Though this will likely be a non-CYOA, it seemed most logical to post it here since it's too long for /shorts/.
Space. A vast, dark, void; save for the numerous flecks of light standing out against the all-encompassing blackness. The final frontier, some had called it, before the advent of warp drives enabled mankind to move forth, exploring and colonizing new worlds. This story, however, deals with one particular planet, a grayed sphere streaked with white clouds, suspended near a star not much larger than our own. A sphere hiding a great and terrifying power beneath its serene atmosphere.
A point of light appears over the dark side of the planet. Wavering slightly, a soft purple streaked with white, it lengthens before suddenly ripping open. A large, triangular cruiser leaps forth from the rift, static charge dissipating off of six planar wings jutting from its subdued, steely hull. As the rift collapses, the elongated vessel’s engines ignite, driving it into orbit above the planet.
On the command bridge, centered near the core of the ship, a man clad in a dulled tan uniform stands before a view screen, gazing at the planet blotting out the void. Though his shoulders are slumped and his posture relaxed, his green eyes lend evidence of his intense scrutiny of the world below, even as the crew around him bustles with activity to ensure the proper operation of the ship. Breaking from his reverie, he turns and walks down the bridge, passing those working at their post.
“Discharge on aft stabilizers above normal levels; feed redirected to remaining stabilizers to compensate.”
“Scans confirm planet 30176CLS–4; data match on diameter, orbital apex, and equatorial tilt.”
“Main sequence engines cut, maneuvering thrusters firing. Holding geostationary orbit at 22,000 kilometers; relative latitude 35 degrees, 47 minutes, and 13 seconds.”
He approaches the apex of the bridge, where three men stand overlooking the activity in front of them. The first is an imposing figure, though the second stands taller still than he, and the lasts wears glasses, lacking the uniform common to the others. The first is saluted as he approaches. “Captain Sterling.”
Sterling spares a glance at the approaching man. “Hmph. Dr. Matthers. Well, we’re here, so what are you going to do?” Sterling carries himself with the sort of strict military discipline that lesser men find intimidating, a crisply maintained uniform reinforcing his visage. “You haven’t been very informative, but you must have something in mind if you managed to convince the brass to divert the Hyperion away from the Rim War.”
Disregarding Sterling’s insinuations for the moment, Matthers nods. “Indeed. As I mentioned in the information I sent you two, Dr. Ulrich and I suspect this planet hides an object which, if recovered, will prove very useful to the ARM. Lieutenant Fernst, do you have a forward squad prepared to drop in? It’s critical that we get the timing right, or this whole recovery mission will be for nothing.”
The second man grins amiably. “Heh. Sergeant Andrews is already on it. He an’ his boys were gearin’ up as soon as we dropped outta warp.” Fernst sports a short and cleanly trimmed beard extending along his jaw and chin, though he has no moustache.
Matthers smiles at Fernst’s words. “Oh, that’s a relief to hear. I trust Andrews and his squad will be more than suited for the job ahead. Now, I really must be going; I have a few preparations of my own to make before they’re off. Dr. Ulrich, I’m sure you can handle the explanation of the newly installed warping device, yes?” The man in glasses nods, and Matthers gives the group a small bow before turning and walking out of the command center.
After the doors to the bridge close, he affords himself a small chuckle before continuing on his way. “An object that will prove useful to the ARM?” Well, I suppose that’s one way of looking at things. Approaching an elevator, he waves a security card in front of the scanner, and after a brief moment steps into the waiting car. It’s almost miraculous that we’ve made it this far. Ulrich’s laser better work, or the only thing we’ll find on that rock will be a nice crater and a swift demotion. The doors close.
* * * * *
In a place far removed from the emptiness in which the ship floats, night reigns over a landscape where nature, and not man, sprawls unrestrained. The only sign of his existence is a walled settlement dimly lit by flickering lamps, and surrounded by carefully tended farmlands. Grassy hills rise up beyond this modest presence, spreading south to the border of a forest, darkness clinging beneath its limbs as the pale moonlight is deflected off its canopy. A great mountain rises on the western side of the forest, river running down its side; clouds seem to scrape its uppermost peaks.
In the north, an Asiatic forest rises; one of bamboo, not of trees, and thick do they obscure the paths winding through them. Near the edge, ferns can be seen hugging the ground between the tall stalks, though deeper in they become obscured by a permeating mist that entrances travelers and makes them wanderers. From the air, an expansive wooden estate of antiquated oriental design can just be made out deep within the stalks.
Most prominently, to the west of the village lies a great lake, its pristine surface holding silvery reflections of the stars and half moon above. Its sandy shores give way to rock on the northernmost inlet, and several small shacks belonging to fisherman dot the eastern bank. Many have fallen into disrepair, while the remainder house boats and nets, though no drying racks are to be seen. Any who visit the lake, however, would see rising to the south a structure that is at once imposing and beautiful.
It is a mansion, complete with expansive grounds and carefully tended gardens, lying behind a tall brick wall of sturdy construction. Fleurs-de-lis line the top, and a lone wrought iron gate, facing east, is the only break in the barrier, its circular patterns and spirals evidence of the owner’s taste. No guard is present at this late hour, but a peculiar force can be felt over the gate, and those with a talent for seeing the unseen might recognize the wards and alarms woven into its housing.
The mansion itself rises above the fence, modest in height, comfortable in size. The entirety of its construction; walls, doorframes, and shingles all, are composed of materials the same hue as the border: a deep red, visible even in the moonlight. Few windows are present, fewer still on the high floors, and most are no wider than one’s arm. Most striking of all, though, is the clock tower rising from the center, fluted spire atop great face bathed in silver, hands stretching to tell the hour.
