Water long drained away, metal cracked and torn by intruding earth. Curious glazers flitter about, eager to feast on any small prey that may have sought shelter.
No maintenance teams nor utility inspectors tour this region, abandoned since the launches. Scarred ground returning to life.
One small prey squirms quickly beneath the rim of the pipe, avoiding the careful gaze of the glazer above. Wind turns the deathly metal tube into an eerie howl across the plain.
"Immerse yourself in your surroundings," the pendulous Teacher said, unblinking eyes watching him.
Steading himself, he closed his eyes and quieted his heart. No breeze disturbed the area around them, no weather played in the sky, nor even sun overhead with beating rays. The world was still.
"Left!" yelled Teacher. With a quick convulsion of muscle, he twisted his body and tore the air around him into a slicing torrent. Suddenly the world was alive, screaming with exhiliration, tossing and fluttering in the chaotic wind.
Darting towards him, Teacher exclaimed, "Down!" Another quick motion towards his feet, the sand twisted and hardened, squeezing away from invisible glass shards.
Opening his eyes, he saw Teacher gazing at him, perhaps smiling. As things settled, the instructor moved tiltingly closer.
"Almost like being one of us."
With the whipper-whack of the dry stalks, the Pendenton moved forward with thundrous stamps of its flat feet. Happily patting its smooth head, Bediddi rocked back and forth, humming a tune in her head as they travelled the plains.
Far above them floating across the placid sky were numerous clouds, each flush with water, bulging and spreading, ready to drop their rainfall upon a thirsty land. Familiar forests flanked them on both sides, standing firm against the odds of the past year's attacks. Her eyes gleamed with optimism for the future. Her home, her life, upon a rock built.
"Hurry up, Po-po!" exclaimed Bediddi with a whisk of the goading stalk across the creature's head. It craned its neck back, looking at her giddy eyes. She returned the stare with a mock royal nod, and the thing returned to its walk. Onwards.
*SPLOOSH!* *squish* *muck* *mack* *moock*
Through the dim swamp trudged Jellant, grasping the squirming gasping sphere, mouths jiggling in the damp air. Scraggly clouds drifted overhead, entangling the sun. A tentacled dance they played, their quiet burning prey.
It was the fifth trek across the breadth of the muddy expanse and with that a fifth gourd. Plucked from the vicious slashing ember vines, the diligent brother risked the harvest yet again. For within each pulsing pod grew that which kept a newborn sister alive.
Twinkling and bouncing along the surface of the thick waters came the lights of his home. Jellant looked down at his chest, the plant clasped tightly, only one tube bent. He breathed easier, so close to home.
"I'm coming little sister, you just wait for me."
The instant the Andonian fleet vanished from the night sky, something else took its place. Pitch black clouds, darker than space itself. They immediately began to spread, extending long tendrils, descending down from the great heights of the fleet to the populated city below.
Around the tower the Andonian fighters regrouped, and realising the incredible power of the structure, redoubled their efforts to bring it down. The pinnacle of the tower began to reorient, now focussing on the fighters near it. Small explosions along the length of the building began to shake it. Debris tumbled down its sides. A power surge exploded up one of the support beams, collapsing the side it supported. The turret whined and groaned. Joxx screamed at that terrible tower, firing and firing, watching as light danced across the structure like splattering blood. The ultimate weapon burst, illuminating the whole city like a small sun.
"WE DID IT!" yelled Joxx over the comm. "We did it!"
"Sir, what are we going to do? The fleet was destroyed!" cut in one of the squadron pilots.
The short squid looked around, surveying the region. They were trapped in an alien world. Their ships weren't equipped with the technology that brought them here.
Another pilot cut in suddenly, "What's that?"
Looking down, Joxx saw the dark clouds, solid as ink, illuminated in silhouette by the burning tower, descending on the populated metropolis. Deep within the core of the cloud, there was a subtle red glow. It seemed to burn with an unearthly light, and it moved like a horse-drawn chariot, across the sky, down to the land below.
"I think we'd better leave," said Joxx, banking his vessel away from the city, into the mountainous regions.
"Look at the sky," said Matteheus. "It's raining."
The Wanderer looked up, his face turning pale at the sight of the black ichor dripping down the canvas of the heavens. "They... no. They wouldn't do such a reckless thing!"
Egg looked at the robed figure quizzically, then up at the dark forms, sharing the man's concern. A chaotic evil had entered this world.
"Gather up your things. We need to get back to the survivors and leave this place. Though I doubt anywhere on this world is safe anymore," said the Wanderer.
Running to catch up to the man, Matteheus asked, "But where are we going? What is that?"
"We must go to Atora, it's the most likely place they might banish," he said in his gravelly voice. "And those things," pointing to the tears of pitch over the city, "are a mistake of fools.
They wage war by banishing our enemies, but nothing can be truly destroyed. It must be sent somewhere. And we always receive something in exchange. The plunder of war, though it is not our enemy's land we plunder, but a stranger's.
There are certain places, however, you would not want to send even your enemies. Places that once found are forever sealed away and barred from ever being used. But those ships we saw, a new attack force more powerful than ever before, seemed to have struck an irrational fear into the hearts of our leaders. They unlocked one of those dreaded gateways, hoping to destroy the invaders. And now in exchange for destruction, we have invited death."
The exhausted office worker stared again at the sky. No stars glimmered anymore. The first fingers had reached the buildings, and a silence began to spread. Matteheus grew deathly afraid, his eyes widened, his hands grew cold, his breath ran short.
