16: Twisted Homeland
The Unexplored Sectors
“Just what is going on in the universe?” Darrell wondered aloud as he finally shut off the weapons systems on Meryl’s ship – Meryl’s strangely still nameless ship. They were about an hour out past the border lands, and had finally grown satisfied to the fact that they were not on the verge of being attacked by hordes of lavoid spawn… lavoid spawn that, by all rights, should NOT have been protecting the Sol Dominion’s border.
“From the looks of things, nothing good.” The tinny voice came from behind Darrell, and shocked him quite a bit, as it did the three other inhabitants of the ship’s cabin.
“Z-Zohar?!” Darrell said in shock as he whirled around in his chair to see the tiny yellow alien, who was looking incredibly grave. “How are you here?”
The finori snorted. “Just because I don’t typically use a physical form when anchored to a weapon doesn’t mean I’m incapable of it. And after what just happened, I thought it best to be around.”
“Right… what did just happen, anyway?” Darrell’s question was met with silence. Neither Terra nor Meryl had actually seen the lavoid spawn, but they’d certainly heard their cries, and the sounds of incredible energy blasts ripping around outside the ship’s hull.
“Did you get a good look at them, Dar?” Zohar asked. “Those weren’t normal lavoids. There was… circuitry, or something, woven into their battle armor.”
“I noticed something, but… it’s not like I’ve actually had much opportunity to study the things.” That was only a partial lie. Darrell was currently in the process of reading through the book Lucia had given him, and had learned much of lavoid physiology, of the fact that the outer, spiky area was not truly the lavoid body, but a kind of biological armor and spacecraft. The lavoids themselves were actually quite human-like in appearance, with only minor differences in pigmentation and a lack of gender marking them as different… that and all the chaos energy.
“What do you make of that, Zohar?” Cynewulf asked exactingly, his tone almost hauntingly robotic.
“It seems to me that those lavoids were under the control of some sort of machinery… probably located in that huge circular ship we saw.”
“But… that was a Dominion ship.” Terra said quietly, gauntleted fists closing tightly over the arms of her chair. “How would they have gotten a hold of so many lavoid spawn?”
“It’s just a guess, but… I mean, there are a lot of lavoids in the Multiverse… but it seems to me from the seeming age of those things that they’ve got to be Grendel’s offspring… possibly even from Zion itself.”
Darrell’s mouth fell open, and he was sure that everyone else’s did as well. “Grendel’s… children? Under Dominion control? H…how?”
Zohar scratched his bulbous head, and lowered his gaze. “Well, in every recorded long-term infestation… you know, when the lavoid sticks around on one planet for thousands of years, gathering dna and stuff… the lavoid always spawns a number of improved copies of himself before he purges the planet of life and moves on.”
Darrell nodded. “Right… with the DNA strains gained off of the infested planet inserted into the new generation. I read something about that.”
“Do you know what this means, Darrell?” Meryl murmured, her eyes cold with something akin to fear. “The Dominion wouldn’t have cut across their borders and grabbed a bunch of incredibly powerful weapons without any intention of… of…” she trailed off, not wanting to continue.
“All out war with the Union. The thought had occurred to me, yes.” The young Riven native and Zionite at heart sighed deeply. “But what can we do about it, but move forward in our actions? None of us have any influence in the Union. We’d simply be ignored if we tried to warn them.”
Terra looked deep out into space, and added something else. “And if we turned back to the Union now, we’d likely never track down Grendel before he infested another planet… and by everything Darrell’s told me, it would be next to impossible to kill the thing then.”
“It’d be next to impossible to even find the thing, no matter what kind of incredible equipment my kinsmen on Riven have.” Darrell returned, sighing. “Looks like we’re stuck, then.”
Cynewulf turned to regard him. “Stuck? Darrell, these spawn are certainly a very real problem, and a big threat to the Union… but at the moment, they’re not our problem. We’re out for Grendel, and we’re going to get him. After we’ve killed him, we can worry about these things.”
