Chapter 1 Edit
A portal opened a few thousand kilometres away from where Venaxaw Ring span slowly in space, backlit by the small yellow star that it orbited. Most of its outer surface was the solid dull grey of diamondoid, the monotony being broken only every few hundred kilometres by the dim red glow of its thin rectangular radiators. It was one space habitat out of millions that made up the dyson swarm surrounding this star, itself one star out of millions in the galaxy that were surrounded by such habitats. From the portal emerged a small shuttle, after which the portal closed. The shuttle engaged its thrusters to make course corrections until it gained a view of the ring's inner surface, which was as different from the exterior as one could get. Between the walls that held the atmosphere in place lay an area of land the size of a large continent, covered with biomes from temperate grasslands to mountainous highlands, divided by ocean-sized lakes and myriad rivers. Along one river was the metropolis that was the ring's largest settlement, towards which the shuttle flew.
'This is Republic Shuttle identity 400-K-97,' said one of the shuttle's two pilots into a communications device, 'delivering civilians.'
'Ah, yes,' came the reply, 'the children. Is it just the two of them that we were told about before your departure?'
'Yes. There were no other-'
He was silenced by the second pilot, who put her hand over his mouth. 'Not while they're here.' she whispered forcefully.
'Yes,' the first pilot continued, 'just the two of them.'
'Right. You have permission to land. Welcome to Venaxaw.'
The shuttle slowed down on approach to the city's main spaceport. It came to a stop directly above a docking pad, and began to descend. As the shuttle landed, the first pilot turned around and looked to the girls sitting on passenger seats at the back of the cockpit.
'Sam, Val. We're here now. You can get out and see your aunt now.'
The girls, the eldest of whom was barely ten years old, ran excitedly out of the doorway before it had even fully opened.
'Poor kids. They don't even seem to want to know what happened to their parents.'
Fifteen years later.
A warship shot over the mountaintops and dived into the icy river valley below. It was an aerial vehicle, fundamentally a dull grey flying saucer in shape, with two large arms sticking out of the sides and curving to the front, huge dorsal radiator fins sticking out of the back, a cockpit on top, weapons to the front, and a pair of rocket engines behind. Its target rapidly flew into range from another group of mountains on the opposite side of the valley, although at several tens of kilometres away its shape could not be distinguished by sight.
'Eskes-class in range. Firing missiles.'
From the left and right missile launchers in turn came several purple-glowing projectiles like machine gun bullets, all accompanied by bright flashes of light from their respective guns. They covered the distance between the two vessels at hypersonic speeds, constantly adjusting their trajectories to account for factors such as wind and inertial forces before splattering against the enemy ship's shields. As the pair bolted along a rocky isthmus towards each other, the Eskes fired a yellow-hued projectile at its opponent, which veered to the left in a futile attempt to evade it.
'Shields are down!'
'Our shields were down before,' responded another officer, 'when we were fighting those drones over the tundra. These guys seem to be out of ammo for now; we should get them while we can.'
The warship span around and went for a strafing run, sending half a dozen or so blaster bolts against the Eskes before directing a few more missiles backwards. A well-aimed plasma pulse of the city-busting variety caused the Eskes to lose its own shielding, but the duel was not yet over. As the warship turned back around, a particle beam passed up through the cockpit via the right-hand missile launcher; fortunately for the crew, the left-hand gun had managed to get a shot in before it too fell apart from a shockwave created by the beam's impact. Both ships were now heavily damaged and almost on a collision course with each other.
'Ram it!' shouted the officer.
'Valerie, that's the worst idea you've come up with all week.'
'Trust me. I know what to do.' With that, the officer left her post and ran out of the cockpit.
'Oh, in Spode's name...' sighed the captain.
As the two ships continued their flight, Valerie had climbed out of an escape hatch on the right arm and was holding onto it as hard as she could. Blaster bolts raced out of the guns underneath her, but that would not save her. Another beam came from the Eskes and the warship that she was standing on turned to ash. Thrown forwards by the shockwave, she attempted to direct herself towards the hull of the other vessel, but one of its turrets saw her and fired a burst of autocannon shells in her direction.
Valerie materialised in the middle of a large room in front of her crewmates.
'I take it we didn't win, then?'
'No,' replied the captain, 'but the wargame's not yet over. We weren't the only ship taking part on our side. Now, Alex and I were-'
The bright blue glow of transfer beams appeared to the right of the group, and the crew of the Eskes materialised. Their captain stood up and addressed his adversaries.
'HAH! We won! You died first! I mean, good game, guys. Oh, and look at that leaderboard! We're currently in top place, and with only three more ships left to score points, I don' think we'll be movin'! Sorry, Sam.'
'Don't worry about it,' replied the captain of Valerie's team, 'I guess it makes up for last time, doesn't it?'
'Yeah... guess it does.'
As was traditionally considered to be polite, the two teams shook each others' hands, before the Eskes' crew left via the main entrance.
'As I was saying, Alex and I booked a table at that nice chocolaterie in Venaxaw. We discussed it with the rest of the team, but since you showed up late...'
'Thanks, but I'm busy today. I was late because I had to write a request to Apalos, and now I'm due for a face-to-face meeting-'
'Apalos? Valerie, dear, is this that business about becoming a superhero?'
'A superhero?' asked Alex. Some of the other members of the group started quietly sniggering.
'Ever since she was a child, Valerie has dreamed of having impossible powers and fighting crime or something like that.'
'Who hasn't?' replied Valerie.
Sam stared at her bemusedly. 'Val, look at us. We live on a bishop ring controlled by an omniscient AI. Our bodies are pumped up with cybernetics to the point that we can do things that people a thousand years ago could never have dreamed of, even though we look just like unaugmented humans... and remember, less than five minutes ago, you survived an antimatter explosion thanks to the air being filled with shock-absorbing utility fog, and you were teleported out of the way of a starship's cannon fire by the AI equivalent of... of goosebumps! We're not living on some underdeveloped planet in the Republic any more. There are no superpowers to gain, no criminals to fight, and more importantly, there is lots of chocolate to eat. So come on!'
'There's more to the universe than just these dyson swarms, Sam. I'm thinking of becoming an Adventurer.'
The group fell silent with shock. 'Val... being an Adventurer is just for people with nothing to live for who are too scared to kill themselves.'
'No, Sam. Remember how I've always been interested in syndeobiology?'
'That's how life on different planets is connected to each other, right?' asked Alex.
'Right. I can make that my life. Go out into the real world and see the connections between different biospheres first-hand, and make some of my own discoveries, instead of just experiencing it in a simulator.'
Sam was visibly worried. 'But... Val... that's dangerous. Why would you want to do that? The AIs are better at that kind of thing; they can find out far more than you or any of us ever could. Why not stay here and learn about it the safe way? You can get brain-mods so that you'll find the experience just as rewarding as the real thing.'
'Sorry, Sam. It just feels wrong.'
