The Inir position was broken, troops were flooding the plains, scrambling over the fallen to slaughter the unprepared. A minor victory in this generational war. Today they would burn their breeding chambers, delaying the next push at the very least. Perhaps it would lessen the damage on the cities in the coming months.
Movement on the flanks. Dark flashes erupted laterally across the field, slicing through the overconfident soldiers. Their armour crumpled under the blasts, twisting their bodies painfully. Marix let fly a seeker grenade. Glowing brightly in the ever-night of this world, it fired off into the hill where the attackers must lay. Twisting the guidance beam slightly just before impact, the weapon was guided just around the mound, in the hopes they were hiding there from the inevitable retaliation. A dull vibration, followed by bits of once living things. They had.
A vibration shattered Marix's concentration. Communications from the central coordination office. They were being redeployed. A drop-ship was inbound to pick them up.
This was unprecedented. Troop assignments such as his were never retrieved, and certainly not via drop-ship, which would shot down long before it reached them. What were they thinking?
Silence had fallen over the battlefield as every other member of the squad received similar orders. They pulled back and waited. There were no counter-attacks from the Inir, which was also odd, and frightening.
Soon the search beams of the vast transport ships arrived. They quickly lowered their boarding ramps and Marix's team ran up into the waiting hold. Inspecting the hull, he saw no signs of combat. Glancing back over his shoulder, he beheld a startling sight. The Inir troops were also being retrieved by their own ships. Never in the history of this war had such a withdrawal been executed.
Lifting off, Marix looked around at his surroundings. Many troops were gathered in the hold, far more than the local battlefield would have contained. Were they massing for some attack elsewhere on the planet? A very aggressive strategy it seemed.
Looking outside, he saw considerable activity below. Drop-ships were present by the dozens, both friendly and Inir. They were all heading to their respective territories and picking up every soldier on the field. The fields of blood would soon be quiet for the first time in millenia. This could not be peace. The orders were very clear. They were being redeployed. But where?
Marix seated himself and checked his weaponry. He hoped this was going to be a good day.
"Dare, that's the motion sensors again. It's not the pet. Go check it," nudged Ferl, pushing her husband out of bed. He obliged grumpily.
"All sorts of system failures have been happening everywhere these past days, there's nothing to bother about one more going whizzy," Dare complained. He noted Scraff on the floor, asleep. With a foot, he nudged the little round fur ball awake and scooted it out the door into the hall. It skittered along happily enough, expecting to be given food or exercise.
Getting into the hall, Dare felt odd. Something was wrong with the air. And there was a sound, but not really a sound. More of hint of a sound. He fumbled against the wall for the lights.
Scraff suddenly dashed on ahead, around the corner, then the sound of padded feet skidding to a halt. Silence.
Stepping gingerly around to spy on his pet, he saw it frozen, mouth agape, looking up at something. It was hard to make out in the darkness, parts of it too dim to even see. It looked like some animal's insides had exploded and then become frozen in place mid-blast. But the pieces weren't stationary. They turned and twisted, glistening and shifting. The shapes within the mass of flesh pulsed and grew. Some smaller parts appeared out of shadow, then receded back again. Dare found the lights.
The sudden change was painful, but not completely so as what filled his vision did not benefit from the illumination. To the greatest confusion of his mind, he stared at the writhing mass, more clearly, or less clearly, understanding what it looked like. The lights only brought its silhouette more into focus. Its surface remained as dark as when the room was black. But now what he had thought was in shadow was rather not there at all. Parts of the thing were completely detached, hovering. Appearing out of thin air, then disappearing into nothingness again. Shadows coursed over the body, but shadows cast by nothing he could see.
Reaching a hand out, he gingerly prodded a thicker more stable piece. He whipped back his hand, the point at which he touched burning terribly. The mass shifted alarmingly too, seeming to pull out of sight, moving toward the wall. It struck and knocked things to the floor. Panic seemed to have come upon it. With terrifying force, it slammed again and again into the wall, each time losing some of itself. In a few moments, it was gone, save for a mess of residue where it had touched the house.
Dare turned around and left the lights on. He got into bed, Scraff still in the hallway, unmoving.
"What happened? I heard the noise. Was it an animal?" asked Ferl.
Rolling away from her, he muttered in reply, "Yes, an animal. It's gone now." Then turning to face her, "Call your sister, we don't have much time."
The pattern was quite random if you didn't look at it too closely. Just weaving in and out, bustling around with no goal or purpose. But there was a sanity to their frenzied movements. The drone was also watching them, its twin barrels swivelling about at the motion beneath the sand. Xyre watched through his visor, the status of the robot displayed inside his helmet. Wind caught at his coverings, trying to pull them away from him. He swung his shoulder up and around, fighting back the air currents.
"The missing tooth is about to show, be ready," he said aloud. The drone picked up, bracing its thin legs. They were almost moving circularly now, just about swirling in opposite directions. A gap would appear in their ranks, and that would be their opportunity. These things were difficult to capture alive. Even more difficult was to capture them and keep oneself alive.
It was coming up. The missing tooth in the twin gears of their motions. "Start the countdown... now," said Xyre softly. No change occurred in the drone, but he knew it would work. So much time waiting and watching, he was very good at this.
With prescient grace, the swarm revolved and what was previously chaos turned into eminent beauty as their swimming synchronised and the diamond hole opened directly where the drone stood. With a swift motion, its turrets spun down and clicked.
Xyre's eyes, confident, suddenly squinted, then panicked. "What? No, NO! NOW!" he yelled, but it was too late. Something was wrong with the drone, and the swarm was already breaking its perfect dance back into a sea of noise. Months of work lost to a moment's technical glitch. He raised his weapon, half tempted to take out the drone itself in anger.
