USD: Thirty minutes after entering Szizsielia’s Hive
Location: Nu Crateris System, Dedia IV, Near Tifara, Szizsielia’s Hive
Elis paused at yet another intersection. Her acoustic imager had been feeding her back miles and miles of tunnels that seemed to snake out like long strands of angel hair pasta. Shit, Alex’s food craze was starting to invade her thoughts.
They all seemed to converge toward one central point, but that section hadn’t shown up on the map yet.
What had caused her to stop was the fact that they had already moved deep into the system. They had passed multiple intersections with no contact. The mucus lined walls dripped slime quietly in every direction. She had left mobile Sentri turrets and a few defense bots at each intersection, but a growing unease and continued to bite at her.
She raised a hand and signaled a stop to her robot companion.
“I don’t like this. Let’s pull back and exfiltrate.”
An agreeing “Boop” from Booper echoed through the cavern.
They didn’t make it to the previous intersection before a sudden litany of red markers lit up on her seismic sensors.
“Fuck, it is a trap! Booper, pick up the pace.”
The command was superfluous. The robot was actually slowing itself down to keep pace with her, even though it had to sometimes duck slightly when the tunnel ceiling lowered.
Ahead of them a Sentri turret blared out rapid-fire bursts, the motorized servo whirling angrily as it twisted and turned to point down the multiple entry points to the area.
Elis could read the red dots, a biting realization that they would not make it out. She dialed her comm, punching a high-powered comm packet out, detailing their distress and requesting backup. It was questionable whether it would reach anyone with so much rock overhead.
As they reached the intersection, Booper’s miniguns blasted the Rexxor that had just reached the turret. The large shells blew holes in the smaller doglike creatures, sending them hurling away in a mess of gore, but then a spike slammed into the turret, silencing the gun completely.
Looking at the map, there was no way they were going to make it out the way they came. Elis realized they must have hidden in the walls, staying silent and waiting the entire time they had been exploring.
“Booper, AM mini-charge, max power. Collapse the tunnel.”
She could barely hear its response through the head pounding racket of the guns blasting away, but she was grateful to see the robot’s central chassis prop open and then fling a round orb into the chamber.
Elis didn’t wait. She began running back down the tunnel, deeper into the cave system. Ahead, a thin line of the red dots appeared, but it was still much thinner than what was behind them.
Stretching her legs, she ran as fast as she could in her power armor, but Booper quickly caught up. She reached up and grabbed one of the miniguns and pulled herself up to ride along.
A spike coming from behind impacted the ceiling near them in a cloud of exploding rock and dust, but before she could turn and return fire, the AM charge went off.
A massive overpressure wave washed over Elis and Booper, and the bot staggered and nearly tripped. Booper caught itself, though, and they continued to careen down the tunnel. The mucus in front of them had caught fire as the oxygen was rapidly consumed and her MK4B suit switched to internal reserves.
Multiple small Rexxor tried to jump out at them randomly, and Elis had to switch to assisted aiming while firing her rifle one handed while Booper’s free minigun blasted anything that appeared in front of them.
She lost track of time and everything else in their desperate charge. She realized she’d gone through an entire rifle magazine when her gun spurted out-of-ammo warnings at her.
Soon after Booper’s minigun clicked empty as well, and she barely flipped herself around to set herself on the now empty arm to allow the bot to continue clearing the way.
Booper was flinging them down the tunnel as fast as it could, and the jarring gait threatened to dislodge her. More than one Rexxor had gotten close enough to try to claw out the robot’s legs, but powerful steel kicks sent the smaller ones flying.
The servos in her suit’s arm straining, Elis clicked her rifle into its slot on her front before doing her best to reach a liquid feed line on Booper’s back. She slipped, almost falling off and being left behind, but recovered by grabbing another handhold lower down.
Her legs were dangling as she claimed the feed line, and one of the doglike creatures bit at her ankles before receiving a booted foot between the eyes, sending its charge to a bumpy, rolling stop.
“Ertan fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Swinging herself back up the chassis when Booper leaped over a crack in the floor, she secured a foothold. Then she plugged the liquid feed line into the back of Booper’s empty minigun just as they entered the threshold of a massive cavern.
