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Soundless Conflicts - 7
|« Back||7||Forward »|
|« Beginning||End »|
Janson grunted from her left. "Twelve seconds, ma'am. Ahm redlining the aft reactor ta push the Krepsfield faster. We're goin' ta be working on the spare after this, if we're lucky. Nine, eight-"
Captain Siers worked furiously on his console, then pinged Emilia. "Comm, hail that ship. Order them off."
Something large hammered the Kipper's starboard side, just beneath the hull bottom. Everyone jolted in place as new alarms began screaming. Jamet slapped an override and whirled through exterior displays. "What was that?"
Paul found it first, his one good arm spinning sensor images across the his workspace. "Debris, looks like shuttle pieces and-" he winced, looking away. "Used lifeboats."
"Five, four-" Janson muttered, pushing already-amber sliders higher on his readouts. His board looked like one huge smear of blinking red indicators.
To the right Emilia was growling into her headset. "Unidentified vessel, this is the CES Kipper. Turn your goddamn ship heading away from our position and respond or so help me they will not find the pieces I leave behind."
"Less swearing and more professionalism, Comms." Captain Siers had a snapshot of the distant object, working with filters to zoom and unblur it. "I doubt aggressiveness will make a difference. Paul, seal Environment; we're losing lower deck atmosphere."
"Already on it, sir. Only one arm, here." Paul was sweating, working controls with one hand while the other dangled.
"Two, one!" Janson pointed at Lieutenant Reals.
She looked down, checked her console and looked up again. "Engineer? I have nothing to work with, here!" A quick glance up at the callout brought a new sense of urgency. "Two light seconds out! Passing four hundred thousand!" Screen projections flipped to expanded view, showing the Kipper in a debris cloud ten thousand miles wide with an ominous red blob coming straight in at a ninety degree angle.
His finger became a 'hold up' palm. "Give me a- there!, go go go!"
Jamet's console came to life as a singularity spun up. "One! This is one singularity! Where's the rest?!" In full panic mode she almost allocated the black hole to the closest distance possible for maximum acceleration. Only four hours of watching simulated Kippers ripping in half from doing that exact thing prevented her from instantly killing everyone. She tossed it out fifty miles, instead-- close enough to make the ship groan, not close enough to tear the bow completely off.
The Kipper wallowed drunkenly, coming around to face the pull of the overpowered singularity. Unfortunately so did everything nearby: Gravity played no favorites, yanking a huge cone of debris alongside the ship into gradual acceleration.
Clanging intensified on the hull. Paul began shouting damage alerts and lockdowns over the top of Emilia's ever more inventive attempts to get a response to hails.
Captain Siers finally had a clean image, a still picture taken just past the broken remains of a cargo hauler as the distant star lit up the incoming ship. He threw the picture into a corner of the communal display, expanding it into visibility. "Anyone know what that is?"
Jamet spared it a single fast glance, then refocused on her display. A second singularity snapped into existence and she allocated it instantly to reinforce the first. Kipper took a noticeable speed jump, crawling up past nine hundred miles per second. "Little busy!"
"Looks like a ball of clouds." Janson yelled across the bridge. "Or a planetoid wi' atmosphere, maybe?"
Measurements gridded over top of the image as Emilia made a contribution. "Can't be, too small! It's barely twelve miles wide, thirty long!"
"That's small to you?" Paul sounded pained.
"For a planetoid, yes! And who ever heard of a hunk of rock that could navigate?!"
She was right: The huge ball of cloudy dust was still picking up speed, faster than the Kipper could match. It was blazing a path directly towards the ship, now less than three hundred fifty thousand miles away and closing at a terrific clip. Sensor sweeps came back with wildly inconsistent results, putting the pursuer's mass at anywhere from a hundred thousand tons to over five million.
"Janson!" Jamet made frantic motions at her display, then the incoming sensor contact.
"Ahm tryin', ma'am!"
Proximity alarms screamed as the Kipper skimmed by a slowly spinning hulk and nosed directly toward a wide spread of shipping containers fanning from its gaping hull. Jamet frantically palmed the navigation controls, fingers speed-tapping singularities into new positions. Kipper responded by rolling bow-upwards in a spiral hard enough to ragdoll everyone for a moment until local gravity caught up. They missed plowing through several thousand containers by less than five miles; close enough to see colored logos painted on the metal sides.
Siers groaned, arms braced on his console. "Hell of a dodge, Jamet. Emilia, any response?"
"No! They're mute, dead or automated!" The little technician pounded her display in frustration.
"Any response from anyone? Local system authority? Traffic control? Entertainment feeds?"
Which was a good question and threw Emilia off for a moment. She frowned, swiping through channels and listening. "No, captain. Nothing on GravCom at all, not even the automated beacons or a carrier signal. If we weren't smack in the middle of a huge ball of crap I would swear there wasn't anyone here."
Paul had his sleeve up with the loose end tied over his shoulder in an improvised sling. His free arm worked menus, opening and closing them in a blur of activity that silenced breach alarms. "Electromagnetic." He suggested. "Radio signals, automated beacons. LasComm."
"You want me to check for laser signals while we're dancing through junkyards?"
Jamet listened with half an ear, eyes glued to her controls and nervously checking the incoming contact. It was just over two hundred thousand miles out now, coming straight at them while she lost distance with every dodge around navigational hazards. She edged both working singularities closer to the Kipper, using their event horizons to boost speed while eating some of the debris rocketing towards the ship. "Jannnsonnn, any mooooment now..."
"Ahm working, ma'am. We took bad hits underneath, relays are having fits." He tapped the back of his neck, right over the scars. "Got every working drone on it right now, but ah can't promise."
Something banged off the hull, loud enough to make her ears ring. Jamet swore. "Emilia! I need an overlay! Anything moving towards us-- highlight it so I can dodge!"
