2018

[Excerpt] Paradox I: The Stellar Conjunction

Here is a short teaser from a current work in progress; Paradox I: The Stellar Conjunction:

01. Shadow and Light

The Betrayer’s seven viscous hearts were all beating at a million miles a minute as it fought to squeeze its monstrous frame inside a narrow alcove in the mess hall of the Scythian polyreme. The ship-wide alarm had already been sounded, in spite of the sexless creature’s best efforts to move cautiously through the central checkpoints unnoticed, and the constant deafening wail pierced its consciousness with each shrill blast that rang out like a cold blade forged from fear alone. It had almost made it to the landing bay, almost evaded the clutches of the Shadow’s trained security detail and escaped, as planned, aboard a stolen legion fighter with the coveted Astrograph safely in its possession, the objective achieved. Almost.

No sooner did the unwieldy gastropod corner the final passage leading onto the dock and certain freedom beyond, its earlier deception was discovered, and the two heavy blast doors that partitioned the inner vessel from the vacuum of outer space crashed loudly shut leaving the Betrayer with no other choice but to retrace its trail and seek refuge somewhere nearby in the great dining hall. Reacting instinctively to the heightened stress of the situation, it had begun to secrete a noticeable amount of thick, black oil from the many tiny pores that dotted the epidermal layer of its outer mantle. This conveniently served to act as something of a biological lubricant, allowing the massive creature to quickly contort its boneless mass of slick proboscides and hydrostatic limbs in such a way that it was just able to slide in completely and disappear from view, before the security detail could break down the door it had managed to jam shut only seconds earlier.

Sure enough, with a loud boom and a blinding flash of white light, the heavy chrome panel was ejected violently into and across the hall a moment later by the explosive force of an expertly placed thermal charge, and the advancing squad comprising a dozen heavily armed officers of various forms and races rushed inside to corner their quarry. Their number quickly fanned out in all directions, some scaling the walls and others deftly clambering along the ceiling to examine the bioluminescent lighting pods running down the centre of it in the hopes of being the one to find the fugitive. The search for the Betrayer promised to be a brief one, and the ensuing sentence passed by their Scythian masters executed, as always, without a hope of mercy or room to negotiate.

All account of their reactions to prior acts of treason had seen the wrath of the Scythians recorded as legendary. Whole tribes of dissenting rebels had been hunted down at their command and purged mercilessly like dogs, or flayed savagely in front of fellow traitors made to watch aghast, their eyelids ripped from their faces. Enemy operatives had been made to spend days to weeks confined in blistering torture chambers heated on all sides, their occupants kept alive as long as medically possible to suffer in full before an adequate confession and list of co-conspirators could be extracted, but perhaps the most abhorrent punishment of all, reserved only for those closest to their rulers was having the living body surgically installed into the lower digestive tract of a live kith beast, and left to act as a functioning organ through which the famously pungent waste of the adipose quadruped would slowly flow. It was this degree of unusual cruelty, creativity and the standard it set that had won them their rulership during the Kai Del’Mar, and posited the Scythians as the undisputed overlords of every multitude of creature that called the Netherverse home.

The Netherverse itself had always been cold and dark, as far back as every species native to it could recall. Cold, dark and unforgiving. It was an old universe, one in which cruelty and indiscriminate savagery could thrive with impunity, where violence was the prince, and in which an entirely alien hierarchy of hostility and brute force slowly grew to become law. For as long as any written record was kept, its stars had been in steady decline, extinguished one by one over progressing millennia like so many candles left to burn too long. Countless empires of immeasurable wealth and power had been allowed to flourish and subside within its boundaries, diverse and innumerable races eventually developing on a multitude of different planets throughout its history, and just as many then succumbing either to the inevitable entropy of their own waning energies, or the will of outside predation. This had always been the way, for so long as could be remembered.

It was only in such an impossibly inverse and desperate place that a being as wholly evil as the one who called himself the Moiling Shadow could be made.

Crowned eternal, he was the unquestioned immortal monarch of more than a thousand conquered systems. A ghostly black clad titan some twelve feet tall whose face was perpetually hid behind an awful helmet of chromed and jagged metal, the mere mention of his name would strike terror into the hearts of all who dared speak it, a fear that’s merits were owed for the most part to a long and exhausting legacy of unspeakable atrocities the likes of which, even in the Netherverse, were far beyond the pale. His race were the Scythians, the elder ones. As far as anyone knew, they were the oldest enduring species to exist, and in a reality in which only the strongest and most savage are afforded the right to survive, that fact alone spoke volumes. Some bold enough to study their mythos would speculate that they had been there from the beginning, from the very moment the Netherverse was purported to have burst into existence from the diminishing of a former state of an unknowable reality. Select others would sometimes speak in hushed tones of a great invasion, led by the Shadow, that first brought their kind into their universe from yet another foreign one, to lay waste to it and enslave its weaker populace. In either case, for all intents and purposes they were the gods of their own reality; undying, unequalled and unopposed.

Whatever the truth of their origin, none could recall a time in which their vast and indomitable fleet of advanced world destroyers and the constant threat of incursion from the ghostly army of the risen didn’t sit firmly in the back of the minds of every species they allowed to labour beneath the cruel whip of their industrial war machine. Possessed of powers few could even begin to comprehend, the Scythians had gleaned the ability somehow to reanimate the lower biological functions of any felled combatant and turn the resulting creation loose against its own kind. As the long list of conquered systems gradually rose, so too did their numbers, and what began as an outlandish myth of a ghoulish army of the walking dead quickly became an accepted and very real truth to be reckoned with. Some time toward the close of the last recorded epoch in which the rabble of diverse and aggressive free worlds of the Netherverse still remained so, a final and desperate alliance of native systems consolidated their forces under a single tattered banner. In a last crusade against the Scythians’ horde, they fought back in a long and bloody campaign referred to earlier as the Kai Del’Mar, or in the common language the ‘Final Night’.

When both forces finally clashed, the lives of so many millions of varying species were extinguished in the cosmic equivalent of the blink of an eye as, in spite of propitious talk and the utmost secrecy surrounding their upcoming effort, somehow the Scythians had managed to remain two steps ahead of the free armies of the vast unconquered. Their response to the aggressive incursion of nearly every remaining free unit was swift and devastating. It was their belief that the only way a message strong enough to quell any future rebellion could be sent was by the threat of extinction via a precedent of the same, and so after a series of decisive and devastating offensives against their systems of origin, neither trace nor name existed any longer of those valiant races that fought to the very last. The warning was made clear; all must submit to the Scythians, or else be removed root and stem like weeds and have the bare earth salted where they first took ground.

This knowledge was at the fore of the Betrayer’s thoughts as it hid poorly and tried desperately not to draw an audible breath. Unfortunately the amphibious respiratory abilities of an adult cephalon are far from dry and anything but quiet, and so despite praying they might pass it by the creature was called out soon enough, extracted unceremoniously from its shallow hiding place and thrown roughly to the floor of the great hall. As it writhed about in an attempt to re-establish spatial equilibrium, the bipedal creature heading the detail delivered a swift kick to its mantle, sending the clumsy animal sprawling limbs akimbo and looking something like an octopus might if dropped from a great height, before delivering his ultimatum: “Cephalon,” the commanding officer barked in the dialect common to the Legion, “cease resisting at once, and remain still. You will comply..!”

The cornered creature was already seeing stars, but just retained enough good sense to calm its firing ganglions, promptly lowering each of its writhing appendages flat to the floor. It knew that even the slightest perceived threat could provoke the detail to open fire, and even if it had been able to hurl itself at them and land an attack, while an animal of its size might be able to quickly dispatch one or two of their number, even with the element of surprise it stood no chance at overwhelming the entire group without being turned into little more then a porous, leaking sponge by the synchrotron cannons they had trained on it from all sides. The Betrayer searched its limited knowledge of the same dialect, and was quick to verbalise a short but clear response, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot..! I am promised, as we all are, the right to higher judgement by decree of the Order – please, you cannot kill me before the Shadow is allowed his due. I submit – I submit..!”

The beaten creature was right. Even among as fierce and warlike a force as the Legion there needed to exist some sort of a code, a rigid system of judicial process by which the hierarchy could act on established laws and ensure that the ruling class kept a strict and autocratic monopoly on the administering of punishment. No despot can cling to his rulership nor a credible tyranny endure that has not devised commandments with which to oppress those below the class of rule. The cephalon knew it stood to expect nothing short of the penalty of death in undergoing such process, but as with all living things that find themselves staring down certain death, felt compelled to cling to whatever fleeting moments of continuing life could be afforded it, whatever the quality. The company paused momentarily to consider whether simply firing upon the traitor regardless and claiming it to have died in the fray might be a better option, before the weight of the Scythians’ wrath and the thought of what they themselves might be subjected to if such deception were to be exposed won out and they dragged the wretched creature up onto its haunches, and took it away for judgement.

