Saturday, 2 March 2013

Beyond the Darkness

Under the glare of the red giant abyssal forces were unleashed. The alien sleepers fought the almost equally alien forces of the grand architect, Sansha. Hundreds of ships faced each other, entire wings of battleships, the great hulking forms of the Sansha motherships facing off against sleeper dreadnoughts. From the interdicted planet they were fighting over it must have looked as if the very sky was on fire.

It was certainly a marvel to watch for the crew of the pilgrim sitting above the battle. Deep within his pod the capsuleer was observing everything and was scared. The amount of forces arrayed would swat the cruiser and not even notice. But, he was not in command, that was up to the smuggler on the bridge. Desiua watched with fascinated horror when he finally noticed his second calling him.
"Desiua, we have Mason on the line. Wants to know what's happening."
"Tell him to warp to my beacon within ten and he can see for himself. And tell him to keep the rest on the otherside of the hole and out of the way. If either of these...."
He chuckled to himself as he thought about what he was going to say.
"Forget that, it's not like either of these are going to use the wormhole. Just tell Mason not to decloak us when he brings his brick in. If we play this right... we'll be set up for life."
Desiua went back to watching the battle.

An hour later it was all over. The sleepers were destroyed utterly, but the cost to the Sansha was ferocious, less than twenty survived. From the bridge of his Panther, Wrathfull, Mason, the second in command of the smugglers watched and calculated. Eleven nightmares and a handful of support craft survived and were checking their wrecks for survivors and examining the wrecks of the dreadnoughts. It was doable. But it had to be quick.
"This is Mason to the fleet. I'm taking control of the engagement. All forces in this system hold until the heavies come in. Blue wing upon my order enter the 'hole and warp to my beacon at your optimals. Support I am the primary, keep me alive. Once we have engaged I want all cruiser and frigate squads to hold down the nightmares. We dont want anything leaving."
The confirmations came through fast and furious. He tapped out the commands to the pilot and the panther began to orientate towards the nearest Nightmare and accelearated. The pilot counted down the range to target.
"Blue wing....", the panthers collision alarm sounded and the cloak shimmered and closed. The gunners moved smoothly into their routines and moments later the first of the four barreled repeating artillery began unleashing at the nightmare. "Warp to my beacon. We have engaged the Sansha!"

The great hulk of the panther swept past the nightmare, the continous broadside cutting it in half, shell after shell ripping into the spiked armoured hull. Slowly the other great spiked battleships turned, their lasers slamming into the shields of the panther. It was maneauvering away from the stricken vessel when its reactors went critical, slamming into the side of the panther, it's shields evaporating and sending alarm bells all over the the bridge. From his own bridge Desiua watched with horror, and snapped out orders.
"Where are the logi's?"
"Still in warp... there are.. damn.. about a minute out!"
"Sir, Mason'll never survive that long against all this...."
"Strap in everyone! Sian, as soon as we decloak I want those drones out, and if necessary cut the cords and drop some ecm, might not work, but worth a try. Kyle, up to you which ones you drain, but I want them empty! Mia, scram and web what you can...."
He flipped on the comms as he strapped himself into the command chair.
"Desiua to recon fleet, we have to run interfereance to buy Mason some time. Follow us in and if you can take a few hits, run cover for the panther."
The confirmations ran over the channel and the recon surged forward, arcing over the damaged panther and into the oncoming fire from the Nightmares. As she crested the battleship the cloak dropped and the drones screamed towards the Sansha. All around the bridge targetting data was being called out, targets nominated. He felt the thrum through the deck as the warp disruptors were fired up and the whine as the drive systems were pushed beyond their specifications. On the scanner he could see the other ships decloaking, two more pilgrims, an arazu and a falcon.

On the bridge of the Panther Mason and the surviving bridge crew struggled valiently. The exploding Nightmare had crippled the port side and left it wide open to the Sansha. Heavy beams were lancing into the gaping wounds and overwhelming the repair system. Reports from across the ship were coming in, lists of casualties and damages increasing with each volley. Wiping the blood from his face he watched as the recons attacked.
"Dessie you beautiful bastard! Con, how long til out reinforcements are in?"
"They should be here! But we can't raise them, out systems are shot!"
"Give me power to the engines, turn this bitch towards the enemy! If we can't target then get the gunners to shoot manually!"
Trailing a stream of debris and venting gas the panther turned towards the sansha. Those guns that could fire did, their aim wildly inaccurate, but enough to show them they were still in the fight.

