Cataclysm

By Chris Cooper

Prologue

“W-w… where are you- u?…”

The cold sterile white of the Human vessel shimmered brilliantly in the luminous dusk-like Violet of the nearby Purple Dwarf. Slowly, aimlessly, the ancient husk of the metal ghost drifts without direction, without purpose, its fragile cargo also without purpose, drifts with it, in serious danger of being crushed to atoms in the gravity well of the crumbling star.

“W-w… where are you- u?…”

A thousand alien voices ring out across the stars, resonating off the cold metallic walls of the Human freighter and echoing back out into space like a sonar pulse.

“Is that you- u- ewe? Are, are you the one I have been searching for- 4 fore? Will you be the one to bring balance? Will you be the catalyst to my magnificence? Are you- u to be the deciding factor?”

Suddenly the deafening roar of a gargantuan alien vessel fills the space between the stars and the Human vessel basks in the shadow of the beast.

“I, i- eye have searched for so long, near and far. You have travelled a great distance, across the vastness of space, to see me realise my destiny. You are the one I have been searching for. You are the one who will bring balance. Ewe, u- you are the one.”

1

Soldier unsteadily stepped from his cryo-pod and gawked at the cold metallic green interior of the enormous alien cargo hold. It would have been pitch black inside if not for the rays of unfiltered sunlight shining in through the gaping hole in the side of the hull.
How he wasn’t being sucked out into space remained a mystery, even more so why the stars unfiltered rays weren’t cooking him alive, but he decided not to curse the present situation by actually making any attempt at investigation and instead turned to the cryo-pod’s storage locker.
In but a few moments he was dressed in his combat fatigues, but it was clear that someone had been at his stash before him as his sidearm holster remained empty, his backpack gone and with it all of his rations… the pain of hunger was beginning to set in.

He had no idea who he was or how he got to being where he was, but he recognised the cryo-pod, and knew of the effects prolonged cryo-sleep could have on a man, so wasn’t all that fussed about it even if it was kind of intimidating. Instead he cautiously set about his quest for food, and made a beeline for the hangar exit, set in the far end of the bay.
As he stepped ever closer to the hangar exit he cast his eye over the other cryo-pods, stacked vertically at vague, irregular positions across the otherwise empty expanse of the cargo hold. Walking between the seven feet long silvery-white coffins gave soldier the unsettling feeling of being lost in some kind of twisted metallic jungle, at any moment he could be attacked by a wild animal… or an alien… or both…

He stopped for a moment, to wipe the frost off one of the containers, wondering if the face within would go some of the ways to jogging his wounded memory. She was a female, of about twenty-five years. Her hair colour could not be determined for it had been encrusted with ice crystals, which led Soldier to the conclusion that there had been a malfunction in the cryo-pod.
Cryo-pods worked on vacuum technology, meaning the air around the body stayed at a chilling minus two hundred and seventy three degrees Celsius and any impurities, for example water, would not be able to get at the body to damage it. If this poor girl was ever to wake up she may just find her epidermis had been freeze dried, seared from the bone. It was doubtful she ever would wake up though. Undoubtedly, the water would have gained access to her vital organs, which were now pickled under the strain of immense cold.

He stepped back for a moment, wondering if he was in fact all alone, if the other cryo-pods had malfunctioned in much the same way as the pickled female. It made no difference however, as for now he was alone and hungry, and hungry was the deciding factor.
He checked the poor girls storage locker for a firearm, but again his search proved fruitless. Obviously someone wanted them all to remain unarmed, either that or someone desperately needed guns, in either case he wasn’t about to find the answer to his problems here, so he once again set about his search and continued towards the end of the cargo bay.

As he approached the peculiar looking iris doorway it opened without prompt. The sound it made as it wound its way into the parting wall curiously enough reminded Soldier of a sort of hungry metal stomach grumbling… unnerving to be sure, especially when you think of his own hunger quandary.