Inside this stately abode, a great library lies, shelves filled with carefully ordered books of all sizes, subjects, and languages. All is still; save for the activities of an individual rising from a table laden with open tomes and freshly scribed notes. She wears a robe and nightgown over her body, and a cap atop her head. Violet is her theme, as her clothes, hair, and even the irises of her eyes are some shade or hue of the color. Motioning with her fingers, a sigil appears in the air in front of her, and she glances from one partition to the next. Her eyes narrow briefly, then she dismisses the sign.
“Koakuma.” At her words, a second figure appears from the bookshelves. “Tonight… will be very good for observing the stars. Head to the observatory and prepare the viewing crystal.” The figure bows, then turns and leaves. The one in the nightgown selects a book from a stack on the table, then slowly follows after the second. The elements shouldn’t be this strained, and the mana in the air is unusually tense. Something is about to happen, I’m sure of it.
* * * * *
In the barracks of the Hyperion, the men of Lambda squad, 6th recon, suit up for orbital insertion. An imposing figure with blond hair and unkempt moustache strides up and down the room, already sealed into his grayed titanium assault armor. A red, malleable nanofiber weave is overlaid by armor plates on the forearms, shoulders, legs, and torso, with handles jutting from the shoulders and back. “Alright men, listen up! The captain hasn’t seen fit to tell us what the hell’s down there, so you better listen for orders and do what you’re damn well told to!” He continues on his way, and two soldiers whisper to each other once he passes.
“What d’ya think, corporal? Haven’t seen him this anxious since New Madrid.” The speaker has a distinct accent, one that would have suggested he spent his childhood in the southern part of America, were he unfortunate enough to be born on Earth. Bald, and cleanly shaven, he pulls himself into a skintight, grey ballistic cushioning suit, activating the hermetic seals once it’s on. His companion is similarly occupied.
“He probably doesn’t like being kept in the dark, just like the rest of us. And aren’t you usually the cautious one, Marcus? Here, turn around.” He tugs sharply on the connections in Marcus’s suit; they hold. He turns and waits for Marcus to do the same.
“Yeah, well, usually we’re dropping into a warzone loaded with USIF troopers, or someplace that’s about to become one. This planet, ain’t seen anything about it before, and sarge says USIF is in the dark as much as we are. So,” The corporal winces as the seals are checked. “if anything does happen, they’re one less thing to worry about.”
The corporal grins. “Hah! I guess you got a point there. Well, now comes the fun part.” The men walk past the last of their squad mates pulling on suits, heading for the armor fitting stations. Lined six to a wall, the machines possess multiple arms for rapidly and accurately securing the soldiers in their powered armor. The corporal and Marcus each step inside separate unoccupied insets, and the arms whir to life.
The opposite wall opens, and a thick, red nanoweave suit is brought forth, of the same design as the sergeant’s. The back and upper legs are split open, revealing a hexagonal mesh of dark lines overlaying gray material, junctioning at several metallic plugs located near the shoulders and hips. He steps forward into the legs, forcing his feet through the openings one at a time. He similarly extends his arms into the suit, and the machine rapidly swings behind him, whirring as the armor is sealed shut. The brief moment spent as the machine aligns the plating on his back seems to stretch far longer, for the constricting suit is totally unyielding, and he cannot breathe.
The plugs in the joints activate with a clicking snap.
Pressure suddenly lifted, he takes a deep breath, and drops his arms from their raised position. He steps out of the fitting station as the arms retract, and an indicator sounds with a *ping*. Sluggish at first, his movements become more fluid as he acclimates to the suit’s range of motion, the artificial muscle mesh charged with energy freeing his movements from restriction.
Marcus stands outside, waiting for his friend. Grinning, he asks, “What took ya so long? Don’t tell me you’re the one hesitatin’ this time.”
“Nah, just enjoying my last few breaths free of mechanical help, is all.”
“Huh.” Marcus shakes his head. “Well, sarge is already headin’ to the dropships, so we better head over ourselves. Hey, Yetiv, Simmons, hurry it up!” Whirring can be heard from the fitting stations behind Marcus, and an eastern European voice, tinted with annoyance, is heard.
“I can’t make the damn machine go faster, you know. It is bad enough al- gghhk!” The man gasps as the arms seal his suit. Marcus and the corporal laugh, and are joined by a third stepping from the next fitting station.
“Still not used to that, huh? C’mon, Yetiv can catch up later.” The three proceed to the end of the room, grabbing their helmets from a rack. Made of the same light grey alloy as their armor, the fully contained helmets are splayed open at the bottom and possess a mounted red composite visor of a width extending beyond each brow. The soldiers carry their helmets instead of wearing them, each savoring the unfiltered air as long as he can.
They reach the transport elevator, where the rest of their squad is waiting. Yetiv arrives shortly thereafter, apparently having finished sooner than his squad mates thought. Sergeant Andrews stands at the head of the car, and seeing the entirety of his men present, barks, “Atten-TION!” The soldiers snap to attention, arms at their sides. After peering through the ranks, he continues, the elevator stuttering into motion.
