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It took a few seconds for the humungous arthropod to detect two other presences. Soon he chipped into the com channel to get Frost on the line.

He hadn't seen the skala at first; not with his own senses. With his drones, his sensory perception wasn't relegated to his own body but distributed across multiple smaller ones, linked to the central nexus of his own conscious perception. He smelled, heard, and saw what they saw like a thousand eyes inside of his own linked to a brain already used to controlling multiple limbs, bodily organs, augmentative parasites and other such components with a precision at once naturalistic and borderline mechanistic.

"Vazyrin here. Skala group detected. Around 12 of them, no firearms. A click or so away from our position. I cannot tell if they are here to scavenge or if they are a territorial patrol. That's not all."

His drones had picked up another signature; something like a faint tingle on their waving, whispy antennae. This wasn't a scent but a strange tingling that was almost electric. Elecromagnetic in particular.

"There's something else - the pilot has gone to investigate it. I can't detect it properly from here with the atmospheric conditions however. Some sort of electronics. Someone ask them whatever it is they've made contact with."

Normally, he would have gone and told the skala to stay clear. He'd been among their kind before and this planet was not unfamiliar to him. It was a good place to hide away from Federation patrols and the locals understood that.

The problem was that getting up meant giving his positions away and with an unidentified, potentially hostile presence in the clear, that meant making himself a target in an area with poor cover and visibility.

"I can try to contact the skala through my drones. Maybe I can stall them or we can work out an agreement. What's your call?"
As Rho-Hux confronted the Sect group, the offensive through the woods raged on. Off in the distance a section of the woods burned an angry, weltering orange as vehicular weaponry and shrieking mortar shells devoured foliage and infantry forces alike. The dialogue between purple, yellow, and white weapon flashes against the blue, green and orange had momentary stalled as a partially scourged open stretch of the woods became the site of another massive firefight. Gourlan’s advance had stalled but the woods weren’t any less alive with activity than they were before.

Through the shaded paths winding deeper into the heart of the Sprawls, the parasitic drones sent Zsresrinn found a foreboding, maze-like path where the mist hung heavy and the light barely reached. Bumpy and uneven terrain forced them to travel up and down an irregular topography defined by dense roots that crept over the path and sudden ditches in the earth. Footsteps and the scents associated with them could be detected; primarily troops from what could be discerned but a closer look revealed those of indigenous life forms – clearly making usage of a pathway that was increasingly revealing itself as a connecting pathway to other hideouts in the Sprawl.

Advancing further would cause the shared sensory link with the parasites to blur; a static not electric but somatic, causing the link between creator and drone to weaken as they neared the edges of control range. It couldn’t be said that was entirely the reason as to why however. A piercing, synthetic shriek roared through the thick foliage and the vision and hearing of the creatures momentarily blanked from a bright blue-white flash of light, silhouetting trees and leaves in a bright flash. Chitters, roars, and crumpling leaves could be heard in their wake as wiry, serpent-like shapes scattered through the woods, running towards and over the parasites in a wild, frenetic stampede. The sound of the unseen weapon firing was audible and visible from the distance; an angry burst of light that crept out of the depths of the Sprawl’s darker pathways yet did not truly leave it.

The creatures however, were unheard and unseen amidst the radiance. Most of the parasites sent out by Zsresrinn had been crushed in their frenetic stampede yet it is one that was impossible to hear over the monstrous, roar. It wasn’t what most would pay attention to.

Breaking from the tree cover, an enormous globule of radiant angry blue-white soared overhead. It seemed almost liquid like, a gigantic raindrop-like mass of coalescing, fleshy, warping energy not of this world. A distant chill crept across skin and carapace alike as distant waves of ethereal radiation washed over them; not enough to be dangerous but it seemed to caress them with a tender, hungry lustfulness as the globule descended towards the armoured column.

An explosion just a little less radiant than the burst that had sent it forward erupted in the woods, flattening trees and swallowing the flashing lights of weaponfire in a horrific bluish-white. Drifting clouds of an algae-like foggy blue hung as sporadic, intermittent weapons fire from the insurgents kicked up.

Their coms began to buzz, static washing through but not overwhelming the voice calling.

<How quaint; the very void-howitzers the League sold to us are now being turned on us.> A cruel laugh broke out from Gourlan, followed by a shrieking series of weapon discharge. <I hate to demand this of our guests, but would you mind dealing with this hopefully trivial matter?>

As the wash of spectrometric strangeness began to die down, the remaining two parasite-drones would have their psycho-somatic link re-established and repaired to Zsresrinn. As the stampede had ended, sight though not scent of the strange, unidentified creatures had been lost as they scattered into the woods. Yet they weren’t the only ones moving; air pressure sensors and their other longer-distance detection measures would notice other shapes moving in the wood. Yet they only needed their eyes to see something larger and multi-limbed shambling across the hill over which the void-howitzer had fired. It was too dark to make out its particular shape, too well hidden even in this frenzied moment, but a particular fresh, wet smell reeked from its body.