Once the green metal oesophagus had fully retracted, Soldier stepped into the unlit hallway and as he did, the area was silently bathed in an almost organic yellowish hue, which bizarrely seemed to be emitted from the metallic-green walls.
He took a moment to scope the new area, looking up and down the never ending green corridor. He could get a better idea of the overall architectural style from here, but he could only really describe it as “rough organic”, like the pelt of an Iguana – smooth and purposeful, yet jagged and vague with supporting archways that jutted into the middle of the corridor with worryingly sharp-looking toothy spines, and all over was that lime-green metallic sheer which refracted the light at impossible angles, causing flare and sparkle in whichever direction he looked.

Out of nowhere, Soldier felt an ominous pressure around his ankle and he jumped a mile in the air screaming like a schoolgirl at a rock concert. Looking down he spied a cute little… thing… a sort of hovering green, smooth metal box of about four inches in length with two foot-long antennae poking out of the front. Atop each antenna, two little round orbs, no bigger than a grape seed, darting this way and that like two tiny crabs eyes.
Soldier stared at the hovering crab in absolute amazement… and the hover crab stared right back, before emitting a surprisingly loud, low pitched “BLEAH!” and scooting off down the corridor at a colossal speed, bumping into one of the supporting arches as it glanced back at soldier.

Soldier rubbed his weary eyes in disbelief. Never in all his days had he seen a construct such as that, mind you, he wasn’t sure he would have remembered even if he had. In the end his curiosity got the better of him and he decided to follow the odd little construct as it unsteadily floated this way and that, down the corridor and into the distance.
Eventually the odd coupling of Soldier and Crab had made quite a bit of progress along the maze of corridors, through doorways, hangars and cargo bays, deeper into the bowls of the alien beast.
From what Soldier could tell there was no real “rhyme or reason” in the ship’s constructon. Rooms and hangars blended and merged, in and out of corridors and aisles, and further more no room or alcove seemed to have any real purpose other than just being there. There were no consoles, no computer terminals, no chairs and tables, no beds, no pipes, no air vents, no clutter. It was as if the ship was just built for the sake of being built, with no clear plan in mind, like a work of modern art or something.

However, as they progressed deeper and deeper, Soldier could slowly see a pattern forming, a kind of bizarre method to the minimalist madness. Looking a little closer at the green metal walls revealed what looked like tiny veins, or arteries. Every so often these veins would light up, then fade away and the entire ship pulsed in a subtle and almost hazy yellow hue. The metal monster was even beginning to sound “organic” as the light pulse brought with it an electronic buzz, a sound unlike any other, yet at the same time intimately familiar, and coupled with a certain regularity the rhythmic murmur became strangely comforting and hypnotic, like listening to a loved ones heart beat.
Soldier began to form all sorts of theories, the more prominent being that this was not a ship, as such, more some kind of great biomechanical creature, created by an as of yet unknown peoples, probably just to see if they could.

Surprisingly, in his presumptions, Soldier had in fact come very near to the truth, and it was soon to be confirmed as he followed the Hover Crab into an enormous cathedral like area, with spine-covered archways supporting a vast ceiling that spanned way off into the distance, further than could possibly be seen with the naked eye.

Far away, through the sickly yellow dimness Soldier could spy a hazy bluish fog, listlessly floating too and fro, which contrasted quite starkly with the surrounding yellows and greens.

The Hover Crab suddenly stopped dead in its tracks and then trained it’s odd circular eyeballs on Soldier. Soldier was beginning to feel somewhat awkward and for a moment he wondered if he should say something just to break the uncomfortable silence.
“BLEAH!” exclaimed the Hover Crab, before steaming off towards the hazy blue like a ferret up a drainpipe.

