Interlopers
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Everything burned.

Operator sped down a breaking emergency chute, the circuitry of its walls bursting into balls of fire. Much of the flames nearly licked the fleshy sphere Operator had for a body. Their head — a ball of cameras and sensors facing every which way — nearly collided with the shrapnel expelled by fragmenting computer terminals. Engines on their back fired and they swerved out of harm's way.

Fire did not surprise Operator. This was an orbital armaments depot, and mechanics failures were natural — but this was not a mechanics failure. It was an attack.

Fragmented machinery tore through the chute, spraying out a torrent of plasma. Operator flew through the exit and into a cavernous metal tunnel. Moments before the plasma could shoot out, the seven mechanical arms wired into Operator's fleshball body heaved a safety barrier in front of the exit. It clunked into place and heated to a dull orange glow.

Where to, where to? The tunnel wasn't leading to anywhere. The front and back tunnel exits lead to featureless walls, and Operator didn't know what sections of the facility were structurally stable. The first missile impacts knocked out much of the depot's nervous system, a network of robotic fibers that ran throughout the station and kept Operator informed on every fault through constant radio transmissions. If something broke, the nerves would be the first to call the alert.

Now the nerves were silent. For all Operator knew the entire depot could shatter in seconds.

Rumbles shook the tunnel. Operator felt their radio detectors twinge. They raised a claw to adjust dials on their head, trying to fine tune whatever they had detected. A few slight turns and the signal came into focus: a sine wave, throbbing against the cybernetics of their brain, matching normal nerve signals perfectly.

The tunnel still worked.

Operator sent signals back. The nanobots comprising the tunnel oscillated like flesh. The whole structure quickly bent, front exit shifting over the wall while curving upwards. When the exit wasn't moving past metal walls, it was a window to other chambers in the depot. Scenes of cyan fires, exploding storage spheres, melting robots, all shooting past. If serpentine organisms existed where Operator had been grown, the tunnel's movement would certainly be likened to one. If they had a concept of analogies, that is.

Several more rumbles rocked the depot. The tunnel stopped moving and Operator reached its final bend. They zipped through the front exit into a spherical command center. Seconds later something slammed through the tunnel. A wall of nanobots coalesced to form a tight seal over the exit, blocking off sights of explosions. The tunnel's nerves went silent.

Running through the middle of the command center was a monolithic pillar: the main monitoring computer. Operator yanked a length of cable from its base and jammed it into a socket on their head. Their surroundings melted away, replaced by the views from every security camera left active. Any camera inside was either engulfed in flames or wreathed in enough static to be useless, but much of the ones on the outside of the depot were working. They switched views.

Black void. Debris plumes. Far off yet not so far a ring-shaped vessel stalked its orbit, the rectangular missile silos on its sides open and empty, green symbols painted on glinting in the light of binary suns. A Twelve Stars interceptor. No other long-ranged weapons seemed to be present, so Operator was in the clear.

They noticed a subtle shift in the interceptor's movement. The monitoring computer ran through sets of calculations as the interceptor began moving closer, closer, closer. Soon it was engulfing the view of the cameras. The computer returned a result that was already obvious. Its orbit and the depot's were intersecting.

A mechanical arm extended from the interceptor, wavering. Blinding white tendrils emerged from holes on the arm then plunged at sharp angles into the depot, accompanied by a shrill scrape that echoed through the command center. Operator pulled the cables out, returning to reality, and saw bright white shapes carving at the center wall.

Something cracked.

The wall exploded outward, slamming a blast of air against Operator that screamed past the newly formed passage into space. Their claws tried to grab the computer but only scratched its surface before being torn away. They were catapulted out the depot, past the interceptor, and into orbit. The vacuum caressed their body. Their skin boiled.

They watched as a final missile dropped from the interceptor and slowly descended into the hole in the command center, appearing to push deeper in before vanishing out of sight. Blue light flashed. An azure fireball rose out of the depot and shredded through it, evaporating every tangled tunnel and container that had been built into it.

Somewhere below, on the desert planet they orbited, was a second explosion. Operator's mind was spinning as their body's gasses expelled into the void. Everything they were grown to defend was falling apart.

Circuits in Operator's brain buzzed. They switched bodies.


"So, do we know anything more about where we're going besides 'something what exploded?'"

"Yup."

"And that is?"

"It was a pretty big 'splosion."