'Valerie. You'll die. Yeah, I remember when we were young, and we'd play around in our little garden on Norca. You'd be Tree-of-Life; half-human, half-fern, and defender of all living things. I'd be your archenemy, the evil Grox King, conqueror of the universe. Of course I remember. That's why we used a replica Grox ship in the wargame today. I was going to point that out to you if you'd arrived on time. Look... what I mean to say is, we're your friends, and we don't want you to die. Dying in a wargame is one thing, but when you die for real, that's it. You don't get to see us again, and we don't get to see you again either. And none of us want that.'
Valerie stared at the floor for a few seconds before pulling her eyes back up to Sam's face. 'All right. I'll come and eat dinner with you.'
'That's the spirit!' said Sam happily.
'I can always tele to my meeting with Apalos'.
'...And that's not the spirit. But at least it's a step in the right direction.'
The feeling of having ones mind split into two independent parts is not particularly uncomfortable, as long as one is used to it. It was a standard procedure in the bishop rings of the Milky Way Cooperative for anybody who needed to be in two places at once; one part of the mind would remain in control of the original body while the other would control a utility fog replica, and the two would be telepathically connected. Valerie had undergone this procedure for her meeting with Apalos, and the copy was sent on board a seaplane towards a small lake several hundred kilometres away. While the copy could simply have been created remotely on site, a visit to see Apalos was supposed to be a pilgrimage of sorts, and simply appearing nearby would not be tolerated.
By the shore of the lake was a sandy area with a gold-tipped limestone pyramid in the centre, itself resting on an ornate gold base consisting of a large square foundation block with the same area as the pyramid itself, a thin circular rim maybe a metre or so in height, and six trapezoidal extensions set at equal angles around the base that were both higher than the block and reached out farther than the rim. By the beach itself was a stone pier that emerged from the middle of the top of some enormous stone steps that descended into the water.
Sand had apparently encroached upon the top of the steps as a large pile of it appeared to have flooded over the left-hand side. In the distance, the walls of the bishop ring were visible, currently glowing with a dancing mixture of sky blues to create the illusion of a light daytime rainstorm in the distance. After the seaplane landed by the pier, Valerie's copy stepped out onto the warm stone and cautiously walked towards the pyramid. As she approached the front extension, a door slid open, inviting her in.
A green-skinned herptilian near-human with light armour and a sagittal crest stepped into the chocolaterie and over to the table where Valerie was sat with her friends, having just finished her main course of chocolate cake. They all stopped their conversation and looked up at the stranger.
'Valerie has been successful in her application to be an Adventurer.' he explained.
Although pleased, Valerie had something else on her mind. 'You're the same species that Alex used to be, aren't you?'
The stranger looked over to Alex and scanned her. 'Ensign Alikas. Born on Fecton; served in the Girdo Imperial Space Force before its incorporation into Apalos. Requested freedom from the consciousness and became a foglet Synthetic, adopting a baseline human form to fit in with the rest of Venaxaw Ring.'
'That's right.' replied Alex. She appeared to have more to say on the topic, but changed the subject back to the issue of Valerie's new Adventurer status. 'Can I tele with Valerie on her missions? None of us want her to be on her own.'
The stranger seemed to make a decision immediately. 'That is acceptable. I will leave you all to finish your meal now. Valerie: we will see you tomorrow.'
With that, the stranger left the restaurant, and normality resumed.
The next morning, after breakfast (and after having the two parts of her mind merged back together), Valerie spent most of her time looking out of the front window of her apartment to the city floor. She knew how unlikely it was to be of any use, as whomever it was that Apalos had chosen as a representative could just as well teleport next to her, avoiding the need to walk through the front door entirely. However, it seemed that even materialising next to her was too lengthy a process for Apalos. Instead, Valerie passed out, and awoke on a grassy bank by the shore of the pyramid lake.
The first change she noticed as she opened her eyes was a sophisticated head-up display over a slightly filtered view of the upwards-curving bishop ring in the far distance. Instinctively pulling her hand up to feel her face, she realised that she was in fact wearing a mask, transparent and breathable from her side but presumably opaque and solid from the front. The next shock came from the hand itself, which was covered with a pale flesh-coloured armour glove with clear joints in the fingers and attached to bejeweled golden straps over her forearm. Then she saw that her forearm was green, and all became clear. She had been turned into her old playtime persona, Tree-of-Life.
'Half-human, half-fern... and defender of all living things!'
She stood up and looked over the rest of her body, deactivating the head-up display via thought control. Her torso and shoulders had moss-coloured armour, the former with silver borders and the latter with golden decoration, and her feet had similar augmentations to her hands, only webbed and with long toes for swimming. As for her skin, it seemed that only the forearms and shins were fern-green, with her thighs, upper arms and the top of her chest being a medium-dark brown.
She looked in front of her, and a holographic mirror appeared on the HUD. She had exactly the sort of elaborate - but not overly large - tribal-themed mask that she had always imagined, itself the same shade of leafy green that her hair had also been dyed. Deactivating the HUD again, she thought to try out the powers that Tree-of-Life always had in her stories. Concentrating, she caused a purplish glow to emerge from both of her hands. She held one in her left hand like a ball of light, and let the one in her right disperse into a disordered pattern of plasmic rings. The first glow vanished in a quiet pop as Valerie's attention was caught by company.
'Do you think it suits you?' asked the voice of the the stranger who had approached Valerie and her friends in the chocolaterie the previous day.
'Yes. Yes, it does.' Valerie let go of the remaining glow and turned around to see the near-human walking along the beach towards her.
The stranger didn't seem to be in much of a mood for small talk. 'You seem to have got to grips with your new abilities already. More information about what you can do and how to do it can be found by accessing your HUD's encyclopedia.'
'Why don't I have a shield generator, if you don't mind me asking?'
'We're trying a new micro-shielding technology on our newest Adventurers. Rather than making a single bubble of plasma that's prone to sparking and spluttering whenever something sufficiently energetic hits it, every cell of your body has been infused with protective nanofoglets which can bind to your cell membranes and surrounding proteins, then project their own millimetre-thick microscopic shields over every square micron of your skin. Like I said, if you have any questions, consult your encyclopedia. Now, onto your first mission.'
'Yes. Is there a problem?'
'No... not at all. I just wasn't expecting it so soon.'
'There's a planet that was part of the Sombrero Galaxy before it was ejected... several years ago. On that planet is a research base. You are to investigate the base and see if they discovered anything of value about the native organisms. And yes, you may say goodbye to any friends, family and other loved ones you may have before you leave. Do you have any more questions?'
'No, thank you.'
Before she could finish, she fell unconscious again and woke up back in her apartment.
