The Longest Battle – Ch 07 – Revealing Shadows

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    Way looked at the surface of the world below her and saw the light of a million fires blazing across its northern hemisphere.

    “Jess, we’re losing too many of the settlements on the ground.” Way called out over her ship’s communicator.

    “I know. Someone’s interfering with this battle.” Way’s mentor called back.

    “They’re doing a better job at it than we are.” Way said, fighting back against the inhuman levels of acceleration that her craft was enduring.

    “Can you hold the line up here? We can’t let the orbital colonies fall.” Jessica Cayman said.

    “Maybe. I could do better if we could ditch these ships.” Way said.

    They were both flying Tigerhawk Interceptors. The short range fighters were the very best the colony world of Arcturus III had in their fleet. That would have been a vital edge if Arcturus III hadn’t been rather impoverished status by galactic standards. As it was the Tigerhawks were more than a hundred years out of date technologically and it was only Way and Jessica’s superhuman piloting skills that kept the two tiny fighters in the sky.

    Their enemy was a race of sentient, multi-limbed beings that looked like they’d descended from a mutated earthworm stock. Way didn’t have any particular problem with that. She’d met stranger people for tea on a regular basis. What was vexing was the superiority their ships possessed both in capacity and number.

    By all reports, the Iknothoids had been decent neighbors to the Arcturians. There’d been trade between their planets for centuries, though little contact between the two peoples due to the differences in environmental needs (each breathed an atmosphere that was poisonous to the other). That had ended a three months prior when the Iknothoids had declared war on the Arcturians. The declaration had come in the form of an unprovoked assault on the Arcturian’s primary Star Warp base, an attack which destroyed the majority of the Arcturian’s fleet.

    As representative of the Parliament of Time, Way and Jessica wouldn’t normally have been required to intervene in what was purely an internal matter for the Arcturians and Iknothoids universe. They wouldn’t even have been aware of it if they hadn’t traveled to Arcturius III was due to the need to rescue a new dream walker who had awoken there. The dream walker, a young boy name Samin, had been a delight to work with and was currently safely ensconced at the Parliament of Time’s “Admissions Office”. That made him the only Arcturian who could lay claim to any sort of safety whatsoever.

    It could have been pure serendipity that lead to the current attack beginning before Way and her mentor departed from the plane. In some universes that was possible, but Way knew that this universe wasn’t one of them.

    Both of she and Jessica had sensed the presence of a “non-native” force behind the Iknothoids attack the moment it had begun. There hadn’t been time for them to take subtle careful action, so the two women had commandeered the nearest fighter crafts they could find and had made a fast edit to the personas they’d woven for visiting the Arcturius.

    An hour later, high above the surface of the world, Way had to question if that had been the best idea. The Iknothoids were attacking in numbers far out of line with any military developments they’d ever pursued. History was stable on the surface but that was only because the assault was still within the realms of a “hidden, long prepared for strike against a secretly hated enemy”. For every fighter that Way shot down though, ten more joined the fray and that sort of progression wasn’t anywhere near sustainable for long.

    “Someone’s out there waiting for us to break character. I can’t locate them yet though and if we don’t stay with these ships, they’ll know something’s up and get away to do this again.” Jessica said.

    “If we don’t stop the assault soon, there’s not going to be anything left of Acturius or the Iknothoids though.” Way said over their private comm channel.

    “Just have to fly a little harder then, won’t we?” Jessica said. Way could hear the evil grin in her voice despite the kilometers that separated them.

    “Are you suggesting that perhaps these ships have slightly more performance in them than they are rated for?” Way guessed.

    “Sure. Most things are made a bit tougher than they need to be right?” Jessica said. “Keep them busy up here. I’m going to go save the ground folk.”

    Way watched as Jessica engaged her short range warp drive and streaked down to the planet below. Warp drives take minutes to come up with their jump calculations. They also create a fantastic amount of aetherial turbulence when they engaged. That’s why it’s illegal to use one within a million kilometers of a planetary surface. Jumping out of an enemy fleet that’s in orbit and into another fleet that’s performing close contact bombing runs adds “suicidal” to the list of reasons why it’s a bad idea.

    That’s a serious problem, unless of course you can take the laws of probability and wrap them around your little finger at will.

    The aftermath of Jessica’s departure tore hundreds of Iknothoid ships apart and cleared a small section of the skies for Way. The Iknothoid main battle cruiser began concentrating fire on the sector Way was in to make up for that, but it was too late by the time they started sighting in on her.

    Inspired by Jessica’s performance, Way began a series of manually targeted short range warps that tore holes in the Iknothoids assault waves. She dialed her communicators over to their transmission frequencies, blatantly breaking their encryption with a gross use of dream magic.  That should have given away her position but in the chaos of the battle and with the waves of dream magic that were spawning more and more Iknothoid fighters any disturbance she was causing was lost in the general noise and tumult of the unquiet skies.

    “All forces, the Arcturians are employing a new weaponized warp drive system. Prime for self destruct with a proximity trigger on any ship not transmitting Iknothoid fleet recognition codes.” the Iknothoid commander broadcast.

    For all that she was defending Arcturius III like an incarnate goddess of death, Way didn’t wish to genocide the Iknothoid forces. To that end she turned her ship towards the Iknothoid’s main battle cruiser where the central command sat.

    “You’re hiding there aren’t you?” she whispered to herself. It wasn’t the place one would look to find the subtle, schemer type of trans-real monster. The center of the fleet was too obvious and high profile. The endless wave of psychotic attackers suggested the monster in question couldn’t have found “subtle” with a stack of dictionaries and a crack team of librarians to guide them.