“At ease, men. Captain Sterling has ordered lambda squad to recon a drop zone on planet S–4. The,” he grimaces, “‘esteemed Dr. Matthers,’ thinks there’s something down there that he can use for some new science project. We go in, kill anything hostile, and report what we find.” The elevator reaches the hangar bay, and Sergeant Andrews continues forward, his squad following behind. “The Dr. will brief us in-flight about the landing procedure; apparently there’s some nasty radiation storms in the atmosphere. We’ll be splitting into two dropships, with two more hanging back in case we need to call in equipment. Specialist Simmons, you got your squad?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Good. Alright, men, load up and move out!” Sergeant Andrews salutes, and the soldiers of Lambda squad return the action. He turns and enters the first dropship, while Marcus and the corporal follow Simmons into the second. Constructed of the same alloy as the soldiers’ armor plating, each dropship consists of a thick body with two short, horizontal wings jutting from the top. The primary engines are mounted on the ends, glowing dully with blue flame as the piloting AIs run through pre-flight preparations.
The dull clank of the soldiers’ boots echoes off the walls, and the doors whine shut behind them over the hum of the engines. White lights line the ceiling of the dropship’s interior, and each soldier’s weapons of choice lie close at hand. The clamps holding the dropships in place retract, and the bay doors open, air rushing out into the space beyond. Engines firing, each piloting AI maneuvers its craft towards the door, and Lambda squad awaits their final briefing from Dr. Matthers.
* * * * *
In a room on the uppermost floor of the mansion, a great polished lens over five meters wide glows softly with the energy of several spells. The roof of the room is absent, retracted down along the walls, granting a clear view of the night sky above. The robed woman stands chanting over a pedestal covered in runes, which houses a palm sized crystal ball. As she activates several of the markings, concentric rings appear on the lens: a white band just inside the edge, and two more of light blue appearing near the center.
An image of the night sky appears in the crystal ball, though the moon is absent and the stars shine against a light gray cloud instead of blackness. The assistant, Koakuma, stands nearby, and though she looks at the image the ball contains, she cannot see what holds the interest of the magician so.
“Umm… Lady Patchouli, if you don’t mind my asking, why did you want to look at the stars tonight?”
She answers flatly, “An educated guess. Something’s changed, and I’m going to find out what.” She motions over several symbols, and the outer ring on the lens contracts while the innermost blue ring shifts color to green. The image within the crystal moves, and several stars are highlighted in yellow light.
“Oh, I- I see.” Koakuma forces a smile, though Patchouli’s motives yet remain largely incomprehensible. “…shall I bring you anything; maybe some tea to help keep you awake?”
Patchouli nods slightly, continuing to adjust the lens. “I would appreciate that. Thank you.”
“Of course!” Koakuma stands for a moment longer, fidgeting, and when it becomes obvious no further response is forthcoming, excuses herself from the observatory. Once outside, she closes the door and sighs. To no one in particular, she murmurs, “I hope this won’t turn into another sleepless night; pushing herself so hard will only make her health worse.” She proceeds down the darkened corridor, long used to the shadows stretching themselves along the walls.
In the observatory, Patchouli continues to scrutinize the image within the crystal, activating runes with increasing speed. The rings on the lens dilate and contract, swimming over its surface; new ones rise from within to replace those that sink back into its center.
“Isn’t near Pisces, no, further south than that… Obscured by the moon? No no, it’s closer, maybe between Orion and… Ah, there it is.” The pattern of stars at last lies fixed within the ball, but one is denoted with a blue light, and upon closer inspection is brighter than the others. Also, whereas all other specks of light lie still to the naked eye, this star clearly moves, albeit slowly, a thin, blue line tracing its path behind it.
“Now, let’s see what you’re made of.” Patchouli taps two runes, and strings of symbols begin floating beneath the star. Sitting down, then picking up a pen and dipping it in an inkwell, she begins to write in her journal, noting such things as position, speed, and other astronomic details. She continues for several minutes, and when Koakuma returns she accepts the tea brought to her. As her assistant takes a seat, the display suddenly halts, then vanishes, leaving behind a single line. The scratching of pen on paper stills also as Patchouli reads the newest piece of information.
“‘Void of all mana…’ Strange, usually objects from the beyond have at least some sort of mystical property. Its movement patterns are odd, too; it isn’t orbiting anything, nor is it falling to Earth.” She quiets, deep in thought, before nodding, her decision made. “I’ll tell Remilia. Ever since she had her sister destroy that meteorite, she asked that I inform her of any strange phenomena in space. I hope she doesn’t resort to that this time; I really want to study whatever this is a little more.” Tapping a rune to lock the crystal’s view on the star in question, she leaves the observatory to speak with the mistress of the mansion.
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Part 2 - reposted due to formatting errors.
On a balcony extending from the northern side of the mansion, two figures can be seen enjoying the serenity of the night. One, seated at a table, wears a full length pink dress and mop hat of matching hue. The other stands attentively at her side, uniformed in blue and white as a European maid from the turn of the 19th century. The former lifts a white teacup from the table to her lips, savoring the drink, when her eyes catch at a twinkle in the sky. It is moving just barely, though no human could see it so. The cup is lowered, and she rises from her chair.
The door to the balcony opens behind her, purple robed magician striding out under the moonlight. “Remilia, there’s a new celestial body in the sky; its movement doesn’t follow any pattern I’ve seen before.” Her tone rushed, she pauses briefly to catch her breath, the trip having apparently taken a deal of exertion.
Remilia turns to face the interruption, an eyebrow elevated in curiosity. “So there is. But tell me, what interest might I have in this body you’ve found? If I recall, you’re the one devoted to the study of all things fantastic and weird, ironic as that may be, and would thus find it far more fascinating.”
Patchouli stifles a groan, the antics of her counterpart at once familiar and wearing. A smile that works its way onto her face, however, counters any suspicion of enmity between the two. “You asked to be told of strange occurrences, and this certainly qualifies as strange.” Gesturing towards the doors, she continues, “Now please, come with me; I’ll show you what I mean.”