Chapter 2 Edit
Valerie spent her afternoon reading the encyclopedia and experimenting with some of her new abilities. She could summon a swarm of cyborg flies from containers on her arms, trap objects in a block of utility fog, and even perform limited mind control, although she had no intention of practising the latter while still on Venaxaw Ring. That evening, she was informed that it was time to say goodbye to her friends. In order to do so properly, she had a farewell meal with them in a local pizzeria. Afterwards, a copy of Alex was uploaded to a pair of small holoprojection squares and bound to Valerie's new golden wrist straps. Finally taking on her pseudonym, Tree-of-Life was at last ready to be an Adventurer. To her surprise, the starship that Apalos provided for her to use on her first intergalactic mission was the same seaplane that she had used to visit the Apalos pyramid, presumably having been upgraded with a hyperdrive somewhere in its engine compartment.
She sat down in the cockpit and engaged the autopilot. The seaplane - or spaceplane, as it had become - soon gained enough height and speed to fly over the bishop ring's walls and out into space, leaving behind the dyson swarm that had been Valerie's home for the past decade. A few thousand kilometres into the void, the plane's hyperdrive activated, and after a flash of blue light almost immediately appeared in orbit over a bleak-looking rogue planet in the depths of interstellar space. The planet, with a somewhat higher gravity to what Tree-of-Life was used to, was only kept from being unbearably cold to even a heavily-augmented human by highly-active volcanic fields and a thick atmosphere.
The plane settled into a stationary orbit and Tree-of-Life was beamed down to the surface. In appearance, the transfer beam was a bright blue flash of light that was launched from the plane and then smashed into the hard ground. Several plasma rings formed in the air before quickly dissipating, and Tree-of-Life stepped forwards and assessed her surroundings. She had materialised near to the overground entrance of a large research facility that, judging by the snow and iridescent ash building up around it, had been abandoned for quite a while.
It resembled the Apalos pyramid in that its base consisted of six extensions, although these were short, blocky cuboids rather than long, sleek trapezoids, and made of black and grey metal rather than shimmering gold. It also had a disc-shaped rim, but this was much lower than that of the pyramid's base. The biggest difference, of course, was that there was no pyramid in the centre of this structure; instead, a cylinder stood a few metres higher than the extensions, topped by a collection of tall, thin tubes. Given that the tubes were all of different heights, it would have been reasonable to assume that they were broken, and had perhaps once been used to support a larger exterior.
Each of the extensions had a permanent circular entrance, and it was towards one of these that Tree-of-Life began to walk towards.
'Does this look familar to you, Alex?'
'Yes,' replied Alex's voice from the holoprojectors, 'it was a traditional form of architecture for underground bases in the Girdo Galaxy.'
'That explains why it reminded me of the Apalos pyramid.'
'This must be a big one. These exteriors were only used for arcologies. You said it was used to research native organisms, right? If any of them are still alive, they'll be somewhere inside.'
The entrance opened upon Tree-of-Life's approach. 'It looks like the power's still on. I guess you're right.'
The entrance led into a long corridor, lined with non-functioning security turrets along the walls and ceiling. At the end of this corridor was another door that led into a what appeared to be a reception area, with a ring-shaped group of desks encircling a cluster of lifts in the centre of the room. Operating a computer on one of the desks, and apparently not aware of Tree-of-Life's presence, was a heavily-armoured Dronox.
'Be careful,' said Alex, 'I'm looking at the brain scans of that Dronox, and I think it's more likely to be a Meta-Fascist than another Adventurer.'
'When the Grox Meta-Emperor joined the Milky Way Cooperative, some of his subjects chose not to follow him, so they rebelled and formed their own kingdoms, still loyal to the ideals of the Meta-Empire.'
'Xenocide, conquest, slavery...'
'Exactly. If this Dronox is a Meta-Fascist, it won't be happy to see you here. As far as it's concerned, you may as well have personally imprisoned and brainwashed its Meta-Emperor against the Grox morality yourself.'
'But what would Meta-Fascists be doing here?'
'Looking for whatever it is that Apalos wants, I guess. Now, be ready to use your foglets; there might be trouble.'
Tree-of-Life walked over to the Dronox, which stopped operating the computer and glared up at her through a pair of purple eyepieces attached to a silvery reptilian mask. 'Excuse me,' she began, in the most respectful voice she could manage, 'but could you inform me as to the wherabouts of biological specimens within this arcology?'
Unsurprisingly, the Dronox merely growled and jumped up onto the desk, powering up its arm-mounted plasma pulsers in the process. Tree-of-Life waved her hand towards it, and a swarm of utility fog encased the aggressor and froze it in place. One of her holoprojectors materialised a raygun from the remaining foglets, which she then fired at the Dronox. A bright violet particle beam emerged from the gun, and much to her shock, the Dronox simply fell down.
'I'm so used to people being beamed to safety. I... I've never seen a dead body before. I don't want to do that again.'
Alex remained stoic. 'No, you have seen a dead body before.'
'What?' Suddenly, the memory of a distant day burst into her mind. 'Oh.'
Valerie and Sam were playing in a clearing in the forest behind their house, as children on Norca would often do. Valerie had attached various leaves and twigs to her clothes, while Sam was wearing some scrap metal armour and a red acrylic eyepiece. After some play-fighting, Valerie was on the floor with Sam's feet on either side of her torso. As the victor of the fight, Sam stared down and attempted some evil laughter, before beginning a carefully unprepared speech.
'Aha! You are defeated, Tree-of-Life. Now I, the Grox King, will assimilate your mind and your body and use you as a weapon against everything you love!'
At that point, Sam's mobile beeped, and broadcast an older female voice to the pair. 'Sam, Val, dinner!'
'Yes, mother.' replied Sam.
The two children then started running back through the forest towards their house. However, before they could get far, through the trees they saw a green flash in the distance, and a mushroom cloud rising up from the ground into the sky. A few seconds later, a shockwave shattered both their house and all of the other houses nearby. The children continued running, but quickly changed course and hid behind a boulder. When the shockwave reached them, it stirred up leaves and splintered trees, but the pair were unharmed in the boulder's shadow. A few seconds later, still breathing heavily, they continued running towards where their house had once stood, but this time out of fear for the people who were inside at the time rather than out of excitement for whatever meal they were hoping to eat that night. As they entered the garden, they saw a charred body in the smoking grass.
'Mum...' said Sam, softly.
Valerie was speechless. Looking into the rubble of the house, she saw several other bodies, broken and burnt; as if the shockwave and the intense heat was not enough for them, many of them had also been crushed under falling debris. Then her eyes turned to the sky. A Grox warship had been circling the city, casting laser beams into the wreakage to finish off any survivors, but its attention was distracted by something hovering over the forest. The warship changed its course and flew directly towards the children, but fortunately for the pair, the item that had caught the warship's sensors was a Human battlecruiser, which quickly finished off the Grox vessel with three antimatter missiles. Less fortunately for them, fragments of warship were now falling to the ground with a large enough horizontal velocity to crash into the garden in which they were standing. Although neither of the children were hit, the shock was enough to knock them both unconscious.