Unbeknownst to the Betrayer, on a nearby arbiter class coloniser the Moiling Shadow himself was preparing to board a shuttle and approach the polyreme, in order to both facilitate the recovery of the stolen artefact and address the treason of one of his closest former advisers personally. Had this information been made available to the cephalon before bargaining, there is little doubt that the creature would have, as quickly as possible, behaved in a way necessitating suicide by authority. The monstrous ghoul and single lord of the Scythians moved silently through the arbiter loading bay, as if floating, and as he neared the shuttle the Betrayer could feel a knot of muted terror beginning to grow in its mind. Across space and distance, beyond all voice and reach, the presence of some evils are somehow simply able to transcend physical law. The Shadow was flanked by only two others of his kind, however two that could assist most capably in passing sentence on those within the upper folds of their order. None have names among the Scythians, save those few whose contributions are too great to otherwise reference collectively. Those two in the Shadow’s company therefore shall remain nameless, at least for now.

The Betrayer was thrown in restraints and marched brusquely to a long row of shallow holding cells deep within the polyreme, and placed under careful watch by his captors while their lord and master made his way across to them. The Astrograph too was quickly recovered, found to be concealed within the gelatinous folds of the great cephalon’s shapeless torso and was promptly cleaned and placed in a separate chamber for quick inspection when the Shadow eventually announced his arrival. A curious device, the Astrograph was very likely the single and only mechanism of its kind, due in part to the scarcity of refined black matter and the quantity needed to power it. In short, it was a sort of specific super computer capable of analysing the vast and irregular breadth, depth and relative positions of all celestial bodies in both the Netherverse and the universe above it and calculating both a suitable mechanism for opening a door for the Scythians, and where in the target universe such a gateway might materialise, within an impressively accurate margin. It had the capability of taking a near endless quantity of data, specifically, that returned from a series of small probes that the Scythians were first able to send from their Netherverse, and map a means by which their invasion could be made real. It is little wonder then that their lord and master might have felt compelled to address its theft directly, and personally oversee its safe return for use in their upcoming campaign.

A broad and heavy gangway was quickly deployed from the approaching shuttle as it neared and docked with the inner landing bay of the polyreme, allowing for a long cylindrical chrome passageway to extend between the two vessels and seal in a temporary atmosphere. The incoming delegation was met by the captain of the smaller warship midway across, and discourse begun by the Shadow: “Magister Militum,” the Shadow began, in a voice that sounded something more like a drawn out, metallic groan, “We have come directly from efforts the success of which the stolen artefact now in your possession will be vital. To these same efforts we must return, and return with absolute haste. Have we made ourselves clear..?” The niceties missed by such curtness was neither understood by the Scythians, nor unexpected by any that had dealt with their kind personally before.

Not wasting a moment risking the appearance of either hesitation or incomprehension, the Magister Militum quickly and confidently replied, “Yes, Imperator. At once, of course – please, follow me.” The Magister nodded curtly and turned heel, knowing well the party in tow would neither gain nor lose a single inch of ground until they reached their destination. Silently, wordlessly, the black clad trio would simply follow along behind, their thoughts and intentions wholly their own. Impenetrable, and unreadable. With a subtle gesture, he beckoned a subordinate nearby the hanger entrance to ensure that the gangway remain tethered between the two vessels. He knew that whatever was going to be done about the matter at hand, given the sense of urgency with which the Shadow demanded his audience it would be done quickly. So too, he hoped, perhaps a reward for his arrest of the cephalon would be offered. It would be unusual, but not unheard of. Particularly if this Astrograph was as crucial to the planned invasion as he was led to believe.

By the time the Magister and the Scythian delegation reached the holding cells, the cephalon had begun to question exactly who it was that it was going to be made to answer to for its crimes. It knew well that the only realistic and acceptable consequence of such a crime was death, but typically in such cases that sentence could easily be passed either via an intermediary or the ship’s long range communications. The creature had been made to sit confined in its cell for hours, which in turn made it feel deeply uneasy. Eventually unable to stand the anxiety, the Betrayer rose up and demanded of its guards some information, any information, as to why it had been held for so long.

“Guards,” its eyes darted as it searched its mind for the right words, “Why am I still made to wait..? What is the cause for such tardy justice..?” It beat a thick tentacle several times against the cell wall to get their attention, “Answer – ANSWER..!” The creature was becoming desperate, but despite repeating the former request several times over and in several different ways, the guard detail posted at either side of the cell entrance merely chuckled and stared on ahead, well aware of why it had taken so long for further orders to make their way back from their superiors. The cephalon soon gave up and slumped back down against the cold wall of the cell, beginning all at once to feel fearful, hopeless and as though its efforts had ultimately all been for nought. Just as it began to entertain the idea that antagonising the guards to violence might actually be its best shot at avoiding the fate it knew was coming, the pitched squeal of the cell block alarm rang confirmation of an accepted identity sphere, and the security iris responded by spiralling outward with a low, pneumatic hiss. The gastropod squinted both of its stalked eyes as it struggled to make out the three tall figures behind the Magister, somehow cast in shadow, before its hearts all sank in unison. The realisation was like the pounding crash of tidal waves against its spirit; the figures weren’t merely hidden in shadow, they were of the shadow, and they were the shadow, cast in themselves – and they had come to pass their sentence.

The cephalon pressed itself as flat as it could against the rear of the cell in fear, instinctively changing the colour of its outer mantle to match the chrome appearance, and as the Scythian lords neared began to emit the most peculiar and desperate whine. It sounded almost like a shrill blast from an alto saxophone might if played underwater, and successfully conveyed the precise tone of abject desperation one might feel in a similarly hopeless circumstance. The Scythian to the Shadow’s right leaned forward and waved a lithe hand left to right across the locking panel on the cell door’s right post, deactivating the forcefield that kept the creature contained, however despite no longer being bound, the Betrayer still didn’t dare to move a muscle. The three tall figures were now standing across the doorway, where the Shadow stared coldly at the cephalon from between the other two for several long moments. Not speaking, not exhibiting any discernible expression whatsoever. He merely stared, intently and as though he were able to read every thought and feeling that the weaker creature experienced. As if he were connecting with it, at some strange level. He turned and demanded of his Magister; “We wish first to see the device before passing sentence. Bring it before us.”

At once, the Magister and one of the guards stationed at the cell entrance turned and made for the adjacent chamber in which the treasured artefact had earlier been securely stored. It was not a small object by any means; the Astrograph computer was a large, cube shaped interface with no readily identifiable markings, screens or switches. It really appeared at first glance to be nothing more than a glossy, black cube of perfect geometry about a meter and a half in height, depth and width, and despite its size was somehow still of a weight that could be shouldered alone by a creature as large as a cephalon. The Magister and his guard however were of a slighter race, and so promptly lowered three wheeled legs from the pedestal on which it rested and pushed the object out of its cell, leaving it behind the Scythians who stood directly between it and the accused. Noiselessly and without prompting, the three figures turned counter-clockwise as one and glanced back at the Astrograph only momentarily before returning to their quarry, satisfied that they had now regained complete control of the situation. The Scythian to the left of the Shadow was the first to speak this time, and began with a succinct re-address of the creature’s crimes:

“Cephalon,” the figure wetly rasped, now electing impressively to address the creature in its native tongue, “Your crimes are theft from the Order, conspiracy to provoke dissent and treason against those that have earned your submission. Your perspective on the matter is not of any consequence, nor will it be made record in any capacity. You will be erased henceforth from the memory of the Legion, and all trace of any you call kin will be likewise cleansed from whichever planetary systems they presently occupy. Do you understand..?” There were again no noises, no gestures that accompanied the words or pause of the Scythian, only an intense coldness which hung in the silent air of the room like an early morning fog and seemed to cling to everything. The Betrayer cautiously moved away from the rear of the cell and took a careful step forward. It wasn’t a step so much as a coiling and unwinding of the mass of slick tendrils the creature used to move, but it stopped several feet short of the trio and slowly rose up to its full height, preparing to respond.

The Scythians were an impossibly imposing race of beings, far greater in height and stature than any other biped endemic of the Netherverse, or the universe for that matter. Despite the powerful natural gravity of the nameless world on which they first evolved, or perhaps in spite of it, they had succeeded in becoming the apex predator long before mastering even the most basic of tool technologies. This in and of itself is highly unusual for a body type not generally capable of competing against quadrupeds, let alone the primitive but powerful six-limbed Mhorlans with whom they first warred for territory, but illustrates well the savage beginnings of a species whose will to dominate would always win out over any perceived disadvantages of their biology. The cephalon, however, was a sheer loose mass of malleable muscle and cartilage that, when stood fully upright towered over lesser races by clear feet. It was its advantageous size that initially made the Betrayer the perfect volunteer for the outliers’ secretive mission to take from the Scythians their next conquest, but it had also ultimately been a quality actively complicit in its undoing.

