Incident at Avalon
This is the second in a series of stories written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It takes place after the events of the first story, Incident at Ko'Grappa, and is followed by: Escape From Avalon, Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu, The Council of Chozanti, and The Battle of the Jade Mirror. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.
The word crackled softly in the earbuds, its reception torn by electromagnetic winds. Cai Rui turned, and found Thatcher standing beside him on the crumbling lip of the bluff. "I’m sorry. I don’t understand."
Behind the shining faceplate, she shook her head. "Only a human being could land on a rock like this and give it a name like ‘Avalon’."
He turned back toward the ruins. The shrieking winds of the sandstorm were only a faint whisper through the baffle of his helmet, but in his mind he could hear the screams. The sun was now rising through a clotted haze the color of blood, spilling down over the rim of the canyon and into the valley below. From the black well of shadow, the broken towers and shattered domes of the outpost now rose, stark and clear.
Raising his eyes again, looking out beyond the ruins to the red morning and the stark mountains, he tried to see it. What had these people hoped for, when they gave this place a name so eloquent of sacred refuge…a world away from the world?
It was a peripheral system, off the direct trade routes from Terra and the Hiver front. A miserable hunk of stone, by most accounts, its water and oxygen bound mostly into polar ice and ferrous sand. But hidden beneath these wind–torn peaks were rich veins of metal and mineral deposits, including deep geologic evidence of earlier life — those with the skill could plumb the depths for a little profit, and bring in enough trade to keep the colony in supply. In the meantime, they had worked hard. With only a few decades’ labor they had achieved a summer thaw in both polar regions. Their population had grown steadily over the years — despite the setback of a recent slaver attack, the colony had been thriving. The aqueduct to this settlement was still flowing even now, water bleeding from the broken reservoir and trickling away over stone.
"Deus misereatur," he murmured softly.
The earbuds crackled with Thatcher’s voice. "Did you say something, sir? I think my receiver is breaking down."
"Nothing, Lieutenant. I believe we have enough light now. Let’s have a look."
Cai launched himself from the hilltop, dropping the hundred meters to the valley floor in the drifting slow motion of reduced gravity. When he reached the talus slope below he bounded lightly from one massive boulder to the next, making his way toward the ruined outpost nestled in the heart of the canyon. In the sheltered lee of the rock walls, the wind had dropped. It seemed almost peaceful.
"Black Nineteen reporting. Gold Five, do you read?"
"Gold Five," Cai said. "Affirmative."
"We’re out at the beacon, sir. Something here you might want to see."
Cai planted his feet. "Affirmative, Black Nineteen. Gold Five, Gold Six receiving."
The faceplate of his helmet flickered, and the image washed over the screen. Despite the scattered black specks of missing data, the transmission was clear. He was looking out through the remote camera on Ensign Gardner’s right shoulder, standing outside a small bunker — the guardshack for the colony’s landing beacon.
The hatch to the bunker was still attached to one hinge, but it had been brutally torn from the other, the metal twisted and bent with force. Deep gouges were scored into the steel plate and the reinforced cement had crumbled under the onslaught.
The camera moved with Gardner into the bunker, tracking with his eyes as he stepped over the threshold. The action here was long over — the place was a gutted hulk, wires and circuits strewn obscenely over the torn remains of the monitoring equipment and the NodeComm array. Against the far wall there was a broad, dark splash.
Thatcher’s voice cut in coldly. "Nineteen, look above please."
The camera panned upward. The ceiling was streaked and speckled with black — the voice transmission sounded hesitant. "Did you want a…sample, G–Six?"
Thatcher sounded irritable. "That can wait. To your left, Nineteen. Ten o’clock high."
The camera turned obligingly, tracking to the corner — there was a box welded to the beam there, partially hidden from view. Three insulated cables still hung from the bottom, running toward the shattered consoles below.
"I believe that would be the relay box for their NodeComm station," Thatcher said. "Looks to be intact."
"I read you. We’ll patch it and see if we’ve got a ghost of the last transmission."
Cai Rui patched to Thatcher’s private channel. "You are familiar with this type of equipment, Lieutenant?"
"Yes sir. It’s an old unit. These first–generation systems used to need a big boost to get their signal through the Node — if you didn’t have enough power, wouldn’t go anywhere. Failed deliveries went to the relay box for automatic re–transmission when the power returned to full." She paused. "I’m thinking in this case, it never did."
"I would not have have known this," he said quietly. "You reveal hidden depths, Lieutenant. I had no idea such things were within your field of expertise."
She shrugged. "All these dustball colonies are the same, Commander. Second–hand equipment and expendable people."
He inclined his head politely. "Perhaps. Some might say the same of those living in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Nanjing. And yet a boy from such a place might rise to the rank of Commander, if he used his skills wisely."
