A gentle string of melodic chimes sounded in the cockpit, signaling that the computer had finished its analysis. The man with the jet black hair and the intense purple eyes leaned back in his chair and summoned the results with a thought. In the same heartbeat, the computer projected a five-by-five-foot holographic cube in the space above him. Flat planes of text presented themselves, maintaining their orientation relative to him so as to remain legible at all times, while three-dimensional models of tumorous masses of tendrils and bladders and stalks rotated slowly around their vertical axes. He knit his brow. He had seen this before, and the implications were disturbing. No, that was wrong — they had moved beyond the realm of the disturbing two surveys ago and were now squarely in the realm of the impossible.
“Rolar!” called a voice, muffled by the closed door separating the cockpit from the rest of the scout ship. “What do the analysis results say?”
Rolar pursed his lips. His traveling companion was entirely too fond of shouting through doors. He gestured, opening the intercom.
“You’re not going to like it,” he said at a reasonable volume.
“Oh for the love of,” the voice replied using what Rolar would have categorized as a very unreasonable volume — it had apparently not registered that the intercom was on. “Wait. You’re not serious.”
The door slid downward with a barely-audible hiss as the owner of the too-loud voice stepped into the cabin, his scarlet eyes fixing upon the text and diagrams within the holographic cube. He ran a gloved hand over his bare scalp, his mouth twisted into a skeptical frown as he scanned across the summary columns of digital glyphs.
“You know me, Henlark — a consummate joker,” Rolar said, folding his arms.
“But this would be the fourth biosphere,” protested Henlark.
“The fourth planet marked on the preliminary survey report as being a ‘very promising candidate for colonization’.”
“Also the fourth planet which is revealed to have no actual ecosystem, just whatever,” he gestured at the holographic cube, “that is.”
“I believe the term you’re looking for is,” Rolar made a show of squinting at the display before reciting, “‘An undifferentiated mass of fungus analog.’ But again, yes.”
Henlark took a step back and made as if to sit. The floor beneath him extruded upward in a tendril that flowered into a contoured half-back seat that was the twin of Rolar’s. He stretched his legs and glowered at the display, then gestured, causing the display cube to shrink and move to what had been the lower-left quadrant of its original volume. Simultaneously three new cubes sprang into being, filling the remainder of the space — each containing the dossier of a different planet, but all detailing nearly identical results as the most recent report.
“One planet like this,” he said after a pause, “I could understand. We’ve both been on survey validation detail before — we’ve both seen stranger biospheres. Two planets? Once more, weird, but if you want to argue for there being only so many possible permutations of life in the Cosmos, and that there are eventually bound to be repeats? I might, might be willing to grant your premise. But four, and consecutively? Mathematics was never my first love, but even I know we’re straining the bounds of the credible here.”
Rolar stroked his chin. “You know, if you told me that these were all artificially-imposed ecosystems, I don’t know that I would have a good argument against it.”
“Other than the obvious?” Henlark snorted.
Rolar arched an eyebrow.
“Oh don’t be that way,” Henlark continued. “The Trigentate has been exploring the cosmos for a hundred thousand years. I’m sure that the ship’s computer could tell us exactly how many galaxies have been colonized by at least one of the three kindreds, but I’ve never met anyone who knew the number off the top of their heads. And in all that time, across all that space, how many sapient lifeforms have we encountered?”
“The cosmos is a big place,” said Rolar, shrugging. “Regardless of what you may think of the odds, the fact is that,” he gestured, and the holographic projection changed, dismissing the survey reports and replacing it with a three-dimensional grid showing their flight path, “we have visited all four locations in this grid of the galactic map that the preliminary survey drones identified as colony candidates. At each stop, not only did we find a planet entirely unsuitable for colonization, but a planet that was unsuitable in exactly the same ways as the other three planets in the survey. If that doesn’t imply intent of some type, then I don’t know what does.”
Henlark shook his head. “Believe what you like. It’ll be out of our hands in any event, once we return to Glory-of-Autumn and hand over the reports. Let’s get home. We’ve been gone for a week and I could really use a shower.”
