Mortuus Machanus, by D.B. Poirier

Mortuus Machanus1 - Honza PÁNEK

Art by Honza Pánek – click to enlarge

Nadia felt the ship’s violent shudder as it transitioned from D-space. The Third Face of Hecate, a heavy salvage vessel, shot past a giant-class star, using the star’s gravity to slow its velocity. Again the large ship shook, vibrations knocking many of its crew off their feet. Nadia held fast, though–she didn’t want to miss the moment.

“Did we make it? Is this the Andaggis System?”

The navigator lifted a hand and waved her off. “I don’t know yet.” His voice was irritated.

“Neil!” snapped Captain Boris. “You’re the damn navigator. Are we here or not?”

“Give me a second, Captain. The readings are…very strange.”

Captain Boris pounded the bulkhead in frustration. “Come on, ya little runt! Either ya know or ya don’t know! Where the hell are we?”

“It’s just…we’ve never made a jump this far before. No one has for over eight hundred years, not since before the fall of the Old Empire.”

The captain walked over to Neil’s console and peered over his shoulder, further flustering the man. Fingers moving furiously, Neil punched at the keys of his console. “Got it. This is it. Andaggis!”

Captain Boris slapped the bulkhead again, but this time excitement laced his words. “Hell ya, boys, good work! Helm, take the Face into orbit around Andaggis Delta. Keep a look out for debris.”

“Course laid in,” replied the helmsman.

“This planet got a name, Captain?” asked Neil. “I mean, you’ll tell us now that we’re here, right?”

Nadia walked over to the captain and gave him a congratulatory slap on the back. She looked at Neil, a serious expression on her face. “He’s right. It’s time to tell the crew what our mission is.”

The captain nodded. “It is more commonly known around our galaxy as the Orcus.”

“Orcus…the Orcus! As in Durga Prime, the home world of the Old Empire?” Neil gazed at him in disbelief. “I thought it was destroyed.”

Nadia turned away. “I’ll wake Lieutenant Pike and his soldiers from cryo-sleep. You fill your crew in and lock down all the coms. It doesn’t matter that we’re three hundred thousand light years from home. We may not be the only ones in the system.”

Boris nodded, “You got it, Professor.”

Professor?” said Neil. “Wait a minute—soldiers? There are soldiers on board?”

Nadia entered the cargo bay. Twenty-four cryo-tubes lined its metal walls. “Death in a freezer,” as the soldiers liked to call it. “OK, Doc. Wake them up. I need them thawed and ready to debrief in sixty minutes.”

“An hour! Do you have any idea what that will do to them? These men have been asleep for twenty-two months. You’re going to have some really pissed off soldiers on your hands.”

“Suck it up, Walker. They’re paid for this kind of work, and when I tell them about their bonus, they’ll do whatever I want. Triple-dose them with stims–I need them at their best.”

Walker shot her a threatening glare. “Fine, but you should leave while I revive them. The amount of stims you have me injecting will engorge every blood vessel in their bodies.”

Nadia scoffed at him. “Please! I’m not afraid of a few dozen naked men.”

“I was speaking for the men, not to a woman’s delicate sensibilities. They may feel uncomfortable with you present.”

“Any man that uncomfortable with his body has no place in the Cryo-Brigades. Now get to work. I don’t have time to argue with you.”

Walker flushed with anger. He opened the tubes in succession, just seconds apart. Clouds of cool air swept into the room; internal lights activated in each of the chambers. An electric shock surged through each man in turn, and naked bodies began to spasm as each involuntarily sucked in a long breath. Walker leaned into the chambers one by one and manually injected the soldiers with a huge dose of stimulants.

Each man leaped out of his tube, falling to his knees. Some sucked in another long breath, mouthing a silent scream, while others released prolonged, primal howls. Muscles flexed and seemed to grow as engorged blood vessels pulsed visibly along the surface of their entire bodies. It was, Nadia admitted to herself, a bit more spectacular than she had expected.

“Satisfied?” asked Walker, irritated.

Nadia smiled slightly and folded her arms in front of her. “Quite satisfied.”

Lieutenant Pike shook as he got dressed, though he wasn’t cold. His flesh glistened with perspiration–the aftereffects of the triple dose of stims.

“Doc! There’d better be two battalions of Vykar Marines bearing down on us or someone’s getting their head smashed for waking us out of cryo so fast,” complained Pike.

Nadia stepped forward. “Actually, that was my call.”

Pike took one look at Nadia, and anger crossed his face. “What the hell is a civilian doing in my cryo-bay! And during an expedited thaw.” He took Walker by the collar and shoved him against the bulkhead.

“Please, Lieutenant, the circumstances are unique. Professor Zarich has been appointed by the council as mission commander.”

“You can call me Nadia, Lieutenant.”

Letting go of Walker, Pike pulled a T-shirt over his head. “I prefer to keep it professional, Professor. What’s our situation?”

“As you like, Lieutenant. You’ll find your orders on your ID comp. For now, you should know we have entered the Andaggis System: Home of the Orcus.”

“Did I hear you right?” Pike shook his head. “The Orcus? Cursed home world of the Old Empire, Durga Prime? Always thought that was located in another galaxy.”

“It is. We just made a jump through D-space farther than anyone has since the Old Empire collapsed. Deep-range probes discovered this system seventy years ago, but it wasn’t until twenty months ago that we realized it was, in fact, Durga Prime.”

Pike reached down and pulled his ID comp off his cryo-tube. He punched in his code and reviewed his orders. “Things don’t appear to be going well at home. It’s really that close to war with the Vykar?”

Nadia nodded. “They have been taking up positions in strategic systems for years now. Our best minds believe it’s a matter of months before they attack. That’s why we’re here: to salvage old tech. We need a game-changer.”

“Give us another twenty minutes. I need to feed my men before they start to pass out.”

“When you’re done, I need to see you and Tech Sergeant Emery in my quarters for a full debrief. Tell your men to gear up. We put boots on the ground in four hours.”

Nadia’s quarters were cramped and lacking all décor except for the metallic titanium blue that covered the whole of the ship’s interior. However, compared to other living spaces on the ship, hers was a spacious and luxurious affair. She was provided with a private bath, a small bedroom, and office space. The latter compartment was hardly separate; it was part of her bedroom, but it could be separated by a partition stored in the wall.

After recovering her tablet, she activated the small round conference table, which rose from the floor. After a knock at her door, Boris entered her quarters.

“Professor,” he nodded. “How are the soldiers?”

“Agitated, but rugged. They should be adequate for our mission.”

Boris looked nervous. He wiped beads of perspiration off his forehead. “That’s good.”

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”

“No. Just a little stressed. I wasn’t sure we’d make it here. The engines are prototypes, reverse engineered from an eight-hundred-year-old Imperial cruiser mere months before we left. And our navigation systems and charts were just a guess.” He looked at her sidelong. “Er, no offense, Professor.”

“None taken. We could have been stranded in the void between galaxies or entered normal space in the middle of a star. Frankly, the engines could have blown up when we made our first jump into D-space. But none of that happened, so what’s got you so nervous?”

Boris wiped his head again. “I don’t want to fail. Up until this moment, it’s all been out of my hands, and it hasn’t seemed real. But now…now it’s very real.”

Nadia smiled at the man–she could appreciate the stress he was under. She had felt the same way for months prior to the launch of their expedition. It wasn’t until their jump into D-space that she was able to relax. “Well, we’ve made it. Let’s just focus on the next part of the mission.”

“Have you ever heard what the Vykar do to the people they conquer?” Boris cut her off before she could answer. “I was a boy when they invaded my home world, Balti Prime. After our forces in space were defeated, our Queen surrendered swiftly. She did not want her people to suffer prolonged planetary bombardment–the occupation was orderly and total. Weeks later, after the surrender was signed, our new rulers announced the Queen would make a public appearance. Our hopes were raised, as most had feared the worst. She was a beautiful and wise woman of dignity and respect; she was much admired and loved.

