Chukka backed up, stumbling on her heels until she bumped into one of the ovoid-bulges protruding from the wall. It gave a little under the pressure of her colliding with it, and then she bounced off as it lit up with a white glow that was picked up and transmitted to the other bulges around the cavern, creating a cascade of lights.
Bashir was still shouting. He was standing ahead of her, pointing in all directions at once. Pointing at nothing.
“Where?” said Leyla, her gun following each of Bashir’s finger-prods at thin air.
“Be specific,” shouted Weyla in an attempt to snap Bashir out of his panic.
“I don’t know,” shouted Bashir, his tone confused and frustrated.
“Slow down and concentrate,” Chukka called from behind them. “Focus.”
The lack of any perceptible threat only made the situation more frightening. Bashir could be mistaken, which would be a relief, but if he wasn’t — and she was sure he wasn’t — then the attack was silent and invisible.
Bashir stopped pointing and his body went from wild gesticulating to completely still. From behind, he looked like he was trying to remember something.
“There!” he suddenly proclaimed. “Beneath us.”
The two Seneca women pointed their guns down, but the ground was flat and smooth and showed no signs of any imminent threat. If there was something buried below, it was still down there.
“This is solid rock,” said Leyla, but her gun remained aimed and her finger was firmly on the trigger.
“Where is it?” said Weyla. “How many? Are they still moving?” She was trying to get details she could use but she was only rattling Bashir more.
He wasn’t confused, he was puzzled. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing through his organic. Trying to get him to communicate something he couldn’t make sense of himself wasn’t going to get them anywhere.
Chukka stepped forward and grabbed him by the elbows, making his start, breaking his concentration.
“Narrow your focus to one of them,” said Chukka. “The nearest one. Forget about the others.”
She felt his body relax as he went into his mind. Mental organics were vulnerable when they used their ability. They lost awareness of their bodies, of their physical-selves, leaving them open to a sudden attack. They generally dipped in and out so they wouldn’t remain defenceless any longer than they could possibly avoid. Chukka holding onto him would give him some reassurance that someone had his back, allowing him to stay deeper for longer.
It was more effective if there was a bond, formed from spending time together, working as a unit over time to build trust. Chukka didn’t have that luxury. This was their first time working together and the rest of the team were already dead. Flott had died by her hand. It was understandable if Bashir felt a little wary of her. But the situation was dire enough to distract him from any paranoid thoughts. Which helped.
“Get a feel for how it’s moving. Is it digging? Crawling? Moving in a tunn—”
“Arms,” said Bashir, his voice a little distant. “Legs. Flesh. Bone. It’s alive. It’s got a heartbeat. I… It’s coming up.” His voice climbed hysterically. “There.” He pointed down at his dancing feet which he was trying to keep in the air as much as possible.
Chukka let go and jumped back. She wanted Bashir to feel she had his back, she had no intention of actually fighting whatever was coming. There were others far better suited for that.
“Back away,” shouted Weyla, poised to fire. “Back away.”
Bashir took steps backwards, getting closer to Chukka, raising his feet in high steps like he expected to see something he’d inadvertently stepped in.
“I don’t see anything,” said Leyla. The sisters were following Bashir, thrusting their gun muzzles at the ground beneath Bashir. “There’s nothing—”
The ground broke and a hand, pale and slender, grabbed Bashir’s ankle. The Seneca women opened fire.
Chukka only had a moment to gauge what she saw before the laser fire ripped it apart.
A hand. Five digits. Human. Similar to human. Humanoid. Nails? She couldn’t be sure, but not claws. Not a beast.
But it was only a glimpse before everything was blown to bits. She could very well have been mistaken. Now there was only a gouged hole where the hand had been, smoking slightly.
“Did you get it?” said Bashir, one foot held off the ground as he peered into the hole.
The two Seneca women didn’t reply but the way they kept their guns pointed at the hole suggested they weren’t convinced.
“Did you see it?” said Bashir, his words fast and anxious. “Was it human? It looked like a human hand.”
“Can you sense more of them?” asked Chukka.
Bashir looked at her, a bewildered expression on his face like he had no idea what she meant. Then startled realisation as he remembered his role. His eyes glowed, and the bulges in the walls glowed with him. They hadn’t done that before. Did that mean something had changed?
“It wasn’t human,” said Weyla.
“Maybe we should get out of here,” said Leyla. “I think they’re reacting to us.”
“There’s more of them,” said Bashir. “A lot more. They’re… rising from below. Deep down.”
“You were pointing at the walls earlier,” said Weyla.
“It’s those pods,” said Bashir. “They’re connected. It’s like they’re amplifying the signal. Makes it hard to get a lock but I think I’ve got it n—”
The ground under him collapsed and Bashir fell from sight. Leyla moved with lightning speed, leaping over the gap, grabbing him and scooping him out and across to the other side before he disappeared into the pit.
As they landed, Leyla on her feet, Bashir on his backside, white hands reached through the ground and grabbed them. They had Bashir’s legs and Leyla’s feet. The area around them crumbled and white bodies emerged.
They were humanoid, made of skin and flesh, hairless and thin, so pale as to be almost translucent. But their heads had no eyes. No ears, no nose, no mouth. They were oddly impotent-looking, frail and brittle. But they held on tightly as Leyla fell backwards, weapon firing.
Every shot struck a target and punched a hole through the creatures. In the chest, the head, the arms. Bits flew off but seemed to make no difference. There was no blood no organs or anything else you might expect to see from a body blown apart. They were more like clay dolls.
They kept coming, more and more of them, breaking through the surface all around them, swarming over and smothering Bashr.
Weyla and Leyla were both firing their weapons. Bashir was screaming but his cries were muffled.
