9Volt 18

Title: Let the Winds Send You Onwards…

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Contact with humanity came once a week. Traveling to any location outside a light-year of the solar system meant traditional radio or similar communication methods were useless for up-to-date talk — an issue made even worse when you are 27,000 light-years away. Faster-than-light travel wouldn't be practical with such an obstacle.

Thus the Foundation turned to an esoteric solution. Conjuring a Way, an opening to another dimension, meant you could bypass the speed of light. Send a signal into a Way, have a Foundation outpost on the other side receive it, then relay it out a second Way into the universe proper. Scaling up the Way's size meant supplies could even be ferried as well. It would be a flawless solution, if not for the sheer energy cost of tearing open a portal stable enough to not garble signals to uselessness.

For the crew of the Kessler-002, with only a single fusion reactor to service them, this meant communication came rarely. Every Way activation had to be important. Necessary. A schedule for normal transmissions had to exist. Making it once a week felt right.

Five days after the Kessler-002's arrival in the Terzan 2 star cluster came an emergency transmission that broke the guideline.

Micha Maina relieved their hands of incessant keyboard typing, finished with a exploration report, second to be sent following the diagnostics sent on day one that confirmed they hadn't died a violent death in FTL travel. Below heaps of technical data and clinical vomit was a summary Micha felt captured the spirit of the report.

In short: Alien base exploded. Alien gave us directions to what we think are more aliens. Alien also exploded by other alien. Humans unexploded.

They paused. They added a second line.

Should we follow the directions?

There. Done.

« Is Exploratory Report 2 complete? »

"What's it look like, Chione?"

« Is it complete? Yes or no? »

Micha pushed their feet against the single patch of wall not covered by some electronics and began gliding through the spherical cavern that was the bridge. They smiled at the nearest security camera.

« If you do not answer I will assume it is and will send it in its current state. »

A sigh. "Yes, yes, send it already."

Deep within the ship countless mechanisms came to life. Mechanical arms recreating praying motions, loudspeakers shouting old rites in languages not made by humans, electricity speeding from the fusion reactor to be converted into thaumic energies. Micha could see none of this but the flickering of lights told them it was working.

Low, distorted rumbles. The way was open.

« Transmission to Extradimensional Outpost-10 in progress. »

Many thoughts were in Micha's mind. Had the rumbles woken up everyone onboard abiding by the human need to sleep (and not staying awake for a day to speedwrite a report)? Did they make any errors writing?

Would they be told to follow the directions?

« Transmission complete. »

They hoped not.

« Response from Extradimensional Outpost-10 received. »

How quick. The outpost's AI was getting speedier. Micha grabbed the mechanical arm holding a retractable chair and pushed off it, back over to the computer terminals. They were getting better at this whole zero-g movement thing. A shortened message greeted them on the monitors.

[…]

For the purposes of better investigating the Terzan 2 Ortothan Coalition and their war with the Twelve Stars civilization, you may proceed with following the directions. Be advised that, unless it is necessary, you are not to engage in combat. Direct involvement is not your primary objective.

Secure. Contain. Protect.

Chione was the only one around who could hear Micha's curses.


"Think that's a stomach with a cybernetic implant, can't tell for certain 'cause it's burnt to hell and back…"

Hyeon 3Mun glanced between holographic projections of alien guts, suspended on the heavily reinforced glass wall separating him from the corpse. Alex stood next to him, sipping coffee like normal in the one g of gravity the habitation ring offered.

"…Chione thinks that part is a heart or heart equivalent, but I've got no clue. All the flesh grown into rune shapes makes it hard to tell…"

Every organ that had been blasted from the alien by the Twelve Stars ship was arranged in a grisly display. Organs rested on platters held by robotic limbs, the two parts of the split-in-half body placed side-by-side on the central table, sterile walls a canvas for orange blood. Fragments of the head that weren't incinerated by the ship stared deep into Hyeon with lifeless camera eyes.