Darrell nodded. “I’ve been thinking about that, Cyne… about the future. I mean, it doesn’t seem to me like we can just put down our weapons and go back to… well, we have nothing to go back to, really. It doesn’t seem to me like we can just kill this one lavoid, and let that be the end of it.”
Terra leaned forward and put a comforting hand on Darrell’s shoulder. “Dar, we’ll worry about that when and if we get to that point. No sense in worrying about an unforeseeable future.”
The young man nodded in return, not really responding, and turned to the navigational equipment. “According to this, we’re only about an hour away from Riven, if you can make a course change to these coordinates, Cyne.”
He pointed out a few things on the chart, and the large Seeker adjusted the ship accordingly. “One hour… how does it feel, to know you’re about to meet your people, Darrell?”
“I…” Darrell closed his eyes tightly. “I’m not really sure. I just hope we are welcomed with open arms.” He did not speak the rest of his thoughts aloud. ‘I’ve already lost one home…’
Planetary Union Headquarters.
“You shall be as gods.” The words came across the radio suddenly, and incredibly unexpectedly. They made Senator Teryl Vanhele jump in his chair. He’d been playing a little bit of music to calm his nerves as he went over reports about recent border skirmishes near Zion. Nothing serious, as of yet… but they were unsettling.
After gathering his wits again, he recognized the words that had struck across the radio as the pass code given by Grey Terin whenever he had new information to report. He looked around himself, confused.
“Terin? Are you here?” his words came out in a whisper, but they did not go unheard.
Immediately, the black-cloaked man appeared before him as if from nowhere, though Vanhele knew that he had more than likely had a vanishing spell of some sort turned on. The abilities of teleportation of any sort had always been beyond Grey’s abilities.
“Greetings, Vanhele.” The Wanderer said with a sort of mocking respect. “I have most… disturbing news for you.”
Vanhele cocked an eyebrow, and unconsciously tensed. Whenever Terin was around, the senator was always in fear for his very life. If he but knew the truth… “Speak it, then.”
“I know how you are, Vanhele, so I shall begin with the worst of the news.” The Wanderer pulled a small disc from a fold of his cloak. “This contains schematics concerning slave circuitry used for mind control purposes by the Dominion… slave circuitry used in lavoid spawn.”
Grey could have laughed as the senator nearly fell out of his chair in response to the hint at what was going on, but chose to remain utterly silent. “They have gained, from my calculations, twenty-three lavoid spawn from within your very borders, Teryl.”
Vanhele was flabbergasted. “H-how?!? How were they able to sneak onto Zion,” fool though he may have been, Grey knew, Vanhele had a grasp on the world about him, and could pick up on hints fairly quickly, “and get back out with nearly two dozen spawn!? I was aware that you knew they had landed and left, but you did not inform me that they took so much power with them!”
Grey nodded in acquiescence. “Indeed, I did not, but that is merely because I was unaware, with my initial landing on Zion, that they had taken the Spawn. It was not until later that I discovered that, and summarily went to the Dominion capital planet to confirm it.”
He shrugged, sending a ripple through his silvery hair. “Also on that disc is a recording of a conversation of the Dominion Emperor with his High Council concerning what they were doing with the Spawn. I don’t believe you’ll need to listen to it to know what they are planning, Vanhele.”
The senator lowered his gaze. “War… war upon the Planetary Union, using these lavoid spawn.” He sighed deeply, and pulled off his glasses so that he could put his head in his hands more effectively. “Are… are their slave circuits working?”
Grey nodded, a useless gesture since Vanhele was not looking at him. “Yes… at least for their current growth, the circuits work perfectly. My scans showed absolutely no brain activity.”
Vanhele could have wept, but he would not let himself show further weakness before Terin. Doing so could have proven… dangerous. He instead looked up at the man. “We move on, then. What was your other news? Does it affect whatever new orders I could give you?”
