"Is the vessel secured in the hangar bay?" asked captain Aderin, watching the progress of the fleet against the planetary structure. They had yet to affect any damage to with any of their weapons. Some of the incursion teams that had managed to report back indicated it was possible to inflict damage internally with relative ease. If so, why was this thing so impervious to external attack, yet offer no protections against intruders?
"Yes, captain. The craft is secured and the Elder is safe. We have the pilot Xyre in a cell," said the bridge officer.
"I will speak with the Elder about his request. If anything changes..." said Aderin, starting to stand. But a change was already rippling across the main monitor. Ships. Many ships. Fleets upon fleets of unknown vessels appearing right on top of them.
"Kaltra, what are those?" exclaimed Aderin anxiously.
Fumbling at the controls and coordinating information from the other ships, officer Kaltra spoke after a moment, "They aren't from any known System race. No one has any information."
"Could they be from the planet or that structure?" asked Aderin. "Regroup the fleet." Turning to his console, he watched curiously as new orders came in. The only thoughts running through the captain's mind was "friend or foe?". The dull shudder rumbling through the ship as he read his grim orders answered that.
Throughout the ship, and all ships in the fleet, things were beginning to appear. The things were had grasping waving spiked arms set atop glowing spheres with thin overgrown antennae on top. The Inir were the first to report them as hostile, but only by about 17 seconds. Soon every ship was under siege from within as the things quickly filled hallways and chambers without warning. Weapons fire filled the sound of every comm channel. The fleet was paralyzed.
Captain Aderin reached for his sidearm as the air in the bridge began to whimper. First the glint of merest light, then the flash as the orb broke through. This was what they fired on first, but nothing struck. Like an exploding night, the arms punched through, some of the spines impaling nearby crew. As the thing reared into full corporeal form, it slashed its thin but razor sharp wings around, cutting down the crew that were a moment ago just out of reach. More weapons fire, Aderin noticed it was his own, this time making purchase. The creature reeled at the hits, bits of it flaking away as if it were made of shale. A door opened behind him, some crew retreating. Smart move. Aderin followed the last of the survivors through and sealed the door.
In the depth of space above that broken world two massive fleets stood frozen, exchanging no fire between them. The battles were waged within. Communications had devolved into burning silence or panicked yells and screams. All save one group of ships, the gargantuan class transport ships.
Seven hundred and thirty ships slowly broke formation and spread out, positioning their ships near every group of allied ships. The Major Jellyfish within had received orders as well and were now taking action. With their ships full of water, the assault creatures seemed unable to board them or did not perceive them as valid targets. Either way, this left the Major Jellyfish as the only functional unit in the combined fleet.
Within one of the ships, Aderin and a handful of surviving bridge crew backed away from the sealed door, watching with panic as the murderous ball of knives slashed through the door, tearing it into similarly shaped shards. More weapons fire from the crew right into the heart of the thing pelted it back, whittling it down somewhat, shrinking it. Yet it still pushed forward. They fled through another hallway, tripping over the bodies of other crew that had tried to flee. There were more of the things somewhere behind them. Aderin glanced out a window one of the transport ships settling in the centre of his group. The knives gave him no time to consider what they were doing.
The layout was identical to the logs down to the smallest wire. It was uncanny, but expected. She'd never actually set foot in one of these yet. Another right of passage. That thought ate at her. Walking obediently down the path wasn't her intention. She kept the scanner running. It was actively comparing the surroundings with its records. If anything deviated in the slightest, an alarm would go off and reveal the difference. Nothing so far.
Xecia continued down the meandering hallways, mathematically optimised for something beyond her comprehension. The ceiling was tapering down in this section. She took a left towards a wide column with rails around it. A beep.
"Good," she muttered, lying to herself. Fear crept up in her. It was something different. This place was dangerous enough when she knew where everything was and exactly what to expect. Her gut told her she didn't want to find what she had been looking for.
The scanner pointed to a section of the column at about chest level. There was an irregular design etched into it that apparently wasn't supposed to be there. Doctor Xecia leant forward and traced the pattern with her fingers. A groove? She took off her glove and touched it again. It was definitely a fine groove. This was a panel.