She sighs in exasperation. “Patchouli, if you don’t learn to loosen up from time to time, you’ll run yourself into an early grave.” She nevertheless follows the magician back into the mansion, maid closing the doors behind them. “Why not tell me a little more about what you’ve found on the way?”
Patchouli nods in agreement. “Well, it’s too close to be a star, but it doesn’t resemble any sort of meteor I’ve ever seen. Its composition is also strange: it’s not made of ice or earth, and I detected a large amount of many metals, enough that I can’t accept its existence to be a natural occurrence. Furthermore…”
The magician continues to talk, waxing excitement evident as she delves into her discoveries. She is only mildly aware of Remilia’s diminishing interest as the topic’s intricacies exceed her understanding, and her eyes start wandering over the furnishings they pass instead of focusing on Patchouli and her monologue. After some time of walking down the halls, she carefully contains a sigh of relief as the observatory doors come into view.
Koakuma stands by the entrance, and bows as the mage returns with the mistress of the mansion, opening the door for the group to enter. Inside, the lens glows as it did before, and Patchouli motions for Remilia to follow her to her notes and the pedestal, crystal ball still shining with points of blue light.
Seeing all is still in its place, Patchouli grins. “There, you see? The star highlighted in blue is the one I told you about. I speak figuratively, of course; it only appears as a star in the globe, and is in fact something completely different.”
Remilia leans toward the viewing crystal, narrowing her eyes briefly before straightening and turning to look at the mage. “I see; it must be the object I saw before your sudden interruption. So, which one is it?”
Patchouli freezes. “…what? What do you mean?”
Pointing at the orb, Remilia asks again, “There are several blue lights in here, so which one were you going on about? Was it this larger one?”
“But it- that’s impossible; there was only one body! There couldn’t possibly be more; I checked!” Patchouli rushes to the crystal, and sure enough, the original star is now joined by four, much smaller points, each similarly wreathed in blue and leaving lines in the ether to track their motion. “This is…” Patchouli taps three runes in quick succession, and the flecks rapidly reverse direction, returning along their paths until all converge at the large star, and vanish.
“Very interesting indeed. You don’t suppose that thing is firing danmaku at us?” Remilia teases Patchouli from over her shoulder.
The maid speaks up from near the doorway. “That doesn’t seem likely, milady.”
“Indeed,” Patchouli grumbles. “Those aren’t bullets; they’re more like smaller versions of whatever that thing is. With this, it’s almost certain that all of those objects are being controlled, but I still can’t figure out how. They’re devoid of mana, so they couldn’t be controlled magically, or if they are, they’re shielded against detection, but in that case, why leave them visible?” Her eyes close as she continues to theorize about the quandary presented by the objects.
After a moment, Remilia concludes Patchouli has thought of no further pertinent information, and with one last glance at the mage, busies herself with tapping on the control panel in an effort to change the view within the crystal. The maid stands to the side, maintaining her composure even as the points of light blur, then shift violently outside of the crystal’s view as the lady of the mansion hastily attempts to re-correct the image. The rings on the viewing lens fluctuate wildly as well, and it’s no small favor to Remilia that Patchouli’s eyes are closed in concentration.
Her actions grow increasingly more desperate, and she starts as Patchouli draws a deep breath before exhaling slowly, opening her eyes. Remilia glances elsewhere and adopts a posture that suggests she bore no interest to the image within the viewing crystal, but the mage notices not and instead utters her newest line of though.
“For celestial objects to be deliberately controlled without magic… suggests that they are constructs of the Lunarians, or of humans from the Outside. Since their point of origin was nowhere near the moon, I have to say the latter idea holds more merit.”
“Really, now? Heh. Maybe they got lost while trying to reach the moon. What do you think, Sakuya?” Remilia turns to the maid.
“I couldn’t say for certain, milady. Though, if they are human, then-”
A muted pulsation suddenly reverberates through the bodies of all in the room, and moments after a piercing screech impacts their ears, dissipating quickly into a quiet but persistent ringing that seizes at the mind. Sakuya recovers quickly, tone completely faded from her ears, while Remilia visibly strains to remain standing. Patchouli has collapsed to one knee, and her assistant moves as quickly as she can to help the magician, though it is obvious she too suffers from the oppressive keening.
Sakuya takes a hesitant step towards her mistress, asking, “Milady, are you injured? Do you require help standing?” Her hand reaches for Remilia’s shoulder, but is batted away.
“Of course I can stand by myself. Let me be!” She inhales deeply, breath catching only once. “Er, no, that’s not it. Thank you for your concern. Tcch, this sound is annoying – Sakuya, make it stop at once.” Remilia’s gaze rapidly passes over the room; face haggard as her eyes dart from one object to another.
Sakuya bows and smiles. “I’m sorry, Milady, but I cannot hear that sound any more, and I’m afraid I don’t know what caused it in the first place.” Looking up, she continues. “Perhaps it will fade in time, or shall I prepare to… head… outside?” Her question slows when she sees Remilia’s fidgeting has ceased, and her gaze is fixated on the sky above. Following her line of sight, the maid’s breath hangs in the air for a moment as she takes in the spectacle above.
An aurora borealis has blossomed over the sky, waves of green reaching out and fading into the horizons. Shades of purple are splintered into its edges, and a brilliant blue pattern of jagged lightning hangs in what seems to be the heart of the phenomenon. A small pinprick of black can just be made out at the very center, all that remains of the night sky the swirling green now covers. The maid stands captivated by the strange and bright display.
