Planet Quazi - Orbit.
Leyla sensed the change in atmosphere on the bridge of the Venerate. She had been in enough battles to know when a crew were bracing themselves for impact. Only, in this case, it wasn’t a salvo of missiles or a high-intensity laser beam they were waiting for, it was one of their own.
“Ship has entered Hanger One,” said a heightened voice trying to keep calm.
“Have her brought to the bridge,” said General Freya. She also sounded like she was making an effort to keep her voice steady.
Nigella Matton-Ollo, known affectionately as Armageddon, had appeared from the depths of space, unannounced and unexpected, swooping in to save the Seneca Corps just as she had so many times before.
She was an angel of death, but an angel still. And a legendary figure in the Corps. Even after she left, her standing didn’t change. She commanded fear and respect for who she was, not some rank granted to her by the High Council.
“She’s on route,” said one of the comms officers. “Security is reporting she has her personal guard with her and…”
“And what?” snapped Freya.
“And a baby.”
The bridge switched from intense focus on maintaining defences while organising offensive attacks to a sudden burst of chatter.
“Quiet!” said Freya. It wasn’t shouted but it was louder than the captain on the bridge of a warship should have to issue instructions. “Of course she has a child with her. She’s only just given birth.”
Brigadier General Freya did her best to make it sound like this was all perfectly normal but it was clear to Leyla that she was just as taken aback by Armageddon’s appearance here as the rest of them.
Not only that, but seeing her deal with the Antecessor armada with such ease was a stark reminder of who they were dealing with here. With the Antecessors, there was at least some hope of running away.
No one ever escaped Armageddon.
The lift doors opened and a tall figure wrapped completely in black emerged, followed by six Seneca troops in special division uniform flanking a hovering cradle which gurgled and hiccupped as it was escorted out.
Leyla had seen Armageddon many times, but always at a distance. Whenever there had been any kind of ceremonial gathering, she would be there, a reminder of what the Corps stood for and what they were capable of.
Even when she was standing next to the most powerful women in the Corps, her presence didn’t seem to fit in with the others. Slightly apart, slightly above.
Many people had assumed she would one day take control of the High Council and lead them to even greater heights, but her air of disinterest in all things political turned out to be more than an affectation. She left the Corps without giving her troops an explanation or even a farewell.
This was the first time Leyla had seen her up close, and there was still the same air of danger about her. A feeling that anyone who got in her way might get trampled.
“Nigella,” said General Freya, standing erect and tense, hands behind her back, her ageing face smoothed by the tautness of her gaze. “It’s been a while. Thank you. Without you here, those Antecessor ships...”
“Don’t mention it,” said Nigella. She, by contrast, was relaxed and showed no signs of concern. It was strange seeing her out of utilitarian Corps uniform and wearing a tight-fitting satin dress that went down to her ankles, restricting her movements. The voluminous cape fluttered behind her and the large hood sat like a ruff around her neck.
The cradle let out a burst of crying. The nearest guard rocked it gently and the crying subsided.
“Congratulations. I hear it’s a girl. She will be a great credit to the Corps one day.”
“As will my son,” said Nigella, rather pointedly.
“He has yet to live up to his potential, wouldn’t you say?” said Freya, giving no ground. “You promised us he would have superior abilities, perfect for the breeding program. The perfect stud.”
“I promised you nothing,” said Nigella.
They stood in silent opposition for a moment.
“Black suits you,” said Freya, finally breaking the silence.
“Thank you. I’m in mourning.”
Freya couldn’t help but show her surprise. “For whom?”
“My husband,” said Nigella, standing in the middle of the bridge, eyeing the captain’s chair like she was considering what changes would make it more to her liking.
“Ramon Ollo is dead?” said Freya.
“Yes. But my son is still alive and somewhere on that planet.” She looked at Freya without having asked a question but still expecting an answer.
“Yes,” Freya said in a near-whisper. “We are looking for him.”
She turned slightly to indicate the Ghost Squad strapped into their booths around the bridge. Then she pointed at Commander Andrea.