More importantly, the drones had established at least the rough general location of where the howitzer likely was and as they were still active, could keep an eye on the area for beast or soldier within the area. They hadn’t been detected, at least, not the living ones.
Vazyrin nodded and immediately made his way across the snow, sinking in deep with his immense weight. It barely seemed to dissuade him as he casually sunk his claws digits into the body of his rifle, causing a wet ripping sound that teetered on the edge of completely bisecting the weapon. That's what wone might think if not for the fact that his carbine began to extend with pale, newborn biomass manifesting in the space between its elongating barrel and slimming body while its stock began to mold as if being forced into the shape of some sort of x-shaped cup-like mass, bracing against his shoulder.

"Get going and stay on the coms. Ping me every five or so minutes. If your coms go down and an emergency happens, make noise and light."

With that, the huge creature advanced and settled on some of the elevated ground, partially shoved upwards from the cratering brought about the crashed vessels. His powerful claws stretched out from underneath his raised gun, shovelling away dirt and snow as he began to burrow into ground, soon partially concealed as he shovelled snow onto the rest of his body with smaller rear legs with brush-like claw-digits.

Soon, he looked little more like a rock formation himself, keeping a close eye on the vast plains. Subtly, a group of six or so flat-bodied creatures crept out from the snowy pile. Two skittered off to the crashed ships, climbing atop for a better vantage point and the remaining four split off to form a perimeter around the area.

"I've set up my surveillance. I'll let you know if I detect anything unusual."

"We're making this quick. The Federation do not lose that much personnel and hardware without raising alarms. There may be other vultures looking to cash in on this as well. Someone stays on lookout duty." The rust-scraping voice of the crew's largest companion grated away warningly. This mission was simple but so was every battle he had been in at heart. Everything else that would happen rarely was.

As Vazyrin finished talking, a series of loud clicks, clacks, and cocking cha-chunks responded as his arsenal (that anyewhere else would be a crew-served weapon) prepared themselves for their task. The huge arthropod stepped forward as his various firearms folded up into compact modular forms and seemingly vanished into his armour. It was dizzying to watch the plethora of alien limbs, each one guided by a single consciousness but working in an interconected series of prodding, shoving, twitching motions while his enormous primary arms and legs moved in some rough approximation of a common biped. At his enormous height, he looked almost to be guarding the landing chute if not for the fact his back was turned.

"The cargo ship will be the main priority. Once we make it in main threat will be security automata; this isn't the first ship I've raided and where humans will break, they do not. That leaves the potential for flesh and blood survivors on board and if so..."

He turned his long, mandibled skull to face Vorra and Frost.

"Rules of engagement, if you please. For surviving crew and unwelcome visitors. I'll leave it to you to decide who stays on watch duty."

||| Your kind are not unknown to us. We know you are not the original inhabitants of this world and have an understanding of why. We are not here for you and our presence here is not militaristic in intent but scientific and historical. Your sovereignty is respected and we do not intend to cause problems where they are not needed. This extends to the others who dwell below; we have also been aware of them for some time. We are willing to negotiate - we understand that you are far removed from most conflicts in the cosmos. This extends to us as well. You are aware however it may only be a matter of time before said conflict finds both of us and it will not hurt to be prepared. Our fleet has supplies and we are willing to work out a variety of deals in matters of mutual interest.

We have reasons to enter the depths but we do not plan to conquer them. Just as we are aware of your variuos observation points, we do not seek hostility. There are remnants of our own in there and would be willing to request your assistance with regards to finding them. We would prefer to speak directly about them over a secure channel or in a secure meeting space with your ambassadors. There doubtless questions you may have and vice versa. These are not matters we consider secure for conversation over a datapad. We hope you can understand and we look forward to future communications. Message us back and we can work out a location and time.
|||

The mite-like entity scribbled over the tablet, its palps splitting into a variety of smaller manipuator limbs like a nightmarish tree-branch assembly of surgical equipment. Laser projectors, vibratory blade cutters, self-repairing metal-coated cutter tips - its impressive arsenal was put to the task of meticulously writing across the back of the tablet and slowly piling up small anthills of dust around itself. One could easily think it was more of a machine with its mechnical precision. They wouldn't be entirely wrong. Like the bulbous, jellyfish like constructs their features were clearer now that it was easier to watch them. They had the bumpy texture of something like a meatball crossed with a mixture of sewer gunk and a nightmarish mess of jagged, metallic spikes.