"…that organ may be for manipulating thaumic fields like the ones in the Sirius A orbital hives, though there's few similarities…"

Hyeon turned to Alex. He was nodding along, occasionally letting out a hmm or an mhm, clearly dazing out. He'd been talking too long. Dammit. Best to wrap it now than make this even duller.

"…and that's about all we've got."

"I see." Vaguely face-like shapes emerged in Alex's perceptual anomaly and looked to Hyeon. "I do have a question, though."

"What is it?"

"So you haven't taken apart the body yet, right?"

"Yup. We could but I'm a tad worried that trying to dismantle it will break whatever machines are in there."

"And did any of the organs look like a brain?"

"Uhh, nope."

Another sip. "I mean, it could be there but is burnt beyond recognition, but do you think the brain could be built into the body?"

"I— Hmm." Hyeon gazed to the ground, idling about as he thought.

"Could be intact that way."

"Mhm. That could be—"

BANG.

Something slammed against the glass. They both jolted back.

The body's lower half pressed against the barrier. Three of its six mechanical arms slid up and down, trailing blood along in jerking motions. A barely legible message was written.

« Translating from Ortothan Extraterrestrial Language symbols. »

Holographic panels slid over and masked the gore. The body kept jerking forward, slamming again and again. On each panel came a translation.

"Help you."


The crew floated in the bridge, watching holograms of a gas giant dance in front of the wide window overlooking space. Spheres representing moons circled the giant, one surrounded by red rings denoting importance.

« Based on the details from Researcher Watts' modified holographic communicator and preliminary observations of the surrounding region of space, this is a model of area the entity wanted us to visit. Current objective is to deliver the entity's message to Ortothans presumed to be at the moon. »

Zoom out. The gas giant was reduced to spec before the might of a red supergiant star.

« Despite the size of Te2-872, Te2-872-d and its moons are sufficiently far from the star that only a slight temperature increase from habitable zone conditions is expected. Your spacesuits are capable of handling this. »

The holograms flickered out. N.J. looked to the window and saw the blue deserts of Gateway's second planet (for which the crew never thought of a name) moving below as Kessler-002 orbited. The crater Twelve Stars had blown out was only a dot from this view, yet it continued to jut out from all else. The rest of the window was dominated by darkness.

"So 'bout that 'entity'…" Micha twiddled their fingers.

« This has already been discussed. »

"Do you have to bring this up again?" Alex asked.

"Look, I dunno why anyone thinks this alien can be trusted and why you think the Foundation will be all chill with bringing it…"

N.J. turned her head away and tried her best to mentally block out the noise. Alex muttered something about why they had to care about the Foundation when they were so far away.

"Hey. Micha."

"Hyeon?"

"Remember what we said last time? About Chione approving the plan and us landing crew being a-ok with it?"

"Yes?"

"Why are you still trying to debate stuff everyone is fine with?"

"Guys," Alex interjected. "Quit it."

"'Cause I don't get how any of you are fine with dumb risks like this."

"We signed up to research and do whatever the higherups keep redacting in a warzone. Everything about being here is risky."

"Quit. It."

"And I don't want to see you and Enjay dying of a risk that's needless and stupid!"

« Researcher 3Mun and Researcher Maina. This conversation is not conductive to the mission and I demand you put an end to it. »

Silence fell. N.J. turned back to see a mass exchange of awkward glances.

« Unless new arguments against the plan are raised it will be kept. Is this clear? »

Nods.

"So, do we want to FTL jump now?" Alex looked to everyone.

"…Let's go for it," Hyeon replied.

Micha nodded. "Yup."

"Go for it," N.J. chimed in.

The mechanical arms of the retractable chairs extended from the bridge's walls, arranging the seats into a ring pattern. Each explorer floated over and strapped themselves in.

« Activating Bifrost Engine for a 4.39 light-year jump to the Te2-872 system. Expected trajectory and apparent gravity wells in the system will either result in arrival at Te2-872 or Te2-872-d. »

"Is, uh, everyone ready for our first time experiencing the Bifrost Engine outside of cryogenics?" Hyeon expectantly looked around for responses but none came.