“…My word,” Patchouli gasps, “That’s – it almost looks like the aura of an active summoning circle, but it couldn’t possibly be…” She staggers towards her viewing crystal and begins activating sigils slowly, relying heavily on Koakuma’s support to remain standing.
“Sakuya.” Remilia’s voice, now even and lower in pitch, snaps the maid out of her trance. “Head to the basement, and bring Flandre up here, if you would.” Her eyes glow red, pupils narrowed into predatory slits. “Quickly, now. The longer you wait, the less time she’ll have to see this.”
For a brief moment, the tension in the air is almost palatable: everyone in the observatory stands stock still, niggling sound inside their ears forgotten, and true meaning behind the mistress’s words clear. Nevertheless. “Right away, Milady.” Sakuya bows, and opens the doors to let herself out. The doors shut, and Patchouli lets out a defeated sigh, allowing her assistant to guide her to a chair. “Such a shame; I really could have learned a great deal. But if it must be done, so be it.”
* * * * *
The AI inside the dropship could of course feel no vibration and hear no sound, noting only the regular functioning of the vessel’s engines and the intimidating spectacle visible on the navigation cameras. The Hyperion had rotated itself in orbit until its bow was directed towards the planet, and its foremost segment had yawned open to reveal a cylindrical emitter sheltered beneath the armor plating. A pillar of light blue energy tinged with purple, dimmed by the cameras for the pilot’s safety, now streamed towards the planet’s surface, creating a distortion in the atmosphere far below.
Receiving a signal from the Hyperion, the AI activates the intercom in the infantry cabin, and the voice of Dr. Matthers filters through. “Operations are within safe parameters and the warp tunnel is stable; all dropships are prepared to move in on my mark. Remember: this won’t be any different from an ordinary descent, and we’ve made sure the pilots will keep clear of the beam.” Some grip their seats tighter, glancing at the screen displaying the image from the cameras, almost regretting the lack of a warning message forcing them to abort and turn back. As a countdown appears on the general display, Simmons speaks to those present before they descend.
“Alright men, two minute countdown has started, so strap in and hold on tight. Somehow, I think this isn’t going down without a hitch. Once we’re down there it won’t be any different than the usual hell, so get your helmets on before we get spaced.” Marcus and the corporal chuckle at his suspicion; several of their squad mates join in. Each moves to place his helmet over his head, and the corporal also positions the ventilator over his mouth and nose, making sure it’s set properly. He then presses the sealing lock near the bottom jaw and allows his suit do the rest.
The open panels on the bottom of the helmet snap shut and lock with a whine, and the ventilator immediately begins circulating dry but cool air, designers having noted the importance of avoiding suffocation until the helmet is secure. The display screen inside the visor lights up with meaningless diagnostic information, before sections of the HUD are allocated into displays of ammunition, equipment, and bearing. The suit’s artificial muscle secures itself to the helmet around his neck, making concussion and whiplash nonexistent dangers.
Now fully protected from the outside environment in his suit of assault armor, the corporal leans back into his combined seat and launching mechanism, in position for the clamps to lock into place. He shuts his eyes for a brief moment, and the radio chatter of the rest of the squad fades into background noise. Can’t believe I’m still doing this after we lost the Titan array on Atlas. We’re all soldiers, and are trained to meet death at all times, but… His hands clench with suppressed anger. Still isn’t easy when you’re watching your friends die around you. The clamps suddenly lower and hold him in position, and his eyes snap open in surprise.
“Ten second mark – everyone get ready!” The vibrations from the engines increase, and the voices inside the dropship go silent. All know that this is the critical moment; the point at which they will either continue on to complete the mission, or have their lives abruptly ended. The dropship moves forward, increasing in speed until its distance to the crackling beam drops below 200 meters. It veers downwards, following the beam’s path towards the vortex in the planet’s atmosphere, instead of approaching at an angle to avoid disintegrating during descent.
The dropship slips inside, and the AI devotes its considerable processing power to keeping the ship under control. Most within the cabin watch the navigational cameras, driven either by fear or curiosity of the unknown. The vessel begins to roll slightly, but steadies even as blue lightning splinters through the space around them. The dropship moves through a tunnel of green light; the beam piercing through its core and an impermeable black shroud cloaking both origin and destination from view.
Despite the intimidating display, the zone between the wall and beam remains relatively tranquil, and only minor corrections are needed to stay the dropship on its course. Several minutes of uneventful travel pass, and the corporal mutters, “Looks like Matthers was right about this being a smooth ride. Huh.” A glance at the clock, countdown to enter the tunnel now gone, shows only a few seconds remain before the exit is reached. “Well, time to see what we came here for.”
The shroud blotting out the forward camera has nearly halved in size, and as the timer reaches zero, it contracts into a point before ballooning outwards from its center, clouds visible below. As the dropship hurtles through the opening, gravity again makes its presence known, forcing the AI to carefully mete out thrust to avoid blacking out its cargo. Once leveled out, it slows to cruising speed before Andrews relays commands to his squad.
“Alright, we’ll form up at cruising speed around the portal. I’ll hail the Hyperion; let ‘em know we made it. Simmons’s dropship will take condition readings; the rest will start topographic and visual scans so we can find a drop zone.” After sounds of acknowledgement echo through his headset, a link to the cruiser above is opened for him by the AI. “Hyperion, this is Sergeant Andrews; Lambda squad has made planet fall and are holding formation near the warp portal. Scan data is being processed and we’ll have a landing zone soon; please advise.”
