strangely as I heard audible language for the first time in many years. I instructed the station to bring the lights up in the room to daylight levels. The talking creature stared at me, pressing itself against the wall. I was intrigued, and concerned. It was agitated, breathing heavily, and obviously in pain.
Of course. Rabbits need water. I got up and walked out to the entrance of the station. The storm had weakened into rain showers. I grabbed a metal container and caught runoff from the station’s dome in it. Seeing some of the plants I knew the rabbits liked to eat, I picked some leaves and brought everything back to the storage room.
The animal drank and cautiously tried chewing on one of the leaves. But it was exhausted and was soon sleeping, curled up in a ball on the floor. I left it there to rest while I started the day’s tasks.
All day I was preoccupied thinking about it, where it came from, and why I had never seen anything like it before. I didn’t know animals could speak like this one. There were so many questions running through my head I was slower than usual and didn’t finish my maintenance until nearly sundown. I quickly gathered more vegetation and went back to the storage room.
When I got there it was sitting in the corner, awake. It tensed up when it first saw me, but relaxed a little when I laid the leaves in a pile within reaching distance. Its dark eyes were fixed on me as it chewed on a few leaves it held in its soft, pale hands. After it was finished, it shifted position to sit up straighter and puffed itself up.
“Come here.” -----
I found myself crouching directly in front of it. I could see all the scratches and bruises on its face, and the dirt still clinging to creases in its skin.
“Where am I?”
“Outpost Station 756.” My voice was scratchy and metallic from disuse.
“How long was I asleep?”
It asked many questions. Each time I answered audibly, automatically. I was in some sort of trance or lower level of processing. I couldn’t help myself. This animal was different. The rabbits never spoke. They never made me feel like this.
“What exactly are you? Show me -----
The animal was asleep in front of me. A dirty, curled up mass on the floor. Everything around me had suddenly shifted. I felt tired. I checked and 37 minutes had passed without me knowing. My log showed access to all sorts of information about OP 756 and myself.
My casing had been opened. That was impossible. No one could open my casing without my consent. But there was an entry in the log. It showed I had unlocked myself, been vulnerable in front of this strange animal thing.
I got up slowly and walked to the door, confused and empty. Something was terribly wrong. I walked into the corridor, paused, and locked the hatch behind me.
I tried to work, but I couldn’t keep my mind on what I was doing. All I could think about were the questions it asked, the information I’d provided, the danger I’d been in. Whatever this thing was, it shouldn’t be here. It could make me do things I would never think of doing, and if it learned how to use the communications relay to contact the outside world…
I had to be very careful. I would collect some more food, leave it in the corridor and open the door remotely. Maybe it would leave on its own, or I could lure it away from the station without getting too close.
With a large bunch of leaves in my hands, I went down to the storage room. I crept up to the small window in the door to see if it was still sleeping. Suddenly there was a crash against the other side of the hatch and its face appeared in the window, ugly and pale. It screamed at me.
“Open the door!” -----
I was inside the room, holding the leaves out to the creature in front of me. Trying to placate it.
“Don’t ever lock that door again.” It looked sick, exhausted from the effort. Water streamed down its face. “And stop with the goddamn weeds. I need -----
Everything reeled and shifted. I felt shaken, panicked. I looked down at my hands where the leaves had been. They’d transformed into a lifeless mass of fur, dripping with blood. A wail escaped me and I looked wildly at the monster in front of me. Its eyes were fixed on the rabbit and it reached out to take it. I moved to push the creature away but was suddenly paralyzed mid swing. It grabbed the meat away, exposing my blood-soaked hands.
The last thing I saw was its cold, wet eyes glaring at me as it clung to the carcass. I slammed my vision sensors off and disabled my audio systems. Deaf and blind I scrambled back, away from the nightmare towards the door, crashing into the wall before I found it. I stumbled down the corridor, up the stairs and onto the main floor. I pictured the monster dragging itself behind me, reaching out to control my mind, steal my will. Desperately I threw myself through the plate glass wall of the station and crashed blindly into the forest.
Trees bashed against my metal limbs. My body was flung down into the underbrush. But I kept pushing away from the monster, afraid if I opened my eyes it would be standing in front of me, waiting.
After several minutes, exhausted and damaged, I fell against a large tree and stopped. The dark silence in my head was heavy and claustrophobic. I waited. Finally, I turned my systems back on and slowly opened my eyes. I looked down at my hands. And for the first time, I cried.
Now I sit watching the station from the forest, knowing the monster is still inside. Weak and sick and terrifying. The weaker it gets the stronger it pulls me towards it. Making me want to help it. Feed it. Save it. Prophesying the subordination of my mind and will for its own. Pulling me into madness.