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This story takes place on Earth-F67X. The -F67X designation comes from its participation in the UFP (United Federation of Planets) and UEF (United Earth Federation), a multiversal political entity that strove to combine all parallel Earth's under one political umbrella. After a multiversal fault, parallel Earths lost their ability to communicate and the UFP and UEF were obsolesced. Even so, Earth-F67X continues to maintain its designation in the event contact is every reestablished.

The various geopolitical zones of Earth-F67X are:

* North America
* South America
* Eurasia
* African Quarantine Zone
* SWAG (South-West Asia Group)
* Antarctica

North America

This is where Capital City is located.

African Quarantine Zone

This is where the Glasslands, Nyundo, and Xanathan are located.

SWAG

This encompasses and includes the geography west from was once the Indian subcontinent, south of what was Japan's Hokkaido island, north of what was Australia's Tasmania island, and east of what were the Hawai'in islands and ventures into the Asian continent as far north as what was Mongolia.

Leadership rotates among five capital flotillas-cities: Colobus, Vervet, Rhesus, Tamarin, and Mandrill. These are not in static locations, but may be anywhere within the adjoining oceans of the above-described territory.

New Roswell

Somewhere beneath the snow, ice, and stone of Antarctica is the New Roswell Earth-F67X Defense Headquarters.
A transient series of soft yellow discs illumined the decks of The Kithless and, while obscurity dimmed their antecedents, led Spencer to his second interview. Down a steep stair, around a corner, and he found himself in a gallery with large paintings bolted to the walls. They were crass, irreverent, and made mockery of Earth’s moral institutions. In one, a woman reclined on a surgical bed, a pristine blue sheet spread over her engorged belly; a bible, carefully opened to Psalm 139, verse 13, propped against her swollen breasts; and between her thighs lurched a filthy, hirsute demon that eagerly plucked the limbs of a fetus from her womb and flung them into a bucket filled to the brim with offal. Another featured a televangelist who gestured wildly toward a presentation on the evils of homosexuality and the wisdom of Leviticus 18:22—even as he coerced fellatio from young boys shackled to his pulpit, their faces tear streaked and sallow. All featured themes of hypocrisy, like an Iman and a Pujari who congratulated another on the executions of their wives whom earlier they conspired to rape as a pretext for getting rid of them; in the background, their underage daughters awaited in wedding attire. Many contained eerily life-like impressions of demons, their faces twisted in equal parts menace and agony as they watched him, all superimposed with cryptic wards.

Spencer cringed, as he was almost sure the Satanic heralds’ eyes traced his path and tongues flicked hungrily in his direction. It all seemed a bit much. Still, he ambled forward, studied a few more works, but quickly tired of the morbid theme. Fortunately, he was at his destination, for a doorway opened in the hall and the lights that led him ceased.

Within, Czes sat behind an easel, brush in hand, and contemplated a canvas. It wasn’t blank; rather, it was prepared, a wash of gray and gold formed vague shapes that would ultimately provide depth, in the manner of Plage de Canetto and other Italian masters, for the final composition. It was his distraction while his spokesperson, Lionel, addressed the assembly in Tamarin. He decided to not risk a venture into the city just yet, so The Kithless sulked just beyond the harbor.

Spencer, barefoot and shirtless, but at least now adorned in beach bum khaki shorts, slouched against the frame of the studio door.

Without looking up, Czes began to speak,

“Art is, and has for thousands of years been, a social critique, particularly along the intersection of faith and governance. In The Divine Comedy, Popes Nicolas III, Boniface, and sundry other figures, rulers of their world, are condemned to Hell on account of their political corruption; similarly, Modena damned all non-Catholics in his fresco The Inferno. Both examples of hate framed as art. Meanwhile, Zdzisław Beksiński’s Embrace is a reaction to hate, an exposure to souls devastated by the institutionalized evil of the Third Reich. All three are fundamentally political. They shape our recollection of history.”

Spencer snorted. “Maybe for nerds. I look at art because there are moments in this crazy life where if I don’t I’ll go mad, not to become upset over things I can’t change.”

“A surface observation of art’s necessesary function in the direction of introspection. It provokes within us that which we would not draw out of our souls of our own volition.”

“Nah. I want to be happy.”

“No, you don’t want to be happy; you want to empathize. To be somewhere. To truly know somebody. You want to feel something specific, particularly when you are too numb or overwhelmed to feel. Here,” Czes stood up, walked over to his nearby stacks, withdrew a book, and flipped it open on a table. He gestured for Spencer to come over and pointed to an image of a statue of a young girl, shy and sad, the weight of a massive stone she struggled to carry crushing her to the ground.

“This is a reproduction of Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone, superior to the original in my opinion.”

“Now I want her to be happy.”

“It is inevitable art will be used as an instrument to foment hate—Tribalism, Racism, Nationalism, Specism; pretenses on which to justify the desecration and devaluation of life. Based on your report, it is inevitable Earth’s government will bend Allure City to its will. My question is, what should we try to make the people of Earth feel toward toward their new neighbors—at least the ones who are under the yoke of informants and enforcers like Merse Grandstrum and Margaret Iedereen?”

“Feel? Most of the assholes in Allure are spies, bullies, or in the pay of such. Privacy is owned by those with wealth, pull, or cunning. It is the ones who are just minding their own business and trying to make a life that deserve any feeling,” Spencer quipped.

Not one to waste too much time sober, he emptied a decanter of deep brown liquid into a crystal chalice too dainty for his tastes but adequate to the situation. He drank deeply, doing his best to feign apathy. Despite that, the last part of what Czes said caught his attention. He stopped a moment, his bottom lip pushed out a bit as he entered his thinking pose. After a while, he huffed, and the pressure of his exhale tossed a stray lock of hair from his brow.

He thought of the vendors struggling to make a living in the agora, the corpse of his friend stinking up a cheap basement apartment—what was his name? Raymond. Rengar. Oh yeah, Randall. He thought of the Platinum Warriors, the propaganda, the third of the city that were a single entity who informed on those who just wanted to live their lives in relative comfort.

Czes patiently tapped his foot, head cocked to the side and hands folded behind his back.

“Does she know?” Spencer finally asked, glancing down at the depiction of the caryatid.

“Know what?” Czes inquired.

“That she can just drop her stone.”

“Interesting,” Czes replied. “Thank you, Spencer. That will be all.”

He then touched an earpiece and said, “Yes, Lionel? In your presentation, focus on the how the people of Allure need to be free of the tyranny of propaganda and suspicion. Focus on how choice, for them, is an illusion fashioned by those in power; one they recognize, but can’t do anything about. If given a chance, we believe they would rise up against their oppressors—the very savages who slaughtered over a hundred million citizens of Earth on the Iberian Peninsula. If we truly want good neighbors, they must allow us to help them cast off and crush the machine of false chaos that presumes to govern them by manipulation rather than representation.”

He touched his earpiece again and the line went silent. Spencer, at that point, was gone; still, Czes made a mental note to have him dropped off in Tamarin where he would doubtlessly enjoy the night life.

Czes listened again, finally ascertained he was alone, and turned. Through a secret passage, he passed, its entrance disguised by a floor-to-ceiling original of Rassouli’s Shores of Heaven. Behind him, the masterpiece fell back into place. Darkness enveloped him. Small, chill, and almost featureless, the room was solid basalt and adorned only by a shelf on the wall opposite him and an occult engraving that dominated the floor. There was no light for his eyes to adjust to, but he knew from memory where each element was placed. With rehearsed and steady ritual, he pulled a small flint knife out of his vest pocket and set it in the middle of the magic circle. Carefully he stripped and set his attire, neatly folded, on the bench. The stone floor send the chill of expectation up his spine as he sat naked before the blade, yet, without hesitation, he lifted it in both hands and slashed it across his jugular.

