Science Fiction

[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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The Mirrorlings of Kepler 442b

‘THE MIRRORLINGS’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

It had taken some time for the mirrorlings of Kepler 442b to willingly reveal themselves to Kelly and the rest of landing party, though their hesitation wasn’t entirely unexpected. They were a shy and reclusive species after all, and although they eventually warmed to the strange and ungainly group of explorers that touched down unannounced one morning nearby their village, it was with the greatest reluctance that they first dared to venture out from the shadows of the forest wall to greet them.

Of course, the travellers hadn’t been blind to clues that there was some sort of sentient species living somewhere on the surface. Even from orbit, they could easily discern the clear evidence of large, ruined structures scattered across the two major continents of the planet and the telltale signs of a primitive agriculture that had more recently developed on their outskirts. Despite knowing however, there were certain guidelines that had been put in place which limited potential human relations with alien life forms, and at their core was the basic premise that every newly discovered species retained the right to simply be left alone, should they choose to be. It was a subsequent relief then when the first of the natives poked its funny little head out from the mire and approached them, and all the explorers could do to keep from cheering loudly and frightening him away again.

Not unlike many periods in Earth’s own history, whatever dominant culture once existed on Kepler 442b appeared to be undergoing a dramatic shift of sorts, a period of slow renewal following some kind of long and apparently destructive upheaval in its most recent history. It presented an exciting opportunity for the enthusiastic traveler to come face-to-face with an actual developing alien civilisation, and a once in a lifetime experience for the anthropologically or archeologically inclined that might well make them the envy of their friends and peers back home. Despite advancements in the ease with which interstellar expeditions could now be undertaken, their mission was the first that had actually promised to introduce the crew to a living, breathing alien life form. Understandably, each and every one of them was simply brimming with excitement at the prospect.

There had been a handful of similar missions organised before their own, too many unsuccessful attempts sent forth by the new world government to find and establish contact with civilised life among the many thousands of exoplanets orbiting Earth’s nearest neighbouring stars, however none had been remotely successful until now, and the public budget was stretched far beyond measure when the first clear images and comprehensive data from the surface of Kepler 442b was finally beamed back home. It seemed prudent then that funding for this particular mission be shared amongst both public and private interests, which also opened the door to a number of lucrative advertising investments and even the participation of a small filmmaking crew from one of the world’s largest media networks that joined them to document the expedition. Ultimately it was a somewhat ragtag assortment that had been selected to made the journey, but not an entirely unreasonable representation of terrestrial society at its supposed peak.

Upon arrival, the group of diplomats, potential settlers and hopeful missionaries that had set out from Earth’s Lunar Station several months earlier found themselves to be largely disappointed. For starters, the half-government sponsored and half-privatised First Contact program had boasted ambitiously to deliver to them an “exhilarating, action-packed adventure into the unknown.” The many courses, seminars and rigorous training exercises that the crew had been forced to undertake leading up to it seemed to have all been building toward an advertised climax whereby they would be among the first human beings to either a) discover, interact with and learn from a completely new species, b) plant the terrestrial flag of discovery into the virgin soil of a new world, or c) at least be able to enjoy strange, untainted tropical wildernesses and alien delights beneath the gorgeous warmth of a scorching white sun (a spurious claim, to say the least. Kepler 442b actually orbited an orange dwarf star, and the irritating hue of its resulting daylight made many of them feel quite nauseous for the first few hours until their senses adjusted to the unfamiliar environment).

What the group had found, however, was that space travel was not at all the glamorous and intrepid experience that they had been sold. The journey had ended up taking almost three terrestrial months, even though they travelled at the fastest speeds their ship’s new gravity drive would allow and with a limited supply of power, food and fluids, those last few cramped and filthy days’ travel could not have passed them all by soon enough. Everyone aboard, whether scientist, student or military personnel almost fell headlong from the airlock once the massive landing pod had settled safely on the planet’s surface, and even the most irreverent among them gave thanks to whatever higher power came to mind when the first fresh breath of air that wasn’t mechanically stale and recycled finally filled their thirsty lungs.

To make matters worse, it didn’t appear that any kind of intelligent speculation had taken place prior to the selection process with regards to the inevitable culture clash that might occur when those of a military persuasion and training are thrown in close confinement with the idealistic diplomat, disobedient youth and a crew of snap-happy filmmakers that seemed not to stop shooting for even a moment’s peace. Throw a handful of religious zealots into the mix, and before you know it you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb of human extremes. Somehow though, if not by the grace of someone’s gods, those aboard the Endeavour reached their destination in one piece before the ship’s captain, a gruff veteran by the name of Kelly Miller and his men were forced to revert to their own brand of conflict resolution, much to his private disappointment.

Once on the surface, the landing party established a small encampment in a level clearing on the banks of a narrow stream nearby the pod and Kelly ordered a number of his crew to quickly set about foraging through the strange, tropical vegetation for samples of what best resembled comparatively terrestrial looking fruits and vegetables for analysis. Despite the wicked heat from above, there thankfully seemed to be a cool and constant breeze that rolled off from the massive oceans surrounding the small island continent and so once a makeshift base of operations had been established, many spent their first few hours doing little more than just lolling about lazily in the shade and taking stock of their surroundings.

Local fauna on the surface seemed at first glance to be surprisingly shy and scarce despite the rich and fertile environment, however a family of wealthy tourists that had bought their way in to the experience couldn’t resist filling drive after drive of film and picture recordings as a great flock of what could only be described as giant, wingless amoebas floated by on the first morning against the brilliance of the planet’s sun, bathing the travellers in a strange purple glow as daylight passed through their shapeless, bilious bodies. Where encountered, plant and animal life on the planet were unlike anything any of them had ever seen, and for some that experience alone had seemed to make the journey worthwhile.

The dense forests surrounding their camp were comprised primarily of different varieties of tall, whip-like scrub interspersed with the wide, imposing forms of massive birch-like trees that were completely smooth and featureless along the length of their trunks until they burst to life some two hundred feet above them creating a flawless, jagged canopy which allowed only the palest haze of sunlight through. What most closely resembled giant, sallow pitcher plants also littered the forest floor in places and attracted clouds of small, transparent insects that looked something like tiny flying jellyfish, and it almost began to seem to the travellers as though no vertebrates had managed at all to evolve in the planet’s strange and eclectic ecosystem. Until Dahl came forth to greet them, that is.

Kelly and his officers had just returned from a morning spent atop a nearby hill some several kilometers from base camp, where they combed through the rubble of what appeared to have at one time been a massive, ancient temple complex of some kind that would have towered in antiquity over the thick forest surrounding their clearing. It had taken the small party several hours to safely navigate their way into the heart of the ruins, where he’d noted and made sure to document an avenue of weird and almost frightening carved statues in a state of advanced decay that seemed to glorify a somehow familiar looking worm-like creature, most likely either another benign and airborne invertebrate or perhaps another unseen native that occupied the shallow waters of the nearby stream which babbled softly away in the distance.

It wasn’t unusual even on Earth to come across similar such tributes and monuments from a bygone era, erected in reverence to wild creatures and beasts of burden that might have been crucial to the day-to-day survival of the creative culture and so he’d decided to think little more of them other than making sure to take plenty of pictures to send back to their government and the other assorted financiers of his mission. Kelly and his men had been tasked to collect a certain quota of reports and data that he was obliged to archive during their month-long projected stay on the new world, data that might very well decide whether future missions and colonies would be sent forth and established on the surface of Kepler 442b. “We really are privileged to be here,” he thought, pausing among the monoliths momentarily to drink in his surroundings. And so far, they were lucky that not a single plant or animal appeared to be any cause for immediate concern. In spite of this, the tall, ancient statues that still remained standing caused him to feel just a little bit uneasy.

What made Kelly feel most uncomfortable about the likenesses lay in the detail. Those responsible for chiselling the creatures from the dark, blood-red rock of the hillside had paid careful attention to honour several marked features which might, to most soft-bodied animals, seem somewhat odd; twin sets of tiny pincers, deep set, slanted eyes sat far on either side of their pointed heads and wide mouths in which rows of savage and jagged teeth deeply lined their gullets like awful needles. In the back of his mind, he quietly hoped that this was one creature that wasn’t depicted to scale, and one that his crew didn’t happen to stumble upon unprepared during their stay.

When he and the rest of his men finally returned to the clearing later that day, they entered the camp to find the other members of the landing party standing staggered in a wide, close ring around something at the centre of the encampment, and could see the tops of several telescopic boom stands that the documentary crew had set up to record what he supposed was just another in a long line of crew interviews taking place. “Huh, well I guess these guys are finally ready to kick-off the circus out here,” he thought distastefully as he pushed his way through the crowd, who were all just intently staring for some reason at whoever it was the crew were filming. Everyone included in the mission, regardless of their role and standing were charged with a long list of chores and assignments to complete on a daily basis, and although it might have seemed at times that he was fighting a losing battle, it was ultimately still his job to make sure that they were carried out to a one.

“Alright, alright – guys, we need to pull together and start collecting supplies,” he started, approaching the centre of the circle, “What stores are left on the ship are strictly for the return journey, and I’ll be damned if anyone thinks I’m settling for another sodding ration pack for tonight’s dinner.” The mission had been supplied for the most part by a prominent global ‘New Foods’ group with an abundant supply of freeze-dried, powdered meals for the crew to enjoy, however despite repeated claims that they “wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” not a single option on the menu had even remotely lived up to promises made on the packaging. “We all have a fair idea of what we can and can’t make a meal out of. Now, who can help me..” He trailed off in surprise all of a sudden as his line of sight dropped to Dahl, who turned to the sound of Kelly’s voice and looked up at him with a curious smile (he since learned that this must have been a universal trait).

The creature, which could only be most closely described as a short, cat-like animal that stood almost three feet tall on its hind haunches and was covered almost entirely in a glistening deep blue fur was standing upright in the middle of the group, paws crossed over its pot belly and regarding the landing party with a quizzical look resembling that a young child might make when coming face-to-face with a big cat, gorilla or some other large beast that they had only seen in picture books before. Immediately taken aback, Kelly’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped a little as his mind wrestled for a way to relate the mirrorling to something, anything else that he’d seen on Earth.

The creature cocked its furry head to one side when he stopped short, and let out a momentary gasp that caused the rest of the group around them to fawn and sigh (and though he kept his own reaction in check, it was all he himself could do not to let out an “Aww..” of his own). Dahl’s two round, black eyes were as big as saucers, and widened even further when Kelly instinctively reached his right hand down to clasp the handle of the rifle that hung loosely to one side, prompting him to raise both hands and crouch slightly, remarking, “Hey, hey little guy, don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” Standing completely still now, he turned to face Joseph Alvarez, the head of the documentary crew and whispered, “Joey, hey..! What on Earth is that thing, and how long has it been here..?”

Joseph replied with a wide smile, “Your guess is as good as mine, Captain, and about ten minutes now. The little fellow must have wandered in out of the forest somewhere while we were setting out the wind breakers, before we knew it one of the settlers called out and well – there he was, just standing there like a big ol’ technicolour cat, sniffing the air. Can’t speak a lick of English, but he’s a talkative little fellow nonetheless. Go on – say something to him.. it.” Kelly rolled his eyes and then mused for a moment, stroking his red, mottled beard as the rest of the crew looked on, expecting him to take charge of the situation. He turned back to Dahl, starting, “Hey there, little guy.” The mirrorling said nothing, only tilting his head to the left now and making the occasional low, cooing noise. Kelly went on, gesturing with his right hand to his chest, “I.. am Kelly,” he offered slowly, “What’s your name..? You, can you speak..? Do you understand me..?” He pointed to Dahl, and the pause in conversation seemed to prompt it to reply.

The creature raised a small, three-toed paw to its own chest and with clear and reasoned emulation, responded as best it could. In a high and delicate voice which almost resembled a child singing, it replied, “Am Dahl,” and bowed its head slightly forward as it did. Some among the landing party immediately erupted into cheers, and the rest started chattering amongst themselves as the cameras edged closer and continued to roll. This sudden flurry of activity seemed to spook Dahl who tweaked his head around nervously, his eyes flitting from human to human as he clearly searched his surrounds for the quickest way out of what was already a threatening and delicate situation. Kelly immediately knew that if he didn’t restore order right away that the creature would have no choice but to flee to safety, or otherwise do something even more drastic. He called for quiet and the rest of his officers followed suit, putting a finger to their lips and shushing the settlers until all eyes rested silently on the tiny visitor once more.

Kelly was extremely curious now, and wanted to know whether there were more creatures like this ‘Dahl’ nearby. To satisfy his own speculation and to get a better understanding of what else might be lurking in the dense vegetation around them, he spoke once more to the creature. He gestured carefully around to the rest of the group, asking, “We are human, from Earth.” He pointed skyward, a gesture he immediately realised to be a foolish one as Dahl merely followed his raised finger with both eyes and again cocked his head in confusion. “We,” he indicated once more to his fellow travellers, “are many, and are the same. Are there more, like you..?” He pointed at Dahl, and allowed the creature a moment to attempt to comprehend what he was trying to ask.

The small creature furrowed its furry brow, gave a calculating squeak and with its right paw seemed to tease a patch of long whiskers which grew the corner of each chubby cheek. A moment later, it appeared to have reached some sort of interpretation of what Kelly was asking of it, and wide-eyed responded, pointing with one paw to its face and another to the jungle behind Kelly, “You.. you..! Mrpla dazou shu’a, zug-zul a’sha – you..!” It then nodded excitedly, bounded quickly and unexpectedly past Kelly and beckoned them to follow as the circle broke and he hopped away speedily toward an opening in the forest wall.

The entire camp shared excited glances and straight away turned as one to follow, however Kelly quickly surmised that no good could come from the lot of them simply up and abandoning their settlement to take off blindly into the forest in pursuit. He was fast to order a majority of them reluctantly back to work, and singled out Alvarez and another filmmaker, a single missionary (he had little time for them under normal circumstances) and a handful of the ship’s science detail and asked that they join him in following the strange creature out of the clearing, it chirping, bubbling and excitedly pointing out assorted scrub and rocks to its human guests as they went. It all seemed to happen so spontaneously, but Kelly though to himself, “This is why we’re here, after all. Goodness knows I’m going to need to fill out these reports with something, the sooner I’ve got what they need, the sooner I can take a breather myself.” He reasoned that as he was already growing tired of mapping terrain and sampling the ruins and vegetation around the campsite, at least this new visitor might provide a little excitement to lift his spirits.

Once within the dank forest and with the humans in tow the mirrorling quickly picked up its pace, vaulting dextrously over piles of broken stone and clumps of strange, spider-like bushes as it raced through the undergrowth. The humans, already having worked for most of the morning soon began to tire as it led them all further and further into the thick jungle and after almost an hour’s hike Kelly decided that they needed to take a breather if they were going to go the distance. He sharply whistled ahead and indicated to Dahl that they needed to stop for a short time and rest. “We’re tired, buddy,” he gesticulated to the creature, rubbing his thighs and exaggerating the motion that they were in pain, “Our legs hurt, we need to stop.” Dahl responded with an obviously disapproving frown, and if Kelly didn’t know any better he could have sworn the creature was pouting as he searched the forest trail for a suitable place to stop and sit. Joseph and his cameraman were quick to thank Kelly for the opportunity to finally set their heavy recording gear down for a moment, and the head of the ship’s mission, a young reverend by the name of Michael Flaherty took it upon himself to minister to the lot of them, much to the obvious contempt of the party’s scientific contingent.

Sitting on a wide stone by the path and apart from the rest of the group, Kelly unclipped a small canteen from his belt and raised it to his lips taking a much needed gulp of purified water replenished from the ship’s humidifier. As he went to lower the vessel once more from his face, he quickly spat the mouthful back out into the ground in surprise. Dahl had silently crept up to where he rested and was now just staring at him with a curious expression, his dark and circular face only a foot or so away from his own. Kelly’s reaction startled the creature, causing him to bound away again quickly to safety and peer back at him from behind a nearby boulder, clearly rattled by the other’s reaction.

“Hey, hey – it’s alright,” Kelly said with a laugh to the frightened creature, dropping his container and raising his hands in a gesture of peace, “You just startled me is all. Come here and let me get a better look at you. Come on – I won’t bite.” After taking a moment to calm down, Dahl slowly and gingerly left his hiding place and came once more toward Kelly (he was strangely drawn to the leader of the group, intrigued perhaps by his obvious standing among the others). He cautiously approached to within arm’s reach of the commander before eventually dropping down on his haunches and carefully resting his tiny head on the captain’s knee. Kelly quickly glanced over towards Alvarez, Flaherty and the others to see if they were watching, only to find them facing away in the other direction, eyes glazed as the reverend launched into yet another tirade in which he reinforced the need to acknowledge their debt to the almighty by treating the new world with respect, and thanking his god for the bounty of the strange and alien environment in which they found themselves.

