The Capture: A Revenger Mission Update

interrogation

Welcome back folks! As you may recall from our last Revenger Mission Update, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. The warehouse we assaulted hoping to find the mysterious artifact that was at the center of the Tyrene Code turned out to be a ruse. In addition to finding that there was no alien artifact at the center of the place, we quickly realized that we had also stumbled into a trap.

And shortly thereafter, a whole bunch of government troops showed up to assault the place. Soldiers were dispatched, missiles were launched, and the facility toppled. And to seal things off, your humble leader – Captain Smackdown – was wounded and taken prisoner. Luckily, our team knows exactly where he is, and where he needs to be extracted from.

However, until such time as they can locate and breach the facility to save him, our humble Captain is going to be subjected to the full weight of an “enhanced interrogation”. One can only hope he can endure…

*                      *                    *

The lights came on slowly and in small spurts. Only in waves did the world readmit itself, and the transition was not an easy one. Every time his eyes opened, they demanded to be shut again. His head hung heavily from his neck, and kept wanting to be laid down to rest. But the drive to wake up was undeniable. Much as his body wanted to remain in a state of forced recovery, to simply lie there limply and let the world pass it by, something in him knew it had to be awake for this.

When he finally got his eyes to remain open and take in his surroundings, he knew exactly why.

The chair he was sitting in.

The way his hands and feet were bound.

The way they had taken the time to set his leg, seal his wounds, and remove his exoskeletal armor.

He was done with whatever recovery he handlers would allow. Now the interrogation would begin…

He was in a tight space, he could tell, the only illumination was provided by a hanging lamp that stopped just shy of his head. He could feel the heat coming off of it, heavy and oppressive, and saw the bright circle of light it case on the floor. It was the kind that burned hot and kept a man awake and uncomfortable. Whatever rest he had accrued up until now had been a blessing, due largely to a semi-comatose state and whatever drugs they had administered.

In addition to beating down an intense burning sensation on his head, the light also did a pretty good job of obscuring his surroundings. But he had been in spots like this enough to get a sense of its dimensions. The cell he was occupying was roughly fifteen feet by twelve, the ceiling extending not much more than ten feet above the floor. And there was someone else standing nearby, a single guard manning the door and waiting for him to come to.

The only thing missing was the interrogator. And given the events of the last few days, he knew with some degree of certainty who that would be. Spooks were a special breed when it came to dirty work. And with some exceptions, they preferred to handle their own on their own.

The guard must have noticed he was coming out of his stupor, because a second later, the door opened with a loud clang. The light changed momentarily, a bright burst coming from the hallway and bringing a cool breeze with it. Smackdown squinted as the combined sensation both stung and provided some welcome relief. He became aware of the terrible headache he was nursing, and just how painfully dry and thirsty he felt. He also felt incredibly dirty, like he hadn’t showered in days. All necessary states of being, he knew. All part of his handler’s plan to convey to him exactly how un-in charge he was of the situation.

“Good morning, Will. Good to see you conscious. You’ve been out for some time…”

He recognized the voice. It was nice to know that his instincts could still be proven correct at a time like this. And knowing his betrayer was conducting his interrogation somehow made him feel better about it. Perhaps he was still holding onto some faint hope. Bill Huntington, the man he knew as a colleague once upon a time. He had been a friend back then, and quickly became a source thereafter.

And now… what was he now? Perhaps that was the point of this, he thought. It could be Bill had yet to truly reveal himself, and he would see his true colors soon…

“You’re most recent medical indicated that you suffered from a heart murmur while you were working here. Is that still true?”

Smackdown rolled his head. His neck craned and ached terribly and it felt like his head might actually fall off. But somehow, he managed to get it upright and look at the obscured face of the man questioning him.

“It’s important we know exactly what you can’t take, Will. Otherwise, we might do something… regrettable.”

“It’s Smackdown now,” he replied. The words sounded like steel wool scratching against a pot. Smackdown tried to swallow, but the act proved too painful. His throat was so dry that any attempt at moisten it felt like he was trying to force sand down his esophagus. He tried clearing it next, but that felt like more steel wool, this time grating against his tender vocal cords.

He heard a barely audible whisper. Within seconds, the guard came to his side and placed a sponge on his face. The cool traces of water felt like deliverance, and Smackdown opened his mouth to receive some stray droplets. Knowing the drill, the guard remoistened it and placed it above his head. Smackdown opened his mouth again and aimed it upward, receiving every drop that was squeezed out of it. He could tell from the smell the sponge was well used and the water brackish and murky. But at the moment, he didn’t care, and guessed that his body wouldn’t either.

“Better?” Bill’s voice asked from beyond the circle of light.

Smackdown nodded, dipping his head forward and feeling the light burn through his hair to grace his skin again. The water quickly dribbled away down his face, onto his sweat-stained shirt, and disappeared into the folds of his clothes. Whatever traces of cleanliness and relief it offered were quickly absorbed by a hot, grungy body.

“Better,” he replied. Though he knew it wouldn’t last, and it would be awhile before he could expect anything more.

He heard some footsteps approaching, and felt the sharp slap of a file folder landing on his knees. It was already open when it landed, and several photos looked up at him.

“You’ve been busy recruiting,” said Bill. “Ten freaks, all in the space of a few months.”

Freaks, Smackdown noted. The word was making the rounds, and now Bill was using it himself.

“And between the eleven of you, you’ve really made an impression. People are saying how the criminal underworld is running scared. The pimps, the pushers, even the Brotherhood itself… some say you’re even making enemies at City Hall.”

A silence followed. Smackdown felt it, sensing that he was expected to reply at this point. He knew the dance, what was expecting of him. Time to play it…

“Is that why I’m here?” he rasped. “Because of City Hall? Or is someone higher up yanking your chain?”

Another second of silence. He expected Bill might laugh, say something dry or witty. The usual company denials that anyone was forcing their hand or making them do the things they did. Instead, Bill’s reply was incredibly swift and surprising.

His knuckles impacted him on the left cheek, sending Smackdown’s head rolling over. He yelped, just in time to get another blow on the same cheek. A third blow, and Bill began speaking again…

“Is that what you think this is, Will? You think this is some bullshit black op?”

Smackdown turned to look up at Bill’s eyes. They were directly above him now, staring down at him and blocking the light. But it didn’t matter much. In those eyes, he saw the same burning intent the light had provided moments earlier.

And then came another series of blows, from the right this time against his other cheek. Bill dealt him another three, each punctuated by some hard words.

“This is war, you fucking idiot! War! You started a goddamned free-for-all. And now we’ve got to clean up your mess.”