Blood spurted from the wound, cascaded down his chest, and coursed through the channels of the magic circle hewn underneath his hunched-over frame. Geometries repeated ad naseum, squares overlapped squares, and circles spiraled in an ouroboros that spat ancient glyphs and mystic psalms. Into the eye, the ox, the virgin, and the axe, his blood poured and, with each quart, cast the chamber in an otherworldly carmine glow. In spite of his injury, he gurgled the names of select symbols and, as they answered their light pierced his vitae so fiercly their mirrors reflected as stars on the dark vault overhead.

Suddenly, he was elsewhere; a place he dubbed Spiritus Infra Terrarum. It was not the spirit world, but a plane below where the shades of souls wandered with features dimmed and animus bared. They could not see, for their vision was focused purely on the spirit world above; hidden from view, but sensed as the blind know night from day. As always, he did not have long for, already, he felt his blood defy the ordinary course of nature, recoil from the stone, and ascend in minute droplets all too eager to again flow through a wound that would only seal when his strength failed and his blade fell.

Through the shade realm, which by weird properties mimicked or mocked—whichever interpretation one preferred—the world of the real, he sojourned and at last came to Allure City. It, alien and uniform, was easy to find. There, in sharp contrast to the variegated images Spencer supplied, he saw an absence of diversity that intermingled merely drudgery and control. It was the former he sought to incite and the latter to dismay. Particularly the latter that were too similar, too singular, too much copies of the same. The mouthpiece that promised peace on Earth’s airwaves before being auspiciously silenced. Into that corrupt unity, he spoke a prahelikā of division that manifested as a vermin swarm on which danced the carriers of an astral plague that would flow from soul to mind and lay waste to the whole that was many.
An old woman sat in the back of Ndakala’s rented bush jeep. She looked far less than her years, but wealth, whiteness, and access to good food and better doctors were larger factors in that than personal genetics. Most hated her ilk. He was not most. Motives, however racially-underpinned or subliminated with guilt, were what earned his respect. Misguided though she was, he understood that she wanted to be of service to his people. Most outsiders, like her, couldn’t help but be fools, and behind him she sat in an immaculate white pantsuit with a floral-print silk scarf flung around her long neck with precision sufficient to make it appear an afterthought. Atop her head was a woven grass hat, which shielded her sweat-flecked brow from the subtropic sun. Barely an hour into the day and the humidity sweltered such that it compelled a paper fan from her satchel.

Her name was Lydia Benson, but to him she was the rich American woman who wanted to visit the place where such a pittance of her wealth was philanthropically invested.

“We are almost to the village, Lady. Maybe another hour, maybe two,” he said as the road turned east, away from the open highveld and into bush forest. The night before, his friend and pilot brought them by propeller plane from Cape Town to Johannesburg, still a bustling city, but also the last bastion of relative safety and civilization under Xanathan rule before wilderness and lawlessness took over. It was a perilous journey given the restrictions imposed on flights in the wake of the Iberian Incident—that being the reason his client remained still in South Africa and why he was making another trip up into the jungle. The details were still sparse, but from what he understood an alien city appeared and buried tens of millions of Earth’s citizens.

He refocused his thoughts back on the journey and their destination. Already, they had spent three hours driving along abandoned roads and over open fields. Now they were in the former Ndlovumzi Nature Reserve, just south of the Olifantsrivier, and close to where she wanted to be taken—the village of Phalaborwa.

Suddenly, she screamed; more of a stifled rasp, as he heard the sound of her palm fold over her mouth.

Evidently her eyes were far better than his, for it was a moment or two later before he saw what provoked such a reaction. Half a mile up the road, an overturned personnel carrier smoked. Around it were jeeps upended and on fire. Bodies were strewn all over. One was impaled on the stump of a dead tree, aloft like a macabre scarecrow. Instinctively, he stopped, snatched up his binoculars, and took in the details. The carnage appeared recent, maybe a few hours old. Blood still pooled from the wounds of what might be unconscious survivors. The vehicles were Xanathan, no doubt about it. He knew not what crazy guirellas dared venture so deep into the corporation’s territory, but they must not have accounted for the consequences that would befall the entire region. The riposte would be horrible and it would go worse for anyone found in this area.

“We have to leave right away. We can’t go this way, Lady. We have to go around. North. Off-road. It will add another two hours on to our trip, but I know a way. Through a canyon. Very dangerous, but it is either that or turn around.”

She nodded.

“Keep going?”

She nodded again.

He started the jeep, backtracked two miles, and turned up a game path that led down a steep embankment. It was mere minutes after his jeep was safe beneath the cover of the brush that he heard the choppers. It wasn’t the time to keep moving, it was the time to wait. He stopped, motioned for Lydia to get out, and they both crawled underneath the vehicle in the hopes of evading any thermal scans—if it wasn’t already too late.

“Just keep calm and quiet and nobody will know we’re here,” Ndakala whispered.
It was inaccurate to say darkness enveloped Tristan, but all his power armor’s ranged sensors dimmed when he lunged into the superfluidic mass. The last thing he saw was an oily polyp blossom outward, its surface briefly aglow in a genuflection of cyan brilliance, then numerous tenebrous petals enclosed around him. In that moment, he and Tethys lost sense of space and place. In lieu of astrometrics, night vision, and spectral analysis, his artificial intelligence provided a slew of biometric data; with that came a warning that flashed red and angry on the holographic superdisplay of his HUD.

VAL’GARA

VAL’GARA

VAL’GARA

“Now you tell me?!” Tristan incredulously bellowed, “I sacrificed myself for nothing! It’s going to kill me and then go on to kill everyone else on this base!”

> Attempted incursion of the Vesuvian Virus into my nanofilter matrix on physical contact with the entity was, and remains, the first and only decipherable indicator. Before that, your guess was as a good as mine. In a word, poor. Countermeasures won’t last long, so it is fortunate you are already inoculated against the virus.

What’s that suppose to mean?

> You are, and have been, infected. I wasn’t sure before, but the signatures match. More importantly, you haven’t suffered any subsequent psychological or physiological mutations.

Tristan was stunned, but in his current state didn’t feel as though he possessed the capacity to react. Even so, he knew this was what he was trained to confront. Well, not the part about being infected and likely doomed to become a monstrosity—rather, how to fight against odds impossible. He needed to calm down and come up with a plan, but what? He was still alive. Perhaps Tethys was responsible for that, but there remained the possibility his enemy deigned to manipulate him. He couldn’t allow himself to become an enemy asset.

Ultimately, he he needed more information.

<< Sssso >>

It was like an annoying buzz in his ear or the whisper of a ghost, if such existed. He didn’t appreciate the distraction, but maybe it was a clue. Tristan wanted to know, so he asked, What was that?

> The entity is overpowering my efforts to block its psionic messaging. It is likewise pursuing more aggressive and physical avenues in order to remove me as a barrier.

I’d prefer you stay intact. So it wants to talk? Try letting it have enough interaction that it doesn’t treat you like a wall to be broken through—he recalled the concrete bunker doors being reduced to rubble mere moments earlier and cringed. What’s the worst that can happen, eh? I’ll lose my mind and become a lunatic mass-murderer sooner rather than later?

> Standing down.

<< SOUNDER. >>

No longer a whisper. No longer vague. Another voice in his head, but now it boomed. No, more than that; it nearly crushed his psyche. To think his power armor actively filtered the lion’s share of the otherwise intolerable psionic impulse. He tried to frame a response. It voiced the phrase in a way that was insistent and rife with expectation, as if it sought to call to someone or guide him somewhere.