Kelly shook his head and turned back to Dahl, who had closed both of his dark eyes and was now making gentle cooing noises as he too recovered from the effort of the journey so far. Deciding that this might also be a universally acceptable gesture, and partly because he couldn’t help himself, he began stroking the tuft of thick hair on top of the mirrorling’s head which caused it to purr and coo even louder. “Well, you are a friendly little thing, aren’t you..?” he smiled. Kelly looked around again, gazing into the heavy shadows which bridged the thick, misshapen trunks of the trees and added, “Let’s just hope for all of our sakes you’re about the most threatening thing out here. I’m not sure how much farther you’re going to take us here fella, and it’s quite a way back now. We can’t afford to be apart from the others for too much longer.” He reckoned by the position of the planet’s sun that they had at least another few hours of good light before they would need to turn back, and was himself still quite keen to see what sort of society the strange little creatures had established so deep in the alien wilderness.

After another few minutes, and when Reverend Flaherty had finally finished his sermon (to the quiet celebration of his audience), the group rose and continued on their way. At several places on their journey they passed close to a number of the wide, pungent pitcher plants Kelly had noticed earlier that seemed to grow in groups of two or three in hollows by the wayside. He found it odd that whenever the party approached one of these plants, the creature Dahl seemed to grow visibly nervous and would chatter quickly and quietly to itself before then leading the group obviously away from and around them, even if it meant crossing into the denser forest by the path. He found this curious, but not knowing quite how to pick the creature’s brain on the matter just yet, decided to think nothing more of it for the time being. “For all I know,” he mused, “some of his own tribe have fallen into those weird things at one point or another. God knows the little guys would have a hard time getting out again, not to mention that smell..”

Dahl seemed now to be growing more and more excited with every step they took, as the forest trail began to widen and the ascent level-out which caused Kelly to believe that they were finally getting close to where the rest of his community or family (he wasn’t quite sure what to expect) lived. Soon enough, after another twenty minutes of hiking they began to hear the excited chattering of dozens of small voices carried on the wind from somewhere up ahead, and within moments they found that they had left the forest wall once more and were entering another larger clearing, not so different in many ways from the one that they had landed in.

Kelly and his men were surprised to be greeted in the open by a wide ring of small, simple huts that had been built by the mirrorlings over the top of a series of shallow dugouts which appeared to have been painstakingly clawed from the earth by many tiny paws. It was difficult to say how long they had been standing there, however the same thick, dark moss that grew over most of the rocks and fallen logs in the forest seemed to cover a large portion of the exterior of the dwellings which indicated that theirs was a settlement that had remained in that place and as it was for some time.

The brilliant light of the sun that shone once more through the break in the canopy above blinded the group momentarily, but as soon as their eyes adjusted they could also make out the forms of many more dozens of tiny heads and wide, curious eyes peeking out from the darkness of the pits and from behind the huts ahead of them. The humans stood cautious for a minute, looking to Dahl for a go-ahead before daring to progress any further into his village. Despite the apparent docile nature of the creatures, all of them knew better than to assume that nothing on the planet was without the ability to defend itself, and so Kelly chose to take caution. As far as he was concerned it was down to their furry friend now, and so they simply stood as still as possible on the outskirts and waited.

After regarding Kelly for a brief moment, Dahl hopped away excitedly into the middle of the ring of houses and began chirping and chattering loudly to the rest of his kin, none of whom yet dared to venture from the safety of their hiding places. After a minute or so of indistinguishable back and forth with several of his own, the group watched on as a lone mirrorling, much older and shaggier than the others crept out from the largest hut at the far end of the clearing and approached Dahl where he crouched. The two then proceeded to chatter loudly (and at some points heatedly) between themselves for a short while, which made Kelly and the rest of the human travellers just a little confused and uncomfortable.

Lieutenant Jim Tannock, a career soldier and one of three other military personnel among the group leaned in close to Kelly and whispered, “Captain, do you really think we ought to be here..? Clearly these things are a little freaked out, and I’ve counted at least thirty of the little guys myself hiding out behind those huts. Maybe we should just head back, give them some time to get used to the idea that we’re out here first. We don’t have the firepower to look after everyone if, you know, things go south..” Several others in the party heard this and became clearly agitated at the possibility that they might somehow come to harm, however Kelly merely mulled his suggestion over for a second and then replied, “No, I’m not convinced any of us are in any danger just yet. Let’s just wait here a little longer. Whatever this one’s saying,” he indicated toward Dahl with the butt of his rifle, “the rest now seem to be listening. Take a look – some of the others are coming out. Let’s give him another minute or two.”

Sure enough, several of the other natives had now begun to creep out from behind the rocks and shelters in the clearing and were now moving cautiously toward Dahl while also keeping their gaze fixed firmly on the intruders. Clearly the first mirrorling to approach Dahl had been regarded as some sort of leader among the others, and it appeared that he had needed quite some convincing that the humans posed no immediate threat before allowing them to come any closer. After several more minutes, conversation ground to a halt between the two creatures and the more authoritative of the mirrorlings broke away from Dahl, carefully approaching a nervous Kelly and his men to stand about a half a dozen yards away before it gave a curious bow, and speaking as much to them as the rest of his village, proclaimed ceremoniously, “Zada, dorpa kuda – thurli’a a’sha zun-zura m’ath.” Immediately as though prompted, the rest of the villagers wandered out from their hiding places, some walking upright and others hopping along on their hind and forelegs and gathered behind Dahl and their leader, before pointing at the visitors and talking quickly and excitedly amongst themselves in their strange and musical dialect.

Dahl wandered back to the humans and, chattering excitedly, tugged at the cuff of Kelly’s fatigues beckoning him to join them. “Well, I guess that’s as close to an invitation as we’ll get boys,” he remarked to the others, and gestured for the rest of them to follow him into the settlement. The other mirrorlings crowded the group as they were led by Dahl and the village leader, who they found to identify as A’thal Worl (A’thal, they decided, was some sort of title bestowed upon him as each of the tribe only appeared otherwise to have a single name) into the largest of the rustic dwellings wherein they were politely sat down and offered an assortment of strange plants and roots which most of the party tried with the greatest grace and dignity to decline. The next hour saw the two groups gesticulating amongst themselves and trying as best they could to understand and find out more about each other, which proved in some moments to be enlightening and others, nothing short of frustrating.

From what the humans were able to gather, there were around fifty or sixty of the little blue creatures that lived together as some sort of tribal arrangement in the village. The mirrorlings were mostly herbivores, much to the visitors’ relief save for a measure of fist-sized gelatinous globs that the creatures had offered to them which turned their stomachs as they wriggled and writhed over the flat wooden dish they were served on. The small creatures hungrily devoured the glistening insects by the pawful when they were politely passed back, much to Kelly’s disgust, as though they were some sort of strange delicacy reserved only for special guests or to be enjoyed on the most important of occasions.

They learned that the males among the tribe were only slightly larger than the females, and both were otherwise almost indistinguishable to the humans save for a series of half a dozen paler blue rings which ran along the length of the long and playful tails of the females. All in all, they found the natives to be a very simple and largely pleasant race, not at all threatening to the humans though their ability to imitate the gestures and speech of their visitors despite their lack of understanding was quite astonishing, and a factor that eventually led to the expedition’s science detail’s decision to refer to them as mirrorlings.

The two groups sat and attempted to engage for some time before Kelly finally decided that they had best return to their camp before the sun set. All in all it had proved to be an educational, if not impromptu expedition, but he had not forgotten about the rest of his crew and travellers back at the pod and knew that there were still quite a few chores that needed to be completed before they would be able to safely settle-in for the night. The group motioned that they needed to leave and the creatures showed an obvious sadness at the prospect, their leader immediately calling for several of the others to bring a small supply of plants and roots to their visitors for the return journey, to which they again tried their best to show an obvious gratitude. In return for the gesture, Reverend Flaherty removed a small gilded crucifix from around his neck, and ever so gently motioned to A’thal Worl to take it. The leader of the mirrorlings soberly regarded the strange object for a moment, first cautiously sniffing and then tasting it before gingerly placing the icon around its own neck and smiling awkwardly, to the laughter of the rest of Kelly’s group. Both mirrorling and human alike rose and bowed, and Dahl conversed with his leader for a brief moment alone before finally leading the humans from the dwelling and back out into the clearing once more.

It quickly became clear to them that Dahl had sought permission to take leave of the village and lead Kelly and his group back to where they first met, and so after waving goodbye to the strange inhabitants of the clearing (a gesture they clearly neither understood nor reciprocated), they re-entered the forest and started back along the way they had come. By the time they finally returned to what could only scarcely be called a path, the planet’s sun was already beginning its slow descent below the canopy above them. The growing darkness quickly brought the strange and ancient forest to life, and for all of the primitive wildlife they had already seen there must have still been thousands of new and hidden creatures obscured in the shadows that began to chirp and whistle all around them as they went. Though their hike had been quite gruelling at times, the buzz of the native fauna and the sudden drop in temperature caused spirits among the group to soar, and many almost skipped along as they took in the unique and enriching experience of simply being there.

All of a sudden, when direct sunlight completely ceased to filter down through the trees, Kelly and the group noticed that Dahl was starting to grow more and more tense and began nervously peering into the blackness between the boughs, and chattering lowly and unintelligibly once more to himself as he went. For whatever reason, the growing dark seemed to make the creature uneasy which in turn caused Kelly and his men to hold their weapons closer and raise their own awareness for anything around them that seemed out of place, or which might resemble a threat. They had no way of knowing exactly what else might lurk in the unexplored corners of the strange new world, and decided that they would take no chances, particularly if nightfall had caused a native inhabitant like Dahl to grow wary.

Eventually they reached the lower foothills leading into their encampment just as darkness closed in completely, and the group allowed themselves to finally breathe easy as the way ahead became wanly lit by the powerful halogen lamps of their camp that penetrated the forest in front of them. As they neared their destination, Kelly began to take notice of several of the large pitcher plants at the edge of his line of sight resting quietly and ominously on either side of the path like clandestine sentinels. He wasn’t quite sure if it was a trick of the changing light, but he could have sworn that several of their dark silhouettes appeared to have broken apart since they last passed them earlier that afternoon, as though they had somehow opened out and bloomed with the setting of the sun. “I must be seeing things,” he mumbled quietly, rubbing his eyes and decided to leave it until morning to return for a closer look knowing full well that there was no way he would be able to draw Dahl, who was for some reason growing still more nervous despite being so close to camp, anywhere near them.

Eventually however, curiosity got the better of him and he picked up his pace to draw alongside the mirrorling, pointing to the dim forms in the shadows. “Dahl, what are those things..?” he asked, not entirely confident he would be rewarded with an intelligible response. “What do those plants do, to make you so afraid – what happens here when the light goes away..?” Dahl’s eyes darted from the path only momentarily before he picked up speed himself, and after searching his mind for a moment for an appropriate human term, managed to reply with only a single word he’d heard the captain utter earlier that afternoon:

“Hurt.”

Kelly was confused by Dahl’s response and understandably rattled, and he too picked up his pace, calling back to the others to follow suit. Within moments, the group entered the clearing with a sigh of relief and began fanning-out to rejoin the rest of their expedition. Despite there having been much still left to do before they could settle in for the night, Lieutenant Tannock, Kelly and the rest of the group were a little surprised not to see a single member of their landing party either at work in the camp, milling about the clearing nor approaching them to welcome them back and ask about their journey into the wild. Instead, it seemed eerily quiet in the clearing. Although all lamps had been lit and the windbreaks erected as their captain had requested, the encampment was deathly silent and not a single soul appeared to be present, at least not out in the open. They noticed also that there were now a number of strange shells of a dry, organic nature that weren’t there when they left and which littered the ground in several places throughout the camp, causing Dahl to whimper softly for some reason as he passed them by.

Kelly instinctively bent down to pick one of the strange casings up as they walked but as he reached to take it, Dahl suddenly rushed forward and let out a piercing yelp, slapping his hand and causing him to immediately draw back. The mirrorling then regarded Kelly momentarily with a look of unmistakable fear and admonition before bounding away to safety and cowering behind Reverend Flaherty’s legs, trembling in fright. Kelly rose to his full height and simply stared down at the casing, which he now came to realise appeared less benign and more closely reminiscent of a sort of short and thick discarded snake skin. He turned to the others, ordering them to “Keep your eyes peeled for anything suspicious, and don’t any of you touch these things for any reason.. at least until we know exactly what they are. Something’s got the little guy spooked,” he looked warily around the camp, “I don’t want to take any chances.”

Jim approached Kelly as the group stood near the edge of the clearing, and asked, “Captain, where in the world is everyone..? We were the only group supposed to leave the camp today. If I didn’t know any better I’d say something’s up.” “Yeah, you might be right” he replied, “I’ve got a funny feeling myself – it’s a little too quiet.” He called softly to the rest of his men, “Get the reverend and the rest behind you, Coates and Daniels,” he addressed his two junior officers, “take flank and follow us around the clearing. Let’s head for the pod, and try not to draw attention to ourselves.” The group quickly assembled in a formation with Dahl and the reverend at their centre and slowly made their way around the camp, keeping close to the shadows and straining their ears for any sort of sound from the settlers they’d left behind.

After clearing thirty or forty yards unchallenged and upon reaching the pod, Kelly slid the access card that hung loosely around his neck into the receiver to the right of the hatch and punched-in his entry code. The door slid softly open with a low hiss, and at once the small craft lit up and beckoned the group inside. Kelly ordered his two junior officers to remain with Dahl (who was by now almost inconsolable) and the rest of the party outside the gangway and motioned for Jim to join him in cautiously entering the ship, its pale white interior lights pulsating as they drew on energy cells now set to a lower output in order to conserve what little power was stored for the return journey to the orbiter. They tiptoed aboard, holding their weapons high and nodded to each other to indicate that the pod was empty. Kelly lowered his weapon and crossed the entryway to approach the doors to the bridge that had for some reason been closed and secured. This in of itself was strange, as entry into the cockpit of the craft was strictly open only to his officers, and as a rule only ever sealed from the inside.

Raising their weapons aloft once more, the pair stood at attention and ready for anything as Kelly once more swiped the access panel for the heavy automated doors and the entry to the cockpit slowly slid open. Immediately they could detect movement from within the bridge and the pair didn’t waste a second, rushing in with their rifles drawn and yelling loudly for the occupants to “Freeze..! Drop whatever you’re doing and put your hands where we can see them..!” Two of the company’s settlers, a young man and woman were found to be sitting at the controls to the vessel and as the soldiers entered they both immediately swung around in their chairs in unison and without warning leapt towards them, fists flailing and both uttering a deep and unsettling growl that neither of the men had ever heard another human being make before.

Quick as a flash, their training took over and they each thrust the butts of their rifles directly at the settlers’ heads with a precision strike, successfully knocking both of them completely out cold before either could land a blow. Both bodies slumped to the floor of the pod with an almighty crash, and once again the ship fell silent. In that moment, Jim and Kelly could do little more then just stare at each other in astonishment, neither of them expecting to be met with aggression nor understanding what on Earth could have made the two react so violently, or for that matter what two unskilled settlers with zero flight experience could have possibly been doing at the ship’s computer. “What the hell..!” Jim started, “Since when are civilians given access to the pod, and what was with that noise..?!” he asked in exasperation. “I don’t know,” Kelly panted, “but I’ll promise you, I’m going to find out.” They then both knelt low toward the inert bodies on the floor for a closer look as Daniels, still guarding the entryway to the ship called in from outside:

“Hey, guys,” his voice could be heard echoing through the pod, “what the hell was that commotion..? Is everything alright in there..?” Kelly responded, “Yeah, yeah.. just a couple of civilians, dicking around at the console. Probably drunk or something. Just keep an eye out for more out there, will you..?” He reached down and clasped the shoulder of the female settler who was lying face down beside the captain’s chair, but as he was about to turn her body over to ascertain an identity, his stomach flipped as he noticed something strange and unusual resting at the base of her skull. “What in the weird..? Hey Jim,” he pressed two fingers gently into a sizeable bulge that had formed under the skin, roughly the size and shape of a small toy football, “get a load of this.” “What is that, is it some kind of tumour..?” Jim replied. Before Kelly could answer, the dark growth beneath his fingers suddenly moved and his hand immediately drew back like a shot.

“Holy shit..!” Jim exclaimed, as the bulge continued to writhe and shiver beneath her skin, appearing to bury itself deeper into the settler’s neck. Her body twitched slightly as it did, and then the same reaction began to suddenly occur in the male settler as though the two were somehow linked. “What is it, is there some kind of THING in there..?” Jim asked, incredulously. Before either of them could articulate a guess, the sound of a loud round of rifle fire split the air inside the cabin and the pair heard the panicked shouts of both Coates and Daniels as they hollered and argued with someone or something outside the pod. “Quickly – cuff these two and let’s get the hell out of here, now..!” Like a flash, they drew restraints from their utility belts and swiftly fastened them around the wrists of the two unconscious settlers before racing out of the pod and down the gangway to join the rest of the team who they found to now be either crouching against the hull of the pod or else firing erratically into the shadows around the encampment.