The creature looked first to the two figures flanking the shadow, and then gazed directly into the featureless face of their leader and declared in Coleoidic, “I understand all too well. I understand the tyranny of the Scythians, for I have been a party to it, and have aided it first hand. I have seen it with my own eyes, and it is a source of great shame that I have watched on to this day and done nothing. I understand that you, who has crowned himself imperator, work to further raise that tower of corpses, alive and dead, upon which your abhorrent empire rests. You must understand that I could not stand idly by any longer and simply bear witness. I may have failed in my directive this day, but where I have failed, others will not. All empires are one day to fall, and..” The creature stopped short of elucidating what might have been perceived as a specific promise, and before it could decide whether or not to continue speaking, was interrupted once more by the lower ranking shade to the Shadow’s left:

“Cephalon,” it began again with total indifference to any implied threat in the creature’s words, “You will now divulge to us the identities of any and all who have aided you in your treason. You will do so and withhold nothing, or face due process prior to your impending execution. Speak.” The Betrayer knew well what ‘due process’ alluded to, and once again the same fear as earlier took hold. It didn’t say another word, and so with a short glance the Shadow beckoned the Magister to make arrangements for the traitor to be processed, and all necessary information extracted and documented for future purges and pogroms. The Legion’s methods for ensuring that prisoners and traitors relinquished such information was well known, and so with this and its inevitable execution in mind the cephalon made a quick and impulsive decision, really the only decision that it could have made if it hoped to protect those that had supported it in its mission. The great creature quickly coiled and released every muscle in its exhausted body, and sprang without warning directly at the Moiling Shadow in a reckless attack while the Scythian completed his dialogue with the Magister.

It is difficult to describe with mere words just how visually revolting a monument to anatomical defilement the proceeding several seconds were. Truly. Almost a thing of morbid beauty, before the cephalon could even cross the threshold of its holding cell, the Shadow deftly raised his right gauntlet while still locked in conversation with the Magister, and by way of an installed technology caused the Betrayer’s body to freeze instantly in mid-leap and fluidly deconstruct in a circular vortex of pale blood and gristle. It was as if the Shadow had read the simpler mind of the Betrayer and predicted exactly at what moment the creature would choose to strike. The fantastic disposal of the unfortunate cephalon took only seconds in all, and once the entire body appeared to have somehow been processed into a dense cloud resembling little more than a thick blue and purple paste, the Scythian lowered his arm and so too the swirling mass of everything that hung in the air dropped unceremoniously to the floor of the cell with a slapping sound like an open hand on still water, splashing up onto everyone and everything around it save the Scythian overlords whose personal cloaks deflected it.

Every creature in the room at that moment froze still in the aftermath, the grisly gore soaked tableaux they suddenly occupied somewhat resembling the grotesque work of a master of the Dutch Renaissance. What remained of the Betrayer slowly dripped down from the cell walls and from a wide area of the block roof where spatter had spilled out of the open cell door. The Shadow and his delegation paused only momentarily before addressing the Magister once more; “Have this mess attended to at once, and the Astrograph sent out to the shuttle to be returned to our arbiter with our delegation. See to it that any cephalon found active in the service of the Legion be purged without hesitation or delay, and that the same directive be distributed to all outlying district posts. Send forth an assignment of world destroyers to the Coleoidean system, and give no warning.” The delegation then turned to make for the entrance to the cell block, however before they could proceed the Magister, now at least recovered enough from what had just taken place to pluck his courage, asked of his lords: “Of course, at once – it will be waiting for you, Imperator. Before you leave, however, and I do not mean to ask out of turn..” He paused to gulp, not entirely confident as to whether it would be wise to continue. “Speak, Magister,” one of the lesser Scythians hissed, “We are already delayed.”

Their subordinate clasped both hands behind his back and continued, “Well, the arrest of the cephalon, before..” He glanced nervously at the widening pool of purple ooze that was once his own superior, and switched gears, “The extraction was initiated on my watch. By my command the creature’s communication channels were monitored, and the eventual exposure of its outgoing correspondence used to bring it to justice. I should have hoped to be rewarded for my diligence, above and beyond those who came before. The artefact has been recovered undamaged, as instructed. I feel that perhaps an elevation in post might be considered.” The Magister stammered his delivery as he finally managed to articulate the thought that had been bouncing around in his head for hours. “Why shouldn’t I..?” he had asked himself, “I’ve an exemplary record of only loyalty and repeated success, and after only assuming command seven cycles ago. Such efforts should not go unnoticed, nor unrewarded. It’s only natural to seek to further myself, after all.” He stood attentive, and waited for their answer.

The three tall figures stood silent for a time, appearing to consider the Magister’s words and confer among themselves telepathically. Their kind had long since done away with the crude need to vocalise within their own company, often finding the necessity of doing so with those of the Legion beneath them both arduous and distasteful. Still, after reaching an apparently agreeable conclusion, the Shadow stepped silently forward and addressed the Magister. “You will exhibit your continued worth in leading the fleet for our impending invasion, as is planned. You will continue to perform your duties above and beyond, as you say, so long as we deem it beneficial. Your accomplishments, your value and your life; these are mere constructs, assets belonging to our order.” The Moiling Shadow again took a long stride forward, toward the magister and leaned uncomfortably in, much closer than the commander felt was appropriate, “You will do well to remember your place, Magister, lest we do choose to reevaluate it. The new pall cycle is approaching, and the fleet must be moved accordingly, while there is time. You will hinder us no longer.” The Shadow then wordlessly rejoined the others before they all turned and left the cell block, making their way beck to the landing bay and to the next step in their planned invasion.

As the black trio of ghosts diminished silently into the distance of the long corridor, the Magister finally unclenched his trembling hands and balled them into fists, exhaling loudly. “Contact maintenance,” he stuttered to a guard by the entrance, “have them send a cleaning team down here right away.”

02. Beyond the Veil

The prevailing mood among those working aboard the Skrell battlecruiser as it hurtled deeper into the vast area of space known as the Rua’Maat was one of both restlessness and unbridled excitement. The tension in the air was palpable; its steward Threan crew, now free from the oppressive Harlian atmosphere were finally back on track to make good on their sworn promise to deliver the Omega Device, a Threan stellar bomb, to the prime system of their oldest enemy, and destroy their hive world and interstellar fleet once and for all. So many years of deep and bloody conflict had brought their captain Alyx and his battle hardened crew to that moment. So many millions of lives lost on both sides, so many breakthroughs and new solutions meant to end their war – failed biological agents, intended to target only the chelicerate DNA of the enemy but that ultimately blighted whole planets and did little more than slow their enemy’s already prolific reproductive growth, new alliances forged on both sides which only bolstered the volume of bodies on each and the bombardment of lost colonies from orbit with ion weapons, until nothing but ruin and death existed on their surface. All passing campaigns in an endless war that the Threans were well and truly tired of fighting.

The Omega Device, the star destroyer, was their last and only hope at putting an end to it all. The commandeered Skrell battlecruiser was the perfect vehicle with which to deliver it to the enemy without raising alarm, and if they were successful then just maybe, finally, it would all be over. Everyone in Alyx’s crew knew exactly what was at stake if they were to fail, all of them at one point or another having lost those close to them, friends, family and comrades in the conflict or by way of reprisal. Theirs was a rich and populous region of the space known as the Outer Claw, a wide and far reaching arm of the enormous Khum-Vulkhai spiral galaxy. The Threan people were not the first of their region to discover the science of interstellar travel, but thanks to their competitive and adventurous nature they had quickly established a large federation of outposts, industry and new colonies far beyond their homeworld of Threa. Wherever the Threans eked out a new territory, by virtue of their work ethic and productivity prosperity would soon follow and in only a few short centuries, they had established a peace built on foundations of mutual respect that might have lasted millennia.

The ever changing and irregular boundary surrounding every system that their federation policed was known collectively as the Veil, for beyond that was only the vast unseen wildernesses of those that would resist their domestication, and the great unexplored. From time to time, other races native to the Khum-Vulkhai, albeit at varying levels of advancement would come into contact with those of the Veil, often for the purpose of peaceful relations but very occasionally with warring intent and in either case, the Threan prerogative was always clear and firm; the Threa have no interest in exposing the citizens of the Veil to potential enemies who might covet their resources, nor in new friends outside their mandated contact program. Today’s ally is tomorrow’s enemy when times are tough, and besides, their federation had not yet slowed in growth for a moment. It seemed that every new cycle of Threa saw yet another adjacent system submit to the greater good, so what would be the point in looking further afield than needed..?

Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, ‘There is always a bigger fish’ and so in the three hundred and thirty-eighth recognised year of federation, the unstoppable force of Threan expansion finally met its first immovable object. In an attempt to further extend their territory toward the tip of the Outer Claw, first contact was made with the likewise growing borders of another dominant contender in the long race for galactic supremacy. It began as a great many other previous contact events had – it was not uncommon for Threan scouting and diplomatic parties to encounter wary or somewhat hostile terms when first approaching new worlds with a contract of admission into what was adamantly outright posited as their new host empire, however where most had been quick to withdraw any threats of violence when a second delegation was sent forth (typically a small fleet of fighters and a single well armed skyhammer was enough), the same could not be said for the Skrell.

