The room Tessa rolled Lost Alice and herself into wasn’t as grandiose as the hidden dimensional pocket where Kralt had been hiding but it was similar in the sense that it was another library. Or it had been intended to be. After rolling through the door, Tessa found herself clinging to Lost Alice as they both skidded into a solid shelving unit which was empty of the books it was designed to hold.
“Who are they?” Lisa asked, moving with preternatural speed to examine Tessa’s body for damage.
Tessa winced as Lisa found the hole that had been burnt through her calf muscle. Shock and surprise had kept her from registering the fact that the shots fired at them had been accurate enough to do damage and adrenaline was blunting the worst of the pain from really being processed.
Before that condition could change, Lost Alice slapped a healing spell on her and the wound faded to nothingness.
“That could not have been a solid hit,” Pillowcase said, speaking to Tessa as Tessa’s mind struggled to grasp what was happening.
“Yeah, our leg is still attached, and my version of it isn’t covered rune-enhanced like yours is,” Tessa said. “Or is it?”
“I don’t think so,” Pillowcase said. “A proper set of defensive runes would have spread the damage out to reduce it even if it failed. That shot only hit a small area but it went right through.”
From outside the room, the whir of more shots from the freaky space rifles resounded. Underneath it lay an even more disturbing sound though.
“Were those Consortium soldiers?” Lisa asked.
“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “Or at least not anymore. Do you hear that laughing?”
“Yeah, and the crackle of static,” Lisa said. “But how could the Hunger look like a space trooper with a gun? Why would it even use guns in the first place?”
“Don’t know. If I had to guess though?” Tessa said. “What if it ate some of the Consortium forces but didn’t, like, digest them?”
“Ewww, but, ok, sure, why wouldn’t that be something it could do. Nightmares always get worse right?” Lisa said. “How would it know how to use a gun though?”
The firing continued from the corridor, though it wasn’t getting closer. If anything it seemed like the soldiers had been driven wild and were aiming in random directions.
“Again, guessing here, but it might be a good news/bad news sort of thing,” Tessa said. “The bad news is, if those really are puppets of some kind, then the Hunger can access their memories and skills.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty bad,” Lisa said. “What happens if it eats a spellcaster. Or a tank?”
“Worst case? It gets all our abilities,” Tessa said. “Slightly better case is that it only gets the ability to make each puppets use its own abilities. And a slightly better option would be it might mean that the people the Hunger eats still exist enough that the process could be reversed.”
“And the good news in all this would be?”
“If it’s gaining our abilities, it could be gaining our weaknesses too,” Tessa said. “That thing wasn’t even vaguely physical the first time we ran into it. Now it’s walking around in mind-jacked bodies? Maybe the more it absorbs from the this world, the more a part of it the Hunger becomes.”
“Huh, let me check something,” Lisa said, as Lost Alice rose and did a lightning fast peek out of the doorway. “Yep. Those things have health bars.”
“And if it’s got a health bar, we can kill it,” Tessa said chanting the age old mantra players had sung since health bars were a thing.
She wanted to cheer the news with gusto but the words warbled in her throat.
She could hear the static too. It was supposed to be bursts of random hissing and her ears told her that’s all it was. Just a weird sound the possessed creatures were making? If possessed was the right term? She couldn’t think about that too deeply though. Couldn’t think about them. Not without her heart recoiling.
Her heart that heard the malice lurking in the static. It wasn’t random crackles and sizzles, a trembling voice inside her said. It was one long, continuous scream of hate.
A scream that built to a crescendo along with the riotous outpouring of fire from the [Consortium Beam Rifles].
It wanted her dead. It wanted her erased. It wanted her consumed. That was all it wanted in the whole of its existence.
Tessa had encountered hate before. It tore at her. Even a brush with it left wounds bleeding inside her. Shaking uncertainties and fears that gobbled up her comfort and shredded what strength she could scrape together.
Throwing a glance around the room she looked for other exits. Somewhere to run to.
“We’re boxed in here,” Pillowcase said, aware of what Tessa’s senses had reported which had escaped Tessa’s conscious notice. “Good news though; the beam rifles don’t seem to be able to punch through the walls here and the door’s made of the same stuff. So it’ll make a good shield.”
“There’s nothing to secure it with though,” Tessa said observing the hinge which let the door swing in both directions. “They’ll be able to pull it open and shoot us.”
“Yeah. If we let them,” Pillowcase said.
“How are we supposed to stop them?” Tessa said. “I saw at least five soldiers out there. I don’t think Lost Alice can handle five on one odds unless they’re a really fragile breed of trooper.”
From Pillowcase’s memories, Tessa was sure that a squad of five who’d be sent anywhere near the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] wouldn’t have been drawn from the underperforming end of the Consortium’s talent pool.
“Not alone she can’t,” Pillowcase said.
“I don’t think I can fight those things,” Tessa said. “I’m not a fighter. I freaking out just thinking about it.”
“I know,” Pillowcase said. “This kind of thing isn’t your job. You weren’t build and trained for violence and that’s a fantastic thing. We need you to be who you are, not a Warrior Princess who’s always looking to bust heads open.”