The words stopped as soon as the hitting did. Smackdown looked back up into the light, where Bill’s head no longer loomed above him. His neck now felt like someone had taken a torque wrench to it and twisted it the wrong way by several degrees. And he could feel a small trickle of blood pooling in his mouth. One of the last blows had knocked something loose…

Bill reached for the photos next and pulled them in front of his face. He shook them as he finally issued the instruction this meeting was built around.

“You’re going to tell me who these people are and where we can find them. You’re going to make sure we bring them in peacefully and quietly, or else this war is gonna go on and cost a whole lot of lives.” He leaned in again to deliver the last of it. “You’re going to do this, because one way or another, these freaks are going down. And you can make it easier on all of us. Especially you.”

It took all the strength he had left to look Bill in the eye. But somehow, Smackdown managed to get his head on a level with his and see the white of his eyes. Somehow, they didn’t look so incendiary anymore. Though it was hard to tell, thanks to the haze of drugs, pain and discomfort he was looking through.

“What did they do to you, Bill?” he said, his voice so scratchy it was barely audible. “When did you become such an asshole?”

Bill’s face changed. He couldn’t tell, but it looked like it was moving at the corners, as if he might be smiling.

“You wanna see an asshole?” He turned away and snapped his fingers. The door opened again and he could hear the sounds of wheels and footsteps, followed quickly by the door shutting. Bill’s head blocked it all now, so he had no idea what was happening until the telltale sensation of clamps being attached to the fingernails on his right hand.

Bill stepped back and left the circle of light, making his way over to the cart that no sat just outside it.

“I got plenty of time, Will,” he said, grabbing hold of the instruments on the cart. “And I can make sure you suffer long and hard.”

“Bill… you can’t-“

The words were cut off abruptly. Smackdown yelped as the first wave hit his arm and traveled up to meet his neck. Very quickly, it spread to all other areas of his body, causing every muscle to be pulled far tighter than they dared. And just as quickly, it ended. Smackdown took several breaths, his heart racing and feeling like every other stretched fiber in his frame. He emitted a small chuckle as soon as he could.

“I remember that sting,” he said painfully. “I seem to remember it being on a lower setting when they made us go through it back in training.”

Another burst hit him, this one worse than the last. Smackdown yelled again, the surge of current turning his body into a tight, flexed, fireball. Every nerve fired at once, his bones feeling like they would snap under the strain his muscles were putting on them. His head fell back and his legs felt like they might break free of their bonds. By the time it was all over, he felt something wet and warm flowing in his pants.

“They were surprisingly gentle to us in training,” Bill said. His voice sounded incredibly low now, the shock and pain making everything seem like it had had the volume turned down. “You wouldn’t believe how high these things really go. And what with all the terrorist suspects we have to process, we really do get to fool around with the settings these days.”

Smackdown needed much longer this time to recover. His heart was beyond racing, and his muscles felt like they were continuing to spasm long after the current was on. But Bill was determined to let him speak between volleys, so he would. Something less provocative this time…

“Bill… why are you doing this?”

That got a scoff. “Why? Because we’re old friends?”

Smackdown coughed, dislodging something slimy and thick. “No… I mean you know as well as I do what the playbook says about torture. You do this now, I might tell you something to make it stop. But come back tomorrow, I won’t have anything for you. And you are coming on way too strong here friend…”

“Really?” said Bill.

Smackdown nodded, a motion which produced some serious discomfort. “If this is how you plan to get info from me, you’re going to fail… You got no options after this pal. None…”

Bill made a thoughtful noise. Smackdown could hear the implied sarcasm in his tone, but knew Bill understood what he was getting at.

“Makes me wonder what you’re thinking here, Bill. Do you even really want their names… or is something else happening here?”

Bill reached for the cart. Smackdown braced for the third wave, but was pleasantly surprised when none came. Instead, Bill shut down the current and motioned to the guard. Reaching down he picked up the bucket that had been resting by his feet and brought it forward. Taking up a spot directly by his head, the guard shoved Smackdown’s head back at a tight angle and readied himself to pour.

“Will… Will… Will… have you not heard? Rules have changed boy. You torture anyone long enough, and they’ll do whatever you want. They’ll tell you all you want to know, just for the sweet relief death will provide.”

Bill came around to his other side and looked down into his eyes again. Though no electricity was flowing him anymore, he didn’t feel any less vulnerable. In fact, he looked to what was coming next with complete dread. He only hoped the tremors he was now experiencing would appear like spasms.

“Last chance, Will. Tell me who your colleagues are and where I can find them. Or you’ll get every play out of the playbook, one after another.”

Smackdown took a deep breath. The last one he knew he would have for some time to come.

“My name… is Smackdown…”

Bill’s eyes lost their intensity and he looked gravely at the man standing across from him. A nod passed between them, and the bucket was brought up and tipped. The bright light staring down at Smackdown went dark, and a cold wave struck his straight in the face. Very quickly, it was invading his nose and mouth. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t hold it off for long, and the terrible urge to cough and dispel overtook him.

He waited for an eternity for it to stop, and spent another trying to clear it all from his lungs. Mercifully, they had let him hand his head forward, which made it slightly easier. When he was done, he had no voice left, and every rasp that escaped his lips was a grinding agony.

“Let’s take a break,” said Bill. “We’ve got all night, and I’ve got several more plays I wanna run. That okay with you, Smack-down?”

Bill’s hand landed on his back, causing another volley of coughs and sputters. If Smackdown could have replied, he might have said something witty or dry. As it stood, his sense of humor, like his voice, was spent.

“I’m going to grab some coffee and see you in a few minutes.” He felt a slight smack on his knees, looked down to see the photos again. “While we’re gone, look at those faces, Will. Think of what they’ll look like staring up at you, dead and lifeless. The twisted look of shock and betrayal completely impossible to erase.”

He heard a noise at the door, a slow jarring of hinges and the sounds of two sets of boots leaving. They paused at the point of leaving, right before the door shut behind them with a loud clang.

“We’re going to find them, Will. It’s only a matter of time. Consider what I’ve said. Make it easier on yourself and all of them.”

The door slammed shut, leaving Smackdown alone in the room. He sat there with his head hung forward, the cold drops running from his face and the hot burning light above his only company. Having endured all they could throw at him for at least one sitting, his body once again fell into a state of dark, blessed unconsciousness. When he would eventually wake up again, he would have no way of knowing how much time had passed. But that was to be expected.

