Light pulsed and thundered briefly across the bridge as, with a soundless explosion, the Interstellar exited jump speeds. Briskly efficient, the bridge crew was already busy confirming location, calling out readouts, and coordinating with the other ships in the fleet. Not a one of them gave any indication of discomfort as the ship skipped sideways off of reality and exited into realspace. Inertial dampeners or no, there was something about the sudden deceleration from jump speeds to barely a crawl (relativisticly speaking, that is) that caused the base, lizard part of the brain to expect to be frapped against the nearest vertical surface. Noonan himself stood ramrod straight at his accustomed place, a thin, approving smile compressing his lips.
Almost unconsciously, his eyes were drawn to the main viewscreen as the Mantichore arrived in a cataclysm of light and unheard sound. Despite himself, he was gripped with a fierce pride by the sight of the serene and warlike glory of the 3rd's flagship. Sterile and elegant, the dreadnaught hung in the void, sunlight shattering off her surface in bolts and shards. As he watched, the immense ship began to turn with a slow, deliberate grace, nosing toward the planet below her. As she came about she passed before the sun and was silhouetted, briefly, the solar corona giving her the fiery halo of an avenging angel. It was... beautiful.
Immediately, the fleet began forming up around the Mantichore. As per standard procedure they had arrived some distance away from their target, providing them ample time to regroup and assess. Scouts buzzed around, frantic as any swarm of insects, cruisers began to array themselves in time-honored ranks, supply ships began the ponderous task of wallowing into position. It was chaos and order, both at once, and Noonan loved it.
Ahead of them, Sag Hothha continued to rotate quietly, completely unimpressed.
In due course, order was re-established, and the battle group began slicing through space towards the planet. The Interstellar had assumed her normal flanking location, some distance away from the Mantichore, and Noonan prepared to retire to his ready room. At this point in the proceedings there was really very little for him to do, and he had developed a habit, almost a tradition, of taking a cup of tea and reading a few chapters of one of the many books he kept on hand. Other command staff members had similar quirks, and, while none of them spoke of it openly, any deviation from their unwritten routine would have instantly alerted the others that something was amiss.
Today, however, things looked promising.
Fourth Sun/Tenth Cycle/Twentieth in the Age of Wandering
Haakar'Nan silently observed the primary display as the thoughts of his crewmembers hummed at the back of his mind. He had come to the bridge immediately when the thoughts of Oolarith Kesh'She had pulsed suddenly, violently. Her thought had rippled outward through the ship, awareness spreading like the wind that carries the smell of lighting before the storm.
They were discovered.
When they retreated from their ancient homeworld, fleeing the demon that devoured all before it, they willingly cast themselves into exile. Passing from system to system, they retreated before their enemy so that they might have time to regroup, rearm, and strengthen themselves for future battles. In all their years of wandering, going from star to star, following the voice of their leaders, they had never yet encountered the spawn of their enemy. Sterile, cold, the thing that hunted them had no breath of life in it, no Light of its own, and yet it thought, and hungered. It hungered, and it devoured. In all their years of exile, it had seemed more and more likely that they had deceived the hollow beast and bought themselves the time they required to rebuild and renew.
But the unthinkable had happened.
Haakar'Nan shifted position slightly, aware that he had fallen into a traditional stance assumed before battle, taking comfort in it. The proof was there, on the display before him. Arranged in space, obscuring the light of the stars, there was a swarm of ships, cold and sterile. The sunlight bit sharply at their hulls, white pain against the unfeeling metal, rejected by the thinking Machine. There was no doubt in the thought of any K'Luth that the Machines were aware of their presence; they moved inexorably towards the fledgling colony yet hidden on the night side of the new world.
But here was something new, the first new thing they had known in many years of fighting the hollow beast. There was organic life inside the cold Machines. Life that moved, and breathed, and thought. Kesh'She had made it known that the life forms were not Awaked, and yet it was undeniable that they were somehow aware. So here was another new thing for Haakar'Nan to find. Was it possible that, not being Awake, the new life could have been subverted by the hollow beast for it's own purposes? It was not for Haakar'Nan to know why the beast would use organics instead of devouring them, but he did know that if the lives were truly enslaved to the beast, then it fell upon the K'Luth to free them.
His thought was Known to all as soon as he had made his decision, and so the order was nothing more than a formality to be observed.