“Uh, hi. I’m Tristan. Just trying to get back home to Earth.”

<< SOUNDER. >>

He almost blacked out.

“I, eh, don’t understand. What is ‘Sounder’?”

It then uttered what he assuredly believed to be both a name and an unholy rite. The very enunciation delved in and reordered the foundation of his otherworldly beliefs. Twenty-seven staccato syllables tore through him, beyond him, and plumbed places deeper than he, but still he felt from that chasm rise the tormented chorus of those scorched by Hellfire; brutal, yet melodic, as heavy in grief and sorrow as in desire. The canto of the damned crescendoed and Tristan, in its wake, was violated, his cheeks flushed and loins turgid. Inexplicable and insatiable lust lashed the primal places of his being where mind and spirit mated. Like a spoiled sacrament polluted by every vice imaginable, he felt himself, unwillingly, partake, and came.

At the apex of his harrowing orgasm, his physical eyes rolled back and his mind’s eye, for the first time, opened.

It beheld a universe splayed out.

Suddenly, he was a conqueror who surveyed domain after felled domain and knew, intrinsically, he saw the product of his efforts. He set the villages on fire, crushed cities to rubble, and reveled in the gyre of carrion and taste of soot in the wind. He saw the City of Dis with its fiery towers, the dreamscape bathed hues unimaginable, the ephemeral realm of the psions, the weird green light of Sal’Chazzar specked with silhouettes of a dead civilization’s fleet, the eternal bioluminescent rains of Urum, a million worlds conquered, and ultimately he saw Earth. It wasn’t his, yet. Perspiration gathered on his brow. Of course it was his. In his chest, his heart beat heavy. He belonged to it. Then, between the beats, someplace deep inside him—deeper than any place could exist—an answer came.

A dare defiant, it impugned the credibility of that which called its name and challenged it to succeed where others failed. It, within him, made Tristan more than he was, more than he understood or could possibly have comprehended. Electromagnetic fire poured through him—or perhaps from him. His mind flayed and was flayed by an equally violent psionic tumult. As a conduit, he could merely feel—while trying desperately not to feel—and watch the rapid, confused scroll of the datafeed within his HUD.

Tristan shut his eyes as the intensity became too much.

Finally, it stopped.

He thought, perhaps, he blacked out, although it could only have been for a moment.

He opened his eyes again and all was quiet—still. Space loomed large around his drifting frame. Stars winked in the distance. And there, in the corner of his vision, he saw Earth.

> Tristan, please acknowledge.

I’m here, Tethys. Is that really—what happened?

> A struggle for dominance. Temporary armistice. Yes, that’s Earth. Recommendation: avoid. Further decision-tree analysis required. Self-reconstruction ongoing. We are not alone. Massive power signatures present, both on Earth and in adjacent space. Your symbiote, present; origins assessed as demonic, infected with the Vesuvian Virus. Val’Gara entity, present.

That thing is still here?

> It is right behind you, Tristan.

You said other massive power signatures?

> Yes, one nearby linked to ops signature.

Open comm to that channel.

> Comm opened.

<< Tristan Singh here. To whom am I addressing? >>

<< Bullshit. Tristan is dead. >> the voice came over his comm crystal clear.

More than that, it was strangely familiar.

<< For a while, no doubt. Say, you aren’t—uh. Callsign ‘Lionheart’; right? >>
One moment, Tristan was occupied with the repair of a spacecraft. Small, cheap, unimpressive, yet far more evolved than even the more advanced prototypes he heretofore encountered. Once its navigation was active, he loaded the star charts, synced them with his power armor, and plotted a course for Earth. It would take days to reach, but in that span he hoped to mentally recondition via meditation for what he anticipated to be a culture shock. What followed was a blur. Alarms sounded in his helmet, perhaps in his head. Cracks traced along the contours of the reinforced concrete hangar bay doors. A dozen spacecraft rattled around him. Cracks blossomed into fissures. Chunks of debris crashed to the deck and reincarnated as translucent walls of dust. His ship wasn’t nearly ready; neither was Tethys, who frenetically alternated enemy alerts and friendly hails.

He dropped to a knee behind the ship and reached for a gauss cannon. With no idea what was coming, his position and weapon provided little comfort, but at least there was something between him and the swiftly eroding entrance.

Tone down the noise and provide a brief verbal sitrep, he thought.

> Mobius signatures detected in armory. Jadis non-response triggered reconnaissance.

Why the alerts? They are friendlies.

> I am friendly. You are an unknown and a potential threat. Additionally—

The bay doors burst inward. Re-bar and pellets of concrete ricocheted off the walls. Tethys’ passive countermeasures protected him from kinetic intrusions and, with her ad-hoc memory maps and spectral overlays, he was able to peer through what was otherwise an opaque barrier of debris. Already rattled by the violent intrusion, he was further horrified by what he saw. There, he beheld a blotch darker than the space behind it with a malignant penumbra that bled hungrily over the halos of the benighted stars that outlined its inarticulate mass.

Tristan recoiled against the wall and, by instinct, retreated into the shadows. He wanted to hide, but doubted his precaution was sufficient. Eventually, a coherent thought crescendoed over the volatile drum of his heart:

. . Not of Earth. Not Mobius! What is that thing?

> Signature unrecognized. Encounter novel. Based on preliminary indicators, you are friendly. I am unknown, but not considered a threat; merely an accessory.

Similarities?

> Meta-psionic aura presents a frequency close to the force sustaining your animation.

His mind almost shut down at how inconceivable the report was. How could something so undeniably sinister consider him an ally? Or … well, he didn’t want to consider that part. Tethys didn’t have an answer for that fragmentary thought. Still, his training kicked in and as he assessed what he knew he recognized two things and the first took a mere moment to confirm.

Likelihood of hostilities between Mobius recon team and this entity if I hang around?

> 100%

Odds of all our team making it home alive?

> Insufficient data to calculate probabilities for that outcome.

Not worth the risk. Sometimes you can just sense power, and this thing is a lot stronger than anything I’ve seen here—yourself included, no offense. Anything I’ve seen ever other than maybe on Xenophore where a mad god made an entire enemy fleet disappear. I have to do something.

> No offense taken, Tristan. Be careful, it isn’t just your ass on the line.

The unusually human quip from the artificial intelligence was something he would have to examine later. He stood up and stepped out from behind the half-repaired ship. It looked worse than when he started and wasn’t going anywhere after its recent role as a damage buffer. He had a team to save, or try to. If this thing was his friend, then maybe it was here for him. It was a possibility. The only way to find out was to throw himself at it and let fate lead where it may.
As the laminated cardboard door creaked wide, Ndakala Blayhi glanced up from the plywood slab and plastic crates that composed his desk. With a gesture, he lifted cheap horn-rimmed glasses off the bridge of his nose; not prescription, but adequate to read words on a page. Expressions were another matter. Still on his desk, atop a stack of papers, was his new identification card. On it was printed and embossed his third name, same as his first and inherited from his grandfather, an Efé village shaman. He was proud to reclaim it, but likewise ashamed the journey took so long. While his former and second name, Joshua, availed him security and opportunity, he now recognized it came at the cost of identity. ‘Joshua’ was a symbolic rejection of his past—an ingratiation to those in power over his world. This was something he could not comprehend as a young boy, but now, much later in life, recognized the subtext.

Fortunately, he outlived the west's cultural war. They lost. Not to his people, who were too disorganized and fraught with internal strife to ever stand up to the west; rather, unable to cope with the fallout of the Val’Gara attack, the west abandoned him, his kinsmen, his country, and the whole African continent. In their place reigned chaos and an alien business—Xanathan Enterprises. Still, the quarantine was the direct cause that yielded a new era of violent cultural revitalization, even as new powers sought to impose their will on the cradle of humankind.