“The Vykar soldiers lined the streets of the capital, and many of us were forced to attend in person, as the event would be televised throughout the Balti System and beyond. Our conquerors paraded out of the Queen’s palace. The appointed military governor was accompanied by his family and hundreds of officers. At first we did not see our Queen. However, with the governor was a Kagdath, a large dog-like creature the Vykar took as pets. Its head had been removed and our Queen’s head surgically attached to it. Her majesty, the gods rest her soul, was conscious and aware of her surroundings. I will never forget the horror on her face, the sheer terror that was there. I’m told they did other vile things to her before removing her head.”

“What became of her?” Nadia gasped in disbelief.

“They threw her into a pit with other Kagdath. The creatures savaged her. Eventually she succumbed to exhaustion and was torn apart, devoured.” Disgust and fear filled the captain’s eyes. “The Vykar are expert surgeons and geneticists. They pervert these sciences and pass them off as a form of art and sport. My people became a natural resource for them to draw on, and few of us escaped their depravity.”

A cold silence fell over Nadia. She was afraid to ask what happened to his family or how he managed to escape. “I’m sorry, Boris. I had no idea.”

“Few people do. The government rightly suppresses this information. The Vykar are masters of terror. Many systems have fallen to them out of sheer hopelessness. Nadia, they are coming. Like a scourge they will wipe out all that is joyous and beautiful. They will annihilate everything. We cannot afford to fail. I have a wife and two little girls. For their sakes I cannot fail.”

The metal hatch opened abruptly and Lieutenant Pike entered along with his tech sergeant. The men were dressed in one-piece jumpsuits which left little to the imagination. The suits covered their entire bodies with the exception of their heads and hands. Running the length of each on both the torso and the limbs, silver lines terminated at the spine, below the neck, and at various muscle groups. The two soldiers took a seat at the small table.

“Professor,” nodded Pike. “I have reviewed my orders. I am to take command of this vessel and lead the men onto the planet’s surface, but my orders leave out the more important details. Apparently, you’re in possession of our mission objectives.”

“I am,” replied Nadia. “This mission has been classified at the highest level. We are here to acquire technology. Very old and powerful tech. Something that will win us the war.”

“How about a Star Killer-class warship,” said Tech Sergeant Emery.

“No,” said Captain Boris. “History suggests that only two of them were ever created. Even if we found one, it would take thousands to man it effectively. Even if we had the manpower, which we don’t, it would take too much time to learn its systems and affect any necessary repairs. It’s just not practical at this point.”

“But you do have a specific technology in mind, correct, or do you just hope to get lucky?” asked Pike.

“We’re looking for a subspace bomb,” said Nadia.

Emery snorted. “They’re just a myth.”

“Sergeant, I assure you they’re not. The Jalries used one against the Vykar two hundred years ago.”

All three men let out a breath of skepticism, their hopes of a successful mission dashed. Nadia handed them her reports.

“As you’ll see, Jalra Prime, along with the whole system, is uninhabitable and unapproachable. Subspace in that area is damaged, like it’s on fire. You can see from these reports that subspace radiation is leeching into normal space.”

Pike scanned the document. “What is the yield of one of these weapons?”

“We have no idea. What we do know is that it disintegrates all organic matter out to point eight three five light years. Further, it obliterates subspace within that area and makes dimensional jumps impossible. Both of these effects still persist in the Jalra System two hundred years later.”

“This gives us more questions than answers. Where did they get a subspace bomb? And why use it in their home system?” asked Pike.

“I understand you have questions, but we don’t have a lot of time. Maybe they found the bomb on an Old Imperial ship, or maybe they came all the way out here and found one. It’s a ten-year trip here and back with a standard D-drive. Right now it doesn’t matter. We just have to find one or two of these bombs, if possible.”

Nadia knew why they had used the bomb in their own space. The war was lost. Most of the Vykar fleet was in the Jalra System, and the Jalries were all dead no matter what.

Boris slapped the table. “OK, boys, you have a little over three hours before atmospheric descent commences. Do whatever it is you do before a mission.”

“Hold up, Captain. This is my ship now. I still have a few questions. Professor, why did you ask me to bring Tech Sergeant Emery here?”

“Because the sergeant has a skill few others possess.” Nadia dropped her gaze squarely on him. “If the sergeant is as smart as his file says, he already knows why he’s here.”

Sergeant Emery nodded. “I can read Old Imperial. It was a hobby of mine before I enlisted.”

“And you’re a technology specialist. We still have no idea what happened in this system. We could run into defense systems, but more likely, we’ll need you to identify the weapons we’re looking for and secure them.”

“Then what are we waiting for, Sergeant?” Pike stood up from the table. “Tell them boys to get in their tin cans and start mission prep. Looks like we’re going to invade the Orcus.”

The Orcus was a dead world. Even from a great distance, sensors could tell the planet was lifeless, a cadaver. Its waters were dark and oily, the continents rusty brown, and the skies a morbid gray.

“Captain, I’m picking up an artificial satellite. It’s huge and emitting an enormous amount of energy,” said Neil.

“Put it on the screen, maximum zoom,” said Boris.

Before them was a long black ship, its aft section ablaze and casting a bright white light.

“Scans are coming in, Captain. The vessel is over ten miles long, one mile thick at the prow, and three miles thick at the aft. Picking up all kinds of energy readings.”

“Slow antimatter leak. It’s incredible: I have no idea what’s holding it together.” Boris stared at the display.

“According to my isotope readings, the engine has been in meltdown for over seven hundred years.”

Boris and his crew gazed in amazement. “Star Killer warship. Now we know what happened to one of them.”

“Captain, there’s another ship in low orbit. I don’t know how this could be, but its silhouette matches that of a Jalra light cruiser. The vessel is dead in the water.”

“No life signs, no energy signatures?”

“Nothing. I’ll put it on the screen.”

A small thin vessel, an insect compared to the mammoth Star Killer warship, drifted in low orbit. Its aft section, where the engine should have been, was scarred and blackened and appeared to have been blown off.

Dakka units–eight-feet-tall, self-propelled, fusion-powered, armored assault vehicles–stood like metal giants, their tops nearly touching the ceiling of cargo bay seven. Each was custom fit to its pilot and was snug as a glove. State-of-the-art neural connections made each unit a part of the pilot’s body. A soldier didn’t experience the armor as external; it was his body.

Pike’s soldiers had all climbed into their Dakka units, the hatches still open while system checks were in progress. They appeared as monsters erupting from the chests of Titans.

“Light ’em up, Dead Dogs,” commanded Pike.

The bay trembled as twenty-three macro-fusion reactors came to life. Hatches closed over metal torsos; robotic legs moved while metal hands balled into fists. Sensors on the heads of the units came to life as servos moved and lights flashed.

Tech Sergeant Emery walked around the soldiers’ armor, inspecting each in turn for malfunctions and other issues. “All systems are nominal. We are ready to go, sir.”

Pike, still in his one-piece black jumper, stood in front of his men. “We have a chance to end a war with the Vykar before it starts. The Tucana Council chose us, the Dead Dogs, over every other platoon. Let’s make this happen.” Pike took a breath and let the moment hang, a dramatic pause, so that each of his men understood what was at stake. “This planet has been dead for eight hundred years. If we’re lucky, we get in and out no problem. However, this is the Orcus, mythical cursed home world of the Old Empire, Durga Prime. I doubt it will be that easy. Our rules of engagement are as follows: do whatever it takes to secure mission objectives. Atmospheric turbines are authorized. Exposing terrestrial air to your fusion cores is not going to hurt this dead world and should give you added maneuverability. Now, lock down your Dakkas for atmospheric descent. See you all planetside.”

The soldiers guided the Dakkas to the bulkhead and attached clamps to the I-beams that lined the bay. Metal rang out as the clamps locked in place.

“Where am I to go, Lieutenant?” asked Nadia.

“You’ll ride with me in the command Dakka. It’s in bay eight.”

“Hmm, doesn’t look like there’s much room in one of those armored units, but I guess I’ll give it a try.”

“Check your attitude at the door, Professor. Lack of focus gets people killed.”

Nadia was not accustomed to being patronized by an intellectual inferior. “I’ll remind you, Lieutenant, I am the mission commander. I am in charge and you will not speak to me in such a tone.”

“Professor, let’s get one thing straight: these are my men. This is our mission, and you are along for the ride, and hopefully you’ll point us in the right direction. If I think you are in the way for one moment, I will remove you from the mission, forcibly if necessary.” Pike exited the bay and headed to his command unit. Nadia followed, flustered and speechless.