« Jumping sequence initiated. »

A strange sound echoed through the ship, like a whale call twisted and lowered in pitch. N.J. never heard anything like it on ships using the old Lang Distortion Drives. At least she could now rule out the possibility that the Engines were simply versions of the LDDs she revamped.

« T minus four. T minus three… »

Every computer monitor shut off. The lights hummed and dimmed. The metal slab of a shutter swiftly covered the window and the crew's last sights of Gateway. The twisted sound thrummed through every inch of the Kessler-002's frame, shaking N.J.'s body in sync with its every beat.

« T minus two. T minus one. Zero. »

All noise stopped. She could only feel the shudders of metal, straining against the gravitational forces now enclosing them. Outside, spacetime was being twisted in a protective bubble encasing the Kessler-002, accelerating faster than any normal object could, leaving a wake of gravitational waves behind them like the shockwaves of a broken sound barrier. Shapes grasped at the edges of N.J.'s vision.

She went blind. Red text flashed in the dark.

High amounts of potentially cognitohazardous phenomena detected. Optic nerves have been temporarily disabled.

A minute passed and light abruptly stabbed into her retinas. She rubbed her eyes, feeling her body drop back into reality with a thud against her mind. The shutter retracted and a purple gas giant stared out from behind it.


"INTRUDERS INTO HOLY MINING TERRITORY."

The sole sapient inhabitant of Te2-872-d's second moon went by no name pronounceable by humans. Even the rest of Terzan 2's Ortothans struggled to name them. So, on order of the Half-Holy, the inhabitant had a new name forced upon them: a modified symbol for "Miner."

"BODY IS EQUIPPED WITH TWO CANNONS OF INVERTED LIGHT AND ONE HUNDRED AND TEN THAUMOCTHONIC LANCES."

Miner knew the the moon inside and out — a state they'd much prefer it was in, if only for how easy their job would become — and they knew very well that only other creatures as obsessed with digging had any right being here.

"IF YOU ARE NOT OF THE TWELVE STARS THEN SPEAK BEFORE YOU ARE BROKEN BY INVERTED LIGHT."

Nobody else belonged. The lander, dropping from the clouds to Miner's landing pads, certainly didn't.

Miner swept long arms through their cavernous guts of twisting metal, shoveling spirit crystals through slits into the even larger reactor. Thaumic energies flared along the reactor's spherical interior, giving the crystals their cue to take to the air and combine into a churning ball, continually compressing until it reached its breaking point. It exploded, a fireball of energy more intense than that of many stars. The arms returned to harvest and funnel it into the two cannons.

In a few moments there would be no sign the lander ever existed.

"SPEAK OR YOU WILL BE BROKEN."

« …the universe continues to be preserved. Bleed into the holy body of Rakmou-leusan. Bleed for the universe. »

A radio transmission. A response. No, more than a response. The speech of the Messengers themselves. Twelve Stars wouldn't dare touch such speech, but it was not a reason for Miner to let their guard down. More had to be uncovered.

They transmitted a reply. "YOU ARE ORTOTHAN. WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE."

« Delivering a message. »

The Ortothan was far rougher than that of the Messengers, but it swiftly shifted into symbols written by something far more fluent.

"Weapons construction factory and orbital weapons supplying station destroyed in attack. New weapon used. Must speak privately if Twelve Stars is intercepting communications."

Special identifying symbols, solely given to those selected by the Ortothan civilizations to work in the cause for defense, followed. There was zero chance the lander wasn't Ortothan.

"THE CANNONS ARE DEACTIVATED. YOU MAY LAND."


Miner's body was a metal behemoth. A Portuguese man-of-war of alien seas. As the lander descended, N.J. could see sprawling mechanical tendrils extending from the thing's underside into the seas covering the moon, vanishing into darkness where she imagined the ocean floor was. From the left and right sides of its body stretched fins, platforms supporting the mile-long barrels of the "inverted light" cannons (she did not know what would happen if they were fired but she already wanted nothing to do with it). Attached in trails from the main body were expansive circular platforms. Some open for landing, some stuffed with what looked like missile silos, some launching rocket after rocket into orbit for unknown motives.