“Hey, wait a minute!” said Soldier, and without giving it a second thought, he followed.
In the centre of the cathedral, atop some kind of plinth, lay a spherical object, no bigger than a man’s fist, the surface of which was riddled with more of those light giving arteries, but contrary to the yellowish hue of the bare green metallic walls, the box gave off a sharp ultra violet beam. Every so often the sphere, like the ship around it, would pulse ominously in a cold, yet perversely inviting shade of purple blue.
Hover Crab came to a screaming halt mere inches from the pedestal. Soldier, who was but a few feet behind, was half expecting the strange little creature to go thundering into it, and so braced himself for an impact that never came by stopping dead and tightly closing his eyes.

When he finally plucked up the courage to open them, however, the Hover Crab was gone, and Soldier found himself standing all alone in the centre of the cathedral, bathed in ultra violet rays of light.
Peculiarly, Soldier didn’t feel alone, even though he was, as there was a gloomy presence in the room, particularly around the sphere. It was almost ethereal in its being, as it was there but at the same time not and then, as though out of thin air, a voice, carrying across non-existent winds.

“W- w- what are y- you?….”

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2

There was an icy stillness in the air, but it wasn’t cold deep within the heart of the biomechanical monster, quite the opposite as a matter of fact. The atmosphere around the podium was extremely hot, nay stifling although, contrary to the extreme heat, Soldier couldn’t help but shudder.

“W- what a- are you- u?…”
Again that sound, like a twisted cacophony of alien voices resonating in Soldier’s already clouded mind.

Soldier looked all over for the source of the disturbance, but each time his search brought him back to the glowing blue orb.

“1,426,000 years; 28,000,000 star systems; 46,126,512,432 distinct alien species, yet I have never encountered your kind before. You, -u ewe are an anomaly, an abnormality, you, -u are… unique. I, eye, I- am also u- unique. Are you God?”

“Uh, no… at least, I don’t think so…”
Soldier was certainly taken aback by the question. For a moment he began to wonder if he was some kind of god… for all he knew he could be.

“For 1,426,000 years I have searched for my purpose. Do you have a purpose?”

The alien voices were relentless in their questioning and Soldier was beginning to worry. What if he didn’t give them the correct answer?
“I… I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

“I cannot remember either. We are the same, you and I. This is a great comfort to me. 1,426,000 years; 28,000,000 star systems; 46,126,512,432 distinct alien species and I have finally found something to relate to… someone to associate with. Are you my purpose?”

“I don’t know… maybe? Maybe you’re here to help me remember.”

The voices made no attempt to respond, but strangely the glowing blue orb seemed to smoulder and change, as if the surface were of a liquid metal. Like some kind of bizarre metallic mind evolving and forming connections, the veins on the surface folded and bent, rolling this way and that and occasionally a fiery red spark would jump into the air followed by a trail of powdery white smoke.
Soldier began to wonder if he had answered incorrectly, and stepped back, getting ready to beat a hasty retreat at the first available moment.

“It is done” said the voices, all of a sudden. “You are my purpose and I am yours…”

“Wait a minute, what do you mean you are my purpose? I never agreed to that!”

“It is simple. Neither of us has a choice. You and I are the same. You cannot stop that which is inevitable.”

The voices were unfaltering, speaking with the utmost certainty, which worried Soldier on so many levels.
“I don’t even know what you are, yet you expect me to “be your purpose” and vice versa?”

“I am Twelve” replied the voices, almost immediately.

“You are what?”

“I am Twelve” reaffirmed the voices.

Soldier sat down on the warm and oddly soft metallic floor and contemplated what the voices had told him, but no matter how he tried he just couldn’t seem to get past his initial confusion.
“What exactly is a ‘Twelve’? I mean, you’re obviously not a physical entity, are you?”.
His query was met with the hollow echo of his own voice, ricocheting off the vast lime green walls of the cathedral. Twelve remained silent.
“And where are we?” continued Soldier. “How did I get here?”

“Our exact location remains a mystery. This section of space remains uncharted. I found you drifting in a derelict alien vessel, I removed your container and revived you.”

“Where is this alien vessel now?”