“Yeah, but right now a Warrior Princess is what we need,” Tessa said.
“And that’s why we’ve got me,” Pillowcase said as her smile spread across Tessa’s lips.
The odds against them were poor. Azma had accounted for that. Was in fact banking on it, in a fairly literal sense given that when all was said and done, the project still needed to show a positive return on the Consortium’s investments. Crises were expected, operational catastrophes were known to occur, things far beyond the control of anyone could and often did destroy even the best laid plans. Those were all interesting subjects for the “Personal anecdotes” section of the final report, but ultimately irrelevant to the Consortium’s Review Board for whom everything boiled down to the bottom line.
Azma could pull off a miracle, salvage everything, rescue all of the troops, overthrow the planet, regain control of the task force from Xenobiology, and even deliver the [Formless Hunger] for dissection and if the net result was a loss registered against the Consortium’s quarterly earnings then all her support would vanish in the wind, as would her position, and, very likely, her life, though not in that order.
“These readings are proving difficult to parse,” Grenslaw said. “The personal shielding enhancements are obfuscating about eighty percent of the data we’re receiving and it’s not a rich data stream to begin with.”
“Be thankful for that,” Azma said. “If it wasn’t an indirect stream, there’d be too much there for the shields to handle. Under no circumstances, even direct orders, are you to risk corruption by the entity. Is that understood?”
“Yes. What is the window on gathering the telemetry we need?” Grenslaw asked.
“For maximum value, we’ll need a complete analysis of the [Formless Hunger’s] current state within three minutes,” Azma said. “From there to roughly twenty minutes we can still leverage the information. Beyond that we’ll need a different approach.”
“I’ll have something for you in two minutes then,” Grenslaw said.
“What is it we’re trying to do here?” Sergeant Fiori asked.
“Communication with the rest of our forces on the satellite moon is currently restricted due to the creature’s interference,” Azma said. “That means I can’t recall them or give them a specific direction to move in for extraction.”
“I thought once the troops were compromised extraction was forbidden?” Fiori said. “Too much chance that thing would leap to the rest of the fleet.”
“Extraction of compromised personnel is, unfortunately, off the table for now,” Azma said. “For the rest of our forces though, we can get them off this moonlet. They will be quarantined from the rest of the fleet until the Hunger is brought under control, but each one of them still retains a positive value profile so the Consortium will not liquidate them unless no other options are present.”
“How do we get the ones who aren’t brain fried to go somewhere for pickup though? Won’t the Hunger just assume we’re assembling a buffet for it if they gather together?” Fiori asked.
“That’s exactly what will happen if we can’t draw its attention elsewhere,” Azma said.
“Scan complete,” Grenslaw said. “We have 80 seconds remaining in the three minute deadline.”
Azma was tempted to wait for seventy nine seconds, just savoring the bliss of a delegated job being performed beyond expectations. As with many temptations though, she knew that one could inevitably come with a heavy cost. Time was a wonderful gift, but even so great a deposit as a minute and twenty second would be consumed when things inevitably began to fall apart.
Best to spend it wisely.
“Excellent. It appears that containment units 3 and 7 are both within striking range of the Hunger’s most stabilized areas. And there’s a crew still at 7?” Azma felt her breath catch. The universe was almost being too generous. Two inert but still intact containment units and one nominally active crew?
Another commander would have seen those as anchors sinking their bottomline even further. Neither unit was capable of containing the Hunger, and of the twelve person crew, only three remained, one of whom was gravely wounded.
To Azma it was perfect.
The crew wasn’t lost. They were witnesses. All she needed to do was give them time to escape the area. Two minutes would be sufficient in most cases but Azma keyed in her instructions to containment unit 7 for five minutes instead. The two uninjured technicians would be carrying their wounded comrade out of the impending blast area. That would slow them down and restrict the number of viable refuges they could pile into.
And they would need a good refuge.
What Azma was doing was well outside the allowed rules of engagement for Transdimensional Entities. As the number 7 containment unit powered up again though, she let the rush of ignoring foolish protocols wash over her.
Not that a rule against feeding nascent reality destroying monsters was necessarily a bad idea. By most reasonable lights, the last thing anyone should want to do with a monster like the [Formless Hunger] was encourage its growth and maturation.
Asthma fought the urge to cackle. It would have been appropriate as she committed the number 3 containment unit to power up after number 7’s destruction.
She wasn’t just risking that the [Formless Hunger] would gain more power, she was guaranteeing it.
But she was also guaranteeing that, for a little while at least, it would dance to her tune.
Ultimately, for all the terrible power the Hunger possessed, it was a simple creature. It’s desires were circumscribed by the core of its nature.
It was ravenous. Give it food and it would eat. Dangle a morsel before it and it would move towards it. Present it with a feast behind an impenetrable barrier and it would bend its every resource to breaking that barrier, and, being what it was, the barrier would shatter.
Azma knew she could control the beast, she knew she could get her troops out of danger, she even knew she could eventually ensnare the Hunger and bring it back to the Consortium on her terms.
After all there was nothing more such a mindless creature could want than to feast, and working with the Consortium she was all too familiar with those whose hunger was unending.