N.J. counted the number of platforms. Six platforms, one central body. Seven main parts altogether. Of course it was seven.

Hyeon took deep breaths in the seat next to hers. Being in the Extrasolar Activities Division meant interactions with aliens were common, but it was rare to feel truly threatened by one — the Foundation always had more than enough walls to build between them and you. The encounter with Twelve Stars yesterday was one of those times, and so was today.

The engines of the lander roared, sending waves of vibrations through the craft. The forces of deceleration slammed into N.J.'s body. They coasted down to a distance of a few feet above the platform as flames and smoke drifted past the lander's porthole windows.

Clang.

Touchdown.

The crew descended the ladder running down the lander's length and entered an airlock chamber. They clicked their helmets on, idled as the chamber went through its depressurization sequence, and stepped past the exit as it slid open.

Purple atmosphere. Te2-872-d dominating a chunk of sky. They had landed at the edges of the platform, away from its silos, and N.J. watched the seas. The sky's color stained whatever fluid composed the oceans a light purple, interrupted by the columns of pale ectoplasm that rose from the depths far into the air. Eyes, mandibles, and limbs continually formed and dissolved in the columns as they wavered and broke against the clouds. The only landmasses to be seen were lifeless exoskeletons.

A column suddenly split in half, chunks of it gravitating into a metal spec at its center. The spec sped off to the behemoth at lightning-fast speeds and sharply changed course to plunge into a hole on its central body. More arrived from across the horizon, entered, exited, either sped out of sight or sped to other columns. The tendrils pulled back from the darkness around the sea floor, plumes of sediments erupting, and dragged pieces of crystalline exoskeleton into the central body's underside.

It was harvesting the dead.

N.J. rushed back, her mind suddenly recognizing the sheer drop from the platform edge to the sea miles below. Vertigo came and went.

"Uh, you think this place rivals Gateway in terms of fucking weird?" Hyeon's jaw dropping was practically audible as he spoke.

"Y-yes. Yes it does."

Whispering winds blew past them, dwarfed by the crashes of the waves and the behemoth's machinery. Droning scrapes from behind Hyeon broke through it. A hole on the platformed widened and a smooth capsule jutted out, nearly the size of the lander.

Ortothan text ran down the sides that faced N.J. and Hyeon. Chione quickly translated. "ENTER FOR TRANSPORT. MEET WITH MINER."

Hyeon finished dragging a container down the lander's exit ramp when the ground around the craft sunk. They watched the lander descend into a deepening pit, metal folding above it to close over the hole as the lander's top dropped out of sight. N.J. gulped.

"ENTER FOR TRANSPORT. MEET WITH MINER."

What choice did they have?

Hyeon and N.J. inched ahead, wheeling the biohazard container behind them.

* * *

The chamber was an H.R. Giger wet dream. N.J. and Hyeon stepped from the capsule onto a raised platform in the middle of a massive space, well within the depths of Miner's main body. The walls looked like organs, turned to metal and melded together into a surreal mosaic. To the left and right waterfalls of orange blood spilled from the ceiling and past the platform, flowing into the grooves of seven-fold fractals dug into the chamber floor. Orange rivers winded past statues of worm-like things with four limbs wielding four spears.

The waterfalls thinned and dripped their last drips. The grooves were full. Curtains of light emerged, swirled around the rivers, and raised orange droplets into the air in a reverse rainfall that surrounded the platform. Reality roared. The curtains and blood flashed with the intensity of endless stars and the vital fluids were whisked to somewhere far in the cosmos. The bloodletting ritual for Rakmou-leusan was complete.

"Enjay, get the feeling Miner's trying to show off to us?"

Ceiling panels parted and a monolithic pillar, as wide as the platform, descended. No, not monolithic. Segmented. Like a worm. It bent and its front faced the explorers. On it was a circular window peering into a vat of orange blood, backlit by an unearthly glow. Within, the silhouette of a three-armed worm hooked to wires and tubing swam.

