Issue 23: The High Ground
Everything is in place. The ball is in play. I repeat the ball is in play. Launch!—Terran Alliance Alert
They sent Paxton, Eddie, and Mr. Micheal Brookes in to grab the Hanged Man. We had enough material from our raid on the main Artock Hab World to mimic the proper physical readouts. Interestingly enough Mr. Brookes had some insider knowledge on proper Artock protocols. If I had to guess it was due to his stay with Ishtar and Chronos aboard that Null ship. It's always a good idea to keep some enemy ships intact to do insertion assaults.—Thomas Murphy
While they were grabbing Matarn’s body, I had another mission. As it turns out: Matarn had a bit to say beyond what I was expecting. The Titans were supposed to be deployed during that initial run on Unity. Pandora’s betrayal prevented that. She didn’t know that he was the one with the overall summoning rites embedded into his body. Nix’s father wasn’t able to summon because without Matarn’s mind and the coded language that came with it, he only had part of the puzzle.—Sleeping in Starlight, a memoir of the 22nd century
The Jungle (Howling’s Domain)
High Speaker Academy
Time Syncing Activated
The air around me was invigorating.
The outline of Emris as pristine as ever. Its tan outer hull weaved into the buildings around it. They shifted ever so often. In preparation for the population’s move to Real Space. I could see how the Weave could hide so many people. A pocket reality within the hidden depths. Light Shamans of many species bowed. Hands or otherwise over their hearts or chests. White padded alongside me. Greeting various people with a nod or kind word. As we entered the main airlock, Emris stated, “Matarn awaits you. Please follow the guided symbols!” The ship was a classroom. People coming and going. Learning. They were a civilization unto themselves. Billions of heartbeats reached my senses.
A sphere opened before us. Within the splash of sea waves and salted air filled my lungs.
Matarn turned. His voice low but clear. “It is nearly time. The wanderer will be reunited with his soul.” He reached out and placed a hand upon White’s chest. The colossal white tiger rumbled, “I see you. Greeted and recounted among the annals of Time.” His face and body had altered. Becoming taller. His eyes were pitch black. Scholar markings ran across his chest and arms. That same black ink tracing that shifted as he moved.
His skin was darker than Di’axi’s.
Almost the same tone as my father’s.
“My body is cloaked. Made to look more human. But once rejoined: My true shape shall reassert itself.”
I blurted out, “Why does your son have alabaster white skin? While yours is more human in coloration?
“My son favors his mother. Most Scholars range from that pale white to the void of space black. It can make for interesting interactions on worlds where the species is not contained to a physical body.”
A ghostly pale hand gripped my shoulder. Di’axi himself had joined us as well.
He grinned at my expression, “What? Do you think all Scholars look the same?” He said this with some gentle ribbing. White headbutted me. That third eye closed for now.
I replied, “No. But the Artock solution seems to follow that Machine Men template from Captain Cosmos. Join us! We are one.!”
White interjected with, “It’s worse than that. They convert parts into….”
Matarn brought us in close. Images tugged at me.
The birth of the Artock.
Artock Vessel White Claw
Pluto Outer Orbit
June 11th, 2104
Micheal Brookes checked his feedback ranges. They had all been practicing with the eye swivel ability. To be able to keep their balance and move like the Artock. INet and its new features were a godsend. Helping them mimic otherwise foreign bodily functions. Whatever Eliza had brought back had been quite the find. He didn’t ask. Didn’t want to know. He was here on a mission. If that helped Earth that was good enough for him. The ship was three kinds of shrouded. Made to look like a Terran supply transport. Docked near Pluto’s outer orbit to refuel before going on its way.
They had hacked Nix’s coms quite easily. Taking in the various networks chatting up a storm about how Earth would be sacked like a plucked Ummatosh Bird on a Typherian Holiday. Paxton shared the last remaining sodas with Eddie. They had brought some MREs, eating what they could before recycling and disposing of all Terran evidence within the ship, knowing that actual Artock food would be poisonous to them. Their disguises had a “stomach” pocket that would handle that aspect. Brookes hailed the pirate fleet on the Weave channel. Making sure the rest of the Terran Home Fleets and Bardax fleets were keyed into their misadventure as well.