Only white noise returns through his helmet. Scowling under his visor, Andrews again tries to contact his superiors. “Hyperion, this is Sergeant Andrews, do you copy?” Only the hiss of static answers his query. “Damnit. This is Sergeant Andrews of Lambda squad, do-”
He is cut off as a voice at last responds to his increasingly strained attempts at communication. “Greetings, landing team. This is Dr. Matthers, and if you’re hearing this recording, then interference has currently made it impossible for you to contact me.” Andrews swears aloud, agitation at this turn of events coming to a head. “Don’t worry; this contingency was prepared for: find a landing zone and deploy infantry while holding back support until the need arises. If a terrain map is obtained within ten minutes of arrival, send a dropship back through the portal. Otherwise, hold position until the portal reopens, since you wouldn’t get through it in time.”
“Well, that’s just perfect.” Sighing, Andrews reopens communications with the rest of his squad while bringing up the AI’s progress on the map. “Simmons, how’re those readings coming? We’re on a timetable here.”
In the other dropship, a frown flickers across Simmons’s face; the anxiety obvious in the sergeant’s voice. “Atmospheric readings indicate pressures are… comparable to those on Earth, along with temperature. Background radiation is also negligible.” Confusion is readily apparent in his voice; for indeed, how could one world perfectly mirror another in every way? “The AI’s are having a hard time with the visual scans, though; we came out right over a cloud bank, and the portal’s corona is also causing interference.”
“Yes, I can see that.” Andrews sighs. “Why did the site have to be on the dark side of the planet when we got here? Nothing’s ever easy.” A tone sounds in his visor, and a display containing many curved lines and shapes appears. “At least the topographic scans are in. Alright, support ships stay at cruising speed near the portal; Simmons, bring your dropship around and follow mine. We’ll head down and see about getting some visual scans while approaching… this drop point.” A red dot appears on the map, near a relatively flat area.
“Acknowledged, sir,” Simmons responds. “Forming up on your six.”
As their dropship begins to angle downwards, the corporal begins to check his equipment again; a nervous habit that serves a useful purpose. His assault rifle accepts its magazine with no trouble, and he lays it across his lap before pulling a weathered, heavy caliber pistol from his side. He ejects the cartridge, then reloads the firearm and pulls the slide back as though chambering a round, though he stops short of doing so. As his thumb runs across the barrel, Marcus breaks radio silence to talk. “Why’s he leavin’ the support behind? They’re supposed to fly right in with us; less distance between them and us in case we need somethin’.”
The corporal shakes his head, returning the pistol to its storage mount at his hip. “No idea. Maybe he’s just being cautious; doesn’t make sense to send everything down at once if there’s a risk.”
“Then why send the soldiers in first? Why not send in those hunks of metal instead?” The corporal starts to understand the implications being made. “I’m tellin’ ya, something about this just doesn’t feel right.”
“Maybe you’re right and maybe you’re not, but whichever it is, I trust Andrews. He knows more about what he’s doing than any of us here. Besides,” he turns to look at the monitor, night sky now obscured by the cloud bank. “Nothing we can do about it now.” His fingers tap nervously on his assault rifle.
* * * * *
Sakuya hurries along hallways and down the occasional stair, footsteps echoing in the dim light before joining in the suspended murmur of background noise. Candles rest in fixtures on the walls and cast a yellowed light around the maid, though their light does not flicker as she passes. She moves at a rapid, disheveled pace for some time, turning into corridors seemingly at random until at last she comes before a wooden door in a seldom traveled area of the mansion.
Pulling a darkened key with two rows of teeth from a pocket in her dress, she unlocks the door and pushes on the handles. The candles again begin to flicker and murmurs fade from hearing as the portal opens, wood creaking under its own weight. Carefully hewn steps of grey stone lead downwards, and Sakuya proceeds forward until the stairs level out into another hall. No doors line its side; only a carefully crafted oak door rests at its end. A faint rhyme can be heard from what lies beyond as the maid approaches the portal.
“-said the Beetle. ‘With my thread and needle, I’ll make the shroud.’ ‘Who’ll dig his grave?’ ‘I,’ said the Owl. ‘With my pick and shovel I’ll dig his grave.’ ‘Who’ll be-’”
Knocking twice against the wood, Sakuya asks, “Miss Flandre, pardon my interruption, but may I come in?”
A soft shuffling is heard behind the door. “Oh, it’s Sakuya.” A pause. “Mm, come in.”
Letting out a quiet breath of relief, the maid turns the doorknob and steps into the room beyond. Stuffed animals lie here and there against the walls, along with books carelessly left where they’d fallen instead of returned to their shelves. A dresser and lamp sit beside a large bed set against the far wall, and the source of the rhyming voice rests atop it.
Of the same stature as the lady of the mansion, she wears a white blouse beneath red vest and matching skirt, and a white mop hat lies beside her. Lying halfway off the bed, she rolls over as Sakuya enters and pulls herself upright, sitting wariza-style on top of the sheets. Her red eyes widen suddenly in remembrance, and she smiles as she says, “Ah! Good morning, Sakuya. Or, is it nighttime?”
Returning her smile, the maid replies, “It is night right now; you almost guessed it this time.”
Flandre scowls. “Awww. So why are you here? Did you sneak away from Remi, or did she tell you to come talk to me?” Though she smiles, her tone holds a hint of resignation.
“She wanted you to come join her in the observatory. There is… It’s a beautiful night out, and she thought you might enjoy seeing the night sky.”
“Oh.” For once. The thought remains unvoiced as she swings her legs forward, feet dangling off the bed. “This has something to do with that ringing sound, right?” Her eyes lock with those of the maid, and each stares unyielding at the other for nearly a minute.