The first diplomatic envoy that had been sent to their sector of space had mysteriously disappeared on what was first believed to be a fairly routine mission. The lone and underwhelming transit vessel, manned only by an unthreatening standard delegation of Threan diplomats and a handful of science and security officers, was sent into the region after intelligence had returned enough data to conclude that several systems at the outer edge of the Veil were in fact populated, and that at least some effort had taken place insofar as the terraforming of a number of small moons for the purpose of what appeared to be the harvesting of solar energy. Typically, such a delegation is called to return contact with their nearest outpost inside of a Threan week (only a little longer than a Terran week, for reference), however it was not unusual for diplomats to, on occasion, become so enamoured by a new culture and customs that they would simply lose track of time and forget to check in. In this instance, a second vessel of delegates was sent out to provide assistance however, again, no communication of any kind was returned.

No third attempt at peaceful contact was ever made, neither then or at any other time in Threan history. It was only logical that hostile intent be immediately assumed by their ministry of war, and so within hours of a snap meeting of the ruling elite, a massive fleet of Holy Legion titans, skyhammers and starbreakers was assembled and soon en-route at blistering speed, bound for the Skrell systems. Not since their war with the peoples of the Antari a generation earlier had there been a real need for the slumbering Threan war machine to stir, and so it is reasonable to say that each and every soldier drafted for the first aggressive push into Skrell space had a strong thirst for blood and battle, for fire and that same intoxicating glory that only a living few of their number had been fortunate enough to ever taste.

Their entire culture had been predicated on a well-tested foundation of conquest and war, and a fervent dedication to the unity and prosperity of any world within the boundaries of the Veil, by whatever means necessary. Long before their mastery over flight and interstellar travel, the Threa had not resembled anything close to the driven and unified monolithic culture they had become. Warring tribes of the massive Threan homeworld had first spent millennia at odds, fighting constantly over territory and historic tribal differences, and on more than one occasion, particularly in the early years of their scientific enlightenment, had even threatened their own existence with primitive atomic warfare. As with all developing species, the Threa too had been forced to pass through that metaphoric gauntlet, the inevitable trial by fire and conquest of self as they transitioned from animal to authority. Fortunately, by putting their differences aside, they had eventually come together as one, so much for the betterment of all.

The three classes of warship sent into Skrell space were entirely typical of a Threan first offensive. The titan class monitor vessel was a central element to any attack, acting as a rear point of co-ordination aboard which those officers commanding the fleet could execute manoeuvres and monitor the success of their campaign. Aptly named, these vessels were extraordinarily large and imposing, comprising a massive symmetrical disc weighted on one surface with a broad protuberance punctuated all around by hangar doors, from which dozens of smaller one man fighter craft might be deployed if and when the need arose. Coloured a reflective white all over so as to ensure they were constantly visible, they were a stark contrast in almost every way to the skyhammer and starbreaker class battlecruisers that usually accompanied them. Both of the latter attack vessels were manufactured to celebrate stealth and speed, similarly resembling long and reflective ink-black needles propelled by a half dozen ion thrusters at one end and that tapered to an extreme single point close to a micrometer’s width at the other.

The key difference between the two mostly came down to agility and firepower; while the skyhammer had a definite edge on speed, relying on a smaller crew of only a half-dozen officers to operate and also had a significant advantage insofar as evading rogue debris and enemy fire, the starbreaker class were by far the more well equipped and imposing of the two sibling vessels. The larger ship was essentially the Threans’ answer to any opposing force that dared to invite a contest of raw power. They were massive cruisers constructed to around a kilometre in length and were capable, unlike the skyhammers that were required to dock with the larger titan class vessel for long distance travel, of achieving faster than light speeds under their own power. Their great size was not only necessary for the purpose of intimidation, nor simply transporting soldiers in readiness for potential surface conflicts. Each starbreaker was armed, in addition to the standard plasma weapons and missile arsenal of every other smaller vessel, with a single linear particle accelerator cannon running along the entire length of the ship’s hull through which nuclear particles were accelerated into a single devastating beam of white-hot concentrated death, capable of reducing surface cities to dust should the need arise. Only a craft of such impressive size could possibly accommodate so incredibly effective a weapon, according to the brightest scientific minds of their time.

Their responding fleet arrived at the outer edge of the Rua’Maat to which the earlier diplomatic envoys had been sent and approached the colony planet their intelligence first detected with foolhardy bravado. Immediately after disengaging its hyperdrive engine, the titan class overseeing the mission was suddenly assailed on all sides by what could only be likened to a hostile swarm of bizarrely adorned small fighters, resembling scorpions in a fashion that the pod-like hull of each ship which sat astride two rows of claw-like landing apparatus supported a long, reclined weapon akin to a tail that reared out behind it and fired small but impossibly quick bursts of a strange laser beam, the exact nature of which the Threans had not seen before. It was the sheer number of these small chelicerate attack vessels that took the Threa completely by surprise at first, and in spite of their greater force they were quickly overwhelmed and simply unable to direct their weapon’s fire in a way that would inflict any real and measurable damage against them. The Skrell defenders took only minutes to reduce the starbreakers and skyhammers at the fore of the Threan force to little more than kindling, leaving the commanding officers aboard the titan to deliver a one word command none among the Threa could confidently recall was even entered in their active military codex; “Retreat.”

Such abject embarrassment, such a complete and utter humiliation as this had never before been experienced by their war ministry. When the lone titan returned to Federation space and was eventually able to communicate the scale of devastation to a sitting session, the floor was in total uproar; representatives from all ranks of the Threan military broke into heated debate, some passing immediate blame on the Legion’s intelligence division and others choosing to take their frustrations out physically, hurling benches and landing blows as the entire gathering failed utterly to process how such an event could have ever been allowed to take place. It could hardly be believed that an entire first fleet could be obliterated in the mere opening moves of an operation, and the Threan ruling class quickly concluded that if word of their failure were to spread throughout the colonies of the Federation, some larger groups over which they ruled might consider that the Legion of the Veil were no longer up to the task of defending the interests of their peoples. Others too outside the Veil who looked in with envious eyes might also come to learn of said events, and might then choose to strike, believing the Threan legions to have weakened and their space and resources become ripe for the taking. There was only one clear course of action that might allow them to save face, one way that news of their loss might be spun to protect the integrity of the monumental society they had striven to create, protect and expand.

In less than a Threan day, a brutal propaganda campaign was drafted and distributed to the colonies, news of the “unprovoked and cowardly attack on the Federation” spun far and wide and forces assembled for battle. Just like that, the entire collective peoples of the Veil were at war.

Vital to the cohesion of the Federation at its inception was the establishment of and enforced adherence by all those beneath its protection to a central single unifying principle. After all, it is no small feat convincing even individuals of varying subclasses of the same species to live together in anything resembling a peaceful state without some central uniting ideal or aspiration to appeal to as a greater good. Particularly insofar as the Threa had first made most foreign populations under its authority forfeit their independence only after suffering a humiliating and emasculating military defeat and incursion, an equalising theology was needed to quell continuing resistance and so in that regard, the Temple of the Higher State was established early in the history of the Veil, and all military campaigns, conquests and appointments within the Legion to follow carried out in its holy title. All subjugated citizens, before they could be classed as such were required to recite a short oath of servitude not to the Federation, but the three Fates Conjoined (those identified as tyranny, entropy and integrity) as they pertained to attaining the Higher State.

The Fates Conjoined were represented as singular and fire, for the lone tyrant, null and void for formless entropy and the multitude or legion and stone as integrity and were depicted as such in much of Threan art and architecture. Within every temple to the Higher State, a monolithic carved depiction of each Fate astride three whirling winds that writhed about and melded together was made the central altar to which its students came for guidance. It was impossible to walk along any arterial avenue, either in a Federation outpost or in the world capital on Threa without being confronted by scores of statuettes, murals and works of commissioned art honouring the three fates which every adherent truly believed were the vital trinity of selfs comprising every living being, to levels requiring balance. It was the inescapable journey of each to correct their balance, and so the Higher State itself was a perceived evolution achievable by all living things, at which point in their journey the physical body is no longer necessary to contain the energy of the individual and was a perfect mechanism for uniting all races that might see an elevation at which point each and every living thing became the same, united – equal.