Lights flashed along the window's edges — its natural communication method, perhaps — then the blood flowed, darkening to form the shapes of Ortothan symbols. Chione quickly translated.

"BUILT MYSELF ON MY OWN WITH STRENGTH BROUGHT BY SIXTH AND FOURTH. MAY SIXTH BE AVENGED."

The pillar's "face" inched closer.

"TELL."

Hyeon typed onto a keypad on the biohazard container. The safety locks churned, letting him swiftly swing the container's hatch open. Operator's desiccated body tumbled out. There wasn't enough blood left for them to bleed; only dried flecks were scraped off along the ground.

The holographic projector built into N.J.'s spacesuit flickered on, still linked to Operator through whatever wizardry they pulled in Gateway. Ortothan Extraterrestrial Language symbols appeared in the air.

"Operator 12, weapons constructor operator stationed in [untranslated], survivor of Twelve Stars weapon."

"YOU ARE DAMAGED."

"I can still tell."

"YOU NEED REPAIRS."

"I am [healthy/fine]. I need to tell."

"WILL REPAIR YOU."

The platform dented under Operator, sinking and quickly enclosing over them. Machines, below and out of sight, began to buzz.

"Hyeon, I keep forgetting to ask, but have you gotten anything from the Kessler since we entered?" N.J. hoped light conversation would take her mind away from Miner's imposing form. So far it wasn't working.

"Nope. None at all. Must be deep enough in here that signals can't get through the walls."

« That is my assumption, though we received the last signal before entering the atmosphere. No responses were sent when we told them we landed or would be entering Miner. »

"That's… Strange."

Before she could think further the platform floor bulged into a sphere, melting away to expose Operator's new body: a robotic shrimp-like form, two triangular heads with three camera eyes each on either end of the body, red and white painted stripes wrapping around them. How short they were compared to N.J. made them seem oddly cute.

Her holographic projector shut down. Operator had their own projector to use.

"This design is abnormal."

"BODY WAS DESIGNED BY THE GODS FOR ME TO BUILD. PRAISE HOLY DESIGN."

"Was it truly?"

"PRAISE."

"I praise our protectors. I must tell."

The symbols liquified, swirling into the form of a station orbiting a blue desert planet. A wormhole opened near the station, a ring-shaped spacecraft exiting, a volley of missiles fired, the station torn apart. It had to have been what happened in Gateway when the Kessler-002 picked up the flurry of distress signals. The scene reformed into a sprawling factory complex in the midst of blue dunes, resting above the platform surface. N.J. paced around it, inspecting the intricacies of the machinery the hologram somehow displayed in perfect detail.

The rhythmic motions of industrial equipment ceased. Missiles launched and dived toward a green sphere plummeting toward the factory's center, all becoming twisted into useless metal amalgams before they could collide. The sphere landed. White fires swept through and reduced the area to ash. In what N.J. initially thought was a glitch with the projector, the fire stopped. The explosion froze. It folded back into the epicenter. Television static flooded the area while the explosion resumed, paused, resumed, paused, and buildings made, unmade themselves. Landscapes of different worlds entered then vanished in blinks of an eye.

It stopped. In the wake of the chaos was the black scar of a crater in the blue desert, debris teleporting throughout it in broken motions. The crater N.J. and Hyeon had visited the day before.

"World solid breaker."

World solid. In both alien and human Ortothan cultures there was a sense that reality was a "substance." In its strongest form, the world is an immutable solid, and as stability lowers it liquifies into state that can be manipulated. A way of rationalizing reality's stability in what the Foundation developed the Hume system for. World solid breaker.

It was a bomb that broke reality.

"TWELVE STARS MUST BE DESROYED."

"How can Twelve Stars be fought? Their location is unknown. Every attack comes from wormholes and cannot be prepared for."

"FOR THE UNIVERSE THE HOLY SEVEN FOUGHT FOR, TWELVE STARS MUST BE DESTROYED."

"How?"

« Communications received from the Kessler-002. »

N.J immediately tuned out the aliens' talk.

« Enjay, Hyeon? » There was static but Micha's voice came through.