These pirates wouldn’t know what hit them.
Humanity wouldn’t underestimate them either.
There could be any kind of nasty surprise hiding within that parasitic hoard.
Draken Nix, the Foehammer of Utasa Sector eyed the crew of the White Claw with distaste. He knew the type. Clout chasers with no real plan. But perfect for the job he wanted. Stupid, Expendable and just a touch crazy. He accessed their records. Simple fringe raiders. Perfect, no ties that would miss them. A tiny slice with no rivals to come gunning for him later.
“Let’s get started!”
The nanites provided by Project Freefall flowed throughout Draken’s ship. Finding the Hanged Man within the captain’s hidden storage room. Micheal let the systems record what Draken was talking about. Paxton made note of the slaving quarters. While Eddie spied all sorts of hidden goodies. This would be quite the heist. They let Brookes take the lead. Only captains had any standing within Artock society. Those like Clan Nix were renown for their cutthroat practices to keep on top of the cesspool. Micheal grinned. His Artock features pulling back to mimic the emotions properly. His bushy green beard littered with pieces of bone and shells.
“Whatcha want us for Captain?”
Let the games begin.
Medical Theater Two
The intelligence feared.
The dark men were here. Those beings that traveled between the voids between the stars. It screamed as the counter nanites flowed. Changing is programming. Never allowing it to understand why. Only the fear. To consume. It turned the doctors and nurses first. Their eyestalks burst from their heads. Their bones warping as the programming took hold.
Chronos studied the results. Naming them Artock. The lowest of the low. The perfect hammer to study the flow of genetics. He commanded the hoard to travel to distant stars. Converting those willing or otherwise. They couldn’t have children in the normal way of course. He watched as Martax Prime’s population forgot their true identity. Adding more to their ranks. Converting useful flesh into birthing factories. It gave him ideas. They had found a new race to study.
Another strain ran through them that intrigued the Director of all Keepers.
Unity had already found purchase there.
I broke the connection. My eyes burned as dark matter simmered.
“All because he sees life as an experiment. Not anything more than that.”
Matarn hands curled into fists. Old battles reflecting within his dark orbs.
“Yes. The Artock were innocent once. But we cannot save that species now.”
My reply, “There’s no hope?”
“Recently converted can be returned to form but if you are infected long enough, the conversion is irreversible. This is why I am grateful humanity has special ships on standby for such an event. Emris has kept me updated via my students.”
My mind couldn’t fathom it. No way at all?
A sharp image intruded, of the 42nd century, its shining spires. I could only see buildings. Not people though. Color seeped back into the world.
Never say never.
They had no clue. Not even White. Whatever would happen with this upcoming battle would change the fortunes of not only Earth but these Artock as well. I asked, “Is there a version of Martax Prime that exists with its people as they were?”
Matarn replied, “Not that I know of.”
White sat on her haunches, “My brother and I were dormant for quite some time. So I am also unaware of any pristine versions. It could be possible though.” Hope was back on the table. I had seen what had happened with Artock left behind. Basic Laborers. Locked from their higher functions.
If we could discover which version of their homeworld was the initial testbed zero we might be able to bring those slaves back to their former selves. It might seem foolish or a lost cause to some but I’d give it my all. Striker Nix and his father would try to stop me. I was certain. I was resolute.
“In stopping Unity we can’t just treat the symptoms. We have to go to the sources.”
Save Typha. Save those converted to their flesh prisons of Artock programming.
Chronos programming more like it.
The All-Father. They were all interconnected.
Even if they had different flavors of “Muahaha! I want to be Unity!”
Eclipse Mess Hall
Weave Space (Pluto)
Eddie would never make fun of Doc again. The food here was the stuff of nightmares. He had to deactivate the visual feed as he wolfed down his meal. Since it would be a breach of protocol if he rejected the offer of sustenance. Cannibalism didn’t even cover it, that was just the surface, they believed if they devoured the flesh of others that they would gain more than knowledge or skills. They would grow a soul from the experience. They had to be cautious. So no INet coms. Just passive recording.
The image of Nola’s sweet face kept him whole as he joked with the other monsters around the table.
Thomas viewed all of this from the bridge of the Jupiter.
“Key these records to my personal files.”
J’dax added, “I’ll assist. I’ve had my encounters with Artock. Early in my military career. They have a particular taste for Typherians.”
Murphy prayed for Paxton and the others.
This would be a delicate mission.
Micheal listened. The taboo species was Void Walker. They loved and feared them.
Brookes knew why. Ishtar would often show off his past exploits with Chronos. Didn’t help that Keepers disintegrated upon death. Added to the idea that Chronos and his ilk had no souls. Brookes agreed with that assessment. A burly Artock, his left eyestalk bent at an odd angle glared at him. “You got something to say to me?!” Brookes ran through the scenarios. Finding the right insult.
“Your gene line is made of ghosts.”
The brute rose. His right eye stock against Micheal’s face.
The tension skyrocketed.
Paxton dared not use Nephilim sight here. But his truth sense blazed.
Eddie pulled out his sidearm and rested it against the bigger one-eyed freak’s remaining stalk. A big smile plastered on his face. Inside he was hot. Waiting for the signal from Brookes. All within the mess hall waiting. Micheal grunted twice. Eddie, with one smooth motion, aimed his weapon at the other Artock’s knee cap. Pulling the trigger. One-Eye howled. Rolling on the ground. Everyone turned back to their food. By wounding the aggressor, Micheal had dismissed the Artock as a lesser being. Not even worth the effort of death.
Brookes brought out a wicked blade, using it to deliver a gutshot to the Artock attempting to jump him from behind. Thinking he was a rank amateur. These had been amount Earth too long. Not remembering that they could see in all directions. Brookes left that one clutching his gut. Denying it a death blow. Draken Nix howled. Slapping his knee.
“Yes, I see I chose well. Come! To my quarters. I will tell you the rest Captain Whiteclaw!”
Paxton fell in behind Brookes. Eddie on the left. His firearm still cooling. It was a crude weapon but then again the Artock was a brutish people. This thing used bullets. Old fashioned casings and shells. As the doors hissed closed, they could hear another fight break out, the cries of the combatants reaching a crescendo pitch. Eddie kept his weapon out. Using the 360 vision displays in his suit to mimic Artock eyestalk movement. He fired behind him. The bullets tearing through bone as the final crewmember of One-Eye attempted to regain “honor.” The agonizing moans told Eddie that their assailant dropped out of that race. Cradling his ruined right arm against his ribs.
The Terran Alliance reporter was glad that merely wounding the enemy here was much more effective. The cascade effect would help Earth. He would have to tell Eliza this overall cornerstone of the pirate culture. She wouldn’t kneecap people but use her powers to corral the Artock further. Wrapping them in metals or whatever was available in the environments. Being beat by a woman was an even greater insult. It's why most women who were captured by Artoc ended up basic slaves. As fodder for making “birthing wombs” while the rest of their body endured back-breaking labor. Draken Nix had a fixation on breaking Typherians. Eddie didn’t want to know much beyond that.
He paused as they entered the captain’s cabin. He remained on high alert. Nix didn’t even comment about the continued surveillance. It was expected of loose cannons like the White Claw crew. It's what Brookes wanted. They had to know what the invasion fleet was planning. Along with breaking the Hanged Man out. Draken brought up the holovid.
“I want you three to grab the demi known as Doctor Impossible. We want her womb. Making Artock that can regenerate or heal our shock troops would be divine. The problem is obvious. She has quite the protection net.”
Paxton muttered, “Not to mention a certain Banner who’d wreak everything.”
Nix’s dry laughter set Eddie's teeth on edge.
“That one? She does not possess the killing edge. J’ino didn’t pass that on to her daughter. I still wonder who the father is.”
Paxton kept one stalk on Nix. The other on the door.
That pirate didn’t know Eliza very well. What she did to that Dragon that ate Cooper.
But he understood the implications. What would happen if she hurt another living being. One that had the same sapience as herself. The inherent good and restraint she showed. Even to demis who meant her harm. The pirate wanted to goad Eliza into violating her principles. To breach the moral of Earth and the Commons of Typha.