‘Joshua’ was now a liability. Were it not for that, apathy would have hewn it on his tombstone.

“How may I help you, Digbo?” he asked.

The stock clerk’s attention drifted to the single personal item in the makeshift office tucked behind pallets of melons, paper towels, and water. It was his first day on the job, but Ndakala thought he would do well as a member of the Aldi famiy.

“Ah,” Ndakala carefully lifted the bibelot and looked at it the way he always did, as though it was his first time. “My grandfather, my mother, and myself. One of few photos taken of the Efé village in the Ituri. Yes, yes, that young man was me. Now I am old and my hair—I use to have some, as you can see—what little is left is white.”

He laughed and carefully set it back down on his desk.

“But what interest does a young man with his life in front of him have in an old man? No doubt you are anxious to leave and celebrate life.”

Digbo, a dark rhino of a youth from Kraaifontein district, just shrugged his heavy round shoulders and vaguely smiled. A former rugby player and, at six foot five inches, over two feet taller than Ndakala, Digbo wasn’t much of a talker. Most of those who worked in the back were quiet. The cashiers were the ones who loved to socialize.

Ndakala stood up, went back to the safe, keyed in the combination, and found the company checkbook. He removed just one check, secured the safe, turned around, sat down at his desk, and filled it out. Done, he stood up, handed it to Digbo, and shook his hand.

“What better way to celebrate than with your first paycheck, yes?”

That got a much larger smile. Toothy white, a handsome contrast.

Ndakala nodded and smiled back, “Good, good. Be well. I hope to see you still here after I return in a few days.”

“Yes, sir, Mister Blahyi. You will.”

Digbo turned and left, leaving Ndakala once more alone. Not a nosy one, that, he thought as he brushed a fly off a patch of melanoma-poisoned skin on his bald head. No doubt he was more interested in checking in on his friends or a special someone than the sojourns of an old man. Still, Digbo appeared trustworthy, strong, and showed consideration for his fellow Aldi employs. Eventually, Ndakala might recruit him to a broader humanitarian interest.

Eventually, everyone was gone and he, as manager, was left to turn off the lights and lock up the store. His assistant manager would unlock it in the morning. Aldi—indeed, most of Cape Town—didn’t operate on the 24/7 immediate gratification work cycle of the west. He was glad of that.
Within her darkened alcove, Ezkshi poured over the yottabytes of diagnostics the Zara vi-Pol gleaned from the nascent echoes of her fleet’s first salvo. Beyond, her premonition alluded to the Bahá-cizr’s even grander reprisals. With so little effort, constellation-scale destruction of myriad provenances reverberated with relentless fury on the intransigent invader. Thus was the culmination of eons of gathered might. All Nenegin’s vessels—hers for the while—followed suit and contributed to the battle in the manner in which they were best equipped. Ever so slightly, she inclined her mind in recognition of Deimobos’ newfound and final purpose as a munition in their counter-offensive and, briefly, extended her empathic bond in approval to the orchestrator of that deed.

Note to admiralty log—recommend Zuril Nu-báshíra, commandant of the specialist ship Nool Al-Pas, for title; tentatively, Comminutor of Deimobos, the Apostate Sphere.

As she watched, massive wounds, more numerous with each moment, ruptured the Cradle of Life’s hide. Vast voids, some grander than main sequence stars, accompanied lacerations light years long struck with such precision they seemed inflicted by cosmic scalpels. Along the smoldering margins, radiation from spent phase rockets sizzled vividly betwixt cinders of burning carapace. Destruction nigh immeasurable riddled the grand, yet grotesque, frame, and the toll for its audacity inexorably mounted.

As the fog of radiation temporarily dimmed, she encountered more satisfactory news.

>> Kilamara, Chandoo nodes pinging grid.
>> Grid offline.
>> Kilamara, Chandoo nodes pinging grid.
>> Kilamara node reports reacquisition of local nodular cluster.
>> Chandoo node reports reacquisition of local nodular cluster.
>> Grid online.


The unified forces of energy and entropy brought about the celestial entity’s inevitable disarticulation, but she wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to slay the beast. Immediately, Ezkshi encoded a message into the grid. “To Cizran High Command. This is the Zara vi-Pol, commanded by Ezkshi, admiral pro-tempore of Admiral Nenegin’s away fleet. Priority Θ. Requesting immediate authorization for konul transmundane-ablation.”

. . .


Even before Nenegin, with his honor guard, prowled aboard the Vespis Dol to, in an act well beneath his station, investigate the cause of its superluminal failure, two facts glinted golden against his left iris from the data router embedded within his mask.

Of very little importance, the first notification informed him that the responsibility transfer protocol finalized, which indicated that Kirri, Lysander, and the tome—as it was, to his most recent recollection, manifested—no longer added their weight to the burden of his authority. The three items of property, along with whatever other chattel associated with the Dira var-sha’s haloportal confinement chambers, were now warded by Gereza.

However, the second item interested him greatly. War was imminent and his away fleet possessed the assumption of authority to deploy konuls in battle. A momentous occasion, as no threat in recent history rose to an occasion that required anything beyond mere conventional weaponry. He regretted his absence, but at the same time saw it as an opportunity for his protégés and wondered whether they would be bold or demure.

Those items pushed to the back of his mind, he concentrated on his inspection of the freighter. As soon as he expanded his empathic consciousness, a terrible wrongness loomed like a specter in the sankul chamber. A taint seeped from containers, designed to be perfect prisons of the ultramundane, that cloyed with his senses and infected him with disgust.

Appalled, he paused his stride.

Something in him hinted that this vessel must never reach the holy planet; moreso, whatever put it in such a state.

To his honor guard, Nenegin commanded, “Escort the passengers and crew, if any there be, to this anteroom for interrogation.”

. . .


On the massive wrap-around screen that dominated the fore of the Zara vi-Pol’s bridge, and likewise on the bridge screens of the allegiant Cizran military vessels in the sector, a message displayed:

>> KTmA authorization granted: Perallis 3-5, Chandoo 1.
>> – – The Liars.


The bold text brought unexpected stillness to what was an already quiet, albeit active, environ. For a moment, Ezkshi broke from her combat data analysis to fully absorb its meaning. Of importance was the designation of the high command department who responded and the role they played in military messaging. Strictly speaking, it meant formal approval of her request was not yet granted; however, given exigent circumstances and a quorum of influential backers, she possessed now the authority to act on the assumption that it was. It also meant she assumed responsibility for any consequences should the political atmosphere change.

Absently, she heard, “Who are the ‘Lairs’?” whispered on her bridge.

The mechanical voice of her executive officer explained, “Predictive military introspective intelligence. During times of war, they make educated guesses as to what central command will ultimately decide.”

“So we’re at war?”

“No official declaration has been made,” Ezkshi interrupted.

She let insinuation hang in the silence. If KTmA authorization was unofficially given and under formal consideration, that meant the Lairs were confident a declaration of war was imminent. Until then, the responsibility for them being wrong belonged solely to her as the ultimate decision maker. Not merely was it her reputation at risk, but that of every Cizran in the chain of command in this present theater; all three, given Nenegin’s absence.

Four konuls named, two of which were on the battleship Zara vi-Pol, another on the specialist ship Nool Al-Pas, and a third on the cruiser Kazra-dei. Only one KTmA was anticipated, which, given the liberal response from high command, indicated a considerable severity of situation and anxiety in the holy city. Yet, as she perused the combat report, although she still considered that much power overkill, it seemed an increasingly warranted response.
Undeniable


While Plango fled, Ec-shavar rose—not to glory, but, unbeknownst to himself, through the interstice of fate that led to ignominy.