Hyeon jumped to respond before N.J. could. "The hell was with your radio silence?"

« Twelve Stars visited. »

"…I …What?"

Chione started displaying a translated version of the conversation through Hyeon's holographic projector. Miner and Operator stared.

« Twelve Stars came and fucking went. »

"…Don't joke around, that's not funny, that's not—"

« Watch. »

« Automatically playing transmitted video file. »

The scene was beamed directly into N.J.'s retina by her nanotech implants and projected into the air from Hyeon's projector for the Ortothans to see. From a camera on Kessler-002's front, light from the gas giant and ocean moon bent. Like through ripples in water. The ripples contorted, spread, and a shadow grew from their center. Quickly the ripples were overtaken by the newly born sphere of darkness, light bending at its edges.

Something appeared in the sphere. A barely noticeable shape, distorted at absurd angles. As more light reached the shape the less its figure was twisted, finally exiting the sphere in a normal form. It was a ring-shaped spacecraft, missile silos lining its sides. The same one that destroyed Operator's orbital station. It lingered for minutes, circling the sphere, before plunging into the darkness, distorting, and vanishing. The sphere undid itself after.

Nobody needed to ask what had happened. Twelve Stars came through a wormhole and left. Why it happened had no easy nor comforting answers.

« Spacetime Monitors went nuts for a while. Besides from, y'know, the damn wormhole, we picked up a gravitational wave source like those made by objects at FTL speeds, 'cept there was no object around us the waves could've been coming from. We went on radio silence to at least pretend we could hide. »

Operator and Miner were silent. Even without eyes, the stare of Miner grew more intense.

« Even if we wanted to send signals the wormhole's influence on EM waves would've distorted them to hell and back. »

"I— how did they get to us?"

« Think I know how? »

"I mean, just, two encounters when these guys seems, well, very wrong with how big this war is."

« Coincidence, maybe? »

Alex's voice become audible. « Or we were followed. »

"SEEN THIS BEFORE. TWELVE STARS SENDS INTERCEPTOR, WATCHES WORLD, LEAVES, RETURNS TO ATTACK. ATTACK WILL COME."

N.J. typed onto her spacesuit's keypad with jittering fingers, letting Chione handle the translation. "Can we stop this?"

"TWELVE STARS INTRUDERS WILL BE REMOVED WITH INVERTED LIGHT CANNONS. WILL WARN THE HALF-HOLY WHO WILL WARN THE WORLDS. YOU MUST LEAVE."

Leaving sounded like a wonderful idea. As N.J. and Hyeon approached the capsule Operator asked a question the duo would've preferred was never said.

"How can we help?"

"SEND SUPPLIES TO WANDERING [unrecognized symbol] PLANET. TWELVE STARS MUST NOT TAKE THE PLANET. PLANET COULD FIND WAY TO PRESERVE THE WORLD SOLID."

« No no no, Operator didn't just ask that, » Micha stammered. « Hyeon, can you like convince Miner that we can't help? At all? »

"I am not about to deny this thing's request while we are still inside it."

"SUPPLIES WILL BE SENT TO ORBIT FOR RETRIEVAL. DIRECTIONS WILL BE TRANSMITTED."

"Twelve Stars could intercept transmissions."

"TWELVE STARS ALREADY KNOW OF WANDERING [unrecognized symbol] PLANET."

From the Kessler-002 came mutters about a ship launching from Miner, questions about how it could be docked to the ship. No turning back to distanced research now.

An entrance on the capsule folded open. N.J. placed a single foot inside when a loud bellowing noise prompted her to turn around.

"YOU."

She pointed to herself, confused.

"YOU. YOUR SPECIES IS NOT FROM OPENED STAR CLUSTER. WHAT ARE YOU?"

"Allies," she said.

* * *

Hours later N.J. collapsed into her bed. She did not dream. She remembered the encounter with the Twelve Stars drone in Gateway, the light that flashed within her eyes when the drone chose to spare her life. She remembered the light.

She did not sleep, for in the darkness under her eyelids the light continued to shine.


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