This is the prologue to a science fiction novel I’ve been working on off and on for years. I stop for years, I go back, I rewrite it. This was the last rewrite I was happy with.
Sound travels through space.
Not the sound that corporeal ears are accustomed to or of the sciences of less advanced cultures. This is the sound of the Makalo, the sound of the artificially generated crystal at the heart of the machines.
Serpentine, the machines wriggled through space, their blackened hull almost invisible against ebon sky. Incandescent crimson lines jaggedly traced their hulls coalescing at their forwards sections and granting them an angry countenance. Their engines screamed as they moved, their multi-sectional hulls undulating as if they were sea born. Their screams echoed through the vacuum to any near enough to hear it.
The first one emerged from a brilliant hole in the fabric of space. The small portal it created between real and hyperspace crackled like fractures in onyx with the blinding radiance of hyperspace beaming through. Then five more apertures speckled the vacuum, each spewing forth another machine serpent as if emerging from a cosmic womb. The more poetic witnesses to the event, the ones who survived, would liken them to five arbiters of an apocalypse. It would not be a rhetorical flourish completely devoid of reality.
The battle had not been going well up to this point. Interstar’s forces had been unprepared for the sheer volume and tactical variety of ships that had been thrown at them. Heavily armored blockade runners lumbered in advance of lighter, more deadly battle cruisers. Battle cruisers that carried thousands upon thousands of small single pilot fighters that could slip easily underneath a larger vessel’s notice and shields. Breaklight cruisers, which were nicknamed such due to their ability to make quick, calculated jumps to lightspeed, would blink in and out of existence, needling ships with relentless barrages from forward mounted ion cannons for a few seconds, only to disappear and repeat the process somewhere else in the firefight.
There were other varieties of ships, too, scattered across the sector known as gEon’s Fury. Mostly mid-sized battleships scavenged from the wreck yards of a hundred different worlds. Mostly fodder to occupy Interstar’s forces while more advanced vessels were free to do the real damage. Mostly, if not entirely, automated.
And bringing up the rear of the fleet loomed the massive hodgepodge of a vessel, known only as the Scavenger.
Haphazardly pieced together using the hulls of a dozen or more strikingly dissimilar battleships, the Scavenger would have been as fearsome as a garbage scow, were it not for its sheer size and the infamous vessel that comprised its main fuselage: the so-called Talonian Planet Cracker. This name, too, was not a rhetorical flourish. At its core churned the heart of a tiny neutron star. Carefully focused magnetic waves could be focused from the gaping maw that comprised its forward aperture and crack the surface of a planet’s crust with forces measured in megatons.
To add insult to injury, there didn’t appear to be any kind of strategy. The blockade runners forged headlong into Interstar’s advanced fleet, taking the brunt of their fire early on. Any cover they provided the advancing battle cruisers was quickly nullified. The battlecruisers themselves seem to be operating under no kind of command structure and the vessels were depleting themselves of power and physical armaments at an alarming rate. And while the Breaklight cruisers were designed for unpredictable, randomized attacks, it was usually in tandem with a coordinated strategic strike, perhaps focusing the bulk of the attacks on a particular weakness in an enemy’s defensive line.
But here, there appeared to be no such strategy. Interstar was being overwhelmed, not by superior forces, but superior numbers. There were simply too many of them. And their moves simply made no sense.
And, that was, perhaps the point. Chaos, after all, was at the heart of the Zaldorean philosophy. And utter chaos is what was now consuming what was left of Interstar’s fleet. Perfectly orchestrated magnificent chaos.
The ancient gods would have been pleased, Odian thought to himself. It’s just too bad they weren’t on our side. The epic theological irony was not lost on Odian. Zakara’s ancestors overthrew the ancient Zaldorean nation thousands of years ago. And now arbiters bearing their iconography and names were about to lay waste to the Zakarian legacy. Divine retribution delivered through technological warfare.
Odian gripped the armrest of his command chair as he regarded the serpentine Myrsii warships emerging from hyperspace. None of this was possible. None of this should have happened, he thought. How did we get here?
The bodies of crew members lie strewn about the deck of the bridge. Some injured, most beyond aid at this point. The handful of remaining med techs were pushing the limits of their xenobiological knowledge, even with a crew that were largely bi-peds. For efficiency reasons, species that were too exotic from one another were usually not assigned to the same ships. Even so, specialists that could have better treated some of the bridge crew were either dead, or trapped in other sections of the ship.