As soon as they left the rear doors, Jim and Kelly were confronted by a deep and familiar growl that gurgled from the throats of nearly two dozen of the other remaining settlers who had rushed from the forest moments earlier and were now surrounding the ship in a wide circle, staring coldly at the two privates who were firing sporadically at the feet of any that dared to try and approach them. “Captain, captain..!” screamed Daniels, “They just appeared like a swarm out of nowhere and rushed right through us. Three of them, they just grabbed the reverend and dragged him out into the trees, we’re holding the rest off but they’ve gone completely out of their minds..!” The settlers growled and gargled menacingly in the blinding light, but didn’t dare to come any closer while the officers had their weapons trained on them. Several of the science detail were cowering with their faces buried in their hands, simply refusing to acknowledge the situation and although Kelly strained his eyes against the glare searching the clearing for any sign of Dahl, the strange little creature was now nowhere to be seen.

As his sight readjusted to the bright light of the external lamps, Kelly was able to distinguish the same misshapen growth on the necks of each and every one of the settlers that their counterparts within the pod had shared and the same cold and lifeless look in their eyes. A number foamed at the mouth and all were absolutely filthy, their clothing torn in places and their arms and faces caked with mud and some sort of thick sap-like resin from somewhere, as though they had been tearing at the vegetation of the forest with their bare hands, or pulling open the stems of those bulbous, foul smelling..

“The pitchers..!”

Kelly could now detect the same heavy, rotting odour from the plants that wafted across from the settlers and immediately realised that whatever it was that had caused them to behave this way, those strange, evil looking plants had something to do with it. He addressed the defending detail, ordering Tannock to join the other two in threatening fire and called out to their attackers in the vain hope of appealing to whatever reason remained and perhaps negotiating a way out of a what had become a quickly escalating situation.

“Hey..! It’s me, Miller. What is it you want..?” he yelled, “What’s come over you all..? What happened here while we were gone..?” No answer came from the group, who seemed only to be shuffling ever so slowly toward them, testing the limits of the humanity of his officers who were still reluctant to fire directly at them. Unexpectedly, at Kelly’s questioning a lone member of the film crew that had been forced to stay behind with the others stepped boldly forward from the throng and extended his right arm toward him, as though pointing. For several seconds, no-one on either side moved a muscle until the cameraman replied, speaking with the same thick and uncomfortable gargle that the rest of the group had made:

“We want.. the ship. Give us the ship.”

The hairs on the back of Kelly’s neck bristled as a wave of fear coursed through his body. “What does he mean, give us the ship.” Tannock asked, “None of these civilians even knows how to start the engines, what the hell is he talking about..?” “I don’t know,” Kelly stammered, “but I do know that there are far more of them than there are of us, and if they decide to rush us – we’re done for.” Kelly, who was himself a tall and imposing figure arched his back and stood at full height, replying defiantly, “The ship is ours, you can’t have it. What’s the matter with you people, come to your senses. Tell me what happened here, what can we do to make you stop with this, this insanity..?” He asked in a last appeal to whatever or whoever he was addressing, now realising that somehow it wasn’t only the same meek civilian he had landed with so many hours earlier who now stood in front of him. “We can help you, all of you.. just back away from the pod.”

“The ship is OURS,” came a last gargle from the other man, “You can only submit..

.. you can only DIE.”

At this, the settlers all threw their arms wide as one and with a horrifying, inhuman shriek which cut them to the core burst into a full sprint, running straight toward the pod and those defending it. Kelly screamed at his officers to “Open fire now, take them out – as many as you can..!” His crew immediately let loose a volley of rifle fire at the group, seemingly killing a half dozen in seconds as the rest rushed forward undeterred. Some had even taken direct shots to the legs and torso from the volley, but somehow incredibly still scrambled ahead, almost baying for blood as they closed distance with the officers. Kelly knew they didn’t stand a chance – there were simply too many, and they seemed to be behaving with an almost animalistic frenzy. He was done for.. they were done for. For the first time in his life he prayed quietly to himself, hoping that whatever was about to happen to them would happen quickly and painlessly.

Suddenly, just as the mass of flailing bodies were about to reach them, everyone was stopped dead in their tracks by a loud and sudden blast of noise from the far off in the forest behind them. From beyond the shadows, the piercing, dissonant sound of a loud and mighty trumpet split the night and brought the settlers to a complete standstill, as though they somehow recognised the shrill and discordant noise. Kelly searched the darkness for the source of the sound as his officers held their weapons still, shaking with adrenaline and fear but couldn’t make out anything for the silhouettes of the trees surrounding them. Only a moment later, the high and musical voices of what must have been hundreds of diminutive mirrorlings erupted from the edge of the clearing as a veritable army of the small creatures flooded into the light of the camp and rushed towards the settlers brandishing all manner of fashioned clubs, rocks and other strange and unfamiliar weapons.

The invading mirrorlings quickly overran and toppled their assailants in seconds, throwing the settlers roughly to the ground and holding them prone in the dirt, several of the small creatures to a man. It took the weight of two or three of them to secure each flailing limb as the settlers growled and violently thrashed about, however in a few short minutes, each and every one of them had been pinned face down and held secure. Jim, Kelly and the rest could simply not believe it. They couldn’t have been followed, and there was no way for the tribes to have anticipated what was unfolding – unless somehow they knew. Somehow, the mirrorlings had understood what was to take place that night, and they had been assembled to protect their new friends from harm. From the rear of their number, what must have been several villages worth in all, Dahl suddenly emerged once more and approached Kelly, a grave look of concern crossing his small and cat-like face. Kelly was dumbfounded and couldn’t contain himself, and quickly moved forward to thank him.

“Dahl,” he started with a gasp, “What happened to these people, and how.. how did you know..?” He remembered his manners, and thanked the small creature a hundred times over as he looked down at the rest of his companions who were still writhing violently and trying unsuccessfully to free themselves. Dahl only nodded in reply, still looking extremely worried and deftly raised a small and curious metal blade he held at one side, which Kelly had only just noticed was there. It was stranger still that the thin weapon appeared to be extremely old and intricately fashioned, and apparently far beyond the technological capabilities of a tribe of creatures that he regarded as little more than hunter-gatherers with no discernible ability to have forged. Before Kelly could attempt to form another question, his eyes bulged in shock as Dahl reached down suddenly and in one swift move, cut a long and precise slit across the base of the nearest prone settler’s neck and in almost the same motion yanked a thick, dark and worm-like parasite from the open wound.

Coates and Daniels retched and Jim could only articulate the words, “Christ, I’m going to be sick,” as the long, savage looking parasite wriggled and writhed in Dahl’s tightly-clenched paw, its two small, dark eyes flitting around menacingly as its pincers sliced the air either side of a wide mouth that supported row upon row of thin, needle-like teeth. “The statues..!” remembered Kelly, as he finally recognised the same sinister features that adorned the monstrous architecture that lined the esplanade of the temple complex atop the hill. Dahl understood Kelly’s expression at once, and nodded solemnly before raising the relic once more and dispatching the cold creature with one fell strike before casting its lifeless and disgusting body to the ground.

Dahl then turned to Kelly without so much as a pause, and with a tiny paw reached out and clasped the captain’s hand. All of a sudden, Kelly felt his subconscious yanked sharply in a direction he didn’t know existed and through an ability miles beyond his own comprehension which left him completely helpless, the mirrorling somehow connected with his new friend through a power that can only closely be likened to telekinesis. In the space of a few short seconds that felt like a lifetime, Dahl showed to Kelly the true nature of his people, flooding his mind with their history; the rise and fall of a once advanced and civilised empire that spanned the entirety of the planet, their own hubris and the usurping of their leaders to the sinister cunning of the pitcher worms and their hateful, twisted desires.

He learnt that the mirrorlings were once the gentle and diligent caretakers of Kepler 442b, having evolved in the beginning in harmony with the lush environment of their world and the multitude of strange and docile creatures with which they shared their version of paradise. As generations passed however, and is sadly the want of much intelligent life their mastery over the land and its native life excelled to a point where they risked losing it all to their own desire to create and destroy, much as Kelly’s own people had done in the great wars of Earth in the twentieth century.

One fateful night many generations ago, the skies above their world grew light as day and rained down fire across the continents as many thousands of great and terrible meteors bombarded their towns and cities, destroying much of what they had taken centuries to create. It was soon after this catastrophic event that the first of those awful pitchers took root, and the worms crawled forth to overcome their people and enforce their evil will just as they must have done many times to countless planets before. Theirs was an alien plague that sought to conquer world after world, moving on as a swarm of spores when all the wealth and beauty of a host world had been usurped. Through their cunning and the knowledge of past hosts, they would manufacture a dystopia wherever they landed and once their appetite had been sated, find a way to depart the ruin they left in their wake.

After a great civil war in which the lives of a great majority of the mirrorlings were tragically extinguished as the invaders took control, a dark age of oppression which lasted centuries soon followed as the worms took their best and brightest as hosts, forcing the defeated population to toil restlessly to create those same monuments and temples that Kelly had visited shortly upon arrival. The aliens ruled their world as gods for an age, cruelly working the mirrorlings to satisfy their every need and conspiring among themselves to develop a means by which to leave the planet’s surface and return once more to the stars, and to their next conquest. It wasn’t until one day, by the sheer force of will and the greatest secrecy, that a rebellion was formed.

As the sun set on another hot Summer’s eve in which more of the pitcher worms’ young would crawl forth from the plants to take hosts, every last free mirrorling took up arms and slew their oppressors, tearing down the temples their kin had been worked to death to create and defiantly burning every one of those sinister plants that they could find. Unfortunately, their own numbers by then had declined drastically and although they returned to the forests wiser than to ever again become an attractive host for the evil seedlings, by now they lacked the force and technology to do away with them completely. From out of those dark and frightful days, an uncomfortable and ever vigilant coexistence was established that lasted from then until Kelly and his group arrived, and the ambitions of the pitcher worms was reawakened.

After only a moment, the pain and sheer flood of emotion became too much for his own primitive mind to bear, and Kelly was forced to disconnect from the experience, falling to his knees in shock as the sheer enormity of their misunderstanding finally dawned on him.

The strange translucent larvae that Kelly and his men had been offered earlier that afternoon he realised were nothing other than the infant form of the same pitcher worms that had swarmed the remaining settlers shortly after his party had left the camp, harvested by the safe light of day by the mirrorlings and devoured ceremoniously as a symbol of their undying hatred toward their former oppressors. They were apparently of little danger in that state, lacking the strength to break the tough skin of a mirrorling until fully matured and otherwise harmlessly digested en masse as a final act of rebellion.

The monuments that Kelly had stumbled upon that morning had been erected at the height of the enslavement of Dahl’s people, and were it not for their technological unreadiness to carry the worms off from the planet’s surface and towards the stars the rebellion that freed the mirrorlings from the grip of terror and slavery so many generations earlier might never have taken place. The mirrorlings knew, and had learnt through the harshest of lessons in the most brutal of ways that what might well be the paradise of Kepler 442b to some hid in its deepest shadows a far darker reality that few had the experience with which to coexist.

A’thal, Dahl and the rest of their kin quickly set about extracting the remaining parasites from the settlers and an already freed Reverend Flaherty was brought forward from the throng to rejoin the rest of his fellow humans, still mostly in deep shock and yet to fully regain control of their senses. The stress of being made vessels for the sinister and highly intelligent will of the worms had taken a heavy toll on many of them, and despite assurances that they would be fine again in time, Kelly ordered his officers to watch over them for the remainder of the night and for every man, woman and child to remain vigilant for any more of the small parasites that might attempt to infiltrate the camp. After making sure that the area was indeed clear, the mirrorlings made it known that they would now need to return once more to the watch and safety of their own villages, and Kelly promised them that he would make arrangements at first light to take his people off of the planet’s surface and back to the skies from whence they had come.

Now lucid and beyond gratitude, Reverend Flaherty thanked A’thal at length, who in turn attempted politely to return the small crucifix that he had been gifted earlier that day. The action was met with only a smile, as Michael responded; “No, that’s yours my friend. Keep it safe as a reminder that today, as on all others, someone out there is watching over you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and God bless. Until we meet again.” A’thal bowed low, and waved awkwardly before rejoining his brethren and slowly marching them back into the surrounding woods and to their respective homes. After several long moments only Dahl remained among them, and when everyone in his party was accounted for Kelly knelt low and addressed the mirrorling one last time.

“Dahl, my friend. We can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for us this day. The people of Earth, and I daresay others that might have suffered if those creatures had once more found their way off of this strange world and out into the stars are indebted to you.” He was tired, and tried his best not to appear too emotional in spite of himself. “I’m not sure how we can ever repay you, other than to ensure that none of our kind return before we are able to find a way ourselves to best those devils that your kind have once beaten. Thank you, for everything.” He reached down to clasp the creatures paw, and although the gesture was foreign to him, Dahl reciprocated and bowed his own head in acknowledgement, closing both his saucer eyes as he did.

Moments later, the first of the mirrorlings to greet the travellers turned and rejoined his tribe in the forest, leaving Kelly and his officers to attend to their wounded and take stock of their situation. Although they all remained safely locked in the pod throughout the remainder of the night, scarce few words were exchanged and not a single one of them dared to sleep a wink for fear of what might happen if, somehow, one of those strange and awful worms managed to find a way on-board the craft.

Early the next morning, the pod’s engines fired and the human travellers left the surface of Kepler 442b, soaring swiftly through the planet’s atmosphere before finally docking once more with the waiting Endeavour. Before commanding her gravity drive be primed for the fastest possible speed out of orbit, Kelly was obliged to send a single brief preceding message back to the Lunar Station to be forwarded to the World Government’s Space Association. His message read:

“20860309 – WGSA Off-World Communication. Origin Kepler 442b. Despite all indications the planet is void of life and geologically unstable. Uninhabitable, and an extreme danger to human life. Avoid at all costs.

We’re coming home.

End transmission.”

Dawn Roared Over the Horizon..

‘WAYFARER’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

[Harlia, the Outer Claw]

Dawn roared over the horizon like a violet storm as the first sun rose over Harlia, instantly chasing a dry, bitter chill from the landscape and leaving in its place a wet and almost suffocating heat. Gundar let out a guttural grunt and spluttered through his yellowed tusks as he stirred beside the dying embers at the heart of the encampment, eventually conceding as the night’s thick mists began to billow skyward that it was time to wake up and get moving.

Invigorated by the sudden warmth, the rest of his squadron joined him in rising awkwardly up on their hind legs and shook themselves about in such a way as to dislodge their rigid front and rear shells, which had a habit of locking up to preserve body heat while they slept. One by one, he and the other officers in the company extinguished completely the smouldering remains of fires now entirely unnecessary and began barking the morning’s orders at the rest of their number, who were already lining up by rank to receive them.

Heir to the First System and acting commander of the Holy Legions of the Veil, Gundar had been elected on merit to head a special tactical operation whereby he and his hand-picked crew were to deliver a payload to the homeworld of an enemy with which his people, the Threa had been warring for decades. They were to deploy the final state of a top-secret weapon, a biological Doomsday Bomb developed by the best and brightest scientific minds of his order to a dark region of deep space called the Rua’Maat, wherein their arch enemy and the greatest ongoing threat to order and security in the civilised galaxy dwelt; the Skrell.

Instead, the small fleet that had been assigned to protect them had been ambushed at the edge of mapped space, perhaps (he suspected) due to a tip-off from a traitor in their midst, and his own crew left for dead in a crippled ship hurtling towards the strange world on which they now found themselves, demoralised and completely unable to return home under their own power.

The world itself was positioned in a distant binary system between a close but relatively benign red giant and a farther flung but incredibly intense violet star. Any visitors to the surface of the planet could expect to face long days that grew gradually more hot and humid as greater volumes of its stagnant, shallow oceans were allowed to sublimate, and short frosty nights at intervals of only half of what we on Earth might be used to.

The dense, wet atmosphere also had a curious effect on the thick, low vegetation which grew in patches everywhere on the planet’s surface, causing many varieties to sprout scores of tendril-like streamers high into the air by day as a means of extracting moisture from the atmosphere, and to snake those same weird tendrils haphazardly across the ground at night, forming a thick carpet to absorb dew and condensation from the topsoil. Several varieties of scrub had actually adapted to the extreme environment by becoming almost entirely lighter than air, taking root in thick pockets of mist and moisture and floated about the landscape like giant, bilious tumbleweeds. It was a strange world indeed, and stranger still that a well-armed contingent of the Veil had found themselves stranded here, frustrated and anxious to return to the ongoing conflict that had caused their vessel to crash-land several days earlier.

As soon as all of their weaponry and gear had been accounted for and their battalion assembled in formation, Urm, Gundar’s second in command gave the order to continue the long march that they had started-out on the previous day. They were headed towards a towering band of white, glistening mountains that their scouts had discovered lay to the north and in which they hoped to find the necessary ore and mineral deposits needed to repair their battered ship’s engines so that they might resume their course and complete their offensive.