Setting down her torch, she got out her tools and found a suction clamp. Snapping it onto the smooth surface, centered within the design, she carefully twisted and pulled. A sound as of smooth granite sliding out echoed in the hall. With tingling concern, the bizarre panel easily pulled away. As if opening a snake hole, she quickly darted back and glared inside, her heart racing.
A shimmering light cut through the dim pall of the area and a faint mist drifted out. The light coming through from that opening seemed to warble, as if it were searing hot. And then a shadow crossed it. Xecia seized her wrist, activating her defences. The shadow grew more defined, darker. Something was nearing from within.
"Xecia!" came a woman's voice in a strained whisper.
Shock washed over her at the sound of that human voice like a wave of ice water. This was the last thing she'd expected to find here. Her tensions eased slightly. She recognised that voice very well.
"Take this! You'll need it later," said the figure in the mist. A hand came through the panel opening, holding a small flat device. Xecia reached out and accepted it in her palm. It was cool to the touch and clearly technological. A memory device, and it bore an insignia she knew to be one of her own.
"Thank you?" ventured Xecia, distrustful, but relieved. But the figure was moving away.
Suddenly a massive explosive sound came from down the hall behind her followed by a shuddering wave beneath her. Turning to look, she saw a pod protruding from the wall, having smashed halfway through it. This alone was shocking, since she was somewhat deep in this place. But she recognised the pod as Octopousse and knew their dimensional jumping had managed to jump one inside solid matter. Its arrival did not suprise her, in fact, it was her cue to leave.
The night sky burned with the fires of a pitched battle. A veritable swarm of small fighter ships rained wave after wave of energy beams down on the populace of Andonia. With the entire military might of the planet elsewhere, only the civilian population remained to defend the planet. And what weapons they could bring to bear were little better than flares to tell the attackers where to shoot.
With horrible expediency the communications systems were taken down, followed by the computer systems and transport networks. People were trapped in their homes and businesses, unaware of the full scope of the danger. Everyone assumed help was on its way. Only a few recognised the threat and took action.
Three brave souls, now hardened and experienced in dealing with enemy invasions, stole into an empty military installation and manned the automated defence turrets, now unable to target due to the systems failure. They collected small arms and great bombs, not entirely certain what each weapon did, but hopeful they would be enough to stop the onslaught. They were not soldiers, but stand against this tiny fleet they would.
The great hulking defender mounted the turret and began firing, uncontrolled at first, then quickly swivelling about to pick off unwary vessels. Each one was tiny, no larger than a model toy, but they fired deadly strikes. Luckily, most were not yet used to anyone fighting back. They were able to get in some easy hits.
Beside him on the ground stood the tentacled one, bearing a thin weapon. Nervously it fired, again and again. Aimlessly blasting into the night sky, the attacks caused many ships to focus on them instead of the main turret, allowing the larger gun to take them out.
Lastly, the burrowed one hid beneath the turret, cradling its chosen object. It was a simple box, with a worrisome sign on the side and a single large button. A latch lay over the device and with a trembling limb, it pressed that down and held it. It was sure this was the best course of action.
As one they defended their plateau, but the ocean of ships was far greater. Were it not for the fact that their turret location was of complete unimportance to the aggressors, the three would have been quickly torn from life.
As it was, Andonia slowly began to fall into darkness. This fleet had prepared and waited for this day. Its day to take this world, for the day when the guardians would be weakened. They never imagined the guardians would leave in their entirety. Such great fortune had been handed to them. Such easy treasure. There would be nothing but an empty chest when they returned.
The sun would mourn the coming morn when it saw what work had be wrought upon this world's fair face.
Xyre checked his console. They were would remain out of sync after arrival at their destination for a full 13 seconds. This would allow him to position the ship in a pocket of dead detection between one of the larger command ships' engines. From there it would be safe to make his statement.
The ship began to rumble, knocking against the tides of space. Travelling by this method with such cargo as he had was unwise, but the military collapse of the entire sector was not something even he wanted. Looking back, he checked the containment chamber. It remained intact with no signs of excessive stresses to the occupant inside.