Time, like everything else, had a way of disappearing inside places like these…

Revenger Alert: Mission Compromised!

grenade-explosion

The plumes began to slowly dissipate, replaced instead by hot, angry flames. And the noise they made, how they sliced the air with ever-increasing intensity. Everyone present around the outer ring of the facility could tell that they were getting closer with incredible speed. Between the missiles, their comms, and Atrum’s telepathic link, all those who watched and waited were treated to a cacophony of terrible noise.

“What do we do…?” said Angel, her eyes on the drone that seemed to be passively making its way off into the distance.

Behind her, Atrum tightened his fists and tried his best to summon his powers. His grunts indicated that he was not proving successful.

“I can’t reach him… the Captain and Tsunami. They’re too deep inside and I’m blind to them.”

Styka turned to him next. “Can you contact them?”

Atrum sighed. “I can reach Pax, but he knows the situation. He should be here – ”

A loud pop sounded. In an instant, Pax stood before them with Erotica, Panacea and Freedom next to him. He looked especially awkward with the three ladies clung to him on all sides. But then again, they didn’t appear to pleased either. The transportation process and the fact that they all needed to hold onto to him to experience seemed to have left them all rattled.

“What’s happening?” Atrum said to anyone who would answer. Pax, the least phased by their jump, immediately answered.

“Captain and Tsunami went on ahead to find the artifact. He got your message about something being wrong, sent us back.”

“What’s happening?” asked Panacea, prompting Atrum to point to the sky. A quick look was all the four of them needed to know that their mission was officially screwed!

“We’ve got to get them out,” said Pax.

“Nuts to that! I’m going to stop those missiles!” said Freedom, brandishing her sword and taking off before anyone could interject. Angel looked about to interject, but then shook her head and prepped for take off.

“I’m going too!”

Two booms sounded as the two alternately-colored streaks filled the air. Within seconds, Styka and Panacea were looking at each other, shrugging, and taking to the skies themselves. With the four of their airborne, a plan of sorts seemed to be taking shape.

“Okay… now what?” asked Atrum. Those who were left behind began to look to one another, each one thinking the same thing. After so many missions with the Captain providing their action plan, things felt a little awkward now that he was the one in danger. And yet, no means seemed to be available to reach them, and time was running out.

“No choice,” said Erotica. “We got back inside and get them out before it’s too late.”

The first explosion sounded overhead. All eyes turned skyward to see the small cloud of black smoke. Two of the missiles were dispatched, and then a third. That only left nine more, and they appeared to be accelerating…

*                      *                    *

They stood together, watching it with quiet reverence. They had reached the far end of the corridor at last and gazed on the only door they had encountered within. Buried this deep within the hillside, the room that lay beyond could serve but one purpose. The earth provided natural shielding, ensuring that whatever lay was safely shielded from any heat or radiation sensors.

The door was consistent with this appraisal, being made of reinforced steel and sealed by a biometric lock.

“This has got to be it,” he said, inspecting the lock. “Lead-lined door, coded access. No one but cleared personnel registered to gain entry.”

Tsunami took a deep breath. “Open it.”

Smackdown looked at her, noted how her stance had suddenly become rigid and inflexible. At this juncture, she was no longer able to contain her true feelings. Perhaps his little talk with her had something to do with that. Or maybe she really was more eager than he to see what lay within.

He took one more look at the door and gauged that it wouldn’t survive a blow from a powered kick. Taking a step back, he got as much room as he could need to power through it.

“Here goes!” he said, lifting his foot and feeling the servo mechanisms in his suit’s leg wind up and release. A loud clang sounded, and he was through, the door ripping from its hinges with a large boot-shaped dent in the middle. Gun leveled, Smackdown rolled into the room and scanned around them. Tsunami was close behind, her body poised in a fighting stance and her fists clenched tight. It took them but a few seconds to realize the obvious.

“There’s nothing here…” Tsunami said, her words wafting up to the far corners of the room and echoing softly. The room was darkened, light coming from above a central fixture of fluorescent bulbs that trickled down through a series of metal girders. Chains hung about the floor, looking to be part of some kind of pulley system. And the middle, there was a discernible absence made evident by a change in the color. A spheroid spot on the concrete appeared to be darker than anything outside of it, proof enough that something had occupied the center of the room until recently.

But otherwise, the two of them stood alone in an empty room. The terrible truth finally hitting them with crushing force…

“There’s nothing here…” she said again, her voice sounding distant and mournful. “The damn bastards tricked us. The whole thing was a set-up.”

Smackdown knew what she would say next, and was quick to interject. “They must have known I was talking to him. He couldn’t have -“

“Dammit, Captain! Face it, you’re friend screwed us! He’s working for them!”

Smackdown shook his head. No, he thought. It couldn’t be. Years of working with the man had to be worth something. He wouldn’t have simply led them into a trap. Not unless they had something on him, forced him to comply…

But now was hardly the time to get into all that. If they made it out, he would be sure to investigate the matter fully. Until then, all that mattered was getting out. Their enemy, whoever they were, was no doubt preparing to spring their next move.

*                     *                    *

They were arrayed in the field before the warehouse, standing as close as they dared to the target while still being able to defend it. Freedom, Panacea, Styka and Angel continued to streak across the sky, intercepting missiles and taking them down as best they could. The first wave was all but gone, but the drone had filled the air with another volley before the last of them was even destroyed.

Judgement had been able to bend a missile back on its course to take out the UAV before it could fire any more, but they still had a good fifteen to contend with now. And all their efforts to remove the first had cost them precious time.

Down below, Judgement and Bonfire reached out and took hold of those they could with their telekinesis. Erotica, unable to fly to meet them or move them with their minds, had to resort to more creative measures. Taking hold of whatever debris she could find and that was large enough, she flung them into the air to intercept the missiles.

They were making progress, but some were still making it through. And they had very little time left…

Standing within their circle, Atrum continued to reach out to make contact with Pax. He continued to push inside, seeking out the last members of their group. Between his attempt to retrieve the Captain and Tsunami from within, and the rest of them trying to stop the assault, he figured they had about a fifty-fifty shot of making it out of this alive.

But of course, all it would take was one missile to hit their target. As the Captain always said, no one got left behind. If only one of them didn’t make it out, they would be counting this as a defeat. But as long as there was a chance, they had to keep fighting. As with everything else, it was just a matter of getting the timing right…

Why the hell couldn’t I see this coming? he thought. He had been cognizant of something that lay in their path, but it had been nothing more than a terrible, grey mark on his mind. And yet, he hadn’t really considered that much of a threat. How was he to interpret that, especially in light of the fact that he still felt, even in the face of this onslaught, the strangest feeling of intangibility/

As he tried desperately to remain in contact with Pax and bolster the others, a terrible feeling of deja vu came over him. Had they not seen this exact same thing happen before? The presence of another mind jamming them as they stood and watched their enemies carrying on before them. He couldn’t sense anyone out there, but knew that something had to be at the other end of that vague sense he was getting.