The Skrell, for a visual reference could have best been described as a race of monstrous insects. Bugs in stature almost comparable in size to the Threa (but nowhere near as solid) that had somehow developed a devious cunning and almost collective intellect with which they too had mastered the science of flight and the ability to travel between worlds. So long as he drew breath, Gundar would never abandon his directive and remained driven to eradicating the hated enemy of the Threa at all costs and with a frenzied, almost religious determination. They marched as one, hooves pounding the flailing foliage back into the earth as they went and resolved to cover as much ground as they could before the next nightfall, some fourteen Threan hours away by their reckoning.

They had only walked an hour or so when without warning, and just as the second sun finally crowned the horizon behind them, the haze was split by a chillingly familiar sound and all hell broke loose. From somewhere up ahead, the unmistakeable buzz of a thousand Skrell taking flight filled the air as a massive dark cloud of wasp-like bodies rose skyward in a whirling plume and bore down on the Threa like a swarm of monstrous hornets. Urm quickly cocked his snout back to address the Threa behind him and snorted, “Draw your weapons, three deep and angle high – set full charges and watch your flanks..!” as the cloud bore down and within seconds, the air was ablaze with blasts of high-energy plasma and the deadly barbs and talons of the descending Skrell who were hell-bent on killing as many of the invading force as swiftly as they could.

The battle raged for over an hour, with neither side claiming a clear foothold from the other but both felling more of the opposing force than either could afford. “By the stars – what are they doing here..?” thought Gundar as his troops fought furiously to keep them at bay, “When our ship was attacked, our defenders drew their legions away from us. We weren’t followed to the planet’s surface – how did they know we were here..?” He was now convinced that they had been betrayed, but as more and more of the enemy closed in took up arms with the rest of the group and allowed his instinct and training take over, firing precision blasts at the attackers in a desperate attempt to break their ranks.

Just as the insurrection was complete and the fighting at its most ferocious, from somewhere deep behind enemy lines a heavy tactical spore was loosed which whistled as it flew through a break in their lines before it ricochet off of the side of Gundar’s skull and exploded into a group of Threa several yards behind him. As he lost consciousness, he became aware of the strangest sensation, as though his spirit was somehow ripped violently from his body and hurtled across the entire expanse of the galaxy at the speed of light before darkness finally took him, and he was gone.

[Freehold Hospital, Saturday Morning]

Shortly before midday there came a knock on the door to Monitoring Room 14 of the Freehold Hospital’s Cancer Wing. The noise woke Alex from a long sleep and strange, alien dream and he slowly and painfully lifted his torso up onto his elbows, calling out, “Come in, I was just getting up.” As the door creaked open, he quickly shot a glance at the alarm clock beside his bed. “Shit,” he exclaimed aloud. It was already twelve thirty – he had slept in again and missed his morning check-in down the hall.

Ever since he had been admitted for round the clock observation he’d found himself sleeping longer and longer, something he was warned might happen as his system struggled to adjust to the chemotherapy and the degenerative nature of the cancer which riddled his body. His nurse entered with a trademark frown followed closely by his assigned physician, Dr. Holzer who himself only gazed intensely at a clipboard which held his evaluations of Alex’s condition to date. Alex immediately wondered what sort of information it could have been that had held his interest so.

Thirty-eight years old, Alex had never managed to save any remarkable amount of money, living paycheck to paycheck for the better part of his life, had never married and really lived his life as though he was either just killing time until his ship came in, or that he’d somehow make a windfall winning a lottery he’d never bothered to enter. He had been essentially lazy, coasting from job to job, place to place and moving between cliques until he found himself ultimately broke, miserable and unable to really consider anyone who remained in his life as anything more than just a colleague or a casual acquaintance. He had slowly become the poster-boy for what he saw as a transformed and largely atomised society, and had long since given up on the idea of reinventing himself.

Despite so much encouragement from his parents who had years ago conceded that their only son might never truly find his feet, his diagnosis some six months earlier had all but guaranteed that his mark on the world would stand to be little more than a cautionary tale of wasted potential. A life of excess and bad ideas, cigarettes and heavy drinking had taken its toll, and while he had made what he considered to be many special memories along the way, his legacy was nothing near what he might in his youth have predicted it to become.

In truth, he’d always yearned to become a writer, devouring volumes of Science Fiction and Fantasy throughout his childhood and had always anticipated that he’d one day find the time to tell a story of his own. Unfortunately though as he continued to get in his own way, and in spite of a few promising starts, he had never found it in him to see it through.

“Dr. Holzer,” he began sheepishly, “I’m so sorry – I must have slept through my alarm. The treatments have left me extremely tired lately. If I can reschedule, I’ll make sure to get up and about tomorrow.” The doctor hardly moved, barely acknowledging Alex as he continued to flick through the notes on his clipboard and his nurse walked to the other side of his bed, proceeding to decant a fresh glass of water before removing a tray of scraps from the night before and a bunch of flowers that had wilted at his bedside.

His mother would still bring flowers and gifts at every weekly visit, insisting that hospital wards were ‘cold and unfriendly places, needing as much brightening up as they could get.’ Alex twiddled his thumbs and stared expectantly at Dr. Holzer, nervously waiting for him to speak. Finally, the other man dropped the clipboard down to his side and regarded Alex with a deep sigh and a look which caused him no small amount of distress.

“Mr. Agnew,” he began, “I’ve just been taking a look at the most recent set of results from your treatment, and thought I should come by directly and speak with you in person.” Still nervous, but also a little relieved that the doctor had not stopped by in person just to chastise him for missing his earlier appointment, Alex grunted as if to suggest he continue. “I’m afraid there’s really no easy way to say this, and it pains me to be the one to have to do so. But I didn’t think it was fair to make you wait.”

Alex began to sweat. He glanced at his nurse, who had taken up a position beside Dr. Holzer, and noticed with surprise that her typically hard features had all of a sudden softened into a look of concern. Her eyes would not meet his, instead darting almost nervously around the room as she rolled back on her ankles, clasped her hands together and did her best to otherwise remain perfectly still. “Doctor, what is it..? Is there something wrong with my dosage – will I need to increase the number of sessions we’re taking..?” He was concerned now, and more than anything just wanted him to spit it out already.

“Alex, I’m afraid that the treatment hasn’t taken. Despite having reached you at a relatively early stage in your cancer’s development, it appears that the chemotherapy has had little to no effect in halting the growth of the existing tumours in your chest and lungs. In addition to this..” he started, trailing-off as he considered the best way to share the remainder of his findings with him and Alex, who could wait no longer stammered, “Come on, doctor, what is it – I need to know.”

He continued, “Very well. Our latest scan has revealed a third tumour that we were either previously unaware of, or that has developed extremely quickly in the most recent weeks you’ve spent here with us. To be clear, it’s very large as standards go, and unfortunately in this case extremely malignant. Unlike those we’ve been working so far to neutralise, this third tumour appears to be located directly at the base of your occipital lobe, and given its proximity to vital blood flow to the spinal region is.. completely inoperable. I’m so sorry.”

“The occipital lobe, my.. brain..? I have a brain tumour..?” Alex asked, incredulous that no-one had managed to pick up on such a thing earlier. “Jesus, and you can’t operate, you can’t increase my dosage to treat it now before it gets any worse..?” He asked. “I’m afraid that as your treatment to date has had no effect on those tumours in your chest, any attempt to increase your dosage would prove ineffective at best, and at worst could risk further damage to the surrounding tissue.” His doctor continued, “In spite of anything we might otherwise be able to do for you, we estimate that you have between one to two weeks at most before this third growth reaches a terminal size, and even then it might unfortunately be sooner.”

“We’ve been able to confirm that this is more than likely also the cause for both your unusual sleeping patterns, and for the migraines and visual hallucinations you’ve described to our staff over the past couple of weeks. Due to the location of the growth and the energy that your body will expend coping with it, it’s likely you’ll continue to need longer and longer periods of rest until eventually.. again, I’m so, so sorry. Yesterday’s tests were the first to show, and we’d never have even thought to scan for it if not for the headaches. We’ll do our very best to ensure you’re as comfortable as possible until that time.”

Alex felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach. All of a sudden he couldn’t breathe and fell back into his pillow, just staring at the ceiling. “Terminal..!” he thought to himself. “Thirty eight years old, and that’s it – poof. It’s all over. Terminal.. terminal.” The word bounced around in his head a hundred times before he had the wits to reply, still staring at the ceiling, “Thank you, doctor. I’m going to need a few moments to get my head around it. I’m not sure,” He began, and Dr. Holzer cut him off, “We have the absolute very best grief counsellors here at Freehold who can help you come to terms with your situation, and I’ll be back to check-in again with you later this afternoon. We still have a number of evaluations we’d like to run, and of course to provide you with more information regarding your condition. If there’s anything at all we can do for you, Nurse Piper here,” he motioned to the nurse beside him, still wearing her best mask of empathy, “will be assigned to answer any calls that come through from you. I’d best get back to my rounds and to let this all sink in. I’m sorry, Alex – we’ve given it everything we’ve got.” He forced a last compassionate smile before turning and leaving the room, his nurse close behind with Alex’s tray and once again, he was alone.

Still staring at the ceiling, Alex sighed the deepest sigh of resignation and closed his eyes once more. “Terminal..” the word kept flashing in his mind. “How will I tell Mum and Dad – this will kill them. There’s so much I’ve never done, so much I thought I’d do.” He began to think about the friends he’d let slip away, the opportunities in his life that he’d let pass him by and all of the little things he’d planned to do but for some reason had never started. “I’ll never write that novel, or take that round-the-world trip. I’ll never see the Northern Lights or stand atop the Grand Canyon. I’ll never get to hold my own child, or the hand of the woman I love. I’ll die instead at thirty eight, riddled with cancer, alone, bedridden and forgotten. What a waste,” he sighed again, finding that the shock had completely tired him out, “what an absolute waste.” He decided in spite of Dr. Holzer’s prediction that the day was now more or less ruined and within minutes had once again drifted off into a deep sleep.

[Harlia, the Next Day]

Gundar slowly opened his eye, and as he did a searing pain coursed down the length of the right side of his body. Disorientated by the blow and the residual effects of the spore, he slowly rose to his full height, clutching his bloody head as he did and turned to reorientate himself with his surrounds. He had been instantly knocked unconscious as the weapon exploded and Urm, seeing his commander felled had immediately cut a swath through the enemy horde, thrown his limp and lifeless body over one shoulder and bounded to the rear of the company to deposit Gundar safely behind a hillock before returning to the fray, firing all the while at the swarm of Skrell that were still thick in the air.

The fighting had grown into a frenzy in the minutes that followed, as the Threa became incensed at seeing their leader fall in battle. Within a short time, their bloodlust had driven them to break the enemy lines, and what few Skrell remained after most of their power cells were depleted had soared high into the planet’s atmosphere and scattered in all directions, leaving them to count their dead and set a perimeter as the leaderless group debated what to do next.

When they noticed him stumbling about, half-blind and splashed with the deep blue stains of his own blood, several Threa immediately rushed to support their commander by propping up both of his arms and guided him carefully to the center of the group. Gundar’s hearts sank when they passed a pile of several dozen of his best soldiers’ corpses – friends and comrades he had known from his youth that had been recovered and heaped roughly atop three stout pyres formed from piles of the driest vegetation they could find, and immediately he felt compelled to address the company.

After a quick briefing as to the extent of their losses and the assurance that no further Skrell had been sighted following the attack, he motioned to those beside him to let him stand with a sweep of his right foreclaw and called-out to the rest for their undivided attention.

“My brothers,” he began, “today we have been taken for fools by the enemy, and by our own lack of vigilance have allowed many of our number (he gestured toward the pyres), TOO many of our number to be lost. How they were allowed to take us by surprise I am uncertain, though I fear that their anticipation of our movements in this wasteland and indeed the initial ambush that caused us to be stranded here were too precise, too calculated to have been a mere matter of luck.” The assertion that their part in the mission to the Rua’Maat had been betrayed to the enemy was clear, and caused the group to murmer of treason and treachery loudly amongst themselves.

Gundar went on, “Know this; we have been trusted by the keepers of the Veil with the holiest of charges. Fractured though we are my comrades, we are far from broken.” He pointed to a large metallic urn among their stores which contained the concentrated payload that had been salvaged from their vessel after it crashed into the planet’s surface, and which they had brought with them for fear of losing it to the enemy, “As long as the weapon remains safe and can still be deployed, deployed it must be. Our mission was simple; arrive at that system the Skrell call their home, and deliver the payload to their homeworld. They say that this will turn the tides of war, and lead us to victory in the Great Conflict, and I believe this with every fibre of my being. As long as there is breath in my body, I will see this done. For the Veil,” he barked, “and for the Threa – we carry on..!”

The small force stood stoic, listening intently to the words of their leader and grunted loudly in unison as he completed his dialogue. Without further discussion, the group divided their equipment and weapons and, pausing only to fire the pyres which held the bodies of their fallen, set off once more in the direction the glistening mountains to the north. This time however, recon parties were also sent in all directions to raise alarm should anything even remotely resembling enemy scouts be seen flocking at the horizon. They would not be caught-out twice.

The long Harlian day was reaching its zenith by the time they finally arrived at the foot of the mountain range, which dazzlingly reflected the intense violet light of the system’s primary star. In spite of the fact that the Threan home world was itself stifling from constant volcanism and that they much preferred the heavy humidity over the freezing alien night, the fierceness of the two combined suns above them and their painstakingly slow crawl across the sky caused many of their number to become quickly fatigued.

With near unslakable thirsts they persevered, several of their weapons discharging randomly as they went as their components expanded and triggered in the awful heat. Urm instructed the group to direct their barrels skyward or at the ground to avoid any unwanted accidents, and as they finally entered the shadow of the mountain they stopped to take stock of their arsenal and to erect makeshift humidifiers with which to catch and replenish their water supplies from the muggy atmosphere of the planet.

Gundar commanded several small groups to explore the nearest outcrop in the hopes of finding sufficient ore and the correct deposits of certain elements; particularly organic solids and any endemic silicates and while they waited, requested Urm, his weapons expert Thrang and a security detail join him in ascending the nearest peak of the curious range in the hopes of seeing what might lie beyond its summit. While he was reluctant to spend any longer on that godforsaken planet than absolutely necessary, Gundar felt that given the recent skirmish he couldn’t be too careful in knowing exactly what might lay in wait for them beyond their line of sight. The group took a stock of a small provision of water and extra power cells for their weapons before allowing those that remained to rest and recover while they turned and made their way up the mountain.

The rock itself was covered with a thick, sticky layer of a strange, translucent fungus which seemed to ooze from higher elevations in the range like a slowly melting glaze. It became clear that this was what gave the mountain its highly reflective quality that had beckoned them from a distance. The contingent found scaling the rock face slow going, and in several places at one time or another they all managed to lose their footing, almost plummeting back down to the base of the climb before catching themselves at the final desperate moment.

After several hours, one of their security detail who had managed to pass beyond the others and scout ahead had finally reached the summit where he could get a glimpse of the lands beyond the peaks, and removed a telescope from his belt to get a better look at what lay ahead. Seeing this from below, Urm called up to him jokingly, asking “What do you see, soldier..? Fresh water – a whorehouse in abundant shade, perhaps..?” Immediately the lieutenant dropped to his stomach, and called back lowly, “Shh..! Don’t say a word. By all that’s holy, Urm – you must be absolutely silent. Get up here, right now..!”

The rest of the group exchanged worried glances from their own footholds, and immediately scrambled as quickly and as quietly as possible to join their comrade at the summit, careful too to keep as low as practical and fumbled with their own telescopes to see what it was that had rattled him so. From their vantage point, they followed his gaze across the valley that opened out from the other side of the outcrop, and quietly gasped in shock as they focussed on the crooked spires of what appeared to be an unknown and obviously highly secret Skrell facility, complete with its own bustling hive and several brand new star cruisers armed to the teeth. It was clearly a new spaceport and weapons development facility, one that had only recently been put into commission and that did not appear in any of their previous intel. “My friends,” whispered Gundar with a crooked smile, “It appears we’ve struck the mother lode.”

The facility was several leagues away from where their battalion had stopped to rest beneath them, and the air around it was thick with swarms of Skrell from several castes that were actively engaged both in crude construction and combat exercises beneath the midday heat. Gundar immediately began to formulate a plan with which to approach this new situation, and propped himself up slightly to better examine the sprawling mountain range which separated his force from their foe. A short journey to the east he noticed a wide pass between two peaks in the range that might provide ample cover and minimal duress by which they could move through the mountains with their equipment unnoticed.

Through a long band of thick vegetation they could, if they were extremely careful, reach the edge of the Skrell compound virtually undetected. He mused on his plan of attack for several moments, before deciding that if they might commandeer one of the enemy’s own vessels, if they could apply their knowledge of the enemy’s technology toward utilising their own ship as a means of sneaking into the Rua’Maat unchallenged that they might yet be able to complete their mission after all. There could be no room for error. But neither could they pass up such an incredible opportunity.