*Prepare the warriors for boarding. We fight the Machine here.*
The first impact, completely unexpected, occurred shortly after Noonan retired to his ready room. He was seated at his desk, idly scanning a data screen, a hot cup of tea slowly cooling at his left elbow, when he was very nearly thrown out of his chair as the ship suddenly spasmed around him. It was a near thing, but he caught himself just sort of pitching to the floor. His teacup, however, did shudder off his desk to shatter, unnoticed, on the rough carpet, sending a fine amber fan of liquid across the fibers. Shocked, he started to his feet as the emergency alarm began its strident howling, and he made it as far as the bridge door before the Interstellar bucked again, convulsing like a dying beast. He was thrown headlong into the door, rapping his forehead sharply against the burnished metal doorframe. Straightening, he briefly touched fingertips to his forehead; they came away crimson. Snarling, he wrenched open the door to the bridge.
And walked straight into chaos.
Edwards, ramrod straight at the command station, presided over a bridge awash in a cacophony of light, sound, and motion. Information, schematics, and alerts streamed past on the functioning viewscreens; several were dark. The nasal wailing of the alarm was a constant pressure in the center of his skull, and the babble of a bridge crew in overdrive was deafening. Fingers skidded rapidly across panels; shadows blurred and wavered in the lurid glow of emergency lights.
"Edwards! What the hell is going on out there,” Noonan snapped as he came up behind his executive officer.
"Unknown Sir. Intel reported an unusual sensor reading just before the first impact, but there's absolutely nothing within range to account for these attacks." Noonan snapped his head around to look at Edwards sharply.
"Attacks? You're positive about that, Edwards?" The Interstellar was a fully armed warship, surrounded by a fleet of warships. Noonan found it almost unthinkable that anything would even consider an assault on them, despite what appeared to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Beneath his fingers, the data panel began a discreet vibration.
"Positive Sir. You see here, and here?" Edwards pulled up a ship's schematic on the console, admirably calm, as the command staff thrummed about him. He pointed to several large, organic looking objects that appeared to have somehow… attached… themselves to the hull of the Interstellar. "Unknown where they came from, Sir,” he paused as the ship juddered again, down low in her guts, "But they appeared just before the first impact, and we lost communications with the rest of the fleet almost immediately afterwards. That's too much of a coincidence to be anything but planned, Sir." Eyes narrowed, Noonan started to reply. But before he could, Lt. Commander Shoji called out over the chaos.
"Sir! Decks 2-4 reporting hostile contact! We've been boarded, Sir!"
It began with a low level shimmy that sent ripples shuddering through the puddles of water that Crewman Jones had applied in liberal amounts to the rough tile floors. Down in the belly of the Interstellar, Jones was on work detail, cleaning the crewmen's washroom. Hard at work, he actually stared at the shivering water for some time before he even realized what he was seeing. And then, even as his brain resolved the anomaly and, blinking, he really saw the unexpected motion in the liquid, he was thrown sideways as the Interstellar actually lurched, simply and abruptly jolted to one side with no grace or dignity whatsoever. Instinctively grasping for whatever came to hand, he latched one hand around the handle of the mop, flipping it up and out of the bucket as it careened across the floor, overturning it, and sending a fan of dirty gray water up and into the recycled air.
He fetched up against a wall, head colliding sharply with tiling the approximate color of french vanilla ice cream, and then lay stunned and dripping in a sudsy puddle of dingy mop water, one hand still firmly clasped around the mop handle. To his left, the capsized mop bucket lay forlornly on its side, wheels spinning aimlessly, as, somewhere above, the ship's alarm claxon began to wail.
He lay there for a while, as the emergency lights began their slow pulse, bathing the room in shadows and bloody light. And when the galaxies finally cleared from in front of his eyes, Jones staggered to his feet, lost his footing, and fell again, the mop clattering away across the tiles. As he struggled to his feet a second time, the ship jolted again, throwing him down, then started trembling, a low and subtle vibration that set his teeth to rattling in his skull and shivered up and down his spine. As it faded, Jones braced himself against the wall, fighting the slippery footing, the confusion of light, and the ear shattering ship's alarm.
Abruptly, the alarm cut off, braying once, then dying away with a mournful groan. The emergency lights continued to strobe in slow, crimson flashes. In the sudden silence, Jones was left alone with the mop, the bucket, and a spreading pool of cooling, soapy water.