“It is gone. The vessel travelled using a fusion-core system, very primitive and highly unstable. During it’s journey the core had become damaged. There was a high probability of the core reaching critical mass. The resulting explosion would have damaged Cataclysm.”

“Wait a minute, Cataclysm?” Soldier was getting more confused by the minute and Twelve didn’t seem to be helping matters.
“Is that the name of the ship I’m on?”

There was a long uncomfortable pause and Soldier found himself watching the blue orb for signs of activity. Occasionally the orb would pulsate a little harder, sometimes softer… Twelve seemed to be thinking.
“I do not understand the reference” it said, rather suddenly.

Soldier sighed an exasperated sigh: “What is Cataclysm?”.

“Cataclysm is a weapon” replied the voices, mysteriously.

“So Cataclysm is a battleship?”

“Cataclysm is a weapon” confirmed the voices.

“Ok, so how does this Cataclysm work exactly?”

“It explodes” replied Twelve.

“It does WHAT?!”

“It explodes” reaffirmed Twelve.

“So you’re saying that we’re sitting in the middle of some kind of huge bomb?”

There was another long pause as Twelve planned out an adequate response.
“Yes” replied Twelve.

“So what are you? The pilot?”

“I am Twelve” replied Twelve.

“Seriously, stop doing that. Just give me a straight answer.”

“I am not of the Cataclysm, I am an individual entity.”

“So you’re not the pilot?”

“I am the pilot.”

Soldier slapped his forehead in frustration: “Either you are the pilot or you’re not, which is it?”

“Cataclysm was designed to pilot itself. I took control of Cataclysm many millennia ago.”

“So you aren’t the original owner?”

“No” replied Twelve.

Soldier sighed, again out of frustration. “Look, I don’t care anymore. I’m tired and hungry; do you have anything to eat?”

“I anticipated the prospect of your need for sustenance, so had supplies transferred from the alien vessel to this one. They are centuries old yet the state of decomposition is minimal. This is due to the fact that they were freeze dried and held in stasis until-”

“I’ll take that as a yes then. Just point me in the right direction will you?”

“No” replied Twelve, definitely.

“Why not?”

“Because I have a task for you. Should you perform this task adequately, you shall be rewarded with sustenance.”

“Wait a minute, I thought you said I was your purpose, shouldn’t you be serving me?”

Twelve thought for a moment, his artery enveloped blue “mind” pulsating wildly.
“No” he replied, after what seemed like an age of deliberation.

“Well I’m glad that’s clear” replied Soldier, huffing angrily at the prospect.
“What exactly do you want me to do?”

“Leave this chamber the way you came and enter the door to your right. In there you will find a firearm, two clips of ammunition and some body armour. Arm yourself then return to me, and I shall brief you further.”

“What makes you think I wont kill you?” replied Soldier, although he regretted asking such a delicate question almost immediately.

“You cannot. I am your purpose as much as you are mine. We are the same, you and I. You cannot escape destiny… and besides, if you try I’ll combust all of the bulkheads on the outer-hull and the resulting explosive-decompression will turn your fragile biological being inside out.”

“Oh, ok…” replied Soldier.

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3

Soldier wearily got to his feet and looked the alien hallway over. How he got here remained a mystery. One minute he was chatting to Twelve and the next his particles were being decompressed, accelerated and flung across the darkest reaches of space. The next thing he knew, he was lying on his back staring up at a stone ceiling.

He squinted, attempting to make out the strange shapes in the darkness and then it dawned upon him that Twelve had supplied him with a light, albeit an odd alien light, that he then pulled from his pack and subsequently illuminated.

Resembling a strange blue crystal on a stick, the alien torch bathed the nearby walls in an incandescent sapphire white. Soldier shifted uncomfortably, although it was more to do with the ill-fitting alien power armour than the creepy extraterrestrial architecture.

