Wormhole Island - Interior.
It wasn’t a long way down. Chukka didn’t possess a physical attribute organic like everyone else appeared to, but she had been trained well enough to be able to slide down the walls, using the grooves and crevices to slow her descent.
Below her, the Seneca women fell like they only held pity for the ground they would land on. It was impressive how easy they made it look, and all while carrying giant guns.
Behind her, what was left of the VendX assault team climbed down while assisting one another. Those with the organics that made it easy, helped those without.
They didn’t work together in the spirit of unity, it was far more basic than that. Everyone specialised, no one had all the tools to do everything by themselves.
Bashir wailed as he was thrown from one strength-org to another, in between passing the gun barrels to each other. No care was taken to soften the impact for either. Bashir had been special ops, but his confidence was in shatters now.
Even the Chairman was moved around like a piece of cargo. He didn’t complain.
Despite the unusual nature of this particular situation, VendX trained all field operatives in how to navigate obstacles as they explored any opportunities they came across.
Ships, asteroids, planets — all contained dangers, some contained treasures.
The key was to run the appropriate risk assessment and then pop the necessary pills to adjust the chances of success.
The difference between VendX and Seneca was that VendX trained you to manage your fear, while Seneca trained you not to have any. The end result was the same. Both teams were willing to jump blindly into a hole.
Chukka’s body was free of drugs. She had a pouch full of pills, like every other VendX employee, but she wouldn’t take any unless she was gravely injured. She needed her mind clear and alert.
She had been working on every member of the VendX team since being brought back into the fold. Her organic was weak and required time to take effect. Even then, it often failed to produce results. But she was determined to eke out every possible advantage from this situation. Even with the Chairman here.
Having him here actually made it easier. All eyes were on him.
The Seneca women touched down first and disappeared into an opening without waiting or giving instructions. They silently signalled one another and followed their General.
Chukka hit the ground with a loud thump and grimaced as her ankles took the brunt of her weight. The VendX boots were designed to absorb impact, but their effectiveness faded over time. Something to do with the Soko-gel™ hardening once it left the planet it was manufactured on. She really needed to buy herself a decent pair of boots.
The others landed behind her, waiting for her to lead the way. There was no sense of leadership, though. The Chairman was leading from the rear.
Ahead of her was an opening, round and about three metres in diameter. She could hear footsteps growing more distant, but she couldn’t see anyone. She headed into the passage and was acutely aware of the lack of footsteps behind her. They were waiting to see if anything happened to her.
Chukka’s eyes flashed, just for a moment. “On my six, stay tight. Fire on my command.”
The two teams of two carrying an Antecessor gun each immediately moved up, close behind her.
“Gerrim, Bashir, lights.”
The sound of snap-tubes being broken bounced around them and then green light filled the tunnel.
It hadn’t been easy using her organic on her colleagues. It had been especially frustrating when the ones she had spent hours priming for suggestion kept dying. But she was confident most of them would follow her orders without question. Which, as their superior, was what they should do anyway, but this was VendX. Service was good when things were going well. But when complications arose, self-preservation reared its ugly head.
“The Corps is up ahead,” he said.
“Anything else?” She looked over her shoulder at his glowing eyes.
At least he was still capable of making himself useful. She moved quickly to catch up with the Seneca women.
The walls down here, perfectly circular, were grooved and marked with strange symbols. There was no indication of any active systems. In a regular Antecessor facility, these grooves and channels would be filled with sentient white fluid, ready to activate defences and droids. These walls were completely inert.
Up ahead, she saw the Seneca women holding position in an open area. When she got there, she saw there were two exits, both identical, leading in opposite directions.
“Which one?” said the Seneca General.
“Straight ahead,” said the Chairman.
“There isn’t one going straight ahead,” said General Sway.
The Chairman didn’t say anything, just smiled a little.
The General’s shoulders went up and then dropped. “Okay. Blow it open.”
Moving quickly, like they’d already rehearsed it a hundred times, the four Seneca soldiers manoeuvred into position, aiming their guns at the wall in front of them. There were two tunnels and neither went in this direction.
Chukka instructed her team to move back. Seneca wanted to do everything themselves? That was fine by her.
Click, flash. The wall disappeared in a puff of dust. There was a third passage now.
“Couldn’t they have put in a door?” mumbled Bashir.
“They did,” said Chukka. “We just don’t have a key.”
“Not far now,” said the Chairman.
Sway looked at him, not happy. She didn’t trust him, waiting for an ambush, a double-cross. Chukka wasn’t surprised, but if the Chairman had something planned, he hadn’t informed the rest of them. She knew he had an influence-type organic, one more powerful and more blunt than hers, but harder to disguise. Once you knew about it, you’d be on your guard.
He could still forcibly take over someone’s mind, but it would be more difficult. And multiple hijacks would be nearly impossible.
They entered the new passage. General Sway was in an inaudible conversation with her second. The Chairman was whispering instructions to Daccord. Chukka had the feeling she was in the middle of a very unsavoury sandwich.
This tunnel was smaller than the previous one. Just as circular, but the designs carved into the walls were more intricate.
After a few minutes of walking, the Chairman stopped. “Here.”