The command Dakka was huge, a two-legged vehicle with a metal-domed platform on top. A ring of armored portals provided a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view from inside the cabin. Attached to the back of the thing was a standard Dakka with blue stripes on the head indicating it was the Lieutenant’s.

“Here.” Pike tossed Nadia a black jumper. “You’ll need to put this on.”

“In front of you?”

“Shut up and get naked. We’re running out of time. You’re lucky I didn’t make you do it in front of my men. You deserve as much for watching them come out of cryo-sleep expedited.”

“Still upset about that?”

“It’s a vulnerable moment, not meant for spectators. It affects the minds of my men, especially now that they are working with you directly. Now hurry and strip down.”

Not to be intimidated, Nadia disrobed swiftly. She was beautiful. Her body and appearance were designed and maintained at the best genetic salons. She reached for her black jumper.

“Not yet, inspection and injection. Standard procedure. Turn slowly.”

She shot him an annoyed look but complied. The lieutenant’s gaze didn’t show a trace of emotion. It was analytical, clinical, and it bothered her.

“Arm.” Pike pulled out a large pneumatic syringe attached to a long tube and pushed it against her skin.

“Ouch, what is that?”

“Synthetic blood. It will process oxygen and lactic acid seven hundred times more efficiently than your blood. Essentially, you won’t get tired, and you could run at your top speed–which has also been enhanced–for hours without becoming winded. Other benefits are fast healing and cellular replication, which will keep you from bleeding out and dying from grievous wounds.”

After a good minute of pumping, he pulled the gun away and replaced the tube at its end. “Bend over.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“These next shots need to go into the fattiest part of your body. It’s either in the ass or…as you like.”

“I didn’t see you or your men get any of these shots. Why do I have to get them?”

“We all get our synthetic blood before we enter cryo-sleep. As for these injections, we don’t need them. They’re strictly for civilians. These two concoctions are basically stress managers. Hormones and drugs that regulate blood pressure, adrenals, and such so you don’t pass out or do something stupid during combat like freeze or run off blindly.”

Nadia turned and bent over. Unlike the injection of synthetic blood, these two shots were quick, one in each buttock. They were not painful, more like two playful slaps. When she turned and faced the lieutenant, his face was flushed and he was unable to look her directly in the eye.

“Can I get dressed now?”

“Yes,” Pike said, looking away. “When you’re done putting on the jumper, I’ll help you don the light tactical suit.”

“What, no Dakka battle armor for me?”

“Not a chance. Takes years of training to fight in one. Don’t need you hurting someone.” Pike helped her slide into the suit.

“I expected it to be heavier.”

“It’ll be a lot heavier when I attach the power pack.” Pike secured the suit’s environmental seals and attached the power supply to Nadia’s back. Her knees gave a little under the weight.

“Wow, it’s heavy. Glad I’m riding in the command Dakka.”

Pike inserted a long thin key into the power unit, and the suit came to life. Nadia’s usual posture returned as if suddenly invigorated. “The suit has several advantages. Compression fibers augment your strength by several times and allow for much faster movement. The suit is obviously environmentally sealed and is equipped with multiple lifesaving programs.” Pike took her left arm and pointed it at the bulkhead. He pressed a button, and a small barrel raised from the top of the forearm. “Light particle weapon. Don’t use it unless absolutely necessary; it will deplete your battery quickly.” He took the other arm, pressed another button, and a long eight-inch blade ejected from the top of her right forearm. ”For hand-to-hand combat.”

“Is all this really necessary? We’re just in-and-out, right?”

“People die when they’re not prepared. And, truth is, there is no such thing as ‘in-and-out’.” Pike helped her with her helmet and activated her environmental systems. A sucking sound indicated the suit was sealed. “Climb into the command Dakka and strap in for atmospheric entry. In this salvage bucket, we’re going to have a rough ride.”

Nadia scaled the enormous armored leg of the command unit and opened the hatch. The interior was spacious, three chairs and their command consoles sat at the center of the cabin. It was plain to her which seat was Pike’s; she took the one next to it and strapped in. Pike checked that she was secure and strapped himself in as well.

“Sergeant, systems check. Captain, you too.”

“That’s a firm, Lieutenant,” came Emery’s voice.

“I hear ya, Pike. You and your boys ready?” asked Captain Boris.

“Well, Sergeant, are the Dead Dogs mission ready?”

“Hell ya, these dogs were born to invade the Orcus.”

“You heard ’im. Captain, begin your descent.”

The ship’s lights went yellow. “Lieutenant, I’m sending you and the professor some images I think will interest you.”

The command Dakka’s heads-up display lit up as images appeared before them. A Star Killer-class warship, its aft section ablaze, appeared. The vessel’s size shocked them as well as the reactor’s meltdown. Then the image of the Jalries light cruiser appeared.

“We should postpone the mission and board these ships,” said Nadia.

Pike waved her off. “Bad idea, look at those energy signatures coming off the Star Killer. We have no way of shielding ourselves from that kind of radiation. Also, the captain was right earlier about us lacking the manpower to do anything useful with it.”

“What about the Jalries light cruiser?”

Pike nodded. “Scan it for subspace signatures.”

Nadia punched the command console in front of her and brought up the results. “No, nothing. But we should still board the ship, find out what happened to it, and learn how they got here.”

They both watched the Jalries ship drift. Pike considered her request–information, valuable information could be on that ship.

“Captain, have you found a landing spot yet, detected any subspace energy reading?”

“Oh ya, think we have something that will excite you both. This just came up as we were scanning the surface for a place to set down,” said Boris.

The heads-up flickered, and a large metropolitan area came into view. Cutting through the city was an impact trench miles long. At its terminus was the second Star Killer warship, still in one piece.

“How did it survive an impact like that?” asked Pike.

“I have an idea: inertial dampers maybe, but I won’t know for sure until we get down there.”

“Sorry, Professor, we’ll have to pass on the Jalries’ vessel. If there are any subspace bombs down there, they’re on that warship.” Pike hit the com. “Captain, take us in close to the warship planetside.”

“We can’t get too close. The antimatter reactors of that vessel are still online and leaking. The Face is not a military vessel; our shielding can’t handle it. But I’ll take us in as close as I can without damaging our systems. Your Dakkas should be able to handle it.”

The Third Face of Hecate descended into the atmosphere. Thunderous booms sounded as it cut through the air, and tremendous jolts traveled the length of the ship. When the Face had sufficiently decelerated, retro rockets fired; in minutes, they touched down on the sandy surface of the planet.

The outer doors of the bay opened to reveal a bleak landscape of sand and oxidized metal. Buildings thousands of feet tall towered over them, their surfaces tinted brown and green with rust. Dunes of sand formed wind-blown ramparts hundreds of feet high, their weight supported by the ancient skyscrapers. Pike and his men marched down broad metal ramps and into the sand-filled city.

“Light up your jump jets, Dogs,” commanded Pike.

Waves of distortion rolled out from behind the Dakkas as the air around them was exposed to their fusion cores. Some of the soldiers overdid it and lifted off the ground, the sand beneath them turning to glass.

Emery moved his Dakka forward and turned to the other soldiers. “Dingo Squad, take the left flank; Hyenas take the right. Jackals, you’re out front with me.”

As men took position, four UAVs lifted off the command Dakka. Nadia could see information on the terrain and structures appear on the heads-up.

“There it is, seven miles out,” said Pike. “It’s massive.”

The Durga Star Killer vessel reached miles into the sky, an artificial mountain covered in snow and ice. A soot-filled glacier flowed over its sides.

“I don’t see any damage from its impact with the planet,” Nadia said, stunned.

Pike hit the com. “OK, Sergeant, let’s head out. Uploading coordinates now.”

The command Dakka ambled forward, lurching like a child taking its first steps. The domed cockpit at the top, however, stayed perfectly level, showing almost no agitation from the vehicle’s awkward gait.

Forward progress of the Dakkas was marked by the occasional hop, which they took from time to time to pass obstacles such as small buildings and dunes. The buildings and structures around them were constant and formulaic, laid out in the familiar grid pattern still used in most spacefaring systems. However, oddities plagued the structures, and it was apparent that they were not part of any planned design. Holes, gaping apertures, pocked the metal buildings all over. Each opening was oval and varied in size from three to seven feet in height.