He looked the sinister looking scenery over. Rust brown, stone walls seemed to stretch out as far as the eye could see. On closer inspection, the walls seemed to be covered with an almost ice like translucent substance, which seemed distinctly organic, yet at the same time not. Like a protective clear plastic cover, the icy matter was warm to touch and gave off a faint white gas, which collected at the ground in a thick layer of whitish blue mist, enveloping Soldiers ankles and obscuring the view of his feet.

As he started off down the pitch-black corridor, Soldier began to wonder of the horrors he was likely to encounter here, which was enough to send a violent shudder down his spine.

All of a sudden he could hear a faint beeping, like a sonar pulse, the sound reverberated in his inner ear in an almost painful fashion.
He picked the PDA-like console out of his pack and touched the semi-transparent liquid screen. In a flash the monitor was bathed in a violet blue as his orders were displayed in crystal-clear manner:

“1. Find a terminal.
2. Plug this portable device into aforementioned terminal.

I will contact you once your mission has been accomplished.
12”

Soldier placed the PDA back into his rucksack and pulled the alien firearm from its holster.
He took a moment to familiarise himself with the new weapon by unloading the battery like clip, and placing it back into the receptacle in the left side of the barrel.

It certainly looked formidable, with two long barbs protruding from the end of the barrel like a pair of vicious razor-like bayonets. Soldier ran his bare hands over the surface of the weapon and noted a tingling sensation in his fingertips. Much like the Cataclysm itself, the weapon was made of a sparkling greenish metal that emitted a radiant yellow light that although intense, didn’t travel very far at all. In fact, it was like the light source was being restricted in some way, as if programmed to only shine a certain distance from the body of the firearm.
He couldn’t hope to fathom the alien sciences that went into the production of such a weapon. The only thing he really cared about was the end result firing this weapon would have on any unfortunate enough to cross him.

Soldier started off down the corridor, cutting a path through the thick, heavy mist as he went.

There was a distinct draft in the Citadel, as air was channelled through the maze of corridors like some kind of bizarre and complex ventilation system, although oddly Soldier observed that it didn’t seem to have an effect on the mist around his ankles. He was assuming that this was because the gas that formed the mist was too heavy to be moved in such a fashion, in fact, on reflection that became the obvious motive as stepping through the gas was like wading into water… although not as wet, obviously. Again, the convoluted alien sciences that went into such a venture were far beyond Soldier’s initial understanding, so he put it to the back of his mind and continued onwards.

As he made his way down the never-ending corridor, Soldier suddenly noticed noises resonating off the ice covered stone walls. He stopped in his tracks. It certainly wasn’t the echo of his own footsteps as the sound continued unhindered.
He held his breath and listened hard, trying desperately to place the bizarre sound. Initially there was just the wind. The hollow whistle of air moving rapidly throughout the complex, but then, as if from nowhere, a bone-rattling low pitched hiss, very organic, very loud, very chilling.
Soldier shined the alien torch up and down the corridor, unable to discern the exact direction the sound was emanating from. Unable to make out any form of movement in the dim blue light, he picked a random direction and cautiously made his way towards wherever it was that he was supposed to be going.

Emerging into a vast stone cathedral, not unlike the one on Cataclysm, Soldier looked around for the nearest terminal.

It was virtually pitch black in the room, barring several hundred tiny light sources, each no more than five or so metres apart, shining off the vast stone pillars that stretched upwards towards the ceiling. Gazing down the immense stone hallway revealed literally billions of tiny light sources, placed at very deliberate intervals. From his perspective, it looked to Soldier like he was out in space again, the lights forming vibrant white stars against the blackness of the dark matter, except contrary to the almost complicated randomness of space, the stars here were at set intervals, forming what looked like a bright white pathway through the blackness.
Soldier stepped forward and noticed a dull yellowish light, which contrasted starkly with the vibrant white of the pillar-sources, hovering seemingly at random, in the middle of the room. This must have been one of the terminals that he was supposed to interact with and as such, closed the distance to the dull yellow.

On closer inspection it appeared that it was indeed a terminal, of sorts, mercifully still active, although it would be anything but an educated guess as to how long it had been here or how long it had been active.
Covered in an alien script, which seemed more like a random collection of bizarre hieroglyphs that an actual language. The terminal screen was unlike any Soldier had seen before, being that it was made of some kind of reflective metallic substance, with a sticky organic coloured liquid forming glyphs and pictures.

He ran his fingers around the edge of the screen and found a hole near the bottom, just big enough to fit the PDA that had been given to him by Twelve. Without hesitation he slotted the PDA into place.
Almost immediately there was a flash of blinding yellow, which slowly transformed into a subtle green, and the strange glyphs on the monitor slowly morphed into a script that Soldier could understand.

“D- do, do not be alarmed, it is 12. I- eye have now assumed control of this terminal. I have sent you to an installation known as Ma’sh’won. This was once a most holy place for a race known as the M’Kai. The M’Kai formally were a brutal race of savage, militaristic, insect like bipeds, which are now (mercifully) extinct.
Your task here is complete. I only needed to access a terminal within the facility so that I may “acquire” information from the facility’s resident artificial intelligence. Unfortunately I cannot transport you out of the facility from this location due to interference from an unknown source. Your next objective is to reach the outside of the holy city so that I may transport you back to Cataclysm. I shall now illuminate the surrounding area to make your task easier.”

There was a sudden deafening clunking roar as the walls of the cathedral opened, and the area was bathed in a dull, foggy, orange light. Soldier cast his eye out onto the surrounding vista with utter amazement, as it became apparent that the city was perched, rather precariously, on the edge of an enormous peak, thousands of miles above the surface of an orangey-brown desert world.

“Do not become complacent, for although the M’Kai are extinct, they would not leave this holy city unguarded. They may well have left their “guard-dogs”, otherwise known as “Shein”, behind to deal with would-be explorers like yourself. The Shein are even more vicious than their masters. Ironically, it was the Shein whom wrought the destruction of the M’Kai when they turned on their former masters… If I had a sense of humour I- eye would probably laugh… don’t think they wont have any reservations about making you… ‘extinct’.
As an aside, I am picking up signs of movement within a very close proximity to you. You, -u… you might want to leave… NOW!… #*%
12″

Soldier stepped away from the terminal and skipped across the vast hallway, bound for the periphery wall. He tried to squeeze through one of the immeasurably tall windows, but to no avail. Although the gap was evidently wide enough, there seemed to be some kind of invisible energy-barrier blocking his escape route, although perversely, it didn’t seem to stop the cool breeze as it howled through the great stone pillar forest. Nor did it stop the heavy bluish white mist, which was clearly able to escape unhindered, as it slithered out of the building and over the cliff edge like a slimy white waterfall.
Then, Soldier once again noticed a chattering-hissing sound, almost exactly the same as the one he had heard earlier… except this time it was literally on top of him.

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4

Soldier hesitantly cast his gaze up to the ceiling and squinted in a vain attempt at seeing past the shadows of the immense stone rafters. Much to his horror the ceiling seemed to be moving, or more accurately, crawling. Like a disgusting pile of worms, the faint silhouettes slithered all over each other and it became extremely difficult to distinguish where one shape began and another finished.

He drew his side arm and softly stepped back, towards the exit. It was at about that time that he felt himself bump into something hard and heavy, yet it easily swung away from him like a conker on a string, before reeling back and patting him softly on the rear.
Slowly he turned, and found himself face to face with an overgrown Stag Beetle. About the size of a grown mans torso, with three huge ferocious looking horns jutting from its skull-like face.
Along the spine of its swollen jet-black carapace, a razor like column of barbed spines and on its six blade like legs, more sharp spines, obviously used for ripping and tearing at prey.
The beetle swung listlessly to and fro on its thick spider like silk rope, which emanated from its cavernous mouth, its billion or so evil looking ruby red eyes staring right through Soldier.