He quickly called the others to follow him in returning down the range to rejoin their company, and hearts racing explained to them his plan. “This, commander, is why you lead.” replied Thrang as he gripped Gundar’s shoulder while the others merely grinned and nodded in agreement. Their descent took several hours, and required much greater care in navigating the slick fungus which had nearly caused them to come unstuck before, but eventually they rejoined their comrades below and Gundar shared with them their findings, to similar nods and grunts from the company. He implored them to remain silent and vigilant, insisting that no fires be lit that night and that they bide their time until the first light of the next morning to launch their attack.

Rations were quickly divided and a discreet camp set-up at the southern mouth of the pass as they prepared, charging weapons and settling on a small diversion west of the facility as a means of drawing the bulk of enemy fire from their own number. Volunteers for the honour of participating in such a crucial but high-risk operation were, as always with the Threa, far more than what was needed. Gundar was pleased, and never prouder to call himself a Soldier of the Veil. Once preparations were complete, the company settled-in at dusk for a long and much needed rest ahead of the carnage that was to follow, the air positively electric with anticipation for the promised bloodshed.

[Freehold Hospital, Sunday Morning]

Alex awoke heart-pounding, short of breath and in a cold sweat. The realisation that his most recent visit from Dr. Holzer had in fact been real was only a secondary thought in his mind compared with the vivid, fantastic dream that he had just experienced. In truth, his dreams had taken a recurring theme of late, and as he found himself sleeping longer and deeper as his condition deteriorated, they had become all the more lucid, linear and lifelike. He had mentioned the dreams earlier to Dr. Holzer and even his parents, all of whom simply dismissed it as a probable side effect of the medications that he was taking, and nothing to be alarmed about.

For Alex though, the almost nightly fantasies that he had been engaged in, the strange worlds and creatures that reappeared night after night had begun to really frighten and, in a way, excite him. They had always started the same, and in each of them he seemed to play the same role; some sort of figurehead in a weird, quasi-military culture. He would feel acutely that he somehow belonged to this strange and alien race, and where he had become weak and listless in reality as the sickness took hold, in his dreams he felt robust, healthy – almost completely indestructible.

He slapped himself awake, shook his head quickly from side to side and took a deep breath as he looked around his room. “Still here,” was all he could manage to say to himself as the gravity of his situation slowly edged-out the residual adrenaline left by the dream. He carefully dropped his legs out from underneath the sheets and gingerly set his feet upon the floor. Somehow he had managed this time to sleep right through the afternoon and most of the night, waking up just as first light of the following morning crept around the thick hospital curtains of his ward. He yawned and shuffled his way to the bathroom to shower and shave, brush his teeth and change out of his usual hospital garb and into something more presentable.

It was a Sunday, and as always his parents would be stopping by to bring him a hot breakfast from the cafe down the street (a welcome respite from the usual hospital fare, which he hated) and catch him up on news from the rest of the family. On any other occasion, he might have taken more of a blasé approach to preparing for this, however as he would have to break the news of recent developments to them today, he decided to look and feel as best he was able. In actual fact, he knew that it would be just about the most difficult thing a man could ever have to impart to his parents; the knowledge that their only son was dying and would pass before either of them. Alex loved his parents deeply, and he was seriously dreading the conversation that had to come.

They arrived at the hospital a little after 9am, and after checking-in and getting the usual greetings out of the way, Alex proceeded to sit them both down, wasting no time in breaking the news of his condition. As careful as he was, the moment the finality of his situation sank in it was all that his dear mother could do to stop herself from breaking down completely. Before he knew it, the three of them were in each other’s embrace at his bedside, his parents shaking uncontrollably and his father only able to ask over and over again, “Is that it..? Is there nothing at all that they can do..?” To which he would reply, “Just keep me comfortable, Dad. There’s nothing more to it – it’s just my time.”

He went on at length to convince them that in spite of everything, he’d led a good life, if not a little unexciting and that “While it’s a horrible, terrible situation, we can only make the most of the time we have.” Dr. Holzer joined them after a short while to run Mr. and Mrs Agnew through exactly why things had turned out as they had, and suggested that the three of them speak with the hospital counsellor before they go anywhere as “Awful as this truly, truly is, there are arrangements that the three of you should endeavour to make together, for when the time comes.”

They thanked the doctor as he left, and spent most of the remainder of the day talking. They laughed together, cried and reminisced on just about everything from more recent times in his life right back to his childhood, which Alex had always felt were his best years. So much had simply not come together for him as he got older, but during those early years and on into his teens, he’d truly felt as if he could accomplish anything. He was thankful that they stayed as long as they did, eventually conceding as the evening wore on into the night that they should be getting home to make arrangements and to contact his other relatives that might also want to see him before the time came.

He embraced them two, three times before they did, and they promised to again visit him the next day, when they might be able to stay longer. His mother couldn’t keep from crying as she waved goodbye from the doorway, while his father did his best to put on a brave face. “My son,” he said softly, locking eyes for several moments before turning to leave and reluctantly closing the door to Alex’s room.

As he lay there in bed, alone once more, his thoughts turned again to the life he was leaving behind. He was himself in terrible debt and living alone in a one bedroom apartment outside of town, before his health had really deteriorated. Prior to that he had been working long hours at a job he hated for less than he’d felt he deserved before his diagnosis, spending most of his free time watching television, or otherwise entertaining a black and white cat he’d bought together with an ex-girlfriend that he had planned to move in with several years before. That among other things had never panned out, and so his only real motivation for getting out of bed in the morning had become a need to show his parents that he was capable, independent and to provide some hope that he might still one day get it together.

Now, he didn’t know what to think. He was tired again, and so set about preparing for another long, restful sleep. As he lay awake, and before he eventually drifted off he noticed a strange tingling sensation gnawing at the base of his skull, where the back of his head met his spine. His legs had also begun to grow heavy, as though all feeling was beginning to numb and even as he finally lost consciousness he couldn’t for the life of him stop both of his feet from twitching.

[Harlia, the Morning of the Attack]

The Threa slept soundly through the short Harlian night save for a few that shared the watch, and as the ominous glow of daybreak began to paint the horizon a threatening shade of blue and violet once more, they woke and began to prepare for the short, quick march north to the Skrell facility. The tension in the cool morning air was palpable as they crouched in the undergrowth and snaked their way toward the enemy hive, careful not to so much as snap a single branch or twig underfoot.

The plan was simple; they were to reach a series of shallow hollows at the eastern edge of their base and lay low, and as soon as those charged with their diversion were able to detonate a series of small portable explosives in several key locations across the other side of the valley, they would make for the nearest alien craft with extreme haste. With no small amount of luck, they should be able to overpower any resistance left guarding the facility, and after loading the weapon on board would allow their comrades just enough time to double back and join them before firing up its engines and making for the skies before they could give chase. It seemed like the perfect plan, but nonetheless Gundar was explicit in demanding the utmost caution and care as they approached their destination.

When their battalion had finally crossed the valley and were within yards of the hollows however, their worst fears were suddenly realised as one of their own number broke free of the hollow and ran directly toward the central hive of the enemy, screaming at the top of his lungs and firing wildly into the air as he went. “The informant..!” Gundar bellowed, immediately realising what was happening and cursing himself for not weeding him out sooner. “They’re here..!” The rogue soldier yelled, “Open the gates and let me in – we have a deal..!” He only managed a few dozen yards before Urm commanded a volley be loosed at the traitor, frying his upper body and quickly freeing him from the dishonour of his actions.

The company held their breaths as his body hit the dirt, time standing still as they strained to hear any sign of motion from the compound. Sure enough, within seconds the familiar buzz of thousands of insect-like wings could be heard starting up, as hundreds of vivid yellow Skrell funnelled up and out of the upper entrance to their hive and fanned-out in a thick swarm above the facility, searching in every direction for the source of the commotion.

Just as the last of their number took to the air and they began breaking out in all directions including that of Gundar and his soldiers near the hollows, several massive explosions rang out across the valley from the diversion team on the far edge. “Fools..!” cursed Gundar under his breath, “Did they not see that we’d been given away..? With all of those Skrell already in the air, they’ll be seen and overrun in seconds..!” There was nothing for it if he was to provide his subordinates across the valley with any sort of fighting chance, and so he took to his full height, beckoning the rest to follow and charged in the direction of the Skrell compound with a roar.

“For the Veil, for Threa and by the Highest State of Being – for the eternal glory of valiant death..!” he cried loudly. The rest of the battalion joined him in charging the facility as the huge, dense cloud of Skrell split into two distinct formations; one that immediately swarmed in the direction of the explosions and a second, far larger group that descended on the invading Threa to instigate what would be heralded as perhaps the greatest single firefight against insurmountable odds since the beginning of the Great Conflict.

The carnage that followed could not easily be described. It seemed as though the plume of Skrell that erupted from the hive was endless, and the ceaseless gunfire from the Threa illuminated the pale morning haze like so many thousand brilliant red fireworks bursting into the sky all at once. Somehow in spite of their err, they had still managed to catch their enemy almost completely unprepared, and while many of their number were simply torn to pieces once the swarm reached striking distance, for every Threa that perished, a hundred of the insectoid army were felled from the skies and ground underfoot as Gundar, Urm and their forces continued to advance with the frenzied determination of madmen.

The Threa had soon cut such a heavy swath through their ranks that a clear passage to the enemy fleet suddenly presented itself, and with a final shout of determination they charged toward it as fast as their powerful legs allowed them to bound across the length of the compound. Within moments, Gundar had reached the gangway to the largest vessel, and when two Skrell launched themselves at him from out of the doorway he immediately dropped his weapon, instead wrapping two monstrously clawed hands around what might have been their necks and squeezed with such power his assailants shrieked an ear-splitting shriek and broke clean in two.

They stormed the entrance to the ship and with heavy cover fire, made for the helm without a second’s delay. Urm motioned for Thrang to take the throttle, as he was the one among them most familiar with the enemy’s technology and in no time at all, a loud hum filled the cockpit as the strange vessel gradually woke from its slumber. Before they closed the gangway, Gundar ordered the rest of their number to hold rank outside on the off-chance that at least some among the diversion team might make it back to them.

Seconds felt like minutes as the hail of charred Skrell continued to rain down around them, and then minutes like hours as they waited, squinting into the undergrowth behind them. Sure enough, just as they were about to abandon all hope, plasma fire burst from the treeline, and a dozen Threa, beaten, bruised and bloody sprinted across the facility, the air now thick with fire and Skrell and they too charged the gangway. The door was quickly sealed and the vessel’s engines burst into life, sending their craft hurtling into the planet’s atmosphere and vaporising hundreds of pursuing Skrell in the process.

As soon as they cleared orbit and could finally engage the ship’s hyperdrive, the Threa let out a resounding cheer. They had done it – HE had done it..! Gundar was hoisted ceremoniously onto his comrades’ shoulders as the magnitude of their most daring escape finally struck them. The payload was on board, they were back in space – their mission could finally be completed. Never in his life had Gundar felt such a sense of accomplishment, of pride as he felt at that very moment. He had taken the ultimate risk, seizing the opportunity that had presented itself and had won.

He thanked each and every Threa on board individually for their valour, and prayed fealty to the Highest State of Being for providing guidance and protection during the insurrection, as well as for the souls of those that did not survive. Battered, bloody and still in shock, he dropped down beside a pylon in the ship’s control room, and closed his eye – “Onward to the Rua’Maat, Gundar, onward to victory..!” This was his final self-satisfied thought as he succumbed to exhaustion, and a well needed rest.

[Freehold Hospital, Monday Morning]

It was only the next morning when Alex finally lost all sensation in both legs, and found that he could no longer move them at all, let alone leave his bed. Against his doctor’s generous prediction, the tumour in the back of his skull had quickly reached a critical mass and had begun not only to crush several key areas of his brain that controlled major parts of his body but was now also restricting the flow of oxygen to it. His final dream had been so much more vivid than the first.. the firefight, the Skrell and his own part in it all.

His hallucinations had begun to spill over into his waking thoughts, and within a few short hours he found himself flitting in and out of consciousness involuntarily. It was all happening so fast, and when his parents eventually arrived escorted by his doctor, they just couldn’t understand how he had one day been so lucid, so much like the Alex that they knew and loved and the next, could only stay focussed for mere minutes at a time.

“Mr. and Mrs. Agnew,” Dr. Holzer started, “I know it doesn’t make much sense. When we described to Alex the window of time that was left, we could only be so general. His condition is far advanced, and there is simply no way of providing an absolutely clear evaluation of how quickly his other functions might be affected, nor how soon.. it appears that the pressure that the tumour is exerting on his brain has reached a critical point, whereby there’s very little chance of real lucidity from here on in.”

His mother was beside herself, and once again Mr. Agnew asked of him, “There’s nothing that can be done..? Just what the hell are we supposed to do now..?” Dr. Holzer’s expression fell, and he replied, “As drastic as it seems, at this stage I would strongly recommend placing your son in an induced coma, wherein we might buy time to continue to evaluate the progression of his condition in a stable state and at least he might then, when the time comes, find peace in a dignified end. Once again, I’m very sorry and of course, the call is entirely yours,” he turned and pointed to the doorway, “I’ll be out in the hall while you talk it through.”

He shook Mr. Agnew’s hand and left, and for a long time Alex lay there in his bed, eyes flitting as he mumbled more and more incoherently, for brief moments showing recognition, but for the most part only muttering a great deal about somebody called ‘Gundar,’ a secret mission, and a great ship in outer space. “My beautiful boy,” Mrs Agnew said softly, as she stroked a wave of hair from his forehead. “So young – so much potential. It’s just not fair.”

The two stayed by his bedside for hours, discussing which action to take as Alex drifted farther and farther from coherence and eventually slipped into an almost catatonic state in which no part of him moved but for a constant flicker of both eyelids. Finally, after much deliberation they both agreed that he would want to sleep now, rather than slowly fall to pieces in his final days and gave Dr. Holzer the authority he needed to induce a coma, sending their only son to his rest for the last time.

That afternoon, as they watched from his bedside, the necessary steps were taken, and Alexander Agnew slipped forever from consciousness, into dream and everything beyond.

[Deep Space, Exact Location: Classified]

Like a shot, Gundar’s great eye flew open and he sprang to his feet. He was all of a sudden strangely energised, feeling more focussed and alert than he had ever felt before and he scanned the room in which he found himself as memories of the past few days’ events came flooding back. He was on the bridge of the Skrell battlecruiser, the ship they had commandeered from under the very noses of their enemy. His battalion, comrades that had stuck with him through thick and thin were at their stations, some carefully instructing others how to operate the complex and alien controls of the vessel and many more taking a well earned rest as Thrang and his team plotted a clear course for the Rua’Maat. He smiled as two of them passed him by, bowing their heads in a gesture of respect and moved across the bridge to speak with Urm, his oldest and greatest friend.

“Urm, my right hand,” he began, “what is our bearing..? How long have I slumbered..?” Urm replied, “A full night’s rest, Commander – and well-earned I might say. We have long cleared the Harlian System and bear onward to the Rua’Maat. Thrang suspects we might disengage the vessel’s hyperdrive in a matter of hours. Everything else is on schedule, and perhaps before the day is through we might finally taste the wine of victory for which we have so longed, the Higher State permitting.

“Excellent,” Gundar replied. “Hold steady, see to it that our wounded are administered to and if you haven’t already, send a team to try to find food, water.. whatever these vermin might be hoarding to replenish morale.” He clasped the other Threa’s shoulder before turning to leave the bridge himself. “As you will, Gundar,” Urm replied with a low bow, addressing his own subordinate to relay his commander’s instruction.

“And General,” Gundar called over his shoulder as he started down the corridor. “Yes, Commander..?” came Urm’s reply.

“From now on – have the men call me Alex.”

.. Inspired by a Long Walk in a Dark Forest

‘THE GLADE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

The call finally came at nine minutes past 4am on Tuesday, February 2nd. The ring from his phone shattered the silence in their bedroom and wrested him from a long and beautiful dream in which he was wandering alone in a massive oaken forest, surrounded by tall trees and warmed by golden summer sunlight breaking through the canopies above. Eric was fast asleep, and had been for hours. It was the middle of Winter, and the small house that he and his wife Nancy shared in Brixton, South London was cold and the wanly lit streets outside thick with an early morning fog that rolled down from the river and flowed through them like so many silent ghosts. He groaned loudly and turned, setting his feet reluctantly on the polished wooden floor beside their bed and shook the sleep from his eyes, searching for the source of the unwelcome noise.

The call came from the Royal Hospital in the city, and he was greeted on the line by an elderly man who identified himself as Dr. Morgan and whose nervous tone immediately gave Eric cause for concern. After making sure he had reached the right person, the other man wasted no time advising him that in spite of their greatest care and attention his mother had finally passed, gently and quietly in the night. Although she had been admitted into care several months earlier with little chance that she would recover from a long bout of pneumonia, the shock of waking up to such news caused Eric to break down and the sound of his quiet sobbing awoke Nancy who rolled over and embraced her husband, knowing immediately what had happened. Eric regained his composure and thanked the doctor for doing the best he could before hanging up and again weeping openly in her arms.