Their sacred oath, comprising three succinct verses to be delivered to each single entity, read as follows:

INCORRUPTIBLE BY TYRANNY

Though the tyrant’s fire may burn within us, It must not become us
Might we yearn for the bondage of corruption, we will not be bound
Temptation and weakness are shackles that would stay our hands
But we are stronger, together, than any subjugating force or whim

Enamoured by the virtues of justice and the endless order
Transfixed by the dispelling of chaos and the potential beyond
We reject all aspiring tyranny in place of the vision in the Veil
For its reach is far but ignoble, and we shall not be deceived

To only the Higher State, we pledge our loyalty

UNCONQUERABLE BY ENTROPY

We are the progeny of an endless celestial cycle
We are the sentient successors of stardust made flesh
There is no void into which we might be cast and not return
Nor force we cannot overcome by will and perseverance

For our collective spirit is the rock upon which all evil breaks
And shall never be worn away, so long as we are resolved
In motion set is the mechanism of an endless vision
An undying beast in who’s veins we are but coursing blood

In only the Higher State, we pledge our lives

INDOMITABLE THROUGH INTEGRITY

In the honourable company of legion, we are legion all
Beyond the shadow of hidden fears, we are the deathless starlight
Beneath the watchful eye of those elders once ascended
Our eternal destiny shall manifest, for our own place awaits us

Beside them and among them, we will become accession
None pass forever from memory, who become memory
So to the eternal godhead of the universe we boldly go
Us that stand united, together, the children of Khum-Vulkhai

For only the Higher State, we pledge our souls

Aside of course from the military codex of the Federation, the second and equally as revered text most highly held by the Threan civilisation was the Holy Doctrine of Ascension, which crafted a path by which citizens of the Veil might find a final enlightenment, and upon shedding their mortal coil achieve continuing life and a place in the cosmic pantheon under which all efforts of their combined population could find cohesion. So many crusades had been waged and victories won in the name of the Higher State, and in the nearly four centuries since the foundations of the Veil were first lain, it had grown to shape their struggle as something of a quasi-religious one, instilling in their military an almost fanatical fervour and will to prevail against all odds, no matter their favour. Alyx and his crew were devoted both to the continuing expansion of the Federation and their own quest for ascension, and so with all of this in mind, the scale and potential devastation their present mission threatened to be responsible for, if successful, was never questioned. It simply needed to occur.

“Urm,” Alyx, acting commander of the Legion and leader of their mission began, “Provide an estimate time of arrival to the Tora’Maat (their name for the core of the broader Rua’Maat region, wherein the principal enemy hive was said to be located) and have our engineers prime the payload accordingly. I want no mistakes, no error in judgement. This operation must be executed precisely.” His subordinate grunted shortly and with a nod, left the bridge of the vessel to carry out the order. Alyx turned to his left and addressed the next highest Threan officer in rank, “Thrang, have our engineers’ attempts to implement security overrides to the Skrell weapons systems been successful..? Can I expect a positive outcome by the time we approach their core system..?” Thrang was busy fumbling clumsily at a series of weird dials and linked levers on what he had learned was the navigational dash of the battlecruiser, and was so immersed in his work he hardly noticed Alyx to have spoken at all. Alyx did not immediately repeat himself however, as he was generally reluctant to do so. Instead he reached down the left of the captain’s bench on which he sat, produced a large hand tool akin to a socket wrench and hurled the heavy object at the back of Thrang’s head with due force. Authority needed to be respected, after all.

The tool found its mark and struck the back of Thrang’s thick skull with a mighty crack, before ricocheting to the floor of the bridge where it landed with a loud clang and pirouette. Thrang immediately clutched the back of his head with a high pitched yelp and turned sheepishly to provide his captain his full and undivided attention. “The weapons, Thrang,” Alyx growled again, “Yes, Captain – my apologies. Though we are still unable to ascertain exactly how they draw and focus power, we now at least have control over firing and direction of all primary weapons, including what appears to be a trio of artillery cannons mounted atop the ship’s stern.” He then frowned, and rubbed his skull again as the second wave of pain from the strike flooded in. “Good,” replied Alyx, “While I am sure our arrival in one of their own carriers will provide us some anonymity, if by chance we are given away before we reach the deployment minimum I would feel some comfort knowing that we are not entirely defenceless. See to it that your team continues their study of those systems, have them look for ship schematics, manuals – anything that might assist them in their efforts. Your goal is to ensure that if they are needed, they will respond as well as they would for the Skrell. That’s all.”

Thrang nodded diligently and then he too departed from the ship’s bridge, to call a snap meeting of his experts and engineers as instructed. As its iris-like circular entryway closed noiselessly shut, Alyx found himself alone and took the brief opportunity to reflect on their journey thus far. He leaned back awkwardly on the misshapen bench the Skrell captain would have used in an attempt to get comfortable, grunting in protest as he struggled to find balance and reached into a small container at its side for a measure of rations. Rations being a very loose term in his mind; all that his crew were able to find in what appeared to be the cruiser’s galley were trough upon trough of a thick, sickly paste not unlike a semi crystallised honey. “Now, I’m not entirely sure whether this stuff is consumed or produced by those things,” he had been told by Gharm, his science officer, “but all of our tests have concluded that it is indeed edible, and it’s about the only thing left on board that is.” He reluctantly withdrew a dark piece of solid, its form similar to honeycomb and dripping with the thick, sweet-smelling treacle and sighed heavily, tossing it back into the bucket and placing it on the floor. He was hungry, but as he held it to his lips could only hear that comment repeating itself over and again in his head: “consumed, or produced.” He just couldn’t risk it – he’d rather starve.

Alyx leaned back on the bench again and closed his eye, believing he just might be able to chance a short rest before they arrived at their destination. Thoughts flooded his mind as he loosened his grip on reality, thoughts of home, and of those that waited anxiously for news of their mission. In place of his predecessor, the last elected commander of the legions, Alyx had been volunteered to lead their campaign against the Skrell and, as dictated by their codex, an acting commander must be present and at the fore of all major military operations wherever possible. He was hardly one to argue with that sort of responsibility as few Threans would be wont to do, however couldn’t help but feel a little undeserved of his appointment. Essentially, he had first been put forward following the death in combat of their last appointee due to his status as the next in line to inherit an even greater position among the Threan high council, when his own father eventually abdicated. His line was directly descended from among the first families to have banded together from separate warring tribes on Threa after entering their space age, and were ultimately to thank, at least in part, for sowing the seeds of unity that grew into the Federation as it came to be. For all intents and purposes, they were viewed almost as something of royalty by the general public.

Given his status, however, Alyx had in spite of a stellar military record still felt somewhat underwhelming in his accomplishments. He knew that this operation might be his first real chance to strike a decisive and effective blow against their enemy, to prove himself worthy of the respect and responsibilities that he had attained, rather than merely adopting them as might have been expected. His sense of duty was unrivalled, but his constant will to prove himself was also an equally driving force. He knew that when he was to eventually succeed his father in claiming absolute final authority over the First System, he would effectively be at the helm of the destiny of not only his own people, the Threa, but of every world over which the Federation ruled. Unlike his father, the added responsibility of commanding its legions meant that his entire life, as far as foreseeable would be spent in devoted service, every waking moment, never resting nor able to delegate those matters only a lord and commander could address. He would essentially be in charge of an empire, a thought that weighed so heavily on his broad shoulders he almost felt at times unable to bear it.

Alyx mused alone on the alien bridge for a time, both attempting unsuccessfully to get comfortable with such notions as well as enjoying a little well deserved peace and quiet now that they were back on track and making good time. Another ten or fifteen minutes later his thoughts were broken by the faint click and whirl of the bridge door, as Urm returned from the engineering bay having finished briefing his team. His comrade strode back to his station with a nod to Alyx, and set about interfacing an existing underside hatch mechanism beneath the cruiser with a rudimentary deployment frame his workers had rigged together so that they could release and jettison their bomb toward the red giant at the centre of the Skrell home system. In order to initiate the desired reaction, they needed to ensure that the weapon could be delivered unnoticed. They also needed to be mindful that in activating such a device, which was densely packed with a highly volatile refined dark element known simply to them as Ora, they were essentially inviting the star to unnaturally achieve supernova – that being more or less the outcome needed to erase the hive world and all satellites maintained by the enemy. The effects of the resulting gamma rays required they be several light years away from the system before the process began, lest they suffer a similar fate to the inhabitants when the chain reaction commenced. It was an action demanding the utmost calculation, care and precision and, if they were off even slightly, would undoubtedly be their last.

Satisfied he had completed the task at hand, Urm shortly rose from his station and walked across to where Thrang had earlier been working the controls. He sat down studied their mapped course momentarily before turning to Alyx, who was still looking weary from his introspection. “Commander,” he started, sensing that the other might benefit from a short respite to lift his spirits, “there appears to be a small series of rogue bodies nearby, meteors mostly but a few larger bolides also, only a short deviation from our current course. Thrang has just advised me that the ship’s weapons are now one hundred percent operational and can be fired at will from the helm. Might I suggest we take a short detour and let off a few rounds, perhaps see what their larger cannons are capable of..?” Alyx couldn’t help but break into a wide smile, sensing Urm’s motive and appreciating the consideration. He thought for a moment and replied, still with a grin, “That would be a sensible course of action, wouldn’t it..? Best to go into this fight with our eye open. Plot a course, just make sure we’re back on target within the day.”

“Already mapped and programmed, sir.” Urm replied, also with a grin.