"Hold on, we'll be arriving shortly," he said through his helmet. The ship's interior was held in a vacuum, since he wasn't going to waste space and energy filling everything with atmosphere. His guests rarely shared his tastes or compatibility in breathing anyway.
A dull pop alerted him to what he already knew from experience. They had dropped back into normal dimensionality. Their ship could be detected if anyone were trying hard enough. Hopefully they were all focussed on that metal tower down there.
He quickly found a suitable vessel. It wasn't hard, the sky was full of ships from every nation in the known sector, and possibly some from the unknown. He cut engines just as the residual dimensional offset dissipated, bringing the ship fully into normal reality with everyone else. Momentum carried them right up to the venting shield of the carrier they were nestled beneath. Bracing shoes extended to latch onto their hull, cushioning the light impact.
Standing up, he turned to face the transparent chamber at the rear. It towered above him, a monolithic creature, suspended in zero gravity, freed of the sands that it lived in all its life. Its long body was smooth and rough, like fine sandpaper. Holes dotted the front of it, where it burrowed through the ground. The tail and lower body was rippled and segmented, able to propel the creature forwards at great speed while immersed in rock and earth. Two large fins erupted proudly from its back, signalling its place in the swarm to which it had once belonged. This was the leader of a swarm, a wise being indeed. His mission was almost complete.
"I will be routing us through the ship to which we are attached, then relaying that to some of the smaller civilian transports with weaker protections. They will broadcast to the command ships," said Xyre to the contained being. "Are you ready?"
It was without eyes, ears, or a mouth. No face of any kind to express emotion, but its form conveyed its wisdom, and its solemnity was felt in its presence alone. The neural sensors lining the chamber received the swarm leader's messages.
"Yes, begin," it sent.
Nodding, Xyre activated the sequence, linking their ship through many others. The entire fleet would hear this.
"To the gathered fleet that seeks to destroy this ancient power, listen," it began.
Immediately a response flooded in, trying to track the source of the communication. Faster than any living being could have reacted. It was using numerous unrelated ships to network attacks against them, but not to silence them, just to locate them. Xyre kept cycling connection strategies, expecting this. They were safe for now.
"You have been deceived, your orders from the central sector are false. This is not your mission, this is not your battle. The consequences of your actions are not of your desiring."
Some massive transport vessels began to break position, heading in their general direction. Xyre wasn't sure what to make of this, as the system attacks hadn't yet locked on to them.
"Do not continue. Your homes are in danger as you battle here. Your houses and people will fall. Where will you return when your victory is in hand?"
The transport vessels were now undeniably bearing directly down on them. Something had betrayed their position. Xyre cancelled the redirection routines and instead focussed on getting them out of there.
Something fired from the transports. Kicking active the engines, Xyre tried to pull the ship away. Too many shots! But they would hit a command ship engine, destroying it and any nearby vessel. Was it that desperate?
Many dull thuds impacted the ship as it veered away, then jerked to a halt. Grappling tow lines. The transports were not armed, but did have large equipment extraction tools, capable of lifting much larger vessels out of high gravity.
"Do not follow the voice of the divided line," continued the creature, ignoring their capture, perhaps expecting it.
The transports turned and dragged them back towards the cored planet. Xyre tried to pull free, but their design was exactly to counter this sort of force. They inexorably approached the great towering structure.
"That is all," finished the creature.
Xyre nodded gravely as the great black wall filled the viewport.
Eighty one ships accounted for, all specially geared towards planetary bombardment. They were in position around the Xeh-Xel home world. Visch enjoyed a certain thrill to what they were to do. The scope of it was quite beyond anything Andonian forces were ever sanctioned to do. The orders were quite clear, to burn every Xeh-Xel on the planet below. They were to use only energy weapons with the goal of destroying the native inhabitants via incineration. Visch assumed this was to protect their technology, though rudimentary tools and ancient ruins wasn't going to account for much when surrounded by trillions of cinder corpses.
He turned to face the world below. Its horizon stretched out below him, a slight swell cupping the black forests and swamps of this backwards world. They would never know what had ended them. Visch sent a communication to his first underling, "Verify orders."