Valerie awoke to find herself lying on a soft plastic surface, and guessed that she was in a cell somewhere on board the battlecruiser. Rolling onto her side, she saw a pair of men in military uniform standing in front of the flag of the Allied Terran Republic outside the cell, and quickly shut her eyes again in the hope that they didn't notice.
'What do you suggest we do, sir?' asked one of the men.
'It was a traumatic experience they went through,' replied the other, 'too much of a burden for them to have to deal with when they're so young.'
There was a short pause before the second man spoke again. 'Give them a class one mind-wipe.'
'But sir, they're only children.'
Another pause. There was a feeling of sadness and regret in the air. 'Right. Better up it to a class two.'
'I scanned through your personal history records when I was uploaded to your holoprojectors.' explained Alex. 'I guess you never thought to do the same; you thought you knew it all already.'
Tree-of-Life began breathing deeply and slowly, taking several steps backward and staring at the ground. Determination and thoughts of vengeance flooded into her mind, as her HUD became active and glowing dots appeared in her vision to show where life signs had been detected in the arcology below.
'These are Meta-Fascists, you say?'
'I wasn't sure before, but after doing a full brain-scan, yes: these are definitely Meta-Fascists.'
'The same faction that killed my family?'
'That was the Meta-Empire, so yes.'
Her breathing became more rapid, and her blood surged with adrenaline. She clenched her fists and uttered a single word: 'Die.'
Chapter 3 Edit
Unbeknownst to Tree-of-Life, she had been followed by another starship, and the green-skinned near-human had been beamed into a nearby building in the complex, in front of a large and ominous doorway. A pair of cyborg guards sprang to attention, quickly recognising the figure.
'Emperor Mazipnos,' they said in unison, 'what a pleasure for you to visit.'
They bowed their heads in respect, but immediately showed this respect to be a ruse as they fired their blasters at Mazipnos. Unharmed and unfazed, Mazipnos lifted his hands, and the guards' lifeless bodies fell the the floor.
An almost-identical action caused the doors to open to reveal a vast interior hall, and in the centre of this hall was a sleek metallic device of similar size. Its base was a bulging oblate spheroid on top of a somewhat stumpy-looking cylinder, in turn topped with a stack of eight large discs. At the very top of the device was a central sphere, from which four thin arms stuck out, perpendicular to each other and parallel to the floor. Vertically from each of these arms stood one smaller arm each, and from each of these smaller arms electricity could be seen to flow back towards a disc near the centre of the contraption, sticking up from the sphere from which the original four arms emerged. Above this disc, where the electric beams met, a large ball of crackling electricity illuminated the room.
'Impressive, don't you think?' asked an electronic voice.
The voice came from a silhouetted figure which had been analysing a monitor at the very bottom of the megalith. Without bothering with the theatrics of hand-raising, Mazipnos telekinetically threw the figure sideways and into a wall, then continued walking towards the device.
'I don't know about you,' resumed the voice, 'but where I come from, we conserve momentum.'
Similarly forgoing flair, the figure stood up, returned to the monitor and, with a thought, caused Mazipnos to be launched in the opposite direction and into the sights of a functional plasmathrower turret. Rather than being incinerated, however, Mazipnos dissolved into a cloud of utility fog, which flew towards the silhouette and quickly reassembled itself into humanoid form.
'Nice try.' repeated Mazipnos.
'Eme Mazipnos Tokzhalat.' noted the figure, without removing its gaze or hands from the monitor.
'Grox.' replied Mazipnos, having identified the figure's species with ease.
'King Afavesu.' corrected the Grox.
'Afavesu? You were a General.'
'Yes. Was. Then your Empire abandoned us. You allowed the genocide of the Milky Way Grox by the hands of your allies.'
'A Grox General, of all people, criticising genocide?'
'Fortunately for my men, I would not let my kind die. As the armada of the Delpha Coalition prepared to destroy our core systems, I took my Star Destroyer and my crew and created a new home for the Grox in the Sombrero Galaxy.'
'Yes. Why would I not? Would you expect me to sacrifice my entire species for some misguided idea of "honour" that I should fight until death?'
Mazipnos merely smiled. A few seconds later, Afavesu turned his head to face him.
'What are you here for, Tokzhalat?'
Mazipnos chose to ignore the question. 'I've noticed that you're not an ordinary Grox. Most of your implants are makeshift; some of them are even biological.'
'You know how useful the wildlife in this galaxy is. The "Darkspore", I believe they were called. I am sure that you noticed the pair at the door. Artificial organisms with a wide variety of technological enhancements, superior even to those that were granted to us by the Meta-Emperor. That is why you ordered the construction of this base, is it not? To reverse-engineer their technology for Girdo?'
'That's why we fought an entire war in this galaxy. You and your Grox wouldn't have happened to be behind that, would they?'
'Answer my question first. What are you doing here?'
'The same thing as you are. Extracting the final secrets from this galaxy. And killing unrepentant Meta-Fascists in the process.'
'"Unrepentant Meta-Fascists"? I've not heard that slur before.'
'Oh, didn't you hear? The Grox Meta-Empire is no more. The Meta-Emperor joined the Milky Way Cooperative, followed by trillions of Grox and their allies. Only a minority still cling to the idea of Grox dominion.'
Afavesu did not sound convinced. 'Good for them. But back to the matter at hand: you appear to be mistaken about the purpose of our mission here.'
Carefully stepping out of the lift, Tree-of-Life found herself in an alien forest, filled with technicolor plants resembling sponges and corals, and with a thick layer of fluorescent pink algae covering the ground. But she was not here to admire the scenery, and immediately set to work. At first, sniping Dronox in the dense foliage was easy, but she soon saw the sea-blue colouring of the arcology walls ahead and realised that she was approaching a sparser savanna region. This did not concern her enough to distract her, as she gleefully fired another particle bolt into the head of an arachnoid Insectrox that was standing in one of the larger coral-plants, causing the creature to fall neck-first into the sargassum below. Now she had caught the attention of a pair of Dronox, and darted across the heath so as to hide amongst the coral. She stood with her back against one of the plants, but she was not alone.
Tree-of-Life slowly turned her head to look at the source of the noise in the coral.
A smaller, scorpion-like Insectrox was perched on a polypoid branch, carrying an overly-large explosive ball in its prehensile tail. The Adventurer held her raygun up to the creature's mouth, but then lowered it as a better idea came into her head.
She held her free hand out towards the mite and a green aura enveloped the two for a little more than a second. Seemingly compelled to swap sides, the Insectrox dropped onto the floor and ran towards the approaching pair of soldiers. The beeping of the explosive became increasingly rapid, and a few seconds later, the sound of its detonation filled the room, and two more Dronox had fallen.
'Good boy,' she said, smirking, 'but now where shall I go?'
This question was answered very quickly, as a transfer beam engulfed her and caused her to materialise in the hall where Afavesu and his device were located. The shock of this startled her somewhat, but she quickly recovered and aimed her raygun at the Grox. Before she could fire, however, the weapon crumpled as though it had been crushed in the grip of a giant invisible hand.
'Nice try,' echoed Afavesu's voice across the hall, 'but you won't be needing that any more. Besides, such weapons are obsolete in the modern world.'
'Who are you?' Tree-of-Life asked, unintimidated and still holding her gun up threateningly.
'King Afavesu of the Grox Meta-Empire. Your King, for the few minutes that remain of your shrinking lifespan.'
'That's not the way a ruler should speak to one of his subjects.'
'Even when you can see that I am able to crush your skull with ease from this distance, and you have no weapon that can harm me, you still act as though I am not a threat. Clearly, killing my loyal soldiers has got to your head. Now, I have told you my name, so what is yours?'
'V... Vitae,' stuttered the Adventurer, almost saying her real name by accident. 'Arbor Vitae.'
'I see. And why are you here? What do you have against my people?'
'I learnt that some organisms may have survived the ejection of this planet from its home galaxy, so I came here to investigate. I'm a biologist. Hence my...' she removed one hand from her broken in gun in order to gesture to her entire plant-coloured body, '...theme. And what do I have against Meta-Fascists like yourself?' Her voice rapidly filled with anger. 'Oh, where should I start?'
'At the beginning,' interrupted the Grox, 'preferably.'
'You killed my family!'
'Grox killed your family in a war, so that led you to kill mine? Your slaughter here has been for revenge?'
'I asked one of your Conqrix if he could tell me where any native lifeforms were on this planet. His response was to point his pulsers at me-'
'Maybe he was having a bad day. I know you have a swarm of utility foglets at your command; you could have simply frozen him in place until he calmed down. Your reasons for killing my soldiers were nothing more than the fact that they served an empire that was once at war with your own.'
Arbor Vitae began to slowly step towards Afavesu; she knew her gun would no longer be able to fire, but the look in her eyes made it clear that she would bludgeon the Grox King instead. 'You killed my family.'
'And I recently... acquired... some Apalos computronium from a visitor, and found it trivial to use it in order to break your encyclopaedia's security measures. I can read your personal files as I stand here now, Valerie. You never cared about the death of your family. That is what a class two mind wipe does. It doesn't just block your memories; it removes the trauma and grief that your primitive brains would otherwise be infected with. Accept it: you never wanted revenge. You just wanted to be a hero.'
Arbor stopped walking and dropped the gun. Her face suddenly changed expression and she appeared to be much calmer, although she was breathing deeply and staring at the ground. Before she knew it, Afavesu had managed to appear directly in front of her, and found it no trouble to push her onto the floor.
'Perfect. I need the right hormonal balance for this, and injecting you with mind-controlling nanobes would have been unsuccessful. I know; I tried it before with an Insectrox.'
'Oh, Valerie. I should not be surprised. You are only a biologist, after all. You have no idea what this room is for, do you?'
'I do.' announced Alex's voice.
'So your holoprojectors talk too.'
'It's a Taukappan metric engineering device, codenamed "vortex generator". And my scans suggest that it's been filled with the life essence of countless suhrsegh organisms... mostly Grox slave races, and species from this planet.'
'Hold on, Alex;' said Arbor, 'life essence?'
'You've told me that syndeobiology is your area of interest. What can you tell me about it?'
'Syndeobiology? Well, all across the universe, most species - suhrsegh life - share common biochemical, genotypical and phenotypical features, presumably as a result of precursor intervention billions of years ago.'
'But how have these patterns been maintained over billions of years of evolution?'
'That's... physics. Quantum biology, superluminal propagation of biophotons in hyperspace...'
'And keeping it all together is the ancient hyperspatial technology that we call "life essence", or "elemental energy", or "the Source", or whatever you want to know it as. Not necessary for life itself, but connected to it nonetheless.'
'And the Grox intend to use the vortex generator to destroy everything off this planet that's connected to life essence in the universe.'
'Are we that predictable?' interrupted Afavesu, knowing full well that the answer was "yes".
Now keeping her gaze fixed at the Grox King, Arbor began to lift herself from the ground, but a swift kick to her left ankle sent her back down again. He then stood directly over her stomach, with one foot on either side of her torso, and his voice quickly dropped to a more emotionless tone.
'Your computronium is unfortunately blocking my attempts to scan your neurotransmitter concentrations,' he continued, as slimy black tendrils emerged from his wrist and began to grow towards the Adventurer's eyes, 'but I do not think that there is much more to do. You are defeated, Arbor Vitae. Now I, the Grox King, will assimilate your mind... and your body... and use you against everything. And everyone. You love.'
Chapter 4 Edit
A cloaked Apalos vessel of tremendous size kept its gaze fixed towards the rogue planet half a light-second away. Its skin stood almost as cold as the surrounding void; its body was metamophosed into a bulging disc filled with passive sensors of nearly every conceivable variety. And deep within the icy globe that was at the centre of its attention, a slow trickle of of activity began to grow into a deadly current. The cosmic mind chose the optimum moment in which to make its move, and as it slowly faded into visibility, the disc melted into a million points of light which took off towards the planet at sub-relativistic speeds. Each point was itself a golden dreadnought, with radiators extended and glowing to warm its deflector shields with accumulated heat. They soon settled into orbit of their target as the anomalous activity reached its peak; earthquakes shook the ground below and large portions of the crust collapsed into chasms where once had laid a frozen mantle. On the as-yet undamaged piece of continental shelf where the vortex generator stood, echoes of this collapse seemingly caused everything from the ground to the sky itself to shake. Afavesu did not mind.
'Why are you doing this?' asked Arbor. The tendrils stopped millimetres in front of her mask. 'I mean, why go to all this trouble? You spend the eight or so years since this planet was abandoned trying to figure out how to turn a research device into a superweapon, stealing life essence to power it, amassing your forces to destroy any remaining life that surives your superweapon by being neither Grox nor suhrsegh... you could have had an actual life in that time. Why did you waste your opportunity?'
'You are all disgusting.' came the reply.
'Dis... disgusting? That's it? Not, "you all hate us and you're a threat to us", not "it's in our programming", not even a "our religion tells us to"?'
'Some Grox may feel that way. You might think that I would consider you all to be a threat too, after my fleets were slaughtered by the Milky Way Cooperative fifteen years ago. But I did not rise up the ranks until I was in control of my Empire's forces because I was scared. I did it because Grox dominion is necessary in order to keep the blight that is all other life under control.'
Valerie slowly pulled her mask horizontally from her face, giving Afavesu's tedrils a clear path to her human skin. 'So what? Maybe you're right. But why does that matter? Sure, I'll accept that we're all... disgusting. But I find lots of things to be disgusting. Like the smell of smoke, or the sound of nails scratching against wood, or the taste of mushrooms. But that doesn't make me want to erase them from existence, and they're not even living, conscious beings! That would be a hugely narrow-minded, selfish point of view to take. Is there nothing that you find disgusting that you don't think should be eradicated?'
