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A note from Luca De Rosa

Space warfare!

Bonus chapter today, yay!

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22 – Fight thy neighbor

Ramirez – Near the Interloper

Ramirez made her way towards the small hangar bay, still feeling the familiar sensation of artificial weight pushing her down. The Desolation was slowly closing in on the asteroid, trying to position itself as close to the thing as possible while still being a safe distance away.

Not the best choice, tactically speaking, but one she appreciated nonetheless. She was one of the three members of the away team, after all, and the idea of being left behind in case things went south did not appeal to her much.

She donned her helmet, and after the thumbs up from Smith made her way into the shuttle. The shuttle itself was just a white metal rectangle, with seats for all fourteen people. She sat down, and let the engineer take control of the vehicle.

Soon after she was weightless again, and the hangar bay door slid open revealing a corridor leading outside. The shuttle’s engines hummed to life and they took off, speeding upwards as usual in order to have the artificial gravity pointing downwards.

She could already see the grey space rock out of the windows on the ceiling, looming closer and closer. She was excited right now. Very excited.

She licked her lips in anticipation, before suddenly remembering she had another thing to do before she got there. She reached a wall and touched it, letting her implants synchronize with the contents of the storage unit.

Satisfied, she sat back.

“We’re here.” Said Smith, as their weight disappeared again.

“All suited up?” She asked. Smith and the other soldier whose name she ignored confirmed. “Weapons?” The soldier waved his rifle, while Smith shook his head. A bit dejected he put a few instruments on his belt and reached for his personal handgun.

“Opening airlock inner door.” Said the engineer, and the three stepped into the small space between the two doors. The air was quickly sucked away, leaving the room in an eerie silence.

Then the outer door slid open, revealing the vast empty expanse of space all around them. Only a thin second skin in the way between her and the void. The asteroid was just a few meters away, shining bright against the blackness. Its broken airlock just under a hundred meters away.

The three stepped out, propelled by their compressed air thrusters. There was no perceptible gravity here, nothing but the jets of gas moving their bodies and suits around.

The crystal structures all around the airlock shimmered in the sunlight, their purple colors sick and corrupted. Some even had something akin to vein structures pulsing in their insides, trapped deep within the solid crystal matrix of their exterior. Ever so slowly crawling their way towards the outside, as if moving in slow motion.

“Stay away from the crystals.” She said, carefully maneuvering around the things. The other two, she noticed, were not flying manually but had given up control to their suit LAI.

Finally, they reached the opening. It was barely wide enough for one person to step through. She already spotted Smith trying to take a peek.

“Wait there, big guy.” She said. “These first.” She motioned for the two dark spheres floating behind her to go forward, their actions completely under her command. On their sides, two small metal protrusions extended outwards and burned a faint orange. On the front of said protrusions, large flashlights lit up and illuminated the dark corridor.

Just behind the two bots, the three people followed.

The corridor looked like a mine tunnel dug in the rock. It was small and cramped, bare rock hiding sickly red veins full of liquid under its surface. A faint red light seemed to emanate from there, but it was almost impossible to tell as the two bots flooded the corridor with their cold white light.

At the end of the corridor, another airlock waited. It was closed shut, the barely recognizable electronics looking like a twisted amalgam of technology and organic matter and oddly resembling standard wall panels. The wall was covered in crystals, much like the one outside, but all of them had veins pulsing inside. Some veins even left the crystals and embedded themselves in the walls and in the metal of the door.

“Smith?” Ramirez said.

“On it.” The man replied, and gingerly floated towards the door. There was silence for a bit while he fumbled around with his tools, trying to open the damn thing. “I think we can manually open it now.” He finally said, after a few tense minutes.

Ramirez and the other grunt positioned themselves on the sides and pulled with all their might, their suits’ servos helping them by multiplying their strength many folds. Something gave, and the slabs of stone and metal slid open.

They closed the door behind them and repeated the operation with the other door. A rush of air invaded the room as soon as a small fissure was opened. It was dusty with slightly green hue and with it, it carried the many sounds of the inside. Alarm bells, or something similar to that, and the sound of snapping and tearing.

“Don’t remove the helmets.” She warned, looking around. There were tendrils of red now crawling on the walls of the airlock, once pristine, creeping close to them but not quite so. Like they were avoiding them.

“Of course, I’m not an idiot.”