Everyone else turned around to look at him. He took his meaty paw off Daccord’s shoulder and pointed at his feet.
Sway came back through her team and looked at the Chairman’s feet, then back up at him. Which was pointless, so she shifted her gaze to Daccord.
“This better not be a deception.” Sway didn’t look happy. If they shot the floor, wouldn’t that send them falling? The tunnel wasn’t big enough to get any distance and still be able to shoot down.
“Trust me, General,” said the Chairman. “We’ve already signed the contract. You can have faith that we, at least, will be following it to the letter. That’s just who we are.”
Chukka’s ears perked up. Being faithful ‘to the letter’ was code for ‘get ready for things to get bumpy.’
Sway was pulling all sorts of concerned faces, but she waved her team forward while everyone else retreated. Whatever they were going to do, Sway still intended to take the lead and only trust her own people to take action.
The first two women fired and smoke filled the tunnel. When it cleared, there was a dent in the floor. Apparently, things were thicker underfoot.
They tried again and again, both Seneca teams firing together, but although the shallow indentation got a bit deeper, there was no hole, just a very acrid taste to the air they were breathing.
The next shot produced nothing. No click, no flash.
“We’re out,” said the woman behind the trigger.
The other team also ran out of ammo on their next attempt. It wasn’t clear what kind of ammo these weapons used or even where to insert it, but there was nothing coming out of the barrel.
“Hand over our weapons,” said the Chairman, instructing the VendX gunners to give up their giant guns.
“You want us to carry on firing?” Sway made no attempt to disguise the suspicion in her voice.
“I don’t think I could stand the weight of your misgivings if we took over now,” said the Chairman. He sounded magnanimous but everyone was on alert, on both sides.
Sway considered the matter, then flashed a look at the two teams. They dumped their discharged weapons, and took the two VendX had been carrying. They resumed firing.
Finally, a shot sounded different and when the smoke cleared, there was a hole in the floor. And a room below.
They dropped in a snap-tube but it didn’t illuminate much. The hole was big enough for two people to get through. One of the Seneca women went first.
Everyone jumped down, one by one. The Chairman was a bit of a snug fit, but he seemed to be very confident this was the way.
They were in a small room, barely big enough to accommodate them all. And in the middle, like a leafless tree or a desert plant, was a sigil. Three metres tall and floating.
The hole was in a corner of the room. The sigil was in the middle but it was very dull and lifeless. The ones she’d seen (on vid) were bright and glowing, implying dangerous alien power. This one was smooth and glossy, but devoid of life, like a monitor screen that had been turned off.
She knew it was a sigil because she had learned about them in school, like everyone else. Later, she’d seen them in training vids, as well as in movies and games. They were a well-known symbol of the Antecessors, even if little was known about their true purpose.
But everyone had a vague idea of what they looked like.
Modern thinking suggested each of the 64 types indicated a particular form of power or effect. Since no one knew how to activate them, it was hard to prove.
“What is this place?” said Bashir. He had a bad habit of talking to himself out loud.
Everyone was keeping to the edges of the room. There were no exists that could be seen. Shooting their way out seemed the only option. Who knew how many more shots they had left.
“This is the sigil we were sent to disable,” said General Sway.
“Isn’t it already turned off?” said Jupila, her second in command.
“Yes,” said Sway. “It appears to be. Did someone beat us to it?”
“It isn’t active because we didn’t activate it,” said the Chairman. “Had we arrived in the room below us, as we were expected to, we would have triggered it and have to face the newly arrived Antecessors.”
“This isn’t the sigil room?” said Sway.
“No. This is the sigil storage space. It will descend when activated. The symbol is ship dock. Ships that land on the surface or come within range, can access this sigil to board the ship.”
“Why would the Fourth want us to activate it, then?” said Jupila.
“Because it wants them to come on board at this location,” said Sway. “I’m not sure why. But, as long as they don’t use this one, we can then activate it and access their ship.”
It sounded like a well-thought-out plan. Wait for the Antecessors to leave their ship and come onto this one, and then they would be able to sneak onto their ship and escape. There were, however, a few small problems, a couple of missing details.
“Even if you are telling the truth,” said Sway, “how the hell do you know all this?”
“VendX isn’t quite the small-time business operation you seem to think,” said the Chairman. “This place, the technology here, we have information about it in our files. A lot of things that didn’t make sense until now. I can’t go into it in detail, for obvious legal reasons.”
“If you had that kind of information, you wouldn’t still be a first-rate existence running your business in the back of beyond.”
“Like I said, it didn’t make much sense until now,” said the Chairman.
Even if it was true, it was still a high-risk strategy. Who was to say the Antecessor ship would be empty, or would allow them to fly it away?
“We just need to wait here until the fighting starts,” said the Chairman. “Then we can—”
The floor beneath them disappeared and then fell into a larger room. It wasn’t a big fall, no organics required for survival, but still a shock.
“Who turned it on?” shouted the Chairman, lying on his back.
The sigil followed them down at a more relaxed speed. It was humming and glowing bright pink.
Chukka was up and scanning the room for a welcome party. It was empty, apart from them and the recently descended sigil. There was an exit, a circular opening, but it wasn’t possible to see what was through it.