"A bit goddamn busy right now, Princess."
"I got it, lieutenant." Captain Siers threw a sensor filter over the entire forward display, outlining anything moving towards the ship in muted red. Just in time, too: Jamet yelped and cranked one wrist hard enough to hurt, pulling the Kipper sideways just long enough to skate by some sort of twisted metal lattice.
Her eyes darted to the callout, noting they'd lost another twenty thousand miles on the chase. Their pursuer was barely over a light-second out now and picking up speed. If whoever was steering cared about the debris field Kipper was dodging through it didn't show-- their navigation line ran straight through Jamet's heading and absolutely nowhere else.
Which actually didn't make sense. "Captain!"
"Listening, lieutenant. Janson, I'm giving you priority control, all systems-- speed those repairs up, pull power from anywhere you need."
One hundred forty thousand miles out. "Captain, the incoming target! Watch the course corrections!" She wheeled the Kipper starboard around another obstacle, screaming by close enough to pull fragments of metal right off the busted hulk. Coming around the far side Jamet snapped both singularities port, then abruptly forward again in a fishtail that came close to ramming through another derelict.
Captain Siers was staring at the navigation display, eyes darting between their ship and pursuit. He swore. "I see it, lieutenant. That shouldn't be happening."
She cursed. "I was hoping I imagined it."
"No, you got it right-- they're correcting to stay on a collision course the exact same instant we make any maneuver. The exact instant, before they could possibly see us."
Janson frowned without looking up. "That's not right. Light delay should get 'em, they're more than a second out. Can't be aiming at us faster than they can see us changin' headings." He did something complicated on the display, sending clear blue lines through most of the lower schematic. "Cutting power from lower deck life support, sendin' to the Krepsfield. Sorry."
"Nothing down there is going to die from it." Siers frowned. "Although the caf beans are going to be freeze dried pretty badly. Lieutenant, you're the navigational expert: Explanations? How are they matching corrections so fast?"
"I don't know! Predictive maneuvers? Movement models? Psychic helm steering?" The display flashed red as something too big to make out leaned into their gravity cone, broken metal bits reaching for the hull. Jamet slid one singularity below the bow and slightly to port, using the other to slap the hulk with an event horizon-powered love tap. Kipper shuddered and crabbed sideways, the stern drifting around as they missed the obstacle. A moment later both singularities snapped forward again, straining to make up for lost speed.
Distance numbers ticked downward in a blur, then slowed. She glanced at it: A hundred fifteen thousand and dropping. "They're gaining on every turn."
Emilia pinged for attention, one hand waving. "I found signals! Everything's on the EM spectrum: Radio, low- and high-frequency. Absolutely nothing on GravCom." She pointed at the Medical station. "You get no credit for that."
"None taken." Paul had an emergency medical kit open and an autopresser in his good hand. He was struggling to load a purple-colored ampule into the side of the device.
Siers frowned, one hand coming up to scratch his mustache. "Nothing on instant communications, but EM is active. Emilia, is there anyone live? Responding real time? Or it is all automated?"
Her visor flashed once, reflecting controls on the workstation display. "No. It's all automated. Emergency calls from both stations, hazard warnings and- oh shit." She frowned. "One of the mining rigs is losing orbit."
Jamet angled both singularities downwards, pulling the Kipper into a shallow dive beneath a spinning sheet of hull plating nearly half a mile wide. Dying radio markers tagged it as a piece of a vessel called the CES Pinhat; if she lived through this Jamet might look it up.
A quick glance at the callout showed pursuit correcting instantly in real time, shaving the distance to just under six figures. "Getting closer, need options! It's in the debris field with us now, but it doesn't seem to care about dodging anything." Sensors dutifully notified her as the oncoming cloud of whatever-the-hell-it-was drove straight through a smaller hauler, leaving spherical explosions and an incredible donut of blasted fragments behind. "Someone please tell me they're seeing this!"
Captain Siers and Emilia were in discussion. "How old are the distress signals?"
Emilia synced ship and system time. "Six- no, seven solar months now. Plus a few days." She looked heartbroken, eyebrows going up over her visor and frowning. "They've been begging for help for over half a year. Poor bastards."
He winced sympathetically. "That matches. Corporate HQ stopped receiving quarterly reports about that time, it must have happened then."
Paul finally got the cartridge loaded, then jammed the injection side against his leg. A long hiss later the pain faded off his face as narcotics killed the pain of his broken arm. "If it is any consolation," he added. "I doubt they lasted more than the first few months if food shipments stopped. But I agree: Poor bastards."
"Did the system Comm relay pass anything?" Siers was scanning through logs now, text blurring as he looked for something.
"Doubt it, I'm pretty sure we passed the wreck on our way in."
"Singularity online!" Janson suddenly yelled. "LT!"
Jamet whooped, made a grabbing motion at the offered icon and slammed it into place with the other two. Kipper surged with new speed, picking up a quick five thousand miles of distance before the counter started slowly ticking down again. She yelled, enraged. "Are you serious! How are they doing that? It just isn't possible!"
Captain Siers stopped scrolling, face set in hard lines as he looked at something on the display. "Lieutenant, I'm arming weapons."
It felt like all the air sucked out of the bridge. Jamet had a brief, hysterical hallucination of a literal mountain of paperwork propping up an inquiry board as Corporate lawyers hurled fire and flames. "Sir, are you sure? Is that necessary? The cost, the insurance investigations alone-"
Everyone shot her a disbelieving look at the same time. Emilia flat out sneered. "Wow, Princess. Just wow."
"Cut it, not now. Lieutenant I'll take it on record and full authority. Concentrate on not hitting anything, firing Rents in four seconds."
