Wormhole Island - Interior.
White Forest Room.
Devora Sway, General of the Seneca Corps, could feel the Chairman of VendX Galactic — that odious den of salesmen and merchants — probing her mind and she was furious.
Her body was taut and filled with power and disgust in equal measure; her fists were clenched so tight her nails would have pierced her own skin if her rampant organic hadn’t already turned the surface of her body as hard as diamond; her eyes were glowing so intensely her eyelashes were becoming singed.
She had been forced into a situation she did not approve of due to the requirements of mutual benefit.
The Corps did not work for mutual benefit.
Mutual benefit was a form of compromise offered by the weak while they built up their strength to eventually take total control.
It was the landing party for a full invasion.
General Devora Sway was one of the six Supreme Generals of the Seneca Corps’ War Cabinet. She was answerable only to the High Council, and even they were wary of asking her too many questions. They assigned her a goal to accomplish, but how she went about the task was up to her. Whatever the method, however much destruction, whoever the casualties — the path was hers to choose.
The Corps did not shackle its warriors. It did not prescribe a course of action. It just demanded results. At any cost. At nearly any cost.
The tree… insisted the notion now planted in her mind.
The Chairman had the ability to influence others with organics. An ability that had been jacked-up to extreme levels by the energy field in this blasted place. He had caught her out once, when she hadn’t expected it, but now that her guard was up, she was confident her training could keep him at bay.
But he had wheedled his way to gaining her consent. It sickened her.
She had let him in because it was the only way to communicate without the Fourth hearing it. She suspected this was his plan all along — get her to lower her mental barricade and slowly take over. Perhaps summoning the Fourth had also been part of it, to force her hand.
General Sway gritted her teeth. Now was not the time to dwell on such matters. Whatever the reason, the Fourth was here. She had seen what had happened to the VendX employee the Fourth had vapourised. It was clear that her death had been instigated via the woman’s organic. The power surge had overloaded it to the point of utter destruction. Gone in a puff of dust and taking its host with it.
The power had come through the tree, the tree which was glowing still, pulsing slightly, and so the tree had to go.
The tree… No compulsion, just the notion on repeat in her head.
Sway yelled and turned, slamming her fist into the pale trunk of the tree. Her hand met the crystalline surface and there was a momentary pause before her hand passed through it, shattering the tree like glass.
The light blinked out. The presence that had been so oppressive a moment ago was gone. The Fourth had been able to come here through the tree. It had obliterated the VendX woman through the tree. The tree the VendX people had reactivated.
Sway moved a few steps to stand over the one called Bashir. He was lying on the floor, his arms over his face to protect himself from the flying shards that had already left his face a mess of cuts. He was shaking.
“What did you do?” Sway asked with teeth clenched. “You led it here. You killed that woman. She was your colleague and now she’s dead because of you.”
Bashir said nothing and proceeded to shake even harder.
Suddenly, a light appeared. Another of the trees had started to glow.
“Get out of my head,” yelled Sway, snapping her head around to glare at the VendX Chairman.
His blind eyes saw none of her rage, but she knew he felt it. Enjoyed it, even. His huge, bulbous body so smug and proud at the centre of the chaos he aimed to use to his advantage.
She was on the back foot here. No matter how desperate the situation, there had to be a way for her to regain superiority.
She moved at startling speed to the newly-lit tree and punched it without reservation. It exploded into a shower of tiny pieces. A couple of seconds later, a third tree flashed coldly in the dark.
General Sway gave orders to her soldiers to follow her example. If they wanted to keep the Fourth at bay, they needed to keep destroying the trees as soon as the first spark appeared in the dark. That was how it was able to appear here, and also how it could kill them.
Her people moved on her silent command, spreading out to await the next flicker, and then rushing to attack it. But there were a lot of trees in the forest.
Sway turned her attention to the VendX chairman. He had wanted her to buy time so his people could get information from the network. The one who seemed to have succeeded — Bashir — was now in the Chairman’s hands. Literally.
While Sway had been destroying trees, the VendX troopers had grabbed Bashir and brought him to their gluttonous leader, who had handfuls of the man’s suit in his clenched fists, pulling him up so they were face to face, close enough to kiss.
But there was nothing romantic in the way the Chairman looked into Bashir’s pale terrified face. The Chairman seemed to be sucking the life out of Bashir who was ageing in front of her eyes. It was horrific to see.
She had thought the Chairman’s organic effected some sort of mind-control. Even with a boost to his abilities, he shouldn’t have been able to take anything more than information out of his employee’s brain. But it looked like he was extracting the man’s very soul.
“What are you doing?” yelled Sway.
“He’s getting what we need,” said Daccord, stepping out from the group, anxious and jittery. “Keep the Fourth busy.” He wasn’t behaving like he was used to seeing his boss act this way. “Please.”
Sway didn’t like to be told what to do. And she didn’t like being kept in the dark.
Her soldiers were doing their job well enough — as soon as the Fourth tried to reappear, the tree chosen would be decimated — but even that concerned her.
This place was meant to restrain it — a prison, a dungeon with no way out — but instead it was using the trees to leave its cell.
And why did it feel the need to attack them? There was some conflict between the two parties, and they had been warned to avoid hostilities, but nothing warranted this kind of reaction. If the Fourth killed them all, how were they supposed to complete the task it had set them?
Until she had some answers to these questions, Sway had decided to play along with the Chairman, be his strike team while he retrieved the intel he needed to make his next move. Once she knew what that next move was, then it would be time to disabuse him of the idea that he was the one in charge here.
