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Ahtog 3 Earth Index 1305.010
Lieutenant Aioua Horae walked anxiously down the hallway and up to the Sidney's bridge doors, which parted before her. She paused to assess the scene, tapping her pale blue fingers against the palm of her opposite hand, a nervous gesture she had picked up from her unit mother. In spite of being off duty, she'd been summoned to the bridge with all haste, which could only mean trouble. Taking a short breath, she stepped across the threshold and up to the sciences station, relieving the Aecron male currently stationed there. At once the foreign, frightening data assailed her senses.
Above Aioua, at the front of the bridge, the main viewscreen showcased a series of images, each apparently normal: the harsh Ritican colony world of Ahtog 3 with its red-purple atmosphere; various views of the eleven capital ships, from cruisers to gunboats, that comprised the Sidney's fleet; and a stretch of space swirling with the myriad colors of a fold distortion.
It was the last that terrified her.
Not far from Aioua, Admiral Cersius Pelleon Monabee shifted uneasily in the command station, gazing out at the looming fold distortion. Monabee was a Human male with a wide frame, a grizzled beard, and a reputation for being almost unnaturally calm in a crisis.
"What do you make of it, Aioua?" The admiral's voice was coarse, the product of years of wear and too much tobacco.
Aioua glanced between the fold image now frozen on the viewscreen and the impossible data streaming through her station. "I have never seen anything like it, sir."
A Confederal Navy battle carrier, the Sidney was a massive affair, its vast hull stretching hundreds of trics long. Pulse turrets bristled from its flanks, torpedo tubes stood guard on each end, and launch bays lurked in the places in between. In the bosom of the ship, squadrons of fighters and torpedo bombers waited for the command to pour into the night.
The fold developing before them dwarfed not only the Sidney, but its entire fleet.
Monabee grunted, and Aioua's face tightened. He hadn't summoned her here for awe and wonder; he needed analysis. She had a gift for making sense out of data that was contradictory or incomplete, an instinct for piecing together the final elements of a mystery. In the past those mysteries had been of the more mundane variety, like some new Ussonian smuggling device or a weather anomaly on a distant colony world. Not this.
But that didn't change her job.
She took another quick breath and felt calm settle over her as her considerable mind churned through the facts. "It is approximately three-thousand eight-hundred times larger than the largest folds produced by any ship in our records. Roughly four-thousand two-hundred kiltrics at its largest length."
The Sidney's first officer, a middle-aged Human male, gave off a whistle.
Aioua ignored him and met the admiral's gaze. "The fold signature matches the fragmentary data reported from the Gor-Exxus, Omi-Treb, and Tel Gi stations. I can say with a high degree of confidence that this is the same phenomenon. It is not natural, and it is not from any society in Confederal space." She hesitated. "Given the available information, I believe that something large and possibly very dangerous is about to come through that fold."
The admiral let out a deep sigh. "How much time do we have before that distortion opens?"
"Very well, then. Communications, order the fleet to combat stations."
Orel Dayail, the Aecron communications officer, responded to the affirmative. Then, a moment later, he added, "Sir, the colony reports that they are launching seven militia vessels to join our fleet."
The first officer leaned in close to the admiral, his voice quiet, although Aioua could still hear him. "If Aioua is right, nineteen vessels and a sortie of fighters won't be enough."
Monabee looked over at the first officer. "If Aioua is right, the whole Navy won't be enough."
* * *
As the message rippled out from the Sidney to the rest of the fleet, combat alarms sent crew scurrying to their posts and pilots clamoring into their fighters. Within minutes, swarms of fighters and torpedo bombers were massing into the silent deep of space like an agitated hive. At Monabee's orders, small and large ships alike drifted out of orbit and took up a defensive position between the fold distortion and the planet.
The nexus of color filled the Sidney's viewscreen, slowly fanning up and out as if it were radioactive ribbons attached to a string in a windstorm. It was a familiar evolution to anyone with even a semblance of space experience: a fold distortion began as tendrils of prismatic light that would erupt into a hole in space from which a ship would come forth. Everything about this particular fold conformed to that well-worn understanding except for its logic-defying size.
At sciences, Aioua meditated on the information flowing around her diminutive, blue-skinned frame. Soon something — in all likelihood very large — would come through the fold, and the admiral and his fleet would have to react. The question was, how should they react? The fact that the object creating the fold had originated on the frontier suggested that it was from beyond the Great Void. Up to this point, the only confirmed contact from that vector were the mysterious Invaders of 1124, who had been turned back by the Aecrons nearly two centuries ago, some time before other races had achieved fold technology. According to official Aecron accounts (which Aioua suspected were at least partially censored) the Invader ships of that era were roughly the same size and capability as their Aecron counterparts. If this monstrous fold was also from the Invaders, it suggested technology evolved on a frightening scale.