Reals doubled down on navigation, swearing quietly and sweating. Weapons weren't a thing. Well obviously they were a thing, she'd seen them during research, but they weren't something people ran around using. Cormorent torpedoes-- 'Rents in slang-- were basically tiny power plants with a Krepsfield generator on the front that served as both propulsion and lethal ordnance at the same time. When fired at a target they basically never stopped accelerating until the singularity on the front rammed straight into whoever was unfortunate enough to be on the other end. Simple, but brutally effective.
"Firing now," Captain Siers announced, finger hammering a display toggle.
Everyone watched on forward display as half a dozen tubes detached and flipped end over end from both sides of the Kipper. Seconds later they peeled off, singularity drives snapping on and yanking them into absurdly fast acceleration vectors headed outwards to... to...
She frowned. "Captain, what did you shoot at?" Projected lines lit up the display, headed directly away from the ship with nothing indicated on the other end.
"Nothing, lieutenant. Look at our pursuit distance."
Her eyes jumped to the display. It was back over a hundred thousand now and climbing upwards. Her jaw dropped. "What! What's going on?"
Paul got it first, but Janson beat him to the explanation. "It's the singularities. They're trackin' the gravity wells or somethin' in real time. The same way GravComm works at every distance for communications, no matter where yah are in system." His baritone voice was full of surprise and more than a little professional interest. "They can read it, know every time we change course."
Emilia looked just as rattled as Jamet. "That's... that's crazy."
"But it has to be true. Look." Paul pointed at the torpedo paths, then drew a line across the display from them to the angry red dot of their pursuer. For the first time it was off-course, angling after the nearest Cormorent and picking up speed.
"Dying stars." It seemed plausible, but Jamet instantly saw a new problem. "But what about navigation? We can't even slow down without moving our singularities, much less change course! And every time we fling our singularities around what's that look like? Waving sparkling flags?"
Captain Siers nodded. "It's a problem. But we have a solution, I believe." He indicated the list on his console where six dark spots showed expended torpedoes. "Distractions."
Jamet broke into cold sweat as Corporate-trained ghosts threw riots in her soul. "For the love of the bottom line."
"Lieutenant, get ready trade our budget for our lives."
Emilia broke into high, hysterical laughter.
[Tales From the Terran Republic] What's Going on in the Federation Pt3 Karashel and the Lazy River
I ran up against the character limit and had to cut it short. Conclusion will be up shortly!
The rest of this series can be found here
Karashel cursed in Terran, the best language for such things.
The AI was useless. Of course it was.
It was Balean!
“R-reffffinnnnne queirey!” she snapped.
“I’m sorry, I did not understand your request,” the AI responded.
“Querrrie!” Karashel yelled “Sthap d fokun querrrie!”
“I was unable to understand you. Please-”
“Aghghhh fuckin fckuk!” she yelled as she slammed the cord back into her aching neural port.
“/// sssst-sp #@3kdd querty///”
“///Unrecognizable command. Please rephrase///”
Karashel started to laugh as she slumped against her desk. No wonder the AI couldn’t understand.
Her brain was fried. It was over.
Dripping more slime than ever she started to laugh and sob.
“Oh Creators,” she silently prayed, turning her eyestalks skyward. “I know I’m an atheist and I haven’t prayed in years but please… please help me! I don’t… I don’t know what to do and I’m running out of time.”
Karashel started to get unreasonably angry.
“Fuckin’ pieet fo spit!” she yelled at the ceiling. “Weee rr stuk in tha shhiit n itz UR FOLT! Wee didn’t axe fur dis! Wee didn dezzerve dis! FUCK YOO!”
She started to twitch as the frustration and rage built.
“Rarrggghhhh!” she bubbled as she struck her desktop, knocking it off of the desk.
It hit the ground with a “crunch” and everything went dead.
She shrieked and pulled the cord from her neural socket as she was punished yet again.
She slumped onto the slimy floor of her apartment as it started to ripple and shift around her.
“Fiiine,” she bubbled, “’f U won’t help...”
She turned her eyestalks downward.
Devourer of Souls hear my plea, she prayed with every fiber of her fading consciousness.
“Took you long enough,” a pleasant voice replied.
“Wha?” she bubbled as she wearily raised an eyestalk and started in shock.
Lounging nearby was something from a nightmare, a horrific combination of Baleel and parasite with oily black skin and a gaping round maw ringed with hook like teeth.
She scooted back in terror.
“So, what do you want?” the horror asked.
“What… what is happening?” she gasped. (What she actually gasped was anyone’s guess but that’s what she meant to say.)
“Either your abused mind has finally snapped all the way,” the Devourer of Souls replied scratching its back with a long piercing barbed tongue, “or you have actually summoned the Balean Devil. Considering all of the other freaky bullshit going on in the galaxy at the moment it’s really anyone’s guess.”
“Don’t worry about it… yet,” the fiend replied warping it’s gaping maw into a “smile” of sorts. “Either way, we have a little time to kill before you are either saved or you drown in your own slime so…”
It “smiled” further (not a terribly appetizing sight regardless of your species).
“Why did you ‘summon’ me?”
Karashel, consumed by confusion and terror, backed against the wall, knocking over a small table.
“Please tell me you aren’t trying to cast a love spell again,” The Devourer said with a bubbly snort. “Oh and you are welcome, by the way. If I had granted you that wish you’d be answering phones in his father’s vehicle dealership right now, a dealership that will be given to his younger sister by the way.”
Despite her confusion and declining mental state, Karashel twitched in embarrassment. Adolescence had been a particularly awkward time for her.
The room heaved slightly.
“I didn’t do that,” The Devourer said in a matter of fact tone. “That’s all you so if you have anything to ask you’d better hurry.”
“I… what?” Karashel finally managed to stammer.