Micha Maina grinned as they floated next to a set of computer terminals in Kessler-002's bridge. Over the third monitor's speakers they could hear Hyeon 3Mun, presently with N.J. Watts in the sleek tin can they had for a landing craft. At least that's what Hyeon first called it when it shuddered after undocking from the Kessler-002.

"How helpful, Micha." Alexander Maxwell was floating just next to them, sipping out of the straw of a coffee bag — the best substitute for a cup of joe you could have in zero-g. Why he hadn't just drank a cup back in the Earth-like gravity of the ship's habitation ring was beyond Micha.

"Yeah, what a helping hand." On the first monitor, showing four shots of the landers interior — bursting to the brim with control panels and the three seats wedged in it — Hyeon looked to a camera and rolled his eyes at it.

Micha kept grinning.

Four days ago the Kessler-002 finished its week-long interstellar journey to the Terzan 2 star cluster. It dropped out of faster-than-light travel once it reached a small binary star system, into the tugging gravity well of a gas giant. Te2-2658, the Foundation designated the system. Gateway, the Kessler's crew christened it.

"Okay, won't lie, command up here got no clue what you'll be running into down there."

Aside from an errant X-Ray signal on the first day, there was no sign anyone or anything lived here.

"All we got is what all of us got when we flew into orbit around here."

Until there was a flurry of signals from a dune-swept planet at the far border of the star's habitable zone.

"So…"

Followed by an explosion on its surface.

"…not much we can help with."

The response to Micha was an uncomfortable quiet.

"If anything does come up that we can see from here, we will let you know," Alex added. "I don't suggest holding out hopes on that, though." He reached a hand to rub his eyes, which faded behind the black, perceptual haze shrouding his face before he pulled it back. Micha couldn't read any emotion there, but the rapping of his fingers on the coffee bag made his nervousness clear as day.

Micha turned to the second monitor, jutting from the bridge's wall next to the first. On it was a scar. A dark crater, blasted onto the surface of the desert world like a burn mark on paper. The pale blue dunes seemed to divert around it, as if it had to be avoided at all costs.

« Lander Resh-1 is now entering Te2-2658-2's atmosphere. Switching from radio to X-Ray communication. Expect communication interference, » Artificial Intelligence Construct Chione announced over the intercom, speaking with a voice that sounded halfway between "normal human" and "emotionless robot."

They switched the first monitor's view as connections to the lander turned to white noise. From an outside camera's view the lander was a flaming spec, rushing toward the planet's horizon, rushing toward the unknowns below it.


Operator shot down a melting corridor. Even the deepest portions of the armaments factory they were now in had been torched by Twelve Star's bomb, leaving no chance that there was anything on the surface to salvage. No chance these corridors would remain stable, too. All there was to do was to escape.

Their body was an arrowhead-shaped chassis, designed for quick travel in open skies rather than the tight factory passageways it now flew through. They tore through support pillars and weaved around falling machines as the corridor collapsed into a molten tsunami behind them, falling apart faster and faster. Chunks of ceiling liquified. Operator's brain launched the magma upwards with a psionic push, losing focus on keeping their body levitating. They entered a tumble, glanced off a wall, and rebounded several times against protruding pipes.

Cracks on the pipes widened. Spikes of purple ectoplasm, harvested in the interstellar void and pulverized into a fine fuel, seeped out. Any sapience left in them would've been reduced to incoherence by the refinery process, yet they knew what they lost. They knew who refined them. They screamed.

The spikes flew in pursuit. Every bend, every dodged debris, every section of corridor shredded by magma couldn't shake the spikes off Operator's tail. Part of their chassis's back end morphed into a machine gun, engraved with endless protective glyphs, and wildly slung volleys of compressed thaumic energy down the corridor. Collapsing machines were pulverized into slags by the thaumic bolts. The spikes were intact. Each one either curved away seconds before impact or formed holes in their masses the bolts would pass through.

Another bend in the corridor and Operator entered a massive cylindrical tunnel, leading down into deeper bowels of the factory and straight up. A pinprick of blinding light shone down from the exit up above. The gamble of switching to a body in this factory sector was paying off.

Crunch.

A spike constricted the gun and tore it from the chassis before succumbing to the protective glyphs, ectoplasm liquified then falling. The rest of the spikes flew in from the corridor. Operator jetted upward, chassis elongating into an even thinner and more aerodynamic form, their mind pushing harder while searing pain washed over their thoughts. The spikes followed suit. They spiraled around the chassis, stretched, and recombined into a cocoon that would snap shut around Operator at any moment.