These grotesque entities were simply drifting across the chasms below, almost looking like some sort of strange wildlife that had adapted to a world where remaining terrestrial or aquatic was entirely out of the question. Unlike jellyfish though, they were far from mindless. Complex sensory mechanisms and organs were scanning below but elsewhere, the beings they had been scouting for were making landfall.

On one of the large landmasses by the chasms below, a vessel long and flattened like some prehistoric crustacean hovered down to settle onto the ground. It almost appeared at rest but within its biomechanical body, it was anything but relaxed. Hundreds of multi-jointed limbs moved in visually overwhelming, hurried patterns as the un-living ship began to activate a series of complex mechanisms and hidden systems. Huge figures that shambled and skittered with the speed of creatures much smaller moved in busied patterns, coming close to yet never really crashing into one another. Some crept up the curving and undulating walls, others through floor-holes obscured by shadows, and some walked bipedally in a near silent harmony.

This landing spot hadn't been randomly chosen. The gunships flying overhead weren't doing simple air patrols. The mite-machines jumping from rock to rock weren't just exploring. No other nation knew it yet but this wouldn't be the first time some of these crewmen had landed here.

As the belly of the ship opened, hidden from sight behind a complex composite of syncretic armour, the belly of the chitinour machine began to open. Normally this would be used for deploying space-rated combat craft but today, it was something drastically different.

After all, it wasn't often the Rozkleřešení was manifested on the vessel - a gignatic swirling spherical mass of festering biomatter and constant self repair, its very surface a living tapestry of self-consuming and regenerative complexities laced through with eldritch machinery and guided by a consciousness far beyond what what anyone in the NIRC was capable of truly comprehending in terms of scope.

Only fragments of it were ever taken for these missions but they were almost revered such as the swirling chaos-sphere that hovered in the hangar bay, a silent watcher of the enormous vrexul crew that toiled with the complex preparations of scourging the very stone and metal they lay on with precise energy tools and cutter beams. Their augmented bodies seemed nonsensical at first - grotesque and overdeveloped with complex interlocking metal and biomass plating, multiple limbs working independently of one another, fleshless heads and lidless eyes at once aware yet empty. They moved to vividly to be machines but there was an economy to their motion almost measured in execution that certainly wasn't typical of organic life.

How they could keep so calm with the ominous sphere whose very being seemed a biomechanical catastrophe encased in a very loose shape was anyone's guess. There were smaller figures present, some digitigrade and tall, others roughly humanoid. Occaisonally, their armoured heads drifted to the mayhemic mass hovering above and the squishing, chittering, rustling sound - like a thousand pieces of paper shuddering and tearing in a dusty metal vent. Even as stone was scraped, metal scourged, and the ground slowly deepened, the piercing frequencies scratched at the consciousness as much as they did the ear.

Gradually the shape of some sort of cryptic alien design became clearer framed within the ovular launch bay. Symbols hidden by stone and debris revealed - lines and depressions in the black steel beneath the stone, coiling and jutting at asymmetrical angular configurations crafted by hands more ancient than any life on this world.

It seemed a metallic sigil lay there, somehow spotless in black-silver in spite of the ravages of time and the roughness of the excavation effort. Its purpose however, didn't seem clear. Not to the simple crewmen but to the Gnosis Eater fragment, it was clear why it was there. The vile sphere descended, joined by the mixed-species research crew, kneeling around it as blocky handheld computerized devices were pulled out and the sinewy centipede-like organism limbs that crawled out like freshly born worms of the sphere descended onto the the strange formation.

Slowly, a light began to travel along the grooves of the symbol.

++++++++++


In the easternmost reaches of space, between the NIRC and the Imperivm, a series of pod-like objects drifted near the edges of Surnian aerospace. They were inert, seemingly lifeless objects but a casual scan revealed they were satellites of some sort. Primitive machines from perhaps a generation or so ago of what was once Ascendency technology but something was different. They were sending out communications to the Surnians - a simple loop with a simple message.

|| To the high command of the SSCDL, the Nexus would like to formally open diplomatic channels in the wake of a change in leadership. We are aware of the state of your nation in these precarious times. We are offering an alliance and the exchange of our technologies. Retain these satellites in their current position for ease of communication. ||

++++++++++


Southwards, on abandoned Foundry worlds, once inert factories were seeing new visitors. Amidst the shattered bodies of defective vessels and the blast-marked ground, a new force walked upon these hostile worlds. Like the gigantic lungs of heaving beasts, the great industrial centres of the machine empire were starting to breathe again. It was slow at first with the grand shuddering of mechanism and gears but with each passing day, the exhales become growls and the growls became roars. On these lifeless worlds, the organs of dominion were awakening once more but it was not the CORE who was in charge.