Two trees lit up at the same time, and were extinguished. Then three. Her soldiers were barely managing to keep up. Where was the Fourth drawing its power from? Had it misled them into thinking it was a captive here? If so, for what reason?
There was a loud zap and then the smell of burnt flesh that she recognised from earlier. Someone had just been vapourised. She tried to see if it had been one of hers, but it was impossible to tell.
When she looked back at the Chairman, she was shocked to find Bashir lying on the ground alone. The chairman had abandoned him and was now on the move. He had a group of his VendX troopers around him, each with a hand touching his body as they guided him through the trees. There was a path cleared for them thanks to the Seneca Corps deforestation efforts.
They were moving fast and in a very determined manner, as though they knew exactly where they were going.
Sway started sending signals. She would follow the same path, but she did not wish to go together with them. Her well-honed battle instincts were telling her something was amiss here.
She understood that the Chairman had learned some new information and was acting on it. Most likely it was a route to the sigil or to an exit. What didn’t make sense to her was that the route was the same as the path cleared by destroying trees.
Trees that had been illuminated by the Fourth. It could hardly be a coincidence. The Fourth had just happened to appear in the direction the Chairman needed to go? It was far more likely that the Fourth had arranged for its appearances to open a path. A path it wanted them to take.
They were being led into a trap, that much seemed obvious. Knowing it didn’t make it any easier to avoid. Sometimes, the best way to deal with a trap was to trigger it.
The Corps reformed ranks around their General, picking up Bashir as instructed. His body was limp and shrivelled. Whatever he had discovered, Sway wanted to know it first hand. She would have him debriefed later. For now, they needed to stay close enough to VendX to work out where they were headed, and far enough from them to avoid whatever fate the Fourth had in store for them.
Sway made a quick headcount. Two of her people were missing.
“Jupila, what’s wrong with him?”
Her adjutant placed a hand on Bashir’s chest as he was carried between two people.
“Fix him,” ordered General Sway.
Jupila took out a bottle of pills and shook one out into her hand. She pushed it into Bashir’s mouth and bent over him as the group kept pace with the VendX team ahead of them. She grabbed Bashir by the nose and chin, prising his mouth a little open, and placed her own mouth over his. Her eyes glowed blue and she violently blew air into his lungs, making his whole body go stiff.
“It’s in,” said Jupila. “Don’t drop him.”
Bashir began to shake as the pill dissolved into the lining of his lungs.
They had reached an area where the trees hadn’t been destroyed. There was still a clear path ahead but it was much narrower now. The VendX team forged on with no regard for their proximity to possible danger.
The trees lining their route lit up ahead of them, lighting a route for them to follow.
“Guns,” muttered Bashir. “Too many guns.” He seemed to be delirious and not making sense. Whatever the Chairman had taken from him, it had left him incoherent.
Trees flashed on either side of them, the lights rushing from one to the next in waves making it harder to smash the Fourth back into its box. And even if it were possible, there seemed to be no way to stop it coming back.
The tightly bound VendX crowd rushed on, eager to reach the end of their journey, the Chairman leading from the middle.
Her soldiers lunged at the trees, cracking them in half, futile or not.
Just what was this place and what was the Fourth really after? It already seemed to have the run of the place.
General Sway looked down at Bashir. If there was just somewhere to stop and investigate what he’d seen, perhaps she would be able to figure it out. Tactics and strategies had always been her strong suit. Everyone tried to disguise their true intentions, but no one ever hid them well enough.
The trees were lighting up faster now, so that it seemed several were lit up at the same time. She knew what would come next — an attack.
“Guns, guns, guns.” Bashir writhed in panic. “Don’t shoot.”
“Tighten formation,” she called out. “Reduce speed.”
Her guess was that the ones in front would be the target. She wanted to present her own group as less of a threat and clearly distinct from the lead group.
“Stay low, keep moving,” she ordered. The build-up was palpable. The air crackled. t was coming. She tensed, hoping the Fourth would choose to disable the group in front.
There was a sudden increase in illumination as all the trees around them turned brilliant white and several streaks of lightning shot out. Everyone was a target.
Around her, six women were struck and turned to instant ash. Ahead, at least six were also hit. The trees fell into darkness. Had the Fourth expended all its energy for a single lethal surge?
Both groups kept moving. She ordered the remaining soldiers to speed up. Whatever lay ahead, now was not the time to be left behind.
There was an opening in the wall, thin and incredibly tall. They ran towards it.
Another brilliant flash of white light. Lightning took out four more of hers, an unknown number of the others. Sway stepped in to grab Bashir’s feet as the soldier assigned the role disintegrated.
The VendX people disappeared into the opening. There was no indication of their fate. There was no time to stop and consider the options. They ran into the dark gap in the black wall.
A room, as tall as the one they’d fled from, but no trees. Instead, the room contained huge weapons. They were guns of some kind, but so large they would need to be mounted on a vehicle to fire.
“Well done,” said the Chairman. “As expected, the Seneca Corps persevere through adversity with aplomb.” The congratulations sounded sincere if grim. “Daccord, where are we? Is this the armoury?”
“Ah, yes, Chairman.” Daccord blinked as he looked around. “I think this is… some sort of armoury. But these weapons...”
The Chairman seemed pleased, satisfied with himself, like a dog that had sniffed out a delicacy, saliva practically dripping from its mouth.
“They are handguns,” said the Chairman. “You can tell from the design.”
He was right, they looked like they were designed to be fired by hand, if your hand happened to be the size of a human body.
“We can use these to fight back,” said the Chairman. “They were made to kill a god.”
Chapters one week ahead on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino