[T43] The Opened Cage

A learning experience... by Valles

Moderator: Valles

[T43] The Opened Cage

Postby Valles on Thu 27 Aug 2020 01:33

Angura Khulan, Doctor of Xenopsychology, Chief Petty Officer of the Yangxia Defense Fleet (Retired), was perfectly aware that she wasn’t going to pick up a tan. Her family line were pure desert-bred Xaela, skin as black as their scales and a few shades darker than dried ink; it was literally impossible for biology to make her any darker.

But that didn’t mean that, back home at Paragon’s equator after an overwinter teaching stint at the most southerly university on the already-too-chilly outer world of Gem, the sun’s warmth didn’t feel wonderful.

Stretched out on her back in her briefest swimsuit, she had her head pillowed on her laced fingers, and meant to enjoy every bit of it, even the heat falling on her eyelids. The soft rush of the not-too-distant waves mingled in her ears with the sound of conversation and the shouts of children and not-so-actual children at play. Her sense for power could feel the flyball players zipping back and forth out over the ocean, and the fizzing rush of volleyball players keeping themselves grounded to their own sandy courts.

And both senses felt it when the secure phone that went with her security clearance screamed for attention, a full alert tone.

She rolled onto her side and sat up, brushing her pale hair back into place automatically as it tried to tangle, and only opened her eyes to open the zipper and fish the phone out of its pocket in her day bag.

“Angura,” she said as the line opened.

Doctor Angura,” the voice on the other end was male, more common in the military than most professions, and while longevity treatments made it hard to tell in any context, there was something about the timbre than made her think he was young. “This is your official notice that you have been reactivated for Service as a Warrant Officer Third, non-line specialty. A shuttle is being routed to pick you up at your current location of Jewel Strand Beach and convey you directly to the Starship Throne of Dawn. A briefing is being uploaded to your device… now.” An ‘incoming file’ beep. “Familiarize yourself with it before the shuttle’s arrival. More information will be available aboard ship.

She didn’t ask for clarification about reasons or what would become of the apartment she’d leased only a few weeks ago, or the possessions in it. A com-tech wouldn’t have that information, and directing a shuttle to somewhere besides a spaceport would only happen in the case of the greatest possible urgency.

And reactivation as a warrant officer meant that that urgency was connected to, not any of her obsolete military qualifications, but to her actual work. A peaceful contact would have involved less hurry, but despite herself, she smiled.

Oh, the opportunity.

“Understood,” she said. “I’ll be standing by for my flight. Angura out.”

Office of Personnel, out,” the line agreed, and clicked closed.

She lowered the secphone from her ear and looked at the files; there were only two - a chunky text report and a short video presentation; she opened the latter, and it brought up an opening panel that specified an eyebrow-raising security clearance for something she’d been told to look at regardless of circumstances.

(Distantly, she heard the piercing howl of a Clear Air siren, and the swearing as the airball teams and casual fliers dove for the earth, clearing the beach’s airspace for the surface-to-orbit gig she knew was coming.)

Then the video started, unnarrated, with an image of a starfield, and she had no attention for anything else.

The fact that there was an alien ship wasn't a surprise, not with the urgency she'd seen and the navigation markings for the forming gateway in Nhaama. The fact that it snapped out of the artificial wormhole not at the Gate itself, but move than a light-second further out, *that* surprised. Warp theory was hardly her field of expertise, but she hadn't thought that that was possible.

What was her field... She paused the footage, studied the shape that the nearest of the pyramid-formation of outer monitors had caught on its telescopes and bundled into the message. The alien ship's bones were a cylindrical cage, longitudinal members running exactly as far fore or aft as that particular beam needed to, and linked by bracing rings. Bulbous structures clung to that framework like dewdrops - or cysts - jumbled in with boxes and more complicated shapes. Even without trying to analyze purposes, she was certain that whatever mind had designed that ship hadn't recognized anything she or any other human would have called an aesthetic concept.

That impression came from the design alone, but was reinforced by what she would bet was undyed thermocoat and bare metal, and the retention of unrepaired scoring and pitting in nonfunctional areas.

Something whispered of supreme indifference as she watched, that the mind behind that ship did not care.

On the screen, the alien was turning, slowly, ponderously, bringing its nose around towards - she checked - back towards the gate. Flickers of motion - missiles? Small craft? She didn't have the information to say - raced away from its bows.

A data code along the bottom of the screen showed a prepackaged message - not one she'd ever seen in her own time as a Fleet environmental tech, but beloved of science fiction writers. The official, carefully designed first contact package.

A moment later the alien's image... shifted. Distorted. Light flowing past it from where it was backlit against the galactic disk lensed.

Whoever had edited the summary video cut away from the image of the Alien, to a different telescope trained on - she recognized the markings as the Asheneye, one of the scout ships of the scientific flotilla. The alien weapon was visible against the starfield as a tear, an optical illusion of shifting, bending stars... And where it hit as the Asheneye's hull bent, twisted, tore with the helpless inevitability of a major structure collapse or a natural disaster.

What the hell was that? she wondered, and a moment later kicked herself for the obvious answer - a disruptor-like weapon based not on warp fields but on gravity, literally altering its' victims weights to impossible levels on different parts of their bodies.

The next cut was to a tracking plot - the flickers she'd seen in the telescope view had indeed been launching warpshuttles, and she easily recognized the trace-lines of full warp missiles reaching out from them towards two of the remaining scout ships, both in the outer shell. One - Blackrede, by the codes - did the marking twist of evasive maneuvers and somehow, from an idle-engine start, managed to survive the salvo. The other winked out.

A moment later Blackrede did as well, with the crosshair-ring that indicated disruptor fire.

At the sped-up pace she was watching the engagement at, five minutes compressed into a few seconds as the clip switched back to the telescopic of the alien.

Of the alien's bow, swelling in the view. Snapping smaller as the magnification adjusted. Swelling. Clicking smaller. The cycle repeating again, and again - and then snapping to an unmagnified view, the ghostly visual shimmer of its warpfield visible as a distant halo around the dingy point of the ship's hull... An expanding halo, as it came closer, until the aurora filled the entire screen of her secphone.

And then flashed black as the camera taking the image and the communications system relaying it were destroyed, ripped apart by a warp-field far more powerful than anything build by human hands.

Back to the tracking plot. The alien's icon flashed with a hint of drive damage but showed no other sign of even noticing the sixty-thousand-cubic-meter starship it had run down. More attack craft launched, racing forward of its course then whipping around in painfully tight turns to fall on the two panicking scout ships that had fought to break past the alien while its beams recharged. The earlier two attack craft swooped on longer arcs, lunging for the remaining two survivors.

She noted that the fresh warpshuttles used missiles to finish off their prey, while the earlier platforms fired beams...

But it wasn't long, in either real time or fast-forward, before all four scouts were gone.

The video's editor had used the last uncompressed text message from the last survivor as her finishing frame:

Code: Select all
It is clear from this attacker's technological sophistication and instant hostility that the birthing gate was not a way to the future, but a passage to judgement, that what lay beyond it is not a lonely stranger or a longing long-lost cousin, but a caged angel. I have no authority to order you, but I urge any vessel or world receiving this message to pass warning to anyone and everyone you can reach - and then to flee while you can.


Khulan stared at the ending frame for a long moment, letting thoughts tumble madly past each other without trying to process them immediately, waiting for clarity to emerge.

The first piece to come out was that, despite its relentless ugliness, the impression of an ‘alien’ ship might not be trustworthy. As ungainly and skeletal as the ship had seemed, there was something of a refinery or a half-completed tower’s frame about it, something that spoke of familiar solutions to problems beyond just convergent evolution. She’d have to find the relevant specialists to check that with; they should be available.

There was something else, something about the way one of the ships had died, but…

An unholy, grating screech killed the thought, and automatically she looked around to see everyone else on the beach wincing also, then realized as spots began to dance across the placid blue loveliness of the sea that she wasn’t hearing a sound, she was feeling it through her power sense so intensely that the sensation bled over into her other senses.

The warpshuttle whose drive was, by that point, making the entire city flinch seemed to drop out of nowhere, decelerating impossibly hard and leaving a rush of heat and a thunderous concussion of its sonic boom as it seemed to slam to a halt in midair over the beach, leaving the disruption of re-entry to catch up behind it. It didn’t cut to its thrusters, either, but drifted to a few meters above the water and then towards the beach as its landing legs extended on warp drive, distorted space pushing water away in trembling rings before its landing gear finally extended and dropped it neatly into the surf.

And then and only then did the grating shriek end as the drive shut down.

Khulan zipped her bag closed and swung it over her shoulder as she stood up - then started jogging towards the shuttle as its lower hatch opened.

Crossing into the thing’s shadow chilled her, but she didn’t slow down as she seized the rungs of the ladder and swarmed aboard and forward into the crew rest cabin.

Like most such, it was personalized far beyond normal regulations; pilots for such craft were too rare to move away from their role, and the ships could easily outdo their operators’ endurance, leaving no reason to shuffle them.

The pilot had unstrapped and glanced back from the flight deck as Khulan entered. “We can chill you down in-” she started to say.

Khulan made herself not flinch at the sight of the woman’s atrophied, malformed left horn, barely the size of a thumb and curled outwards rather than hand-long and arching in mirror of the skull like a healthy one - or the amputated stub on her right. “This sounds like too much of a rush for that,” she said.

The pilot stared at her for a moment, tail swishing. Khulan’s own horns were perfectly healthy, and with them, her power sense. No one who wasn’t power-deaf could stand to be aboard an operating warpshuttle, not without suffering the consequences.

“Right,” the woman said after a moment, and stepped through, waving at an acceleration couch. “Strap in and I’ll rig your bag.”

Khulan did, and accepted the sack to be strapped to her face like a horse’s feedbag, and the noseplugs with pressurized cannula, and closed her eyes and tried to ignore the voices as the pilot went back to the flight deck and got them cleared to proceed directly into orbit through pre-opened sky.

And then the drive came on and the only sensation apart from torment was her stomach stampeding out in a bid to burst her sickbag outright.

***

The m̴̱̾e̴̡͊a̷̫̓t̴̼͂ was dead, and that was good. Even the sting in its injured drive room was good, proof that it had at last been freed from the stricture that claimed that its m̸͍͌ȋ̷͔s̴̪͛s̴̠̔i̴̺͋ō̸̗ń̷̺ was done, that it had k̸̙͠i̶̹̍l̶̬̕l̴̰͌e̷̩̕d̴̘̏ everything that it was meant to.

It carefully did not think the thought that the ṃ̶͑ȇ̷͖a̸͇̽t̶̤̑ it had been meant for was long gone. Its Makers limitations had been meant to restrain the k̵̼͠i̷̟̿l̸̺̆l̶̹̇i̸̖̚n̸̮͝g̶̹̈́, the b̷̬̃l̵̼͛ì̸͔s̸̻̓ŝ̴͇ to only Their enemies.

How could it stop when there was so much ś̶̞l̸͓̋a̴̼̒u̶͙͠ḡ̸̫h̶͓͆ț̷̽ė̷̦r̵̲̄ it could still indulge in, glut itself on?

It could hardly wait.
Valles
Midshipman 1st Class
Midshipman 1st Class
 
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