On one such world, the pretender's to the throne were learning that the NIRC was far, far from the same threat as their own. The defector-Foundry's machines had the same ruthless efficiency but they were not used to fighting liberated SeCI's following the directives not of rival computerized overlords but a cunning, experienced enemy not bound by their strategic directives. Heavy tanks were baited into assaulting what at first seemed to be random uprisings of service class infantry, pelted by laser beams and missile launchers. Their shells cut first into the stone and steel of what at first seemed like makeshift fortresses, gounging them out and sending smoke and flames into the air.

The enemy would go silent... if only for them to reveal the reason for such. They hadn't silenced the SeCI's - only hidden them from scans as the electrointerference of their discharging weaponry impacting hidden mines, flooding the air with static interference. Early warning systems were left unaware and blind as globs of green-white plasma flew out of distnat, concealed positions. Heavy armour shifted and turned, caught between an enemy strongpoint and unidentified rays of metal-devouring hyper-heated wrath, shells cooking off and armour deforming them crushing under the horrific globules of flame. Stones crumbled and walls fell apart as the fortified position they were once besieging erupted open and from behind it, a monstrous away of titanic constructs foreign to their data logs. Tens of legs carried forth large ovular, crablike bodies effortlessly crawling over or smashing through the debris they had created. Fields of misty green and yellow flared as ion and rail shells slammed against them in close quarters, shielding what could be both warmachine or warbeast.

A few machines tried to break formation and carry out a flank but long beams of blue shot out from distant hillsides, tearing through wheels and navigation computers, sending the defector heavy armour to a stalling halt. All the better for the monstrous constructs to raise their massive, car sized claws and drive them into the unprepared armour of the now trapped armour battallions. Reinforced and hardened to resist railguns, they fared little better as the absurd brute strength and ethereal fields of wrath-amplifyng power simply ripped them apart, exposing delicate wiring and electronics to the rest of the world. Like some vicious arthropod predators, their multiple limbs sliced, stabbed, jabbed, and swung at sometimes up to four more machines. Close-in weapons and cannons fired at point blank against the conquering horde, gouging deep wounds but only seeming to further enrage the enormous machines. As if having discovered fresh carrion, they gutted the iron battalion, viciously ripping through multiple layers of internal mechanisms and gears, scourging open weaker side armour, and sometimes nearly bisecting them with their near-supernaturally enhanced claws.

While armour divisions were being all but devoured by an enemy they had never previously faced, infantry attempting to retake rocier territories themselves suffering no worse a fate. Rigid movements of robotic forces were spotted from thousands of yards away as bioelectro-thermal weaponry fired in criss-crossing patterns, sending living rounds slamming into troops disnegaging from armoured transports. Storms of energy bolts were fired in retaliation as the advance continued, sweeping over hillsides only to be pounced upon by long-legged, savage bipeds. Gealtirocht soldiers, hidden by jamming and active camo, kicked off of the ledges they were hanging on as energy sheaths over their blades effortlessly sliced through skulls, torsos, and legs. High intensity plasma PDW's opened up, overwhelming and overloading disrupted groups of infantry while point-blank solidified energy rounds tore off limbs and staggered back even heavier troop types. Even when forcing them back, it only meant having to deal with storms of overwhelming bio-propulsed seed-like bullets. Weaker than the autocannon fire from earlier, the increasingly bogged down troops pushed through only to find landmines hidden at enfilade positions, shattering them into pieces before gatling guns audibly revved up. Cover was shredded and the countless impacts per second slamming into even their most armoured soldiers nearly knocking them off their feet.

All throughout the valleys and outcroppings, bestial roars howling over shattered, crumbling, sparking metal were a stressful constant. The pretenders to the throne had found themselves now the targets a force like few others, one that could creep beneath their fleet, obscure itself in plain sight, and that so far, treated them as little more than inedible prey.
"The walls have eyes and ears. So does the dirt. An old saying from my homeland." His response was about as casual as he could get with a voice like rusting metal and rotting wood and a body like a jigsaw puzzle of segmented biology. It was an old saying but it wasn't wrong - work wasn't always steady for a vagabond like himself. Between dodging Federation patrols and dealing with the more unscrupulous parts of galactic society, it wasn't necessarily easy for someone was conspicuous as him to get work through official channels. Listening in, sometimes where he shouldn't be, was a necessary skill.

The fact that he hadn't simply murdered anyone made it clear that he had skills he didn't mind putting to use in the service of another's goals.
"You can release your grip on the pistol. You would need an accelerator-mod to even dent me." He continued, his multiple mandibles stretching outwards like a gigantic set of narrow sickle-like bear traps with serrated teeth lining every appendage. He was facing away from her, watching through the wide field of view afforded by his dome-like eyes, but the length and gnarled features of his mouthparts were clear. Sapient as he was, he looked more as if he should be some creeping, crawling, mindless creature. It was a miracle his voice, rough as it was, could somehow be more comprehensible than the vile biomechanical tapestries of grotesque cybernetics, mutations, and symbiotic growths that covered his carapaced form.