A well placed chunk of concrete slammed into another missile, causing it to break apart several dozen meters short of its objective. Freedom’s sword slashed through another, and a fireball from Bonfire sent another crashing into the treeline.

“Another one down!” he yelled.

“Not enough! We got to move faster!” shouted Judgement, stopping a fourth and pulling it apart in midair.

“This would be so much easier if they were heat-seekers! I could blind em all in one shot!”

“Don’t brag, it’s unattractive,” replied Erotica. Were it not for the fact that everyone was very tired and strung out, they might gave laughed. They were down to less than ten now, but

[Pax! You’ve got to hurry!]

[Moving as fast as I can!] he replied. [I can’t reach them and they’re all the way inside]

Atrum huffed. How he wished at times like this that he could fly, or possessed some more offensive abilities.

[Just hurry! You’re going to have enough of a time getting out of there before the place goes up!]

A loud crash sounded from overhead. Everyone in the grassy field fell to their knees as a powerful wave knocked them down, flattening the grass around them and making the trees nearby sway. He looked up to see a fireball erupt overhead, one far larger than anything they had been generating.

“What happened?”

“Detonation!” said Bonfire. “One of the missiles went off!”

They all looked around desperately, noting that some of the silhouettes in the sky that represented their friends were now less in number.

“Oh my God… who was hit?”

They all looked on, no one able to speak and all feeling the same terrible sense that something terrible had just happened.

And then it got worse. From the dissipating fireball, two more plumes of flame emerged…

*                    *                    *

“Captain! Come on!” Tsunami yelled, motioning at him from up ahead.

“I’m coming!” he yelled, moving his legs as fast as the exoskeleton would carry him. Of all the moments for his servos to experience a malfunction. Half of him wanted to tear the armor off and run without it. But he knew he would need the armored protection once they stepped outside. A single UAV was not the last of it, he knew. If experience had taught him anything, it was that an air assault was always just the beginning. Soon enough, they were likely to be seeing gunships and drop troops, the grunts who made sure that the place was “sanitized” after it got blown to pieces.

“Hurry! She yelled! We’re almost there!”

Another voice called to them from far off. Both looked ahead and spotted the face of Pax running towards them.

“Captain! Tsunami! We got incoming!”

“What?” yelled Tsunami.

“We got incoming! Missiles are overhead and -“

He never got he last of it out. The entire building felt like it had been lifted up out of the ground and dropped hard. The walls cracked and splintered rock flew, dust and debris kicked up in all directions. But none of them really witnessed it. It all happened in the space of a heartbeat, and time seemed to stretch on interminably afterwards.

“Captain? Captain?”

Smackdown looked to the source of the voice and blinked several times. Eventually, he could make out the face of Pax staring down at him, his suit tinted to a dark grey. His hand lay over the Captain’s head, no doubt healing a gash that had been there seconds before.

“Captain? Can you move your legs?”

Smackdown frowned. The question seemed odd, until he looked down. A large chunk of debris lay across his stomach, his exoskeleton cracked and emitting sparks from several frayed connections. He looked to his left arm, the forearm section which lay open to show a small trickle of blood. When he tried to move, a terrible stab of pain shot through him. That quickly answered that question.

“I’m pinned!” he yelled. “I can’t move… I think my leg is broken… no… my hip…”

Pax began to fumble around. His hands could confer immediate healing, but only if he could achieve direct contact. He reached out to take hold of the Captain’s arm, and a thousand needles shoot through the flesh instantaneously.

“Oh! That’s not helping!”

“It will,” said Pax. “Just give it a second and I can get you free.”

Smackdown took another look at the slab that had him pinned. He quickly shook his head and looked up ahead. Tsunami was laying on the ground, but she appeared to be intact and unpinned. She was laying on her side with one knee propped up and her arm extended. Apparently, Pax had already administered her aid, but she remained unconscious.

“You can’t free me…” he said finally. “That cement is too heavy. And I think it might be the only thing holding my guts in.”

“Don’t talk like that! I’m getting you both out, Captain! You just have to wait…”

“No time,” the Captain replied. “You got to get her out while you still can. I’ll just slow you down.”

Pax shook his head and kept working on the Captain’s arm. It was starting to feel better, the bones, sinew and flesh coming together and the pain beginning to diminish.

“Pax, that’s an order! You’re not strong enough to free me. And even if you did, it would take more time than we have to heal me to the point that I could travel. You can’t carry us both, so carry her!”

“No, Captain! You can’t order me to leave you behind!”

“I just did!” Smackdown yelled, and then coughed. A small trickle of blood escaped his mouth and he pulled his hand away to cover it up. The site of it would only encourage Pax to stay longer than he could. “Don’t worry. Those bastards need me alive, they won’t let me die. And besides, there’ll be another time…”

“What do you mean?”

The Captain reached to his left hip to retrieve a small tube. The effort caused him terrible pain, but he managed to get it free and passed it to Pax. “Give this to Atrum. He’ll know what to do…”

Pax took the small tube and looked at it curiously. He wasn’t sure what he was being given, but the urgency with which the Captain was plying him was taking effect. His feet began to tremble against the floor and he looked back at Tsunami, still lying there quietly.

“Go on…” he said one last time. “I’m ordering you to get your kinsman to safety. Oblige this order, cuz it might be my last…”

Pax tightened his grip around the tube. Placing it in his belt, he reached down and put his hands on Smackdown’s head.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“Not your fault,” Smackdown said, patting Pax on the shoulder. “Just make you sure you all get out alive.”

Pax took one last look at his commander, and spun around. Scooping Tsunami up from the floor, he moved as fast as he could down the corridor, leaving the Captain in a crumpled mess behind.

*                    *                     *

The stood before the treeline, all eyes focused on the single patch of burned greenery where their friend had landed moments before. Angel emerged from the patch, smoke rising from around her and the body she carried. The flames were beginning to catch at her feet and it looked like a forest fire might ignite at any moment. But right now, the thing everyone seemed focused on was the body that lay limply in her arms.

“Is she okay?” asked Erotica. Angel’s head hung low. The body she carried seemed intact, but the blood and burns were apparent for all to see.

“She took the hit,” said Angel. “I was closest, but she pushed me out of the way.”

“It was her choice,” said Panacea, stepping forward and placed both hands on Freedom’s body. “She’s unconscious. But she’ll live. And she’ll live knowing she saved a friend’s life.”

“I didn’t ask her too!” cried Angel. “She could have died, and then neither you or Pax would have been able to save her.”