“Ugh,” The Devourer said flicking the stubby eyestalks that ringed its maw in annoyance. “Fine. We do this the hard way.”
It shot it’s long slimy barbed tongue out like a lance skewering Karashel’s anterior end.
Karashel screamed and rolled backward, her tendrils passing through the phantasmal tongue.
“Oh by the Marsh Guardians,” it muttered as it withdrew it’s tongue. “You can’t be serious. You want to take on this Federation thing?”
“Are you really that stupid?” the demon snickered, “Why is a Baleel-”
“Yes I know I’m just a pathetic Baleel,” Karashel snapped finally getting ahold of herself, “but I have to do something! The Federation is-”
She was cut off by a hearty laugh.
“Don’t project your insecurities on me,” the Devourer of Souls bubbled, dripping caustic slime onto the floor, “I wasn’t saying that you were ‘just a pathetic Baleel’. I was asking why in the black and fetid Bog a Baleel who wanted to bring down anyone or anything would waste its time studying these pathetic humans and their tepid propaganda.”
“What do you mean?”
The monster looked at her carefully.
“You honestly don’t have a clue, do you?” it asked.
“About what?” Karashel asked as the room lurched.
She didn’t feel so good.
“I don’t have time for this,” the Devourer said, “or more precisely you don’t. In just a few minutes your funny looking friend is going to burst through that door and ‘rescue’ you.”
Caw!!! she thought in alarm.
“Yes, him,” the Devourer of Souls replied. “Whatever you did when you were playing with that box over there,” it said as it gestured towards her damaged desktop. “showed up on his box and he is already… flying?… this way in yet another box. What is it with you people and boxes these days?”
Oh no! He knows everything!
“That he does, but don’t worry, he thinks it’s ‘cute’,” the demon sneered, “As if a stupid little Baleel could ever be a real threat.”
Black anger started to overwhelm Karashel’s discomfort. Of course he wouldn’t become her enemy. That would be giving her far too much credit. The almighty Caw would never consider her a real threat…
because she wasn’t!
She never would be…
She glared at the demon in her apartment.
“You know,” she frothed in her rage. “You know something, don’t you?”
“Sure do,” it smiled.
“TELL ME, YOU SON OF A BITCH!!!”
The Devourer of Souls recoiled slightly and smiled.
“Too late,” he replied. “Your friend is already here. He and the ambassador will be here shortly and that will be the end of it… and your career.”
She started in alarm.
“While these Xx are inclined to laugh all of this off, the ambassador certainly is not,” the demon sneered. “It’s over for you.”
Karashel’s eyestalks swiveled over towards the window.
“Nice thought,” the demon replied, “but your friend has something with him, yet another box, that will allow him to see you even in the darkness of night or more precisely your-”
The demon laughed.
“Now that might actually work,” it said in an amused tone.
“What has Councilor Karashel done?” the ambassador asked in alarm as it struggled to keep up with Caw.
“Oh nothing of note,” Caw replied diplomatically, “I just have reason to suspect that she is dangerously exhausted and in need of immediate medical intervention.”
“While exhaustion can technically be a problem,” the ambassador, still reeling from the shock of an actual Xx visiting the embassy, “it is rarely a true medical-”
It trailed off into silence as they reached Karashel’s door.
Slime was oozing out from underneath.
“…oh,” the ambassador said quietly.
He pressed the doorbell.
“Councilor Karashel,” he said in a loud and clear voice. “It’s Ambassador Marsamen. Are you alright?”
“Kara!” Caw screeched as he pounded on the door. “Kara, open up!”
“Councilor Karashel,” the ambassador said as he pressed the doorbell again, “We are about to enter!”
He pulled out a keycard and inserted it into a card reader mounted underneath the doorbell.
“Oh dear,” Caw said quietly as the door opened.
The apartment was in disarray, furniture knocked over, her desktop wrecked, puddles of slime everywhere…
And no Karashel.
“This isn’t good,” the ambassador said after a few moments of silence.
“Glad you clarified that for me,” Caw growled as they surveyed the scene. His crest twitched as he spotted an open bottle of pills.
He started to move to conceal them but before he could reach them the ambassador saw them as well and undulated over towards the bottle.
He shook out a couple onto the desktop and groaned.
“Five-threes”, he muttered.
“What are those?” Caw asked as he pulled out a scanner.
“Oh, nothing,” the ambassador said smoothly, “Just some dietary supplements. Thank you for your concern, Councilor, but this is now an intern-”
“Ambassador,” Caw said smoothly, “While I have gotten to know Balean body language pretty well I don’t need that to know you are lying.”
“Thank you for your concern, Councilor,” the ambassador said stiffly, “but this is an internal matter and we will handle things from here.”
“When I said that Karashel had done nothing of note,” Caw smiled revealing his many razor sharp teeth, “It could very easily become noteworthy, something that you definitely do NOT want. Now, tell me what those pills are.”
The ambassador sighed.
“Five-threes are a… they are a...”
“Drug?” Caw asked in a matter of fact tone.
“Yes,” the ambassador said with some discomfort. “Void-born humans...” he said with some venom. “N-not that I approve of what has happened to them! I don’t! Even they don’t-”
“It’s quite possible to object to their treatment and absolutely loathe the fuckers,” Caw said with a smile.
The ambassador sighed in relief and bobbed his eyestalks in agreement.
“Exactly,” he said. “Five-threes are a human creation. They consists of fifty ‘milligrams’, or roughly one hundred and twenty Federation Mass Units of caffeine and three of their ‘milligrams’ of nicotine. From what I understand these would have a mild stimulant effect in humans but for a Baleel both of those substances are much more powerful and much more dangerous, on par with any street drug. The humans can make them legally for their own consumption but we have it on good authority that these five-threes are produced almost entirely for illegal export… to us! They do make caffeine supplements but the ones they actually use normally contain enough caffeine to kill a Baleel and are never paired with nicotine!”