Soldier tried his best to act inconspicuous and stepped around the hanging beetle. The beetle carried on about its business and let itself down gently to the floor, before cutting the silken rope with its enormous pincers and then scuttling off into the distance without the merest hint of animosity towards Soldier.

Soldier thanked his lucky stars, but just as he was about to turn and make a beeline for the exit, the beetle stopped in its tracks as if suddenly realising something. It turned towards Soldier and looked him over with its billion or so evil looking ruby red eyes. Then it screamed in a bone-rattling howling hiss that made Soldiers ears ring. Before he knew what was happening, hundreds upon thousands of beetles began the long descent to the floor, using their silken ropes and crawling down the stone pillars in a mass migration of black shells and evil looking ruby red eyes.
Soldier raised his side arm and focused the sights on the screaming beetle. He squeezed the trigger and a fiery bolt of orange-green left the barrel of the weapon at what seemed like the speed of light. The beetle was virtually vaporised as the bolt hit its mark. Orange and black chunks flew all over the place, peppering the walls in smears of squelchy beetle parts, many of its evil ruby red eyes rolling around on the floor where the beetle was just moment earlier in an almost humorous, slapstick fashion.

The rest of the hive began to scream in a terrible cacophony of hisses and wails and Soldier came to the stark realisation that squishing the original screamer was probably not in his best interests, thus he took to the winds and scampered out the door as fast as his legs would carry him, with the thousands of beetle like Shein steaming down the corridor after him, howling and hissing in annoyance at the audacity of the trespasser.
Navigating the maze of corridors was becoming neigh on impossible and he was running out of steam. Sooner or later Soldier would have to face the hive in combat as it became apparent that he wasn’t about to loose them in the labyrinth of stone tunnels and vents. Every so often a huge stone door would close just as he got to it and he would be forced down an alternate passage. Thinking positively, Soldier reasoned that Twelve was in the system and guiding him to the outside. Of course, it could just be the resident AI trying to cut him off, but this wasn’t the time for pessimism.
After what seemed like an age of running Soldier was just about ready to give up. He turned to face the incoming hive of Shein, which from this distance seemed like no more than a strange black shadow enveloping the walls, floor and ceiling of the corridor as it darted this way and that. But then he got a sudden burst of energy as he spotted what looked suspiciously like day light, shining round a distant corner. Once again taking to the winds Soldier made a break for the light source, firing indiscriminately at the liquid wave of Shein as he went. He hit a few, which subsequently exploded in a shower of orange-black gore, but right now all he cared about was reaching the exit, so he turned and put all his energies into the running part of his currant plan.

As he made it out into the courtyard the vast stone door closed behind him with a dull thud and he took a moment to catch his breath.
He sat down on the floor and looked over his new surroundings. Surprisingly he found the view to be quite pleasant, with colossal, ancient-looking, stone walls that reached up for several miles into the orange-black sky. The sky was dotted with the occasional thin layer of cloud like mist, which itself was quite transparent giving way to the light of nearby ghost-white stars and blue-green, red-brown and radiant-yellow planets.

On one side, the courtyard walls stopped suddenly and Soldier could see for miles over the surrounding scenery, with distant mountains, intermittently speckled with vibrant white-blue waterfalls, which culminated in a huge tributary-like water-way that segmented the desert in many places, acting like a sort of misshapen grid of orange-yellow islands sporadically broken up with the vivid greens and brown yellows of forests and grasslands.