“What happened to these buildings? It looks like the metal was dissolved away,” said Sergeant Emery.

“Weapons fire maybe,” said Pike. “Professor, did your team ever learn more about what happened here on Durga Prime?”

“If I knew anything else, you would know it, too. All we have to go on are the eight-hundred-year-old reports that Durga Prime was under attack. The planet fell within a day.”

“Let’s hope whatever did this is dead or gone.”

One of the men on point called in. “Lieutenant, we found something.”

When the command unit arrived, Emery was out of his Dakka, with just his black jumper and helmet on. He stooped over something, a scanner in hand.

“Sergeant, who gave you permission to leave your Dakka?” snapped Pike.

Emery waved him off. “I think we found something significant. Send down the Professor.”

Annoyed, Pike reluctantly agreed. Nadia undid her straps and exited the command Dakka. She was surprised to find the sand so loose and fine-grained; it reminded her of beach sand. When she arrived by Emery’s side, she found him stooped over what she first thought was a suit of armor. When she got down next to him, she knew she had been mistaken. It was a robot of some sort.

“This is interesting. Let’s dig it out a little more.” Nadia used her gloved hands to pull away the sand, revealing the robot to be about six feet tall. “Are you getting any readings?”

Emery handed her his scanner. “Very strange, don’t you think?”

“This can’t be right.”

“It’s right. My Dakka came up with the same readings. I wanted to be sure. That’s why I got out to scan manually.”

“A metallic-based life form. Incredible!” Nadia said, breathless.

“Do you think these things invaded the Orcus?”

She shook her head. “I have no idea. There’s an opening in its chest, some kind of damage. Let’s see if we can get better readings.”

“Professor, what’s going on down there?” said Pike

“Patching you in now.” Nadia hit some buttons on the scanner, sending an image of the metallic life form to his heads-up along with the live data from the scanner. “I want to get a probe under its chest plate.” She pulled a metal tube off the scanner and slid it into the small opening. “Are you getting this?”

“I see it, cells and what looks to be an analog of nerve tissues. And several objects in its torso, organs maybe.”

“Wait, I see a hole in its head,” said Nadia. She pulled the tube out of the thing’s chest and thrust it through the hole in its skull. “I’m picking up a large cavity and traces of ash. It’s carbon.”

Pike interrupted her. “There’s something else in there, too, electronics. Sophisticated electronics, way beyond anything we have. It’s fused. Some massive energy discharge hit this thing.”

“Scan for subspace signals,” said Emery.

Nadia punched the device, adjusting its settings. “Yes, there is a low subspace frequency coming from it.”

“That’s enough,” said Pike. “Get back in your Dakkas. I don’t want to take the chance of activating this thing.”

Nadia hesitated. “More energy readings. I think it’s turning on. Give me another moment.”

“In your Dakkas now!” ordered Pike.

Emery jumped into his armor, but Nadia didn’t budge. She pushed the tube deeper into the metal skull. A jolt traveled up the probe and into her hand. Sparks arched between her fingers. Frightened, she jumped back.

The thing’s eyes gradually lit, and its head turned. An electronic buzz came from its throat. TZZZSSZZT. Flakes of oxidized metal fell away from joints as it slowly sat up.

Nadia took a tentative step back. “I think it’s trying to communicate.

RRRRR, it buzzed.

“Hello?” she said.

“Sergeant, get her in here now.”

The metal man stood. RRRRR.

Emery snatched her with his Dakka’s hand just as the thing leaped at her. “RRRRAY!” it howled.

One of Pike’s men was on it in an instant, slamming the thing in the chest with the foot of his Dakka.

“It’s broadcasting a signal!” cried Emery.

“Take it out, NOW!” ordered Pike.

The Dakka standing over the robot lifted its foot, intending to crush the thing just as a small hole opened in its chest. A silvery metallic ball shot out, and the Dakka’s foot dropped, smashing into a pile of scrap. The ball hit the Dakka’s hand and rolled up its arm. “Shit!” the pilot yelled, swiping at it with his other hand. It was too late. The ball settled on the armor of the Dakka’s forearm and embedded itself there.

“Lieutenant, I’m picking up multiple energy signatures. They’re moving,” said Emery.

“I see them. Professor, get in here and strap your ass in. We’re in for a rough ride. Sergeant, deploy the men in a defensive position. Prepare for combat.”

Nadia climbed into the cockpit just as Pike was unbuckling. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“Into my personal Dakka. I want you to pilot the command Dakka and do exactly as I say.”

“Is that really necessary? Certainly you can handle a few robots.”

Pike pointed to the heads-up. Thousands of dots were converging on their position.

They came on like rolling thunder. A cavalcade of metal on metal that echoed off the skyscrapers as the horde rushed them from all around. The buzz of “RAAAY” came thousands of times, assaulting the soldiers’ ears and sanity. Heavy particle beams pulsed as the things came into view, cutting the metallic creatures to pieces. UAVs launched missiles at the most densely packed groups. They were reduced to shards. Still the things kept coming. “RAAAY,” they threatened. “RAAAY!”

The creatures broke like a tsunami on their defensive positions, several Dakkas washing away into an ocean of robots. “RAAAY.”

Nadia watched in horror as the men battled for their lives. Still more red dots appeared in all directions on the heads-up, as far as the UAVs could detect. “Lieutenant, we need to do something now, or we’re all dead.”

Several of the creatures landed on the command Dakka, pounding at it portals. “RRRAAY!”

“Lieutenant!” she screamed.

“Nadia,” came Pike’s voice, it was laced with tension and the distraction of combat. The man was fighting for his life. “Execute combat mode on the command console!”

Nadia struggled to find the command console’s keys. Her heart was pounding and her hands trembled. She couldn’t help but wonder how bad it would be if Pike hadn’t given her those shots. Beyond the portal she saw one of the soldiers overwhelmed by robots. They pinned him to the ground, pulled off his chest armor, and tore his body from the cockpit. Terror–pure and total terror as she had ever seen it–was on the man’s face as one of the things ripped off his head and ran with it. The rest of the metal creatures devoured his body. She couldn’t understand. Why would they do that? One of the portals smashed in, bringing her back to reality. A robot’s arm reached for her. She started to cry.

“Nadia! Activate combat mode, now!”

Pike’s voice brought her back just enough. Still panicked, she started slapping the console, hitting every button she could see through tear-filled eyes. The damaged portal snapped closed, chopping off the arm of the robot reaching in, the limb flopped wildly on the floor of the command Dakka.

“Good girl.” The command Dakka started to list under the weight of the things, the relentless pounding of the robots was driving her mad. “Now I need you to activate the nukes. Set the missiles to land at least two clicks out, or you’ll vaporize us all.”

She had to take off her helmet and wipe her eyes so she could see. Carefully, she reached for the keys and started typing. The interface was surprisingly simple, and she found the nukes already online. Pike must have anticipated their need before he left. She activated the launch sequence and set the distance. The command Dakka shuddered for just a moment as four missiles launched. She watched the trajectory on the heads-up and saw them arc back toward the ground, exploding right where she had sent them. The noise, louder than anything she had ever heard in her life, drowned out everything, and then there was nothing.

The world seemed to hum, vibrate…or was that her? In the distance, Nadia could hear someone calling her name. She didn’t want to get up, didn’t want to move. A strong hand took her by the arm and shook her. She reluctantly opened her eyes. Pike held her in his arms, but she didn’t understand why his black jumper was all red.

“Nadia, you did great. You were so strong. I need you to be strong for a little longer. We need to get out of here.”

“OK,” she heard herself say in the distance.

There was light outside but not much. It was raining dust, and dark clouds obscured the sun. She felt Pike lower her to the ground.

“Sergeant, what’s our situation?”

“There are six of us left, seven if you include the professor. Every unit has sustained serious damage. One of the Dakkas has some metal bubble growing on it.”

“Cut it off.”

“Cut it off, sir?”

“Cut the Dakka’s damn arm off. Before it kills him.”

“Yes, sir.” Emery ordered his men to cut off the Dakka’s arm.

“Any of the UAVs make it?” asked Pike.

“None. She brought those nukes down right on top of us,” said Emery.