Grey snorted. “I suppose you could say that, Vanhele. It has come to my attention that there is a group being led by a Shanning… I’m sure you remember your own security breach by that family, Vanhele… I told you of it enough times after I calmed down from that unfortunate incident.” He shook his head to clear the memory. “This Shanning is leading a group to hunt down and kill the lavoid Grendel.”
Teryl Vanhele was genuinely shocked. He hadn’t really been aware that the Shannings had had a son, much less that he had been raised on Zion. It had never occurred to him to check records for such a thing. But what he was doing… “I assume that this action is complete suicide on his part, correct?”
Grey shook his head. “No, he actually has a fairly high chance of success. For one thing, he is of Riven, though he may not be aware of that fact… but more importantly, I have knowledge that his group is traveling along with a finori.”
Vanhele’s eyes widened further. “A finori… I have made my decision.” He stood up, causing Grey to put a hand uneasily on his katana. “Grey, track this group down, and bring them all back here. Don’t let them kill this Grendel… it is possible that, with the data files you have here, we could bend the lavoid to our will as well.”
Grey raised an eyebrow. “What would you have me do, Vanhele?” ‘And just why should I do it, doddering old man?’ he added silently through a flash in his eyes.
“Track Shanning and his friends down… let them find this lavoid. Let them fight it. If they lose, no matter. Their finori was of no worth to us. However, if it should appear they are about to win… if Grendel is mortally wounded… prevent them from killing him. Of course,” he paused for a moment, smirking sarcastically, “I assume that you can stop a group capable of killing a Class B lavoid, correct?”
Grey could have killed the man where he stood. “Do not presume to insult me. Of course I am capable of stopping Shanning. His parents didn’t stand a chance against me, if you’ll recall.”
The senator shrugged. “Granted… and one other thing, Terin.” The senator smiled internally. “After you have brought these people back to me, my work with you will be finished. You will finally regain your coveted planeshifter.”
Though the Wanderer didn’t show it, Teryl was certain he was excited as he left the room, vanishing as quickly as he had appeared. ‘If only you knew, Grey…’ he thought as he sat back down. ‘Your planeshifter no longer exists.’ He would have laughed, but he was fully aware what a dangerous game he was playing. When Terin returned with this Shanning… he would have to fully play on the boy’s hatred of Grey, and pray that it would be enough to rid Vanhele of the Wanderer forever.
The group looked down on the blue planet that now almost covered their vision. It was beautiful… and, according to the ship’s sensors, veritably crawling with life.
“Riven…” Darrell whispered, his eyes shining. He was finally coming to his true homeland, to his true origin point. Who knew but that he might even have relatives on this planet! He smiled. And perhaps here, they would not only find a way to Grendel, but aid in their hunt.
A vision of a thousand Hunter ships firing into that cursed lavoid crossed through Darrell’s mind, and he grinned. Finally, to find kindred!
“Hello, Riven?” Cynewulf spoke into an intercom, not really certain who he was contacting. “This ship is carrying a Shanning, repeat, a Shanning disappeared from your planet around 20 years ago. We seek permission to land, over.”
The only reply was the crackling of the ship’s speakers. “This is strange…” The large Seeker said, scratching his head. “From the look of the sensors, that’s the largest city right there. They have to have some sort of equipment capable of picking up our signal… something has to know we’re up here.”
As if on cue, a tiny pinprick of red light became visible far down on the planet below them, like a land bound star. It slowly expanded in size, making its identity quite apparent.
“Laser fire!!” Meryl cried out first. “Turn, Cyne, turn!!”
Cynewulf was only too happy to oblige, kicking the side thrusters of the ship into high gear as the red ‘star’ came nearer and nearer, almost blotting out their view of the planet as it did.
“It’s… huge.” Darrell said, even as he kicked up the shields a notch… not that it looked like it would help. The ball of energy glowed with all the intensity of a tiny sun – tiny being a relative term, Darrell noted to himself as he realized it was probably about half a mile in diameter – as it rushed toward them at an incredible rate of speed.
Terra exclaimed several curses as she looked down at the sensory equipment. “The thing’s tracking to our location!! It’s not possible to dodge it!”