The sound barrier broke and boomed. Operator blasted through the cocoon. The tunnel became a blur. They shot through the exit. Slowing down, they let the pain ebb out of their mind while the blackened wasteland of the surface world came into view. They made it out alive.

Movement in the distance. A silver machine with green symbols nearby and an object far above, burning through the sky. Operator accelerated.


Beep beep beep beep…

"Enjay, you're getting the same readings?"

Hyeon stood by the cliff edge, brushing off the blue dust that endlessly blew in from the sands around, eyes glancing at a monitor on the bulky cuboid detector they held.

N.J. looked to her detector as well. Moderately high EM radiation levels (nothing their spacesuits couldn't handle), high thaumic particle levels, high temperature readings, Humes dancing up and down like the very stability of reality was drunk. The closer to the edge, the lower the Humes went. "Yes."

"Okay, we can't go any further than this."

The cliff wasn't a natural formation. It ringed the crater for countless miles, formed when the blast came and forced up the dunes and underground rocks surrounding whatever the target was. Large enough that N.J. lost all sense of perspective and saw it only as a 2D backdrop.

« Moving ahead will be an unnecessary risk. Stay at your current position and monitor the surroundings. »

It didn't take a detector to spot the danger. Among the charred expanse were outcrops of metal, pillars twisted from unknown original states to forms beyond recognizability, that blinked in and out of existence at random spots. Sometimes the outcrops suddenly reformed into towering machines, alien yet reminiscent of human industrial technology, then tore themselves down in the wake of a non-existent explosion. Sometimes light above the outcrops bent, giving distorted views of the landscape like it was diffracted through water. Sometimes the outcrops became the landscape.

A contained chaos.

"Alex, any progress on decryption?"

« None at all. Chione's got even more processes on it now but still nothing. I'm still guessing it was Ortothan and has to do with the explosion, but I… »

The transmission from Kessler-002 turned to static.

"Alex, I'm picking up interference. Do you still copy?"

Still static.

"Alex?"

« Transmission with Kessler-002 is fully lost. I do not know what the cause of it is. »

One of the few times N.J. was fine with having a copy of an AI downloaded into her neural implants. "Hyeon, are you getting interference?"

"A hell of a lot of it. This can't be good."

Off in the distance two silver dots winded over the crater's surface. The one in the back fired bolts of bright energy that missed the one in the front and hit the ground. The one under attack sped up, lifting away from the ground and narrowly missing a suddenly appearing outcrop. They were moving closer.

"Hyeon, we have to go."

"No shit!" He was already running to the rover they had taken from the lander, moving with the clunky gait the spacesuit forced upon him. N.J. followed.

« You may proceed, though continue monitoring the anomalies as much as possible. »

The rover's outside seemed more like an armored car than what one would expect a rover to be. This gave as much comfort as N.J. could have when alien combat loomed in the future. Hyeon climbed up a ladder on the rover's dark metal plating, threw a hatch on its top open, then dropped in. N.J. followed suit. The wheels spun, launching clouds of blue dust into the air, and they were off.


One of the thaumic bolts hit. It stabbed through Operator and sliced electrothaumic batteries, unleashing a vibrant explosion that tore the rear half of the chassis apart. Their brain's psionics slowed to a crawl. Momentary free fall then plummeting. The drone was distant but approaching for the final blow.

Circuits in Operator's brain buzzed. They switched bodies. They fell out of the chassis.


Lander Resh-1 jutted out from the desert like a shining metal beacon. It towered over N.J and Hyeon as they ran from the rover, rushing past the lander's blackened engines and the thick legs of its landing gear that impaled the terrain. They heard a loud boom above them.

« I cannot interface with Lander Resh-1. Connection issues are persisting. »

It was too late to get into the craft manually, but neither of the explorers focused on that. They watched the arrowhead-shaped vehicle combust. Its debris left streaks of cyan fire and smoke that cut through the featureless sky.

A sphere dropped from it. It was falling towards them.

In seconds it landed yards from the rover, slamming through the ground and bouncing off until it tumbled to a stop. Hatches on it slid open and six mechanical limbs exited, heaving itself off the ground into an upright stance. The top of the sphere extended into a cylindrical "head," antenna and cameras attached to every inch of its sides

"I-, uhm, Enjay, we ready f-for some first contact?"