“She did what I told her to do. And if she hadn’t, we’d all be dead. At least we still have a chance to complete the mission.”

“Mission?” said Emery. “I think the mission’s over, sir.”

“Let’s get out of this cloud and get the Face on the com. I doubt they fared much better than we did, unless they managed to take off,” said Pike.

Pike and his remaining men trekked out of the radioactive cloud. It took almost two hours before they could see the sun clearly. Winds from the east had carried away most of the particulates to the west to reveal the miles-long flank of the Star Killer warship.

The vessel, with thousands of shattered portals, stood like a black, impenetrable wall before them. It was hard to imagine something this large could ever lift off the planet.

“Sergeant, get the Face on the line. Find out what their situation is.”

“Yes, sir.” Emery started broadcasting to their ship.

Nadia, who had been riding along in the arms of Pike’s Dakka, jumped down to the ground. The boots of her tactical suit sinking deep into the sand. She wobbled a little, still dizzy from her earlier ordeal. Slowly, she walked over to the Star Killer vessel and touched it.

“Anyone have a scanner on them, one that still works?” she asked.

Pike moved his Dakka next to Nadia, opened a service door in his unit, and tossed down a handheld scanner. “What are you looking for?”

“I want to know what this thing is made of.” She placed the scanner against the hull and hit some buttons. After a moment, her eyes grew wide. “EDM,” she said.

“EDM? What the hell is that?”

“Extra Dimensional Matter. That’s what it is, why this ship is virtually indestructible. This ship was built in upper D-space.”

“I don’t understand. Are you saying this ship comes from another universe?” asked Pike.

Nadia nodded. “Yes. Science in the Old Empire was far ahead of ours. They could do things we only theorize about. We use dimensional space to travel in, it gives us faster-than-light travel, but there are many levels of D-space. We punched through to the second level of D-space to travel here. It’s why we were able to get here in eighteen months instead of ten years. It is speculated that the Old Empire could punch through ten or twelve levels of D-space. In these upper levels exist exotic matters that when brought to our universe are near indestructible.”

Pike touched the ship with the hand of his Dakka. It didn’t feel any different than ordinary metal. “How do we get in?”

“We have to assume there are entrance hatches along the side of the ship. Let’s head toward the aft section, see if we can find any.”

He turned to Emery’s Dakka and asked, “Any luck contacting the Face, Sergeant?”

“Yes, I have a line open. The signal’s a little choppy, though. All the radiation is interfering with it.”

“Patch me through.”

The signal was full of static, but Pike could make out Captain Boris. “Lieutenant, we were forced to lift off when those robots attacked. Many of them managed to get on board. We’re still hunting them…compartment by compartment. Not sure when we can pick you up.”

“Understood. Clear the ship first. We won’t need extraction for a while, not till we achieve our mission objective.”

More static broke the line. “…more of those things everywhere. We are…signals over the planet. There could be millions, maybe billions of the…” The line broke up again.

A soldier’s voice rang out. “We have incoming.”

The sound of pulse cannons echoed off the titanic ship’s walls. In the distance, Pike could see hundreds of the robot things closing like rabid animals. “OK, Dead Dogs, we run. Follow me up alongside the ship. We need to find an entrance or we’re all dead.”

Pike scooped up Nadia and started leading the Dakkas away from their pursuers. The powered armor allowed the soldiers to run at a good clip. At random intervals, they would use their jump jets to take great leaps, which propelled them further away from their pursuers. It wasn’t long before the robots were coming from all directions. There was nowhere to run. They had to find an entrance.

“I think I found something,” called out Emery. “Looks like a door. It goes under the sand.”

Flashes of the pulse cannons started again, bursts of highly charged particles blasting several of the creatures apart. Pike screamed for his men to hold their position while they found a way in.

Emery dug out the sand against the door with his Dakka’s hands. It seemed like a losing battle, as the sand poured back in as quickly as he pulled it away. His efforts were rewarded when his hand found a gap between the ship’s door and the wall. He pulled with all the power his Dakka could muster. The door started to move.

“You find a way in?” yelled Pike as he fought off four of the robots. A long blade ejected from the forearm of his armor, and he cleaved all of them in one swipe.

“A door. I think I can get it open,” said Emery.

Pike ran over and plunged a mechanical foot next to Emery’s arm. His hands gripped the door frame and it moved. As sand began to pour into the ship’s compartment, Pike grabbed Nadia and threw her into the darkness.

One by one, Pike’s men fell at the hands of the oncoming horde of metal creatures. Pike and Emery dove through the opening, dozens of the things following. Inside, Nadia was trying futilely to close the door, while Pike and Emery fought to save their lives. The flow of robots entering the cabin space slowed; the sheer volume of them plugged the door’s opening. The weight of thousands of robots pressed into place from behind.

It wasn’t enough to stem the flow, however. Too many had gotten in, and they swarmed Pike’s and Emery’s Dakkas. When all seemed lost, a figure entered the room from a corridor that led deeper into the ship. Bringing a rifle to its shoulder, it fired. The muzzle flashed, its ammunition peppering multiple robots and dropping them to the ground.

Nadia was awestruck. The figure was using an ancient chemical projectile weapon, a weapon that hadn’t seen popular use in almost two hundred years. Their liberator fired in small bursts, taking down a few robots at a time. The tactic was effective and had clearly just saved Emery’s life. A robot almost dragged him out of his suit, but it wasn’t long before it noticed their new enemy and attacked it.

Pike’s situation was still desperate. The things swarmed him, pulling off the metal plates of his armor. Nadia didn’t dare let go of the door, but she knew if someone didn’t help Pike, he was a dead man. She pressed the button on her left forearm and the barrel of the particle weapon lifted out. Aiming carefully, she fired at the things all over Pike, knocking them off one at a time.

The tide was turning. Emery finished off the robots around him and went to aid Pike. The mystery figure approached Nadia. When it reached her, it gripped the hand holds on the door and started to push. Together they tried to shut the door.

It didn’t budge; the opening was jam-packed with the metal creatures. “Hold tight,” came Emery’s voice over Nadia’s com. A compartment on the right shoulder of Emery’s Dakka popped up, and a small missile launched from it. It exploded upon impact, blowing all the robots in the door’s path to bits. They slid the door shut. The robots behind them were similarly destroyed. The shock wave blew back into the compartment, where the cavitation of the pressure wave reverberated for many moments.

Several exterior lights on Emery’s Dakka came on, illuminating the vast compartment that contained the remnants of their battle. Nadia gasped when she saw their would-be savior. Mere feet from her was a metallic woman. Similar in almost every way to the robots that had attacked them and, yet, her form was more distinct. She was nude, perfectly-proportioned, and comprised of reflective silver. She walked and moved like a person. Even her hair, fine strands of golden metal fibers, flowed like the real thing with every movement of her head.

“Who are you?” Nadia asked tentatively.

Surprise crossed the metallic face. “You speak Jalries.” Her accent was thick.

“Yes, many systems of the old Jalries colonies still do,” said Nadia.

A deep expression of sadness replaced her surprise. “Then Jalra Prime fell?”

“Two hundred years ago, it fell.” Nadia nodded. “Who are you?”

The metallic woman slumped to the ground, back against the door they had just closed. She cried with the tears of a living creature. Nadia found herself feeling for her.

“Nadia!” came Emery’s voice. He was out of his Dakka, extracting Pike from his armor. “Pike is seriously injured. I need your help to get him in his light tactical armor.”

With a nod, she ran to Emery’s side and started binding Pike’s wounds with wrappings from a med kit. Emery pulled a light tactical suit out of the Dakka’s storage compartment.

Pike was in bad shape. Bones in his arms and chest, including his left collarbone, were obviously broken, and several lacerations tore across his jumper and flesh down to the bone. Nadia was amazed he was still alive.

Of course, she remembered, the synthetic blood.

“We have to get him out of the Dakka and into the suit. Its medical systems will keep him alive and heal him.” Emery started to slowly extract Pike from his armor.

“Doesn’t his Dakka have the medical systems to heal him?”

“It did, before those things smashed it apart.”

Nadia looked at Pike’s Dakka. It was torn to shreds; sections were bereft of their plates, and hydraulic lines and electrical wires hung loose.

