Azma watched as the first of her transport ships was destroyed. Her bottom line bled drops of red ink as the vessel and the crew aboard it were torn apart on a subatomic level. Behind it, a procession of its comrades floated onwards towards a similar doom. Azma had been depending on several of those ships to serve a role in her vanguard for the next wave of assaults. Instead they were cruising, mindlessly, towards a patch of ground on the satellite moon which Azma couldn’t even request a scan of.
“This is fascinating,” she said, reviewing the telemetry being transmitted by the lead transport ship as it was ripped apart, atom by atom.
“There is still crew in the aft sections,” Ryschild said. “Twenty four out of the ship’s compliment of one hundred and twelve.”
“And communication within the ship?” Azma asked.
“Stations are going quiet as the ship is destroyed but the rest are reporting normal operations,” Grenslaw said. “I don’t understand though, even when there’s a missing response to some of the call outs, the crew is proceeding as though they received the correct response.”
“Even the [Artifax]?” Azma asked.
“The ship’s compliment of [Artifax] have gone completely silent,” Grenslaw said. “None of the telemetry includes them.”
“And there wasn’t a response to either the [Priority Zero] command override or the [Intellectual Property Retention] enchantments,” Azma said.
“That’s not supposed to be possible, is it?” Ryschild asked.
“As far as the Consortium has been able to determine, no, it’s not,” Azma said. “Before the [Artifax] were cleared for inclusion in the Consortium’s forces, the developers had to prove that subborning them was impossible. No one wanted to put an army of death dolls, murder bots, and slaughter gems on the field and have the army flipped against them. At least not again. Shockingly no one listened to the complaints about the original, easily compromised models.”
“What is happening to the crew then?” Grenslaw asked.
“I don’t know,” Azma said. “And that’s wonderful.”
Her eyes sparkled with interest as more data arrived. The radiation output from the ship’s destruction was amazing. Or even better, it was unique. Unique was always valuable, even when it was also terrible.
“Will the loss of the ship and crew setback our overall efforts?” Ryschild asked.
“If it doesn’t, then properly investigating this phenomena probably will,” Azma said. She knew fact that wouldn’t be met with approval by her higher ups. Neither would the loss of the ships. Sometimes though a prize presented itself which required going farther into the red than anyone else was comfortable with.
“Should we order a lock down on this data to prevent it from getting out to the rest of the fleet?” Grenslaw asked.
“It will have an impact on morale, but I think we need to have the full dataset made available to everyone,” Azma said. “Include and make a special reference to the crew’s vitals and response patterns as well as my analysis. The rest of the fleet needs to be know why I’m ordering the satellite moon under [Interdiction] and why we’re not making any effort to save the first three transports.”
“The crews are already dead?” Ryschild asked, skimming the summary of Azma’s analysis.
“In this context ‘inviable’ isn’t a euphemism,” Azma said. “The crew didn’t die, at least in the sense that their bodies’ biological functioning never ceased. We have their personal telemetry readings to confirm that. After the ship systems recovered from their scans though, the people inside those bodies were gone. Something in that field reached out through the scan and consumed them.”
“Oh! I see!” Grenslaw said. “You ran a scan for of them for psychic interference and found nothing.”
“I’m not sure I follow…oh wait, I see,” Ryschild said. “It wasn’t that the scans came back with no interference, they came back with literally nothing. No influenced minds, no uninfluenced minds. Nothing at all.”
“How is the crew carrying out their duties then? How are they communicating with us at?” Grenslaw asked.
“They’re not,” Azma said. “It is. If the field they scanned contained some kind of non-sentient memetic virus, it would have blanked them and left them essentially comatose. When you look at their actions though, they all point towards one thing.”
Grenslaw gave a sharp intake of breath. A moment later Ryschild whispered an unprofessional curse.
“It’s trying to lure us in. It wants us to rescue them. To investigate it,” Grenslaw said.
“I’m giving it three ships,” Azma said. “It’s a gamble that it can’t eat them without giving away some of its secrets, and that those secrets will be to its detriment rather than ours if we discover them.”
“Should we be looking at the results directly then?” Ryschild asked.
“That thing ate five of my crews,” Azma said. “It might have infected more beyond that. I am not feeding it any of tactical analysts, and I’m not feeding it you either. The raw data is restricted to my terminal. If it wants to try to devour an intellect, it’s more the welcome to choke on mine.”
“If it gets you though, won’t it get the entire fleet?” Grenslaw asked.
“Of course,” Azma said. “I wouldn’t be very good bait if there wasn’t more of a prize on the line than one reasonably clever mind.”
“You’re setting yourself up as bait?” Ryschild asked.
“It was that or order you to do it,” Azma said. “Our ground forces are not equipped to deal with [Neverling Class] threats. They need to be able to stay focused on the battles with the mortal defenders.”
“Was this enemy part of the world’s defenses?” Grenslaw asked.
“That’s the most probable answer,” Azma said. “It’s a terrible coincidence otherwise that the moment we began to attack in ernest, a creature from beyond this reality emerges and begins devouring our fleet. Under normal circumstances I would say it’s exactly the sort of apocalyptic last line of defense that ancient and desperate civilizations are likely to deploy against us.”
“You don’t make that suggestion in your report though?” Ryschild asked.
“There’s an anomaly in the data that’s bothering me,” Azma said. “Look at this timestamp.”