The maid remains silent. “Well! I haven’t been upstairs in a while, so I think I’ll head up. Lemme just put my shoes on.” Jumping forward, Flandre walks towards the door and slides her feet into a pair of red Mary Janes, tugging on the straps until they tighten. Satisfied, she stands and folds her hands behind her back, looking over her shoulder at Sakuya. “Gonna come?”
“Of course, Miss Flandre.” The maid re-enters the hall and waits for Flandre to pass, closing the door to her room before walking ahead to lead the way. She waits again for the girl at the top of the stairs, though the heavy wooden doors are merely closed instead of locked. The pair continues to move through the mansion, silence rather than muffled echoes now hanging in the maid’s ears and wearing at her mind.
At the base of the final flight of stairs, her concentration is broken by the sudden exclamation of her charge. “Hey! This painting is new, right? It wasn’t here before, right?” Flandre points at a framed canvas mounted on the wall, an oil painting of an expansive garden surrounded by red brick walls lying far away in the background.
Sakuya nods, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “You are correct. The mistress painted that just over a year ago, in the spring.”
“Thought so. See Sakuya? I notice when things change.” Humming happily to herself, Flandre skips to catch up with the maid, passing her and climbing several steps before turning back. “C’mon, it would be bad to keep Remi waiting.” Mood lightened, the pair continues on its way until the observatory doors lie open in front of them.
Flandre stares at the glowing viewing crystal as she enters, then runs ahead of Sakuya as she catches sight of Remilia. “Sister!”
The latter turns, and a mixture of happiness, relief, and something else fills her eyes as the girl in red and white runs toward her. “It’s good to see you, Flandre. How have you been?”
“Mmm, alright I guess. It’s boring without stuff to do, though. Already read all my books a bunch of times, so it’d be nice if you visited more.” Remilia twitches almost imperceptibly at her sister’s implied accusation, though Flandre continues speaking as though nothing were wrong. “Anyways, this room is for looking at the sky, right? Sounds great~. I haven’t seen it since…” She trails off, at last noticing the green light wavering over the floor and walls. Turning sharply to the focusing lens, and seeing it isn’t the source, she slowly raises her eyes to the sky.
A sound of joy rushes from Flandre’s lips as she takes in the display reaching across the night sky, its colors completely different from anything she’s seen before. “So cool! Hey, what is that; what’s happening?!” She points upwards excitedly, bouncing on her heels.
Smile dropping from her face, Remilia answers, “That is the source of the noise you’ve been hearing, and is probably what caused that pulse, too. Patchouli,” she gestures at the magician, “tracked what caused it with the observatory’s lens. It’s something, or rather several somethings, from the Outside, flying through into Gensokyo.”
Flandre remains silent, and Remilia’s brow creases in worry. “You felt the pain it caused, didn’t you? You know that if they come here, it might get worse. Sakuya said she can no longer hear the sound, but we both do, and so does Patchouli.” Remilia rests a hand on her sister’s shoulder. “They’re targeting youkai. You know what that means for us, and for this land we live in. I know you can help by-”
“You want me to destroy it, don’t you?” Flandre’s shoulder droops under Remilia’s hand. “Figures. Of course you wouldn’t let me out just to talk; you want me to do something for you.” She shrugs her sister’s hand off, then violently shakes her head once. “Fine. Even if it’s in the sky, I can find its Eye. I’ll find it, and make it break.”
She throws her head back, irises blood red and pupils narrowed as her sister’s were; the corner of her mouth is tugged back in a sneer. Slowly, she raises her right hand, palm upwards, until her forearm is level with the floor. Her fingers bend and straighten slowly, occasionally twitching, until her fingertips snap together, as though her thumb, index, and middle finger were pinching a thread. Her eyes close, and she squeezes her hand into a fist. “HhmmMM!”
* * * * *
Alarms blared inside the dropship, and the radios of the squad members echo with a cacophony of nonsensical shouting. Simmons was yelling into his headset, probably to the sergeant, but the corporal merely stared, dazed, at the horror residing in the seat across from his. Where a soldier should be, seated and at the ready, there was only a sphere of empty air that breached the hull, and a pair of legs, severed below the knees, with blood oozing out the top. One arm left behind had been pulled out through breach, while the other had rolled onto the floor, and was now bleeding from a curved, perfectly made cut.
Impossible…It – it can’t be. Must be the stims; yeah, that’s it, just gotta focus. This is a hallucination, no way this is real; Marcus can’t possibly be…! His right hand reaches forward slowly, fingers shaking; the need to dispel the illusion fighting against the knowledge that, somehow, this was real. We were just sitting here, then you just - twisted, and were gone…
A blow to his outstretched arm snaps the corporal back to reality. Simmons stand over him, urgently shouting, “Focus! Get back and secure your damn weapon! We’re launching in twenty; Andrews’s ship went down, and the AI can’t see a thing. Squad’s dropping in befo-” The hideous sound of stretching metal fills their ears, before warping into a different noise; it resembles nothing shearing metal can make, more similar to a bending of plastic or ceramic.
A sharp lurch to the right throws the corporal backwards in his restraints, and he struggles to return his assault rifle to its storage clamp. Weightlessness begins to take hold as the dropship angles downwards, and the flat tone of the AI sounds through his headset: “Cannot level out, emergency launch engaged. Launching in five,”
The rifle clicks into place.
He leans back, arms at his sides, and eyes closed.
His seat rotates backwards 180 degrees, and the clamps help him straighten into a torpedo of metal.