“You may want to look away,” said Emery as he activated the suit. “This isn’t going to be pretty.”

He inserted the key into the power pack of the light tactical suit. It came to life as a series of beams flashed on the power pack. After a moment, the compression fibers of the suit started to constrict. Audible pops and crunches could be heard as the suit set his bones into place. Nadia winced at the sound.

“Impressive. The Jalries’ defense force could have made use of tech like that.”

Both Nadia and Emery jumped at the metallic woman’s voice.

“Damn, she looks so real,” said Emery.

“I am real.”

Nadia stood between them, sensing the situation going south. “Why don’t you tell us who you are and why you’re here.”

“My name is Commander Sorcha. I’m the Executive Officer of the Jalries light cruiser, Mab.”

Mortuus Machanus2 - Honza Pánek

Art by Honza Pánek – click to enlarge

The Third Face of Hecate rolled with force as another bulkhead gave way, explosive decompression propelling the ship just as any thruster might. Onboard computers corrected the ship’s attitude and stabilized its orbit.

“Damn it, that’s the third time. My whole ship is coming apart,” said Boris.

“It’s the robots. They duplicate themselves by launching metallic spheres from their chests. They consume the metal of the ship’s bulkhead and hatch more robots,” said Neil.

“How many more are there? Is this ever going to end?”

Neil nodded. “Almost done, Captain. The crew has the last of them cornered. Should be another hour or so.”

The cavernous metallic corridor stretched hundreds of feet high and almost as wide, a thoroughfare for ancient machines and vehicles. Scrap metal had pulverized when the ship crashed, and it now littered the vast tunnel that spanned the length of the Star Killer warship. The vehicles, transports, and space ships, the few that were recognizable, were pock-marked with the familiar gaping holes that covered the city buildings; however, no holes marred the metal of the warship itself.

Nadia tripped over a large two-legged transport, a cargo suit not used in almost a millennium. “Damn it, I can’t go on. My body feels so heavy.”

“It’s your tactical suit,” said Emery. “Check your power supply. The charge is probably low.”

Pulling the protective cover off her ID comp, she saw one bar flashing red. “I’m screwed. Battery is almost dead.”

“Let’s stop. I’ll give you my spare.” Emery set his Dakka in standby mode, its torso settling firmly on its haunches. With great care, he lowered Pike’s unconscious form to the floor.

Around them were corpses of short-range spacecraft, dead for almost a millennium. There was no light except that generated by their Dakka and tactical suits. At shadows’ edge was Sorcha. She stood just close enough to not lose track of her position, but it still wasn’t far away enough to keep from raising the hackles of her newfound companions.

Emery climbed out of his Dakka, looking naked and vulnerable in his black jumpsuit. He opened a service compartment on his unit and pulled out a battery pack. “Sit here and I’ll swap your power pack.”

Relief washed over Nadia when Emery pulled the spent pack from her back and powered on the new one. “Thanks. That’s much better.” She looked over to Sorcha, who was almost cloaked in shadow. “I don’t trust her–it…whatever she is.”

“She saved us.” Emery loaded the spent power pack in his Dakka and connected it to his reactor for charging. “‘The enemy of my enemy’ as they say.”

“She’s one of them. Look at her. She’s confused, disoriented. At any moment she’s going to realize she’s no longer human. All that’s left is an echo of a person who lived two hundred years ago.”

Emery gave a nervous laugh. “That’ll give a whole new meaning to the term ‘post-traumatic stress.’”

“It’s not funny! She could turn on us.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

Nadia shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I know what you meant. I didn’t mean to snap at you.” She looked to Pike. “How is he doing?”

They checked Pike’s vitals. He was lucky to be alive considering his wounds. He was stable, which was about as much as they could ask for given the circumstances.

“We should just put him down,” said Emery.

“What!?  That’s barbaric,” said Nadia in disgust.

“Is it? Those things are still out there. Next time they attack us, and they will, we won’t be able to protect him. They’ll eat him alive. Better to just kill him now. He would want that…” Emery’s voice trailed off. “If this happens to me, kill me. Don’t let them take me alive.”

Open-mouthed, Nadia could say nothing. He was right, but still, she couldn’t just kill a defenseless man. She looked at Emery with conflicted eyes. “Let’s wait. This isn’t over yet.”

Emery slowly raised his head and looked past her as if in disagreement. Nadia feared he would kill Pike despite her protest. Then he stood and took a step forward. “What’s going on?”

Nadia turned and looked to the shadows.

“Sorcha–is she talking to someone? I think she is.”

Nadia spoke. “Sorcha, who are you talking to?”

Stepping back into the light, Sorcha’s face revealed shock and fear. A deep voice, that of a man, which neither Emery nor Nadia recognized, came from the darkness.

“You must feed. He is calling and we must answer!” A form very much like Sorcha stepped from the blackness. He too lacked the mindlessness of the metallic creatures outside. His body was naked with glistening silver skin; the right side of his face displayed strong masculine features and a chiseled chin. That’s where the beauty ended and the insanity began. The left side of his face was an amorphous fleshy mash of oozing tentacles. He held out a large piece of human thigh still wrapped in the remnants of a black jumpsuit that could only have belonged to one of Pike’s men.

Emery ran to his Dakka. Nadia activated the light particle weapon. She fired at the intruder and blew a fist-sized hole in the thing’s chest, dropping him to the ground.

Sorcha screamed in terror.

Before Nadia realized it, Emery was in his suit and on top of the creature, the foot of his Dakka pulverizing it below the waist. “Who is he…what is he?”

“He is my captain, Kirill.”

“What did he want?” Emery placed his pulse cannon in Sorcha’s face. The blast would vaporize her at that range.

Sorcha fell to her knees, pleading. “He wasn’t acting himself. Something was wrong with him.”

From the distance came the dreaded cry of the creatures. “RRAAYYY,” sounded a riot of electronic voices. Thousands of malevolent crimson eyes appeared floating, hovering in the darkness.

“I can save you,” cried Sorcha. A desperate expression twisted her face. “I can show you a place to hide, how my crew escaped.”

A long silver blade ejected from the left forearm on Nadia’s tactical suit. She walked over to Sorcha and placed the blade behind her metallic neck. “Get up…now! Show us. Do it quickly, or I’ll end you here.”

Emery gently scooped up Pike’s unconscious form and then Nadia. Through the tangled wrecks and ancient ships they followed Sorcha. After a few minutes, it became apparent that their pursuers were keeping their distance.

“Why are they not attacking?” asked Emery.

With her bladed left arm, Nadia pointed. “It’s her; it must be. Sorcha, who was it your captain was talking about? Who is calling you?”

She stopped and turned her silver form toward them. Sorcha’s hands trembled, her face streaked with tears. “I am remembering, but I dare not speak its name.”

“Tell us!” Nadia’s voice was shrill. She was losing control, and she could sense that Emery had noticed. She took a breath and composed herself, then asked again. “Please, tell us.”

Lower lip quivering, Sorcha spit out the words. “It calls itself Rae’ Azatoth.” Quickly, she turned as if someone watched her. Her head darted from side to side, ceiling to floor. Still visibly shaken by her own words, she began once again leading them through the bowels of the great ship.

“What’s an ‘Azatoth’?” asked Emery.

Her back toward them, Sorcha stopped walking, a pause in her step as she responded. “It’s agod.” A small crook of a smile crossed her lips as she continued onward.

The Third Face of Hecate settled into low orbit. Its bulkhead rang with strange vibrations, structural integrity damaged and compromised by the self-replicating metallic life forms.

Captain Boris furrowed his brow at the strange sound. “Neil, is this bucket gonna hold together?”

“She’s a tough old ship, Captain. She’ll hold. The vibrations from the engines are traveling up the damaged bulkheads, but the superstructure is intact. We’ll just have to get used to the sound.”

Boris nodded. “All things considered, if that’s the worst thing we have to deal with, we’ll be just fine. Has the crew finished cleaning up the last of those things?”

“Getting the final reports in now; looks like they’re done. Damage control teams are already starting repairs. I have an updated casualty report as well, if you want to hear it.”

Head hung low, “Yes. I won’t dishonor the dead by dismissing them. What are the totals?”

“One hundred seven injured, twenty-three dead, and eighteen missing.”