A drain belched moistly, then settled. A single bead of water shattered in the bowl of a sink. Bruised and disoriented from the blow to his head, Jones propped himself against the wall and tried to organize his thoughts.
*Tak Tak* *Skrrttch*
Jones snapped his head up, sudden chips of ice shivering down his spine. In the silence, broken only by the asthmatic wheezing of the ventilation system, the sound had been loud. Very loud. The sound of something hard and sharp scraping over vanilla colored tiles. And it sounded… wrong. That was no human boot dragging on the floor, no fellow crewman. It was too... organic... sounding. Like bone, or shell, or horn scraping across the floor. Jones wouldn't have been able to say why he knew that, but he did. And that little reptile instinct at the back of his skull was suddenly shrieking warnings at him. There was something IN here. Jones whipped his head around, ignoring the pain that radiated outward from the point where he had collided with the wall, and stared down the length of the stalls toward the door. Nothing.
But what about the showers? They were behind him.
A dry, musky, and somehow inhuman smell suddenly wafted past Jones. Confused and disoriented, and suddenly aware that he was in something way over his head, Jones abruptly found that all his muscles had simply... locked up. Turn around, he thought, as he became aware that all the hair on the back of his neck had gently lifted. Turn around. Behind him, the shower doors rattled, gently, and something - briefly - shouldered out the light. And yet he still couldn't move.
And then something splashed in the soapy puddle behind him. Right behind him. And as quickly as that, Jones unfroze. As the ripples bunched and trembled around his feet, Jones gathered himself, and turned. The very last thing he saw was a huge, four fingered hand.
Fourth Sun/Tenth Cycle/Twentieth in the Age of Wandering
Haakar'Nan stared in dismay at the display screen, and knew from the thoughts of the others that they shared his surprise. Across the gulf separating the ships of the K'Luth fleet from the alien vessels, the thoughts of the boarding crews echoed. The knowledge shared was impossible, almost unbelievable. The alien lives were fighting back, actively resisting the attempts of the K’Luth warriors to save them from the Machine that enslaved them. Although it was possible that, not being Awakened like the K'Luth, the alien lives were simply being dominated by the hollow beast, it was simply unthinkable that any intelligence would not want to be rescued.
And so Haakar'Nan and the other commanders of the K'Luth fleet were very rapidly being forced to consider something completely outside their experience.
Was it possible that the alien lives were not enslaved by the Machine? Were they, in fact, working in concert with it?
If that were so, and it was becoming more and more clear to the K'Luth command that this was the case, then they were enemies of the K'Luth.
The decision was made.
Haakar'Nan gave the order to fire.
Captain Noonan was looking directly at the main viewscreen when it happened, so he could not deny what he was seeing.
Reports streaming in from all over the ship were garbled, but one thing was very clear: they had been boarded by something that was not human. Impossible, unbelievable, and yet, it was happening. And, as if that alone weren't bad enough, it was becoming obvious that the aliens, (and, Lord, how unreal that thought felt to him) the aliens were working their way through the Interstellar, systematically destroying the ship and kidnapping his crew.
But where the hell had they come from?
It was very clear, the main viewscreen. Beyond the chaos, the confusion, space spread out, cold, clean, and calm. And then, suddenly, a section of space shuddered, threw off distortion like a sudden ripple on a still pond, and from the center of the disruption a concentrated beam of energy lanced out.
Orange gold, all color and violence, it sliced through the silent void, and then it was tracing a charred line across the bow of the Mantichore, a black scar that was suddenly bleeding fire, and then the beam was joined by another, and another, until the whole of the visible dark was streaming with swords of angry light. But in that brief instant, just before the energy had screamed out, Noonan had seen.
There was a ship there.
They still had no communications with the other ships in the fleet, and so Noonan took decisive action, hoping that someone, anyone in the fleet would see what he was doing and follow suit.
The weapons systems of the Interstellar spoke out, crying the anger of the ship into the void, screaming with all the drive and passion of their human makers. And they were answered.
Red fire blossomed into the night, sharp and angry against the void. And as it boiled and churned, suddenly, suddenly, there it was; narrow and alien, the enemy ship hung against the black. And as the fighters were launched, and the scouts converged, they saw that she was not alone.