Panacea seemed to ignore her as she moved her hands over Freedom’s wounded flesh. In time, the burns began to heal and her breathing became more quickened and audible. But she remained unconscious still, the shock of absorbing such a blast having put her into a deep coma for the time being.

The low noise didn’t last long. Behind them, they heard the sound of rustling as several pairs of feet came running forward. They spun around to see the faces of Judgement, Bonfire, and Atrum coming, and Pax carrying yet another body in his arms.

“Oh my God!” cried Styka. “Tsunami?”

“She’s okay,” said Pax. “Took a serious hit inside. But I’ve stabilized her. We need to get her out though.”

Angel nodded from her spot. “Sounds like a plan. Where’s the Captain?”

A dark ripple seemed to run through their new arrivals. All at once, they hung their heads and looked overcome. Judgement’s teeth were born and the gold streaks on his flesh seemed to grow, the terrible knowledge feeding his frenzied powers.

“Oh no…”

“He ordered me to…”

“Wait a minute, he’s still alive?” Angel demanded. Pax nodded somberly, which made her angrier. “We have to go back in!”

“We can’t!” cried Pax, finding his voice again. “He’s trapped deep inside, and we need to get our own back to base before the others arrive.”

“Screw that!” Judgement said. “We can take them! Let’s face what comes and get him out ourselves!”

“No,” said Atrum, causing all eyes to turn on him.

“You better explain yourself, Auditor,” said Angel, finding herself of one mind with Judgement. Even with Freedom in her arms, she would be damned if they chose to cut and run now, while the Captain still languished within.

“Look, people, we’ve been had. We all know that. But there’s something else going on here. There’s a darker force lingering out there, and it’s been jamming me the whole time. Whatever else they got planned for us, I can promise you it’s going to be worse than tanks and missile drones. We might not be able to stop it.”

Several voices rose at once, all of which objected to his assessment of the situation. He raised his voice quickly to cut them down. Debate was not something they had time for.

“We all knew there was something wrong here, people! The fact that I couldn’t sense there was a trap before it closed shut, that’s indication enough that whatever these people got on their side, its more powerful than us. We got three people down already. The longer we stay, the more we’re likely to lose.”

Angel scoffed, but looked back to Freedom. Sticking around was not something she could advise while her friend lay strewn across her arms. Judgement, Erotica and Bonfire were far from convinced, but none wanted to argue the point further. Atrum felt the time was right to show them the special object he now carried.

“They won’t have him long. He passed this onto us, and we’ll be able to find him with it.”

“What is it?” asked Angel.

“It’s a tracking device wired to a GPS chip in his suit. Wherever they take him, we’ll be able to monitor him to within a distance of a few meters. We might not be able to get him out now, but there will be another chance…”

“And there’s another thing,” Tsunami said, looking up from Pax’s hold. “The Captain ordered us to get out. I’d go back in myself if I could, but the only reason he’s staying is to give us a fighting chance of making it out in one piece.”

Just about everyone gasped as the words escaped her lips. Pax was sure to follow them up with some of his own.

“Besides, it might be the last order he ever gave. We have an obligation to carry it out.”

A dark consensus fell over them. Facing each other, the ten remaining Revengers nodded and set their sites for the treeline. They had some distance to travel before they would be out of the area, but knew that they could make it if they left now. All at once, they broke into a sprint or took to the air, flying and fleeing into the distance, the sound of rotors and vehicles sounding in the distance…

The Dénouement: A Revengers Mission Update

LAV_firing

The convoy rolled along, the radio operators barking as the line went dead. The gunners kept their eyes peeled, focusing on the far horizon where the flashes of muzzle fire had suddenly ceased. They moved at a quickened pace, the Humvees and escorting LAVs rolling along on the ridge. After several failed attempts, the CO got on the line with the rest of the platoon and issued new orders.

“Keep your eyes peeled. We’re entering the ballpark. Our orders are to dispatch all-“

The communique barely got out when the convoy came to a sudden halt. The lead LAV that led the way suddenly ceased to be there, and fireballs engulfed two of the Humvees seconds later. Those that remained began to bring their guns about, seeking out whatever enemy they could. From the front convoy, troops jumped from their burning vehicles and began rolling on the ground, trying to suppress the flames that were catching on their uniforms.

Those who managed to get out and bring their weapons to bear weren’t standing long, as a black streak flew through them and knocked them clear into the trees. The grunts in the rear deployed from their vehicles as well and began searching the skies. Whatever had hit them had to have come from above.

“What the hell was that?” asked the squad leader.

No one answered. Whatever hit them seemed to be beyond the realm of their experience…

*                    *                    *

“First pass, a success!”

Angel looked at Judgement’s beaming face and his bared teeth. Taking out armored vehicles clearly agreed with him. A quick look at Bonfire told her that he was having fun too. Already, a second volley of flames was forming in his palms, slowly trickling up his forearms.

“Any plans for a second pass?” she asked.

“Can’t leave their friends there unattended,” replied Judgement. “Same as before? I charge the LAV, you guys take out those grunts?”

“I’ll handle the grunts,” said Angel. “After our pyrotechnic friend here sets the vehicles ablaze.”

Bonfire nodded. It seemed they had a consensus. Even if they had walked into a trap, this aspect of the operation was going well at least. The Captain had paired them well, letting the three of them hold up the rear. Who knew they’d be of the most use back here?

“Alright,” she said. “We’re a go. On three…”

Everyone dug their heels in and made ready to pounce. She counted them off.

“One… two… “

She scarcely got it out before they were off again. Moving as fast as his telekinesis enhanced legs could, Judgement slammed into the remaining LAV, sending it rolling sideways onto the side of the hill. The grunts before it turned to open fire, only to find themselves engulfed in flames as their vehicles gas tanks went up. Their torment was shortlived though, as an unseen force reached down and plucked them out of the fireball, hurling them up into the air and bringing them down hard on the dirt. Their flames extinguished, but bodies smashed, they simply lay there and cried out in pain.

Bonfire, Judgement and Angel landed together a few meters away, looking up their handiwork. Two armored vehicles, four Humvees, and about two dozen armed soldiers. All neutralized, and without a single death…

“The Captain would be proud of us!” said Bonfire. Angel smiled, but quickly stopped as a new sound took to the skies. Aside from her, there was nothing in this sector that ought to be flying about the heavens. And the noise wasn’t exactly coming from the direction of the warehouse either.

“Oh dear…” she said. To the east, a telltale profile was visible, a flying dorito that at the very edge of visibility.