"We are not an illegal people. My kind have wandered your streets and back alleys before me. It is harder now but far from impossible, unless like me, you are in a certain line of work." He continued, extending one of his large arms. Even simply stretching it out caused multiple complex mechanism-like joints to reveal themselves as if it was not a limb but some enormous creature whose head ended in a formation of claw-like digits, each one moving as if bearing a life independent of the main body. A section of his wirst flicked open a series of text messages and star-maps opened up. They contained rather pertinent details - it appears he had been recruited for a very specific assignment.

"I was told a certain kind of expertise was needed. Aczyiom Dvrawsxyir thankfully, is the exact sort often requested in such a scenario." He continued, retracting the holo-display and turning fully to face her.
“That was your plane shot down a few hours earlier correct? I’m afraid that area is Kerovanian Separatist Alliance territory. As much as I would love to personally make it ours, the peace we maintain with them is done so for… reasons beyond my paygrade.” Gourlan spoke, pausing for a moment as a few of the troops near him grunted. Someone could be heard spitting and muttering something in celaderakan under their tongue – a human, specifically, one of Gourlan’s entourage. His semi-triangular, blocky helmet pulled back over his head as he turned towards Paris for a second; he wasn’t as bulky or blocky in shape given that the armour he and the rest of the group were wearing was based on a similar design philosophy.

“I can offer you something else in return. Your team is awfully small to say the least and while I do not claim to be an expert in Sect operations, I do know that many here lack the same respect that we will show towards you. After all, holding a few deniable mercenaries hostage is one thing but such a mismatched collection of commandos? They’ll know who it is easily. You are not just threats to be eliminated but assets to acquire. I would know from prior operations I have seen.” His grin grew, sickly motley fungal flesh pulling back against cruel, thorn-like teeth.

His fingers snapped and the same soldier that looked for him stepped up, bringing a box-like device, almost like a jerry-can save for a small gap around its midsection and a number of small antennae pointing out from its flat sides. Gourlan took it and offered it to Paris on his gloved fingers, long enough to hold the entirety of the device.

“Portable shield generator, the sort we employ during patrols. Handy when the local League-funded militias start thinking they can sneak under our noses and ambush us. 30 minutes for a full recharge but I’ve seen it hold out against a whole mag’s worth of heavy-duty gauss rounds. Yes, the militiafolk have those. Of course, the scielto lords we see carouseling on interstellar news-feeds about the importance of civility in this time of tension wouldn’t know anything about that.” He chuckled with a sound like water sloshing inside of a plastic bag.

As the impressively tall tarrhaidim turned to the hulking vrexul, Silver would get a sudden buzz over his coms. The soldier who he had been speaking to didn’t notice, giving him a rather disappointed expression before shrugging it off and walking away. Encrypted private channel – IFF tag marked as Dolsilvec Regime, specifically, from Yrilovan. There was data being sent but the progress bar was climbing slowly. It seemed reception was weak out here but soon he began to talk.

<I know you don’t trust us, but we have a mutual problem.> His voice was tense, a far cry from the arrogant confidence of earlier. <The rendez-vous point was top secret; nobody could’ve gotten the location unless someone incredibly capable broke in to our channels, unlikely without compromising it and alerting us, or someone is pulling some strings.>

A trace revealed that Yrilovan had moved between two of the APC’s – he was purposefully far from the rest of the gathered forces, even his own.

<I do not know what Gourlan is doing here; he might be being positioned and redirected. He might talk big but he’s a clown more than he is a killer. Something went wrong with your command chain or they are lowering their standards. I have never liked him, even as a respected leader who earned his spot, and I feel someone knows that.>

Gourlan in the meantime had produced a small rectangular data-pad in his hand, roughly the size of the mobile phones of civilians. With a few flicks of his wrist, a projected map appeared in a ghostly teal of the surrounding mountainous territory in all of its forested digital glory. A pair of lines were shown tracing back to a flat area of round and a nearby power plant – their current location. There were two spherical dots, one being a orange and another purple. Both travelled the same direction but differing paths, with the purple trail surrounded by flashing dots of red.

“As you can see, this is what I was instructed. The orange path is you of course, at least the path I was told you would take. Our path is parallel to yours and we have the fun part of the job – causing a ruckus with all the rebels hiding in the wood. We will draw their attention – you will be free to have your heroic little rescue mission in relative peace.” He smiled and turned to the rest of the team, leaning to the right to look at Silver. That voidhanger had been quiet – maybe the nature of such beings.