In almost precisely the same place and at exactly the same time, but still an impossible distance away by all practical measure, the Moiling Shadow was overseeing the reinstallation of the Astrograph aboard his personal arbiter. Though he had already succeeded in extracting the required coordinates for his own crossing into the new universe, the device was still needed within arms length to ensure that, when the remainder of the fleet was prepared for their invasion, a stable gateway could be generated and maintained. He had decided to cross over personally first with a small accompaniment of world destroyers, as it would be necessary both to complete construction of a second manifold at their destination and source a final small measure of black matter there to ensure its operation. The Netherverse only had so much of the prized element, the potency of which the Scythians had observed to deteriorate more and more with passing millennia and that involved a long and painful process of extraction and refinement, even to source the smallest sample. Their destination universe, however, being so much younger still had black matter in ready abundance, and so as they were now only one orb short of a required seven to complete and operate a second gate from the other side, it promised to be a quick and easy delay in their forthcoming invasion.

They had not, however, taken into account the approach of a new pall cycle at the coordinates necessary for their initial crossing. Given the trillions of added years the Netherverse had existed, the vastness of such time in which its stars had succumb to entropy, celestial bodies had collided, formed and been re-formed, huge swirls of collected elemental debris had begun to ride the solar winds generated as a precursor to the impending and unstoppable universal collapse and had eventually manifest in cyclic waves which ebbed and flowed with calculable regularity. These waves were observed to pick-up speed as their cycle wound around between their dim galaxies and cosmos and often carried projectiles and caused spatial distortions that posed a very real threat to any worlds and interstellar craft caught in their way. The impending cycle promised large scale destruction given their position, and so the Shadow found that he was quickly running out of time if he hoped to activate the first manifold ahead of his vessel and depart before the long cycle arrived. He doubled his efforts, and elevated all discipline and punishment needed to ensure he was not left looking foolish.

Soon enough, he was once again satisfied to find that if sufficient motivation was provided and harsh enough examples made, the Scythians could accomplish almost anything. The dark lord of the living and the dead stood before the artefact and motioned for the summoning of those of his order that accompanied him on the vessel to join him in the issue of their next command. So many centuries, so many wars, seemingly unimportant advancements and technologies had built to that single moment. It was as though the Scythians as a race had within them an unconscious genetic plan of sorts, some kind of instinctive evolutionary blueprint that drove them toward conquest, not unlike the will of any other creature toward their own habitual behaviours. As a moth finds itself drawn to a flame, birds to flight or, perhaps more fitting, a spider to weave a web, it was somehow written exclusively into their DNA, as pure and as awful as any other force of nature. The Scythians existed for the subjugation and conquest of all living things, it was their destiny to rule, consume and leave only ashes in their wake. They were the end of everything, the growing storm – the true Alpha and Omega.

And they were coming.

03. The Omega Device

It didn’t take very long at all for Alyx and his crew to figure out how to charge, prime and fire the Skrell weapons, but it was quite some time before they began to tire of their remarkable capacity for destruction. Unlike earlier makes of the larger Skrell cruisers, the three long cannons that sat astride the vehicle they had commandeered were something none of them had ever seen before, at least not at that magnitude. They were in fact a relatively new weapon that their enemy had for some time apparently been developing in secret, as an intended means of outgunning the similarly powerful starbreaker class of the Threa and their linear particle accelerator cannon. In fact, the fundamental physics and engineering of the artillery of both vessels was strikingly similar. What had thrown Thrang in his earlier efforts to master its controls was merely that fact that, somehow, the Skrell had found a way to circumvent the Threans’ need to space their oscillating electric potentials so far apart to accomplish the same beam intensity on a comparable scale.

“It’s really quite brilliant,” Thrang had said when he returned to the bridge, to which Alyx could only roll his eye. “They’ve somehow managed to compress their linear beam in such a fashion that the atomic particles are only travelling a scarce quarter of the length ours currently do, but are still being modified about the same. If we could return to Threa with this,” He was careful not to call it an advancement, “modification,” he continued, “then with our improvements everywhere else, we’d be able to fit-out our skyhammers with just about the same firepower. It would be a complete game changer..!” Alyx wasn’t immediately as excited to consider the potential advantages the theft of enemy technologies might bring to the Threan military. He instead felt a knot of dread grow in his stomach as he considered what might have, and still may eventuate if their enemy were able to bring such equitable firepower to their war, with their already superior numbers. It was a sobering thought, and one that only steeled his resolve to successfully complete the mission at hand.

“I’ll reserve judgement until I see what it’s actually capable of,” Alyx replied, turning over his left shoulder to address Urm at the navigation console, “Urm, are we in position..?” Urm replied, “Yes, commander, we’re sitting just inside firing range of the bolides now.” Alex turned back to Thrang, who was already seated on the gunner’s bench up front, awkwardly trying to ease his right fore claw into the narrow slit in the ship’s dash where the trigger and throttle were housed. “Take aim at the largest body of rock, near the rear of the swarm,” He instructed, pointing through the bridge display to a massive and irregularly shaped asteroid around a half kilometre long (roughly double the length of the Skrell vessel). “Charge weapons, and hold your fire until my mark.” Thrang immediately tensed his wrist, and a dull hum started up from somewhere above them as the weapon began to draw power. He leaned forward into the dash and rested his jaw on a support so that he could line his sight up with three sets of crosshairs that moved in tandem with the barrels of each cannon. He trained all of them on the bolide.

Thrang was ready, and peeled back both lips to expose his tusks as he held his concentration and prepared to unleash all hell. The order came only a second later, “Fire..!” Thrang drew in all three stages of the weapon’s sectioned trigger and released the building charge of atomic energy from the overhead cannons. Unbeknownst to the Threa, the Skrell weapon was primarily designed to be fired sequentially, from only one of its mounted cannons at a time. The release of the built up charge firing from all three barrels at once resulted in a blinding flash of light and the release of a shockwave so severe it shook the entire vessel almost asunder, feeling for those aboard as though it might break into pieces at any moment. Everyone on the bridge braced themselves by gripping the nearest anchor they could find as three monumental torrents of energy were loosed from the weapon and merged into one blinding beam midway between their craft and the asteroid. A microsecond later the bolide was struck and was instantly vaporised, disappearing altogether in a brilliant flash of light and energy that threw the rest of the meteor swarm hurtling out in all directions as well as sending a thousand smaller particles back toward the Skrell battlecruiser.

The wayward debris was no match for the ship’s shields, and tiny fragments of exploding rock and dust lit up the forward monitor like a small firework display as the Threan crew regained their composure. Thrang threw both his arms up in the air and hollered, appearing momentarily to have forgotten where he was, “Yeah..! Did you see that..?!” he whooped, “God-like power, by my claws – I am a titan..!” He punched at the air in front of him and turned around to face his commander wearing a stupid grin from ear to ear, and the general look a young boy might have after letting off fireworks in a mailbox. Urm had nothing at all to say, merely staring wide eyed at the growing cloud of dust and debris and Alyx too only stood with his mouth slightly ajar, struggling to come to terms with just how devastating the Skrell weapon had proven to be. He chastised Thrang after coming to his senses, and ordered his subordinate to return to the controls, being mindful only to fire one short blast at several other smaller meteors that remained near enough still to target. “Fire..!” He commanded once more, and again. The monitor lit up once, twice and another half dozen times as Thrang quickly became familiar with the act of coordinating the firing mechanism, targeting via the crosshairs and the dynamic fragments that quickly raced away from each direct hit. When no more bodies were within range, he loosed his grip on the trigger with a sigh and withdrew his claw, and leaned back on the gunner’s bench to come down from the excitement.

The whirring and humming overhead quickly faded away as the weapon powered down, and once again there was only silence on the bridge. Alyx turned wordlessly to Urm who returned a short smile and nod before returning the ship to its former course, and then sat back on the captain’s bench. He addressed Thrang, “These cannons, how long can they be run before their charge must be rebuilt..?” Thrang thought carefully, rubbing the side of his head as he did before answering, “I’d say they’d best be used only as needed. Firing as we’ve just done should see us through most of a matched battle, we’ll have no problem firing off a few dozen shots individually but loosing all three cannons at once, that drains a whole lot more energy than we can sustain at any reasonable length.” Alyx replied, “Yes, I hope and pray we don’t have need to draw on that much force at any point on this mission, but it is good to know it’s there. How long will the weapon take to charge, once depleted..?” Thrang thought hard again, and replied, “I’d want to give it at least a couple of hours. There’s no telling just how well it’s been broken in or tested, new as it appears to be, so the longer the better.” Alex nodded, “Then begin charging, I want to know that it’s at our disposal, before we reach the Tora’Maat.” Thrang nodded and left to return to the ship’s engineering bay, and Alyx turned his gaze back to the ship’s monitor.