Her heart sank as she heard the response. 'No.'
And with that, the tendrils shot across the remaining gap, burying their tips into her face. But as she screamed away what seemed to be her final seconds, time seemed to slow down. There was no display in front of her eyes, and even if there were she would not have been able to see it through her closed eyes, but what she could do, if only barely, was think. She realised that her legs were still able to move, and if she pulled them towards her body, she could reach Afavesu's and knock him off-balance. His right leg looked like a solid piece of cast titanium, but his left was at least as biological as hers; even if it was filled with tough nanomechanical muscle, so was hers, and it was the only chance she had.
These thoughts raced through her head in a matter of milliseconds; it was as if by instinct that she contracted her left thigh and thrusted the front of her knee into the side of her adversary's. A crack resonated throughout the hall and the tendrils snapped back as the Grox fell down. Arbor breathed heavily before slowly standing up; her wounds rapidly healed over, and she picked up her gun and returned her mask to her face. In front of her, Afavesu grimaced, his damaged joint slowly knitting itsef back together. However, what drew her attention was the top of his head: an elaborate organic crown circled his scalp like a bad hairstyle, and in its center was a large pustule containing a deep blue liquid. What it was and why it was there was of no concern to Arbor. She merely roared as she rammed the barrel of her gun into the slimy integument, piercing it and releasing the pressure inside, and causing the Grox to unleash an agonised metallic screech. The viscous blue ichor that flowed out turned purple as it was exposed to the air; some of it dried onto the weapon, the rest evaporated away as a thick miasma. It was at this point that the Adventurer noticed that the gun had managed to repair itself.
'Do you know what I find really disgusting?' she asked.
Now, with a more concentrated anger than unfocused rage, she returned the tip of the barrel to the top of the Grox King's head...
...and fired. A flash of violet light and burning fuschia ooze was the result, and neither Afavesu nor his body remained. The few seconds' silence that followed was broken by the distant subterranean rumbling growing in intensity once more.
'I don't think it's safe to go outside right now.' Arbor walked over to the console at the base of the vortex generator. 'Alex, can you get into this?'
'Yes. Just give me a second...'
A display activated on the console's screen, and the universal translator in Arbor's mask caused the Groxic symbols that appeared there to turn into recognisable letters and words. It was a list of hyperlinks, some of them quite transparently named - "Elemental Energy Research", "Sombreran Technology Analysis", "Base Reconstuction Progress" - but one particularly obscure entry caught her eye.
'"Project Emperor"? What's that?'
'It... was an old Taukappan idea,' replied Alex hesitantly, 'never really taken seriously. It was just a contingency idea, not considered to be feasible and only to be attempted in a desperate emergency. It involved... taking a small, cold planet or planetoid, like this one, and infusing its crust and upper mantle with thermophilic myxobots. These would work to process the rocks and ores of the mantle into a swarm of trillions of autonomous warships.'
'And it looks like the Grox have found their own use for these plans. They've edited the plans so that the myxobots use a hybrid of Grox and Darkspore technology and build warships of Grox design, and... the plans were approved five years ago. Is that enough time to finish the vessels?'
'Looking at these blueprints, Val, I'd say that's more than enough time.'
'Trillions of ships...'
'If anything, that's an understatement. Project Emperor was intended to manufacture enough ships to wipe out all life the universe. Explaining why Afavesu wanted to use it so badly.'
Another noise shook the hall, but this time it was not a distant rumble but the earth-splitting cacophony of hundreds of sinkholes forming immediately outside. Once Arbor's augmentations had responded to protect her ears from the sound, she turned back to the console and hurriedly tried to find any military systems that she could use against the emerging horde.
'Weapons... no. Shields... down. Scanners! Yes! "Apalos warships detected. Project Emperor has been activated in response." Alex, we just need to send a message to Apalos and tell them to beam us out and destroy this thing!'
'Okay. I've sent the transmission, but I think they might be a little preoccupied right now.'
'Well if they're not going to come to us...'
The Adventurer had clearly thought of a plan, although it was less clear how well she had thought it through. She quickly spun around from the console and ran to the exit, firing a couple of blasts from her gun to remove the obstacles that were the front doors, then leapt through the smoke and plasma into the valley outside. The entire scene was illuminated by an incessant and indiscriminate barrage of missiles, glowing with air friction, which had been launched from somewhere in orbit and tasked with melting the frozen ground into red-hot lava. As her eyes adjusted, Arbor noticed another detail in the environment: in the near distance, a Grox warship was slowly emerging into the air, passing through an icy blue plasma window of some kind that covered a hole in the earth. She sensed an opportunity and single-mindedly sprinted towards the vessel, noticing neither the fallen Darkspore beside her nor the fact that the particular structure which she had left was another arcology, this time graced with an intact Apalos-style pyramid on top.
Arbor's mechanical muscles and the thin atmosphere helped her achieve sufficient speed to carry her across the wasteland, dodging nuclear impactors and the resulting shockwaves, before grasping onto the top of one of the warship's engines as it passed through the plasma window. A few seconds later, the bottom of the engine emerged as well, and the temperature rapidly rose as this was followed by roaring jets of flame. As the rocket's metal armour was infused with a burning heat, Arbor struggled to hold on, and she made several desperate attempts to find and grasp a piece of insulating material, before her right foot found a suitable foothold and pushed against it to send her upwards and onto a cooler section of the hull. She did not have time to recover before a faint blue glow began to cover the ship's armour, growing in intensity. The Adventurer soon realised what it was.
'Shields are up.'
Once the glow hit a critical brightness, it rapidly expanded outwards and formed a defensive bubble around the spacecraft, reacting with Arbor's own shields to launch her into the air. As she fell back towards the vessel, preparing to be incinerated upon collision with the shield, one of the Apalos missiles struck the bubble and, for lack of a better description, popped it. Arbor landed safely back on the hull, slightly further down from where she just been thrown upwards, and began to run at a near-vertical incline until she reached the front end of the ship's left arm. By this time, it had reached an altitude where the planet's atmosphere had all but disappeared.
'This is all too real now, Alex.' The Adventurer's shields had now become airtight, with communication between her and the upload being solely via her mask.
'I know. I haven't been near a real Grox ship since-'
A few seconds of silence passed, but with her heart racing, it felt much longer. 'Alex?'
'Oh, Spode... I'm so sorry, Val.'
A small glowing dot that was an Apalos dreadnought started fading into view in Arbor's HUD, and the next few steps happened within milliseconds. Turrets melted out of the Grox vessel's hull and opened fire on the dreadnought, which was itself launching a volley of guided hypersonic missiles instead of its previous scattershot of planet-glasser warheads. Arbor turned off her HUD and kept her eyes closed, not wanting to know if she was leaping into death. Already being carried at great speed by the warship's great engines, she rapidly bent and then extended her legs, with a final flick of her ankles, to send her soaring through the void.