Panels of holographic light appeared before the alien but quickly broke into glitching polygons and flickered out. One of the head cameras had fractures on its lens, sparking. The limbs extended further, raising the creature up, and they hobbled over toward the duo. It paused by the rover, let out a rhythmic, droning sound, then swung its claw through the sand in many wide arching motions. It was writing.

« Ortothan Extraterrestrial Language symbols sighted. Running translations. »

"Ortothan?" read the message.

"Lie or accuracy?" asked N.J..

"Well, could do a bit of both?"

N.J tapped the computer panel on her spacesuit's wrist. Chione did its work. Holograms flickered out of it, displaying a response translated in rough Ortothan.

"Allies."

A higher pitched droning sound in return.

There was a rumble from afar. The vehicle that shot down the arrowhead was flying toward them, a black dot in front of the binary stars. The alien's limbs sped up, etching the ground faster than could be seen. Symbols without translation, phrases broken by messy writing, occasional wind gusts washing messages away. Only a fractured message was left.

"Worker holy weapons. Attack new weapon destroy holy weapons. Twelve Stars attack. Followed."

The rumble grew louder. The alien added more symbols.

"Tell…" Something unrecognizable came after. "…of new weapon threat."

N.J. tapped again. "I don't understand."

The same message was written again.

"I don't understand."

A lower droning. N.J. hastily stepped back as it scrambled to her, yelping when its claws grabbed her arm. There was a flash of yellow and her hologram contorted, morphing into a new form. A rendition of Gateway's two stars and three planets, zooming out from the one upon which they stood and into an expanse of nearby stars, panning over, zooming in on the moon of a large planet orbiting far from a supergiant star. Zoom out, pan over, zoom in; repeating. Directions.

The alien stepped back. The rumble was now louder than anything else. The vehicle descended to the surface and sped over, no longer a black silhouette. It was a silver pyramid tipped sideways, gun barrels extending from every face, floating between glowing halos — one above, one below. Sand whipped past the bottom halo's edges. The closer it came, the more N.J. could see patterns of strange icons painted in long, green stripes that looped around its sides.

"Fuck," Hyeon muttered. "We're fucked."

N.J. silently tried reign in her panicked breathing. She suddenly felt a pulsing sensation run through her body. She hadn't felt it since she had attempted thaumaturgy decades ago, but it came with familiarity. Something was bending the aether.

The vehicle was now yards from the rover. It swiveled between the halos and took aim. With a mechanical whine, gleaming thaumic bolts shot from the barrels in quick succession. The alien's limbs jumped between kinetohazardous glyph after kinetohazardous glyph, bolts ricocheting inches from their metal body and slamming back into the attacker. Despite the craters the bolts left, it didn't stop. It fired faster.

One limb left the glyphs and formed a final message in the sand.

"Holy Fourth live eternal."

The glyphs faltered. A lightning strike of a bolt shore through the arms and head. Half the body fell, the rest ejected backwards. The spacesuit blocked much of her senses but N.J felt like she could still smell the burning organs and orange blood spilling from the corpse.

The vehicle swiveled again. Barrels trained on N.J. and Hyeon. Deer in the headlights of a truck. N.J.'s heart was beating harder, harder, harder. There was a glimmer of white energies down the shaft of a barrel. She closed her eyes.

. . .

She opened her eyes. The light down the barrel faded. A new light flashed within her eyes, dazing her until vision returned to normal. The vehicle shimmered, rippling like water dyed with impossible colors, blinking away bit by bit. A cloaking barrier. Gusts of wind and the attacker was invisible. Gone.

« Connection issues have ceased. Contact with Kessler-002 reestablished. Interfacing with Lander Resh-1. Transmitting data recorded by neural implants. »

The lander's ramp slid down and the airlock hatch it led to opened. Bulky panels slid apart by the rover, mechanical arms exiting, latching onto its sides and hoisting it into the lander's storage space with great clunks. The machines lowered an empty biohazard container by the corpse.

« Retrieve the cadaver for research and eventual transportation to Orbital Area-11. »

N.J. gagged. She turned to Gateway's binary stars. Her hologram was still cycling through the alien's directions. Zoom out, pan over, zoom in. Zoom out, pan over, zoom in. Zoom out…

What were they getting themselves into?


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