Motes of rage confused the former clarity within the labyrinthine complexity of his empathic organ, in which Ec-shavar felt what his mind refused to countenance. Fueling it was a vicious truth that lingered and mocked his futile denials, tore at the ligaments of his psyche, and scorned the raison d’etre of not merely himself but his entire species. It was a fact intolerable to the extent it was unthinkable—that an unworthy wa’ali prognosticated such an auspicious occasion while he, the epitome of billions of cycles of evolution, stood impotent and irrelevant before that which he beheld. Worse, it became apparent that more unworthies than Xo’pil were availed prescience to the calamity, for even the Quish were safely sealed within the catacombs beneath Zold’nach and likewise the wildlife within their burrows.

It hardly matters now, he bitterly abnegated.

Invisible, the psychic tendrils of his mind wound round the planet’s electromagnetic shield, constricted in an upward wave of paroxysms, and brought him through and above the city’s forcefield and into the stratosphere. There, his senses unimpeded, he observed clearly. Greatly altered, Q’ab barely resembled his recollection from mere days prior. It hummed with a frequency that threatened the fragile molecular bonds of life. Beneath him, clouds and the seas assumed strangely repetitious patterns reflected inward until the mind became frustrated by its impulse for closure. The shalam glowed eerily, its radiation piercing soil, stone, and flora in an earthy aurora that cast the continents, for a moment, in a mantle of scintillating green. Inexplicably, the terrain muted in reaction to the exquisite dissonance and ultimately sharpened until it, like the oceans, blazed the purest blue; even the variegated hues of Q’ab’s vegetation were reordered and inevitably capitulated to the sapphire regime.

Futilely, his mind sought for a shred of historical precedence, yet, in spite of the long Cizran occupation of Q’ab, no similar event revealed itself.

I fear no unknown, Ec-shavar blustered. Fear and rage were distractions. Focus was required. It was his moment. He would be transformed. He would be reforged and reborn as a god.

Brazenly, he bore himself to the power that surged from Ajana to Q’ab and willed it to acknowledge him—recreate him. In reckless abandon, he burned in the halation of its majesty. Even that proved to be beyond his strength to reconcile, for it rent his armor and introduced disorder into his carefully devised genetic blueprint. Senses successively blunted and his will perverted, his hold on Ganaxavori’s kukull’s faltered and the world below whorled into an indecipherable muqarnas of lapis lazuli.

Then it—Ua—passed by Ec-shavar without notice.

Crestfallen and the tatters of his attention unable to follow the cosmic aberration, Ec-shavar returned his mind to Ajuna, the molested and unstable star. With effort, his mind pierced its volatile plasma eruptions, coronal mass ejections rife with heavy elements, and contorted magnetic bands. It was violent and dangerous. All of Q’ab was in imperiled by unbridled blaze. Then he sensed yet another presence. From behind the star emerged a peculiarly familiar malevolence nearly identical to what was carved in stone in his office by the ancients of Q’ab. Its likeness likewise appeared in temples and tapestries all over Cizra Su-lahn. A black blemish of absolute evil, revealed in the other being’s wake, bled darkness over the canopy of starlight and awoke in him nightmares of the calamitous era before he splintered from the whole.

At last Ec-shavar comprehended that the forces that confronted him were beyond his ken. The gods he longed to join were manifestations that succored on on the effluence of stars and supernovae. In comparison, what was he who subsisted on mere vanity? Less than nothing and, soon, mere dust lost in a maelstrom of power. All he beheld overwhelmed him, as it would any lone Cizran.

In earnest, he cast aside the barriers erected around his connection to his brethren—he flung wide the floodgates of his soul. For the first time in a millennia, he basked in the kinesthesia of long severed relationships. He felt the vitality that burned in Plango, Domnik, Silexies, and more; moreover, they felt him. A beacon that burned brightly throughout the empathic galaxy of his people, he conveyed in an instant a threat—not to himself, but to his people—via the instrumentation of their unique, unbroken, and inimitable bond.

Ajuna scorched Q’ab.

The bond evanesced.

A great deluge soothed.

Obliterated, first was he, last of his breed, Ec-shavar, never to eternal dwell in the Cloud of Ghot.

. . .


Inescapable


Kirri never was aboard the Dira var-sha.

Cizran were wise and cunning. They defended against the unknown, allowed for the unexpected, and permitted no exposure of unnecessary risk. Prisoners were secured in neither ship nor structure, but confined where they could do no harm—self-harm included. Rifts emergent from dimensional vortices at the bottom of a black hole designed by Silexies were where the unwanted were sent, access to which was facilitated by ad-hoc generation of wormholes that bridged encrypted spacial coordinates. If one escaped, decamp to a region of insignificance and solitude occurred. As Eel Sermonde and Eti Naris both could have attested, they never felt the crude embrace of manacles; instead, space, sensation, and impulse were constrained. Against such, brute force was utterly impotent.

On par with Cizran intellect was their perception, so keen as to avert deception. Schemes unfolded only as pretext warranted, as was true with Eti Naris’ charade. To Ec-shavar, the synthe’s prohibited mods and conspiracy with Potan Mul were known, the intended occupant of the Vepsis Dol’s sankul foreseen, and Plango’s role as his replacement comprehended. Venial deeds such were so long as relief from exile remained within reach; thus, rather than punish, he isolated, controlled, and exploited the affectation of innocence to his advantage.

Kirri lacked these especially Cizran qualities.

He and his ilk were mentally deficient, evidenced by the haste with which he, exemplar of his species, succumbed to phrenic distress after mere translocation into standard haloportal confinement. His visions were not prophetic, but pathetic byproducts of hopes and fears distilled in synaptic discord. For him, there was no door open, no bar to bend, no chain to break, no shackle to unbind—those were mere chimeras extrapolated from his cultural bias. Any analogs to such archaic contrivances were obsolesced by the Cizran Empire millennia prior.

There was no spiritual journey; no bold rescue by his hero, Aredemos; no repudiation of Nenegin, who never would have permitted an unknown quantity aboard his spacecraft; no menagerie of queer aliens with origins outside of known space—only Kirri’s mind projected against the interior of a fold in space.

Millions of light years physically separated Kirri and the Dira var-sha.

Aredemos was not on his way to both.

. . .


Destruction


Desert, jungle, and valley defined Kilamara, a once-planet in the Su-laria galaxy’s edge once protected by the Cizran Empire. An expanse of sand sharpened by translucent red spires divided its sole continent as well as the sexes of its most conspicuous inhabitants, the Kilamarans. A place of contrived norms, its opposites were ultimately mirrors where jungles abutted oceans, rivers careened down gorges, valleys accentuated mountain ranges, and a cyclic abundance of primal urgency and consumption were ever and conspicuously manifest.

Once

From atop Mount Initãra, Aredemos scorned the fractious symmetry of his homeworld. Still visible in the distance blazed a symbol of Cizran might, an orb of frenzied light and excited particles. It would have been his funeral pyre were it not for translocation to his present vista. The residue of the orbital bombardment involved a rod smaller and lighter than the tumescent form Aredemos assumed in his wrath and, accelerated to a percentage of light speed, contained enough kinetic energy to eradicate the Hellseed incursion, engulf a spherical kilometer of terrain in plasma, and unleash a wave of destruction across a vast, but uninhabited, expanse.

This, indirectly, was why Mount Initãra was on what was Kilamara.

Was.