Eddie rumbled, “What’s the point? Why not just grab some DNA samples?”
Draken nodded, “We thought of that but there are no Sleepers close enough to the Banner’s inner circle. The best the All-Father managed was to get some plants on X’mil’s team. Ended up fracking that man over. But he’s learning some Dark Shaman tricks.” The Artock Pirate King rubbed his chin.
“He’s a sick one. Wants to influence J’ino. Make her compliant.”
As long as Thomas breathed that would never happen to her. Brookes knew that in his bones. It was reassuring that even someone as powerful as the All-Father hadn’t been able to breach Earth’s defenses that easily. Draken’s stalks swiveled as a hidden doorway sprang open. The Hanged Man gibbered, “RAISE THE GATES!” He fired into Draken point blank with his palms. The Artock flew against the wall. Slumping over as his chin rested against his chest.
The humanoid man shuffled forward. “Ahh! TAKE ME TO THE WINDMILLS! Fair SANCHOS!”
His eyes rolled into the back of his head as Paxton caught him. Brookes put a small golden disk against the wall. Keying in a specific code. It expanded. Copying everything in the room. Simulating the epic deaths of the White Claw crew. Showing the Hanged Man burning them to a crisp before he set himself on fire. Shouting about the Great Eye. Paxton was glad that Eliza had listened to the Hanged Man talk for a while. Knowing what phrases were often repeated had been a boon. The golden disk was a reverse-engineered marvel of Fletcher’s gift.
It was a way for Void Walkers to plant false memories or impressions. Either in people or tech. This version had added Light Shaman enhancements.
After they exited, Draken Nix shuddered, his eyestalks opening to carnage.
He replayed the recordings. His face growing more infuriated by the moment.
“It’s so hard to get competent help!” He opened another compartment. Surrounded by Null tech of Void Walker make. Raising the samples reverently. He still had the blood and skin samples. He’d just have to capture this Doctor Impossible. Have her regenerate a cloned body of the Hanged Man.
Then he would control the Titans. Forcing her to transplant his brain into this new shell.
After that, he would take her to the Home matrix. To donate her womb. Then use her powers gladly for the Artock. It would take many sessions of breaking but he would relish it. For she was what that Banner loved most.
The Jungle (Howling’s Domain)
High Speaker Academy
Time Syncing Activated
I knew those heartbeats.
Doc, Eddie, Paxton and one other entered the sphere housing Pandora’s box.
The wild white-bearded man howled with joy, “AHHH! There you are! I have added more Inventory to the Whole of the World!” Doc greeted me with a peck on the cheek, “Let’s do this! We have the high ground for now!”
Her aura darkened for a bit as I saw her glance at Eddie. It wasn’t about him but something he said to her. The dark inky blackness indicated horror. Or distress. I ran a hand through her hair, “I won’t let anyone hurt you. Promise!” Her eyes lightened a bit.
“I’ll tell you later.” Her tone was subdued. Hard as durasteel.
The Hanged Man faced Matarn. Their forearms clasped.
The stars sang overhead.
My ears popped as Matarn walked into his body. Three golden circles formed underneath his feet. After what felt like hours Matarn stood. His body filled out with new muscle. He had a massive black beard. He rubbed it. “Should I shave?” Di’axi rested his hands on his father’s shoulders.
His reply, “It’s good to be back. Time to light the braziers!”
Within the Earth’s Weave, the four Titans of the Creation Age stirred.
Hearing the call.
Convergence was rapidly approaching.
They sensed the wound within Unity.
Matarn would not fail a second time.
Pandora’s betrayal fresh within their minds.
The Slumbering One would climb. Bringing with her unmatched power. To finally cleanse the Multiverse. Fulfilling the Prophecy. The First of All Creation had never been wrong. They placed their faith with the Path. Knowing the end was near. The long vigil nearly completed.
The Three beings watched silently.
Assisting the Titans from their slumber.
In the shape of a man, woman, and the cosmos.
Soon their arbiters would walk the physical realm.
Issue 22: Here
Issue 24: Here