An even smaller remnant of bridge crew remained at their stations, dutifully trying to mitigate what was essentially a lost cause. Much of the ship’s entrails spilled out of holes in the overhead. Power was largely depleted, as were projectile weaponry. Energy weapons were either offline or damaged beyond immediate repair. Shields, while still functional, were dependant on the remaining power supply, as was life support. Not to mention mobility. At this point, where would they go?
A starship in the distance could be seen listing to one side. It appeared to be the Regent, an Interstar corvette of the same class as Odian’s. It looked to be in worse shape, with a gaping section of it’s rounded forward hull missing, as if something monstrous took a bite out of it. And a Myrsii warship was fast approaching it.
If Captain Denaris had ordered all hands to abandon ship, no one took her up on it. The tiny escape pods would draw the single fighter Berserkers upon them like a swarm of hornets. Odian imagined that any hands that could have fled, chose to go down manning their stations rather than be eradicated like fish in a barrel.
The Myrsii warship “slithered”, for lack of a better term, into position about 100 kilometers off the Regent’s bow. Its diamond patterned “head” tilted towards the vessel as if considering its prey. The iridescent pattern all along its hull brightened starting from its aft section and moving all along its segmented hull. The brightness reached the head section of the vessel and after a seconds pause, a thin, solitary red beam burst from an emitter reminiscent of a tongue. Odian could have sworn he heard the sound of the beam cutting through the vacuum.
Nothing could have prepared Odian for what he saw next. It was, in fact, the first time he’d ever seen a Myrsii warship outside of legend. There was historical evidence that they were not mere mythology. The semi-sentient constructs of an ancient civilization left to wander the galaxy after their creators had died out. More than once, they triggered the proto-religions of primitive cultures while seeking out star systems to replenish their resources. Extinct, space faring cultures, often had historical records that ended with encountering the warships for the first time. It would seem that Interstar, Zakara and all the other worlds that served under Interstar’s galactic banner would also make their final entry upon this date. Upon verification of legends.
The thin, red beam sliced through the Regent’s hull with horrible, surgical precision. The cuts were clean. Sections of the hull were carved away like servings off a roasted animal. Entire cross sections of decks were exposed to the vacuum of space in one slow cleaving sweep.
And again, until the energy beam finally, mercifully struck the combustible elements of the ship’s power core. Unphased by the explosion that took out most of the vessel, the Myrsii warship mindlessly continued hacking away at the larger chunks of debris. Presumably the results of ancient programming that compelled it to reduce enemy remnants of a certain size to stubble.
Odian and the remaining bridge crew watched in stunned silence. Emergency claxons drowned out by the pounding of their respective renal organs. He once again regarded the bodies on the deck, bathed in the red emergency lighting of the bridge, which may or may not have been symbolic of all the color of blood spilt this day. A tactical display by his chair depicted the position and condition of the remaining fleet admirals. Forty commanded vessels at the start of this battle, with multiple squads under their command. Odian watched as the last three fleet commanders blinked off his display, almost simultaneously. Suffice it to say, he was now in charge. Not just of his ship. Not just of his squadron. But of the whole of Interstar’s fleet.
What was left of it.
“Lieutenant Cooran.” Odian said as he rose from his command chair.
The young, orange-skinned Endorph, the only bridge crew member left at primary operations, turned to face her Captain, the normally neat thin tentacles about her head wilted around her shoulders. “Yes, Captain?” She dutifully responded.
“Send a long range message to all the remaining Defensive Depots on the rim. Tell them…tell them DD-1 has fallen.” The words didn’t fit in his mouth. Yesterday, he would have considered them the ravings of a mad man.
“Tell them to stand down and fall back. Do not attempt to defend their respective sectors. Begin emergency planetary evacuation procedures for all worlds under their protection. Tell them not to attempt to seek refuge on any planet known to be populated along the rim. Steer clear of Interstar space.”
Cooran stared dumbfounded for a moment. “Sir. Where do I tell them to go?”
Odian looked blankly at the forward viewport, watching as the Myrsii warship finished its grim task and undulated away. His tone was hollow. “Tell them to run. And don’t stop running.”