“Goodness, that’s nearly the whole crew. Just a handful of those things did all that.”

“Pardon me, Captain,” interrupted the helmsman. “We’re about to pass over the landing zone.”

“Any sign of them?”

“No, sir–” A loud string of explosions interrupted his sentence and rocked the ship.

“What the hell was that!” yelled Boris.

The helmsman turned ashen. “Sir, someone’s activated the entire fire-suppression system and vented the atmosphere from all compartments except the command deck.”

Boris leaned toward the helmsman’s display. A loud pop cracked the air and the helmsman’s head exploded in a spray of blood and bone. Stunned, Boris struggled to wipe the organic debris from his face. Through blurred vision, he could make out the body of the helmsman slumped over, the stump of his neck against a bloody display.

“Neil, help–” Before he could finish, a boot struck him between the shoulders and knocked him to the ground.

“I did help you, Boris. I gave your crew a swift death.” It was Neil’s voice, but it struck a tone to which Boris was unaccustomed.

“Neil…why?” asked Boris. Betrayal and surprise laced his words. “You’ve been with me ten years!”

Neil stooped down beside him, placing something heavy by his head. Boris heard latches being undone, and he realized it was the sound of a med kit being opened. Boris pulled back reflexively as he felt hands on his face and eyes.

“Stop fighting me. I’m trying to flush your eyes and dress the wounds on your face.”

His vision cleared. Before him was a tall man of pallid grey skin. The surface of his dermis was covered in a slick oily sheen under which a network of black veins pulsed and spider-webbed over his flesh. “You’re…you’re Vykar!”

“Yes, Boris, we have been watching you. Longer even than you may now suspect.” Boris tried to sit up, but Neil’s hand held him fast. “I would prefer it if you would stay on your back.”

“How long…have you been watching me?”

“I’m amazed you’ve never reflected on the ease of your escape from your home world after the occupation. Strange, don’t you think?” Neil’s voice was solemn.

Boris understood. He and his family were allowed to escape, to integrate into another culture. Who would make better spies than the unwilling, the unknowing. “You have been watching since my childhood, then.”

Neil gave him a knowing almost sympathetic smile. “Others at first; I came along much later. You four filled your mission parameters well. No one could have anticipated these results, though.” He waved a hand at the ship. “Next generation D-drive, five times faster than current technology. And then, of course, the Orcus. Old Durga Prime itself!”

“Well, you failed. Our mission failed to recover any advanced tech. Pike and his men are never getting off the surface alive; there are too many of those things down there.”

With care, Neil continued to patch the wounds on Boris’s face. He cleaned another gash above the eyes, removing fragmented bone. Satisfied, he peeled back the adhesive backing on a thin bandage and placed it over the wound. “No one was ever coming back from Durga Prime, Boris. The Vykar know what’s down there.”

Stunned, Boris could hardly manage his words. “But how could you know?”

“The Jalries brought those things back with them two hundred years ago. We don’t know how. They just appeared planetside while we negotiated the surrender of Jalra Prime. Before anyone knew it, waves of them were swarming the planet. We allied with the Jalries. I know how crazy that sounds, but there was little choice. Our military leaders realized quickly if we did not contain the incursion, the whole galaxy would fall.”

“Then you, the Vykar, detonated the subspace bomb?” Boris said in surprise.

“I’ve seen the old recordings, the archives. Much like we witnessed here but on a much larger scale, billions died overnight. It is said the Vykar fear nothing. Well, that’s a lie. We fear the Rae’.”

“The Rae’? Is that what they are?”

“We don’t know what they are. We call them that because that’s all they say, with insane repetition.” Neil took a breath, a fearful look in his eyes. “We did not trigger the bomb; the Jalries did. Our commanders knew they had it and were in agreement with its use. Many infected ships had tried to leave the system; it was only a matter of time before containment was lost.” He patched the last serious wound on Boris’s face.

“What will you do now? Take me back? Interrogate and torture me?” His voice trembled, for he knew well the practices of the Vykar interrogators.

Neil leaned down close to Boris and whispered as though he didn’t want someone to hear. “The Vykar are going to win this war. Our enemies have no chance. But I have decided to help you, a gift for your loyalty.”

“I have no loyalty to the Vykar!” Spittle shot out with each word.

“No!” whispered Neil, his head turning side to side, eyes searching for unseen observers. “To your Queen! I have heard you over the years speak of her with such reverence and sadness. Though it should not have, it touched me.”

Boris smashed his hand into Neil’s face to push him away. Blood dripped from a twisted nose, but Neil didn’t budge. “Lies, manipulative, evil lies. You’re just playing with me, you monster.”

“Look at me, Boris. You know me. It has been many years, but you knew my face as a child. I was but a child myself at the time.”

Boris looked at Neil. His face like his body had transformed into the genetically modified form of the Vykar and looked nothing like the man he had worked with for the last ten years. But there was something familiar about the face beyond the pale slick skin and the black veins. He couldn’t place it. “I have no id–”

Neil gripped him tight. “The Queen, your Queen. My mother! Do you see it now? Do you see me?” Neil was raving now, on the edge of a breakdown.

He could see in the man’s eyes those of his Queen. But this had to be a deception, a manipulation, some kind of torture.

“You see it,” Neil nodded, “But don’t understand. I understand your apprehension. They tortured me for years, beatings, electrodes, and chemicals. They turned me into this. I was broken down, rebuilt, over and over. They made me a soldier, a spy.” Tears welled in his eyes. “I cannot disobey or even kill myself. I have tried, but I can’t do it!”

Neil climbed off Boris’ chest and pulled his gun from his holster. “There is something about you.” He wiped his eyes with his forearm. “The way you speak of my mother. I can feel her again. I decided you should be rewarded, so I will reward you.”

“So you’ll what, let me go?” said Boris, his tone dry, wanting to believe but not daring to.

“No, you must die. But I will save your wife and children, spare them the fate our families shared.” His face was serious, honest.

Boris felt his heart tear from his chest at the mention of his wife and girls. His head pounded and his thoughts swam, looking for any way out of this. He watched as Neil punched the controls and heard the air locks shut and the ship beyond the command deck re-pressurize.

Neil placed the gun on the console. “I give you the honor of killing yourself. If you don’t, you will starve here on the command deck. All the controls are locked out and will only respond to me. The gun is programmed. It will not fire if pointed at me.” Neil walked to the exit and punched in his access code, his back to Boris. A click came from behind him, then two more. Turning, he looked to Boris, who had the gun in hand, pointed at him.

“Can’t blame me for trying,” Boris said, defeated. He punched at the controls. They didn’t respond. “Had to try those, too.”

“I’d expected nothing less.” Neil turned to leave. “Thank you, Boris. You have given me back something I thought I lost. You are almost like family. The brother I never had. It is a pitiful thing that all I can do in the face of all the death that is to come is save your family, but it is, at least, a small victory.” He stepped out the door and locked it behind him.

Moments later, Neil heard a shot. Another small victory; he had saved Boris from endless torture.

The compartment was enormous; the Third Face of Hecate could easily have fit inside it. Its walls were honeycombed in caged compartments, many of which still housed huge spherical devices that glowed softly. Still other openings, with the bulkhead door to their rear, were mostly empty. On the ceiling, a network of cranes and arms hung limply, awaiting commands that would never come. At its center, the chamber contained a raised platform, atop which stood a sinister-looking device.

Being at the center, the device could only be the object of the vast room’s function and that which would take them home. Twelve concentric arches of thin metal, each set slightly behind and slightly larger than the one before it, the keystones absent from their tops. Four protruding horns flanged every slice of metal, like claws reaching outward.

“What is this place?” asked Nadia in awe.

Emery pointed to the glowing orbs. “I think this is it.”

“It is,” came Sorcha’s voice. “This is the subspace-bomb weapons platform. And that is the delivery system.” She pointed to the device in the center of the room.

With a burst of its jump jets, Emery’s Dakka leaped into the air and landed on the platform. They found it littered with old Jalries tech. Computers, small generators, and wires of all shapes and sizes flowed from the Jalries equipment and into the device in a tangled mass.

“What is it?” Emery said more to himself than anyone else.

Nadia held out both hands then covered her mouth. “Vertically mounted D-engines.”