The Logistics wing dropped out of warp, miles away from the battle but still within range of the Nightmares. Orders over the comms were garbled, but the logi's were veterans and they knew what to do. Not all combat victories from from killing, and right now the Panther needed their skill.

Onboard the Panther Mason noticed the sheilds slowly raising, but also the onboard systems were telling him the armour was no longer in danger. All across the ships the fires were coming under control, slowly, bit by bit despite the continous incoming fire she was being rebuilt.

The Pilgrim danced in between the great spiked battleships, dodging fire from it's own fleet as much as the Sansha. They were being destroyed, but not quickly enough. These surviving ships looked to be veterans, pocked and scarred by countless engagements. But survival in the backwaters of the wormhole systems makes a man realise that there is nothing that cannot be achieved if the will is there. As it is, this is a lesson the Sansha knew too. The cruisers changed targets and shot straight at him, three phantasms, their paths winding and changing as they targetted and pressed the recon.
"Damn! They got us. Get us out of here!"
"Where? It's a spiked forest of death here!"
Desiua powered up the scanner and looked for a safe haven as the ship jerked under the impacts. The planet was close, and around it the formidable planetary defences. But, he noticed, there was a gap. One of the satellites had been impacted by debris, a large part of a sleeper battleship and damaged. There was a way in, assuming the....
"Sian, take a look at this. Those planetary defences, what's wrong with them?"
She looked for a moment then turned back to her screen.
"They are facing the planet. All of them. Probably why the Sansha won their fight with the sleepers."
"Scan the hole in sector seven. I want to know if they can track us if we go in. They must still be active as I'm reading power spikes on them...."
"No. There is an area we can slip through if we needed, but only cloaked. Their baseline scanners have had us targetted, it's faint but I swear I have laser targetting trace in the upper bands. If we didn't have these sensors I wouldn't have picked it up."
"Swing back to the fleet, get us out far enough that we are not targetted. Once the salvage op beings we'll head in cloaked. From the look of it, the battle is almost over, we just need to stay alive. Fly over Masons Panther, Let him take them out."

The rest of the battle took but a few minutes. The overwhelming firepower of the smuggler band, combined with their logistical support meant they took no losses, and only cosmetic damage. When the system had been scanned and a small fleet stationed outside the wormhole entrance the salvage began. The orca and noctii came in and began to clear the field. As the salvaged modules began being collated Mason and Desiua turned their attention to the defence grid.
"Look, I'm much smaller, I can get in, scan the planet and out before the defences lock on to me."
"Yeah, but I'm faster and better defended. Even if they manage to lock me, which they won't, I'll be out. If there is anything on the planet surface we'll need a larger ship to pick up the goodies."
"There is also the problem about the scans from this side of the grid. They are being blocked. We can't see what is beyond, can't hear anything. There could be a small fleet there and we wouldn't be able to see or hear it. It's a perfect trap."
"No, what is perfect is that this ancient trap the sleepers set up netted us a small fortune. We're already into the billions and we're not even at the planet. I'm going to risk it."
Desiua slammed his hand on the console, anger on his face.
"Damn it Mason, I'm in command!"
Mason simply smiled and cut the feed. As he looked out the viewscreen he saw the Panther align to the grids gap and cloak.

From the bridge of his Panther Mason sat down and gave his orders. Who was Desiua to tell him what to do? The rewards for this place were immense, they would all go down in history for the find. The smugglers who defeated the sansha and the sleepers. And he was commanding, the main glory would be his.
"Passing the grid now. No action detected, no scanning detected."
Mason laughed and leant back in his chair.
"See, far too cautious. I wonder sometimes how Desiua became leader of our group. He lacks the killer instinct."
His bridge crew knew better than to disagree with him, and the capsuleer simply laughed in her pod. The sensors spread over the ship were alert and receptive. But even to her, there was something wrong. A feeling deep within her ghost which made her want to turn around and leave this place. The space beyond, felt... evil, cold and dark. Again, she checked the battleships sensor arrays, cursing the lack of several necessary high band scanners, lost in the fight, but she mused, they were never used. And so, the ship and it's crew passed beyond and headed to the planet.
"Mason! We have wreckage, lots of ships. Three, ten... fifteen... by the rings, it's like an entire fleet here."
"Any of them broadcasting?"
He looked around the crew, most of them were deep in concentration at their posts.
"Amy, what can you see?"
Until we come out of cloak I'm blind to my long distance scanners. 
If we drop it for a moment we can sample the signals and cloak before we're locked
"Okay, do that."

Desiua pulled the recon back until all the screens confirmed he was not being targetted by the grid anymore. Then he pulled back even further and cloaked. At high speed he ran the hole in the grid and vectored off to miss the Panther and pulled far enough away from the grid that he was sure the scanners wouldn't pick him up.
"Decloak, passive scan only. Let me know if they have us."
The red sun gleamed over the hull of the pilgrim as it appeared like a whisp into the system, still powering foward towards the planet.
I have the Wrathfull on scan. And about three hundred other ships. There are a considerable amount of signals coming from the ships. At this time I'd have to say they are derelict. But we are not being scanned by anything that I can verify.
But they have a track on the Wrathfull. I can see the laser track in the upper bands. Very faint. Almost missed it. If we hadn't seen it before, we wouldn't have.
"Don't inform him. He seems to know what he is doing. Let him know we are here and keep us distant from him and the grid."
He walked over to the view screen and looked out. The planet was close now. On the darkside there were no lights, and from the initial scans, no signs of an advanced civilisation. For all intents and purposes the planet was dead. A shiver ran through him as the ship passed into the shadow of the planet, for a moment the sun flared, and he thought he saw.....
"Someone get me a drink. Take us in, we need to see if this place is worth bringing any other recons in."

The two ships moved closer and began active scanning of the derelicts. There were hundreds, most of them alien beyond design, though automatic systems were still visible on some, tracking them. What was more disturbing were the signals. Most were simple audio, but some had video feed, and others were more esoteric. All had one understandable meaning. Go no further or you will be lost. Desiua, ever the cautious calculated his options, while Mason made their decision for them.
"We've located what seems to be the only structure on the planet and there is a faint signal coming from there. Most likely an escape pod from this group of ships. I'm going down with a landing party. Keep an eye open up here."
"Mason, I have a bad feeling about this place. It feels wrong, we need to leave while we can."
"Desiua, when we get back to base we're going to have a little talk about who is going to lead this group. I'm putting you on notice, we have no faith in you. There is wealth beyond all our dreams here. And I want my share! Mason out!"
Are you going with him?
"We all are. Select a landing area outside of the complex he's found. If I dont, the gods alone know what trouble he'll get into."
You might be closer than you think. Be careful.
Desiua frowned at the capsuleers cryptic remarks but shrugged and sent out the orders for his ground team to set up.

The air on the planet was cold and bitter as they walked towards the complex. Ash and sand seemed to cover the floor, as if a great fire had swept over everything. Petrified and stunted trees looked bent over, as if subject to a strong wind, though none was apparent. High up the great sun was a cloud covered orb, too far away to warm the planet through the murky clouds that churned the sky. Desiua, wrapped up in a large heavy duster lit a cigarette and handed a bag to one of his companions.
"Come on, Mason is already at the entrance."
"I dont like the feel of this place. It's unnatural."
He looked at the complex as they approached. The walls were old, ancient beyond reckoning. Individual blocks looked as large as shuttles, the whole wall dwarfed many of the structures he'd seen.
"I know. Think of the payday. We should all come out of this rich."
"Aye, if we come out at all."

Meeting Mason at the entrance he ran his hand over the exposed stone of the gateway. It was pitted with age, scarred and in some places damaged on purpose that he could see. But above all it was old. Walking through he had the feeling of entering a forbidden place, a forbidden era even. While Mason and his crew chattered and illuminated the walls and defaced statues that were beyond Desiua just looked and kept silent. As he walked slowly he could feel the ground crunching underneath his boots and looked down. Tiny fragments of bone littered the floor and he knelt down, brushing aside the dust and debris and picking up a small coin. The gold gleamed, but contained a blasphemous image, and had script in an unfamiliar tongue. Pocketing it he turned to his crew and saw the hesitation on their faces.
"Come on lads, whatever was here has long since died. This is a tomb, nothing more. With luck there will be something to loot. So keep your eyes open, we want to get the good stuff before Mason does, else he'll be running the show. And here, there is gold. If I found some, you can!"

He flicked the coin to one of the crew and laughed as he showed it to the guys around. There was laughter at that and the crew bustled forwards, their misgivings about the place. Gold was something they could believe in. Further in the main structure beyond the gate house was a large pyramid, a gargantuan door in the side of it was open, and by the time they got there, several of Masons men were already coming out, the looks on their faces of pure terror.
"Don't go in there, Captain! Such evil works, we must leave!"
He slapped the man on the shoulder, noticing he was Amarrian.
"Stay out here then, or guard the ships."
The amarrian grabbed Desiua by the arms and looked at him, his eyes turning upwards until only the whites remained. His voices changed, to a guttereal drawl, his breathing in between each word haggard and dragging.
"Leave this place. All who enter will die in darkness or be torn asunder by the hound who guards. You have been warned!"
The man shuddered and slumped to the floor. His two companions who had come out with him picked him up and ran back towards their ship.
"I have a bad feeling about this."
"We still going in, Captain?"
He laughed and walked past the great stone pillars either side of the door, barely glimpsing the carved heiroglyphs that covered them.
"I do not run from the tortured screams of the Amarr. Never have done, never will."

Minutes later, he was not so sure. The corridor he walked down was spotless, no trace of dust or debris, nothing. Bas-relief images on the walls made his mind reel and he felt in his holster for his pistol. Scenes of great debauchery, of fighting and of rituals covered the walls. Strange beings, oft with tentacles or more arms than man, or winged covered them. It looked like a story was being told, but the more he looked, the more he wished he could have listened to the amarrian and just turned around. And then, he noticed something and stooped to pick it up.
"Tash, come here. What do you make of this?"
He handed the item over to her and she rolled it around in her hand.
"It's a slave beta!"
"I found it here, in this crack in the floor. I almost missed it."
"Well I suppose it's a fair bet that the Sansha landed, I didn't remember seeing any in orbit, but they might have tried to escape and been shot down."
"Yeah, but that doesn't explain how it managed to get here. Look, get a few of the guys to hang back and explore the floors, the corners. Go with them, and keep it quiet."
"You got it Cap'n."
"And Tash, weapons out. If there are Sansha troops here, the won't be friendly."

The sloping corridor entered a large domed room and he found Mason there, with several of his crew, their weapons out and facing towards them. Others of his crew were looking through several chests just inside the corridor.
"Mason, what's with the weapons... oh."
As he walked up to stand besinde Mason he looked and saw what they were all looking at. A tall man was seated on what looked like a suitcase.
"Who the devil is that?"
"I didn't think he was one of yours. He must have been here...."
"Maybe. Or some sort of sleeper?"
The figure coughed and raised his head. Circular smoked glasses spectacles looked out over an aquiline nose and a thin lipped smile.
"If I may, gentlemen?"
Desiua took a step forward and looked at the man. His dress was archaic, strange, and yet familiar. Trousers, a shirt and jacket. Several rings on his fingers, a long cane with a sculpted head lay across his knees, along with the paperback book he was presumably reading.
"You know our language?"
"Yes. I learnt it many years ago. May I assume you are here to rescue me? I have been stuck here for some time."
"How long?"
"Seems.. uh huh.... like an eternity. Those who came before you were not so friendly, so I kept out of their way. You I see, are more.. trusting. Even with those weapons pointing at me."
Desiua spun and glared at Mason.
"Weapons down. Remember, I'm in charge here."
"Then you take care of him. Come on Lads, spread out. Search everything. Leave our guest to the boss."
Mason pushed passed him and dissapeared into a deeper corridor. Desiua returned his gaze to the man and walked towards him. Behind him he heard his crew walk in and start looking around, Tash organising them.
"So, what is your name, stranger? And how came you to be here?"
"Oh I came exploring, like you did and found this place. Are those defenses still up? No, they must be down for such a large amount of you to come in. My name, is Legion."
"That's a strange name."
"On the contrary, I have many names, but I prefer this one. Your friend seems to be rather angry? I think he is expecting to find something. Treasure?"
"Yes. I take it he won't find it?"
"There is only knowledge here, no treasure."
"To the right people, knowldge is worth more than money, it is power."
"Aaaah, you are right. Perhaps then you might want to get to the end of that corridor before your friend does? He may find more... knowledge than he is capable of?"
"Let him. How did you get here?"
"My ship is probably still in orbit, along with those others who came here and were stranded."
"Why yes, that's why the... I think you call them, the sleepers put the defence grid around the planet."
"A trap?"
"No no. To stop the knowledge from escaping. Makes you wonder, doesn't it. What the sleepers, those magnificent people.. .feared enough to blockade and entire planet."
"Yes.. unfortunately it does. Tash, what have you found?"
He pulled his com out and spoke into it.
"You won't believe it, but we've found a lot of slave and other sansha implants."
"Any remains?"
The man giggled behind his hand.
"None, just implants, some metal scrap that looks to be medical steel. Dessie, it looks like a lot of sansha died here and they were... absorbed by something. I can't think of any reason why we have the remains we have. There are even teeth fillings and buttons, all from the same alloy I think."
"Have you found anything else?"
"Yes, and you need to see it. Alone."

The remains were so old it had been mummified by conditions in the room. Four armed, and standing way over seven feet tall, clad in nothing except a kilt made of platinum strips and a bandola of the same material. Signs of corrosion indicated where other, lesser materials had long since gone. Two of it's arms clasped a large five pointed star to it's chest, the other two held a container. It's face was that of a nightmare.
"I found a lot more of the strips and bandoliers it was wearing, and other bits I can't understand, scattered all over the room. There are scratch marks in the walls in places, like if one of these was trying to burrow through the walls away from something."
"But everything else has gone. Absorbed or dissolved...."
"Like the Sansha?"
"Yes. Pack up, we're leaving. Now!"
"What about Mason?"
Desiua thought for a moment.
"Fuck Mason."

The crew ran past him, their bags loaded down with what they had picked up, as he stopped before the man on the suitcase.
"I dont trust you, Legion."
"I don't blame you. I wouldn't either. But it seems you are smarter than those who went further."
"If I was smart, I'd have listened to the Amarrian when he warned me about entering this place."
He turned his head and sniffed. A strange smell was at the edge of his senses, and a repeating, almost laughing sound was at the edge of his hearing, coming from one of the passages leading deeper into the temple. 
"If you are lucky, Mason will give you a lift out. I have the safety of my people to think of."
The man bowed his head and smiled.
"We are all pawns to the elder gods. You might want to keep that trinket close by. It may save you. Or it may not."
Desiua held up the soapstone star and looked at it. Holding it close, he did feel unaccountably safer. And he noticed the man twitched at it.
"Farewell, Legion. If you have money, you may be able to buy your way onto Mason's ship. But be wary of him. He's more of a pirate than I am."
"You warn me of your companion, and yet leave me to his mercy. You really are smart. Good day to you, Desiua Quintus Maria."
 Desiua nodded to him curtly and left, following his men. It was only as he reached the top of the corridor, and walked out onto the courtyard and looked up at the churning clouds that he realised, he hadn't told the man his name. When they reached the gateway they stopped. Three bodies lay in their path, the Amarrian and his two companions. They had been torn to pieces.

Back on board the recon they sorted out the treasure while the ship took off. Hundreds of implants of various sorts, all Sansha, all worth a fortune. Several smaller five pointed stars, enough of the platinum equipment to fit at least twenty of the alien creatures, and a small chest of strange cut gemstones. Desiua ordered a full sweep of the entire ship as they settled into orbit to make sure there were no surprises onboard. And he waited. Cloaked. For Mason to return.

When he did, about an hour later he knew that what he had feared had happened. When he opened the communications channel with him, the stranded stranger was there beside him.
"Mason. I see you have a guest."
"And I see you left early. Where are you? I can't see you."
"Oh I'm here, just watching. What did you find?"
Mason's eyes gleamed and he grinned a most evil grin.
"I found knowldge. Come, let me share it with you. Lower your cloak and come and join me here."
"Mason. Whatever you found, get rid of it. It's evil!"
"Oh well, Desiua, If you don't want to share in my knowldge, I'm sure there are others."
The connection died. He checked the sensors and saw the Panther leave orbit and head to the hole in the defence grid.
"They'll detect him. And he won't even know it."
"Just stay cloaked. I have a bad feeling about this."
"But he's one of our captains, your second in command."
"And why did he not ask about his crew who were slaughtered outside the gate?"
Tash bit her lip.
"If our places were reveresed, wouldn't you have asked?"
"Yes. And Mason was always one to look after his crew....."
"Once we get through the grid, warn the fleet. Take us in slow."