    The run on the battlecruiser was purely suicidal. Even with reflexes boosted far beyond the limits of what reality would allow, the Tigerhawk simply couldn’t withstand or evade the firepower that was concentrated on it. Which was fine with Way. At the last moment before the ship’s shielding failed cataclysmically, engaged the warp drive for a final jump.

    The drive didn’t make it. The ship was obliterated before it could enter warp space. All that the engines managed to do was to generate a tiny bubble of hyperspace which the exploding fuselage cast forward.

    The hyperspace bubble, which just happened to be big enough to hold the ship’s pilot, arced through the higher dimensions and returned to real space to deposit the bubble’s occupant on the bridge of the battle cruiser, directly in front of the fleet’s commander.

    Neither the Arcturians, not the Iknothoids had words to describe the astronomically ludicrous odds against such a thing occurring. Reality itself shuddered and quaked with Way’s arrival. It held firm and didn’t splay apart into fragments for one reason only; she told it not to.

    “Take notes apprentice. That is how you make an entrance.” a human man in white said.

    He was lounging on a chair shaped like a tipped cup and looked perfectly comfortable and at ease. The Iknothoids were similarly immobile but in their case it was due to a stunned inability to process what had just occurred.

    “You’re going to cease this attack and come with me.” Way said, glaring at the man in white.

    “Oh, it’s not my attack. You’ll want my apprentice over there.” the man in white said.

    “Your apprentice?” Way asked, surveying the room. For as much as the man looked human, she knew he was something far closer to what she was given that no human could survive breathing the air on the Iknothoid bridge for more than a few seconds.

    “I know, I have to confess they do look rather all the same to me too.” the man in white said. “It’s that one though. Igshlishka-something-or-other I think his name was.”

    The Iknothoid that the man in white indicated reacted by flexing his tendrils in a manner that Way’s meta-awareness translated as shock, then anger, then determination. He began to merge the real world and the dreamlit world to conjure forth all sorts of shadowy horrors.

    “Stop that.” Way scolded the wormling.

    Her words hit the fledgling dreamweaver like set of steel manacles and the boundaries between the real and the imaginary held firm. Except where they applied to Way.

     “You cannot stand against me! I am the master of this reality!” the Iknothoid dream weaver said.

    “Seriously, you don’t want to fight me on this.” Way said.

    “I will annihilate your whole abominable breed.” the Iknothoid said.

    “Did you do this to him?” Way asked the man in white.

    “Which do you mean? Wake him up or release his inner lunatic?” the man in white asked.

    “Either.” Way said, her tone far from playful.

    “That would be a partial ‘yes’ on the first then and a mostly honest ‘no’ on the second.” the man in white said.

    “Would you care to explain your masterstroke in that case?” Way asked. Her experience with smug, know-it-all types like the man in white was they they considered themselves far more clever than they truly were and tended to have grandiose notions of the importance of whatever it was they did.

    “Oh, it’s nothing like a masterstroke.” the man in white drawled as he stretched and sank back into the chair.

    “The Transgressor has elevated me above this plane. He sensed that the humans were violating the laws of this reality and gave me the power to stop them before they eradicated us.” the Iknothoid said.

    “The Transgressor?” Way asked.

    “That would be me, or rather a poor translation of my title.” the man in white said.

    “So you woke him up because a human was awakening?” Way said.

    “It seemed fair. Also, he was so close on his own. Poor little guy spent so much time imagining how to destroy all the humans in the universe after they killed his family.” the man in white said.

    “The Arcturian’s killed your family?” Way asked the Iknothoid.

    “Transport accident. A faulty hyperdrive. Took out a whole ship full of people, Iknothoid and human alike, but he doesn’t care about any of the rest of them.” the main in white said. “Doesn’t actually care about his family either. There was a cute little ball of tentacles that he’d been cuddling with though. That’s the real grit that’s stuck in his craw.”

    “You let him throw this kind of power around without pointing out to him that he could just as easily have brought them all back?” Way asked.

    “Bit late for that don’t you think? He’d lose his  wonderfully violent mania if he tried to actually fix his problems.” the man in white said.

    “There is no return from the deepest pit.” the Iknothoid said, a zealous flame enveloping him..

    “How can you be a dream weaver and be so lacking in imagination?” Way asked.

    “I do not need imagination.” the Iknothoid said.

    “Allow me to demonstrate how wrong you are.” Way said, and with that the ship melted into shadows.

***

    “So what happened to the man in white?” Jessica asked after Way returned.

    “I’m not sure. I wasn’t able to pull him with us when I took Iglish, the Iknothoid, fully into the Dreamlit World.” Way said.

    They were sitting on a terrace overlooking a sparkling ocean. Below in the sitting the sounds of a massive rebuilding effort was underway. It turned out that the Iknothoid attack had held a silver lining. It had exposed deposits of hitherto unsuspected rare metals that lined the planets crust. Arcturius’ days of poverty had come to an end. As far as reality was concerned it was a windfall that had been waiting there all along and had nothing whatsoever to do with a pair of dreamlords deciding to help a beleaguered world recover in some small manner.

    “So what did you do with this Iglish once you’d showed him the errors he’d made?” Jessica asked.

    “He’s at a holding world within the Parliament. He’d going to need a while to be resocialized I think.” Way said.

    “What kind of a world did you craft for him?” Jessica asked.

    “One where he was born a human. I don’t know if that will necessarily help him understand them better or hate them less but Professor Haffrun said she’d check in on him and adjust the parameters to help get him rehabilitated.” Way said.

    “I’m sure she’ll handle him fine.” Jessica agreed. “I just wonder when we’re going to see the next of this man in white guy. I’ve known a lot of guys of his type and I’ve got to say I’ve hated every last one of them.”

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