They found themselves in a large open room. The bots illuminated large swaths of wall with their powerful lights, revealing not stone and gravel, but living matter. The same purple color of the crystals outside, but this time the whole wall looked like it was made of sick flesh. Dark red veins pulsing and writhing on its surface, vibrations betraying more of those veins hidden deep inside the walls. Large white sacs dotted the wall in many places.

“This…” she muttered. Her stomach hurt; her vision wanted to swim but she repressed it with the force of her will. She checked on her weapon, making sure it would work when it will inevitably be needed.

“We better be quick. This shit upsets me.” Said the soldier.

“Agreed.” Smith confirmed. His voice no longer excited at the discovery of something new.

A loud shouting and clicking noise froze them in their tracks. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, from the very walls. The diseased flesh of the walls vibrated with the power of the sound it was carrying.

“---nctions overridden.” A voice came soon after. There was no mistake about it, it had spoken English. And it was oddly similar to another voice they all knew very well, albeit distorted and sickly.

Ramirez gulped loudly, steeling herself before moving on. She tightened the mental leash she had on her bots, checking their weapon systems over and over again.

They kept going deeper and deeper inside the cavernous system, staying as far from the walls as possible. The red veins seemed to follow them, watching them like many eyes from the corners. But never actually coming close.

“---stem response. Aborted.” The voice said this time.

Something was not right about this place. A door flew open, its fleshy parts moving with a violence they were obviously not made for and suddenly rupturing. Ramirez found herself staring at the place with her finger pressed on the trigger. Wherever she aimed with her rifle when she pulled the trigger, the bots would shoot too.

She waited a bit. Then some more, but nothing came.

“---ptimal path opened. Please procee----ckly. Time is----”

The voice said, breaking down and reforming. Gurgling, gasping for air. As if it was alive, dying, dead. Sick, like the walls and the masses of flesh.

“This is ominous.” Said Smith, eyeing the door.

“The voice said she opened a path to somewhere. Should we follow?” Asked Ramirez.

“If she is who I think she is, then yes we should follow and hurry too.” He replied.

She agreed with him, carefully sending one of the bots to check what laid beyond the door. Immediately she emptied a whole magazine onto a figure laying on the ground, the bullets tearing it and the walls around it to shreds. A sick squelching sound accompanied the deafening bangs of the high caliber machine guns on the two floating orbs, then a loud noise as the bots’ main engines flared to life to stabilize them from the recoil.

“What’s there?” Asked Smith, voice trembling.

“There was something on the ground.” Ramirez replied, slowly peeking her head beyond the door’s frame. There was a mass of flesh on the ground, half molten and liquefied in the places where the gun’s bullet had not turned into paste. It had been dead for weeks already.

There were other similar corpses laying on the floor a bit further in, masses of indistinct putrefied flesh with pulsing red veins. The veins seemed to come from the floor itself, as if trying to reclaim the mass for themselves, but for some reason failing to.

The whole place looked like it was sick with something, infected. Dying.

“---measures have been aborted. Tim—” The voice said again, breaking up more often than not. It tried communicating again a few times, but said nothing intelligible. Whatever it was, it was on its last breaths.

“Quick.” Ramirez said. The three sped through the flesh hallways, always looking out for potential threats, and made their way to a square room.

There were consoles, or something akin to consoles, on one side. They were all grown out of the flesh the walls were made of, but they looked completely out of place with the design of the place. There were other structures in the room, with tubes full of liquid and the ever-present red veins going inside of them from the ceiling.

Poking out of one of the consoles, a shiny disk could be seen. It was made of polished metal, its very existence clashing with its surroundings. Ramirez gingerly extended a hand to examine it, and as soon as her hand reached for it, it detached from the wall. She put it in her suit’s isolated storage, basically a sealed pocket where she could keep potentially dangerous items.

She kept looking around. There were a couple pods, empty. A table made of stone, covered in a slimy-

“LEAVE” Yelled the voice.

“Intruders detected, activating counter------------ overridden. LEAVE, THERE IS NO TIME.” Said the voice again.

“Fuck.” Ramirez cursed under her breath. She and the other two as well seemed frozen in time, standing there in midair. “Let’s get outta here, fast!”

She sped through the corridors, no longer flying manually but letting the LAI plot an optimal course for her. One of her bots was ahead of the group while the other was on the rear, checking for threats.

“Containment protocols, active.” The voice said, and suddenly the walls came to life.