Communication with the drone showed a strange idle signal. It was partially shut down, yet still trying to act on its orders. Then the signal cleared and it fired. Bright blue blasts lanced out and into the sand, hitting nothing. The beast they could have isolated was gone, lost among the others again, inseparable without destroying the swarm and the nearby colonies.
"KRAK!" he swore. Issuing a command, he recalled the drone. It shifted in his direction, then paused, the capture program still trying to resolve, despite the target parameters having changed. With an alarming twist of its body, it launched into the air on its small thruster, flying back towards the now distant swarm.
"Hey, what? Cancel! What's wrong with you?!" yelled the man. Never had he seen a drone behave like this.
It landed somewhat ahead of them, then quickly, faster than Xyre could trace, it firing wildly at the surrounding terrain. Its attacks were random, destroying empty ground, rocks, and sending plumes of dust into the air. Checking his weapon, he initialised it and prepared to take out the drone. If it killed one of the swarm...
He raised the weapon to his eyes. The display systems inside his helmet zoomed the view to centre on the robot. His firing reticule hovered just above the rear thruster, which would cut power to it while preventing the machine from exploding violently.
Then he noticed the pattern. The sands where the drone was firing were being reshaped, heated and melted. Density was being changed. It was happening again. The perfect conditions only brought about by nature were being reconstructed by this simple creation of technology. A gap! The missing tooth was about to form. Somehow he knew a command was unnecessary.
With a deft motion and perfect timing, the drone received the leader of the swarm as it parted from the others within the gap formed by the opposing revolutions of the creatures. Xyre lifted his weapon with relief and awe.
They had done it.
"Do we have a full seal?" asked Xel Xel. The gauges spun madly, pressure building. All the doors were locked, half-metre thick metal alloy holding it in. This wasn't the sort of disposal operation Octopousse were typically inclined to engage in. But the curious nature of the waste was worth the risk.
"Yes, Xel Xel," came back the reply over coms. Then the lights gracefully shut off, one by one across the room, then came back on, in the same pattern.
"Control, what's going on with the lights?" ask the nervous Octopousse. Power fluctuations could cause the doors to open, or at the very least unseal. It wouldn't matter where he was if they did that. You would have to be off planet to be safe, which wasn't readily available at this facility.
A moment's pause, then the response came back over the speaker, "We're not able to control the lighting in that section. It's not impacting any other systems. But you might want to come up here and see this. There's some program running here."
Turning to leave, Xel Xel froze when the dull clank of metal caught his soul. The doors were unsealing. Worse, they were opening!
Xel Xel spastically flailed his limbs back, half protecting himself and half dragging himself away. But it was too late, they were getting out. Glorious pin pricks of light emanated from the toothed doors. Curiosity and dire dread fought within the scientist. This was a sight none had ever witnessed, for good reason.
"Sir, get out of there!" screamed the officers monitoring the situation. The tone in their voice was clear though. He was lost.
The stars drifted about the room, seeming to settle in some sort of invisible ether. Then they seemed to become aware of the little creature, staring up at them with awe. They began to descend.
With a wrenching pull, Xel Xel saw the containment doors reverse their movement, and quickly bite closed. But not before a horrendous explosion from within that sent a gravity wave tearing through the station. Those slicing stars visibly wavered, then seemed to shimmer into dust and suck back into the door slit. In mere fractions of a second, they were inside, and the doors closed and sealed.
Xel Xel lay motionless, daring not to move. His body tingled from the effects of the explosion. The sound of the speaker barely registered.
"Sir? What did you do? Whatever it was, it worked. Our central drive is blown, but we're reporting full containment. We're going to be ok!"
The Octopousse felt suddenly tired, but very very alive.
Far across the sector, along the central conveyor route from Andonia, lay a small frozen world. This planet was ruled by a single intelligent species, which was rare for the region. But due largely to the inhospitable environment and lack of valuable resources. Nevertheless, this place was important to those that lived there, the crystal life known as the Xif.
An quiet emergency had settled on the entire populace overnight. The communications systems were down, returning a regular but unknown code. Being generally of no interest, there were no advanced back-up communications systems as used by the other worlds. The Xif relied on this antiquated ground to satellite technology, and with it down, they had lost their only voice.
It was only due to the sudden simultaneous failure of all outgoing communications that some traders raised concern. However, it was quickly found that this problem was spreading throughout inhabited space. Every terrestrial and out-moded method of communication were locked up, cycling some simple yet seemingly undecipherable data. The modern systems were unaffected, and agencies were quickly moving to assist those cut-off by the system failure.
A very minor problem for most. And the Xif were a very low priority.
"How long is the coastline? For that is how long the list of consequences of this decision will be. Do not think what fits within your vision, even your hand, is finite."
A dark chamber held securely within it those gathered this day. Together they shared their fears and their desires. The darkness had passed, the attacks pushed off, yet the threat of them remained. No power within Andonia that knew what had threatened it rested soundly. The threats remained.
Agreement had long settled on this chamber, yet it was of inaction. And this state had held firm for an age of the planet, and similar inaction was maintained throughout the known systems of the populated worlds. But dissent had arisen.
With each cut and drop of blood spilt, a voice spoke out, quiet and feeble, but given strength to act by the wounds dealt. That deep chamber was the bud of many flowers, never to open, never to seed. The roots were feeding it nutrients now. And it could not withstand such change.
A quiet action was taken. Barely noticed, a petal slipped into view, and all of Andonia was given a great protection. One final measure put in place to ward off the many dangers it faced.
Would the dark chamber then adjourn? It waited, to watch its long delayed action bloom.