Looking up startled, the officer nodded a moment later and uncertainly fumbled about to the sector communication console. While he worked, the fleet commander considered the consequences of their actions here. Andonian forces had never directly assaulted another world before. It was not their role. Yet many worlds seemed to be out of place recently. Civilians made combatants, bitter enemies made allies, protectors made betrayers. "Sir?"
Visch turned a glance at the officer. "Orders coded, but confirmed," the man stated, a look of concern in his face. He wasn't suited to executing these orders. Few on this ship were. He hoped the eighty other vessels had greater resolve. It was time to unleash their fury.
"Sir, there are numerous large vessels lifting off from the planet's surface," called another officer from across the bridge, sending the information to the main display.
Visch snapped his attention to it. This wasn't possible. The Xeh-Xel did not even have metal tools, let alone space-faring vessels. They were wide and flat, somewhat round. The profile was quite irregular, more like wood than a ship.
"They are not Xeh-Xel," Visch commanded.
"No sir, the Xeh-Xel have no such technology. Their ships were buried, which suggests the Ahjroe" reported the officer.
"Not familiar," muttered Visch, flicking a search console and locating this new race. The information came up quickly, revealing the Ahjroe to be an old race that had long served as guardians of the Xeh-Xel and their world, preventing advanced civilisations from contacting or forming relations with them. The presence of a war fleet must have caused them concern.
"Combat capabilities," asked Visch.
"There have been no recorded battles involving the Ahjroe except individual research vessels and pirate ships. Only one Ahjroe ship was witnessed at a time, and they dealt with the intruders with a warning, followed by complete destruction for those that did not heed it," read the officer.
"There are more than one here," rasped Visch.
"We are reading seventeen vessels, sir."
-- LEAVE --
The message tore through their ship's announcement systems, causing everyone to clap their hands over their ears, or otherwise. After that initial blast, there was deafening silence and fear. The crew was unnerved. Fleet commander Visch stared at the view screen. One of the Ahjroe had appeared on it the moment the audio message had been received.
Its body was rigid with bone and carapace. Dark tentacles filled its maw, or its face. Side breathing chambers vented gases while a single glowing eye glared back at the determined serpent.
"In position?" asked Visch, not taking his gaze off the creature.
"Y-yes, sir. All ships in position and ready to fire," stammered the officer.
"Then burn the planet," said Visch.
If he had a heart it would be racing. Stickman sprinted for the colony. He wasn't making good progress. Some, but not nearly enough. He needed more help. The distant glow had changed into the sharp relief of hills against bright sky. Pristine towers full of ambition and pride struck up out of the ground and into the pitch night sky, pushing back its dark embrace with their countless sieve of lights. So many souls had come here to start a new life. How many could be left?
He saw it coming before the colonists did. First a bubble of flesh, then a rippling repeating extension emerging out of the air. Its bodily mass ripped into the world without sound or pronouncement. What claws, teeth, and blades it had were hidden among its organs, the blood of the colonists ingested. Stickman was without a plan. The tail swung at him from several sides at once.
He dodged it a few times, but it struck him a few more times, sending him flying through the air. Not knowing what else to do, he said something he rarely needed to, "Help!!"
A skittering whoosh cut through the air under him. Rasping wings scooped night sky giving lift to a distorted figure. Its mouth bisected twice, legs split at the knee, and short arms that ended in thick bone spikes. A shimmer surrounded the creature, like a glassy sheen coating it. With otherworldly speed it lanced down at the twisting monster, limbs braced forward.
"Stickman!" yelled a familiar voice from below.
It was Cat! He was holding something which looked like a jury-rigged laser rifle. Aiming it seemingly carelessly at the mass of flesh menacing the hill top, he fired. Purple lightning edged with utter void sliced across the plains into the mess of tissue. It didn't seem to work at first... then wounds began appearing at other parts of the thing. Twisting itself in and out of view, it seemed to silently scream at this attack.
The flying creature had latched onto the main portion of the mass, stabbing its limbs into it, holding it in place. Stickman fell to the ground and getting up, ran towards them both to assist. If he had a mouth he would have smiled, for he saw Cat and the other being, recognisable now, gaining strength moment by moment.
"Ewansa!" exclaimed Stickman gladly, struggling to get a grip on the monster's morphing flesh.
Cat bore down on the larger mass, but Stickman pointed to a nodule that appeared to be tenuous and thin. Nodding, he swung his weapon up to it and cut through it quickly. Stickman watched as dark lines spread throughout the thing. Its resistance weakened.
"That's enough!" said Stickman excitedly.
"Good to find you, Stick!" said Cat, frowning at the thing. "What is this thing?"
"Just the limbs. We need to find where it's being held," said Stickman, looking back at the colony.
"This doesn't look like limbs to me," said Cat, grimacing. The creature named as Ewansa held it tightly, the mass pulsing beneath its grip.
"Trust me. Do you have any kind of communications equipment?" asked Stickman.
"Obviously," said Cat, indicating his neck.
"Send a message to the colony asking if they lost containment of a C7 entity or even suffered a seal breach recently," said Stickman.
"Sure," nodded Cat, then proceeded to issue the message via his implanted communication chip. After a moment, his eyes snapped back to Stickman, surprised.
"There's someone called Xel Xel saying that happened some weeks ago," said Cat, then scowling in pain, "Xel Xel is an Octopousse."
Stickman paused at that, then nodded, "Well, that's not terribly surprising. Ask him where the containment chamber is and tell him to pick us up."
Smiling at Stickman, Cat said, "He's coming. Seems the utmost grace of the Octopousse will be bestowed upon us if we can get this thing under control again."
"Do we want that?" asked Stickman rhetorically.
It was a quiet night, as it had been since the entire military and most of the scientific vessels had left Andonia. The outside air was getting chilly and Tauo was quick to close the door to the monitoring station. Eggdelene was already waiting for him, lifting her cup of marshmallow mushroom cheerily. They had gotten quite close these past few weeks with little to do. Images of the skies filled numerous monitors about the walls, all empty save for the occasional personal transport.
"What's the game tonight, Eggdey?" asked Tauo. Eggdelene stuck out her tongue at him, not liking that nickname, which he knew full well.
"We've got Grass Wheels or if you want, we could try making one of those crystal teleporters," said Eggdelene, sneakily pulling something from under the table.
Tauo sat down, frowning at her. "I don't think crafts are allowed in here, bending the rules a bit. We're supposed to be watching for activity."
"There isn't any activity! There isn't going to be! It's boring and you are going to help me make one of these. I saw someone else do it, it was really neat," she said, starting to setup some odd pieces of machinery and construction materials on the table one by one.
Sighing with resignation, he leant back in his chair and stared out the window. There was a residential area some distance away, but enough to fill the horizon with the lights of civilisation. He sometimes wished he were in one of those homes instead of trapped out here in the middle of a deserted base.
"It's supposed to instantly move this little crystal here from this box to this other one using quantum... something. It doesn't matter, it's cool. There's no trick, it's real science!" babbled Eggdelene in the background, as Tauo stared absent-mindedly.
Lights flicked across the horizon..
Tauo sat up suddenly and leant forward towards the window. More lights, little white spears of them flicking about erratically. Then a soft orange glow began.
"Something's happening over there..." said Tauo, tapping the glass. Eggdelene barely noticed, still hooking up wires and tubes.
That orange glow leapt up against a house, clearly a fire. It was ablaze and getting fiercer. At that moment Tauo realised something was wrong.
"Eggdelene, contact the fire control centre, there's a fire in the housing district!" said Tauo, running over to the monitors, flipping the settings to focus on something new.
"What? Really?" said Eggdelene, standing quickly to go check out the window. She gasped as Tauo worked frantically. "They're all on fire! What happened?! Did you see those lights? It's like weapons fire."
Tauo's heart sank when the changes to the monitoring resolved. He adjusted the contrast and expanded the view. Stars. So many stars. But they weren't stars. Eggdelene looked at it, grabbing the chair to steady herself.
"They came back," she whispered.
"I don't think they ever left. They were waiting all this time," said Tauo darkly.