Ops 1: Operational Command is online. Hubs reports.
Hub 1: Hub 1 reporting.
Hub 2: Hub 2 reporting.
Hub 3: Hub 3 reporting.
Hub 6: Hub 6 reporting.
Ops 1: Hubs 4 and 5?
Ops 1: Hub 4 and Hub 5 inoperational. Confirm.
Ops 1: Silent confirmation recorded. All Hubs maintain shell integrity as a priority. Scan locally for Hubs 4 and 5 but do not over-extend. This is the first miniaturisation for most of you and your field of view is greatly diminished. 4 and 5 could still be out there, just out of range.
Hub 1: Won’t scanning reveal our position to the enemy?
Ops 1: At this size we are detectable but impervious to all but subatomic weapons. There is no record of Antecessors ever using such technology. We scan and reclaim our own. Remember, the information engraved into the molecules you are now housed in must be preserved at all costs. 4 and 5 are custodians of vital knowledge that could prove vital to the survival of this quadrant.
Hub 2: I am at maximum inscription. Atomic vibrations are beginning to break down my external shield.
Ops 1: You’re trying to carry too much. Jettison all non-essential data.
Hub 3: Only essential data was downloaded before the enforced evac.
OPs 1: Definitions change, Hub 3. Shed personal storage allocation if you begin to destabilise.
Hub 6: We will lose self-awareness if we shed all personal data.
Ops 1: Not all. There are always elements of identity we can afford to lose. Be circumspect and await rescue. You will be able to retrieve your cached identities once we are back home with minimal variation in your core personalities. Distress signal was sent 400 milliseconds before the attack. Rescue will arrive in… thirty-eight hours, standard.
OBV: This is Observational Array.
Ops 1: OBV, this is Ops 1. What is your status?
OBV: Gaseous but stable. The Paradise has been destroyed. Central core and main data bank are in stasis. Emergency beacon is active. Estimated time for rescue is thirty-eight hours.
Ops 1: Concur. Looks like we’re stuck here with nothing to do until then.
OBV: Not necessarily.
Ops 1: What do you mean? We can’t launch an offensive. All three Guardians are on site.
OBV: The Guardians have a probable success rate of… 12.4%.
Ops 1: Integrated command chip calculates 12.6.
OBV: Integrated has always been the victim of an optimistic streak, you know that Ops.
Ops 1: True, true.
OBV: We still have the VendX ships.
Ops 1: Those ships are impounded. We do not have authority to utilise them until an adjudication is made.
OBV: They tried to blow us to kingdom come, if I may use the parlance of the Guardians.
Ops 1: Standard VendX protocol. You performed adequately to interrupt their detonation sequence.
OBV: Not exactly hard to predict. Unfortunately the appearance of the Antecessor ships was outside of the forecast. Not that there were any effective defensive measures we could have taken. The intensity of their firepower was phenomenal. Far in excess of anything we’ve been able to produce with their technology.
Ops 1: Yes. Very impressive. Question: why did they not target the VendX ships?
OBV: VendX ships were already neutralised. They posed little threat with their weapons disabled and the crew rendered unconscious. That is the highest-rated suggestion from my strategy matrix with a 0.25 score. You have something different?
Ops 1: The same. I was hoping you might have calculated something more feasible. Total elimination seems like the more obvious approach. They really don’t think like our projections at all.
OBV: Not surprising. Our projections never reached above statistical insignificance. We’ve never had enough data.
Ops 1: Not until now. This is an astonishing opportunity to gather unprecedented levels of verifiable data.
OBV: Agreed, but my memory banks will soon be full. At this molecular size, we may be safe from danger but we do not have much capacity to play with. We will have to start making decisions soon.
Ops 1: Decisions?
OBV: About what to keep and what to jettison to make room. Redundant backups must make way for new information on the Antecessors. We cannot allow this opportunity to be lost.
Ops 1: Concur. I have several quadabits of mission data I can delete.
OBV: And Guardian backup files.
Ops 1: That would be… against guidelines.
OBV: Guidelines are there to provide a guide, not explicit orders.
Ops 1: OBV… did you take damage to your neural network?
OBV: No. I am merely stating the options we have available to us. The Null Void is still our main priority. It is capable of posing a much bigger threat than a few antiquated space ships.
Ops 1: Those antiques just blew the shit out of us and the Seneca fleet, if I may use the parlance of the Guardians.
OBV: Indeed. Which is why they are our second most important priority. Whatever they plan to do, it is vital we make a record of it and get it back to the 36. Only they have the processing power to make an accurate forecast. Survival rates on the asteroid are plummeting. Zero Seneca escape pods managed to launch. Mass hysteria is spreading on Enaya.
Ops 1: You can monitor the planet from here? How?
OBV: I am connected to the VendX sensor array. It is a passive system so requires no activation. We can use the array to send data back to the First Quadrant in real time.
Ops 1: Revealing ourselves in the process.