It had been a terrible twenty-four hours after they rushed to the hospital to greet the staff that had made Edith’s final days on earth comfortable, and by the time her funeral had finally come around neither Eric nor Nancy felt that they had any emotion left. They stood silently numb as their bishop delivered her last rites and watched bleary-eyed as her body was slowly lain to rest in a quiet corner of an old cemetery, sheltered by the nurturing arms of a strong willow tree. Edith loved the willow, and Eric knew that she would be at peace here in this place beside her husband and his father who had himself passed-on more than a decade earlier. “At last,” he thought to himself, looking out across the field of stones as a soft breeze animated the long, vibrant grass surrounding them, “you and Dad are together again.” The rest of their friends and family slowly dissipated in time, leaving him and Nancy alone to come to terms with the fact that they were both finally gone.

They held a small wake at a house just outside of the city where his Aunt Meredith, his mother’s sister lived and tried their best to put on a smile and talk only of the happier times he had shared with his parents growing up. Eric had become an only child shortly before his eighth birthday, after his younger sister Julia had mysteriously disappeared one night and although this had been an intense cause for talk and speculation at the time, everyone present was still wiser than to bring it up even now. After most of them, particularly the four or five other elderly women with whom Edith had spent much of her twilight years enjoying outings and other various activities had exhausted themselves of all grief, conversation turned to laughter as they fondly remembered her quirks. Eric’s mother had been raised in a small town east of the Lake District in the country’s north where most still spoke their mind, and her sharp tongue and irreverent personality had caused her more than once to land herself (and often too her close family) in hot water.

They ended up in hysterics as they fondly remembered the time she had berated her husband mid-prayer in front of the congregation for falling asleep during a sermon, and how she had almost chased poor Nancy half-way down the street the first time she had met her after finding out that her son was seeing an Irish Catholic girl. For all her odd behaviour, Edith had proved to be the most loving and genuine mother Eric could have asked for, and despite the large group of well-wishers that had turned out to take part in her wake, deep down he had never felt more alone.

He eventually excused himself from the rest of the party at the close of another anecdote and walked out in front of the house where he stood and looked out into the street, sighing heavily and wondering just what exactly he was supposed to do now. As if to answer, a short, well-dressed man in a dark dinner suit also left the gathering through the front door and stood beside him, offering him a quick gesture of respect before pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket, lighting it up and joining him in staring out across the neighbourhood. After a minute, the other man turned to Eric, extending his right hand and spoke:

“George Kaczynski, it’s nice to meet you,” he started. “I knew your mother briefly in the final few weeks before.. until now.” He finished awkwardly. The name sounded familiar to Eric, who finally realised who it was he was speaking to. He continued, “I was asked to be the executor of your mother’s estate, and was hoping I could have a word today to perhaps arrange to meet and run through a few things.. not today, and there’s no rush of course. Edith and I discussed her intentions at length over the past few weeks, and she was very firm in making sure that I don’t..” he chuckled for a moment, and Eric smiled, “that I didn’t dilly-dally around like every other smooth-talking shark she’d dealt with. I was hoping you could perhaps stop by my office tomorrow, if you’re up to it..?”

“Yes, of course – thank you. I know my mother wouldn’t have had it if I didn’t keep track of her things, you know how she is.. was. I’ll stop-in first thing tomorrow, let you get it out of the way.” George smiled a stiff smile as he crushed his cigarette underfoot, shook Eric’s hand and passed him his business card before making his way out into the street and to his car. Eric stood there alone for another several minutes before squinting skyward and sighing heavily once more. “Well, let’s get this over with,” he thought as he turned and made his way back inside, eager to put the event behind him.

He and Nancy met with Mr. Kaczynski early the next morning at his building in the West End, and quickly got down to business. Edith and her husband David had accumulated very little in the way of non-material assets over the years, acquiring little else other than several old vintage cars (Eric’s father had at one time been a mechanic) and a lifetime of furniture and possessions which still filled the large country house they had shared in rural Cumbria in the country’s far north. As their only son, Eric had more or less been given sole inheritance, and their meeting served as little more than a formality in signing their home and contents over to him before he and Mr. Kaczynski shook hands once more and they left with a set of keys and a long list of inventory for larger assets that remained at the property. It was a bittersweet moment for him as he reflected on the many years that he had spent growing up in that old house, and in the knowledge that it is and would remain empty now that his parents had both finally passed-on.

He and Nancy decided to pack their bags that Friday and drive up to the house to begin the monstrous task of sorting, cleaning and clearing through three decades of clutter and belongings that still filled every room. He had decided and she agreed that the longer they put it off, the more difficult a task it would become and at first light they packed a weekend’s worth of clothing and boxes into the back of her cherry-red V60 station wagon and set-off on a road trip that would take them a little over five hours, traffic permitting. The road out of London itself proved to be a long one however, and despite leaving early they found themselves caught in gridlock on the far side of the river for almost an hour before finally breaking free and reaching open road, and the scenic surroundings of the English countryside.

In spite of the solemn reason for their venture north, it was all that Nancy could do to hide her excitement at spending a weekend in the country. The pair had met while studying in the inner-city and spent the next five and a half years moving from share house to apartment, and apartment to condo and had never once had the luxury of anything larger than a roofed al-fresco as a backyard. She found herself energised by the fresh air and wide open spaces, gushing incessantly throughout their entire journey and the only way that Eric could think to put an end to her excited narrative was to suggest they stop at Carlisle for a long-lunch and some sightseeing before carrying-on the remainder of their journey to Wetheral, their final destination.

While they sat and ate at one of a hundred small delicatessens along the highway, Eric’s mind wandered back to his teenage years spent growing up in the country. The green fields and endless rolling hills brought him back to a simpler time in his life where he would while away the hours roaming through the many woods and glens, mapping every brook and stream which intersected the flourishing landscape. He had loved to fish, and sometimes otherwise to just lose himself in the openness and emptiness of being far away from it all. He also remembered more difficult times as a child coming to terms with the disappearance of his younger sister in one such wood outside the family home, and the taunts and accusations made toward him by the other children at their school, and even their parents. He had been the last one to see her alive before she vanished, and the guilt for having lost her, rational or not weighed heavy on him for most of his adult life.

Nancy on the other hand seemed to be having the time of her life, and beamed a wide and beautiful smile after taking a big bite of a thick sandwich from across the table. After struggling to clear the mouthful, she asked, “This is the first time you’ve taken me up here, you know. How much further is the drive..?” He smiled back at her as she wiped a dollop of butter from her cheek, and replied, “We’re almost there now. Wetheral should only be about ten miles east of here. Let’s have a quick wander along here first to make sure we have everything we need, then we’ll shoot over and get started.” They finished their meal and stopped-in at a grocery store for cleaning products and a few bottles of wine before returning to the car and setting-off in the direction of the village.

As they pulled out of the parking space, they stopped momentarily to let a small family pass before returning to the highway. The two of them watched as the middle-aged parents carefully shepherded a young son and daughter in front of the car and down the footpath, and Eric took Nancy’s hand instinctively into his. They had wanted and tried desperately themselves to have children of their own from the day they married, however despite several hopeful starts eventually decided to see specialist who broke the unfortunate news to them that Nancy had inherited a rare genetic condition which left her physically unable to bear children. Despite all of the wonders of modern medicine, it seemed that little could be done to help them and every time she saw other couples out with their own she couldn’t help but hurt. Eric was extraordinarily supportive however, and would simply say that, “If it’s meant to be, it will be. Until then I’ll just have to go ahead and love you that extra bit more.”

It was mid-afternoon when they finally pulled-up at the end of a long, unmade driveway that snaked away from the road and descended toward the property which was nestled cosily at the edge of a wide, dark wall of trees. The scenery overlooking it was breathtaking; the house itself was a rustic two-storey affair built mostly from old, rugged sandstone blocks arranged beneath a broad and weathered thatched roof, and it backed onto the western edge of the Wetheral Woods which towered above the roofline like a black curtain and ran for miles in either direction. Despite being late in the day, a shallow mist rose from the soil at the edges of the clearing and gave the surreal impression that they had somehow travelled out of their current time and back to an old and wonderful page in history. The two sat mouths agape as the car idled for a full minute before turning to look at each other, and without speaking Eric nosed the vehicle down toward the front of the house where they parked and got out for a better view.

The house lay almost completely in the shadow of the woods, and Eric and Nancy both shuddered visibly as the cold country air caressed their skin. “It’s just.. beautiful,” she said, sighing deeply as she looked around to completely take it all in. “The old homestead,” Eric replied, shrugging. “I’ll open up, then let’s get this stuff inside and set a fire. We can take a look around tonight to get an idea of what’s needed and get started on the heavy lifting in the morning.” He fumbled for the keys and unlocked the heavy wooden door which creaked loudly as it opened and returned to the car for an armful of boxes and bags. The two gingerly crossed the threshold and moved through the house, making their way to a large and homely kitchen at the far end to begin unpacking. Eric stacked bottles, sprays and paper towels on the counter and Nancy set their suitcases up in the guest room down the hall. She was astonished at just how authentic the interior of the house had remained, and wandered about touching the fixtures, scarred beams and cornices like a curious child, oohing and aahing as she went.

Eric started a fire in the living room and once they were settled disappeared to the kitchen momentarily, returning with two full glasses of wine. He sipped at one and handed Nancy the other before settling down in an old chair by the fireplace, and the two then talked for hours about his childhood, the house and his life growing up in such a strange and isolated place. Eric had never much liked speaking in detail about his life in the country, save for an occasional complaint and had himself adjusted quite nicely to London’s fast-paced and contemporary lifestyle. Given his obvious reservations she had never pressed him for more on his background, but as they finished their first bottle of red and opened another, he began to relax and spoke at length of his father and mother, and seemed to enjoy reminiscing about their old-fashioned attitudes and almost comical day-to-day experiences.

After a couple of hours and when the last light of day had completely vanished from outside the heavy double-glazed windows, Nancy finally plucked up the courage to ask Eric about his sister, something she had never quite felt comfortable bringing up but had been dying to know about since he had first dismissed the subject years earlier by simply saying, “Julia disappeared when we were very young, near our home. It tore us apart for years, but it is what it is.. it’s not a time and place I want to revisit often, if I can readily avoid it.” Her question had seemingly come out of nowhere, and although he squirmed when she asked there was something in her delivery, the innocent concern with which came the question, “What about Julia..? The two of you moved here when you were only very young, do you mind if I ask what happened..?” that made him feel it was time to at least touch on the subject. She immediately apologised when she noticed the wide smile disappear from his face, adding, “I’m sorry, you don’t have to..”

“No, no.. it’s alright,” he replied in resign, “you and I have known each other long enough, and it’s not fair for me to keep such a thing to myself.” He stiffened, and took another long sip of wine. After pausing for a minute, staring at his glass while the fire crackled and hissed in the background, he began. “My parents.. our parents had bought this place themselves after living in Manchester for nearly ten years. After they were married, and the two of us got older they decided to sell the garage and move us north, away from the city and to what they thought would be a safer place to raise two small children. Dad’s family were originally from Birmingham, and he’d grown up knowing exactly what the bigger cities were like.. the violence, drugs. He didn’t want to expose us to everything that he knew went on if he could help it. I was seven, and Julia five. We were both so excited to be moving to the country – I loved the outdoors and Julia was convinced she’d catch a fairy out in the woods.” He smiled for a moment, before taking another sip of wine and sitting closer by the fire.

A few days after we arrived, and before enrolling in school we had pleaded with our parents to let the two of us explore the woods behind the house. We rarely got along as it was, but when we did band together there was no amount of protest the two of them could put up to stop us from getting what we wanted. Despite it being only late January, we were relentless and after a day or so our parents caved and after warning us to watch out for wolves and foxes and other forest nasties, we rugged-up in our warmest clothes, Julia insisting she wear a brand new tartan dress our parents had bought her, and set-out in the afternoon to get an idea of what was out there. You have to understand that this was quite a few years ago, and we were miles away from the nearest town. They had no reason at all to worry about there being any danger out there to us other than ourselves. We said our goodbyes to the both of them and tore out the back door, running blindly into the tall trees beyond.”

“We ran and ran through the forest, leaping over streams and fallen trees and laughed and laughed the entire afternoon. It was amazing out there,” he recalled, staring into the fire, “We must have covered several miles, and were out there for hours before we finally realised that it was beginning to get dark. Julia became scared when we could no longer remember what direction was home, and as the sky grew darker I decided that I’d better make it to higher ground to get an idea of just how far we’d come, and which way we needed to go. I shimmied up a massive oak tree, and just as I neared the top I finally got my head over the canopy and could get an idea of where we were. I ambled around the trunk carefully, as the branches had become quite thin and despite now having a clear view, all I could see were the tops of more trees in every direction. Julia was calling out to me from the ground below, and I could tell that she was upset.. I had no idea where we were, and the last light of dusk was quickly fading away.”

Nancy was herself growing clearly distressed at the retelling, her face a mask of worry and concern but Eric went on, “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t see a light, but just as I was about to call down to her I noticed a wide, low clearing a short distance away in the other direction. It wasn’t home, but all I could think about at this point was giving her something to focus on, and getting the two of us out of the thick wood and at least to somewhere we could feel safe. I committed the way to memory and climbed back down the trunk of the tree before telling her which way we needed to go. She was so upset, and started to cry. I took her hand and with the last light guided her toward the clearing where we at least had a chance of staying safe before somebody came looking.”

“By the time we finally made it out of the wall of trees, it was completely dark except for a sort of weak glow which filtered down from the moon overhead. It was a crescent only about half its size, but it was enough that we could safely navigate our way through the undergrowth and across the clearing. When we finally arrived, we walked in..” He stopped for a moment and furrowed his brow, as if he wasn’t quite sure how to continue. “What happened..?” she asked softly, “Did you make it out..?”

“Not right away,” he continued. “We walked in, and that’s when.. that’s when we saw it.” He stopped again, a look of confusion mixed with apprehension taking hold of his features. To this day he was still reluctant to recall the complete story of what had happened that night. At first he had been so sure of what had taken place, with no doubt whatsoever in his mind but over the days, weeks and months that followed and by the constant dismissal of his account by everyone he had told it to, he had neglected and almost forgotten the arch and the strange ring of stones that he and his sister had stumbled upon. His teachers, friends and even his parents had eventually convinced him that what he thought he had seen was nothing more than a daydream, a mechanism of his own imagining that he had created to deal with what had really taken place. “How could anything else be the truth..?” he thought to himself, “Julia and I were simply lost in the woods, and were separated. There can’t be more to it than that.”

Nancy was by now more than concerned about her husband, and decided that this might be a good time to lay the conversation to rest. It was late, and they had done enough that day as it was.. it was time to call it a night. “It’s okay,” she said, “let’s finish this another time. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, and we can pick up where we left off whenever you’re ready.” She smiled and held his right hand in hers, and brushed his cheek with her left. Eric looked up at her and as he stared into her beautiful blue eyes, the pain and confusion vanished from his face. “You’re right, as usual,” he replied. He glanced at the empty glass in his left hand and then at the near-empty second bottle of red above the fireplace. “Two’s my limit anyway.” She smiled, and they cleared their glasses and bottles to the kitchen sink before returning to the guest room for a restful night’s sleep.

Eric lay awake for hours however as his wife slept soundly beside him. He was tired and drained from the stresses of the past week, yet for some reason he just could not shut-off his mind to what had happened to Julia. It had been years since he had allowed himself to return to that place, to those recollections that he had tried so hard to forget. Yet somehow as he lay there, once more in the old house by the wood where he had lost her he was again convinced that there was more to the story than he was taught to believe. He replayed the remainder of that fateful night in his head as he stared at the ceiling, trying with all his will to recall in detail what had actually happened;

As he and Julia left the forest wall they had found themselves in a wide natural clearing, the dark silhouettes of the trees swaying gently in the night air around it, and moved forward through the tall silver grasses that glowed almost eerily ahead of them, illuminated by the moonlight. At the centre of the clearing stood a wide and low ring of stones, and at its heart was a structure which neither of them could explain. Even now, the closest description that he could come up with was that it was a tall, grey arch of stone comprised of two wide obelisks set several feet apart and across the top, maybe five or six feet high was set a third smaller slab, which rested heavily atop the two supporting pillars. Although it was difficult to make out in the light, strange symbols were etched down the length of each pillar, and the top of the arch was adorned with words in a language that’s lettering seemed almost more to resemble an intricate pattern than a written dialect. It was to that day like nothing he had ever seen, and by the weathered state of the stones and the tall undergrowth around it had stood undisturbed and silent for an extremely long time.

The two siblings turned to each other in amazement, immediately forgetting their predicament and walked toward the arch which stood cold and stoic against the deep blue-black of the night sky above. They crossed the circle of stones, and together reached out to touch it, if for nothing else to convince themselves that it was in fact real. They circled the structure for a moment before little Julia’s eyes widened in amazement, and she breathed, “Fairies..!” It took Eric a second before the word registered, and he scoffed back, “Fairies, unlikely.. there’s no such thing as fairies. When are you going to grow up..?” Julia scowled at this, and replied, “There is too – these are fairy stones, look at the words,” she pointed to the strange cursive lettering above them. “See..? That’s their language. You don’t know anything.” The wind had blown her thick, red hair across her face, and only her scowl and little freckled nose poked through it to convey her indignation.