“That’s crazy. Twelve of them mounted behind each other, the explosion would be catastrophic.”

“That, or it could punch a hole clear through the universe. We could literally step onto any world we wanted,” said Nadia.

“Yes.” Sorcha’s voice startled them. “This device penetrates twelve dimensional realities at once. It’s a portal that can access any point in our physical universe. The perfect delivery system for subspace bombs.”

“How is that possible?” asked Emery. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Nadia flipped open her ID comp and activated her heads-up display, sharing the connection to Emery’s Dakka. “Dimensional mechanics predicts this.” She drew a pyramid with twelve steps. “Think of our reality, the one we exist in, as the ground upon which the pyramid is built and each level of the pyramid as a level of dimensional reality. Although each dimension is infinite, it is at the same time smaller than the dimension below it. This is why it took the Jalries ten years to get here in their ships traveling through D-space, and us only eighteen months traveling through the second level of D-space. Theoretically, if you’re at the top level of the pyramid, you could cross to any point in our universe with less than a step.” She drew an eye at the top of the pyramid. “You could view anything from this point and then go there if you had the technology.”

“Then they really did it. The Jalries sent a subspace bomb through this portal.”

“It appears so. But I have no idea how they managed to activate this device with tech two hundred years behind our own. I honestly don’t know how we’re going to get it working ourselves. The calculations are so complex they cannot be done without computers, and even then it would take years, not to mention a power source beyond understanding.”

“We powered it with a subspace bomb,” Sorcha interrupted.

Sounds at the end of the chamber stole their attention. The robotic creatures were filing in, led by another silver-like human, again half its face a mass of tentacled flesh.

Emery didn’t wait for the attack; the missile bays opened on his Dakka, and a dozen of the projectiles pounded the position of the creatures. All that was left were small nuggets of red hot metal. He quickly jumped to the entrance and secured the compartment door.

With Sorcha’s direction, Nadia and Emery connected the old Jalries wiring to the computers and the Dakka’s macro fusion generator. It was the connection to the subspace bomb that proved most problematic. It took Emery’s delicate touch to reconfigure the weapon as a power source for the portal. Even after he finished, he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t detonate and kill them all.

Sorcha, who was slipping back and forth from lucidity to madness, had become almost useless toward the end. “I remember some of it–dying. It’s coming to me in bits…” Her voice trailed off.

“If you’re right, and she’s going to turn on us,” Emery typed furiously into his console, “it’ll be soon.”

“Of course I’m right. Look at her. Where did she get all these calculations for the device coordinates? This information came from something far beyond her. These things are going to use us to get off this dead world.”

Emery hit enter on his console. “OK, D-rings nine and ten are programmed. You know, if you’re right, why haven’t they left already? Why use us at all?”

“’Cause they lacked the technology. Look around. Everything on this world is fried, useless. Even the Jalries tech is totally burned out. They need our tech.”

“Why not overwhelm us, just take it? They could have done it a long time ago.”

Nadia let out a sigh. “If they could do it without us, it stands to figure they would have killed us and done so already. No, they need us. Something is wrong, and I have a feeling it has to do with our little Sorcha over there.” She finished typing and sent the last set of coordinates to Emery.

The coordinates came into Emery’s screen, and he looked to Nadia. “We aren’t going home, are we?”

“Sorry, we can’t take that chance.”

“I feel the same way. I’ve been thinking about Jalra Prime. What if they didn’t detonate the subspace bomb because of the Vykar invasion? What if these things got loose, and they had to blow themselves up just like this world did?”

The two were interrupted by Sorcha crying. She wept into her hands and mumbled about death and devoured flesh.

“We haven’t much time. We’re going to lose her very soon,” said Nadia. “Did you connect the second subspace bomb?”

“It’s ready.”

“Good. Set it to blow one minute after the gate activates.”

Sorcha stood and started to pace erratically. “I remember dying; it was horrible. One of those things cornered me, screaming, ‘Ray, Ray!’ I fired my weapon but was out of ammunition. It pinned me on the ground and tore my head from my body. I remember the pain of my muscles ripping, the sound of tendons popping, and the taste of blood in my mouth.

“It was dark then. And I became conscious while feeding. I was over the body of a woman wearing a Jalries uniform. I devoured a large portion of her entrails before I realized it was my body!” Sorcha fell to the ground and started screaming hysterically.

“Get your weapon. This is it. She’s lost it,” said Nadia.

The ship trembled, as if the creatures in it were hitting the bulkheads in cadence. The wild chanting of “Raay!” echoed seemingly through the walls.

Sorcha stood, suddenly composed, her face blank, unreadable. Slowly, she approached the device. Her face erupted in a mass of slithering sucker-filled tentacles. “Raay! RAAYYY!” she screeched and lunged for them.

Nadia’s particle beam struck Sorcha, her head bursting into silver pink mist. The pounding became erratic as Sorcha’s body hit the floor, the creatures insane.

“Activate it now.”

The device came to life with a deep rumble that sent vibrations through the ship, and the banging of the creatures ceased. The blades of the device parted in pairs, each pair pulsing with power as one after the other activated. The final two blades blazed with blinding light, and the portal opened.

The laws of reality changed and the air seemed fluid. The metallic creatures poured into the chamber as the walls of the ship became transparent and permeable. Beyond the portal, Nadia thought she saw an eye, huge and full of malice, its pupil boiling with inky darkness, the white of it veined with blood, and Nadia knew Rae’ Azatoth. The gelatinous flesh of the god spilled through the portal, washing away the body of Pike and drowning Emery.

Its mass was filled with multitudes of fanged cavities and peppered with menacing eyes. Crevices and other openings spewed, spat, and oozed black ichor, which violated every orifice of Nadia’s body.

Azatoth’s mind touched that of Nadia’s, and she knew it as the creator of the universe, with the desire to consume that which its creation had spawned. It was a fleeting realization. As soon as it occurred to Nadia, her mind was no more, shattered by the vast ocean of evil that was the psyche of a god. She dissolved, melted into the god’s fluids, her consciousness joining countless others’ in eternal torment, those who were unlucky enough to discover Rae’ Azatoth.

Then the bomb exploded. In an instant, it turned all things dead or alive to ash and set the space between dimensions alight with super-heated plasma. Azatoth was burned and forced back to his own dimension.

But a god cannot be destroyed. Here he would wait for those foolish enough to invite him back to the reality of mortals, and once again gleefully devour them.

“Set course for Vykar Prime. Execute dimensional drive primer,” said Neil to the computer. It had taken the better part of the day to leave the sun’s heliosphere, and he had primed the D-drives twice already. But he couldn’t be safe enough. He knew he could jump to D-space inside the heliosphere, but subspace was still very delicate around Durga Prime. Neil was taking no chances.

Suddenly, a distant and yet powerful presence knocked Neil to the floor. There he lay, helpless and prostrate as an alien intellect probed him. “Nooooo!” he screamed in agony. His mind was torn asunder, arms and legs trembling, as his last meal vacated his bowels.

Then it was over. As quickly as it had overtaken him, the presence left his mind. Red lights flashed all around; alarms rang out. Still shaken, Neil managed to climb to his feet and look at his console. The ship’s sensors detected a massive energy wave emanating outward from Durga Prime.

“Computer, activate D-jump now.” The ship lurched sloppily, then entered D-space, narrowly escaping the subspace explosion.

Slowly, Neil made his way to the cryo-bay, his head pounding and body ready to quit. When he arrived, he discovered something he wished he had not. Next to a cryo-pod was a large six-foot silver bubble on one of the bulkheads. Before he had time to think, the surface rippled as if a drop of rain had struck the surface of a pond. It popped like a bubble of soap.

“RRAAAYYY!” the metal creature screamed as it lunged for him.

DB Poirier is freelance writer, I.T. professional, Publisher, Game Designer and Entrepreneur. Love of the Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror genres keeps D.B. Poirier up well past the witching hour, writing with passion. A New England native, he lives in the Granite State with his beautiful wife and two adorable little girls. He is bless to have such a loving family and most of the time is happier than any man has a right to be. His Facebook is Thunder Classic Roleplaying.

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Story illustration by Honza Pánek.

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8 responses to “Mortuus Machanus, by D.B. Poirier

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