“Sounds like something they would do,” Caw agreed as he fiddled with his tablet, “Here they are,” he said as he looked at the crystalline surface, “A cup of coffee and a cigarette anywhere, anywhen.”
The ambassador muttered a word in Balean, a word that Caw had come to know quite well.
Caw chuckled as he pulled up some trade data.
“I see what you mean, Ambassador,” he said, “Kind of a flop on the domestic market.”
“And they make them by the millions!” the ambassador bubbled angrily, “Maybe one silver lining to all of this will be the end of these things!”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Caw said as he searched the apartment. “They are going to have to pay for all of those nuclear weapons somehow… In a display of my skills in dealing with the obvious, Karashel isn’t here.”
They both looked at an open and slime covered window.
“No!” Caw screeched in terror and sprinted over, slipping in the ooze and landing in a slimy pile of discarded clothing. He quickly kicked himself free from the pile and pulled himself up.
Fearing the worst he looked down.
“It’s only the fourth floor,” the ambassador said as he undulated up to peer over Caw’s shoulder.
“Only the fourth floor?!?”
“We don’t have any bones to break and our bodies can absorb a great deal of kinetic energy,” the ambassador replied. “We can fall from quite a distance as long as we don’t land on anything sharp.”
“So she jumped?”
“Quite possibly,” the ambassador replied uncomfortably. This was definitely not something he wanted anyone, especially the Xx, involved in.
Caw pulled a scarf-like strip of cloth off of his slime coated feathers and examined it.
“Um,” the ambassador said in an embarrassed tone, “that’s her undergarmet.”
“Eeek!” Caw squawked as he quickly released Karashel’s “panties”. The slime coated strip of fabric clung to his hand and he started flailing his arm back and forth frantically.
The strip of cloth finally flew from his hand and hit the wall, where it stuck with an audible “splat”.
“So we have a naked Baleel, tweaked out of her mind, rampaging through the capital?” Caw said as they both stared at Karashel’s panties slowly sliding down the pastel colored wall.
The ambassador winced and withdrew his eyestalks.
This was a nightmare, and in front of the Xx councilor no less!
Karashel grinned as she “ran” behind a retaining wall. She hadn’t “high-jumped” since she was a teen!
She had forgotten how much fun it was.
“Not too shabby,” the Devourer said as it floated along behind her.
Get down! she thought at him.
“Relax,” he chuckled, “Nobody else can see me. Your internal ‘demons’ are quite invisible, at least for now.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the Devourer smiled.
Whatever, Karashel thought. Now spill.
“You aren’t in the clear yet,” he chuckled as he pointed with his tongue.
She could feel faint vibrations in the earth through her belly.
“You don’t know?” the Devourer of Souls asked, “How much have you lost?”
The vibrations increased slightly and soon she could see a light as something sprinted around the corner of the building.
“It’s your friend,” the Devourer said. “You need to lose him if we are going to be able to have a chat.”
How? she thought helplessly as she watched him reach the spot under her window. He was impossibly fast!
“Quite the puzzle,” the Devourer responded. “Might want to hurry up. That guy is a lot faster than we were. Oh look!” he said brightly. “He’s pulling out a box-thingy.”
A scanner! Karashel thought in alarm.
“Is that like a foot-tongue? Can he track you?”
It’s about a million times better than my foot!
“Well, you’re breakfast, then,” the Devourer replied, “Too bad, I was looking forward to that chat.”
Karashel’s mind raced faster and faster.
“That won’t work,” the Devourer said.
“You can’t think faster than he or that box thing,” he said. “You have to think slower.”
Karashel, with great effort, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled.
“Your fast-brain, never particularly fantastic, is quite gone,” the Devourer said in an avuncular tone, “Your slow-brain, however, is just fine. Use it.”
“Just stop thinking and think.”
What the fuck?
“Shh! No words. Just think.”
Karashel tried to do just that but it was nearly impossible. She kept thinking about how angry Caw would be with her and how much trouble she was likely in and how he had a scanner and how there was NO WAY he wouldn’t be able to simply follow the trail she was undoubtedly still leaving. She wasn’t “sliming” that much anymore but she was still coated with the stuff and now the ambassador would be emailing home about all of this if he wasn’t already and how disappointed her parents, no, her whole home town would be when she “retires” in disgrace over all of this and.
“Not very good at this, are you.”
“Don’t worry,” the Devourer of Souls snickered. “Once they catch you I’ll do just that. Now try again. Stop thinking and think!”
Stop thinking and think, Karashel grumbled to herself. He sounds like one of those crazy old marsh hermits.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She could feel Caw stomping around and now there was a very faint “rustle” as something was sliding through the grass, no multiple somethings.
“Councilor,” Ambassador Marsamen said in a very uncomfortable manner, “I appreciate your concern but this really is-”
“Do you have a scanner as good as mine?” Caw asked.
“Well, no, but-”
“Do you want to find Kara before someone else does?”
“Of course!” the ambassador exclaimed, “… but her safety and well being are our primary concern, of course.”
“Of course,” Caw replied in that condescending tone he used when he really wasn’t buying it. “Then you definitely want me involved. Kara is a close personal friend of mine and her safety, and reputation, are a concern of mine as well.”
“Still, I must insist...”
Karashel smirked from her hidden vantage point. The ambassador was a good guy, deep down, but he is probably sliming himself thinking of the potential fallout.
She couldn’t really fault him for that.
Thinking was beginning to hurt. She just wanted to retract her eyes and…
Her thoughts faded out.
She wasn’t unconscious, though she should be. She was just…
She could feel everything. Each blade of grass beneath her felt like a little tendril tickling her foot. The wind felt like more tendrils stroking her slime coated skin. She could feel the vibrations of countless small creatures, perhaps even insects, as they burrowed or skittered along.