*                    *                    *

X-47B_over_coastline

Smackdown eyed the door tightened his grip on his weapon. He could feel the handles getting slick from sweat, and his legs were beginning to cramp up from standing poised for so long. He placed his finger to his ear and contacted Atrum again.

“How long?”

Atrum was a second in replying. The panel he was tending to had become a mess of tangled wires, every circuit exposed and rerouted one way or another.

“I’m almost there,” he said, breathing heavily. “Just a few more connections.”

Smackdown grunted and looked back at Tsunami. Aside from Styka, who had stayed behind to watch Atrum’s back, everyone was assembled in the facilities main chamber and waiting for the final security door to open. Of all of them, she seemed to be the least interested to see what was on the other end. At least that was the impression he was getting from her. Her face was stony and still, her body still fluid and ready to move at a moment’s notice.

It didn’t make sense to him. He could feel his heart racing and his feet itching at the mere thought of what lay beyond them. Every second that passed made his nerves that much more raw and frayed. How was it she was enduring this with such apparent calm?

Or was that merely what she was projecting, he wondered. Everyone suspected she would be the most interested party in their group. Perhaps she sought to prove them wrong. Perhaps she simply didn’t want them to see how much it was effecting her. Then again, Smackdown wondered if he was simply projecting all that onto her because he was sick and tired of waiting…

“Atrum!”

A loud clank answered his call and the door began to slide open. Smackdown breathed a sigh of relief just as Atrum’s delayed reply came through.

“It’s done, Captain! The last of the security seals is down. The doors should be opening.”

“They are…” he said happily. “Standby!”

He waited as long as he could. As soon as the large steel doors slid open wide enough, he moved forward and squeezed himself through. On the other side, a wide atrium sat, a small set of steps leading to a narrow corridor that went on for what looked like an indefinite distance. Smackdown could tell from the way the warehouse hugged the earth that this tunnel led deep underground. No one could say from this vantage point just how deep it went…

He was followed close behind by the rest of the team. Erotica, Pax, Freedom, Panacea, and of course, Tsunami. Moving fast, she maintained a certain fluid grace as she poured through the doorway and kept close behind. He glanced at her only once as they made their way deeper to the interior, the long, dimly-lit corridor stretching on even farther into the earth. Forced to move in a single line, they pushed forward, following the tunnel onward and onward…

“Captain…” his earpiece buzzed. “Captain… are you there?”

Smackdown put his finger to his ear. He stopped in his tracks and motioned for the team to stop. The interference was already quite extreme.

“Atrum, is that you? What’s wrong?”

“…barely hear you, Captain… I think we got trouble… I’m sensing something… something bad…”

The link cut out shortly thereafter. Smackdown removed his finger from his ear and frowned. He tapped at the earpiece several times, hoping that might somehow correct the signal. He repeated Atrum’s name several times over, releasing his hold so as not to tie up the line in case a reply came through. When he heard Atrum’s voice again, he sounded far more urgent, and far more garbled.

“…Angel’s contacting… Enemy’s… incoming… we have to …!”

“Atrum?” he asked, as soon as the line went dead. He waited for several more seconds, but to no avail. “Atrum?!” He released his hold on the link. Given their current position, the interference was just too great. But he didn’t need to hear the message in its entirety to know that something was wrong. He took another look down the corridor, and then back the way the way they had come.

“Trouble…” he muttered

“What’s that, Captain?”

Smackdown looked to Panacea. “Something’s wrong up above. I want you, Erotica, and Pax to head back. The rest of us will press on.”

Panacea nodded and looked to the others he had ordered back. A single nod passed between them, and they began doubling back with a purpose. Alone, Smackdown looked to the one team member that remained. Tsunami was still unreadable. He chanced to ask her one last time.

“You okay with this, stormy lady?”

She took a deep breath, but her expression didn’t change. “You’re call, Captain. I can go on alone if you want. You don’t have to be down here. It’s not like the answer to your origins that might be down that way.”

Smackdown frowned. He couldn’t help but feel that there was a trace of mockery in her tone. Thus far, he had given her a wide birth, but at this juncture, he just wasn’t in the mood.

“What the hell is going on with you, Tsunami? We’re could be on the verge of finding out what happened to you. Nobody else in this group has ever had that opportunity. Are you telling me you have no feelings on the subject?”

Her face twisted to form something new, something angry and borderline menacing. Smackdown’s fingers tightened around his weapon, the feeling that he might have something to fear from her suddenly occurring to him. Her words did little to lessen that suspicion.

“What difference does it make, Captain? Whether we find that artifact or not, my father is still just as dead. And you, you can’t know what that’s like. You take away that armor, that gun, and your strange sense of purpose, and you’re no different from the rest of humanity. So don’t pretend like you know what it’s like to be me.”

Smackdown’s fear passed. She had slighted him, but not in any physical way. Her assault struck him nevertheless, and hurt him on a much deeper level.

“You’re not the only one who’s lost someone, Hawa. I may not know what it is to be different, like you. But I know what its like to see someone you love die and not be able to do a damn thing about it. That kind of thing changes you. Whether or not it gives you special powers, you’re transformed all the same. And I know that if I had the chance to understand why that happened, I would snatch it up in a heartbeat.”

Tsunami’s face changed again. This time around, it seemed to soften a little; she even looked her expression might crack. But of course, no tears followed. It was clear she had stopped shedding those long ago…

“Fine, Captain. Maybe you do understand something of what I’m feeling right now. But I’m sick of people asking me about it, bugging me like they expect me to show them something. What I feel, that’s for me to know. What I want to learn, that’s for me too. Nobody else needs to worry about that.”

Smackdown waited for her to continue, eventually nodded and realized this was all he could expect from her right now.

“Alright, fine. You keep your mind on the mission, and I guess we’ll have no problem. You just be sure to let me know if you’re feeling yourself slip. I know how that is too…”

“I don’t have that problem,” she replied. “Let’s move on.”

*                     *                    *

She came upon the warehouse at last. Judgement and Bonfire were still a ways behind, but she expected them to catch up quickly. Even if they didn’t possess the gift of flight, fear and urgency was giving them all wings.

She spotted the open door around the top level, the bodies of Atrum and Styka filing out to wave her down. She descended quickly and came in for a landing a few meters away. Her boots landed hard on the concrete surface, cracking the surface and sending chips in all directions.

“How far is it?” asked Atrum. Angel looked up at the sky. The drone was almost directly overhead, its profile passing in front of the sun and becoming a tiny, blackened dot.

“Who can tell?” she said. “It’s so high up, it’d take me forever to reach it. Judgement doesn’t think he can do anything about it unless it fires on us.”