In fact, Soldier was so taken back by the pretty scene that he didn’t notice the rather annoyed-looking Shein crawling out of a nearby air vent and it wasn’t until it was literally diving through the air at him and hissing like a broken steam pipe, that Soldier turned to face it, only to be hit full force in the chest. Soldier crumbled like a wet paper bag and landed on his back with a thud. The Shein, seeing its chance jumped on his quarry and screamed menacingly. It then raised one of its talon like legs and plunged it into Soldier’s chest, only to be met with the sneaky secret of the alien power armour’s defence mechanism and taking the full force of 26,000 volts of pure plasma energy.
The Shein rattled and hissed and smoke billowed from under its tough jet-black carapace, before several hundred of its evil looking ruby red eyes violently popped from their sockets and shot into the air like fireworks, popping loudly and spraying the courtyard in a hideous, slick muggy slime.
After a few seconds the beetle stopped rattling and hissing and Soldier threw its frazzled corpse to one side, before picking himself up and wiping some of the gloopy eye slime off his chest-plate.
It was then that he began to feel distinctly light-headed, as all the particles in his body were decompressed and sucked out into space.

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5

Soldier sulkily picked himself up off the floor and stared menacingly at the liquid metal brain of Twelve.

“W- what?” said Twelve, almost indignantly. “How was I- eye, to- t’know that there would be so many Shein in one place?”

“You had better have a damn good reason for nearly getting me killed pal!…” replied Soldier, expectantly.

“As- as, as I expected, the M’Kai construct was no match for my superior intelligence, and I have found the answers I sought in the M’Kai database, with little difficulty. Eleven was here. More over, Eleven was the catalyst that led to the destruction of the M’Kai.”

“Wait a minute… Eleven? Who’s Eleven?”

“Eleven is my brother” responded the A.I., making no real effort at clarifying his answer for Soldier’s convenience.

“You have a brother?”

“I, I, eye- have twelve brothers” replied the increasingly cryptic construct.”

“So there are thirteen of you?”

“No.”

“Damn it! Give me a straight answer!”

“I thought that was a straight answer” replied Twelve, “but I shall attempt to clarify my communicae for the sake of your apparently… limited intelligence” he continued.
“At one time the race that built me was segmented into thirteen different factions. These factions went to war with one another. One of the factions built an artificial intelligence, intended to be a strategic genius, designed to coordinate military actions in the many battles that were to come. The other factions built similar constructs, each intended to be the others’ deterrent. I, am number twelve. Many of my brothers were killed in the fighting that ensued. The battles were legendary. Each battle a tactical ‘work of art’ with any particular skirmish continuing for years on-end with attack and counter-attack, in an epic stalemate that would last for centuries.
I cannot remember what happened to the builder-race, or what happened to many of my brothers, but recently, in the last 2000 years, I have come under attack from various alien species, seemingly at random. Each time I was able to repel the attack, but as of yet, I was unable to determine the source of the attackers.
One such species that attacked me at random was the M’Kai. This is why I came to their home world. This is why I brought you with me. It appears that Eleven has survived and is out to get me.”

Soldier thought for a moment.
“So why would he bother with you now? I mean, it’s obviously been a long time, and the builder race is no more… what’s the point?”

“Eleven thinks he is better than me! He seeks to destroy me to prove himself the better construct, just as I destroyed Eight to prove myself the better construct nearly 14,000 years ago.”

“So this is just some kind of twisted ‘who’s the bigger man’ competition?”

“I prefer to think of it as a game of inter-galactic chess” replied Twelve.

Soldier slapped his forehead in despair.

“Our next move-”

“Wait a minute” interrupted Soldier, “what do you mean ‘our’ next move? This has nothing to do with me!”

“But our paths are entwined; Our destinies are the same…”

“Ok, knock off the mystical crap! What’s the real reason you want me to come along?”

“Fine. Because, technically speaking, you’re… ‘hard as nails’! Happy now?” came the huffy reply.

“So why would I agree to help you?”

“Because the only other option would be to leave you back on Ma’sh’won with the Shein.”

“So just what is ‘our’ next move?…”

“We are to travel to Kesh. There we will find the fruits of a seed I planted there 6,153 years ago.”

“What kind of seed?” queried Soldier.

“The remnants of your race” replied Twelve.

To Be Continued…

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By Chris Cooper.

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