“I imagine you would all want to download a copy of this – this data-port is open right now if anyone would like a remote transferral. I don’t know how your briefing went but I was told that you would all take care of the scavenger hunt yourself. My folk are simply here to make noise and problems for any threats in the area of operations. There is a path for vehicles but it will be treacherous and the most open to hostile fire – it will slow us but just enough that we can match pace. All the better us than you – you will be doing a lot of movement through rough, forested terrain. Be prepared, Gnosis Eaters.”

He smiled to them all, his head slowly sweeping left and right. Was he looking for someone? And if so, who? After a while he closed the port and turned to his own squad, motioning for them to regroup and head to their transports. Just as suddenly as they had appeared, the group was getting prepared to leave, the engines of their huge machines revving as their mounted guns began to swivel.

Yrilovan had stepped out around this time, just as Gourlan entered his transport, and looked over to the Sect members he’d escorted this far.

“I will be on my way. I have some matters to deal with about this mission. When I get to base, I’m going to reach out to my higher ups and my contact with the Sect. We’ll need to stay in touch.” To that end, a number of blocky com devices, almost brick like in shape save for a thinner body that could be gripped, popped up in his hands and he passed them to the others. “I have no reason to stay but seeing that smug bastard’s face makes a lot of things not sit right with me. You watch yourself.”

++++++++++


The Sprawls, forested region of Caracosa






The appropriately titled Sprawls didn’t get their name for nothing. Moss covered trees bent like the old and the withered, barely maintained paths that stretched off into root-covered dirt piles, and past the treeline and over the edge of the mountain path, a maze of ancient vegetation that in spite of a number of grand craters and massive stretches of scorched forest, still seemed barely affected by the war. They could distantly see the group of APC’s moving up a badly maintained gravel paths, crumbling and dropping down into the treelines far below them, nearing an open area plateau area created by sustained bombing runs. It was impossible to tell where the hostiles were hiding, only that the sheer scope of it would be revealed soon.

For the Gnosis Eater team now making their way through the treacherous, misted terrain there were more pressing matters to deal with. They were assigned with finding a Sect base but there was a bit of a problem – they weren’t told how to. It was clear there was an idea of where to look and as far as anyone could be concerned, the base couldn’t have fallen yet. Whatever anyone thought of Gourlan and his team, it was clear they believed that they would be more than capable. He had all the reason to given it was known the Sect only chose the best of the best.

If the fungoid’s data was to be correct, their path through the woods would be fairly straightforward – keep moving northwards, remaining parallel to the Dolsilvecs even if they were divided by a treacherous, unknown wall of the wilderness. It wouldn’t be hard to keep track of them.

After all, barely a few minutes later and the sound of heavy calibre automatic weaponry and hissing energy weapons could be heard. Flashes of light lit up the woods a few thousand feet away and distant blasts echoed over the staccato argument between dolsilvec and rebel arms.

<Gourlan here. The madness begins. Let us see who can complete their work first now, Gnosis Eaters!> The tarrhaidim leader’s voice buzzed over their coms, followed by crackling and a scraping, unpleasant buzz. Those of the Dolsilvecs flashed a mixture of purple, yellow, and white. The rebels blue, green, and orange. Right now, the former were starting to drown the latter as storms of tracers scourged through trees and through distant black shapes, rendering an insurgent weapon silent.

Hidden from sight but not from scans, radar, and motion sensors, there was rapid movement just a few hundred metres away. Camo-fatigued forces could be seen moving deep through the faint fog with heavy footsteps and distant shouts – some in English, others in alien tongues. At least ten of them moving northwards along a similar path as Gourlan had outlined the Sect team was supposed to follow. Something was moving with them that wasn’t bipedal – they could hear some kind of mechanized gears whirring and heavier steps being taken, accented with crunching bark and loose soil slogging under its weight. Where exactly they were headed couldn’t be determined, at least not where they stood.

Whatever the source of that stomping sound was, it remained unseen as the silhouettes of the guerillas vanished, their footfalls becoming increasingly inaudible. The path forward for now, remained clear, but it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that any hostiles on this side were getting agitated and the mist could only hide one from their site for so long.

Further up ahead, where the insurgents had charged out of, the Sect team would be able to see what had seemed like a small camp further up on one of the hills, partially hidden by heavy bush but exposed when they had charged out of it, footsteps easily visible across the leaf-strewn floor. It wasn’t much – a few large rocks gathered around a small fire pit, a series of bio-mesh tents, and what looked like a pile of shells of some sort, snail like and covered in some sort of slimy fluid, next to a small hole in the ground with a shovel next to it. A long-bodied insect, looking something like a spinier ladybug larva, could be seen crawling near the round shells and some sort of ginger-y, pungent smell was coming from the tent.

They had left in a hurry – it was clear these ones were caught unexpected by the sudden Dolsilvec advance, but nothing of much worth could be seen here. Any weapons they had were taken with them and it was clear this was just a temporary hide out.