“Right! Booper swap to flammables!”
USD: At the same time
Location: Nu Crateris System, Dedia IV, Near Tifara, Szizsielia’s Hive
Szizsielia had done her best to herd her children back to the nest after she had regained her mind. The savage overload of painful radiation had reached through her connection with her scout-eyes and sent her into unconsciousness for hours.
By the time she had awoke, many of them had already rampaged to the nearby small soft-skin nest and immolated themselves on their deadly defenses.
The ones closer to the hive had returned, but the ones further had stubbornly refused, the distance weakening her hold on them. She was not as developed as her mother, so controlling so many enraged spawns was impossible.
Instead, she did her best to guide them, to prevent them from throwing their lives away, laying traps and ambushes. The results had been of mixed success. Worse, the soft-skins had come out of their nest to hunt. Their scouts seemed to quickly find the line of her children leading all the way back to her nest.
When they had found an entrance to the hive, she had coaxed her children into sleep. Already she was growing more and more traps to protect the hive, but they would take time to grow and develop.
When the hard-shelled soft-skin and its triumvi entered the tunnel, Szizsielia worried. She did not pretend that she could win a war against them.
Now that they had come to her nest, she was confident in defending it, but nothing could stop the sky-fire spikes, or worse… the starfire that had immolated her mother’s hive completely.
Szizsielia could still feel the tremors of that vibrating through the planet, and the fearful whispers of her sisters as they prepared for a new long winter.
Watching as the intruders dived deeper into her nest, she noticed immediately when they turned and fled.
It was time to spring the trap.
With a thought, she urged her children to wakefulness, instilling in them anger at the invasion. They churned and woke quickly, breaking free of their cocoons inside the hive’s walls to begin the hunt.
It was with great displeasure that Szizsielia found the soft-skin had left its metal weapons behind at the tunnel junctures. Many nestlings found their end rushing to end them, but they were fearless in their rage and a hunter killed it just as the soft-skin and her triumvi arrived at the scene.
That should have been the end of them, as her horde descended on them. She was sure they would try to fight their way out of the caves and into the bulk of her spawn.
Instead, they turned and fled deeper, straight toward her. Worse, they somehow used a miniature starfire orb inside the juncture, causing it to collapse and stifle all her children chasing them.
Desperately she called the children in front of the invaders to block their path and the rest of the nest to wake and come to her chamber in the center of all tunnels.
She had few triumvi herself, but they were close and when the two intruders burst into her birthing chamber, they were ready along with a horde of newly hatched nestlings.
Bullets slammed into the nest’s armored triumvi and although some carved deep wounds in their hides, most glanced off their boney armor. The nestlings were less lucky as the smaller hard-shelled soft-skin used its weapon to cull them.
It was the sudden rush of flames that startled Szizsielia the most. The nest was particularly flammable, and the sudden geyser of liquid flame left long walls of fire burning on the cavern floor. She felt the oxygen suck away quickly and had to use her internal storage to supplement her breathing.
The liquid fire stuck to whatever it touched, and dozens of nestlings rolled and shrieked in agony as the fire burned through their thin hides.
The triumvi roared a challenge, and one charged the metal triumvi of the soft-skins, slamming into it headfirst while swinging its razor shark tusks in an attempt to dismember the steel creature.
The clash of metal against bone sounded through the chamber, and the creature of metal slid backwards as it struggled to remain standing on its two legs. The blade caught on its spike spitter and a sudden explosion ripped the weapon off completely.
She thought the fight would be over then, but the small hard-shelled soft-skin emitted thought tendrils before it leaped from the back of its steel companion onto her triumvi’s head.
Szizsielia did not understand the danger until it was too late, screeching in distress as the small creature plunged a beam of weaponized light into her elder spawn’s eye socket and into its softer brain tissues.
That, by itself, would not kill it, but it was a grave wound and the metal creature proceeded to slam the stunned triumvi into a wall with a heavy kick.