Mid-flight, Arbor was swallowed by a blue glow: she had not gone unnoticed by Apalos, and one of the dreadnought's missiles had reconfigured itself into a transfer beam to take her out of the crossfire. Disappointingly, when she opened her eyes, she found herself standing on top of one of the horizontal arms of the vortex generator, with an electrical beam using her shields as a conductor. Leaning against the vertical arm on the branch to her left was Mazipnos.
'It's a good thing you got here when you did,' he said, 'because Afavesu was just setting up this machine to target Apalos technology. We wouldn't have stood a chance if it weren't for you.'
'...You're welcome?' replied the Adventurer, confused.
'Of course, you're wondering why we brought you back here. Your gun.' He gestured to Arbor to hand the weapon over. She held out the gun in front of her, and noticed that there was dried purple gloop around the barrel from where it had penetrated the Grox King's skull.
'I see what you're doing.' To her surprise, the gun remained in her hand, but the slime floated away from the gun and entered the generator. Once this was done, Mazipnos jumped down to the console, followed a few seconds later by Arbor.
The near-human frowned as he operated the machine. 'It's going to take a few minutes to process this and remove the Apalos material from its memory.'
Arbor had other things on her mind. 'Alex, when you said you were sorry, what did you mean by that?'
Another silence. Alex's synthesised voice came with the sound of regret, and Mazipnos gave a concerned look as she gave her answer.
'Decades ago, back when I was part of the Girdo Empire, I served on board the starship Zkaniaz under then-Commander Mazipnos Tokzhalat. We participated in a series of military campaigns against xenocidal civilisations across the galaxy. One of these was the Grox, but we weren't powerful enough to defeat them on our own, and few other empires would join us on such a risky crusade unless there were clear signs that the Meta-Empire was looking for a fight. So our Emperor concocted a plan to draw them out. We... made a deal with them.
'On our part, we gave them advanced technology that we had scavenged from across the universe, and enticed them to use it against their enemies. Our ship was tasked with developing new metric cloaking devices, subtle enough that, while the most advanced hyperspace sensors of the time could still pick up the sheer mass of a Grox fleet, individual warships could sneak through a planet's defences undetected before reaching the stratosphere. And the Grox ship that... killed your family... was only able to get close enough because it was equipped with one of those cloaks'.
'Oh.' replied Arbor.
'I'm sorry, Val.'
Five more seconds passed.
'Don't be. It's... it's over now, Alex. It was a long time ago and far away from here. I... I was mind-wiped. I spent fifteen years of my life without casting a single thought towards my parents.'
'Sorry to interrupt this moment,' said Mazipnos, 'but the generator is ready. All you have to do, Arbor Vitae, is press this button here, and every single Grox and every Grox creation at a lower altitude than this machine - all of the ships inside the planet - will be destroyed. The few billion ships still in orbit, we can deal with the old-fashioned way.'
Arbor moved her hand to the screen, but stopped an inch or so above the button. 'If it's that simple, why don't you press it yourself?'
'Because it's your choice, and you have to make it yourself. This is your adventure, after all.'
She looked up from the console and saw Mazipnos smiling, which raised her spirits slightly. 'I think I see what you mean.' She chuckled quietly as she thought of something. 'Did you know that modern mind-wipes were first developed three hundred years ago for use against Grox prisoners of war? It was hoped that they could be disconnected from their group mind and "rehabilitated" into human society. In the present day, mind-wipes are only used to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of atrocities. You see, the Republic's military scientists have a motto: "every sword can be beat into a ploughshare". Every military technology can be used peacefully, with a bit of work. Although,' she continued, glancing at her carbine, 'the engineers prefer to use the wording "every plasma gun makes a good plasma drill". Either way, it's how they've justified their work to pacifists since before the Third World War.' Arbor then held her hands out in front of her and looked first at the gun in her right hand, and then at the bracelet in her left hand with which she had controlled the actions of an Insectrox mite back in the ruined arcology. Then she cast her gaze to the near-human. 'Can this machine be used to do some reprogramming?'
'Yes, but it won't be able to access the Grox computer systems directly.'
'You know that won't stop me. I have chosen a name for myself: Arbor Vitae, the Tree of Life. The defender of all living things! And funnily enough, Afavesu was right about one thing. Why should that not include the Grox and their servants, as much as it includes every plant and every animal, every mushroom, every... hah! Every slime mould! Myxomycetes! That's all that myxobots are, aren't they? Artificial programmable slime moulds! Alex, if you had a machine that could do anything in the universe, and you had the opportunity to use it against humanity's worst foe, would you kill them? Maybe you would. I know a lot of people would. I even know a lot of people who would. But killing isn't part of my job description.'
Neither giving anyone else a chance to respond nor even catching her own breath, Arbor attached her raygun to her left holoprojector and excitedly ran back out of the building, while Alex understood the hint and reconfigured the weapon into a plasma drill. As soon as she found herself outside again, however, she came to a halt as her excitement turned to awe. There was now a thick atmosphere, but one of noxious fumes and boiled rock, and the orbital bombardment was much less vigorous than before, but the sky was lit - or perhaps scarred - by the effects of advanced weaponry, from the trails of beams and missiles to large patches of space that had been twisted and stretched and were glowing with the hazy blue glow of Cherenkov radiation. Regaining her concentration, Arbor made a beeline for the nearest hole in the ground.
The perfectly circular pit seemed to go down at least a few hundred metres, but it was not easy to tell with the constant shifts in the lighting from above; sometimes, it looked as though it went straight to the core of the planet. Much closer to the top was a ring of machinery, including what must have been the now-deactivated shield generator. Several thin platforms were situated around the circumference, with two small ones at opposite sides of the hole and slightly lower down from the rest. Whether they were actually platforms or merely flat rectangular mechanisms was unclear to Arbor, but either way they would suit her purposes, especially as she noticed that the two smaller ones each had a blacked-out window-like structure built into the walls of the pit slightly above them. She dropped down onto one of them, and her HUD showed that the "window" led directly to a depleted mineral vein.
'This must have been a mechanism for transporting useful elements inside the ship while it was still being built.'
She raised her left arm and used the plasma drill to break the window, causing myxobots to migrate to the hole and try to seal it off, as though they were repairing a living wound. After a few more seconds of drilling, they began to pour out of the wound and form a yellowish-green puddle on the platform, at which point the Adventurer stopped and picked up some of the liquid by dipping the drill inside it. Satisfied that she had collected enough, she jumped back out of the hole and returned to the vortex generator, taking a moment to notice the pyramidal façade.
Once again, Mazipnos transfered the sample into the generator. 'It's ready now.'
'So when I press this, all of the myxobots will be modified to remove the xenocide programming from the Grox ships?'
'And this battle will end, and the Grox will join their siblings in the Milky Way?'
'And no more of them will have to die?'