They were still several hours out from the edge of the Rua’Maat, even travelling at what they believed was the vessel’s top speed. The journey en route from the Veil to the far Outer Claw was a long and unremarkable one, for the most part. The course they were taking had been mapped with stealth in mind, and saw them make strategic use of a number of loud quasars and nebula along the way that, when approached with those between their vessel and destination, assisted in masking their ship’s energy signature by way of redshift space distortions and dense clouds of ionised gasses. Of course, such considerations were initially meant for the actual Threan vessel Alyx and his crew had first departed the Veil aboard, and so they were in some ways unsure just how disguised their approach would be in their newly acquired Skrell battlecruiser. Still, the advantages in dressing as the enemy seemed, at least in their minds and for the time being, to outweigh the risks. The excitement of the use of the Skrell artillery had been enough for Alyx to step out of his own head, and so he set about planning their incursion and deployment of the weapon when they arrived.

He pulled up a map of the Skrell home system on the monitor from the ship’s databanks and called across to his second in command, “Urm,” he pointed his right claw to the fifth planet on the system, a massive gas giant and the largest of the alien system’s worlds, “That planet, the failed star. It appears to be comprised of hydrogen and helium, mostly – can the Skrell cruiser sustain a low orbit masked in its atmosphere..? And if so, for how long..?” Urm frowned, studying the strange notes and figures accompanying the map and replied, “From several hours to several days, I would imagine.. depending of course on how hidden you’d wish to be. My Skrell isn’t as fluent as yours, but it doesn’t appear to be so dense as to pose a major risk.” Alyx was considering whether they might position themselves within the planet’s upper atmosphere in order to better scan for signs of the enemy fleet, before making their way further in to the system’s third world, their destination. He nodded, and added, “Recalculate our course for entry accordingly, and run the data on the ability of this ship’s instruments to conduct a long range scan of the rest of the system through the planet’s atmosphere, at differing densities. I’d like to have a few options to consider, before we follow-through.” Urm nodded, “Yes, commander,” and set about following through on the order.

Their target now all but within their reach, the Threans continued on their crusade to the Rua’Maat.

The Shadow had, by that same moment, become finally convinced the time had arrived to activate the local manifold, and open their gateway into the new universe. They had dubbed their coming a new extinction event for all those they were about to confront, and had prepared a fleet large enough to display adequate force against any with whom they might make first contact, though this was still only the tiniest fraction of the complete invasion force that was to come. The dark lord stood at the helm of his personal arbiter class craft and, once all aspects of the manifold had been moved into position, summoned three of his kind to join him in activating the Astrograph via simultaneous controls hidden beneath the four featureless faces of the cubed object. The black kings of the Netherverse each silently placed a lithe, saurian hand on the centre of a face, and the artefact at once began to glow – not with any light of the spectrum as we know it, but somehow with a sort of maddening, inverse darkness, as if it was somehow drawing the very light and energy from the room around it into its core. The vessel aboard which they stood began to hum, and all subjects and the risen that occupied its halls and barracks felt as though the craft and even they themselves were vibrating, and then a moment later as if they were being somehow pulled in a direction they never knew existed. Then they were gone.

Before anyone bar the Scythians could even blink let alone realise what had happened, an invisible black portal began to manifest around the ship growing outward from the centre as a rift was created, fuelled by a concentrated beam of black matter generated by the unfathomably massive structure before which the small fleet had been stationed. The half dozen world destroyers and the Shadow’s personal arbiter were ripped instantly from existence in the fraction of a microsecond and without light, sound or any further indication that the event had even taken place, the fleet appeared as if from nowhere in the universe of the Threa. The Moiling Shadow raised his gaze from the Astrograph without hesitating and stared coldly at the display monitor of the arbiter’s bridge, and the veritable ocean of starlight that now surrounded them. They had done it – the Scythians had finally crossed over, from the dark realm of terror and death into the vibrant kaleidoscope of life and light that was the galaxy of Khum-Vulkhai. The four cloaked terrors removed their hands from the device in unison, wrapping them in the folds of their dark robes and stepped back from the artefact. Wordlessly, the lesser three took leave of the bridge to return to the helm of their own destroyers and prepare their crews for assignment as per their directive.

The Shadow strode silently across to the fore of the bridge and stood directly before the viewing monitor, allowing himself a brief moment to appreciate his coming conquest and silently toast their success. As he stared out across the cosmos, alone at the ship’s command, he knelt in place and offered silent tribute to the one and only supreme being to whom his kind had ever answered – the great and terrible formless god of spite, dominion and contempt. “Demithrax,” he began, “I have done as you have wished, and brought war to the very doorstep of the new virgin realm. Here I offer to you this fertile field of life that you might reap its harvest and lay waste to all beneath those you have chosen to be the bearers of your scythe. Once more we shall prove ourselves worthy of those weapons you have provided, and will see that your name rings out louder than all others in an empty vacuum of dying stars and dust. Hear me now, and at the hour of your glory grant us the fire to see your will realised.”

From somewhere far across the unfathomable void, outside of all and in a place transcending time and matter, the Shadow’s call was answered. The Demithrax, that great and terrible abomination of a thousand thoughtless thoughts called back somehow to the Moiling Shadow, communing via a thread of consciousness none but those among the highest order of absolute darkness possess. Through vision as voice, a premonition akin to a hurricane of extinguished souls overcame the Shadow, imparting to him a future of fire and death on a scale unthinkable to any possessing of even the slightest empathy to life and free will. This wasn’t so much its plan as its very nature, for the Demithrax existed less as a coherent and calculating entity as much as the pure idea of destruction, the living force of panic and death that all sentient creatures come to know and have articulated with the attribution of countless names through the ages. Carnage, chaos and death. And evil, for short of its own name, this might be as close as it is possible to come to describe the one true god of the Scythian race.

The Moiling Shadow rose and turned from the monitor, and once more approached the Astrograph. The next step in their mission was to zero in on the nearest stockpile of black matter, whether it be a natural supply or a mined quantity – it made no difference. They possessed more than the necessary firepower to overpower any force that stood in their way, and once they had the required amount would begin construction of the secondary manifold, so that they could establish a new, stable gate and invite the remainder of their invading fleet through it. He once more pressed his palm against the device and closed his eyes, allowing the artefact to power up and interface directly with his mind. Harnessing its dark energy to bolster his own, he cast his thoughts out on the currents of near space and probed its depths for any sign of the coveted black matter that he so desperately needed to realise the next step in his plan. It took several more minutes of disruption for all those aboard the arbiter as the device maintained activity, but sure enough, in the vast emptiness of space, only a short leap from their present location and contained within a small vessel aboard a Skrell battlecruiser hurtling into the Outer Claw, he found just what it was that he was looking for.

The Shadow released the Astrograph and submitted the coordinates of the vessel to his brethren aboard their world destroyers. By his reckoning, they would be able to close distance with their target in only a matter of minutes, which pleased him greatly. As one, the arbiter and its accompanying fleet turned heel and engaged their hyperdrive engines, disappearing from where they had first arrived almost as quickly as they’d come.

Aboard the Skrell battlecruiser, Alyx and his crew were finally preparing to exit hyperspace as they neared the border of the Rua’Maat. From its outer reaches, they knew that they would have to fly with the utmost caution, being mindful even more than before of stars and other obstructions between their current course and destination that they might utilise to mask their approach. Eventually, Alyx gave the order and they initiated their deceleration from the vessel’s top speed into a velocity that meant that any patrolling or stationary craft and outpost around them could theoretically detect their presence visually, and subsequently confront or attack them as they so desired. Without hesitating, engineering activated their inertial dampeners, and the long streaks of light that filled the bridge monitor were gradually replaced with the myriad of still white flecks that represented the dense pocket of young systems comprising the Outer Claw. Alex breathed a sigh of relief as it appeared that there were no enemy units lying in wait for them, no Skrell combatants that had detected their passage through the region and that hid, just watching for their craft to materialise. They were for now, he reasoned, safe to proceed. He gave the order to continue with caution, and so they carried on their course as planned.

All of a sudden, a shrill, piercing alarm exploded from the internal communication systems of the Skrell cruiser and caused each and every Threa aboard it to buckle at the knees. The wail was intermittent yet relentless and at such a desperate pitch as to cause many among Alyx’s crew to immediately drop what they were presently working on and press their clawed hands against the sides of their heads to dull the sound. Urm, who had by now rejoined his commander on the bridge turned to Alyx and hollered above the noise, “Captain, I’ve just now detected a small fleet of extremely large craft that have materialised after our own off the ship’s stern – they weren’t there when we jumped, but seem to have only dropped out of hyperspace moments after we did..!” He turned back to the console, and proceeded to read from his instruments, “I’m detecting at least a half-dozen craft and a single control vessel, all extremely large and drawing energy – I believe they’re charging weapons..!” Alyx wasted no time, immediately responding, “Turn about, now – prime the ship’s cannons and commence firing with auxiliary weapons until they’re ready – instruct engineering, evasive manoeuvres as best they’re able, keep us moving back away from them at no readable pattern. Bolster shields and tell me what you can as soon as you can about whatever weapons they’re preparing..”