Cooran blinked perfectly rounded eyes in disbelief. She glanced over at the Tamarite Ensign across the bridge, who had inherited the job of getting weapons back online. His contrastingly squared brow creased deeper than normal. But his expression was clear. This was it. This was the end. Of everything.
Interstar. Zakara. Tamar. Endora. All of it. There was nothing left to do, but run.
Odian could feel the realization setting in for the rest of the bridge crew. The resignation of defeat, on this scale, was palpable.
Cooran began keying in the message for long range communications, when Odian asked her to open an all-hands channel to the fleet.
“This is acting Fleet Admiral Enonan Odian to the remaining fleet Captains and crew. We have been overpowered by superior firepower and the element of surprise. There is no easy way to say this. There is no way out. There is no way to salvage the fleet. Interstar will fall this day.”
His words reverberated throughout the ship, as it presumably did for all ships with working communications. “Our task remains clear. We must provide the Defensive Depots on the rim time to properly execute planetary evacuations. We must buy them as much time as possible.”
“I know you wish to say goodbye to your families. I know you wish you could assist in the evacuation of Zakara or your respective homeworlds. It is too late for Zakara. And it is too late for us. What we do here will determine the survival off all our respective species. We must make a stand here and now. Or any evidence we existed could be wiped from history. Take what little power you have left, take what little resources you can expend and stand with Interstar one last time. Stand for the freedom of all worlds. Let the galaxy know that we were here. And that we did not falter in our beliefs.”
“Let the galaxy know that Zakara and Tamar and Endora and a million other worlds faced the darkness, faced oblivion, faced our gods and our devils, and said in a loud voice, ZHENTRA’CHO! NO!”
And silence hung.
“Long range communique sent…Admiral.” Cooran said. Her face more stoic and resolved than before.
“I think we may be able to get a few charges out of the forward weapons array,” said the Tamarite working on the weapons console. “Not many. But enough to put a few holes in whatever vessel realizes we’re not just adrift.”
Odian shook his head in acknowledgement. He regarded his crew one last time, as they seemed poised awaiting his orders.
“It has been an honor serving with you.” he offered instead.
“Ensign Castiyo.” He said, surprising the Tamarite at weapons. “Prepare as many charges as you can for combat. I assume you’re a decent shot?” They both knew targeting systems were offline.
The Tamarite smiled, “As good as any, sir.”
“Cooran, tell engineering to reroute all environmental systems except artificial gravity to the shields and maneuvering thrusters. That goes for secondary systems, as well.”
Cooran blinked in acknowledgement. “Yes, sir.”
“As soon as they’re done…pick a target and prepare to enga–”
The bridge rocked to one side, inertial compensators failing to properly keep up. Bodies, living or otherwise, not properly restrained were flung hard into the starboard bulkhead. Odian had still been standing.
Dead crew members crashed into him at perpendicular angles. He felt something in his ribcage snap, and a flash of pain across his brow made his vision go white. Blood, which he wasn’t entirely sure was his, dripped into one eye. A horrible smell flooded his olfactory senses. Something unlike anything he’d ever smelled before. Something like a combination of smelted metal and ozone. Maybe even flesh.
He reached to push the face of a dead crewman, another Zakarian, away from his own only to realize that a broken arm was amongst another of possibly many injuries. The emergency claxons barely penetrated the ringing in his ears. Corpses piled upon him, Odian found fighting the dead harder than overcoming Zaldorean’s forces.
He managed to push the Zakarian officer off of him enough to get a view of the bridge ops station through a thin fog of smoke. Cooran, still restrained to her workstation chair, dangled to one side, streams of translucent white blood dripping down a limp arm and tentacles. He could not hear or see Castiyo.
He managed to push himself awkwardly over the pile of bodies that had formed a bizarre barrier around him. His mind was reeling. It was unclear why he couldn’t make himself stand, but the odds of multiple bones being broken and his mind being in shock were high. Still, he struggled to focus on the main viewport.
A giant fragment of starship filled the screen, so close that deck quarters windows, doors and even furniture could be made out. For a moment, Odian thought that they had collided with an errant vessel struggling to survive Zaldorean’s relentless onslaught, only to realize the sickening, all too likely truth of the matter. He was looking at a severed slice of his own ship.