The sigil washed everything in pink light.
“Is this what you were planning?” said Sway angrily.
“No, no,” said the Chairman. “This is not what was supposed to happen. Who triggered the sigil?”
“There’s no one in this room other than us,” said Jupila. They all clearly thought the Chairman had deliberately activated the sigil. But why? Even Chukka couldn’t see the reason.
The sigil began to spin. The cactus-shaped symbol in the middle was still bright pink, but the interior of it seemed to have great depth, like you could fall through it, if you happened to be thin enough.
Something moved inside the sigil and a tentacle came snaking through. It wasn’t hard to recognise the tendril as belonging to an Antecessor droid. They’d all seen them. But this one seemed a little different. A little more fresh and new looking.
“Open fire,” shouted Sway.
The Seneca troops pointed their two guns at the sigil and fired. They may have been doing exactly what the Fourth wanted, but they didn’t have many other options.
The guns didn’t seem to do anything. More tentacles appeared. They reached out and grabbed the women firing on the sigil.
It was sudden and brutal. Much faster than it should have been. The women couldn’t even scream.
“Help them,” Sway shouted at Chukka.
Help them how? wondered Chukka. She remained where she was and the other VnedX employees followed her example.
There was a brief struggle, some attempts at using organic-augmented force, and then two women were dragged through the sigil at frightening speed.
The gap was too narrow for the women to have passed through. But through they went.
The other two women with the second gun were next. The guns literally did nothing.
“Take him out,” shouted Jupila.
The woman at the rear abandoned the gun and nimbly dodged the tentacle reaching for her. She moved at startling speed towards the Chairman.
“Daccord.” Being blind didn’t stop the Chairman feeling the threat.
Daccord moved to intercept the diving woman. He was quickly dispatched with a swipe, sending him to the floor. The Chairman’s blank eyes glowed white and the assassin winced, but kept going.
Just before she got to him, several tentacles grabbed her, yanking her out of the air and through the sigil.
Daccord got to his feet and the Chairman gave him a pat on the back.
Sway, enraged, grabbed the gun now on the floor, and operating it on her own, aimed it at the Chairman. She had a very clear idea of who was responsible for the death of her people.
She was snatched away, along with her second, who had tried to help her.
They were dragged through in an instant.
These Antecessors were far more decisive in their actions than the kinds of droids Chukka had seen before. And far more powerful. Using organics against them was useless. Too slow, too weak. Even Sway’s body modification, making her skin hard as diamonds, hadn’t prevented being sucked out of the room.
So far, only the Seneca women had been taken. Two VendX employees panicked and ran for the exit. Wherever it led, it had to be better than here.
Chukka’s eyes glimmered. The two VendX runners suddenly veered towards the fallen guns and picked one up between them. The other team of two rushed out and did likewise with the second gun.
It wasn’t easy getting them to be brave. Most people only took suggestions they weren‘t vehemently opposed to — but who didn’t have fantasies about being heroic?
Tentacles came flying out and whisked them away, ignoring all shots fired.
Now there was just Chukka, the Chairman and Daccord and Bashir.
The Chairman didn’t look fazed at all. It was like he expected all this to happen. If he was bluffing, he was doing it with style.
Chukka decided to make her move. “Bashir, help me.” She ran for one of the fallen guns. Bashir came running to assist.
Had she tried to get him to help her fire on the aliens, he wouldn’t have come out of his hiding spot. But she hadn’t primed him to be a hero. She needed one person ready to quit in solidarity with her. And he was so ready to quit.
They got the gun up and threw it to land between the Chairman and Daccord. They were already in the right position, one behind the other, an arms-length apart.
The gun balanced perfectly between them, surprising them both. The Chairman stared blindly down the sight.
Chukka felt an immense force push into her mind. It was the Chairman, telling her to immediately take his place. She resisted for three seconds by biting into her own arm.
Tentacles shot out to grab the Chairman and Daccord.
They targeted those who were armed. In particular, those who were armed with these special god-killing weapons. That was why the Chairman let Sway have them.
But Chukka had read all the Chairman’s books. She knew how his mind worked. His books were very detailed, for all sorts of situations.
How the Chairman got pulled through such a thin slit was impossible to say, but he was gone in an instant.
Chukka was breathing hard with Bashir pale and shaking beside her.
The tentacles came back. This time they forced the edges of the sigil apart. Something was coming through.
Just because they’d survived until now and weren’t holding guns, didn’t mean they weren’t still in trouble. But Chukka was prepared.
She stood up and approached the sigil.
“My name is Chukka,” she said to the sigil bursting with tentacles. They stopped wriggling and seemed to look at her. “I don’t know if you can understand me, but I can help you.” The tentacles stopped pushing the edges of the sigil and moved towards her. She did her best to hold her position and keep her voice from shaking. “I know what the Fourth is up to.” They came swinging closer. “I know who the Null Void is.” They grabbed her and wrapped themselves around her, lifting her off the floor. “I can help you get the boy.”
She hung there. It didn’t rip her through the sigil. It just kept her there as the sigil was opened wider, and then it came through.