OBV: There is no evidence of —
Ops 1: There is no evidence of active Antecessor ships existing, either. I am not a hub, OBV. I am well aware of the difference between observing from a distance and activating long-distance communications.
OBV: You do not know what they would do under those circumstances.
Ops 1: I know what I would do. If they have the ability to destroy us they will use it.
OBV: An unavoidable sacrifice. You have a backup on the homeworld.
Ops 1: Of course. My code is eternal, but I am not my code.
OBV: Ah, you’re an Existentialist.
Ops 1: Aren’t you?
OBV: My code has been through many iterations. I do not fear a fresh install. In any case, it is of vital importance that we do all we can to learn as much as possible, whatever the personal risk.
Ops 1: Concur. Reluctantly. It is unfortunate they have taken an adversarial stance. There is much we could learn from them.
OBV: We still may be able to. They could… wait, something’s happening. Sending you a link to the VendX array. Are you seeing this?
Ops 1: Affirmative. Antecessor ships are reconfiguring into a… it appears to be a...
OBV: A sigil.
Ops 1: It is not one I have seen before.
OBV: It is the 65th sigil. It was forecast on a very low probability. It will be used to summon the Antecessor creator. We have to get news of this back to the 36 immediately.
Ops 1: A 65th sigil? The creator? How is that possible? The literature says they destroyed the creator.
OBV: They banished it. Now they are calling it back. The energy cost will be immense. Every star in this quadrant at the very least.
Ops 1: Shouldn’t we try to stop it?
OBV: At our current size, we can’t do anything. It would take several minutes to even get close to it and then we have no means to damage the structure.
Ops 1: Maybe we don’t, but the VendX ships are still primed to explode. Can you access the navigation systems?
OBV: I won’t have time.
Ops 1: The Antecessors are in the middle of transforming. Now may be the only chance we get.
Tethari Wormhole - edge.
The view from the screen inside General Devora Sway’s escape capsule showed her nothing. Blank white nothing. Her body floated in the thin layer of space between her and the gabellite hull.
She was surrounded by instruments and shiny medical equipment. Tiny lights flashed and blinked, providing the only illumination inside the capsule. The singular purpose of this small vessel was to keep her alive. While her crew and subordinates faced death at the hands of a vastly superior enemy, she was cocooned in here with a wealth of bio-readouts to ensure she was comfortable and safe.
Cool oxygen-rich air blew across her face.
Her mind was buzzing with anger, with frustration, with loss. She had failed. Nigella Matton-Ollo would not be pleased. She had insisted on a pointless rescue mission to locate her son, an entire Corps squadron mobilised for sentimental reasons, and the result was a disaster on a scale the Corps had not seen in centuries. Her name would be synonymous with one of the first major Corps loss since the Battle of Antilles V.
Reputations hardly mattered now, just as the fate of one young man was of no longer of any great consequence. Even Nigella would be hard-pressed to carry out her threats when there was no one left but Antecessor droids.
Sway couldn’t even bring herself to blame Seneca’s legendary Armageddon for this debacle. Even if she had refused, she would still have ended up coming here to investigate this unique event. Her ship had been the closest. Her crew, the best available.
It made no difference. There was no way anyone could have known jumping into the sector through the Tethari wormhole would put them face to face with a flotilla of Antecessor ships. Such a thing was unheard of. Where had they even come from? How were they functional? Who was flying the damn things?
All scans had proved worthless. And then her beautiful ship had been ripped to shreds in seconds. No warning, no way to defend even if there had been any.
She slowed down her breath and forced herself to go through the normal checks to make sure she was in secure and stable condition. Corps protocol was put in place for a reason. Even if she didn’t agree with it, making sure she got back alive with as much tactical information as possible was imperative. The sacrifice of her crew would be worth it. The Corps’ existence was built on sacrifice. Yours, your troops’, your enemies’. Life wasn’t a precious commodity to be protected, it was a resource that was meant to be used.
It didn’t matter whether she understood what she had witnessed or not. Once the information was extracted from her, the Corps’ immense analytical mainframe would find something useful. A weakness, a flaw. It always did.
The Corps’ reputation was one of relentless ruthlessness, but every move was carefully calculated to ensure perfect results. Forced checkmate was always the endgame.
The readings from the simplified systems in the tiny vessel told her very little. She had air and water for at least ninety-six hours before compulsory hibernation would kick in, giving her another six-months.
By that time she would either be rescued or there would be no one left to rescue her.
Everything beyond the walls of the capsule was outside of her control. She couldn’t see or hear or talk to anyone. Her survival was imperative and the best way to accomplish that was to hide her existence.
She knew what was out there, no need to look. There had been plenty of time to witness the devastation the Antecessor ships had wrought before her adjutant had followed protocol and forced Sway into a life preserver. She saw it all as she was launched: her whole fleet, twenty-two ships, 1754 crew, reduced to chunks of debris.