That shriek that he swore he could hear earlier tore through the air again. The bridge rocked in almost the same direction. And once again Odian found himself among the dead. He was surprised he hadn’t fully joined them yet. And there was that smell again.
The Myrsii warship must have snuck up on them in a sensor blind spot. Maybe even that’s what it was designed to do. But whatever the case, it had robbed the Jon’Qarra of it’s chance to go out in a blaze of glory. If Odian could just get to his command chair. And initiate self destruct mode. Maybe he could actually drag one of these serpents back to hell with him.
Resolved to try, Odian pushed himself once more out of the pile of bodies and dragged himself on one elbow towards his command chair. He knew he probably didn’t have much time before the Myrsii made another assault. He reached the metal foot ring circling the base of his chair and quickly threaded his good arm through the frame. Tightening his fist into his chest, he went as rigid as possible. A fraction of a second later and he would have had to start all over again.
The bridge tilted hard to starboard once more, leaving Odian momentarily dangling from the foot ring by one arm as artificial gravity fought to readjust. It took a second or two longer for that to happen this time, which made the sudden righting of the room all the more abrupt. Swinging back into the deckplate with a thud, the stabbing rage of his injuries reminded him that he might not stay conscious for much longer.
The keypad to input the self-destruct protocols were directly above him on his chair’s armrest. He would have to let go of the foot ring to reach it, which meant he would need to act fast. Who knew if the bridge would be compromised next. He knew his best bet would be to secure himself to his command chair to buy enough time to initiate the protocols. With multiple bones and organs screaming at him from inside his body, he hastened to drag himself into the seat with as much speed as he could he muster. He cried out as he forced a broken arm through the shoulder strap. He managed to seal the magnetic buckle with one hand, again achieving a small victory at the last fraction of a second as the bridge lurched angrily astern. The relative distance he would have fallen this time before gravity recompensated would have likely broken his neck.
Smoke now filled the bridge, largely obscuring the main viewport. Although, Odian could make out massive sections of his cleaved ship now adrift in space. And he was certain he glimpsed the glowing angry eye of a giant dragon. Cooran’s ops console was still active, and the background chatter from panicked department heads could still be heard from it. Likely, communications between the separated sections of the vessel were still possible. There were living people behind those cleaved bulkheads. There would be no time to let them know what was about to happen. Or the sacrifice they were about to make.
Odian began keying in the complex authorization code. The Jonn’Qarra’s AI was offline, so voice commands would not be recognized. Self-destruct required a countdown of no less than 10 seconds. What someone could accomplish in 10 seconds was beyond Odian’s comprehension. But he cursed at no engineer in particular and set the timer for the shortest amount of time possible. The keypad shifted form and brought up a single solitary key labeled, in Katarian dialect, “Initiate Countdown”.
Odian paused for imperceptible milliseconds as his mind was forced to contemplate the inevitable. A few milliseconds, but no longer. A single tap and he and his crew’s fate was sealed.
For once, the bridge seemed to settle. There were no more battles to be fought. No more missions to complete. All that remained now was to await the countdown, and hope the Jon’Qarra’s destruction would be enough to take out just one enemy vessel. And possibly buy the rim Defensive Depots that much more time. The emergency claxons had died down. The only thing that could be heard were the gentle chimes of the general work stations and the vague voices and crackling from the open comm. The self-destruct counted down silently, each second interpreted as a pulse from the bridge’s emergency lighting.
The static from the ops console seemed to intensify, drowning out the varied distress pleas from frantic department heads. Odian regretted not being able to let them know what was about to happen. Regretted not being able to give Cooran and Castiyo and the others a chance to make a glorious last stand. To feel like their deaths would matter.
Cooran remained slumped in her ops station chair as the comm continued to crackle before her limp form. For a moment, the static grew more obtuse, then focused, then went abruptly silent. Leaving Odian truly alone with his thoughts. Acrid smoke filled his lungs, making breathing through damaged ribs all the more difficult. But still, there was an obscure sense of peace and resignation.
Suddenly a crisp, clear voice sliced through the stillness.
“This is Commander Zackery Adrean to the Jonn’Qarra. Captain Odian, if you can hear me, I need you to do exactly as I say!”