It took a while to reach the gate, and when they finally reached it they halted. Naturally there was no way of knowing if the panther was nearby, or if she'd already gone through.
"Okay, take us in....."
"Wait... the satellites are turning!"
"Tash, do they have us?"
"Negative, I think."
"Don't think, be sure!"
A high powered laser blasted out from the nearest satellite. The panthers cloak failed as a blossoming cloud of superheated metal vented from the ships midsection. Other satellites were turning as the panther pushed her engines and flew towards the gap. Laser lances blasted out, cutting great gouges into the ship, explosions wracking her intenal structure, sending the entire ship spinning. But, she was spinning towards the hole. As soon as she passed beyond, escape pods began firing. From the count before the ship exploded, only seven were launched, and of those, only three escaped the blast.

The recon passed through a few moments later and looked out into a scene of horror. Their fleet was gone. The remains of it, burning, smashed and scattered dotted the wrecks they were salvaging when the mothership had arrived. Without their leader, the battle was short and very one sided. Desiua and Tash watched helplessly as the pods were tractored into the belly of one of Sansha's greatest creations.
"What now?"
"Now, Tash... we run. And we can only pray that Mason and his knowledge perished."

On the deck of the motherships hanger, troops surrounded the escape pods. Already they had dragged the screaming occupants out of two of them and on to processing. At the third one they encountered something strange. A tall man sitting on a large suitcase, looking at them with a smile and a man standing behind him.
"Oh look Mason, it seems as if we are to be guests of the Sansha. How exciting!"
Mason just looked on with a glazed expression.

Desiua rubbed his eyes and yawned, looking at the two men before him.
"And with that we escaped the system. We were still cloaked and managed to slip past the mothership. By the time we had jumped through the wormhole the first crew member was dead. Some of the crew heard a scream and found him in a foetal position, a look of shock on his face that was primal. He'd died of shock the doctor said. Several hours it took us to get out of the wormhole system and get back to high sec. By then the crew were paniced, even our capsuleer was freaked. They assumed it was my fault and they booted me and Tash off at a mining platform we used. They kept the gems, but all the implants they loaded into a bag an gave it to us, along with a few other bits and that star. The star kept back whatever it was that killed Tash. It came out of the walls and tore her apart, some kind of spectral wolf or hound. I'll miss her. Then I talked to my usual fence and started selling the implants and... got caught by a newly installed scanner. The rest, you know."
Colonel Lientus and the Fleet Commander looked up. The story they had heard was fantastic to say the least.
"You really expect us to believe this. Hidden wormholes, ancient temples, demonic creatures?"
"Yes. Because someone else does believe it, hence why I'm subject to an incinreration order. And now I've told you, I'm not entirely sure that you won't be a target too."
"Because you've seen the star. It's a relic from an older time. It will keep you safe."
Lientus got up and walked over to the table, picking up the soapstone star. It felt heavy in his hands, but as soon as he held it he heard the sound, a distant running of feet, like an animal. And as he looked up he realised, it was very dark in the room.
"What's wrong with the damn lighting?"

The hound appeared out of the corner of the wall and slammed into Desiua, it's teeth tearing into his throat. Staggering back, covered in blood from the severed through the Fleet Commander reached for his weapon, the guards in the room, temporarily shocked but were reacting. Lientus, stood still, clutching the star and watched. In a moment, it was over. Desiua lay dead, the Fleet Commander and the guards were looking around, stunned as the lights seemed to return to their brightness as if a great malignant shadow had moved.
"What happened? Lientus? Lientus?"
He turned to the Fleet Commander, still clutching the icon and then slipped it into his coat.
"Nothing of this gets out. When the Inquisitor returns bring him here. Explain it all to him."
"Where are you going?"
"To check on sightings of Sansha Motherships. If there is a chance that Mason and Legion survived, I want to find out."
"Lientus... you can't take that with you. It's evidence."
"Maybe so... but I feel safer with it. I'll return it."

To Be Continued....

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