If, however, it was a new race, one that had never been encountered before, it stood to reason that the disappearances could be simply a massive misunderstanding. With such a possibility still in the mix, protocol dictated that the Sidney's primary objective was to establish communications with the object. Something inside her, though, said this was a force of destruction, not one of confusion, but she had no way to prove it — at least not yet.
She stole a glance across the bridge, where a fellow Aecron worked quietly over at communications. If Orel Dayail felt the weight of the Navy's hopes, he didn't show it. Orel was one of the brightest and most creative linguists in the Confederacy, an Aecron who was uncharacteristically gifted in matters of diplomacy. They were skills learned from his father, an Aecron ambassador to Earth and an observer in the Confederal Congress. Few of their race were interested in studying the art of motivation and language as the Dayail family unit had. For Orel it had translated into a stellar career in the Confederacy, including several successful dealings with the Minor Races; his role in improving Navy relations with the reclusive Tullasph had won him his current post on the Sidney.
Aioua did not really like Orel — she found his overly amicable disposition irritating — but she respected his skill, which was quite possibly peerless. If anyone could make contact with the object behind the fold, he could. Conversely, if he could not ...
Admiral Monabee looked over to his right. "Garo, how are we doing?"
Garo Ball, the ancient Ritican who occupied the weapons station, spoke with a deep, resonant cadence. "Defense fields initialized, all tubes loaded, turrets report ready."
"Very good. Do not fire until I give the order."
Monabee cocked his head toward communications. "Orel, that goes for the rest of the fleet, too. And those militia ships. I don't want the locals provoking an incident."
Orel listened to his link, his face contorting into a frown. "Sir, one of the Ritican captains is reminding us that he is not under our command."
Monabee slowly but purposefully turned his full body to face communications. His voice was deathly quiet. "Remind him that we are here to protect his planet under the courtesies of the Confederacy. Tell him that if he fires so much as a single shot before I give the word, that I will remove my fleet from the system and he can deal with this situation on his own. Tell him I will not endanger so much as one of my officers because he happens to be a fool."
Orel relayed the message to the Ritican ship. Moments later, he said, "Admiral, the Ritican captain agrees to your terms and thanks you for the Confederacy's assistance."
"'Agrees to your terms,'" repeated the first officer sarcastically. "What nonsense."
"I would gladly take such an attitude from whatever is behind that fold," said Monabee.
"Admiral," said Aioua, "something is coming through."
The viewscreen lit up as the fold distortion blossomed into a full-fledged spatial tear: a hole, bordered by a striking prismatic outline, in the black-and-white starscape. Even at a distance, the hole appeared to consume the entire viewscreen, blocking out the stars. A mass surged from the fold, a vast darkness that eclipsed the fold and just about everything else in sight.
The bridge crew of the Sidney fell silent.
The intruder was enormous and spherical, the size of a large planetary moon. The light of the system's sun exposed a sheen that exploded with polish, even as it seemed to suck in the light around it like a black hole. It had the broad profile of a planet but the clear form of the artificial. The surface was rugged, running in sharp, angular lines. Even from a distance, massive towers, squared valleys, and prickling spires could be made out along the surface. There was no evidence of a front or rear and no obvious point of propulsion.
Aioua's voice wavered as she announced the data already pouring into the display in front of Monabee. "The object is approximately three-thousand six-hundred kiltrics in diameter. It does not match any known technology."
In contrast, Monabee sounded calm, controlled. "Make sure Navy Command is getting our telemetry. Orel, try to make contact with the object."
At once the bridge began to rumble violently. The sound was nearly deafening, and officers who were standing had to steady themselves to keep from falling.
Monabee had to shout to be heard, "What's that noise?"
"High-output waves coming from the contact," said Aioua, her high-pitched voice piercing the rumble more easily than the admiral's gruff tones. "Variable wavelength. Intensity is extraordinary, well beyond Confederal capabilities."
Sparks briefly cascaded across the vacuum of space in front of the viewscreen.
Reports began streaming in, none of them good:
"Our defense fields have collapsed."
"Pulse turrets are not operational."
"Fighter and bomber squadrons are reporting critical system failures! They're completely disabled!"
Monabee appeared to ignore the reports for the moment, turning his attention to communications. "Orel, the waves. Could they be some form of communication?"
"Preliminary analysis shows nothing. It is a wall of noise."
"Pick it apart, Lieutenant. Find something if you can."