She took a moment to appreciate just how wonderful this was. No worry, no fear, no anger, just her, the earth beneath her foot, the wind on her skin, the almost silent sounds of the river as it flowed slowly along.
The river! she thought as her brain snapped back online. It moved considerably faster than she did and without clothes she was just a bag of water and protein, which would swell considerably when submerged further spreading out her signature!
That might just work!
Karashel “darted” out from her hiding place and melted into the shadows as her “fast brain”, fatigued well past the breaking point, shut down again.
“Don’t worry,” Caw said cheerfully to the fretting ambassador as they walked through the embassy grounds with his scanner held out in front of him, “as I said Kara is a friend of mine and I will definitely keep this to myself. As far as our opinion of the baleel goes this only further increases my opinion of you.”
“It does?” the ambassador asked in shocked disbelief.
“Definitely!” Caw replied, nearly chirping. “Kara is one of the only beings that has embraced the acquisition of knowledge to the point of Xvakk’Keen and what a Xvakk’Keen this has turned out to be!”
“This disgraceful incident improves your opinion of her?”
“By tenfold!” Caw replied. “Don’t tell her that, though.”
Caw looked down at his scanner.
“We are getting close!” he said. “Kara! Come on out! It’s ok! You aren’t in trouble!” Caw exclaimed as he scanned the underbrush.
He turned to the ambassador with annoyance. “Why do you keep your grounds in such a state?”
“We… we like our gardens ‘natural’ as possible,” he replied. “The thick vegetation also provides a natural refuge for many native-”
The ambassador and Caw stopped as the trail disappeared into the river.
Caw saw the molecular signature he was following spread out once it hit the water with more and more of the entire river glowing on his display.
“Fuck,” he said quietly.
“This is bad!” the ambassador exclaimed. “Oh creators! This is really really bad!”
Karashel’s fast-brain slowly regained consciousness.
She was wet and there was water flowing all around her.
She had made it!
Karashel smiled to herself as she floated just below the surface of the river.
“Not bad,” The Devourer smiled as he watched her mucus raft slowly dissolve. “I knew you had it in you.”
“Ok,” he replied. “What do you want to talk about?”
When you said that you were surprised that a Baleel who wanted to bring down anyone or anything would study the humans what did you mean?
The Devourer of Souls twisted his visage into a wry smile.
“With all of this sense of urgency that you have,” he said, “why did you waste precious hours looking at human mythology?”
Because myths and old verbal legends are often based in truth and I thought that perhaps something could be gleaned from them, and because they are fun.
“Pretty astute observation,” he replied, “If that is the case when it comes to these humans you idolize wouldn’t it be the case with other species as well, species like your own?”
Which myth are you… ohhhhh... Karashel thought as a realization struck her. You are talking about yourself, aren’t you?
The Devourer “smiled”.
“Whatever injustices the Baleel have faced at the hands of this ‘Federation’ pale before the indignity of being made extinct by your own fucking livestock, I’ll tell you that for nothing.”
You actually existed?!?
“Yes, me and the rest of the demonic host, the true masters of your world, did indeed live and breathe once before we were all utterly wiped out by the ‘pathetic’ Baleel,” he chuckled. “It came as quite the shock.”
And we actually were your slaves and food?
“Yup,” The Devourer replied in a matter of fact tone, “and quite tasty little slaves you were… until you utterly destroyed us that is.”
The Devourer smiled.
“The Baleel have been here before and last time they didn’t just ‘effect meaningful change’ they caused the extinction of several species, not just us but any predator that made the mistake of dining upon them.”
The Devourer suddenly turned into a huge finned squid-like cephalopod.
“These guys too.”
He then turned into a large slithering gastropodal “snake” with a rasp-like maw.
He returned to his “normal” form.
“And all of us had some form of at least rudimentary intelligence. They weren’t as smart as us but they weren’t simple animals either and one by one we all fell before you little pathetic morsels.”
He laughed bitterly.
“We didn’t even have a fucking chance. Within one generation our backs were broken and within three we were no more, killed to the last hatchling. What’s worse, you didn’t even do us the honor of eating us. You just… left us to fucking rot!… Assholes!”
He pointed his tongue at her.
“No technology, no claws, no fangs, no… nothing. You were are you are now, just pathetic little lumps of meat… and you killed us! You killed us all!”
He loomed in close.
“And you turn to these… humans to show you the way?” he scoffed. “That’s like… Shit. I was going to make an analogy about strength and savagery but I realized that all of my examples are extinct because of you.”
How did we do it? she asked with her mind.
The Devourer turned into Caw and grinned at her.
I’ll look it up. she thought as she grinned back.
“I will say this,” The Devourer said as he returned to his true form. “It doesn’t matter how strong, how fast, how smart, or how powerful someone is if they don’t see you coming and we didn’t. Our power was absolute, our strength unassailable, our power beyond challenging. We were at the top of the food chain and the world was ours, given to us by our gods and I? I was their king, their first king, and their last. I built an empire, the first empire! And, I watched it fall, pulled down by the same draft animals I used to build it in the first place. I didn’t see you coming and my people died because of it.”
Karashel’s little snot raft drifted against the bank and came to a stop.
Thank you! Karashel thought as she crept up upon the bank, but why? Why are you helping me?
“Helping you?” The Devourer laughed. “Whatever gave you that idea. YOU KILLED MY CHILDREN!!!” he yelled. “YOU KILLED MY WORLD!!!”
Karashel looked at him in confusion.
“And finally I have my revenge! YOU could have made a difference, YOU could have saved your people, and a great many others besides but instead?”
He gestured around.