Her second eldest child roared in anger, pawing the floor with one of its legs as it prepared to charge, a horde of nestlings falling from the ceiling and coming out of the nearby tunnels. Spitters followed behind them.
Szizsielia knew her nest would not lose to these invaders. The lull in the battle, with both sides facing each other, gave her pause. She could win against them here, but if the soft-skins sent their starfire from the heavens, her nest would evaporate like her mother’s nest.
She had felt the thought-tendrils come from the hard-shelled soft-skin and its metal triumvi. They were not mindless.
With a sudden decision, she commanded her children to halt. Rage, anger, and all its forms of fury emanated from her children, and some sought to fight her will, but here in the hive, so close to her, they had no choice but to obey.
Opening her nesting cocoon, she slid out and exposed herself to the cooler, dry air of the hive for the first time since she had dug the first tunnel of the hive hundreds of cycles before. She was much larger now, towering over her own triumvi as her clitters lifted her majestic form and carried her forward.
All her children turned and bowed to her as she passed through their number. Szizsielia came to a stop before her angry triumvi, which had watched its brother be beaten. She pressed a feeler on its head and stroked it gently, urging it to calm.
Then she did something entirely alien to her. She bowed to the hard-shelled soft-skin and carefully sent out her own thought tendrils in an attempt to see if it could communicate.
USD: A short time later
Location: Nu Crateris, Dedia IV Orbit, Tears of Fire, CIC
Alex replayed the distorted fragment of a message that they had received from Elis and Booper for the fifth time. She had Nameless doing everything he could to boost the signal and clean up the garbled mess, but it wasn’t working.
The only thing she hadn’t ordered was for the ship to break orbit and fly down to the surface.
When she had learned that the militia had sent Elis into the cave, she wanted to murder them.
It had been almost an hour since they had gone in.
Alex chewed on her fingernails.
[Notice: The 31st Air-wing has finished a mission prep and has launched two bombers toward the last known coordinates of crewmember Elis and Drone #3131. ETA: 38 minutes. Intelligence Analysis indicates bunker busting munitions.]
“I thought they couldn’t fly in the ash.”
[Informative: It is highly likely the air units will require extensive maintenance and repairs. A single short duration flight will be possible.]
Alex pulled up the map to see the bomber’s flight path. It ended right where Elis had gone into the caves.
They were going to bomb her before she got out. Whether they thought she was already dead, or just didn’t care about blowing up Elis, Alex didn’t know. She didn’t care. She stabbed the comm console key with a finger and dialed Brigadier Taverson.
“Blue-Star to Oaktree, get me Oaktree Actual, over.”
“Oaktree to Blue-star Actual, one moment.”
Alex waited. For thirty seconds.
“Nameless, can we target those aircraft with our lasers from here?”
[Notice: Severe degradation from ash storm will reduce laser effectiveness. However, a sustained volley of laser fire would provide lethal damage in several seconds.]
“I want a tactical analysis on everything around us that is armed with any ship mounted weapon or that might pose a threat.”
[Affirmative: Performing tactical analysis. Results will display on the main screen with targeting priorities.]
Alex watched as the map populated. The space elevator, most of the freighters, and even a few shuttles that were ferrying supplies all turned red. The Iron Horse was marked in a vibrant orange as the most heavily armed ship nearby.
“Oaktree to Blue-Star Actual. The Brigadier is busy at the moment. Can I relay to him for you?”
“Yes. Tell Taverson I’m about to shoot down his two birds while pin cushioning everything the colony has in orbit that could shoot back at us… and if they somehow drop their ordnance on my people anyway, I will glass Dedia Prime and whatever bunker he is hiding in.”
“Uhh. I’ll inform him directly, Blue-Star. Wait one.”
A second comm light lit up.
“Alex? Alex? Do you read me? This is Elis. We have a situation on the ground, over.”
Alex bit her lip, relief and agitation warring in her voice, “We have a situation up here too. What’s going on?”
Elis’s voice crackled on the radio sounding unsure. “Uhm, the Rexxor Queen seems to have agreed to a ceasefire. Or at least… it’s not eating us and they stopped attacking?”
Alex blinked in confusion. “What?”