“On that we can agree,” Rolar laughed, dismissing the projection entirely and turning his attention to the smaller holo-panel on his console as he mapped the hypospatial dive back to their base.
The phantasmal sensation of being flipped on one’s head and back right again that was the ubiquitous herald of diving into or resurfacing from hypospace told Rolar that they had arrived at their destination. He keyed a command into the holo-panel in front of him, and the quadrant of the spherical scout craft that served as the cockpit canopy became transparent. He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding as a scene of apparent normalcy greeted him.
Their ship had surfaced roughly two hundred thousand miles’ distance from Prospector Base, their home away from home. The space station resembled a model of a methane molecule — a large central habitat module sat at the center of the structure, with four tubes linking it to each of four smaller spheres housing a command center, laboratories, and engineering. The facility orbited a gas giant, itself the sole satellite of a white dwarf stellar remnant. The survey team had dubbed the planet Glory-of-Autumn for its vivid bands of swirling orange, red, and brown clouds.
“No signs of activity,” Henlark muttered, fingers dancing across his own holographic display.
“That’s not entirely surprising,” said Rolar. “We were the last scout ship to go out this week, so—”
“I’m not saying it’s quiet. I’m saying it’s too quiet. There’s been no active scanning, no comms pings. Right after we surfaced in-system, the ship executed handshake protocols with the station, but that’s an entirely automatic process.”
The corner of Rolar’s mouth twisted downward. He keyed in the command sequence to open a comms channel to the space station and cleared his throat.
“Prospector Base, this is Prospector Three returning from survey review mission. Over.”
Several seconds of silence followed. They were far enough out that sending a message over standard radio still placed them at a little over a one-second delay between transmission and receipt — but even after counting to ten in his head there had been no reply.
“Prospector Base, this is Prospector Three; once again I say this is Prospector Three, returning from surey review mission. Over.”
The comms panel on Rolar’s display confirmed an active connection. That he had not elicited a reply implied either that the command crew were unable to respond, or that there was nobody there.
He cast his glance towards Henlark, who returned his gaze, arms folded and eyebrows up as if to say, “I told you so.” Rolar’s frown deepened.
“Let’s get in there and figure out what’s going on.”
Henlark nodded and his hands resumed their dance over his holo-panel.
The ship accelerated toward the central sphere of the space station, which was divided equatorially — the lower half being dedicated to small craft docking while the upper half was crew habitat. Whatever issues existed for comms had, fortunately, not disrupted the reaction control thrusters, and they were able to land in the hanger without incident.
“We should wake up the makreda before we go out,” Rolar said.
Henlark raised an eyebrow. “Are you expecting trouble?”
“Better to be prepared than not, don’t you think?”
“It feels like an overreaction, that’s all.”
“I just got back from a survey trip where we saw things we couldn’t explain, only to find that nobody on our home base wants to talk to us — which I also can’t explain. Just humor me.”
Henlark opened his mouth as if to make another quip, but apparently thought better and just nodded, shrugging. Both men closed their eyes for several long moments, before opening them again and speaking in turn.
“Ironwill,” said Rolar.
“Dawnsong,” said Henlark.
In unison, their irises began to glow.
Greetings, my lord Warden, said an unnaturally deep male voice in Rolar’s head.
Hello, Ironwill, Rolar returned in thought.
I perceive that we have returned to Prospector Base, came Ironwill. Is anything amiss?
That’s not yet clear, replied Rolar, but I thought it best for you to be fully awake just in case. He paused, then added, I would like for you to establish a link with Dawnsong. The mental link will be more effective for communication if the need arises.
Ironwill’s voice was thick with resignation. If you believe it necessary.
Rolar understood. Makreda had their own personalities, and they were often paired to a Warden of similar temperament in order to keep the partnership as copacetic as possible. In much the same way as Rolar found Henlark to be more casual and irreverent than was seemly, he suspected that Ironwill found Dawnsong to be somewhat of a trial. He was, however, far too dutiful to say so in as many words — and after a moment’s forewarning from Rolar to Henlark, the two Wardens and their makreda were linked.
Hey, boss! came Dawnsong’s cheerful, airy voice into Rolar’s head.
Why are you calling him “boss”? Henlark asked, wounded pride obvious through the mental link.
We can banter later, cut in Rolar. Right now I want to get out there and assess the situation as quickly as possible.
That’s why I called him “boss,” Dawnsong said in the cognitive equivalent of an exaggerated whisper.
Rolar ignored Ironwill’s heavy sigh in the back of his mind. He made his way to the airlock in the lower half of the scout ship, instinctively grabbing his midnight blue Warden’s cloak of its hook as he lowered the ramp. By the time his feet touched the floor of the hanger, a similarly cloaked Henlark was beside them.
There was nothing out of place in the hanger. Prospector Three had touched down next to its two sibling shuttles, their spherical hulls disrupted only where segments had retracted to allow the delicate tripods of landing struts, and the ramps to their lower decks. Maintenance stations were clean, fuel hoses coiled, and supply crates stacked. Aside from the utter lack of activity, it might have been a perfectly normal day.
He caught Henlark’s attention through the mental link and motioned with his head toward the hexagonal airlock in the near wall that led to the rest of the space station. The thick door split along its diagonal axes as they approached, the individual segments retracting like teeth into the walls and floor to allow their passage into the corridor beyond.
Masters, rumbled Ironwill through the link, I perceive an anomaly on the corridor walls.
I don’t see anything, countered Henlark, squinting at the smooth gray metal.
Apologies. Allow me to provide some enhancement.
A heartbeat later, there was a ripple in the Wardens’ vision, and Rolar’s breath caught. Ironwill had overlaid a slight glow around the “anomaly” he had reported. It was an intricate network of filaments spreading across ceiling, walls, and floor like a network of plant roots.
“So the cleaning guys have been slacking off, too,” said Henlark, so distracted by the sight before him that he had forgotten about the mental link.
Maintain noise discipline, Rolar thought. He wanted to comment on the “roots” as well, if that was what they were; but even though the sight of them elicited intense foreboding for reasons that transcended the merely sanitary, he could not yet put his finger on why.
Pushing the emotions aside but keeping Ironwill’s enhancement active, he took point and turned left down the corridor, which wound in a circular curve around the inner hull of the station’s core. The hanger and all scout ship support bays were on their left hand, toward the outer hull; a large supply storage bay was on the right, along with the access to the habitat on the upper level in the form of a maglev shaft and two ladder tubes. Rolar communicated through the link that he would rather use the ladders since they were not yet certain what the operational status of the major systems on Prospector Base was, and in short order they were ascending.
The habitat section of Prospector Base was built on the principle that humans enjoyed being enclosed as little as possible. The mile-diameter floor had been covered with a layer of bedrock and soil; grass and trees had been planted; and houses erected for the fifty or so crew, complete with walking trails, gardens, and an exercise area. The curved dome of the inner hull housed a holo-projection system that mimicked the homeworld’s day/night cycle, complete with a sun in the day and stars, moons, and rings at night. It was as natural and soothing a space as technology could possibly permit.
This was a significant reason why, when Rolar had reached the top of the ladder and keyed open the access door into the habitat dome, he nearly retched. The habitat environment was still there — although as was becoming the recurring theme of the day, it was unsettlingly devoid of people — but it was rapidly, almost visibly to his naked eye, becoming overgrown. Grass was dying, trees and gardens were being choked, and buildings degraded and broken down — and the culprit was very nearly identical to the organisms that had been thriving on the four worlds that he and Henlark had just visited.
A network of hair-like mycelia ran through the grass and climbed over everything. Where it encountered any larger plant life such as trees, thicker tendrils coiled up and around, expanding and contracting as if in rhythm to some horrible pulse. Additional strands of mycelium spread from these tendrils, coating the victim organism in a parasitic net, all a sickly mottled pink like the flesh of a man’s palm. Even man-made structures were not immune, with many roofs appearing partially caved-in, while stone and concrete that had been erected mere weeks ago now looked as if they had been eroding for centuries.
What in the Pit? Henlark’s thought murmured through the link.
The Pit’s exactly where it came from, echoed Dawnsong. We should send it back.
It is unwholesome, agreed Ironwill, to Rolar’s surprise. We should burn it and cleanse this place.
Nobody’s doing anything until we know more, Rolar sent.
Even as he said it, he looked down and saw the places where the “anomaly” Ironwill had shown them below linked up with the mycelia in the habitat. Whatever this thing was it was slowly working its way into every nook and cranny of the station. He signaled urgency through the link and pointed to the center of the habitat, where the base of the tether that ran up to the command center was anchored, passing up through the dome.
They moved tentatively at first, but the alien growth exhibited no reaction to their presence, so they quickened to a trot and made their way in a matter of a few minutes to the base of the tether. Rolar keyed open the access hatch, and they were confronted with another, much longer ladder. Roughly one thousand feet — and a significant amount of mental grumbling by Henlark — later, they stood before another access hatch. Once more Rolar keyed open the door, and they climbed out onto the main deck.
There was no sign of any human activity in the command center. Henlark sighed in a way that earned Rolar’s sympathy. Prospector Base had been temporary home to forty-four crewmen and four other Wardens; and with a growing pit in his stomach Rolar had moved beyond suspecting to being certain that they would never see any of the men again. While neither he nor Henlark had been close to all of them — or, for that matter, known many of them particularly well — these men had been comrades in pioneering a new frontier. That counted for something.
With clenched jaw Rolar walked a circuit of the deck. It was small, owing to the simplicity of the space station’s purpose, and the walk comprised no more than fifteen solid strides. He noted the communications station, a lone diode winking off and on to indicate an open channel.
Henlark moved to a standing terminal and placed his hands upon the glossy black surface of the pedestal. A holographic interface winked into existence, a glowing wire-frame sphere with text cues scattered across its surface to indicate the various functions available. He set to work reviewing duty logs and sensor telemetry.
Rolar stood for a moment, silent and contemplative, staring at the spherical dome of the command module. He found himself feeling suddenly claustrophobic, and tapped on one of the physical control panels. There was a flicker, and then the entire dome turned transparent — or, rather, the embedded holo-projection system switched on. It was as if the walls simply melted away as the station’s computer took sensor telemetry and fashioned a panoramic view of the station exterior, the gas giant below, and the white dwarf in the distance. For Rolar the rapid transition was almost vertiginous; although Henlark was so engrossed in his review that he made no reaction whatsoever.
Leaving his companion to his investigation for a little while longer, Rolar let his eyes wander over the star field that was still so alien to his eyes. Much of his life as a Warden had been spent helping to tame worlds across a score of galaxies as mankind spread through the universe in obedience to the divine mandate to bring order to the cosmos. In cooperation with the industrious Wangari and under the guidance of the ethereally wise Ubaragga, the Trigentate had spread across much of its native galactic filament. Their own mission broke still newer ground, surveying a neighboring strand in the cosmic web as a precursor to colonization efforts. Still, for all that he had seen of the universe’s grandeur, Rolar still found himself yearning for the constellations of the homeworld — the Great Tree, the Dragon, the Ladder of Eifë, and a dozen others.
Amidst this contemplation, his eye passed over the system’s star. His brow furrowed. The holo-projectors filtered out the more abrasive spectra of the white dwarf’s light before rendering its image, enabling an observer to gaze at the it directly. Rolar himself had done so frequently — but this time, he saw something new. Occluding a portion of the sun, like a defect on a pearl, was a diamond-shaped silhouette. It was pure blackness against the blazing radiance of the stellar remnant.
Rolar gestured over the control surface. A blue square framed the anomaly, and a line extended from the lower right corner of the square along ten degrees of the dome’s arc. It then traced itself into a square roughly ten times larger than the original, and projected a magnification of the framed image. The diamond shape, once enlarged, resolved into a three-dimensional image. It was an octahedron, or very nearly — two four-sided pyramids joined base-to-base with a narrow trench region at the point of junction, from which a pale green light would intermittently flash. It faced the station edge-on, motionless against the backdrop of the stellar surface.
“Henlark,” Rolar said, forgetting the mental link. “Henlark, come look at this.”