“This is Liss Andrea, she was down on the planet. She can answer your questions, but this is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, Nigella. Antecessor weapon of a power level that’s unheard of. We think it’s part of a hidden network running between all the planets in this sector. If they—”
“I’ve been briefed,” said Armageddon, holding up a gloved hand to stop the General. “The two x-coms, where are they?” Her voice was sharp and demanding.
“Here, General,” said Leyla, stepping forward. It never did to keep Armageddon waiting.
“I’m not in the Corps anymore, it’s just Mrs Ollo. You were with my son, yes?”
“Yes… Mrs Ollo,” said Leyla.
“He is uninjured?”
“When we left him, yes,” said Leyla.
“And where is he now?”
“I… don’t know. We held off an uprising by the robots on Quazi to allow him time to escape. If he didn’t manage to leave the planet, he probably went down with the dome.”
“He isn’t dead.” It was an unqualified statement.
“No, I don’t think he is,” said Leyla.
“He won’t die while he’s with the other two,” said Weyla. “They don’t die easily. Believe me, we’ve tried.”
Armageddon’s head lifted just enough for her to be able to look down the narrow bridge of her nose at Weyla. “These other two, who are they?”
Weyla exchanged a look with her sister.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Leyla.
“Try,” said Nigella, “or I can have one of my psychs strip the memories directly.”
One of the six women behind her turned her head slightly and looked at Leyla.
Leyla flinched. “No, that won’t be necessary. One is called Point-Two. He’s just an ordinary colony ship rat, nothing immediately special about him. But…”
“He has an acute understanding of gravitational compensation,” said Weyla. “Best I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen your son fight. He’s good. Very good. Point-Two can match him.”
Nigella’s right eyebrow arched.
“The other one…” said Leyla. “He’s very… unusual. His name is Ubik.”
“The Null Void,” said Nigella.
“Yes,” said Leyla. “I’m not really sure what that is, all I know is that he is capable of things I’ve never seen before. There’s no way to contain him. If it wasn’t for the Antecessors, I’d say he was the biggest threat this quadrant faced.”
“Even with the Antecessors here…” said Weyla.
“Don’t you think you’re overstating things?” said Nigella. “Null Void simply indicates he has a CQ of zero. Incompatible with organics. Nothing more. The rest is superstitious nonsense.”
“You may be right,” said Leyla. “But you haven’t seen him in action. Whatever he is, it’s beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed from anyone, including you. It doesn’t make any sense. If Figaro is with him, I think it’s safe to assume he won’t die to the Antecessors.”
“He’s far more likely to die because of Ubik,” muttered Weyla. “We all are.”
Nigella had a puzzled look on her face. “I’d like to meet this Ubik. He sounds interesting. But first, we must locate my son. General Freya, I will be taking command of the Venerate for the time being.”
Freya sowled. “I haven’t received any such orders.”
“You will.” She moved towards the captain’s chair.
Freya looked like she might try to stop her but then her shoulders sagged. There was nothing good to be gained from challenging Armageddon.
The crew on the bridge were looking to General Freya for what to do. When they saw her acquiesce, they followed suit.
“Get one of the Ghosts back,” said Nigella.
One of her entourage moved away from the cradle while the other five closed ranks around it.
She walked over to the nearest member of the Ghost Squad and took out a glowing tube from a side pocket on her combat trousers. She plunged it into the side of the station holding the ESPer.
There was a rush of cold air that passed through Leyla on its way back into the large, comatose woman in the booth.
She made a loud sucking noise and her mouth snapped shut as her eyes snapped open.
She looked around, confused. And then shocked when she saw Armageddon where the General should have been sitting.
“Report. Where’s my son?”
The poor woman stammered and fought to get her words out. She had been dragged back by force and was still trying to reacclimatise to being returned to her body.
“Help… Can’t… Can’t get out.”
“Strip her,” said Nigella.
The psych Nigella had mentioned before stepped forward and put her hand on the side of the ESPer’s head.
Both women tilted their heads back, eyes rolling up, mouths hanging open.
The ESPer shook violently and then collapsed. The psych calmly wiped the side of her mouth like she had just finished a meal with a little too much sauce. Leyla shuddered.