"Run, Matteheus, RUN!" yelled the Wanderer, pulling Egg and the Venturenauts along. They were all slowly losing their breath. Exhale....
Lost morals push lost light,
Wars fought with forced retreat.
Distant homes across chasms cold,
Mirrors of past into present fall.
Darkly arrives the Rider.
The Andonian fleet bore down upon the glowing city. It was a technological metropolis, brightly illuminated with buildings, traffic, and people. From the streets, the sight of many massive orbital cruisers accompanied by several squadrons of fighters caused immediate panic.
"Captain Visch, we are not detecting additional resistance forces. This appears to be a civilian population," reported the officer.
Visch skimmed the power readings of the nearby area, then tapped a point just outside the city. "There," he said.
"Aye, Captain." Altering course, the fleet headed towards the source of an exceptionally large power emanation.
Far across the great city stood a magnificent tower, supported by six telescoping beams. Power danced over its surface as the spire spun around, breaking its normal schedule. It lowered to orient on the approaching cloud of airborne vessels.
Visch's eyes narrowed to slivers as he eyed the dark spire in the distance. This was their target. "Fighters, obliterate the tower," ordered Visch.
Joxx and the other small fighters sped ahead to engage the tower. It was clearly powering up, readying to fire. Little bolts shot out of the squadron's ships, pummelling the sides of the tower, causing power spikes across its length. Visch watched.
The tower systems were aligned, despite the increasing damage to the structure. They activated.
"Joxx, are you okay?" called Netori, another fighter pilot in his team, "We're getting massive turbulence and interference! That thing is firing!"
Joxx looked up at the tower. The sky seemed to be warping around it; it was a dizzying effect. A sudden backdraft suddenly caught them, hurling their ships away from the structure, out of control. Fighting for control to avoid impacting the ground, Joxx and the others jetted skyward.
"Command ship, this is Joxx. We were hit with some sort of scrambling attack. How are you doing?" queried Joxx over the communications system. No response came from Visch's ship. "Joxx to command ship, are you..." The little pilot cut himself off, for turning around, he saw that the sky was clear. Not a single Andonian command ship remained in the sky, nor were they on the ground. They were gone.
Visch righted himself after the heavy turbulence. The entire ship had lost attitude control for a brief moment.
"What happened?" snapped Visch.
"Just a moment, sir," replied the officer, checking the ship's systems.
Looking at the viewscreen, Visch realised the problem. The tower was gone. The landscape was changed. Dark mists shrouded the surface completely. "This is planet..." started Visch.
"Sir, this isn't the same planet!" exclaimed the officer.
Suddenly, Visch spasmed. His eyes pooled with black ink and he was unable to breathe. Craning his neck back and opening his mouth, a horrible dark form crawled out of him, floating down to the floor. Its claws gripped the ground and its arms and eyes pulsed with a blood red glow.
The Andonian fleet ascended into space, trailing with it a malevolent dark mist.
It had been a harrowing night. After securing the ancient launch complex, Visch and his crew managed to download and translate the alien computer systems. The structure was part of a long abandoned city. From images of star fields, they determined that the city did not come from anywhere near Andonia. Messages were uncovered that spoke of evacuation, a dying world, and a great war. The final piece of information was a massive teleportation system of sorts. Though the technology was not contained in any of the structures, it seemed clear an alien world had teleported part of their own land to Andonia, possibly as an act of war.
After exiting the structures, they had received an urgent call for help from the vortex research facility. Upon their arrival, they found a massacre. The chief scientist, Aphorus, was found pinned to a wall by living black spikes, luckily still alive. Keta Toxal, the ex-captain of the ill-fated Venture, was also found at the site, severely shaken. A few surviving miners were also rescued.
Within the facility they discovered a functional vortex machine that could open a stable field to another target destination, provided material from that target was available for sampling.
Visch quickly ordered the technology be retrofitted into as many assault cruisers as possible. In short order, a small fleet was equipped with the vortex machines. Using samples from the ancient city, they opened numerous vortices to wherever that foreign structure had come from. Their mission was to put an end to any such teleportation.
Seven massive vessels simultaneously activated their systems, pulling them from one place instantly to the other. Joxx was aboard Visch's capital ship. He was eager to fight to defend Andonia.
As one, they warped in, blinking lights in the dark night sky.
"Captain, the planet has a highly toxic atmosphere. It may be breathable right at the surface, but not for very long," said one of Visch's officers. "We're detecting movement on the surface. Numerous large robotic walkers."
Down on the ground of the barren planet stomped the cold dark drones, taking eager note of the new presence in the sky. Their weapon systems activated, rotating to target the air ships. They opened fire in unison.
"Captain!" The Andonian ships rocked under the impact of the alien assault. Joxx left the bridge to get to the launch bay. Hopping into a small fighter, he fired out of the belly of the capital ship along with many others.
Cruising down through smog clouds they dodged lethal beams firing from the surface. Yet the beams served as a valuable target for the fighters. They converged on the nearest one.
"Take them all out!" called Joxx to the other team members.
The heavy metal drone took fifteen shots to its upper mantle before suffering a sudden shuddering explosion, knocking it off-balance. One-by-one the fighters disabled the walkers, strafing the ground to avoid their air-to-air weapons.
"Captain, I think I've located their population base. It's about an hour's flight from here," reported an officer aboard Visch's ship.
"Take the fight to them," said Visch grimly.
Onward moved the Andonian fleet, across a starry alien sky, towards the glowing city in the distance.