“The telemetry from the crews flatlined for a second and a half,” Ryschild said. “And when it came back all of the patterns were different. They’re heart rate, respiration, everything was elevated.”
“Like they’d been in fight,” Azma said. “And their actions became hesitant and twitchy. Like they’d been wounded.”
“But none of them showed signs of injury,” Grenslaw said. “No drop in blood pressure, no agony-overrides kicking in.”
“There was a significant uptick in adrenaline though,” Ryschild said.
“An instantaneous, crew-wide panic despite the fact that they were still reporting no anomalous results from their scans and no threat detection at all,” Azma said.
“They weren’t the ones that were hurt,” Ryschild said, nodding in understanding of the point Azma was leading them towards.
“Something hurt the thing that was controlling them?” Grenslaw asked.
“Is that possible?” Ryschild asked. “I thought [Neverling Class] threats required specific [Arcanotech] devices and a lot of calibration to effect? And even then it’s more a matter of sealing them away than inflicting any injury. Isn’t it?”
“Exactly,” Azma said. “[Neverlings] don’t have enough of a material or spiritual form for us to kill them under most circumstances. They’re closer to being concepts than anything else. The [Arcanotech] devices we use against them are essentially physical instantiations of Counter-Concepts, each one purpose built and focused on nullifying the [Neverling] its deployed against.”
“Have you fought one of these things before?” Grenslaw asked.
“Twice. The first time the device didn’t work. The second time we setup three devices at once and managed to suppress the [Neverling] for a months,” Azma said. “Fortunately, a month was plenty of time for [Tech Services] to research a more permanent solution. And it only cost them four or five researchers I think.”
“What happened with the first device? The one that didn’t work?” Grenslaw asked.
“We lost that world,” Azma said. “Pyrrhic victory for the natives of course, so they were dissolved before we left. Personally it worked out well though. My former [Commander] was in charge of the device and the operation, so my promotion to [Commander] was one of the easier ones that year.”
“Should we take that as a lesson [Supreme Commander]?” Ryschild asked with a faint smile.
“Definitely,” Azma said.
“So noted,” Grenslaw said. “When searching for a promotion, transfer to a ship under a foolish [Commander], and exercise…it look like three months worth of patience?”
“To be fair, it was quite a long three months,” Azma said.
“The second ship should be making landfall now,” Ryschild said as his station pinged an alert.
Azma’s station had provided a similar alert. As she watched though, the data began telling a another unexpected story.
“The ship isn’t showing signs of being destroyed?” Ryschild said.
“Communication from it is continuing as it had been,” Grenslaw said. “If we went by only the ship’s communication channels we’d think it was still in orbit.”
“It’s not though, is it?” Ryschild asked. “This isn’t all the fault of our sensors?”
“A reasonable question,” Azma said. “When dealing with a [Neverling] questioning what’s real is dangerous but necessary. In this case we’re getting corroborating reports from the picket ships we set up to isolate the infected ones. Those could be spoofed too, but the likelihood decreases with each one we receive which reports unique details from their own vantage point.”
“Is it keeping the second ship to lure us in?” Grenslaw asked.
“Possibly,” Azma said, her eyes narrowing as she read the data streaming across the projection in front of her. “But it’s powering down the ship. That is an odd action to take. Watch the bio-telemetery on the crew.”
“It was normal until few second ago,” Ryschild said. “Now we’re losing that too.”
“Check the values before the signal is lost,” Azma said.
“The readings are showing brief spikes across the board,” Grenslaw said. “These aren’t living vital signs though. The data has to be corrupted. If someone had a blood pressure this high their organs would all rupture.”
“The ship is rising from the surface,” Ryschild said.
“But not under its own power?” Azma wasn’t sure what the data she was seeing meant, only that it didn’t line up with any of the other [Neverling] encounters the Consortium had records on.
“No engine signs, no spatial propulsion detected,” Ryschild said.
“What are you doing?” Azma asked. “Are you trying to come to us?”
“It doesn’t appear so,” Grenslaw said. “The ship’s flight is not directed. It’s doing no manuevering and its path corresponds to the gravitic warps between the satellite moon and the planet’s surface.”
“It’s fleeing?” Azma asked.
“Slowly if so,” Grenslaw said. “Without the engines or the portal machines, it will take days before it’s current orbit decays enough to make planetfall.”
“Dispatch a drone to monitor the ship and report projections of its touchdown point,” Azma said. “If it’s numbers change at all, I want to know about it, and I want the drone immediately destroyed.”
“What happens if the [Neverling] makes planetfall?” Grenslaw asked.
“If a [Neverling] is unleashed on a planet, the world and all personnel stationed on it become a complete write-off,” Azma said. “We’ll be required to retreat with whatever forces can be guaranteed to have made no contact with either the [Neverling], or any forces suborned by it.”
“Should we stop the ship then?” Ryschild asked.
“I don’t think it has the [Neverling] on it,” Azma said, the majority of her attention focused on her display.
All of the readings were changing.
The ship was empty. At least of life. It had been cast off.
No. Released. The projections showed it entering a shallow orbit after a slow descent. It wasn’t the sort of path a projectile would enter accidentally. It was as though the ship had been hurled away from the moon but with the utmost care to not damage any more of it than had already been destroyed.
“Something scared it,” Azma said. “No. Not something. Someone.”