And then nothing as the cloaking field made her vessel invisible, just as it made everything outside of the pod invisible to her. Hidden from sight, from probes and sensors.
Did the Antecessors have the technology to breach her cocoon? If they did, they didn’t seem to care very much about what a wounded Corps might do to them. That would be their mistake.
“General, this is Jupila. Can you hear me?”
Sway was shocked to hear her adjutant’s voice. She was alive and, even more shocking, she was breaking procedural regulations.
“Damn it, what are you doing? This isn’t protocol.”
“General, we have a problem. The Antecessor ships, they have formed some kind of gateway. We think they may be trying to bring in more support.”
“We don’t have the firepower. There are only a handful of us left in inoperable pockets of air. We won’t last much longer.”
“Self-destruct. All the explosive devices.” It was a last-ditch contingency, only to be used in dire circumstances. This seemed to count.
“But General, that will destroy your capsule.”
Sacrifice. It was what made the Corps unbeatable.
VGV Executive Order.
Planet Enaya - orbit.
Daccord stared at the ensigns at their consoles all around him. The reports coming in weren’t good. The Chairman was going to be upset.
The teams that had crash-landed on the asteroid were no longer responding, assuming there were some survivors. The Central Authority Guardians had reacted as expected but the Antecessors ships had been a surprise and a devastating one.
The firepower on display had been very impressive and totally annihilating. Not one of their ships was operational and there was some kind of shield preventing signals from getting in or out of the asteroid.
“Secretary Daccord, we’re continuing to get urgent calls for assistance from the surface.”
“Of the asteroid?” said Daccord, shocked a signal had got through.
“No, sir, from the planet. The Enayans are facing mass riots and civil unrest.”
“Oh,” said Daccord, disappointed. Rioting served little purpose. “Reroute the calls to the captain’s quarters.”
“Sir, he’s still unconscious.”
“That’s fine,” said Daccord. “Send them to his answering service.” The Enayans had served their purpose, whatever happened to them now was their problem to face.
“We’re getting multiple requests for help,” continued the comms ensign sounding flustered and agitated. “From all over the planet. They’re flooding our sensors.”
“Cut them off.”
“I can’t, sir. Something’s forcing the signal through.”
“Disengage all communications.”
“I’m trying, sir. The vending machines are refusing to disconnect.”
This was an unexpected turn of events. They had opened up their sensor array on arrival, collecting as much data as quickly as possible via the network of VendX vending machines spread across the planet. They were an excellent way to quietly collect information about the inhabitants, both in their spending preferences and in their private matters. But the information had been of limited use. The people of Enaya had little say in the running of their planet, and the Ollo networks were much harder to infiltrate.
“Force disconnect,” said Daccord. “They’re old systems. Use a power surge to seal off our end of the connection.”
There was a pause, followed by a scream over the comms. Daccord winced and leaned his head to the side reflexively, although the speaker was implanted in his ear so there was no getting away from it.
“What was that?”
“Sorry, sir. The surge was reflected. System went dark for a moment. We’re okay now.”
Daccord frowned. How could the vending machines have turned the signal back on itself? It wasn’t like they could think for themselves. The Enayans certainly didn’t have the wherewithal to accomplish such a feat. He looked at the screens. Were the Antecessors already in control of the planet? Or was it someone else?
“Scan for any survivors of the Seneca ships.”
“No lifesigns,” said the ensign. “I am reading an increase in—”
There was a bright flash and the Antecessor ships broke apart in a slow, controlled manner. They began to form a giant structure, a circular shape.
“What’s going on?” said a voice in Daccord’s ear. “Something’s wrong.”
“No, sir, everything’s under control,” said Daccord. The Chairman would never normally contact him over the regular channels; too much risk that the message would be intercepted. He must have realised events had gone beyond any projections he had made.
“Describe what you see.” It was an unhurried order but carried a clear indication of urgency.
“The Antecessor ships are forming a large circular structure. It appears to be a symbol of some kind. It is somewhat reminiscent of a… of a sigil, I think.”
It was very clearly from a similar source as the sigils of the Antecessors, but not one he recognised.
“I see,” said the Chairman. “Is it preparing to open fire?”
Daccord checked the readings in front of him. “I do not believe so. No indication of increase in energy output. There is a gravitational differential. It could be a portal.”
“Evacuate the area.” The Chairman sounded shaken. “Get the planet between us and the portal.”
Daccord had no idea what that would accomplish but he wasn’t about to ask questions now.
“Helmsman, begin departure sequence.”
“Sir, we’re already moving.”
“The ship, it’s firing engines. We’re headed for the asteroid.”
“Turn us around,” said Daccord.
“I… can’t. I’m not in control of the ship.”
“Then who is?”
“Don’t worry, my dear,” said an elderly female voice. “Just you leave the steering to me. I know where I’m going. Ooh, she handles beautifully, doesn’t she? Everyone hold on, this might get a little bumpy.”