Chukka took out her gun and aimed it to the side, shoulder-height. One shot, directly into the bulge in the wall. The projectile from the weapon, a solid lump of metal, pierced the membrane and a thin spout of liquid arced out.
The creatures all stopped.
They had lost interest in their prey, now they only had eyes for Chukka. Or they would have, if they had eyes. They ignored the blasts of laser fire and began to move towards Chukka up against the wall.
She raised the gun again and pointed. The creatures stopped moving.
Good. She had analysed the situation and come to the right conclusion. They were here to defend these large organic-like pods. They valued them enough to not want to risk even one. That gave Chukka leverage. Now she had to figure out what to do with it.
General Devora Sway stood on the bridge of her ship, the flagship of the Seneca fleet, and looked over the reports that had come in over the last few hours.
Ships were being put on active alert status across the quadrant as more and more Antecessor sites were showing abnormal activity.
The sites were mostly already plundered and owned by private concerns, nothing to do with the Corps, but it was what the sudden change in behaviour implied that was of concern.
Antecessor sites were a known quantity. They were relics of the past with their automated defences still intact. Mindless and reactive. If you didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother you. But that was changing. Something was about to happen and it was going to affect everyone, including the Corps.
Dealing with threats was her job. She didn’t shirk the responsibility — when the time came, she would take whatever course of action was necessary. The Corps would survive no matter what. But she didn’t have the time to worry about that right now.
“Have we heard from them yet?”
“No, General,” said her adjutant, Captain Jupila.
“How long has it been?”
“Eighteen hours, standard.”
It wasn’t that long. There was no reason to assume the mission had failed. Not yet.
She could have sent a full team down to the asteroid. Dealt with the repercussions later. But she had chosen to use two washouts. Once of the Corps, always of the Corps. It didn’t matter why they left, when they had been called to action, they had answered. Sway had reviewed their files herself. They were competent. Special attachment commendations, both of them. They shouldn’t have had any problems.
What kind of problem could three boys provide?
But the Antecessors weren’t behaving normally. Reports indicated a much higher threat level across the board. And the asteroid was a key site. Whatever was going on, Tethari was at the heart of it. How much longer before she sent a fire team in to clean the place out? It wouldn’t be received well by High Command. They had instructed her to not provoke Ramon Ollo. Even if he appeared to have been killed, you never assumed the death of the enemy until you had proof.
“There’s an encrypted message coming in,” said Jupila.
“No. A private flag.”
Sway raised an eyebrow. “Official encoding?”
There were only a few people who could contact her through the official command channel without being part of High Command. None of them were people she wanted to speak to.
“Put it up.” The face that appeared on the screen in front of her wasn’t one of the ones she had expected. “Nigella?”
Nigella Matton-Ollo’s face, thin and a little paler than normal, stared back at her. Her hair was piled up on her head and her neck and shoulders were bare. A child’s cry drew her attention down and a momentary softness crossed her eyes. Then she looked back up and it was gone.
“Congratulations on the birth of your—”
“My son. Where is he?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, Nigella. The Corps is not your boy’s nanny.”
“You will find him and bring him to me.” Her tone was flat and emotionless.
“Nigella,” said Sway with a cautioning calmness, “it is no business of ours where your son is. We honour your service and will defend your daughter, but you no longer have the authority to give orders.”
“You will find Figaro and secure him safely on board your ship or I will blow it into tiny bits with all hands on board.” Nigella Matton-Ollo didn’t look like she was being hyperbolic, and she was quite capable of carrying out her threat, but she was currently in another quadrant. Not even the infamous Armageddon had that kind of range.
“You have just given birth. You are emotional, it is understandable.”
“What is the third axiom, General?”
The question took her by surprise. “What?”
“The third axiom of the Corps, what is it?”
Sways demeanour darkened. She didn’t appreciate being treated like a novice recruit, even if the woman doing it had once been her commanding officer.
“To beat them we must not become like them.”
“Indeed. How quickly we failed to uphold that one. Do not patronise me, General. My second child is of no relevance in this matter. My husband may be dead but my first child is not. He is on the asteroid, the one you’re staying just out of sensor-range of. But you are still in the same quadrant. My quadrant. My husband’s quadrant. There is nowhere in that area you can hide from his eyes and ears, which are also my eyes and ears.”
There was a click and the ship’s speakers turned on. Nigella’s voice continued, but now broadcast shipwide.
“You will send a team to the asteroid immediately. I know you have them ready to go — you were always the best prepared of my officers, Devora, and also the most hesitant to commit to any action that might risk the lives of those under you. Let me help you overcome your doubts.”
“Attention. Attention,” said the ship’s computer. “The cooling units for the hyperdrive engines are offline. Overrides are not functioning. Engines will overload in four minutes, fifty seconds: four minutes, forty-nine seconds.”
There were no alarms, no flashing lights. Sway looked at Jupila who had the screen in front of her showing a readout of the ship’s systems. She looked at the General and nodded.
“This won’t end well, Nigella.”
“It never does.” The screen went blank.
“Cooling units online. Safety protocols active.”
General Sway let out an irritated breath. This was the wrong quadrant to be in. The Ollo name carried too much power here, and used it to control every square centimetre.
“The team is ready?”
She had been thinking about sending them in anyway. A little earlier than she had planned wouldn’t make much difference. And Nigella Matton was someone the Corps owed a lot to. Once of the Corps, always of the Corps.
It just rankled that she was being forced to risk so many lives just to save a boy.
“Deploy. Make sure they bring him back alive.”
“The other two?”
“Leave them. Kill them if they get in the way.” No point taking extra risks.
Patreon is two weeks ahead (usually 6 chapters currently 4)Afterword from Mooderino