She smiled thinly in answer. "I suppose we all have to come from somewhere."
Gardner spoke up on the secondary channel. "Gold Five, I think we’ve got it. Would you like me to patch the signal through?"
"Black Nineteen, Affirmative. Private channel."
Cai’s earbuds sizzled with static. "—Repeat! This Colony N3.9.9, Avalon station C, to all SolForce vessels, do you read…." It was a woman’s voice, ragged with fear and desperation. "Please respond. We are under attack. The Rippers are back. God, they’re everywhere..." The transmission rolled on, over a dischordant babble of voices, as if several people had begun trying to shout over her at once. In the background, the hoarse wail of crying baby rolled over all others, a descant of despair and exhaustion.
"It doesn’t matter now. We’re in the watch bunker, near the landing field. We’ve had to abandon the station. We had no idea what they were, until they started working together." A second explosion of babble. "It doesn’t matter now, there are only six of us left. The rest are all dead or…" There was a reverberating thud in the background, followed by thin, high-pitched screams. The woman sobbed and her voice trailed away to a terrified thread. "Oh God…they’ve gotten so big…" Suddenly she gave an agonized shriek. "Jimmy, no! Don’t touch the—"
Cai winced at the howl of feedback, and the transmission ended abruptly. Gardner’s voice followed after a pause. "I’m sorry, sir. I–I didn’t realize it was going to cut out at the end like that—"
Shaken, he broke the feed in mid–sentence. "Thank you, Black Nineteen. Hold your position."
He turned toward the east, trying to regain control — his heart rate had doubled. Cai faced the rising sun for several long moments, concentrating on the flow of breath, until the moment passed.
"Black Nineteen," he said at last. "Give me the date stamp for that last transmission."
The boy hesitated. "It…can’t be right, sir. You said HQ got the distress signal from this place just a month ago. This thing reads out as hour twenty-three fifty-nine, two-two-twenty-four-fifty-three. That would have been…over a year."
A chill went through him. "The signal we received was an NV tap, Black Nineteen. Non-verbal distress call."
Thatcher cut in. "You mean the colonists didn’t send—?"
"All units, this is Gold Five. We are NOT alone. Launch motion tracking immediately. Fall back to the DV in pairs and prepare for launch." Cai drew his pistol — his tracking drones burst from the case like a cloud of angry steel hornets, sniffing for movement. Suddenly the HUD was alive with red shadows, closing in from the surrounding rocks.
"Thatcher — full burn. Get back to that shuttle. I’ll cover your retreat." He bounded to the top of a boulder, looking for a firing angle on whatever was below.
"I…don’t think…I can do that…sir." Her voice was strained, as if spoken through gritten teeth.
"Why the hell not?"
She stood frozen, her whole suit trembling — he could see her gun hand moving slowly. The trigger finger tightened spasmodically — he winced as a fusillade of flechette rounds spattered over the rocks around her.
Her breathing was hoarse and labored. "Go…Cai…"
The gun roared again, and suddenly she shrieked in pain. Cai reeled, feeling the wave of agony — as if he had just blown off half his own leg. In the rocks there was an answering scream of pain…and anger.
In a single motion he bent and lunged across the rocks. Thatcher had crumpled to her knees, air and blood hemmorhaging from the ruptured suit — he went down on one knee beside her, trying to put one of her arms over his shoulder for a carry.
"Can’t…" She slumped onto her side, boneless. Looking down, he could see her jaw trembling with strain. The last word was forced out painfully, a last gutteral growl of anger. "Gooooooooo…."
It happened so suddenly that his eye could barely follow it. Two hooks lashed up over the lip of the rock, attached to something like arms. One buried itself in her shoulder — another plunged into her abdomen. Her flesh parted in two separate directions.
His earbuds screamed as her open comm line went dead. Cai reeled back, his face plate covered with a sheet of red — by instinct he uncoiled at once, leaping straight into the air — and felt rather than saw the massive body that crossed the boulder where he had been just a split–second before.
"Ignis!" The jets of his suit roared to life, carrying him above the second leap. Several hundred feet above the valley floor, he paused to hover, passing the palm of his glove over his facemask — already the blood had begun to freeze.
"Whatever you are," he gritted, "I will soon send you back to hell."
Why, this is hell, Cai Rui, a voice replied — cruel, insinuating, coiling like a serpent in his mind. Nor are we out of it.
Without hesitation, he turned and roared toward salvation in the west, his skin crawling with reaction. "Who are you?" he muttered. "What are you?"
My name is Legion, it teased, mocking. For we are many. Oh but do come back, Cai Rui. For you have seen such things…and I am so very hungry.