The Soyuz crew didn’t survive the impact.
Basil only had to take a look through the broken window to confirm it. Two dead astronauts lay inside the capsule: one facedown against a complex panel of switches and buttons, the other a charred skeleton with a shattered helmet. The corpse’s ghoulish visage of bones and burning flesh was frozen into a ghastly grin. The third ‘seat’—if Basil could call a bed of metal and airbags that—between the two remained unoccupied.
They may have died during the landing, perhaps earlier. A quick glance at the second corpse’s chest confirmed Basil's hypothesis. The astronaut’s spacesuit showed steaming holes all over its surface. Bullets? No, acid.
Since the Soyuz itself didn’t show similar holes, then it meant the astronaut suffered these wounds before boarding it. If these astronauts indeed came from the ISS, then the crew must have valiantly fought their way to the shuttle. The fact two passengers used an evacuation vehicle meant for three people pointed in that direction.
Did they film a remake of Alien upstairs? Basil looked up at the broken watchers around the crater. With a dash of the Terminator?
“What are we looking for exactly?” Plato asked. He didn’t care for the dead, and neither did Rosemarine.
“The quest mentioned a treasure, but didn’t specify what kind,” Basil replied.
“I don’t see any chest full of gold lying around,” Plato mused. He touched the capsule with his paw and immediately pulled it back with a screech. “Ah, it’s hot!”
“Do I crack this egg open, Mister?” Rosemarine asked as she examined the Soyuz.
“No need.” Basil put a hand on the Soyuz’s shielding. “I’ll store it in my inventory and teleport us back to the dungeon. We can examine it in a safer place then.”
Item selected: [Soyuz].
Storing attempt failed.
Basil frowned at the screen. “You could store my Renault and a road roller, why not a spacecraft?”
You cannot store creatures in your inventory.
“One of them is alive?!” Basil glanced at the corpses through the window in utter incomprehension. Neither of the astronauts breathed, let alone moved. “Or unalive?”
Dismaker Labs wishes you a happy apocalypse!
Basil raised his halberd. He had seen enough alien movies to know how the situation might take a dark turn. “One, two…”
He brought his halberd down on the Soyuz’s shielding and cut out a large hole in it. His sharpened blade sliced through steel the same way it once did with Gearsmen. A cloud of smoke and carbon dioxide erupted from inside the shuttle, forcing Basil back.
After fruitlessly waiting for the corpses to wake up like zombies for a good minute, Basil dared to take a peek inside the Soyuz. The two dead astronauts were curled up on beds of punctured airbags and cut wires. Their hatch’s wheel had fallen off on a button panel after the impact. Basil couldn’t make any sense out of all the electronic devices packed inside the small shuttle.
His hole into the Soyuz allowed him to better check on the first astronaut, a woman. Her body was still warm, but Basil didn’t detect a pulse. Her neck was twisted like an owl’s and blood poured from her mouth. The damaged equipment made the crash fatal for her.
“I saw her on the news,” Basil said upon recognizing her face. “She was an ESA astronaut from… Greece? Italy? Can’t remember.”
“Her neck does look like spaghetti,” Plato joked darkly.
“That’s not funny.” These two died fighting off the Unity and thus deserved Basil’s respect. Moreover, the scene reminded him of the day his party rescued Neria from a Gearsman. She could have easily perished like these two if they had been slower to reach her.
Rosemarine’s head loomed over the shuttle. “Do I bury them underground, Mister?”
“You don’t want to eat them first?” