The latch of the listening room door rattled, then stopped. A wet slithering sound dragged across the other side. Then the handle twitched. Everyone backed away from the door, some taking shelter behind desks or in adjacent rooms. With a click, the door slowly swung open.
Nothing stood in that doorway. Yet sickly slipping sounds moved into the room. Something unseen moved deeper, towards chief relay officer Tenourm. Looking around nervously for the source of the sound, Tenourm leant back against a desk, lifting his feet up off the floor.
Suddenly a tentacle lashed out and wrapped around his foot. He screamed.
"Where is my fruit juice?!" screamed the blobby tentacled mass wearing a jaunty bowler hat with a spring leaf in it, its arm holding the officer tightly.
The man calmed slightly and turned to look down at those beady suspicious eyes. "I told you, sir, we don't have any fruit juice at this station. Only hot chocolate and water!"
"Nonsense! This is why your race isn't going to survive without our help," said Commander O'Snap scornfully. Turning around, he darted a pointy tentacle at one of the junior technicians. "YOU! Come here."
Unnerved but obedient, the young researcher stepped away from the water fountain and came near, but just out of reach, of the Octopousse.
"I'm changing your name to Fruit Juice. Stay with me, we're going to the roof," said the Commander, turning to leave.
"But sir, where are you going? We've been ordered to track and notify Andonia Central Command of any dimensional incursions the moment they occur. We need your research skills," pleaded officer Tenourm.
Smirking, the short being waved his tentacles dismissively and moved on. "We've already found our incursion." The officer along with most of the rest of the staff chased after the Commander as he moved upstairs.
"While you all were monitoring particles and fields and whatever, I was monitoring something much more useful for tracking anomalous spatial events," lectured Commander O'Snap. Reaching some stairs, he turned to Fruit Juice. "Pick me up, I don't like to over-exert myself before noon."
As the junior lifted up the Commander with difficulty, slipping twice, officer Tenourm stepped closer, "What were you tracking? We haven't detected anything."
"Squirrels," said Commander O'Snap, tapping Fruit Juice on the side of the head to indicate where he wanted to go.
"What?", said Tenourm.
"A recent change has occured in the movement and sleep schedule of squirrels in a forest of no particular interest. Their behavioural changes indicate a very distinct area and pattern of movement for a discontinuous spatial form. We must board my vessel and pursue it immediately. It has been equipped with the Squirrel Differential Behavioural Tracking Program, SDBTP for short."
Reaching the roof, they found a single spherical pod with a window occupying a quarter of the surface, and one door at the rear. Commander O'Snap quickly squirted out of Fruit Juice's grip and landed on the side of the vehicle, suckers holding him sideways. With deft movements, the door slid opend and he moved inside.
"Come on!" hollered O'Snap from inside.
Hesistating, officer Tenourm, along with the other fifteen researchers and technicians that had dare follow, stood around the single person pod, uncertain as to how to board.
"It doesn't appear to be suited for more than one, sir," ventured Tenourm.
Poking his head out sharply, Commander O'Snap stared at them up and down appraisingly, then darted back in. "Unless you each have a pet dog to bring with you, I'm quite sure you'll all fit inside. Hurry up!"
Shrugging his shoulders, Tenourm stepped towards the door, bending to get inside. Everyone else started to queue up behind, going in one by one, stopping as each disappeared within.
As Tenourm passed through the doorway, he gasped at the sight inside. They were in a spherical room, but a hallway stretched on to the right for a great distance, dotted with other spherical rooms along the way, bending it of sight.
"My goodness. I've never been inside an Octopousse ship before. How can it be larger on the inside than the outside?" remarked Tenourm, getting bumped from behind by Fruit Juice as he too entered, also gaping at the sudden change in dimensions.
Distracted, the Commander looked back, then realised their surprise. "What? It isn't bigger on the inside. How on earth would we manage that? Make sense, man! The space around the ship is fragmented. You can only see the bridge from the monitoring station roof. Everyone find your stations. Follow the green arrows."
As the last of the group entered, the door slammed shut and engines revved up. Everyone found somewhere to sit or stand, despite not knowing the controls. From one of the nearby rooms Fruit Juice yelled out, "Um... I can see the Torrin Tower out my window. Isn't that in Centia City?"
"It is," answered Commander O'Snap.
With that, they launched. The pod on the roof popped out of existence, as did all the others spread across Andonia.
That one step across the threshold was the literally the longest and hardest step he had ever taken. Cat stumbled out of the vortex onto the firm ground of Andonia. Dusty plains greeted him, sand blowing into his eyes from the swirling portal behind him. Stickman and Rion quickly followed, launching some distance beyond him. Looking back, Cat saw a new young soul fading into nothingness.
The portal snapped shut the moment that happened and the three of them found themselves alone in a vast empty plain. It was midnight and the air was cold. But they were safe, those that had made it through.
Cat slashed at the ground angrily. "AAAUHHH!" he screamed. Stickman stared off into the night sky, tilting his dark face left to right, like a satellite dish scanning the heavens for life. Rion stirred uncomfortably, knowing the loss, but unable to express it or relate to the others.
"Maybe he survived. You know what kind of thing he is," said Stickman, but his voice bore little comfort.
"We got him home only to be slaughtered," growled Cat. "And what next? What about Rion? What about--" A droning in the air caught him in mid-sentence. Something was coming.
Stickman leapt atop Rion and the two of them floated off the ground slightly, Rion's air sac inflating. In the distance they could feel a strange popping sound, and see something silvery, but it was playing tricks with their eyes. It was impossible to focus on it properly.
A squirrel ran by them suddenly, running away from the direction they were now looking. Stickman suddenly jabbed out a hand, pointing at the sky.
A massive luminescent shape emerged, as though from a dark ocean. Its form was amorphous and broken into many smaller pieces. Moving like molten ore, it approached them with a fierce intelligence.
"There's something else, look!" said Stickman, pointing up to the left.
Squinting, Cat could make out a small cluster of tiny bubbles in the air. They didn't seem to be moving, but instead popping and new ones forming ahead of the swarm.
"I have no idea what any of that is," remarked Cat.
"Me either," said Stickman. "But still, good to be home, eh?"
The frigid wind tore across the lush green landscape, flash freezing plants and animals alike. A beautiful garden of life, stopped in mid-breath. Storm clouds roiled above, clustering about the pinnacle of the great mound. White flakes began to fall, then to blow, then to blind. Ages of tropical climate suddenly buried under an alien substance: snow.
Some distance away a buzzing swarm sheltered from the sudden onslaught. A tear in space heated them, and many escaped through it. Any that dared slow to look back found themselves falling from the sky, heavy with ice.
Grim eyes watched as an empire fell. Anger and ambition stirred, daggers aimed at the centre of that great mound, the once all powerful throne of this world. She would have it back. Feeling a sharp slice of air, she retreated through the tear, out of her world.
Beneath the ground they followed the glowing cavern walls. Their guide who had crafted them knew them well. It was slow moving, for though the one ahead of them had long slender legs and was light of form, but everyone else either had short legs or no legs at all. Between two of them they carried their fallen friend, still dazed and unable to walk.
They heard the sound of heavy falling things above, and a storm howling across what should be fertile lands. One of those present knew that sound very well and didn't wish to return from whence he had heard it last.
"This way, we should be far enough away from them not to be noticed," urged their guide, her hand motioning them upwards, towards a brighter area of the tunnel. The light was natural and white, not bluish-green like the cavern walls.
Quite suddenly they emerged and found themselves in a completely different world. Gone were the bizarre plants, the guards in the skies, and the violet ponds. Now it was smooth deep snow as far as the eye could see.
Shocked, their guide had stopped to gape at their surroundings. From behind her, their other guide in its black hat plowed forward, seeming to know where to go. They followed.
A sharp knock on the door startled Terrick from his studies. The notes he'd been taking had become disturbed and had meandered into the territory of doodles. Another sharp knock came, more insistent this time. Groggily he stood and made his way to the aperture.
Motioning to the door, it fogged out of view and behind it stood Elacin, about to knock a third time. Her face bore the look of frustration.
"I had to take a transport here!" she exclaimed indignantly, striding into the room past Terrick. He turned slowly and watched her dance around the room, throwing off her annoyance like an unwanted coat in summer.
"When I tried to VT here, it said your destination was unavailable. But when I tried anywhere else, they were also unavailable. The entire system was down! So I tried to reach you, but IC systems were also having some problems. What's up with this past month? Everything's breaking down."
"Oh, I hadn't noticed," mumbled Terrick, still trying to catch up to the conversation. "Was doing my homework."
Elacin stared at him with sharpened eyes, then down at his books. The scrawls of warrior doodles attacking weird orbs didn't improve her mood.
"Right. Well, I'm here now. I need a drink. It took like two hours because everybody was trying to get through without VT," went on Elacin, striding over to the drink dispenser, tapping at it and then stopping suddenly, her eyes flashing red. "No..."
"Yeah," replied Terrick. "The drink dispenser went offline yesterday. It's been acting funny all week actually. We have food somewhere..."
Gripping the console, Elacin suddenly let out an enraged yell and smashed down on the buttons, causing the drink dispenser to suddenly alight with activity, then spark itself out and two of the nearby appliances.
Coming back from the adjacent room, Terrick held out a silvery tube and stared at the flickering appliances uncomfortably. "Let's do something, eh, Elacin?"
"Wait a moment, if you will my good fellow," said the Gentleman to the Mushroom.
"I will wait for a moment, my dear Sir," replied the Mushroom cheerily.
Leaning against his thin cane, the Gentleman looked around themselves. Nothing was near for kilometres. The horizon stretched on and on without end. They had visited many ports and brokered many deals together for over a year, and now the Gentleman sensed something was amiss.
Turning around slowly, the Gentleman faced his dedicated companion.
"Mushroom, have you any sense of an odd feeling about you?" inquired the Gentleman.
Looking up, then down, then swaying side to side, the Mushroom replied, "I do, my dear Sir, I do indeed. There is no earth beneath your feet nor mine."
Raising his eyebrows in idle surprise, the Gentleman leant ever so slightly more forward on his cane, then spoke, "How can that be if we are not falling, my friend?"
"I do not know, my dear Sir, but I will meet you in the southern port of Nastrus after we part," responded the Mushroom.
Perplexed further, the Gentleman asked, "For what reason would we pa--"
The Gentleman suddenly found himself at a loss for words, and indeed, at a loss for footing, as a massive fissure tore open beneath the two. From the depths of the earth came an explosion that blasted them upwards at a terrific velocity. Mushroom and Gentleman soared through the air, quickly losing sight of each other as dust and debris jetted out of the crack below.
Volepaunt rushed through the woods, bounding on strong legs, with thick arms to snap aside the dead branches barring the way. The sound of clackety-clack came from behind over the rocky ground. Over an edge leapt the frightened furry creature, down into the wet earth below. On it raced, deeper into the hostile territory.
Behind him came the sound of his pursuer with a sickening wet sloshing sound, followed by the sucking of its bone talons out of the earth. Perhaps this terrain would be less manoeuverable by something with such long thin legs.
Unfortunately, the smacking sounds of bone into muck ceased rather quickly, to be replaced by intermittent and loud crashing and scraping noises. Looking back, Volepaunt saw the thing standing in one of the barren dead trees, from which it leapt, spidering its legs across the sky, until it plunged into another lifeless tree. There was no way to outrun it this way.
With another horrifying launch, its shadow passed over Volepaunt, landing it ahead of him. Without turning around, it snapped its neck to rotate its eyes to see its prey. Backing away in a panic, slipping in the mud, Volepaunt fell. Long dirty bone talons slashed down on the yelping creature, echoing through the barren night.
Finished with its playmate, the vile wet creature skittered away on long bloody bone legs, leaving the torn corpse of Volepaunt cold in the mud.
As the sound of silence enveloped the pitiable thing, motion slowly stirred beneath the fur of the fallen creature. Twitching, then scrabbling to get out, a set of thin white knives broke through. A strange head followed, then half of a body. It was small and wet with rib bones for legs and a wide open mouth rimmed with splayed triangle teeth.
The thing looked about the world anew, feeling the wind on its body, and the scarce light of the stars reflecting off its eyes. It was sad, but relieved.
Slowly but determinedly, Volepaunt trotted away from its old body, out of the forest and away from the rocky lands. It was a hard day for him, but a successful one.
The air was sealed off in the tightly enclosed space. A smooth rough surface formed the concave walls. In the centre rose a glassy pedestal upon which the exoskeletal runner sat, trapped. Every attempt to wander off the centre rewarded it with a mind shattering blast of energy.
Above there were three large round holes in the ceiling. These ticked and clanked over the hours. Sometimes a burst of fresh air came through. Other times vibrations and more sharp sounds from a distant exit point at the other end. When finally a grinding sound emerged and the air pressure increased, the little one knew something was finally starting.
Three thick rods emerged from the holes, perfectly fitted to them. Each was shorn off perfectly at the end, sliced at an angle. The centres revealed microscopic holes which held the smallest black point.
A dull flicker passed through the electric field of the room. The alien dared not move, but fidgeted its legs nervously, awaiting what would come next.
A voice rang out from above, monstrous and incomprehensible. The tongue of an ancient creature, unseen through the dark walls, operating the environment, everything around the tiny being.
Suddenly the tubes alighted with fire. Three wandering spikes of pure light stabbed into the runner with a terrifying scream. Its body shuddered as they contacted, no time to react. Shadows darted across the walls, horrifying images. The little runner could feel itself spinning about, leaping, running, doing anything to escape the assault. Its body tore asunder time and time again, revealed in the silhouettes on the walls. Many times it suffered, many times it died, but not once did this one runner move.
The beams powered down. At the centre of the pedestal shivered the exoskeletal runner, unharmed, awaiting the next trial.
Back across the crumbled ground, another fruitless excursion. Food was elusive in this dessicated world. No plants grew nor animals ran. Not even the corpses of those fallen to the plague remained. Nothing died here, but neither did much of anything live.
Slapping tentacles one over the other, the scavenger pulled inside the metal box cage which had served as their shelter for the past age. The others were still out, also searching for anything that might keep them alive and hidden. But how did one mask oneself from an enemy that felt life itself?
Peeking over the wooden side of the shelter, tired eyes looked upon the burning tower in the distance. It still crackled with energy, but was embraced with a growing pitch, dripping from the sky and flowing darkly across the land. That city once oblivious to its deeds was now silent.
The sound of someone exhaling came from around the nearest boulder. The scavenger's senses lit on fire, its top tentacle lowered slightly. Footsteps. From out behind the rock emerged a jagged metal shard, dirty with some dried ichor. What followed the blade was all too familiar.
Bright white armour wrapped about a heaving nothingness. A withered body lightly moved across the landscape towards the cage. Hunting, or exploring, or just drifting with the wind. It was never clear what guided them. For most inhabitants of this world, the dark ones quickly found their prey, but this small band of foreigners confused the dark mist. The terrified tentacled being shrunk against the wood, daring not to breathe. It had never suffered such a close encounter with one before.
A clawed hand slapped down upon the beam above, supporting its frail weight. From this distance the fingers could be made out clearly. Each fingertip was hollow and from the hole inside came more of the choking black mist. It seemed to wander, not knowing if there was anything near to consume. The metal weapon clattered around the front of the box, purposelessly.
Another exhalation from the creature. Its face dripped with formless void. The scavenger looked at it from its peripheral vision, locked. It grew dizzy, not having breathed once since hearing the thing.
A motion came from around the boulder field beyond. Something was burrowing through the ground rather noisily. This snapped the creature's attention and the black tendrils retracted and dissipated suddenly. That white void soldier almost ran, seeking the source of the motion.
Its heart dropping into its gut, the scavenger dared suck in a slow silent breath.
Night closed about the Andonian city of Taref, alighting its grid of artificial lights as lives continued their activities in spite of the darkness. Twin moons spanned the sky, the larger one's surface bathing the darker twin in its unearthly light.
Cold winds wrapped about the towers within the city, reminding those inside of the season and the years past. Comfort was easily lost for the denizens of most cities, so often did harsh intrusions descend upon this planet.
Tonight the streets glittered with activity around the lake as people went to and from their homes, some enjoying the night, others retreating from it. Atop one of the tallest structures waited an ambassador, pacing before a long stretch window that overlooked the city.
She was alone in her suite. The assistants here bothered her to look upon them. They weren't what she was used to. She preferred her own servants. The air here was dry and this cold was new to her. Shivering beneath her robes, she bent forward to peer at the starry evening sky.
A knock came at her door, startling her.
"What is it?!" she barked, then suddenly ashamed at her outburst. It wasn't like her to react in anger, but her life had become distinctly less comfortable of late.
Easing open the door uncomfortably, the spindly servant waved briefly on stalky wooden limbs, then spoke, "My apologies, madam. Was there anything you wished before we retire for the day?"
Closing her eyes to focus her nerves, she held herself still and replied with the proper royal tone, "No, servant. You may retire. I shall see you tomorrow."
"As you wish," acknowledged the plantling, and with but a minor rustle, silently closed the door.
She turned back to the window, staring out again at that dark expanse. Suddenly, she spotted what had kept her up so late this night. A small shape crossed the thin clouds above. Following it carefully with her eyes, she watched as it arced and spun through the air, then banked and headed straight towards her building.
As the thing neared, she took a step back, distancing herself from that glass wall. From a small dot in the distance it grew into a large winged form, bearing down most certainly on this very room. Her eyes were locked on the thing, unblinking. As it crossed in front of the greater moon she saw its outline perfectly, the great feathered avian that it was.
The woman reached and flipped a latch. With a terrible blast of frigid air, it plunged into the open window and skidded into the room.
Slamming the window closed again, the ambassador turned upon the creature with a calm gaze.
"You're going to have to start letting yourself back in if the temperature outside keeps falling," she said.
The creature bowed its head slightly, then raised it again and stuck out its tongue.