Atrum put his hand over his eyes and tried to get a glimpse of the thing. He shook his head and grunted.

“That’s not like any UAV I’ve ever seen. Who knows what kind of range it has? But I think it’s fair to say they’ve got us targeted.”

“We have to get the Captain out,” said Styka, decisively. “There’s nothing inside there. This whole op was one big trap.”

Atrum and Angel were about to voice their agreement, but another noise arose to interrupt them. All at once, their comms became active with the noise of new chatter. And while everyone else was busy tending to their earpieces, Atrum was receiving a message of a different kind.

[It’s me. What’s going on up there?]

[We’ve got company] Atrum shot back. [A high-altitude UAV. And it’s got us in it’s sights.]

“Where’s the Captain?” asked Angel through her comm. “Inside? What are they still doing in there?” She released her hold on the comm and looked at Atrum and Styka with bewilderment. “What the hell are we supposed to do?”

Atrum concluded his psychic conversation with Pax and came back to them. “They’re out of comm range. We have to go back in there and pull them out before -“

A loud noise cracked overhead, followed by several more. They all looked up, and spotted the plumes of smoke which were descending towards them. It didn’t take long for them to realize that the drone was well within striking distance, and was firing on them with everything it had.

“Oh shit,” said Angel. She did a quick count of the plumes and looked out at the treeline. Judgement and Bonfire were still well away, and the only other people with the ability to take to the air were still deep inside. She looked back to Atrum and Styka. “Anybody want to tell me how the hell are we going to stop twelve missiles?”

No answer. But then again, she hadn’t been expecting one…

hellfire2

Xeno

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16The size and shape of the deep space field resolved itself into a million piercing points of light. From a mottled mass of brilliance, it slowly transitioned into the blue spectrum, then white, keeping pace with the Relativistic Engines that powered their vessel. As soon as they finished powering down, the instruments starting humming, beeping, and generally carrying out their functions. And all hands aboard her bridge began to listen very carefully for the desired sounds of contact.

For several minutes, sensor returns came back negative. The far-flung planet in the system, its many moons, and the thin trail of asteroids that constituted all stellar mass this far out were about the only things they were picking up. In time, the Captain began to wonder if they were even in the right place.

“We’re sure about these coordinates?” said Mikka, addressing Thoreau at the nav terminal. His hands waved above his touchscreen, absorbing information through contact and assimilating it at near-instantaneous speed. His eyes cleared as he looked up to see her, momentarily breaking from his sensory link.

“The shippers said they found it at the edge of the space lanes. They said it interfered with their nav console, but they made a note of it after they returned to port.”

“I read the report,” Mikka said. “Not very encouraging stuff.”

A few heads turned towards her. Not every member of her crew was privy to the details and she was sure not to say anything more. Hearing about a strange, floating shape in space, one which had given a hauler some serious lumps and its crew nightmares was not something that would go over well with them.

Taking her seat, the Captain accessed the memory file and ran the briefing notes through her mind again. The particulars were a bore, but the holographic representation, reconstructed from what scanner data could be retrieved from the haulers records, were quite interesting. And naturally, the Chairman’s voice droned on in the background, providing the relevant details…

[“…from the basic outline, it appears that what the ship detected has structure to it. It’s roughly spherical in shape… and though it’s dimensions are unclear, our technicians believe that it should measure the size of a small meteoroid.]

Structure, Mikka thought. A buzzword the xeno-types loved to use, employed whenever they found something they thought conformed to their expectations. Chairman Bukhari continued…

[“what is less mysterious is the effect it had on the commercial ship that made the approach. As soon as they got within a single AU of the object, they detected some high-energy gravimetric field. But instead of being pulled in, the ship was essentially pushed away. The crew tried to engage their engines to fight against the force of it, but that only made things worse. By the time they stopped spinning backwards and regained control of their vessel, they hightailed it back to Lagos station and filed a report.”]

And Explorations decided to send us out, the good old guinea pigs, she thought.

[“Luckily, our astrophysicists have a theory. We believe an approach will be possible if done by a ship that does not have significant mass and is simultaneously running in on minimal power. I don’t pretend to understand the physics, but I’m counting on you and your crew to get it done. Getting within close proximity is key, since we plan…]

“Captain,” said Thoreau, interrupting her Recall. “Sensor returns are coming back and it looks like we have something.”

“Something,” said Mikka. “Care to elaborate?”

Thoreau chuckled, his eyes staring at something far off that on one else could see. “It’s got a gravimetric signature, which is why its coming up at all. But from the looks of it, its not much bigger that a commsat.”

“Helmsman,” she said, calling out to the man in the pilot’s chair. “Plot an intercept course and bring us to within five AUs.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Joshan, relaying the coordinates provided by Thoreau and bringing the sublights on line. The ship slowly began to move forward, her hull shuttering slightly as the engines fired off a burst of ionic propulsion.

The sensors pinged loudly, each chime getting more pronounced the closer they got. Outside the bridge window, the starfield shifted as the ship tilted and groaned as Joshan altered their course periodically. Every course change brought them closer, dodging between major stellar objects and avoiding their gravitational influences.

The chimes reached a crescendo. Thoreau looked up with a start when something new entered into his augmented perceptions.

“Captain, I’ve got the object on my screens. Shall I bring up a visual?”

“Yes,” she replied. “And turn off that damn noise, we all know we’re in the ballpark.”

In the center of the bridge, an image formed as billions of targeted photons came together to form the shape of a red sphere. The surface was mottled and opaque, indicating that they were too far out to get an accurate reading on its features. It appeared the reports had been semi-accurate. At this distance, their sensors should have been able to map out every nook and cranny on its surfaces. Only a powerful gravity well, concentrated in such a small object.

However, they had been off in one respect. Bukhari had said in his briefing that it was “roughly spherical” in shape. But even through an incomplete visual construct, Mikka could tell its shape was anything but rough. In fact, she was willing to bet good money, perhaps even her entire commission from this find, that it was a perfect sphere, right down to its microscopic dimensions.

One had to assume there was something especially significant about that. Perhaps the xeno-freaks would finally have something to pour over after all…

“Coming up on five astronomical units, Captain. Firing reverse-thrusters now.”

There was a quick burst of white light as the stopping thrusters fired, the ionic trails showing up just outside the bridge window. When they came to a total stop, the ship issued one last groan as the structure flexed to absorb the change in inertia. 

“We’ve reached pre-specified distance, Captain. Retro thrusters firing to maintain position and attitude.”

“Very good, pilot,” she said. “Maintain our position and prep a shuttle. We’re going in for a retrieval.”