“Instead you DIE right here, knowing that you now have the scent, that the prey you seek is so close,” he laughed wickedly. “Look at you, exhausted beyond salvage, your electrolytes already perilously close to fatal imbalance BEFORE you decided to soak yourself in fresh water for The Devourer knows how long. You are out of minerals, out of snot, and out of time.”
He laughed as he started to disappear.
“Shed your last mucus as you bitterly curse your own folly. The Baleel are doomed, not just to languish under the tongue of the Federation but truly condemned to DIE wailing in the darkness as we once did and I shall finally have my revenge and be able to rejoin my family in Hell at last!”
Images of a Collective fleet jumping into her home system flashed across her mind.
“Yes,” he laughed. “Goodbye, Councilor.”
The Devourer disappeared.
Caw stared at his grav-car’s HUD.
This was no longer funny!
Below, the whole river shone with Balean proteins, the whole fucking thing!
“All units report!” he barked into the air.
“Same as last time, dude,” an annoyed voice responded. “She’s everywhere and nowhere!”
“We are the fucking Xx!” Caw screeched in frustrated rage. “And you mean to tell me that a single Baleel is beyond us?!?”
“Looks that way, don’t it?” another Xx, a female this time, replied in a snarky voice.
Ambassador Marsamen fidgeted nervously (but as silenty as possible) in the passenger’s seat. In the past few hours he had grown a little more used to the Xx’s “irreverent” attitude when dealing with one another but it was still fundamentally unnerving, especially the exchange between Councilor Itsheesh and the Xx Ambassador.
The things they said to each other! He could never talk to Councilor Karashel that way…
Though should she survive the night he might be more than a little tempted.
“May I remind you that this isn’t a fucking field exercise,” Caw screeched. “Kara is in very real danger at this point!”
Caw spun around and looked at one of the Baleel in the back seat.
“How long does she have left?”
“It’s impossible to say for certain,” the Balean doctor replied. “There are so many factors in play here, nutrition, sleep deprivation, the amount of slime she has exuded, the amount of time she spends in the river, her ion-balance prior to entering the river… She definitely requires treatment at this point but as far as her actual condition goes she could just need a few bags of serum and a good night’s sleep or...”
The doctor trailed off.
“Or what?” Caw demanded.
“Or she could already be gone,” the doctor replied quietly.
“Skreeeeee!” Caw cursed. “All units, cover everything again!”
“Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” Karashel muttered as she hauled herself painfully out of the mud and onto dry ground.
Everything hurt. Everything hurt bad.
And it was getting hard to think.
Ok, Karashel, she thought as she took a steadying breath. You fucked up for real this time.
Everything started to fade out.
She scraped the inside of her throat with her radula hoping the pain would help keep her focused.
It just hurt.
Situation: she thought as she took another deep breath. We are in the middle of fucking nowhere, well outside of the city, exhausted, slime-starved, and our electrolytic balance is beyond fucked. We need serum, now!
She knew that if she didn’t get serum, or something like it, before she passed out for good that was it. Game over. Thanks for playing.
It didn’t sound that bad. She would just go to sleep and the pain would be over.
She started to slump, her muscles starting to fail.
She continued to haul herself along a narrow path winding up the bank and into the giant mushrooms. No, they weren’t mushrooms, they were “trees”, tall plants with permanent polysaccharide spines or “trunks”.
They were so pretty, the way they gently swayed in the starlight. So soothing…
No, she was getting off track.
Focus. What that asshole called her “fast-brain” wasn’t going to last much longer.
What was serum? It was a mineral-rich proteinous aqueous solution consisting of a wide variety of amino acids and was high in magnesium, calcium, potassium…
She shook herself. She was getting lost in the details.
How did you get it?
You bought it at the store, she thought as she spared the energy for a little derisive snort. Brilliant, Karashel.
In the old days they would brew something called “slake” out of various plants, fungi, and shellfish that served the same purpose. All she needed were a dozen different plants and fungi only present on her homeworld, twenty pounds of shellfish, a large pot, a roaring fire, and a whole day to boil it.
She weakly snorted again.
Yep, she thought weakly as she started to slump again, I’m fucked.
Despite her best efforts, her consciousness started to slip again but this time she didn’t fully black out. Once again she found herself in that magical “zone” she had experienced in the embassy’s garden.
She sighed in contentment as her muscles fully let go. At least there was this final mercy before the end. She could feel so much! She could feel each individual leaf, as if it were made of crystal beneath her. She could feel the gentle breeze as it soothed her drying back. She could feel the gentle groaning of the giant plants around her as their roots shifted ever so slightly in the earth…
She could feel the individual indentations that hardened foot parts, or “hooves” left in the trail beneath her as the forest creat-
Blood! her failing mind screamed. Blood is serum!
Then everything faded completely.
The green-stag strolled along the forest path, its muscles rippling underneath its taut skin, pausing to paw at the ground, unearthing the sweet rhizomes of a wide leafed plant valued for its decorative qualities across the Federation.
The quadruped didn’t care about how it looked as it munched happily.
It had been a good season and it had grown large and strong, 1.7 meters at the shoulder, and had several successful matings thus far…
And the scars from the battles that earned him that right.
A rustling in the leaves made it crouch and raise its head, ready to run or fight.
It sniffed the air. There wasn’t the strange cloying scent of the feathered screeching killers with their glowing lights that burned and killed nor was there the more natural musk of the two legged ones who made thunder and smelled of fire or the furred ones.
It was the furred ones that frightened him the most with their silent flying teeth.
It wasn’t any of them or the other less concerning strange killers that would sometimes stalk these woods.
It was just a little leaf digger.
He snorted at it and the digger fled. He didn’t have to but he was embarrassed at his fear. Besides, those roots were his.
The digger would have to find their own.