“Get her to med bay,” said Nigella. Crew members rushed to carry the fallen woman away. “Report.”
The psych closed her eyes but there was movement under the skin as though she was scanning the backs of her eyelids.
“No sign of him on any of the landmasses on the surface. Nothing in Mason City. Dome settled on the seabed. Not there. A shaft leading down to the planet core…”
“I can’t see clearly.” Movement under the eyelids grew faster. “Something… A portal. Antecessor technology. Yes, I see him. No, he’s gone. Argh, no, can’t resist...” She opened her eyes and sucked in a large volume of air, breathing hard. “He left through a portal. It looked like a sigil. The Ghosts couldn’t maintain their position for some reason. It was like they were being sucked into a vortex.”
Leyla looked over at the remaining members of the Ghost Squad, eyes vacant and mouths open. It would be hard to tell if they had been disconnected from their spirits.
“We have several ships approaching from the Inner Quadrant joint task force,” called out one of the bridge crew. “They’re hailing us.”
“Tactical, target approaching ships,” said Nigella.
“Fire,” said Nigella.
There was a short pause. “All targets destroyed.”
“Good,” said Nigella. “Send an apology, template three.”
“Template three, sent.”
“That should take care of them for now. Sensor array, prepare for a quadrant-wide sweep. I’m going to ping my son’s location device. You should be able to pick up the echo.”
“I’m picking up a signal.”
“What are you talking about? I haven’t done it yet.”
“No, General… Mrs Ollo. There’s a tight-beam broadcast signal being directed at us.”
“A broadcast signal? Video?”
“It looks like… a vid show.”
The bridge went quiet.
“Put it on screen,” said Nigella.
“You can’t,” said Freya. “We have to scan it first. It could be hiding infectious code.”
“We don’t have time for that.”
“You can’t put the whole ship in jeopardy, Nigella. Protocol demands—”
“I am the protocol here,” roared Nigella. “Put it up.”
The screen lit up across the walls of the bridge. A young man was talking to a beautiful woman.
“When I was eight I killed a man…”
“That’s Point-Two,” said Leyla.
The whole bridge watched as Point-Two explained why he killed his sister’s attacker.
The picture widened to show another young man. Figaro Ollo. He looked troubled. He seemed to be glaring at someone out of shot.
“Don’t worry,” said a voice from off-camera. “This is the quickest way to get in touch with our friends in the Corps.”
A face covered the entire screen, mostly showing the contents of two large nostrils.
“Hello, ladies. Mrs Ollo, if you can hear me, your boy’s doing fine, very lovely person you raised there. Well done. By the way, that bunch of Antecessor ships, what happened to them exactly? You didn’t destroy them. Just shunted them into a different space, right? That’s what it felt like. Only, they won’t stay there, you know that, right? Not like everything else you’ve dumped in there. They’ll be back, and quite soon. Might want to keep an eye open. Oh, and what you might have heard before, that was justifiable homicide, okay?” He turned his head to the side. “See, I fixed it.”
“Who are you talking to, Ubik?” called out a voice from behind.
“Your mother,” said Ubik. “Do you want to have a word?”
Ubik’s face was pushed aside as Figaro appeared.
Figaro looked directly at his mother. At all of them on the bridge.
“Mother, if you’re really here, you have to take my sister and leave immediately. They’re coming for me, but I can’t allow that. Get as far away as you can. If I have to destroy the entire quadrant, I will.”
“That’s a little pessimistic, isn’t it?” said Ubik’s voice.
“What are you two doing? It’s probably not even broadcasting. He’s just lying as usual.” Point-Two’s face appeared on screen. “Stop wasting time and help me with our unruly Antecessor god before the rest of them turn up.”
Point-Two’s eyes glowed a brilliant gold and the screen went black.
Everyone was in a state of shock. The bridge was completely silent.
“Did you see his eyes?” said Freya. “I’ve never seen anything…”
“Yes, I saw,” said Nigella. “He did it. Organic fusion. He was meant to do it for Figaro. Why did he do it for that boy?” She seemed upset. “Prepare an extraction team. I want him brought in alive.”
“Your son?” said General Freya.
“No, the other one. The one called Point-Two.”