Missiles flared and stuttered against the black, energy weapons carved the night into sharp edges, fighters fought and dodged and died, hemorrhaging vital gasses into the hollow void. Noonan watched from his command as the first enemy ship vaporized, disintegrating into a boiling cloud of fire.
The Interstellar shuddered beneath him, inertial dampeners not quite compensating for the enemy fire, and Noonan watched impassively as Flight redirected a squad of fighters to engage another enemy ship that shimmered into view as suddenly as another disappeared. They were taking heavy losses; already he had seen one of the supply ships vanish beneath a storm of enemy fire, and scouts were blazing away like so many meteors entering an atmosphere. The Mantichore was suffering: as the largest ship, she was the most obvious target, and was streaming almost as much fire as she was throwing off ammo. The Interstellar herself was taking a beating; Engineering reported heavy damage to most decks, and the jump system was offline. How did one fight an enemy you could not see? No matter, Noonan had no desire to flee from this fight.
They had invaded his ship, dammit, carved away at her from the inside, and stolen his crew. Now, it was personal.
Under their fire, another enemy ship collapsed inward.
Another UGTO ship vanished in a firestorm.
As a new enemy ship entered their viewscreen, another enemy ship was destroyed.
Their resolve was crystal hard, pure and tempered. Quite suddenly, they were winning. Against all odds, against an opponent that no human had ever dreamed of, let alone engaged in combat, they were winning.
And then, all at once, the Interstellar shuddered, rocked by subsonic vibrations. The main viewscreen flickered and warped, but despite the instability of the view, Noonan, the command crew, everyone, could see apocalypse descending upon them.
It started with a tremor, a small shudder against the crisscrossing webs of fire, enemy and ally. Everyone saw a scout impact against the disturbance, boiling away in a cloud of fragments. Everyone saw it, a shadow against the sun, undeniably really, undeniably there. Even so, even as it threw off whatever effect it had used to conceal itself from them, no one, Noonan included, could convince themselves of what they were seeing.
Impossible! Noonan's mind screamed at him as the hulking outline of an enemy dreadnaught carved its way into view before them. Impossible! And even as his mind formulated that thought, the dreadful thing opened fire, volley after volley of beams shattering their way into the crippled Mantichore. There was no time to react, no time at all.
The Mantichore shivered, bleeding fire from multiple wounds, and then, simply ceased to be. Flame blossomed along her length, boiling and surging, a small sun against the immensity of the endless night, and then she collapsed inward upon herself, her rage spent, her majesty reduced to spinning fragments of mindless metal.
There was a momentary lull in the combat, as if even the enemy was taken aback at the devastation they had wrought. And in that moment of knife edged clarity, when everyone realized there was no retreat, no surrender, Noonan saw something he had not seen before.
Sag Hothha had continued her rotation, uncaring of the devastation being wrought in the skies above her, and in doing so had brought into view the most unbelievable thing of all.
Suddenly, Noonan knew exactly what it was he had to do. Even as the fighting recommenced around them, even as the Interstellar groaned and shuddered under wave after wave of enemy fire, Noonan calmly stepped down from the command station and approached the Helm. The Helmsman stared blankly ahead at the viewscreen, a stunned, disbelieving look on his face, deep crescents of black huddled under his eyes. As Noonan approached, he looked up into the face of his Captain, traced now in thin runnels of drying blood. Noonan spoke to him calmly, almost gently, and the officer's eyes went from blank and denying to determined. Noonan smiled at him, placed his hand once on the man's shoulder, and then quietly returned to his place at the command deck. As the Interstellar heeled about, wounded, dying, but not yet dead, he bowed his head and closed his eyes.
Fourth Sun/Tenth Cycle/Twentieth in the Age of Wandering
If there had been any left on the surface to tell it, they would have told it thus: a cataclysm of smoke and fire, boiling down from the heavens, tearing through the summer storms. Shards of metal and glass, shrapneling away from the main body, each then to burn up themselves as they streamed through the ever thickening atmosphere. It came like the hammer of an avenging god, trailing thunder in its wake, the wounded air tearing away from it as it roared and bellowed. It was the sound of anger, and pain, and hatred. The impact that followed was tremendous, scoring the land and searing the green world as the shockwave ran outward. Smoke filled the skies for days after, choking the air and eventually forming storms of its own, storms that carried on the winds before the rains the copper smell of lighting, of blood, and of war.
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