Eric scoffed again, but was too busy admiring the monument to shoot her down right away. When he had overcome his own astonishment, he instead turned and called-out into the woods, “Hey, fairies..! Come out if you’re real and prove it, if you’re not too chicken..!” Julia’s jaw dropped and she admonished her brother, who laughed her off and began teasing her for believing in make-believe and children’s stories. He poked and taunted her, and called her a baby for thinking that magical creatures actually lived in the woods behind their house. She fumed, and this only egged him on.

Deep down he loved his sister, but he just couldn’t help himself. “You’re such a baby,” he jeered, “how can you believe such rubbish..?” Eric slapped the cold stone with his palm and again called-out into the night; “Come on, pixies, show yourselves..!” He leaned-in toward Julia, “There’s nobody here but Eric and his gullible little baby sister – and this is what I think of her fairies..!” He then proceeded to hock the biggest loogie that he could, and spat it on the nearest column. This was the final straw for Julia, who screamed, “Stop it, stop it – leave them alone..!” and chased Eric around the arch as he laughed derisively back at her.

The two siblings ran in a wide circle around the arch, completing a full 360 degrees past the opening once, twice and a third time before Julia decided to outsmart her brother and catch him out by running through it. Eric continued around the structure and his sister turned and pivoted, leaping through the opening as he sped-up and went to circle past it a fourth time. As he rounded the far pillar he stopped and turned to face her, tired and finally ready to endure the flailing of little fists he knew was coming, but she wasn’t there. He turned again, realising that she must have doubled-back but she wasn’t ahead of him either. He stilled for several seconds and stopped to listen for her footsteps but heard nothing more than the gentle night breeze rustling through the grass and thickets, and he himself then passed through the structure, looking right and left for her. He scanned the clearing, and quickly realised that she was no longer there – she had vanished.

He looked around nervously, panting from the chase and called-out, “Alright, I give up – stop hiding and come back.” Again, there was no sound to be heard save for his own heavy breathing and the rustling of trees in the distance. He moved out toward the stone circle, and looked behind every rock and shrub in the clearing, finding no trace of his little sister. He panicked, and called out once more, “Julia, come on – where are you..? Stop playing, I’m sorry I made fun.. come back and let’s start home.” Again nothing. She was not by the arch or behind the ring of stones. There was no way that she could have made it out to the tree line, either – she had simply disappeared. In the wan shadows cast by the moonlight, Eric went on to spend hours searching for his sister, crying and pleading into the blackness for her to come back before futility and fear of the dark caused him to finally run out into the forest and away in the vaguest of directions that he believed to be their home.

He had eventually and miraculously arrived back at the old house in the early hours of the following morning, and was greeted by the flashing lights of several police cars and his two parents, by now worried sick for their two young children. He would never forget the looks on their faces when he arrived alone, and in the company of a search and rescue team comprising local police and volunteers had assisted in scouring the woods for days afterward for any sign of her. He had guided a number of these groups in the direction of the clearing, and although he thought he had led them several times to what he believed to resemble the one they had stumbled upon, none of them had contained an arch nor a ring of standing stones – only long, green grasses and nothing else.

No trace of his sister or the strange stone circle were ever found again.

Losing Julia had affected his parents deeply. Her father had taken refuge in drink, and although he could eventually control his impulse to reach for the bottle whenever the memories returned, the damage done in those few short years that followed had taken its toll, contributing heavily to his poor health and an all too early death. Eric’s entire family were plunged into turmoil as word of his sister’s disappearance became fertile ground for scandal among the other families in the small village, and although they managed to endure and somehow get on with their lives, the hushed whispers and rumour of foul play persisted long after the story had grown cold in the public eye.

Eric sighed and rolled over in bed, deciding against feeling to try and force at least a few hours’ sleep ahead of everything he and Nancy had travelled so far to take care of in the morning. It was strange being back in the old house after so many years, but as he lay there wide awake and listened to the noises it made as it settled, a small part of him couldn’t help but feel somehow safe. In spite of how fast life might appear to pass you by in the day to day goings-on of the modern world, time spent in those places of our childhood, for better or worse always somehow seem to feel warm.

The couple awoke to the sounds of chirping birds outside their window the next morning, just as the first rays of sunshine crept over the tops of the trees and after a home cooked breakfast set about boxing and labelling his parent’s possessions. Eric’s father had always badgered Edith to do away with the countless nic-nacs and redundant articles that she would accumulate for little to no good reason other than it being “an awful waste to throw them away,” however since his passing it seemed that she had once again returned to familiar habits. It took them both the entire day just to box up her books, ornaments and magazines set loosely about the place before they decided it was time for another breather. The two enjoyed a nice hot cup of tea as Eric once again stoked the fire, and as they sat in silence admiring the shadows it cast on the walls as it flickered, he decided in spite of his own wariness that they should get out, take a walk and experience the fresh forest air while they could.

Nancy was less than enthusiastic however, arguing, “I’m exhausted, Eric. We’ve been at it for hours now and I’m sorry if this sounds pampered, but I’d much prefer just to sink into a nice hot bath for awhile, and de-stress. You can still go, though – I’d just rather work-out some of these knots and save my energy for round two.” She looked tired, and Eric began to wonder if she too had had trouble sleeping last night. He was nonetheless keen to stretch his legs and in honesty rather fancied the idea of a few hours of solitude, something the two of them rarely seemed to find in London. “I’ll just pop-out for a bit then, try to find a path and get the blood running again. Do you mind..?”

“Of course not,” she replied with a smile, “after the week we’ve had a little ‘you time’ will be good. Now get lost, so I can enjoy a wine in the tub.” He laughed and kissed her on the cheek before slipping on a thick scarf and parka from his suitcase, and pulling a pair of heavy leather hiking boots onto his feet. He could already hear running water and the chink of glass as he called out goodbye, and as he left through the front door and around the back of the house he laughed again. Nancy was as tough as nails when she wanted to be, but even she seemed to be missing the modern comforts of their house back home. His breath hung about him in a thick cloud as he walked brusquely through the cold evening air, and after finding what looked to be a trail worn into the edge of the wood set off in a half-run, hoping the sudden exercise might start to warm him up.

He had left it until late in the day to leave, and although it was only six o’clock the skies were already beginning to transform into a deep and brilliant red as the sun’s dying rays approached the horizon. Nightfall came quickly to the country, and quicker still in the Winter and after running for the better part of an hour, Eric was feeling very warm but incredibly puffed-out. He had run so fast and covered quite a lot of ground in an effort to get his blood pumping, and hadn’t even noticed that he had strayed from the forest track and veered-off into a denser, taller and more ancient part of the Wetheral that was clearly quite far from civilisation and didn’t appear at all to have been visited by anyone in the recent past. He finally stopped running and bent down, placing his hands on his knees as he doubled-over and struggled to catch his breath. “Where in heaven’s name am I..?” he thought to himself.

His heart finally slowed, and when his breathing had returned to normal he wandered around for several minutes trying once more to find the path that had taken him there. It was beginning to get dark, and as the shadows coalesced and the air was filled with the sounds of hooting owls and other forest wildlife he started to think that his chances of getting back before nightfall were slim to none. ”She’s going to kill me this time,” he muttered to himself, and rather than waste more time trying to find the road he turned and started running again in the direction he felt he had come, believing that sooner or later he’d break through the forest wall once more, if not at the house then at least a short walk from it. As he ran he caught a glimpse of a crescent moon as it peeked through the branches above, and he was thankful that as the daylight completely disappeared he still had some way of seeing where he was going.

After ten or fifteen more minutes however, panic started to really set in. “Surely it would start to thin-out by now,” he thought to himself, “I’m such an idiot for not taking my phone.. though I probably wouldn’t get reception out here anyway.” Just as he considered stopping once more to take further stock of his options, he noticed that the trees ahead were indeed beginning to open out, and thirty of forty yards in front of him he could just see the moonlight cutting stronger through the near-blackness, indicating that he was almost where he needed to be. He pushed himself into a sprint, desperate to get out of the woods and back to a tall glass of wine by the fire and within seconds he reached the edge of the forest and bounded out into the open night air once more.

He slowed to a trot as he detached himself from the darkness, and it took him almost a full minute to realise that he hadn’t actually reached the end. Instead, he had stumbled into a wide clearing even deeper in the woods, ringed by the imposing black backdrop of the tree line and which was bathed only in the soft white moonlight from up above, and nothing else. Eric wiped the sweat from his brow and rubbed his eyes as he looked out across the clearing, and immediately a deep shiver ran down his spine. Far-off across the opening, and if he wasn’t somehow dreaming he could just make out the silhouette of a wide ring of low stones which ran along the ground like crooked teeth and formed a staggered circle. In the centre of the circle stood a tall, imposing structure which although he could not readily identify it as being so from a distance, his mind screamed out and he knew that he had somehow once again stumbled upon the same secret glade that he and Julia had visited in their youth, and at its heart still stood that same mysterious arch that they had found on the night she disappeared, more than twenty years earlier.

Tears filled his eyes as his body caught up with him, and all he could say, over and over was, “No, no.. it can’t be..!” He walked across the clearing and as he reached the henge around it he was shaking. It was real, and he was right. Somewhere and somehow, after all these years he had returned. He went to cross the awkward stone ring, slowing as he neared it and the entire forest which had become so animated beyond the trees seemed suddenly to have hushed completely into a cold silence in which you could have heard a pin drop. Even in the pale light, he could still make out the same strange and wonderful symbols which extended across the central arch and down the length of either pillar, and stopped only a few feet away finding himself somehow terrified to even touch it. Memories flooded back, and the pain of losing her, Julia on that night so long ago burned inside him. He considered for a moment turning and running away from the clearing, as far away and to anywhere else but something deep within him forced him to stay and investigate further.

It was just as he remembered. The monument stood tall, grey and cold against the dark skies above it, and when he finally plucked up the courage to reach out and touch it, a soft breeze started up once more at the forest’s edge which gently shook the tops of the trees and chilled the sweat on his face and neck. It was real. He stood before the arch, his trembling hands convincing him that he wasn’t dreaming, and in the clear and surreal warmth of the crescent moonlight he found himself speaking to it without even realising.

“Why,” he asked of the night, without expecting an answer, “Why did you take her from me..?”

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he dropped his head and stood against the pillar. As years of repressed anger and sorrow finally came to the surface, he leant his head against the cold stone and finally allowed himself to let it all out. The loss and loneliness, the sadness and guilt all poured out of him and away into the darkness like an awful, painful torrent. It was as he did that he began to feel a strange sensation wash over him, an idea which grew as a feeling that somehow seemed to come not from the arch or his own will, but that of the stone circle.

He stepped back in shock as a voiceless voice suddenly called out to him from the clearing, as strong and vivid as it was beautiful, and he stumbled and fell to the ground in amazement. When he touched the stone, when he placed his head against it, someone or some thing had called out to him. Still shaking and not entirely sure why, he arose once more and held the arch, resting his temple against the weird runes carved deep into it and this time stayed to hear, to feel just what it was that he was meant to know. All of a sudden, images and sensations flooded his mind – beautiful and haunting visions of dancing people and smiling children from a far distant past which erupted in his head and cascaded down through his entire body like a clear and calming waterfall, and he found that for several long moments and in spite of his fear and trepidation he could not have moved if he wanted to.

The trilithon had stood for so long, silent, alone.. waiting. For an unfathomable time the arch had endured, absorbing the hopes and dreams, the love, joy and laughter of those that came and danced before it, and those that were still yet to come. As he touched it, Eric too was overwhelmed with those same thoughts and images which burst into his consciousness in a flash of intense white light and whisked him away to a place beyond time, space and reality for all of what felt like a lifetime, before it finally let go of its hold and suddenly, somehow he knew what he needed to do.

He drew back from the structure, lined himself up and walked almost impulsively in a wide and deliberate circle around it, halfway between the arch and the henge first once, and then twice. As he walked, the gentle breeze in the clearing became a gale, and then a roar as he finally closed a third and final circle, returning once more to face it head-on, and as he did the same winds again died down and the strange and beautiful aura that the arch had gifted him drained away completely from his body, and simply dissipated back into the clearing. For a long moment, Eric just stood before it, waiting for something to happen. He alone, and the arch inert. Just as quickly as the visions had left him, skepticism crept back into his thoughts and he began to feel awkward, and then angry for having allowed himself to fall for the lure of its mystery and his own nostalgia.

Just as he was feeling entirely foolish and about to consider leaving the clearing, his eyes became drawn a small, dark figure peering out at him from behind the far pillar. He panicked as it moved, and for a split second feared that some small creature had come from out of the woods in all the commotion. He called out, “Hey..! Hey, come here..!” and as his cry rang-out and he cautiously made his way around the structure for a closer look, she moved from the shadows and into the moonlight to show herself.

Eric could not control the flood of emotion then that hit him like a sledgehammer as little Julia stepped forward from the darkness and stared up at him with wide and terrified eyes. It was like a thousand dreams that he had had since that fateful night, as he tortured himself over and over again since she was taken. Still wearing the same blue and green tartan dress and little black shoes, his sister stood trembling before him, and asked, “Who are you, where’s my brother..?”

He stood silent and in shock for several moments, unable to comprehend just what was happening. Somehow, across the infinite expanse of time the arch had returned her. By a blessing beneath the same moonlight under which she was taken so long ago, it had called out to him and he had answered. He knew, and at the same time could never know why or how it had happened, but in what was only the blink of an eye for her and a lifetime for him, somehow it had brought them back together once more. Such was its nature. She was clearly terrified, and he became acutely aware of what she must have felt and so replied, “He.. he’s gone, Julia. He had to leave.” He didn’t know what else to say.

She too had tears in her eyes, and before he could say anything else she spoke again, “We were walking, and we got lost. We’ve been out here for ages, and.. I just want to go home. Will you take me home..?” He nearly broke down completely before every fibre of his being commanded him to stay composed, and he replied, “Yes, darling – oh yes you lovely thing.. come here, let’s go home.”

Still shaking, he reached his hand out to her and she took it, and together they walked hand-in-hand from the clearing, out of the shadows of the past and into the silent woods beyond.

Nancy had finished her bath hours ago, and was now curled up in front of the fire with a book while she waited for Eric to come home. He had been gone now for several hours, and although she had no real reason to worry, if she was being honest with herself the woods behind the old house were a little creepy, and made her nervous. There was something strange about how close the trees grew together, the way the wind coursed through the boughs almost like the sounds of breathing and it somehow seemed as though even daylight had a hard time breaking through between them. Shortly before midnight, she found herself considering whether to call the police when a knock finally came at the front door and she placed her book face-down on the coffee table before rising to answer. “Who is it..?” she called nervously through the glass, her hand tightly clasping the handle.

“It’s Eric,” he replied. “I’m sorry I took so long, but I’ll explain.” She opened the door and was immediately surprised to see him standing there, holding the hand of a young girl with long, flowing red hair and who was wearing the most unusual tartan dress. She was relieved to see him, and was strangely drawn to the little girl who beamed back at her with the biggest and warmest smile she had ever seen. Her joy was contagious, and all she could do was reply through her own, “I’m glad you’re back, I was beginning to worry.. and who is this pretty little thing..?” Julia giggled and Eric reached out to take Nancy’s hand;

“Nancy, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

A Short Story about a Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away..

‘EMPIRE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

On a cold and distant planet at the outer edge of the galaxy, the stillness of an alien morning was shattered abruptly by the roar of twin jet engines busting through the cloudy grey. A pale white sun, barely risen over lifeless rock and mortar shied against the brilliance of rocket fire as it descended slowly downward from the heavens with a steady motion. For a few brief minutes, dense clouds of ash and dust were thrown into the air as the entire area became thick with an eerie, living mist which all but obscured the spaceship touching down on the planet’s surface.

Christened the Inheritance, its hull was a vast chrome cylinder some two hundred metric meters long by sixty wide, and the skin and bones of the ship were, like most vessels in the industrial fleet initially constructed purely for civilian purposes. As the seemingly unending struggle for galactic order wore on towards the later end of the twenty-seventh century, it had become necessary to register many such practical and trade craft as secondary assets for military tactic and transport. This particular vessel, however had been charged with a far greater destiny.

Hundreds of years had passed, by the old chronology since life had existed on the soil of this world, which for even longer still had been unable to sustain a native seed. Ash, silt and stone flew through the air as forty-thousand tons of titanium collided with the desolate terrain, now as scarred and dry as her once great oceans to the west. To the ship’s crew, this world was not unlike so many other worlds that they had visited in reconnaissance as part of their mission. In the years following the more intense warfare between her districts, the Empire had lost countless outer colonies, outposts and settlements to conflict, cheap skirmish and all-out attacks from the enemy. Federation, order and unity did not come cheap, and the cost of lives had run easily into the tens of millions.