“And it’s not possible to run from it, at the rate it’s going.” Darrell noted grimly.
“Well, we certainly can’t get hit by it, unless you honestly think the shields could handle something like that.” Cynewulf added as he threw another engine into high gear.
They all sat in silence for a moment at that, watching as the ball of energy grew closer and closer despite Cyne’s attempts to maneuver out of the way. Just as Darrell was seriously beginning to consider taking up prayer, the large Seeker grunted – a most unexpected sound from the newly-cybernetic man.
“Just one thing to be done, then… and every computer chip in my system says it’s insane.” He shook his head. “But I’m not a computer, whether or not I’ve done this to myself.” He flipped a few switches on the dash, and sat up very straight in his chair.
“Hold on tight, all of you. I’m bringing her in.”
Darrell’s eyes widened. “What?! But… we don’t have the slightest clue where a landing pad is, and besides which, who’s to say this thing won’t follow us?”
Cynewulf didn’t even look over at the young man as he began the ship’s descent, all the while cruising left as well as down in a desperate attempt to at least get past the now VERY rapidly advancing energy star. “If whatever threw this thing at us can stop it, it will… and if not, at least we won’t go alone.”
“But… these are Hunters, Cyne!” the Rivenite protested mightily.
‘If you think that the Hunters would do this to one of their own, you’re either insane, or there’s something very wrong with them. We’re going down.”
To anyone viewing the scene, it would have been a glorious sight. Meryl’s small trade freighter rushing downward at thousands of mph, surrounded by a coat of flames ignited by the thick atmosphere. Before and to the right of them, a huge ball of red energy rushed as if into battle. The ship turned several barrel rolls as they went even with it, and actually managed to pass it.
The ball of energy continued moving upward for a moment, as though confused as to its target, then slowed and changed direction without so much as a turn, chasing after its prey like a keen-eyed and hungry hawk.
Back in the ship, the surface of Riven was beginning to become recognizable – well, not really recognizable, but at least distinguishable. They were indeed still over a huge city, thankfully enough to the west of it that they would not be forced to land in the center of downtown – given, of course, that they managed to dodge the disturbingly fast energy star that was chasing them down.
“This is very, very strange…” Darrell remarked as best he could. All of the inhabitants of the vessel were strapped in tightly, the pressure of their speed pushing them back against their seats in the rapidly increasing gravity. “It looks like… that city’s been attacked, or something.”
Indeed, it did. While it wasn’t noticeable from far off, it was easy to tell as they grew nearer that several huge skyscrapers had fallen in in the city, and that their remains had been left in the streets and across the other buildings. The entire area, though, according to sensors, packed with life, appeared empty from their current altitude, which was dipping rather low. Not a single hovercar was visible on the roads, of which there were many, and not a single spacecraft flew in the sky.
His thoughts were jarred by a sudden loud beeping emanating from the dashboard. “Crap…” Cynewulf said as he glanced down. “Engines still not at 100-percent after that run from the lavoid spawn. Number three looks like it’s about to burn out completely.”
“And that ball of energy’s already catching up with us at a rate of six yards a second… we’ve got about twenty seconds left if we can maintain at least eighty percent of our current speed.” Meryl said after looking at the panels nearest to her.
“Of course, we’re still at a good 150,000 feet… and we can’t maintain this speed if we want to have even a fractional chance at surviving the crash that we all know is coming.” Cyne clenched his teeth.
“Then go in at an angle.” Darrell suggested, looking desperately over the various monitors that had mapped the surface of Riven. “That ball of energy came at us from this point, off near the center of town, so if we head in that direction…”
Cynewulf nodded, even as he began adjusting the controls. “If whoever shot this thing at us has any control over it, they’ll have to shut it down.” He set his jaw firmly, and nodded. “Here goes nothing, then…”
The ship flew down to under 1000 feet within seconds of his words – they truly were flying at an insane rate of speed, and twisted itself down further still as Cyne struggled to set it on a course parallel with the ground.