If Aredemos’ unfamiliarity with an ancient Kilamaran shrine hinted at lack of kinship with his people and ignorance of his own history, the haste with which he obliterated his own planet bellowed volumes about his recklessness. A scientifically illiterate boob, repeatedly he displayed a prejudice towards brute force as the solution to his problems. It never occurred to him the kinetic energy present in the orbital bombardment was orders of magnitude less than the equal and opposite force necessary to reach Kirri or, as he imagined, chase down a superluminal spacecraft. The instant he kicked down and accelerated to multiples of light speed, he atomized Mount Initãra, splintered the planetary crust over its entire surface, agitated the mantle into an unstable brume thrice its natural volume, and pulverized the core. Momentarily unbound by gravitational pressure or an external shell, the superheated interior expanded to a gaseous nebula that incinerated and sterilized all life that clung to the debris field once known as Kilamara.

In future Cizran science classes, this would be an example of why kinetic energy was never to be used to achieve great speeds in short time frames while near anything of value, although such was within their power; it was inherently pointless and self-destructive. Instead, they elected a harder path that preserved and maximized the resources available in the worlds they controlled.

With Kilamara gone, the delicate gravitational balance of its star system was disrupted and an asteroid field stretched along the path the planet once circumnavigated. On Deimobos, mountain-size impactors of burnt rock and semi-solid magma weighing exatons rained in torrents and would do so for millennia. In the fallout, the moon’s surface was battered, subterranean lairs ruptured, history eradicated, and all but the hardiest macro-level life annihilated. As the debris field spread, it wrought havoc on all worlds, from the primordial to the domains of the Aptosites, adrift within the belly of the galactic beast known as The Cradle of Life.

. . .


En Route To


Aboard the Dira var-sha, calm prevailed. The bridge was, as usual, minimally staffed. Anything more was unnecessary while under faster-than-light conditions, where threats assumed a disposition different and diminished from the ordinary. Even in situations where a full complement was required, the presence of crew was ceremonial—a holdover from a bygone era kept in place by bureaucratic inertia. For modern vessels, like the Dira var-sha, all importance systems were fully automated, from defense, to propulsion, to life support.

Gazing through the viewport at the gray miasma that superluminal travel presented was the first officer, Lieutenant Commander Qigar, a Zanifeen slave with a velvety trunk for a nose. Despite his title, he had no real authority and served as a reminder to the crew of Nenegin’s conquests. Instead, like most denizens of the Cizran Empire, his role was relegated to relaying information between parties. After all, it would be absurd for the ensign manning the communication network, a low-caste synth, to address the admiral directly.

Thus far, the distress signal from the Vepsis Dol went ignored; even the volume of the alert was reduced to the absolute levels permitted by protocol. While the proper reports acknowledging its receipt were filed, the standing order—or lack thereof by the requisite authority—was that it was a matter that could wait, preferably for someone else to address.

At any rate, they would be in orbit around Cizra Su-lahn within the hour.

Suddenly, a second alarm blared and shocked the occupants of the bridge out of their reverie. Its tone and color indicated it was of a much greater priority than the first. Qigar gazed with irritation at the synthe as he waited for the information to be relayed. A second later, the synthe practically jumped out of her station and the atmosphere on the bridge transformed from one of quiet professionalism to excited chatter. Not an excitement born of dread of fear, but of astonishment.

“Lieutenant Commander Qigar,” the synthe exclaimed, her words rushed as as she plucked herself up off the floor and took her seat, “Kilamara is .. it is gone!”

Agitated by the news, the hairs along his snout puffing out, as if electrified, in a ridiculous and off-putting fashion. This would not be received well by Nenegin, but it was best to pull the admiral in as quickly as possible. Before he would do that, Qigar wanted a bit more explanatory data to work pass along up the chain of command.

“Synthe xb-83-r, compose yourself! Now, what do you mean by gone?” demanded the first officer.

The synthe paused and pressed her fingers to her temples for a moment, took another glance of the data feed, and, her voice trembling with excitement, elaborated, “Sir, it appears a several xenna joule kinetic impactor, centered around Mount Initãra, blew off the crust, lanced through the core, and effectively surrounded the planet in a fiery gas cloud.”

“Aredemos, that imbecile,” muttered Qigar, “kicked the planet so hard it ruptured. Why?”

“Sir?” the synthe articulated, unsure of what to do next.

Qigar paused and concluded speculation on that matter was above his rank. Instead, he demanded, although he could have easily guessed at the answers, “Information delay? Casualty rate?”

“1.3 seconds before the alarm—the time it took for our communication network to process the data. As for casualties, everyone. Our satellite detects no life forms in the wreckage. A likely outcome, as the impact vaporized the planet’s molten core, which would have sterilized surrounding masses. Uh … on the subject of Aredemos ...”

The synthe paused.

“Well?” Qigar practically snarled through his flared proboscis.

The synthe pressed her palm against the side of her head as if trying to concentrate. In a way, the image was accurate—she was exchanging a great deal of information with the communication network in that moment and all her cognition circuits were active.

“Sir, we’ve isolated the aberrant being’s course. He is heading toward sector c-xv-209-r7, the gravity well at the bottom of an artificial black hole.”

Qigar rolled six of his nine eyes.

“He thinks he is going to rescue Kirri, as in that twisted space lie many of the sub-dimensional vortices where prisoners of war and other undesirables are isolated. Kirri’s imprisonment codex, when activated, opens to a rift to a dimension therein. A fool’s errand, as the tidal forces of that space, both physical and spiritual, will stringify Aredemos both body and soul. If he survives that, he will be trapped in a rift and, if he is anything like Kirri, subjected to fantasies of his mind’s own making. A better fate than the fratricidal brute deserves, if you ask me.”

“Enough speculation,” Nenegin appeared and silenced the chatter on the bridge. Normally, a Cizran of his rank and experience would have an apprentice instead of a wa’ali. His, however, was recently promoted to commander and reassigned to her own ship. Instead, he, the only Cizran aboard the Dira var-sha, suffered a fool for the sake of his vanity. Qigar’s musings were of a top secret nature and not something meant to be prattled about on the bridge where anyone could hear it. That matter would be dealt with appropriately. In the meantime, everyone stilled. The only noises were the two alarms and muffled breathing. The only changes in scenery were the intermittent flashes of alert lights. His gaze swept the chamber and settled on Qigar who awkwardly shrank back in fear beneath the admiral’s inspection. “I’m aware of the situation. We’re changing course. Acknowledge intent to render aid and set a course for the Vepsis Dol’s distress signal.”

“Yes, Admiral,” Qigar stammered.

“Also, relay all prisoner confinement codexes to Gereza, priority one off maximum. We may need the space for some new detainees and Silexes will be able to observe more actively than we. Once that is complete, resequence to free confinement zones. I’ll prepare a memo for the warden to accompany the request”

Horrified, the first officer blurted out, “Resequencing without physical hand-off and authorization at Gereza Proper will mean abundantly more paperwork! Plus there is the matter that our codexes lead to military and espionage zones, not standard penal zones!”

“A little paperwork never hurt anyone,” Nenegin threatened, turned, and left. He had his own paperwork to file.

Even so, in Nenegin’s mind, he knew he would rather do anything else. Likewise, he would rather attend more important matters than assisting a stranded vessel, but he was desperate to put off standing before the Si’ab reporting on how he let a submoronic insect on steroids destroy a planet under his protection that was cultivated and veritably ripe for konul harvest and mineral extraction. It was a waste of resources that put him at risk for demotion or worse.

Well, at least the konel deployment was partially implemented, thought Nenegin with an inaudible inward sigh.

Back in his quarters, he felt the ship briefly drop out of faster-than-light to undergo the course adjustment. The walk allowed him to gather his thoughts, although all decisions were already made. It was simply a matter of execution at this point. Satisfied, in the hyperbolic sense of the word, Nenegin articulated the indicated message and passed it along to the bridge.