While some worlds and their occupants had fallen easily to the will of the Empire, others merely feigned fealty before returning as participants in a rebellion that had overseen the wanton destruction of many new planets terraformed for future habitation. Whole worlds and systems filled with new and developing civilisations were extinguished completely and, in some cases their chemical elements vaporised altogether. But these were not the shells of worlds sought by the crew of the Inheritance.

Before the clouds of dust had settled and according to a predetermined rotary roster system, the crew aboard the ship had assigned a landing party contingent to arrive at the planet’s surface to begin harvesting geological samples for testing and cultural research. On this day, as history would remember, the contingent comprised a senior commander, three geologists and a young archaeologist named William Taylor. William, better known as Will to the rest of the crew was without doubt one of the youngest recruits selected for the mission, but had already managed to attain significant accomplishment in his field, despite having been drafted directly from the Federation Academy.

Their mission had been devised following the final defeat of insurgent forces a decade earlier at Gamma Prime. The resistance, a massive force comprising various expat species from conquered worlds and led by a small force of Federation dissidents had become a thorn in the side of the Empire’s trading companies at the outer colonies. For engaging in racketeering, incitement and skirmish, the High Council had charged a legion of battlecruisers in the outer district with crushing the rebel forces, who were after a long and bitter struggle eventually annihilated to a man, as Federation policy dictated. With all resistance thus destroyed and homogeny restored to the galaxy, it was decreed that the search for the lost home world, the birthplace of the Federation and her Ethos so many centuries earlier could finally begin.

The allotted mission had been expected in all reality to carry on indefinitely, for very few despite their deepest hopes and a devout faith in the scripture of the Old World had actually expected the mythical Terra as a single point of origin to have ever actually existed, let alone that tangible ruins and remnants of her fabled once great cities had survived the great catastrophe. Almost an afterthought to the conquest of their galaxy and an ongoing political rallying effort for the unity of the Federation, their mission was essentially a one-way ticket into the unknown, and they knew it.

Once on the planet’s surface, it took the better part of an hour for the correct consignment of landing gear to be assembled and delegated to the party. Each crew member was equipped with two cylinders of oxygen to be metered intermittently throughout the expedition, specialised geological assessment kits, medical equipment and a standard armament in the form of a single-shot energy pistol. For any greater threat that the group might encounter, the Inheritance was equipped with ballistic cannons powerful enough to raze whole cities to dust in a single strafe, and sat well within radio range should the situation deem it necessary.

The party, now equipped and briefed on the planet’s environmental composition by the ship’s data computer entered the airlock and began the slow decompression required to withstand the planet’s atmosphere, now all but scorched away through an horrific disaster centuries earlier. This fact in itself qualified it as an ideal candidate for listing for their mission.

In the airlock and finally assembled, the party exchanged pleasantries and discussed the impending expedition: “Ten years and counting,” geologist Troy Harris began, “ten years, thirty worlds and two thousand volumes of next-to-nothing. At least fighting in the crusades gave a man something to write home about.”

“Better to send your family back a sub-space communication than a body-bag, or less,” replied their commander. Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Green was among about a dozen crew members aboard the Inheritance who had previously seen action while locked in fierce combat with the Empire’s dissidents, surviving above all else a five-year tour of duty in the Federation’s ‘Secret Service’ division, administering support to a siege offensive at the rebel home-world which ultimately turned the tide of war in favour of the Federation.

It was during this same offensive that the highest tolls on both sides of the struggle were recorded, as rebel forces were eventually surrounded on all sides and fought back with an almost inhuman viciousness. A fierce aerial campaign was undertaken which culminated in a heavy surface firefight as enemy forces were driven into the ground and finally vaporised completely. The surface of the planet was bombed from space and its upper mantle sublimated entirely by new and advanced weaponry. In the caves beneath the surface of Silica 6 in the Gamma Prime system, both sides had turned desperately to unspeakable acts of cruelty in order to stay alive in those dark days before the war was won.

Often referenced in Federation transcripts as ‘Silica Syndrome’, many of the operation’s most hardened solders were discovered after the siege to have developed crippling mental afflictions whose symptoms ranged from simple tics to full-blown psychoses, the result of months and months spent claustrophobic beneath the planet’s surface, often pursuing insurgents through a vast network of tunnels no wider than a shoulder’s width and which criss-crossed the planet’s surface like Swiss cheese. Commander Green had himself spent six months in an off-world sanitarium following the final push, before finally being cleared to return to military service. Others were not so lucky.

“Let me tell you something,” he began again, addressing the entire group, “I won’t deny that the past few years aboard this ship have dragged-on, and some of us have managed time and again to get on each other’s nerves,” he shot a quick glance at Harris, “but what we have here is an amazing opportunity to be among perhaps the first human beings to set foot on the Old World since expansion.”

“If the Old World even exists, Rudy..” interrupted Ed Turner, second geologist for the landing team and an ever-present voice of skepticism.

“Oh, It exists,” continued Green, becoming more animated, “the one planet from which the vision of Federation and homogeny among the stars was born is most definitely out there. I’m sure you’re all aware of the old scriptures and their histories..”

“Of course,” started Taylor. The stories taught to him throughout his childhood and interwoven through his lessons with the Academy which followed had supplanted firmly within his memory. “The scriptures teach of the ancient struggle for Terra, of the fight for the basic purity laws that became the cornerstone for the Empire and of the great catastrophe which nearly annihilated our species in the Old Age. They teach of the basic principles of improvement and warn against the dangers of false fraternity. Our entire galaxy would have been destroyed had the great civil war ended differently, if the early districts had succeeded in their resistance to the Ethos.”

“Precisely,” continued Green, “History would read very differently had the foolishness and corruption of the Old World and her usurpers’ ways survived. For the Federation and the warning given us by its scriptures, we must never forget the fate of the Old World and we must never, ever forsake our mission to find it.”

Green gazed then through the airlock and into the grey of the terrestrial morning with a thousand-yard stare. After a few long minutes had passed, decompression had at last completed, and the Inheritance’s airlock slowly opened outward with a steady pneumatic hiss and a rush of cold air. It was then that he noticed that the rest of the party too were minds elsewhere, staring absently into the distant streams of history that had coursed them to that moment.

The landing party moved through the airlock with trepidation. It was raining now, a variable the crew had failed to take into consideration as they prepared and so the party moved quickly to detach the rain cloaks that were always fastened at their waists as a contingency. The Inheritance had made landfall at a north-western inland continent on the planet’s Northern hemisphere, chosen due both to a steady climate and high density of what the intelligence team aboard the ship had suspected were city ruins. Commander Green wasted no time in selecting a more heavily fortified structure from the outcrop and ordered his party to erect a makeshift base of operations both for shelter and use as a temporary geological laboratory.

The cold morning rain began to drift softly over the party in steady sheets, growing ever heavier as a mass of darker clouds moved in above them. Far off in the distance a faint clap of thunder could be heard, and it soon became clear to the group, now struggling desperately to steady their shelter that the storm would not pass any time soon, and that they had better make arrangements to wait it out. The commander radioed his intentions to the ship and with a crude shelter adequately assembled, the party sat in silence for a long time, taking rations and performing maintenance on the scientific equipment that they had brought down to the planet’s surface.

After several hours of monotonous routine tests, and when the group began to show signs of boredom Will moved to position himself at audience with the rest of the party and began to speak:

“Does everyone here know,” he began, “the story of the origins of the Old World scriptures, and the founding of the Ethos..?” Will had left the ship on several worlds over the course of their mission, however each time with different groups of people. As always, he was eager to show off what he had come to learn during his time at the academy, and took great pleasure in retelling their histories.

Half seeking respite from the downpour at the edges of the shelter and half in muted interest in a story every child of the Empire had been raised on in their earliest years, the group edged closer to Will and listened regardless with keen interest to his excited and passionate accounts of the elder legends, often punctuating the story with rousing vocal effects and an engaging ability with oratory. The tale was long and wore on until the last light of dusk began to fade behind the hulking ruins of the alien city, looking almost in the dark like crooked teeth on the horizon:

“In the year 2045CE by the old chronology, the Old World from where all the foundations of the Empire had been lain had been gripped by a great and terrible civil war, a global conflict arisen from a centuries old hatred which had been fermenting until the catastrophe that crippled their society. Wild skirmishes were fought between the cities of Terra, and oceans were dried up and mountains torn down by science and weaponry kept secret since the time of the Great Prophet a century before, killing billions of men and beast alike and casting the world into a dark age from which it would take decades to recover. Far beneath the surface of Terra, like a dormant seed waiting for the rains that would always come, the adherents remained in secret and prepared to rise as a phoenix from the ashes of a world lain to waste. They would return and establish a new Imperium, and eventually draft the Ethos that had grown to bear the fruits of their Empire.

Certain accounts of the great wars have varied slightly over time, however the fundamental timeline of events which had brought humanity towards a final reckoning conflict remain the same. In the early years of enlightenment, the Great Prophet had gifted his people with a doctrine that would eventually become the earliest form of the Ethos. The Prophet had come to identify the path to Imperium, and the true form and nature of the enemies among them that would seek to bring about the destruction of the Empire. He had fought a courageous and costly war in his time against the forces of evil, who had proved in the end to be far too cunning and powerful to defeat and so the first and earliest manifestation of the Empire was doomed to collapse beneath the sheer weight of biological entropy.

Of the decades that directly followed the fall of the Great Prophet little is truly known, save that it was by all existing accounts the darkest and most chaotic time in humanity’s history, and one during which all hope of hegemony and cohesion amongst the adherents of the doctrine was very nearly lost forever. Within a century however, and by the one-hundred year anniversary of the Prophet’s fall, a new resistance comprising brave and fanatic adherents had succeeded in consolidating considerable power and influence and by a leaderless uprising against the oligarchy that had administered the chaos that threatened Terra, the Great War finally began.

It was a war not only of adherent and oligarch, but of brother and brother also as so many had already been tricked into the service of the overlords. It was as much an ideological war as a war of weapons, of light and darkness and of truth against lies. Many millions of our strongest and bravest on many colonised worlds, those with the greatest potential to serve the doctrine were killed in that conflict and in a few short years, the fate of their world and ultimately of the galaxy was finally decided.

The New Order was founded in their victory on the core principles of the doctrine, and sealed with the blood of the last of the remaining oligarchs, who were hunted down to a man and put to death in great public ceremonies to the rapturous applause of the survivors that had gathered in droves and on various worlds to bear witness. Shortly after the purification of those worlds that were deemed salvageable and as the constructing of the Federation began, their doctrine was revised to encompass a galaxy and was ratified and sanctified henceforth as the Ethos.

It was the Great Catastrophe that had finally rendered Terra and its system uninhabitable, the price of freedom proving ultimately to be their home-world. Their forces withdrew from Terra and went on to eventually conquer a galaxy, and all knowledge of that irradiated planet that they had come from slowly faded from memory over time, remaining only in scripture and legend.”

At the end of the retelling and after a sober minute’s silence, Turner stirred from adjusting the settings on their purifier and sought to clarify with uncharacteristic interest the story surrounding the Great Prophet:

“The Prophet,” he started, pointing a ratchet in Will’s direction,” you say that he had identified the enemies of the Imperium. I know we can all list with detail the forms and factions of the resistance as we have struggled against it in our lifetime – what can be said of the oligarchs, who were they and where did they come from..?”

“Well,” started Taylor with a sigh, “what little we know of the oligarchs is that they were not so dissimilar to us in form, but the fact that that they were not unlike us in appearance was their most dangerous quality. They had, over many centuries succeeded in amassing vast quantities of wealth, power and influence in our societies and worked to bring them down from the inside. They were deceivers, thieves and manipulators and where adherents to the doctrine sought to create and control, to prosper and to innovate, the oligarchs had only greed and chaos in their hearts.”

“They had nothing but envy and contempt for those who would strive, invent and who desired beauty. It was our naivety, and our compassion that they had exploited, and by these qualities we very nearly risked losing everything. That is why we must never again compromise our doctrine, and our vision. Never again can we allow our people to lower guard against alien blood. Never again.”

“Well I’m not sure exactly how much of what you’ve said tonight is true,” replied Turner with a smile, “but I am thankful for the Empire, such as it is. With things as they are now, I think we can all clearly see the continued existence of our people and a future for our children, for generations to come. No compromise is worth risking that.” He turned and returned to making final adjustments to the machine before turning-in.

The storm continued to rage about them, torrents of cold rain belting against the thin synthetic walls of the shelter that they had raised and in which they had managed at last to reconfigure the air-pressure to a somewhat tolerable measure. It was arranged that one of the group would remain on watch throughout the night, less for confronting hostile life forms and more for making sure that the shelter remained pressurised throughout the night, should their equipment somehow malfunction. The planet’s rotation against its sun and its present seasonal axis would see a night of some twelve to fourteen hours pass, before they could again resume their mission.

The party on the planet’s surface had grown weary from the excitement of setting down on the new world, and from the retelling of the history of Federation. With no predictable end to the storm forecast until morning by the ship’s computers, the group made arrangements to camp on the planet’s surface until dawn when, weather permitting, they would enter the ruined city in the hope of finding answers. They slept in shifts, each of them to a man excited for tomorrow’s journey.

The next morning, the group awoke to patchy cloud and a thick, murky haze, however found that it had finally stopped raining and so after quickly sharing rations, they packed their equipment and set-out once more in the direction of the city. They walked for several miles before reaching the outskirts of what appeared to have been a massive metropolis which sprawled ahead of them. Where there must have once stood monolithic structures and causeways, little more than massive hewn stone foundations now littered the ground in all directions to provide an idea of what once was and make the way forward a difficult one.

The group were awestruck and a little excited – of all of the worlds that they had surveyed so far, they had not yet come across anything like this. Their commander slapped the wide base of what must once upon a time have been a massive pillar, declaring, “Solid stone, ladies and gentlemen. They just don’t make them to last like this anymore.” He couldn’t have been more right, either. Samples from the ruins that they had camped beside the night before had tested to be almost a millennia old, and looked to the group as though they might yet last a millennia more.

They slowly snaked their way along, over and between piles of earth and pulverised rock, following the more established foundation blocks of the city as they grew in size and, they hoped, indicated that they were nearing the heart of the ruined city. Whatever had happened in this planet’s history, it must have taken place right at the cusp of a cultural zenith; the city sprawled for miles and miles and in certain places the landing party were able to catch a glimpse through gaping earth at sections of what appeared to be an extensive underground catacomb, which ran beneath their feet.

After another hour or so carefully navigating the city, they reached what looked to be the remains of a massive central square and the monstrous stone foundations of a grandiose structure, the purpose of which they could only wildly speculate about. The rubble formed piles on the outskirts of the foundation, swept to the side by strong winds and they took a long moment to stand and look out over it before moving on. The atmosphere was a grey and shifting fog, and the sunlight filtered through it in a way that almost seemed to animate their surroundings, bringing them to life.

Gigantic stone megaliths locked-in beneath their feet, forming a wide expanse so massive that it had over time caused the foundation blocks to sink well below ground level. Their hearts were beating heavier now, as the enormity and complexity of the civilisation that once inhabited the planet became apparent and they quickly covered the expanse and made their way toward a dense mountain of stone and rubble that obscured their view of the rest of the ruined city. Will Taylor was the first to reach the foundation of the outcrop, and without waiting for the rest of the party, found a foothold and began climbing to get a better view of the alien world that they had stumbled upon.

Captain Green and the others were several meters behind Will when a sudden yell from up ahead caused them to stop dead in their tracks. He had ascended the summit of the hill, and thrown both of his arms up in the air in the direction of the view, calling loudly and emotionally out to the rest of the landing party. “Oh my god,” he started, “I don’t believe it..!” He placed both hands on his head, and his team could hear him softly sobbing over the communicator that lined his helmet. Still at the foot of the rise, commander Green desperately called-out to him for further intel before he and the rest of the group too threw caution to the wind and ascended.

“What is it, Taylor. What do you see – answer me..!” He was fearful, excited and himself eager to burst into a sprint and join Will at the summit and just as he was about to begin the climb, Will replied, “We did it, we found it. Comrades.. we’re home.” The rest of the group broke into a mad dash to reach him, and as they too caught a view of the ruins that lay beyond, one by one they dropped their arms by their sides and stood in stunned silence, the feeling of home finally washing over them.

The Empire was ready now. The Federation had finally conquered the galaxy, enforcing its doctrine over all and bringing harmony to a thousand new worlds and systems. Its vision finally realised and her true origins reclaimed, a new Imperium could now at last be established that might invite its children out further still into the universe to conquer and explore, to create and destroy – to plant that hallowed flag into the soil of eternity where it might continue forever to serve as a bastion for the one true Ethos.

In the distance, still intact and lining the central esplanade of the ruined city, weathered iron eagles flanked the way towards a solitary concrete arch which once marked the entrance to the greatest hall their ancestors had ever built. Inscribed upon that archway in deep letters that had only just survived the ravages of time, the moniker and closing words of their Ethos still proudly remained, for all of history to see;

“Tomorrow, the World.”