As he did, the city stretched out before him. Despite its relatively ruined state, it still stretched high into the sky – stretched far above their current altitude, which now lay just over 300 feet. Bridges, whether intentionally placed or created by fallen skyscrapers, were everywhere, and were beginning to impede the ship’s far-too-fast progress.
And behind them, the energy star continued its mad chase, now obliterating entire buildings with but a touch as it passed through them.
It was getting closer. Not more than ten seconds remained before it caught them, at the rate it was going.
Cynewulf cursed, an unusual sound coming from the normally more-rational cyborg, and tried desperately to speed up the ship even farther. They were already covering at least six miles a minute, and the blur of scenery was almost sickening to the human eyes within the cockpit.
“We’re getting near to the launch point!” Darrell said, pointing off to a point slightly in the west, not even a mile away. “Lower our altitude some, so we can get under that skyscraper, and…” he cut himself off abruptly. There was no time for talk, and what he had intended to say was obvious. And pray that whatever had shot this thing at them could stop it.
As he thought this grim thought, the ship had burst into such speed that any witnesses to the flight would have barely even had time to see a blur of light and sound before it had passed, leaving in its wake the scream of a sonic boom and a trailing comet of laser energy. To the inhuman eye, the incredible precision with which the ship was being flown would have become clear. It rolled to and fro, flipping upside down and losing altitude as necessary to avoid all the hanging debris, left from fallen bridges, buildings, hanging cables of electrical wiring that, though typically harmless, would have cut through the ship effortlessly at the current speed it was going.
Ever-nearing was the huge facility that had fired off the shot at them. It was a building about nine stories tall, shaped like a cannon, and from the look of it, hollow and open-topped. Also, this tower did not mesh at all with the other buildings of the city, and almost appeared to have been built in a space just cleared of rubble. It was a strange steely black color – another thing that made it clash with the city, which was mostly a glistening, reflective place – and crimson and green lights were lit upon it at intervals. All around it lay the fallen forms of other skyscrapers, whether on the ground or just supported a hundred or so feet above it by other rubble.
The ship twisted and and writhed in the sky as Cyne desperately pulled down its altitude to underneath the one hundred foot mark, moving at what had to have been a suicidal rate of speed. There were but a few seconds left now, and one could almost – almost – hear the humming and whirring of the energy star that flared up behind them.
As they cleared one of the low hanging buildings, parts of its underside breaking up just as they passed due to the combination of sonic force and pure energy, something happened. Time seemed to stand still for a moment, as the huge cannon tower’s many lights lit up all at once. The tower, now center of attention, seemed loathe to give up its surely illusory hold on time, and the next few moments seemed to take hours, at least from Darrell’s perspective.
As Cynewulf desperately – and fruitlessly – tried to maneuver the ship around the huge tower before them, the energy star suddenly vanished from their screens; simply dissipated into nothingness as suddenly as it had appeared.
There was no joy associated with this escape, though, for the black wall of the tower was rapidly made closer and closer to them as Cynewulf shut off every engine array; a last-ditch effort to avoid a fatal collision.
One hundred yards from the building, Darrell closed his eyes, awaiting the inevitable, which would surely strike in less than a second.
It never came. After a few more seconds had passed, the young Zionite willed his eyes open, and found that he, along with the ship, were still intact, and in fact on the other side of the black tower.
“What on Earth…” Cynewulf said, his one human eye wide in complete and total shock as he wrestled with the controls anew, suddenly regretting his decision to shut off the engines.
Their problem was no longer an insane rate of speed; rather, it was just the opposite. They had already dipped under 100 mph, and could not even maneuver around the various obstacles of the vast city any more. There was no chance to cut the engines back on again, not with it becoming increasingly obvious that they were going to hit the ground in no more than two seconds.
They all closed their eyes once more, and braced themselves for the impact.
“That comforting light at the end of your tunnel is just a freight train comin’ your way…” – No Leaf Clover, Metallica.
To Chapter 17
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