“To the acting warden at Gereza Prison Compound,

Greetings from Admiral Nenegin zar-Taliļ.

Due to unusual and unprecedented circumstances, I have elected a remote codex transfer to relay access and responsibility of our detainees to the authorities at Gereza. I apologize in advance for the additional processes and protocols this will necessitate and have included an addendum on the various forms and procedures that must be adhered to. Additionally, please be aware that the codexes for the
Dira var-sha’s confinement zones are designed for military and espionage operations and therefore differ from those of which I am aware operate in Gereza and as such there is a high likelihood of the need to transfer the contents to a secondary zone following processing. I’ve attached as much information as we’ve gathered regarding the detainees, but ...”

Despite its great detail and length, the full text of the memo largely reiterated the summary.

A lot of words for something so simple.

Such was the Cizran way.

. . .


The Aptosites


“That’s quite enough, thank you,” spoke a dim presence.

Compliant, the sumptuously vivid portrayal of Nenegin zar-Taliļ condensed to an acidic fog. Too heavy to remain aloft, its constituent droplets struck the deck mere meters from Karzar and Snil. Venomous hissing poisoned the aghast silence as the corrosive substance splashed, sizzled, and sated itself on all it pooled upon. Discrete, the miasma inevitably thinned and revealed a hovering black orb with a single point of white light in its midst. Once, twice it blinked. Then it exploded sharply—darkly.

Queued for destruction, the mock manifestations of Aredemos and Kirri likewise persued the pattern of deliquescence, revelation, and eruption.

Distant, invisible, but likewise trapped in the so-called Cradle of Life lurked the Zara vi-Pol, a vessel, one of many, left to patrol the sector recently vacated by the Dira var-sha. Largest remaining, it, a battleship, readied itself for combat under the direction of Ezkshi, the fleet’s admiral pro tempore. Not one for honorifics or grandiosity, she prepared her retaliation in the soft, thoughtful, orchestral manner that typified her fame.

Deliberately, she shifted her thoughts away from her enemy’s repulsive display of arrogance. Eagerly divulged by the Aptosite leadership to a simulacrum, enough was now known of their intentions. Now she concentrated on the preservation of her fleet and the exquisite destruction she would mete out upon her adversaries.

“Bodhi languors on complacency’s shore,” she acknowledged, a terse refrain that highlighted the peril of security wrongly presupposed and an understatement of her present circumstances. None of their predictive models hinted at the possibility Aredemos would be so absurdly idiotic. Yet there it was, a matter of historical record, and here she was, adrift with a dozen other cloaked vessels secreted in the debris field of the demi-god’s former home planet.

The shock of that audacious act, she concluded, was what blinded her to the cosmic imprisonment that enveloped the chaos of which they were a part.

That given, opportunism made herself an ally to all who saw her value and the counterintelligence arm of the Cizran Empire was inordinately robust. Amongst a multitude of other Aptosite machinations, the scheme to kidnap Nenegin was known to Ezkshi, so she improvised. An unusual endeavor, to be sure. Even so, the enemy’s expectation of guests culminated in covert access to their facility by three of her drones and marked the dawning of her riposte. Armed with intercepts from the unnecessarily lengthily observation of Zeptir’s failed spy-craft, she was confident that …

“Engage phasic battery—target areas dense in population,” Ezkshi ordered, the time for speculation concluded. It wasn’t relayed to the other vessels in the fleet nor conveyed via her empathic organ. They were on an absolute silence protocol, all bands, and widely dispersed. Still, the commanders of the other vessels were wise enough to observe her havoc and follow suite. Cizran destruction was, after all, rather distinctive. “Have we isolated the metalogical choke-points of this thing that swallowed us? Excellent. Unleash a volley of slipstream decomposition pulses through the virtual arteries of the quantum foam. Don’t give the parasites anything they can analyze until we open up a communication channel to the grid and receive authorization to unload some real magic.”

. . .


Their Intrigues Foiled


Within her usual place on the steps of the Ja’Regia, the Watcher sat. Chaos adequately described the vast chamber on any given day, but the recent rumors of war transformed it into absolute bedlam. A cacophony of words and a whiteout of papers made it unlikely any but the most astute observer heard or saw anything of substance. The shouting, stomping, flinging of vellum, and further accentuations to the absolutely unnecessary din were hardly where the insanity ended nor the possibility of war its direct cause. Many, the more ambitious and younger parties of the assembly, relished the idea of open conflict after centuries of stagnation. Even more desired and conspired to seize the moment of confusion to advance their political agendas. At present, they argued about whether a hold should be placed on peace legislation; whether a battle council should form and, if so, who should be seated; and whether they were even at war or should be concerned by recent events. Most accepted the need for a council, but then bickered over the details of its theoretical size, roles, oversight, and limitations. It hardly mattered where Nirak focused her mind, for everywhere alliances were forged, broken, and reforged; massive guardian kukulls were deployed to prevent or dissolve the numerous fights fomented by the most vociferous parties; cold proxy battles ensued, rife with blackmail, intrigue, and armies deployed to the borders of their respective holdings.

If she tried hard enough, she could pierce through to the center of the Ja’Regia’s torrent of manuscripts. There, a cerulean projection of Su-laria, the galaxy in which their holy planet resided, slowly rotated in multidimensional splendor. Two anomalies were highlighted in neon orange. The first, on the edge of a galactic arm, was an incursion that, already, snuffed out the Kilamara and Chandoo systems. Its manifestation was incomplete, for it was only partly within the galaxy and only partly observed by their satellite network. Nevertheless, they reasonably estimated the length of its cross section on the order of several light years. The second was harder to describe. Initially manifesting in the Ganax’ab system, it was a being that defied classification, one moment organic, the next metaphysical, and the next mechanical.

For the most ancient amongst them, memories long forgotten stirred. Buried emotions and lore that went as far back as the Kr’Nalus.

Nightmares and rumors aside, there were fragments one could piece together. Take, for example, the spy Zeptir. Unlike any other Cizran alive, this being, who alleged to be of their species, lacked both his empathic bond and family name. Nobody knew him, which was not only unheard of for a Cizran—it was impossible. Every member of their species, no matter how unimportant or obscure, did not exist without the requisite paperwork! There was also the matter of how bad at spying he was—the threads he left behind were highly reflective and detected by surveillance as soon as they were put into place. Moreover, her connections in the Noema and Av’sti assured her of his fraudulence. She further became aware of their counter-intelligence operation, where they fed him lies, provided fake organs for his experiments, and otherwise manipulated him to their advantage. They learned, by intercepting his communications, that he belonged to a space-faring species from a galaxy beyond the Cizran Empire. Things known as the Aptosites. Given his communication frequency, they eventually managed to crack the encryption and even the alien language. Really, it didn’t take long for a civilization with quantum computers thousands of years old and 10^7,000,000,000 FLOPs of processing power.

. . .


A Rescue Impeded


The dreadnought fell out of superluminal velocity and slid into position next to the stranded Vepsis Dol. Constructed in the renown shipyards of Zo and amongst the largest craft of the Cizran armada, it appeared as little more than a mote of diminished silver light that hovered nigh-indiscernible and minuscule when set alongside the massive black hull of the transport. Yet, in spite of its relatively small size, it contained the power necessary to vanquish whole civilizations and hold steady against cosmic anathema.

A knock sounded on Nenegin’s chamber door. It was, as he anticipated, Qigar, his first officer. With a mere glance, the ornate metal door dematerialized in a shimmer of blue and permitted the lieutenant commander’s entry. Punishment for the Zanifeen’s gregariousness already dolled out, he entered meekly, prostrate himself before Nenegin, and waited until the cabin was secure before speaking.