He ate his fill and decided that it was a good time to get water. He had smelled a female near where this trail ended at the water and based on the age of the markings, she might be there now.
Or he could get a fresher trail.
He strode down the trail, scanning for any danger.
There was none.
The gentle slope started to become steeper as he approached the wide flowing water at the trail’s end.
Suddenly, he started to slip!
He tried to back away but his hooves kept slipping, one after another!
He started to slide down the slope, slowly at first but he kept sliding faster each second. Soon he was desperately scrabbling for any purchase on the hard packed slimy dirt.
With a panicked bellow, he fell. Flailing wildly he slid ever faster towards the bottom, his legs coated in a strange slimy stuff he had never seen before.
Finally, he slid into a lump of leaves and dirt at the bottom. Still scrambling he tried to clamber onto the mound.
The mound shifted in a strange fashion. Was it a log?
Suddenly the mound was on top of him. That was odd.
No! The mound was moving!
Bellowing with fear and anger the creature tried to struggle but it couldn’t get up, only thrash beneath this strange sticky… thing. It tried to bring its wickedly sharp horn to bear but the mound had already flowed onto its head, pressing it downward into a slimy puddle.
There was something sticky and wet covering it now! It was getting into his nose, his mouth.
He couldn’t breathe!
He was one of the strongest creatures in the forest but the harder he fought, the deeper he sank into the strange slimy sticky soft earth beneath him.
He couldn’t breathe!
His thrashing became weaker and weaker…
Until it stopped completely.
“ghud...” the mound bubbled as it pressed its mouth against the creature’s still warm neck.
“Now tell me,” Caw said in a strangely calm voice, “Why can’t we find her?”
“It has to do with their physiology, councilor,” the other Xx responded in a polite, precise manner.
Nobody was playing anymore.
The other Xx continued.
“It just so happens that the Baleel possess a very common set of amino acids, in fact, their amino acids are a subset of the amino acid profile of the planet itself. There is no unique protein to focus on which to focus our scans. We are having to analyze protein sequences instead which wouldn’t be a problem except that we are having to cover a lot of area since she could have left the river at any point or could still be floating along with the current.”
“And we are limited to the equipment we had at the embassy,” Caw said in a perfectly calm manner.
“Right,” the other Xx replied. “Security sweepers and package sniffers have the sensitivity, but not the range. We are having to bob and weave over the river and along the banks like murder-flies.”
“Fuck it,” Caw muttered.
“Councilor?” the other Xx asked.
“We’re out of time, beyond out of time,” Caw said. “Start focusing your efforts on the banks further upstream. I’m going to call in a favor.”
“You said we would keep this to ourselves,” Ambassador Marsamen objected, “You said-”
He fell silent. If looks could kill the ambassador would be no more.
“What would you prefer, Ambassador,” Caw hissed in a dangerous tone. “Me calling in a favor from someone who knows when to keep their mouth shut or some nature lover finding a naked Baleel corpse, loaded to the gills with five-threes, during their morning walk?”
“Well, I...” the ambassador said weakly.
“Not that you get a say in this anyway,” Caw hissed.
He sighed and then facepalmed.
“Get me in touch with the Darksea’s Mysteries.” he said between his feathered fingers.
A kalent wearing what appeared to be a thin bodystocking appeared on his HUD. “What do you want, Xx?”
“You are the (ahem) diplomatic vessel responsible for toting around a certain august personage that is currently a guest of the humans in the Locus?”
“Our passengers, whoever they may be, are none of your concern, Xx.”
“Well that passenger owes a certain Baleel a solid and WILL DEFINITELY want you to assist me. Call them, now, and tell them that Karashel the Baleel needs help that you can provide. You do NOT want him to find out that you failed him, or Karashel.”
The kalent glared at Caw and terminated the communication.
Ambassador Marsamen just looked at Caw in complete shock. First the Xx and now the Kalent?
Caw’s HUD flashed indicating an incoming message.
It was the Kalent.
“Councilor, Itsheesh,” the kalent said in a much more polite tone. “How can we help Councilor Karashel?”
The Ambassador’s eyes bulged slightly as Karashel’s name was spoken with much more respect than the Caw’s.
What had Karashel been up to?
Half a dozen grav vehicles descended upon a shallow depression in the middle of the woods surrounding Capital City.
“Fan out!” Caw shouted as the Xx started sprinting in a skirmish line down a narrow game trail.
Suddenly a strange silvery craft appeared in front of them.
“She is beneath us, Xx.” a Kalent voice announced as the craft started to land.
Caw ran headlong down the path…
And promptly went head over heels as a patch of what appeared to be normal ground dissolved into a slimy mess.
Caw screeched as he started to slide down the slope, unable to stop himself as everything he grabbed broke down into more of this slippery slimy muck.
Coated head to toe in a mixture of mud and slime Caw finally came to rest against a small mound of dirt and leaves.
It was really soft…
And it grunted as it rolled over on top of him.
“Moar...” a strange soulless voice bubbled.
“Kara!” Caw exclaimed. “We were so worr-… um… Kara?”
Caw started to try to extricate himself from underneath his friend only to find that the underside of a Baleel’s foot can be quite… grippy.
“Kara?… Kara! Kara!” Caw screeched.
As Karashel slowly flowed over his body Caw turned his head to the side…
and found himself looking right into the wide open eyes of a magnificent green stag, a dead magnificent green stag with a hole bored deep into its throat.
He suddenly realized what “Moar” meant.
“Kara!” he squawked as Karashel continued to flow up his body, “Karashel! Councilor Karashel!...”
“Caw?” a female Xx security officer asked in an uncertain voice as she raised her weapon.
“Forgive me, Kara,” Caw said quietly, “Twenty-five percent stun… FIRE!” he shouted.
Karashel convulsed once, her eyes shooting out like party noise makers before collapsing.