On the screen, a stream of pale light lanced out from the sphere. The light settled on one of the Confederal ships, a cruiser. At first glance it looked like a sort of massive spotlight, only the bathing light was so bright that it obfuscated the cruiser from view. Slowly the light stream subsided.
The first officer let out a shout. The cruiser was gone.
"Impossible," said Garo Ball.
Aioua glanced at the admiral. Monabee stared at the screen in disbelief. "What happened to that ship?"
"I ... do not know, sir," Aioua said, poring over her readouts in frustration. "The cruiser is no longer ... there."
"What about residuals?"
"Nothing, sir. No debris, no energy signature. It is simply not there anymore."
"Admiral," announced Orel, "I believe I have something. There is a message embedded in the waves. A single phrase, repeating over and over. In Confederal Common."
Aioua started. Confederal Common was the trade language of the Confederacy, based on Human language. It knew how to talk to them.
Grim voiced, Monabee said, "Play it."
Over the admiral's display, a hollow, flat voice spoke. "... has come ... Malum has come ... Malum has come ... Malum has come ... Malum has come ..."
On the screen, another pale beam lanced out from the sphere and poured over a Ritican militia vessel. The beam receded as quickly as it had come, the militia vessel vanished.
"Malum has come ... Malum has come ..."
Monabee keyed his display to mute the chilling message. Aioua knew what the Admiral was thinking: whatever the object was, it did not intend to negotiate. Diplomatically speaking, the fleet was past the point of no return.
Monabee looked almost like a bystander as the next words came out of him. "Order the fleet to engage the contact."
Above the roar of the waves, an ever-so-slight vibration signaled the discharge of a volley of fusing torpedoes from the Sidney's forward tubes. Within moments, a flurry of Navy and Ritican ordnance was charging away from the fleet and toward the object.
Another pale white beam swiftly streamed to life, cutting a wide swath across space. The beam engulfed the ordnance — torpedoes, Ritican missiles — consuming them and passing on to a Navy support vessel, bathing them into nothing.
"Order the fleet to initiate evasive maneuvers," said the Admiral. "And keep firing! We've got to get something through those defenses."
As the fleet scattered, Aioua fought a rising panic as she sifted through the data in search of a weakness, an opening — anything to give them a chance against the monstrous attacker.
With chilling precision, the ships of the fleet were eliminated, one by one.
Pale beam. Gunboat and a flotilla of fighters vanished.
Torpedoes firing. Pale beam. The torpedoes gone, a Navy frigate and a militia frigate vanished.
A pale beam blazed just in front of the Sidney and through another Navy frigate. The light subsided, the frigate was gone.
Almost without warning, the Sidney battle group was a fleet of one.
Monabee spoke quickly. "Navigator, take us around to the far side of the planet. See if we can put something solid between that thing and us. As soon as we are clear of the waves, prepare for an emergency fold jump."
The navigator never had the chance to plot the maneuver. In an instant, pale light enveloped the main viewscreen of the Sidney, waxing so bright that everyone on the bridge — save Garo Ball — shielded their eyes reflexively. With an almost palpable presence, the light poured off the screen onto the bridge itself.
In the powerlessness of the moment, Aioua found herself experiencing two contradictory sensations. Though violently bright, the light held no warmth. In fact, as the pale glow spread across the bridge, she suddenly felt an icy chill that scoured her straight through to the bone.
She flinched involuntarily, and her heart began to race out of control. A strange, almost primal fear — one that seemed to come from outside of her — gripped her. Around her, the bridge crew devolved into anarchy, screaming in terror and cowering behind their stations. Out of the corner of her vision she saw Admiral Monabee, his entire body gripped by a horror so foreign to his disposition that he appeared almost like someone else.
"What's happening?" someone cried out.
I wish I knew was the last thought Lieutenant Aioua Horae had before her universe went from unbearably bright to absolute dark.CHAPTER 2
Titan Earth Index 1305.013
Navy Commander Jared Carter stopped along the sloping terrain and took stock of his surroundings. Or rather, took stock of the surroundings he couldn't see. His portable told him that he was standing along the foothills of the Norso-bunniss-bairant-Phgg Range, one of the few mountain ranges of note on a moon known from antiquity as Titan. His eyes, by contrast, told him nothing; the atmosphere's exotic cocktail of gases created a dense fog that reduced his visibility to a few trics.
Being out here, unable to see beyond his own boots, gave him a sense of profound loneliness, a feeling of being cut off from the rest of the universe. Yet in the frozen haze there was also a certain comfort, a peace born from the sense of being somehow insulated from the many troubles that roamed the stars above.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Edge of Oblivion"
Copyright © 2016 Joshua A. Johnston.
Excerpted by permission of Third Day Books, LLC.
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