His companion stirred from his display. Rolar glanced at him, and thought he seemed pale. Then his eyes fell on the thing that Rolar had found, and he went truly ashen. He stepped to the side, allowing Rolar to see the holo-display, which was now projecting two images side by side. The first was of a glossy black object — possibly a spacecraft — with an elongated core, from which sprouted rows of curving, forward-swept spines. The second was almost identical to the magnified frame Rolar had just been looking at.
The Wardens’ eyes met. Before either could say — or think — a word, the deck lurched beneath them and they went down.
“What in the Pit was that?” groaned Rolar as he heaved himself up to one knee.
Henlark grabbed the interface pedestal and pulled himself to a standing position. He dismissed the images and flipped through a series of menus until he had the information he wanted.
“Hull impact,” he reported. “The engineering module was struck by a burst of energetic particles. It looks like the anti-radiation shielding took the edge off but there’s still a breach spanning two decks. Automated systems took care of sealing off the affected areas so we’re not losing atmosphere.”
“A particle burst? From where?”
Henlark issued additional commands to the pedestal, and a red triangle began flashing, point down, on the dome display. Rolar’s gaze descended until he was looking at Glory-of-Autumn swirling beneath the station — with the thorny subject of the first image Henlark had retrieved floating in the foreground between the gas giant and them. There was a flash from the nose of the object — now confirmed as a spacecraft — and a pulse of radiant green light flew from it, striking the station half a heartbeat later and sending the command deck into another spasm of shaking.
“That’s not good,” Henlark said. “They’re going to crack us apart like an asteroid before long.”
“Like an asteroid.”
A light went off in Rolar’s head. He turned to Henlark, talking rapidly.
“Isn’t Prospector Base equipped with anti-asteroid batteries?”
“Yeah. Essentially bigger versions of what the scouts are equipped with but—”
The light went off in Henlark’s head a moment later and a grin spread across his face.
“I would never have thought of that.”
“You would have, just took you a second to catch up. Can we use them?”
“Usually they operate autonomously. The computer identifies objects that threaten collision and deals with them without human intervention. But I would guess there has to be a manual mode as well. There certainly is on the scout ships.”
“Well let’s figure that out then, shall we?”
It turned out that the countermeasures did in fact have a manual mode. In fact, the system had two — an operator could take direct control, aiming and firing by sight, or he could designate specific targets and the system would take over from there.
“Let’s keep as much work on the computer’s plate as possible,” said Rolar, glancing at his own terminal. The octahedron’s trench was now pulsing its eerie green aura continuously, and sensors indicated that it had begun to move, albeit slowly, in their direction. “I think we’re going to want to be gone before that thing shows up.”
“No argument here,” said Henlark as he flipped through a series of menus on the holo-display. “And we’re good. Watch this.”
He completed the command sequence to the pedestal with a jab of his finger and then looked down at their attacker. The dome display framed it within a green diamond. The diamond flickered and turned yellow, then flickered again and turned red. A klaxon sounded as small apertures opened in the station’s hull, each deploying a double-barreled turret. The computer aligned the turrets onto the hostile vessel, and a moment later streams of glowing blue bolts streaked toward their target. Arching currents of energy snaked across the ship’s hull from the impact points, and several well placed hits blew one of the spines off the main hull with explosive force, green slime oozing from the rupture.
In the same instant, a multi-tonal shriek filled the command center. Rolar looked to the readouts to pinpoint the source, and realized that he had never closed the open comms channel. He turned to check on Henlark, but before he could say anything an answering call came — a deep, abyssal wail that the readout identified as coming from the advancing octahedron. The wounded attacker rotated away from Prospector Base, and engines of some type flared to life at its aft, carrying it away towards the advancing monolith.
“Well at least we know we can hurt it,” said Henlark, holding a hand to his head. “Whatever it is, ship or animal.”
“Ship or animal, it’s running to its big friend, and I believe we agreed we should be gone before it gets close enough to introduce itself.”
“Besides, it sounded angry just now.”
“Yes, also that.”
Henlark entered a series of final instructions to the turret control system, painting both the spiny craft and the octahedron as targets, and instructing it to engage them at any point when they entered effective range.
“That should keep them occupied while we get away,” he said. “Hopefully.”
Rolar nodded, and they made for the transit shaft door. No longer concerned about stealth, they stepped into the maglev car. They reached the habitat level in seconds, and were sprinting very nearly before the door had irised open. Drawing on their makreda for additional strength, they covered the half-mile trip from center to edge in just over a minute and leapt down the access shaft to the hangar deck. In all, they were back in their scout ship and powering up within five minutes of leaving the command center.
“Where are we headed?” asked Henlark as the repulsor field kicked in and held them aloft while the landing gear retracted into the spherical hull.
“Survey Command,” Rolar answered without hesitation. “We just made contact with a hostile space-borne entity that’s connected to a xenological infestation that has contaminated at least four planets. They need to know.”
Henlark nodded and keyed instructions into his holo-panel.
“Computer’s working on the dive solution. Should have it in a couple of minutes.”
“Then let’s spend that couple of minutes getting as far away from here as possible. Punch it!”
Prospector Three rocketed from the hangar bay at speeds well above what was considered procedurally safe — fast enough, in fact, that the artificial gravity was unable to fully negate the g-forces, and the men were pressed into their seats.
“Where are our friends?” asked Rolar through clenched teeth.
Henlark called up a live telemetry map and blanched. The octahedron had entered Glory-of-Autumn’s orbital plane. It was vast — miles across at its central trench, dwarfing Prospector Base, which was dutifully firing on both it and the spiny craft. It was like watching a mosquito trying to sucker punch a bear. The vast thing utterly ignored the space station and followed a trajectory that would directly intersect the scout ship in short order.
“Ignoring our distraction,” he said, giving the ship’s computer fresh commands. “Beginning dive system spool-up sequence now. That thing’s on a rendezvous course that is uncomfortably close to the margin-of-error.”
The telltale hum of the hypospacial translation drive powering up came to them through the cockpit floor. A second later, an alarm went off.
Rolar gestured the telemetry map over to his own holo-panel and called up additional readouts.
“Energy buildup detected on the hostile,” he said. Then he swore. “By the Pit, that’s a particle cannon.”
“If that’s a particle cannon, it’s designed to slag a moon without breaking a sweat,” Henlark said, glancing at the scrolling columns of data. “I would hasten to point out that we are significantly smaller than a moon.”
“Noted.” Rolar looked his companion dead in the eye. “Is the dive system fully initialized?”
“Then dive now.”
“I’m at least twenty seconds from having a dive solution.”
“We need to dive now.”
“Do you have any idea what will happen if we attempt a translation without a valid solution?”
“I know that the computer estimates ten seconds until the hostile’s particle cannon is charged, and I know that it’s five light seconds away, which means that energy blast is going to get to us before the navi-computer is done doing the math to let us dive safely. And I have a very good idea what that much energy is going to do to us.”
Henlark opened his mouth to object, but before he could the ship sounded collision alert — the octahedron had fired its particle cannon. Without another word, Rolar reached over and triggered the dive command on Henlark’s holo-panel. Time slowed to a crawl as they tore through the fabric of reality a fraction of a second before the energy bolt reached them. The hum of the ship’s hypospacial drive dropped to a growl before leaping to a metallic shriek. Direction lost meaning, and everything went black.
It was hours later — or maybe seconds, it was impossible to say for sure — when Henlark’s eyes fluttered open. The cockpit was dark, all instruments dead. Rolar was still unconscious, sprawled against the curving wall where he must have been thrown in the catastrophic dive attempt. He had no way to determine where they were, or if they were anywhere at all.
His pessimistic reverie was interrupted by a sudden knocking reverberating through the cockpit. Something outside the scout ship was banging on the hull, once, twice, thrice, and then silence. He waited a moment, and the noise repeated.
Shaking his head, he walked to the inner hull and made answering strikes of his own, matching the number made by whatever was outside. There was a moment of silence, then a scrabbling as whatever-it-was moved across the outer hull in the direction of the airlock hatch.
“Well,” Henlark growled. “Isn’t this just great.”