Here we go.
A loud rush of air sounds as he blasts out of the launch tube. Diving headfirst and expecting to see the ground above him, he looks up, and dismays when he sees the horizon instead. “The launch was off,” he mutters, and spreads his arms and legs to burn off velocity. Movement slowed, he begins to tumble toward the ground, falling ingloriously into this strange and unwelcoming land.
Looks like the whole "non-CYOA" thing was less likely than I thought.
Wind buffeted the corporal as he descended, all sense of orientation briefly lost after the abrupt effort to stall his flight. Sky and ground repeatedly whip past his vision in a dizzying dance, and he fights to keep his breathing even. Once the shock of freefall passes, he mutters, “Gotta get the spinning under control, then level out.” With a thought, he activates the maneuvering jets housed on his shoulders, allowing the suit’s computer to correct his movement.
“Flight controls locked down, following insertion,” a clear, artificial voice announces beside his ear. “Thruster firing delayed.”
The idea of strangling the engineer who thought removing navigational control after deployment was a good idea passes through the corporal’s head. His descent, however, proves a more pressing issue, and so he focuses his eyes on the spinning horizon indicator, slowly straightening his right arm while tucking his left against his body. The difference in drag at first throws him around more violently than before, but as precious seconds tick away, bit by bit the indicator slows; his fall gradually becomes more controlled and stable. When he at last stops rolling, he extends his left arm and levels off, facing the ground below.
From the corner of his eye he sees a flicker of light, and turning to look reveals the flaming mass of a dropship careening towards the ground. God, I hope everyone made it out before it was too late. He briefly recalls an image of Marcus’s face, before filing it away with those others the corporal knew in life. Now’s not the time to get distracted; need to land and regroup with the squad. The altimeter in the visor decreases at a steady pace, showing several thousand meters yet remain before he lands. Satisfied, he pulls up the topographic map and gazes through his helmet at the landscape below.
Most striking is the unnatural darkness clinging to the ground, or rather, how the absence of mankind and his preference for light has left it shadowed. In his time as a soldier, the corporal had primarily engaged the enemy at outposts and bases, in areas bathed with the illumination of lamps or floodlights. Night operations were obviously a mandatory aspect of training, and their armor was equipped with low light and IR sensors, but this would be one of the first times he’d have to rely on them fully.
“Engage low light.” A ping of acknowledgement sounds, and the murky image on the visor brightens into a monochromatic view. A large area covered in forest is visible directly below, spreading to both the front and right. It reaches to the base of a mountain, their junction now illuminated by the flickering light cast by the remnants of the shattered dropship. Past the forest’s opposite edge, several more pinpricks of light stand out against the ground, though these remain still and faint.
A burst of sound from the corporal’s headset diverts his attention. “Lambda squad, this is Sergeant Andrews. Rendezvous point’s near the dropship; get to ground and overdrive into position, immediately! We’ll hold there before engaging whatever the hell shot us down.” A heading bracket appears to the visor’s left, and another appears on the map. “Do not land west of the point, or you’ll have to pull your sorry ass out of a lake.” Sure enough, beyond the drop point and the surrounding forest lies a large, nearly uniform zone of dark gray, devoid of lines on the topographic map.
After acknowledging Andrews’s command, the corporal hesitates for a moment. Planets only had breathable atmosphere after years of successful terraforming, yet here, the massive facilities needed for such an undertaking were absent. “Maybe… was this why Matthers is interested in this rock?”
The steadily approaching ground stems the thought process. “Now’s not the time. Land first, get debriefed later. No use speculating when whatever took out the dropships is still out there.”
Altitude: 3849 m Descent: 58 m/s
[ ] Keep gliding for now; get as close to the rendezvous point as possible before landing.
[ ] Tuck in limbs, activate shields, and Burn In where you are.
Once on the ground,
[ ] Proceed carefully to the point; watch for hostiles.
[ ] Sprint quickly towards the point; avoid hostiles.
[ ] Activate Overdrive; get to the point as fast as possible.
[ ] Optional: run suit diagnostic. (Inventory check)
[x] Keep gliding for now; get as close to the rendezvous point as possible before landing.
[x] Activate Overdrive; get to the point as fast as possible.
[x] Optional: run suit diagnostic. (Inventory check)
Suit diagnostic will possibly prevent fancy things from the suit, so gliding will give us time for that before we land.
I'm not sure exactly what Overdrive is, but we've been ordered to use it.
By the way, I do know of AN overdrive. It's from this system that this guy was testing out, and it turned off shields for a turn in exchange for letting a unit move four squares instead of one.
Damnations! No one told me this suddenly became a CYOA! I feel betrayed!
As to choices:
[X] Tuck in limbs, activate shields, and Burn In where you are.
-[X] Quickly disengage from landing site, in case you are being tracked while in the air.
With no idea of what shot our intrepid hero down, who's to know if it could pick up a goddamn jetpack equipped big thermal signature in the sky and engage it? We know they have anti-air, or something similar, but once on the ground we're in our natural habitat. We can take it from there.
[X] Proceed carefully to the point; watch for hostiles.
Furthermore we should keep on comms (possibly with a compromised communications check) for any information anyone else has garnered on hostiles or indigenous troubles. We've gone in blind once, and look what it got us. Now's the time that we need all the information we can get. Goodness forbid any more of our troopers fall to the dangers of a ripe world of flora and fauna... but perhaps we can avoid the same fate, even if they do.
[X] Optional: run suit diagnostic. (Inventory check)
Because seriously. Did we even grab our gun on the way out?