“Dodge!” Ramirez yelled, as she saw the other soldier get impaled by a tendril of fleshy matter coming from a wall. It tore through its suit like it was thin paper, dark red veins immediately covering the whole body from the outside. “Shit, shit.” She cursed, levelling her weapon. She could not leave the man here like this, she had no idea what those flesh tentacles could do to him.

They had not been prepared to fight an entire living asteroid.

She fired.

Her vision went dark, fog covering her mind.

The LAI still guiding her towards the exit.

The bots decimating entire tides of flesh coming their way from everywhere.

The rear bot got hit, the self-destruct initiated.

A large explosion tore open a part of the asteroid.

Go back and leave through it or use the airlock?

Too late, there were tendrils of living matter everywhere behind her.

She ordered the forward bot to blast the airlock open.

Smith rushed outside; a hand outstretched towards her. She didn’t understand, but took his hand anyway.

“What’s happening?” Eric’s voice over the comms shook her out of her stupor.

“We’re under attack!” Said Smith. Now that she thought about it, why hadn’t the captain made contact with them before? Was there some sort of strange field active inside the asteroid?

His hand jerked her towards him, making full use of its servo mechanisms. Something had grabbed her by the waist while she escaped, she turned around and blasted it to smithereens. She threw away her gun, useless weight now.

“Starting up the engines.” Said Smith, and soon after a plume of dust rose as the four white jets of plasma begun lifting the shuttle up.

She threw herself inside as soon as she could, and braced herself as the shuttle rose from the ground, burning hard. She barely strapped herself in, and then the five gravities of acceleration knocked her unconscious.

Eric

“Are they inside?” He asked.

“Three… two… yes they’re in.” Jackson replied. The shuttle’s arrival had not been graceful, managing to completely obliterate two thirds of the hangar bay. The airlock closed shut, fortunately, but the whole room was now a mess of contorted and molten metal. They had barely decelerated their entry, meaning they crashed with an energy comparable to a relativistic missile.

“Navigator, full burn. Two gees, now!” He yelled, then watched horrified as he saw the image of the asteroid changing. It was heating up in many different places along its several hundred meters frame. “Shit. Evasive maneuvers!” He ordered.

The Desolation jerked sideways as a railgun shot flew past it at a speed just shy of relativistic. They were not far enough to dodge an accurately shot mass like this, even with their full suite of sensors trained on the asteroid. They had been lucky this one missed its target.

“They missed us.” Jackson said. “They are quite slow for railgun shots, but still fast enough that we don’t yet have enough distance between us and them.” He added. “If they fired one at 10% c at us, we’d be toast. We can’t detect it fast enough with the light lag.”

“Do we blow it up?” Asked Eric.

“DON’T.” Yelled Smith, somehow managing to get to the central room from the shuttle even in two gravities of accelerated frame. “We don’t want to blast that shit living matter all around the solar system.”

“The fuck do we do then?” Eric asked, watching in the display as the point defense guns barely redirected another hunk of mass heading their way. Even with the redirection, both via laser and gunfire, the shot almost grazed them.

“Is it chasing?” He asked.

“Negative.” Jackson replied.

A loud crashing sound, followed by ripping steel deafened the people in the room. Air rushed out before stopping in place as the airtight doors closed the damaged section.

“Grazing shot, minimal damage. Engine tube six is out of commission.” Jackson reported.

“Rotate to compensate the missing thruster.” Eric said, then turned to Smith. “So, what if it’s not chasing?”

“It means,” he stroked his beard for a moment. “That it has no thrust capabilities for some reason. It will fall into the sun by itself in a few weeks, and I don’t believe it will be able to damage anything on its way.”

“That’s a hell of a gamble.” Eric replied.

“It stopped shooting at us.” Jackson said. All heads turned his way.

“Are we out of range or something?” Eric asked.

“Just a million clicks.” Said the navigator.

“That is not out of range, even out primitive railguns have much more range if we forego tracking accuracy.” Eric replied.

“Perhaps it’s damaged.” Said Jackson.

“It might have to do with the Machine’s voice we heard while inside.” Smith said.

“What? The fucking Machine?” Eric yelled, surprised.

“Yeah, long story short, I think their computer system or its equivalent got hacked. That’s why the thing is damaged and falling into the sun.”

“So, are we safe?” Eric asked impatiently, eyes glued to the hologram in fear another projectile would come.

“I think we are, yes.” Replied the bearded engineer.

“Okay.” He breathed, steadying his thumping heart. “Full one gee, let’s go back home.”

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Luca De Rosa

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