The Skrell battlecruiser promptly lurched from its position and swung about on a broad axis to turn and face the approaching combatants. When it had eventually completed a 180 degree pivot, Alyx was finally able to discern through the bridge monitor just what it was that had managed to sneak up on them, and his heart sank. Poised in a perfect crescent formation, with an absolutely monstrous in design and impossibly large.. he couldn’t even begin to classify the appearance of the Scythian flagship at the group’s centre, the opposing fleet gave Alyx no warning, offered no attempt at communication before the flanking world destroyers unleashed a volley of white hot energy upon the Skrell ship. Instantly the ship’s shields were assailed and the entire craft engulfed in a blinding flash of light that damn near knocked it from the material world and sent everyone aboard flying, their bodies tossed about like rag dolls. The sheer offensive power of whatever weaponry the opposing fleet commanded was in no way comparable to anything that the Threa had ever seen, let alone believed could be wielded by any species native to the Khum-Vulkhai, at least as far as they had ever seen. The Skrell cruiser’s shields were instantly obliterated and damage done to their craft so severe that their cannons were immediately rendered useless, and all systems save life support and intermittent impulse power instantly knocked offline. They were now, for all intents and purposes, dead in the water.

Alyx picked himself up from off of the floor of the bridge and turned to where Urm had stood moments earlier, finding his subordinate to have fallen to his knees and now clutching at a deep, wide gash in his forehead where he’d met with the ship’s console on his way down. He barked at him, “Urm, get up and give me a status report – do we still have auxiliary weapons, and what casualties have we taken..?” He knew immediately that such an attack might very well have been enough to rend their craft in two, but hoped against hope that they still had the manpower to bring enough of the ship’s core functions back online so as to get them the hell out of there – the Scythian fleet was obviously worlds beyond their ability to contend with, and their core mission too valuable to risk another volley from whatever offensive weaponry it was they were brandishing. Urm laboured to raise himself back up on his feet before checking his instruments and responding, “Auxiliary weapons have been knocked offline, casualties appear to be minimal – three dead in engineering and another lost to a minor breach lower on the bow, since sealed. You’re not going to like this either, commander,” he stammered, “but much as it would be useless to us at the minute anyway, given the time it takes to charge, the ship’s heavy cannons appear now to be completely unresponsive.. I’m sorry. Just who they hell are they, Alyx, and where in the world did they come from..?”

The typically stoic commander in chief was suddenly apoplectic, and could contain his rage no longer. As the ship’s proximity alert continued to ring out in a symphony alongside a score of other varied and equally aggravating automatic warnings, Alyx reached down and with a mighty roar tore the captain’s stool clean from its fitting, hurling the heavy seat back into the open bridge. The stool bounced off the spiral entrance and crashed to the floor, and suddenly everyone on deck was paying full and complete attention to their captain. “I want auxiliary weapons restored as quickly as possible – Urm, direct as much labour as you can spare from other levels save engineering to weapons immediately, and check in with engineering as to the status and ability of the craft’s hyperdrive. Direct us aft on impulse, initiate an evasive trajectory and don’t stop until our weapons are back online. I want to know about that hyperdrive engine the second it’s up and running again, understand..?” “Yes, commander,” Urm replied, already actioning a course he had plotted all the while Alyx was still speaking, “We’re moving away now on a random pattern, not fast enough to lose them but nimble enough to avoid their cannon fire, for the time being.”

The pursuing Scythian fleet loosed volley after volley of weapons’ fire at the Skrell battlecruiser, but while they both outgunned and outnumbered their quarry, the smaller craft was still far too quick, and Urm much more seasoned a navigator than perhaps the Moiling Shadow and his subordinates might have anticipated. The Shadow, somehow sensing the Threan’s plan to buy more time before they were able to once more engage their hyperdrive sent an order to his world destroyers to fire not directly along the vessel’s trajectory, but rather to work together to strafe as close around the craft in all surrounding directions. His fleet immediately modified their approach and proceeded to box the Skrell cruiser into a linear path with heavy and constant fire, and Urm was now no longer able to risk weaving through space for fear of catching a round from their volley. The Threan second in command proceeded to push the vessel to the utmost limits of its remaining power in the hopes of getting as far ahead of their pursuers as possible but as he glanced at the monitor on his console which gave him a clear and present view of everything behind them, a lump of fear choked his throat.

Several kilometres off their stern, at the centre of the Scythian fleet, he was just in time to witness the Shadow’s arbiter begin to make an impossible transformation. The massive and awful looking craft, comprising in appearance a series of huge and jagged angular interwoven sections, had started to open up like some kind of great and sinister chrome orchid before his very eyes. As he looked on in horror, Urm noticed that as the final inner sections of the vessel peeled away, the process had revealed – previously hidden at the heart of the arbiter – what appeared to be an enormous reserve of stored naked energy, as white and bright as a small star and somehow either confined within a network of forcefields or otherwise drawn to and held by some central point of conduction. He could only guess what kind of technology was necessary to produce and contain such an incredible sphere of raw energy, but immediately surmised that it was far, far beyond the capability of both the Skrell and the Threa to comprehend or defend against. Now drained to white, Urm turned to scream at Alyx, “Switch the forward monitor to stern, now..! They’re charging a new weapon, and it’s a big one – we have to get out of here now..!” The tone of complete desperation in Urm’s voice prompted Alyx to immediately comply with his request, and all aboard the bridge stopped and stared at the awful vision in front of them.

The giant orb of plasma began to burn bluish-white and then a deeper hue as the Scythian arbiter increased the intensity of the weapon in preparedness for unleashing its power upon the Skrell cruiser. The surface heat of the monstrous weapon quickly approached 50,000 K – what one would expect to find at the upper end of the scale for an equivalent star – and just as Alyx gave the order to risk the volley of the world destroyers by breaking hard port to escape the path of the arbiter, the Moiling Shadow gave the order to fire. The titanic reserve of energy erupted from the core of the Scythian arbiter in a long and twisting plume that whirled toward the Threans’ vessel in a surging vortex, almost like a perfectly balanced tornado of raw power. It was as though the mouth of a great and terrible celestial god had opened, and the once secret and inaudible voice of the stars themselves finally revealed, as though all the universal powers of creation and destruction were in one moment interwoven as one and focussed directly at the Threan crew as they worked desperately and hopelessly to clear its path, to little avail. Narrowly avoiding direct cover fire from the surrounding world destroyers, Urm had only just managed to clear their craft from bearing the full brunt of the arbiter’s weapon. When the plume overtook their position, however, their vessel was almost instantly flung like an empty tin can far from the region with incredible and violent speed.

The energy beam released from the Scythian starfire consolidator was apparently so incredibly vast and dense that it carried with it an intense gravity field, creating an area of extreme disruption to any craft and object caught near enough to it, and not destroyed outright by it. Though Alyx and his crew were lucky enough to avoid being vaporised in the direct path of the beam, the instant draw of gravity to the position the plume occupied as it passed them by caused their craft to slingshot starboard across its trajectory and hurtle on into the open expanse of space at speeds approaching what they might have hoped to achieve were the ship’s hyperdrive engines still functioning. In fact, so incredibly quick was their cruiser ejected from the region that the lingering surge of light and heat energy that originated from the consolidator masked their path, prompting the Shadow to immediately demand his crew initiate long range scanning to locate the vessel that had, by all appearances, simply disappeared from view and all reach of their close range instruments.

In reality, Alyx and his crew had been knocked clear away from the Scythian fleet at speeds approaching that of light. The intense pocket of gravity had sent their vessel hurtling clear across the remaining width of the outer claw and on into the swarthy blackness that existed outside of the Khum-Vulkhai, which the Threa knew as the Aether. The Moiling Shadow worked desperately to locate any sign of his quarry, not believing for a second that an indirect hit from so focussed a beam would have destroyed them outright. He switched calmly between all methods of detection with no success, before finally electing to once more activate the Astrograph. Perhaps, if they were still close by enough, it might be able to pinpoint the black matter stowed aboard it – after all, that was the only real interest he and his fleet had in the smaller vessel. As the great consolidator was powering down, the Shadow once more reached out to the Astrograph and in to his mind to listen for signs of confirmation; that a call had been placed and heard by the device. It was only moments later that his efforts bore a result, though not perhaps the one he was initially hoping for.

In entirely the opposite direction to the Skrell hive, only a celestial stone’s throw from the outer edge of the Veil, the Moiling Shadow was made aware of a small and unremarkable system, by all standard measure. A small K-class star and three planets; two gas giants and one large and fast moving ringed world of rock and water that had hidden in a vast reserve quantities of refined black matter unlike anything ever seen in the Netherverse. Suddenly, the meagre score aboard the Skrell cruiser seemed unworthy of his continued effort, and so without word or warning, the Shadow directed his arbiter toward the new bounty. In similar silence, his fleet turned and followed suit.

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