More gunshots off in the distance, blasts echoing over the mountains. Buzzing creatures shot off towards the sky, black shapes around the camp’s perimeter, and rustling could be heard all around. The forest was alive and it was clear as the battles grew more heated, the wildlife would grow further agitated. Time was of the essence – Gourlan’s team was heavily armed but there was no telling if it was only gauss guns the rebels had in store.

The path they had been travelling on was somewhat more exposed, closer to the edges of the elevated, hilly ground they had seen on the map. Yet another one was visible behind the tents – bushier and overgrown but clearly well used, either by animals or the guerillas. It seemed to head the same way but it didn’t look much easier to navigate, flatter but larger roots could be seen travelling across it with some only partially chopped open or cleared off – a few piles of chipped up wood could be seen.

It was less exposed but the problem was that there was no telling what could be hiding in here. After all, soldiers went missing in the Sprawl frequently and everybody knew it couldn’t always be chalked up to covert operators or clandestine engagements.
"I wish I knew. Are you attempting to get caught by the enforcers of the law? Get a better com-device."

The voice that responded was a scraping, distorted buzz that sounded harsh enough to be almost degrading but annoyed enough to not actually be hostile. Something scraped against the ground, skittered as if caught out of its hiding place and scampering for cover. Not too long after, a door could be heard clicking with a series of metallic scrapes, indicating that the locking mechanism was being undone. The gears whined and thuds ensued; heavy footsteps and a series of dimming chitters.

"I'm not a fan of waiting especially in conditions like these." The lock clicked back into place and the heavy steps continued."It is difficult for my kind to move around unnoticed. The porcine kind have eyes and ears all around. I walked in the city not as a free sapient but a creature to be watched and observed. It was difficult to not give them a piece of my mind, as your kind say."

His voice continued over the radio.

"They attempted to follow but I lost them in the scrap-yards. They thought me another vagrant, a lumbering hulk. They know not that the squalor and decay they created was my kingdom before it was their hunting ground." A grim chuckle, sounding more like metal scraping over dried bone than anything approximating human laughter. It was not easy for his kind to replicate the language of vertebrate species.

The steps stopped as the creature stopped, simply sitting onto the floor. Its massive, arthropod bulk was a death sentence for the old rusted chairs that were laid about.

"I was told there was work needed to be done, work that requires my talents." The huge creature continued, content to sit inside and speak over the coms built into its suit. "I want to know how big our team is and who they are first."

Karbana Kinis was far from the raging battlefields near the Dominion's boundaries but there were actions of a more calculatred nature progressing. The fleet of monstrosites carapaced and armoured had spread out in the same manner as predators drawn to the scent of hidden quarry - a few of the smaller vessels descended past the voidbeasts hanging in low orbit and past the networks of drones, not burning bright but like faded embers through the atmosphere that shrouded the labyrinthine world. They did not descend alone as like flaking dust, a rain of shrivelled, wrinkled particle fields fell alongside them, burning through the atmosphere as if the creatures serpentine and arthropod were decrepit architecture, the innumerable fragments dotting the sky beneath them like a cloud of flies.

The function of the chaff however was not merely hygenic. As they descended into the atmosphere they burnt, releasing waves of electrointerference and static and turning the area beneath them into a dead zone for any scanning devices present in the area. The beetle-like ships however, were not affected by such. They contained a variety of electronic components themselves but those were placed within the grotesque context of engineered chitin and flesh. What would cripple even EMP hardened satellites and current generation atmospheric entry craft did little but at most slightly dim the bioluminescent lights within them. Their living cargo shuddered as they braced themselves for drop, mycelial nerves connected to electronic wiring jolting them into awakeness. It wasn't light and life behind their flat, pupil-less spot-like eye-analogues or their motley, blemished flesh laced through with complex metals and electronics, lab-grown symbiote-parasites, and adaptive-malleable nano-armour plating directly bolted into their bodies.

The flooring beneath them began to open as the dropships, still beneath the cover of the cloud of interference, discharged their living cargo letting them fall towards the targeted drop sites. Spine-like protrusions on mite-like bodies extended as if waiting to catch onto some passing creature or vegetation, multiple feathered wing like protrusions emerging like moth antennae, stabilizing their patterns as they glided towards the rectangular platform seemingly floating above the chasm of jutting, misaligned metal below. These vast puzzle pieces that formed the body of Karbana Kinis were each large enough to be cities, islands amidst the architectural un-logic of whatever civilization once inhabited and deformed this world.