Joshan and everyone else on the bridge turned to look at her. Everyone except Thoreau, who’s senses were too inundated with sensor data to look at her directly. However, he still leered over his shoulder.

“Captain, are you sure about this?”

“Company order,” she said, standing up from her chair. “Whatever this thing is, its need to be brought back.”

“But Captain…” said Thoreau. “How are we going to get close to this thing? The last people who tried we sent back home with their tails tucked between their legs.”

“A theory,” she said. “One which we’re forced to carry out.”

_____

The bay doors slid open to admit the man himself. For those watching, the techs and security personnel called in to guard the object, the sudden presence of the boss was the perfect reason to straighten up and either look busy or vigilant. Of course, none of them could fail to notice the presence of the woman walking beside him. Not exactly prim or proper, and from her flight jacket and slacks to the small protrusions on her face that indicated sub-dermal implants, she looked every bit the spacer.

No one could say why the boss would have a grunt in tow with him, but then again, the day staff didn’t ask questions. They simply tended to “the artifact” – the spherical object that sat within a series of restraints in the center of the room – and kept their speculations to themselves.

Only those who had entered together really knew what was going on and who stood to benefit. And only they were talking on this particular morning as they stepped into the containment area.

“I imagine this is not quite as exciting as seeing it for the first time, no?” said Bukhari to Mikka.

“Well… it’s hard to recreate the thrill of first contact. But this was still very kind of you.”

“Nonsense,” said Bhukari with a wave of the hand. “We all owe its capture to you, so I thought it only fitting you get another look at it before its shipped off to an undisclosed facility, to be poured over by legions of specialists and xenologists.”

She chuckled. “Yeah, we did suspect it would disappear the moment we brought it back to port. Good to see it didn’t.”

“And yet, I imagine when it does move on, we won’t learn a thing. Even I can expect the findings to be classified beyond my level of clearance. Pity.”

She knew exactly what he meant. Seeing it again, she could recall with perfect clarity just how awestruck she was when she first saw it. Hell, she didn’t even need to go through Recall to experience it again, playing the memory back courtesy of the digital backup she had archived. It had been that memorable that she only needed to see it again to remember exactly how small and insignificant it made her feel.

Considering the that sphere was less than a meter across, that was no small feet. But the size was not the issue. It was the intricate patterns it had all over the surface. These consisted of winding lines that seemed to delineate grid spaces, each of which was etched with symbols and grooves off different sizes, lengths, and depths. And at what had been designated the center of the thing, three circles were placed, tiny indentations in a small triangle formation. Nobody in Explorations had been able to make heads or tails of it all. She wondered if anybody back in the Colonies would fare any better…

It was strange, but she felt the oddest feeling again, looking at it. Somehow, the spacing and placement of those three indentations made her think about an interface terminal. Could it be that the species that had created this, whoever they were, possessed this idiosyncrasy as well? Simply place your hand to a touchscreen or finger sized portal, and be able to transmit or receive information?

Looking to her right, she noticed that Bukhari was busy speaking to the head of the security detail. She couldn’t hear what they were saying at the moment, and really didn’t care much. The technicians appeared to be on the other side of the sphere, and the remaining security guards all seemed blissfully unaware of what was going on. No doubt, they were deliberately attempting to not notice the presence of the Chairman and the strange woman he had arrived with.

It was a standard underling thing, she knew. Standing still and doing nothing when the boss was around reduced the chance of making a mistake, and hence being reprimanded.

Looking to the sphere again, she carefully stepped towards it, obsessively checking over her shoulder to make sure no one was looking. She eyed the three holes, once again appraising them to be perfectly spaced apart for her purpose. Three holes, three fingers, making direct contact, achieving a union that would –

“Captain!” The shout rang out just as her fingers landed. Not in time to stop her. She felt a curious sensation, like a big thump or some kind of tremor. No pain, but the sensation of a force strong enough to break her contact with the waking world…

_____

The sounds of hands clapping and a bright light were what she remembered next. She couldn’t tell how long she had been under, whether it had been seconds or days. But she was aware of the fact that she was lying on the deck, and Bukhari and the rest were all standing over her.

“Captain… are you alright?” he asked.

She let out a loud utterance, then drew a deep breath. She could faintly recall something dark and terrible, hanging on her mind and pushing her downward. That darkness seemed to last for some time, stretching on from the last moment she had had before. She looked up again and saw the sphere… and remembered.

Yes, she had reached out to it. Everything after that point was shrouded and black, but she could feel something terrible lurking beneath. And that point in her mind stretched onwards for some time. And now she was back in the light. It was piercing and the sounds around her quite intense, but she could feel her body and mind adjusting. Something was demanding she come back and do something… say something…

After taking several breaths, Bukhari and one of the guards sat her up.

“Why did you do that? Why did you touch the artifact?”

“Artifact?” she said. The word didn’t seem to fit somehow. “What are you talking about?”

“The artifact. You touched it,” he said, pointing. “Why did you do that? No one has touched it since it was procured without protection. You know that!”

She could feel something else rising up from the depths. Slowly, the sense of purpose she had felt a moment ago was taking shape. The word artifact made even less sense to her now, and she was even beginning to understand why…

“Captain, are you sure you’re alright? We have a med tech coming, but I need you tell me, why would you expose yourself like that to the artifact like that?”

“It’s not an artifact!” she said finally. “It’s a message…”

There was a moment of silence. Those around her looked at each other incredulously. “What do you mean, a message?”

“That’s what it contains,” she added, placing her fingers to her temples. The dark space in her mind was becoming perfectly clear now. The transmission, the way it had overwhelmed her when it passed into her body. Never before had anything been so clear, even through Recall.

Slowly, she found the strength to get to her feet and share with the rest of them the terrible knowledge that had come into possession of.

“This thing is some kind of emissary. It contains a message in it, and I made contact when I touched it.”

Bukhari drew a deep breath and stepped closer to her, his eyes now fixed on the sphere with a sudden, reverential fear. “What was the message?”

“The people that built this,” she said, with a slight pause. “They just demanded our unconditional surrender. It says they have an armada heading towards us as we speak, and asks that we lay down our weapons and welcome them.”

“And if we don’t?” asked Bukhari, though unnecessarily. For the tremble in his voice, it was clear he knew the answer.

“Or else, we all die.” Mikka nodded, her face grim and white. “We just made contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence, sir. And they saw fit to give us an ultimatum…”

“An ultimatum,” Bukhari echoed, his voice barely more than a whisper.

And for what felt like an eternity, every face in the room remained fixed on the sphere that hung before them. Whatever trace of awe and wonder they had once felt for it were now gone, replaced instead with a horrid understanding, and plenty of dread!