'Okay. I see.' She thought back to the sight of the sky, and how it seemed as though space and time were being torn apart right above her head. 'That's better than nothing. I suppose.'
And she pressed the button.
Chapter 5 Edit
There was no great change as though a new age had dawned. No blinding light nor deafening sound emerged from the vortex generator. If anything, the scene had become less dramatic: where an electric storm had once raged, the vortex generator now stood still like a dead oak or perhaps, considering the width of its trunk, a baobab. Mazipnos had vanished, and there was a cold silence.
'Did it work, Alex?'
'I don't know. I can't hear any sounds of battle.'
'That just means they've finished melting this part of the planet's crust. And where's the green guy gone?'
Arbor took several steps back and walked around the generator, searching for any signs of change, while the plasma drill shifted its form back into that of a raygun. Bringing up her HUD, there was no activity to be seen, either inside the room, outside, or in the sky.
'Everything's too quiet. I hope we haven't accidentally destroyed the universe.' she said, half-jokingly.
'Look down, Val.'
This building was another arcology, and the underground structure - or what remained of it, after orbital bombardment - was visible to the HUD. Glowing dots, identified as Conqrix and Darkspore, showed up several layers beneath the Adventurer's feet, and they were running towards lifts or teleporters arranged around the circumference of the base.
'They could be coming to give us presents...?' suggested Alex, sounding utterly unconvinced of her own idea.
'If blaster wounds count as presents.'
She took off to the nearest exit, only for a Dronox Commander to step out of an opening that appeared in the wall in front of her and swing an electrified sword towards her head. Arbor was quick to dodge and freeze her assailant with a cloud of utility fog, but the blade had caught her gun, simultaneously dislodging it from her hands and slicing it cleanly in half. As she instinctively turned to see where the electrocuted remains of the weapon had gone, a Darkspore soldier directed a laser beam into her face, cutting through her shields and setting her mask on fire. She tore the mask off and threw it to the ground, choosing to continue towards the exit and let her genetic augmentations try to resist the toxic atmosphere instead of risking her life by fighting.
'It didn't work, Alex!'
The corridor that Arbor had chosen to run down ended abruptly; the doorway and outside wall had been vaporised at some point in the battle and immediately beyond was a steep drop leading to molten rock. The Adventurer had no time to notice that danger, however, as a Grox warship was hovering a short distance away, its front end directly facing the exit. She stopped and braced herself, and a flurry of projectiles were spat out of a gun hidden within its prow.
But she survived. The barrage continued, but each projectile engaged an engine as it reached ground level and swerved to avoid the Adventurer. She turned around to see where the missiles were going, but it was now too dark inside the building to see, and something there was blinding her HUD so that it couldn't pick out any life signs, either Conqrix or Darkspore. In less than half a minute, the missiles had stopped coming, and the warship flew away and went into orbit. Arbor looked back into the darkness, and her HUD was blank: no signs of life at all. Yet before she could celebrate, smudges of light flickered into view; a small army of soldiers was raising themselves from the ground and marching in her direction.
'They must have been nanoswarm projectors,' she whisphered, 'I guess they'd rather assimilate me than kill me now that I'm defenceless. Then again... do we still have enough foglets to make a new weapon?'
'Hardly. Unless you want to sacrifice yourself, in which case I could rig up your main power plant to overload. A small hypermatter explosion in your backpack should-'
'No, Alex.' She took a few slow, shallow breaths. 'Thanks anyway.'
Arbor sat down in resignation as the platoon entered the light of the corridor. The soldiers were led by a Dronox, and fell neatly into line behind him despite their multitude of species and sizes. Arbor was almost sobbing as the Dronox crouched down in front of her, placing its skull-like helmet close to her face with its glowing eyes peering into her own. As a tear left her eye, the voice of the Dronox manifested in her ears.
'Commandant Vitae. Myxobot-based reprogramming missiles are confirmed successful. What are your next orders?'
She glanced towards the warrior as fear turned to surprise and then to delight, and she spent several seconds with her head in her hands laughing with relief.
'Commandant?' it repeated.
'Oh,' she sighed, 'let's just get off this planet!'
'Sending distress call to Apalos. Reply received. We must enter proximity of the hyperspatial manipulation device.'
They returned to the central room to find that the surrounding walls and ceiling were being surrounded by Apalos probes, binding themselves together to form a functional spacecraft hull. Once they had all gathered around the vortex generator, the entrance to the corridor was similarly replaced, and finally, the entire hall was lifted up into the air as an engine unit was installed underneath. It took several minutes to reach orbit, during which time Mazipnos rematerialised.
'Where did you go?' asked Arbor, who would have been furious were she still not recovering from the sudden turn of events.
'I knew you were going to survive; I was the one who sent the Grox vessel to save you.'
'You left me there, alone!'
'Arbor Vitae, if you're going to be an Adventurer, you're not always going to have Apalos avatars there to save you. And you don't need it. You've proven yourself to be more than capable of dealing with dangerous situations on your own. In fact, this might be the toughest initiation mission any Adventurer has ever been sent on, and initiation is usually the most dangerous thing an Adventurer ever has to deal with... not least because they get to choose where to go on later excursions.'
'You're right,' she smiled, 'but I'm still not happy.'
'You don't need to be happy, just alive. You'll have more than enough opportunity to be happy when you get home.'
'Talking of which, are there no viewscreens on this ship? I always like to look outside when I'm flying.'
The engines suddenly stopped as the ship reached orbit, and the entire congregation began to float. Mazipnos held Arbor's hand and pulled her towards the nearest wall, which opened up to reveal a window through which the planet was clearly visible. Most of its surface was now either lava or glass.
'You'll be pleased to know that we've beamed up all of the habitats within the arcologies, and the organisms within are going to be taken to a wildlife sanctuary.'
'It was only the Grox ships above the surface that the vortex generator affected, wasn't it?'
'The only options are for it to work on those higher in altitude than it, or those lower in altitude. It could be modified, but there was no time, and just like I would have destroyed the trillions beneath the surface instead of all of those across the universe who have renounced the Meta-Empire's ways, it was better to change the ones who were already fighting us and could have escaped to hyperspace than those still buried underground.'
'So will you use the generator again to save those ones?'
'No. Sorry. That activation fried it completely. It was only ever a prototype, and the Grox had no intention on improving it so that it could work twice.'
'Then what's going to happen to them?'
'I know how much you care about them, so... you might want to look away.'
Realising what was going to happen, she did exactly that. In the silence of space, the planet cracked into countless pieces, with each fragment being ejected into space at escape velocity, as though it were a sphere of painted glass being shattered in slow motion. Taking a deep breath and a gulp, Arbor spun back around, just to be sure that what she suspected had happened, but it was too late. A flash of blue light surrounded the vessel as it entered hyperspace, and a split-second later, the view through the window was that of Venaxaw Ring.
'Welcome home, Valerie.'
- This story was started on August 20 2013, with the final chapter being completed on August 29 2014.