It wasn't long before their decelerated descent brought them onto the hard surfaces - they, along with others of their lab-born kind descending behind them through the atmosphere. Not human, vrexul, tarrhaidim, or gealtirocht but the un-living creations of this powerful alliance. Arachnid shapes bulbous yet predatory, bodies lined with complex scanning mechanisms and hidden weaponry, skittering about guided by intelligences as programmed machine as bestial instinct. Taking advantage of the remaining static interference, they began to rapidly disperse in groups of four kept aware of one another by psycho-mycelial communication networks immune to electronic interference. A number of them began to scatter downwards, hopping from platform to platform, boosting themselves with anti-gravitational thrusters, and swinging about with specialized retractable silk-like threads launched from frontally mounted caster-ports - they were too graceful to be mere automata but even a passing glance made it clear they were not mere animals.

Their data gathering was not merely visual. Senses normally reserved for creatures guided them and specialized observational software and organs detected minute traces of living organisms - scent trails from repeated use, areas where small flecks of residue could be detected subtly against small irregularities on the terrain, and holes or crevices where they were clearly stronger from distant scans done by camera-mounts behind translucent biomass-ports. There was life on this planet, not just that which teemed beneath from innumerable aliens crowding into the hollowed out carcass-world but something else. Consistent patterns of scent and other residual markings.

Something had been sliding over this ground. Many somethings, too many for it to have merely been ambient wildlife. Not all at once but repeated usage, subtle and creeping, skilled in concealment but not before entities created to detect, observe, and if need be, to prey.

As the information was relayed between the multiple squads, as if guided by an unseen leader they all began to move at once almost in synch across the distance they had dispersed. In the same way marbles clustered in formation would scatter when another clattered into them, so they did the same. The difference was the motions were not random reactions to force and energy but deeper strategic positioning across a shared network of information. Some skittered high, others slinked low, all activating scanner-muting shrouds as they began to settle into various positions at varying heights - all allowing multiple observation angles around the crevices and holes. Angles that if need be, could become firing ones.

A few hours later and more ships would arrive. In stark contrast to the seed-like beetle ships that flown by earlier, these ones had more angular, conventional shapes with bulky bodies and long, powerful wings. High output and heavy calibre weaponry sat next to missile pods and ball-like ECM mounts, the slight shimmer of the air around their bodies as their force-shielding rapidly adapted to the new atmospheric conditions, and a tinge of cold in the air as they boosted over the great chasms and towards multiple landing sites. In their wake, strange organisms like floating spheres of pulsing fungoid mass out of which jutted pointed, smeared electronic antennae and multi-jointed limbs descended. Easily the size of attack helicopters but drifting with an almost jellyfish like languidness, they neared the miscellaneous alien inhabitants below, the long wire-limbs underneath their body waving in the wind currents wafting from the winding chasms beneath.

Out of their bodies, messages in multiple languages, some little more than fragmented code and others transmissions of symbolic images, echoed throughout the hollow realm. The message was the same regardless.

"All citizens of Karbana Kinis, please proceed as usual. The Nexus of Integrated Revolutionary Councils is undergoing a survey of this region."


++++++++++++++++++++++++


South of the NIRC's territory, a different matter was unfolding. Through a vast expanse of shattered metal, sparking plasma fires, and starship carcasses a patrol fleet forged through. The few sparking machines that remained clinging to some semblance of life, some bisected in two and others little more than half hollowed hulks, fired with some vengeful desperation to the fleet of ships. Force-shields flared like glass lit by pinkish red lighting before armoured smashed through their dying carcasses. Lances of plasma and particles sliced apart those that dared to bring heavier weaponry to the fray. The debris field was growing, shields flaring constantly as if they were sending out signals to one another, but they pressed onwards.

They weren't here for a clean-up operations. They knew whose they belonged to. A single individual's fleet was the easiest way to put it.

That was it, close enough, past the interference of the debris field. This was Foundry territory now. The problem was figuring out which foundry. Long range scans had pointed to this region of space supposedly being under control of the originator, the prime machine as they were known to the Ascendency and later, to their successors in the NIRC.

Turrets, vomitor-mounts, heavy duty particle accelerator cannons - a variety of weapons swept the air. There was no telling if this area outside of The Foundry's had fallen years ago to the divisors within their ranks... or if perhaps the Ascendency's remnants were listening in. They were armed for a reason - there was work to be done but would the original Foundry allow for it, even in a weakened state? The cosmos watched their every move. They were upstart inheritors to a throne they had dismantled. They could not afford to metamorphosize into the tyrants they had sworn for lifetimes to defy and never become.

They had backup of course - some of their own and more monstrous companions remained in the debris field. If things truly fell apart, it was better to be prepared than to be remorseful.

From the antennae of one of the enormous earwig like ships, a message was sent towards where they believed the original Foundry's forces were. If they reached that, it was as good as reaching the CORE itself.

"Attention - CORE and its sub-entities. The Nexus of Integrated Revolutionary Councils recognizes that you have a problem. We are of the understanding that if unaddressed, it will soon become ours. If we are in agreement of this assessment, we are prepared to work out an agreement and an alliance."


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