“Sir,” he began in a pained, gravelly tone. It was clear that every utterance was agony. Still, he continued, “Aredemos is—”

“Not here, no longer a threat, and of little consequence,” Nenegin mused.

“Alive,” Qigar, tersely as manageable, completed his thought. “Imprisoned.”

“As expected,” acknowledged Nenegin. Prior Qigar’s summons, he requested and reviewed the situation report. Given the projection splayed out in the haloportal in which Aredemos ensnared himself in his ultimately futile attempt to free Kirri, the demigod imagined a great victory. The fool actually thought he could force his way onto the Dira var-sha. The idiot actually thought Cizran technology so antiquated as to use manacles and chains—to lock detainees up within close proximity of expensive infrastructure, as if that wasn’t a lesson learned and a problem solved well before even the Kr’Nalus. Arrogant, myopic, primitive, and uneducated competed in Nenegin’s mind as appropriate descriptors of the would-be god, but ultimately he settled on nuisance. He pitied his subordinates who would have to deal with all the paperwork involved in the fiasco. Still, there were now other, more present, matters to focus his efforts on.

“Now, concerning the transport,” Nenegin segued, “Prepare a boarding party in the event we have to take on guests. See if we can figure out why its propulsion systems were compromised. I’m sure you can—”

Suddenly, a third alert sounded—it was of the highest priority. The entire interior of the ship was bathed in an eerie red light. Relentless, it flickered in with an asynchronous oscillation pattern that focused the mind as much as it disquieted the soul. Horrific, unseen for a hundred years or more, it indicated the inconceivable. It meant war, although such would only be made official in the Ja’Regia.

Qigar, ordinarily a rich brown in color, even after his chastisement, struck Nenegin as rather ashen. No doubt there was some error or a surprise drill from high command. If not, what else could it be? Who or what might be capable of escalating a conflict to the level this alert indicated wasn’t at all clear to Nenegin. Unless … no, he didn’t want to imagine the old stories were true. Whatever the case, he intended to discover the facts of the matter as expediently as possible.

Without waiting for his first officer to recover from his terrified stupor, Nenegin opened a channel to the bridge and demanded, “Verify with central command whether this is or is not a training exercise,” then, to the entire ship, “As of this moment, we are at war. As of yet, we do not know the disposition of our enemy, but all personnel are to immediately head to their posts and ready their stations. Until we receive further orders or information, our priority is to get the freighter operational and escort it to safety.”

While in the process of that, he split his attention to the communication network to directly glean information. This was too urgent for formalities. His access credentials applied, he perused the highest levels of information available. Incrementally and inevitably, his mood soured.

>> Galactic system diagnostic reporting failures in Kilamara, Chandoo, and Ganax’ab.
>> Triangulating unresponsive nodes.
>> Kilamara, Chandoo nodes missing.
>> Perallis node reporting incursion of mega-spacial anomaly—existential risk imminent.
>> Perallis node reporting distress signal from sector fleet.
>> Perallis node reporting sector fleet missing.
>> Network-wide combat systems online.
>> Ganax’ab node unresponsive.
>> Initiating override reboot sequence on node: Ganax’ab.
>> Ganax’ab online.
>> ...


Even for Nenegin, the quantity and content of the information was alarming.

Assuming it was a mere system malfunction that he could briefly peruse, he decided to review the Ganax’ab report first.

Very quickly, he realized just how terribly wrong he was in his assumptions.

Tampered with by Ec-shavar, it was soon abundantly clear why it was, of late, so laconic. Both its combat and surveillance subsystems were locked down by the governor’s authorization codes and only now, overridden by the reboot sequence from high command, did the information collected by the node flow freely throughout the network. It came like a torrent. Much of it Nenegin cared nothing for, such as the assassination attempt and subsequent schemes amongst Ec-shavar, Potan Mul, and Plango.

What concerned him greatly, however, was the wave of metaphysical energy that erupted from the Ganax’ab star like a torrent. The halographic projection of the event showed a massive beast emerging from behind the star, orbiting it with a sinister grace that sent a chill down Nenegin’s spine. He watched the horror feed on Ajana, the local name for their system’s luminous body. It swelled, a bloated terror of a composition he could not even begin to comprehend. Machine, flesh, aether—it hardly mattered as the apparition perversely and ambivalently cascaded through a multitude of physiognomies and self-representations while its voracious consumption caused it to dwarf the burning body it so eagerly consumed.

Quickly, it became clear to him why the Vepsis Dol floated helplessly alongside his vessel.

. . .


So Begins the End


Formed by multiple galaxies, the Cizran Empire sprawled a million light years in diameter. Billions of worlds, habitable and inhabited, orbited in its expanse while trillions more spheres, once barren, were retrofitted as outposts or colonies. More numerous were their ships, manufactured in a cavalcade both ceaseless and efficient at the mineral-hungry shipyards of Zo. Vaster yet in number and reach were the nodes of the grid, each constituent member of its nodular clusters seldom more than an astronomical unit apart.

Whatever fate culminated thus was no accident.

Instead, it was deliberate, evidenced by the undeniable order, efficiency, and communication preserved across the mind-boggling expanse. In the tens of thousands of years of their expansion, they dauntlessly stared down a endless stream of existential threats from within and without, subjugated worlds stronger in magic than Kilamara and more technologically mature than the Aptosites.

Against grim odds and by a deliberate progression of evolutionary cycles, the Cizran Empire prevailed. While still yet broken, they resurged from the cusp of extinction in an alien harvest recollected in the annals of the Kr’Nalus, a tome named for the galactic empire’s collapse first and only. In spite of their splintered collective and the sudden limitations imposed on their magical acumen, they achieved even greater conquests than before. While flawed, decadent, and bogged in bureaucracy, they were equally wise, earnest, introspective, and pragmatic. Experience made them even more adroit. Battle-hardened, they reconquered every lost colony, every civilization and alliance that rose up against them in their moment of weakness; they broke down every barrier and expanded beyond the borders of their galaxy of origin to worlds beyond the void.

One factor in their success was the grid.

While not a formal name, the grid nevertheless elevated Cizran control over their empire to a degree once attributed to only gods. Within the empire’s subjugated galaxies, it was omnipresent, with each world invisibly accompanied by a nodule cluster; likewise, it was omniscient, for it observed all within its territory and proliferated critical information onward to Cizra Su-lahn; and, lastly, omnipotent, for it was augmented with an array of highly lethal instruments designed to counteract all manner of incursions and uprisings, no matter the size, disposition, or spectrum.

Lesser civilizations simply referred to it as Bahá-cizr—the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Cizran god.

Within nanoseconds of the enemy encroachment, artificial intelligence activated the grid’s combat coordination contingencies. All around the Cradle of Life, the grid’s offensive capabilities were on full display. Even the two nodes within—Kilamara and Chandoo—sought to penetrate the apotheosis’ innards and restore contact with their counterparts. In constant communication, they instantaneously, via quantum interlinks, informed Cizra Su-lahn of every detail.

High energy gamma pulses interspersed with radio bursts destabilized and vaporized the arachnid web throughout the empire—as a result, the Cipher never received the order from Karzar. Simultaneously, along multiple frequencies, from the astral, to the psionic, to the energetic, to the ultramundane and beyond, they probed for and exploited weaknesses in the incoming anomaly’s armor. Within minutes, the nodes estimated an optimal disassembly pattern, self-arranged for geometric efficiency, activated their beams, and diced the Cradle of Life into enormous cubes. Statis fields were projected all along its surface, locking the mind-boggling amount of damage in place so that it couldn’t heal. It was like a dog thrown into a wood chipper, a cat stuffed into a meat grinder, a babe reduced to hunks of gore by the downward press of a razor wire fence—it was astronomically larger.
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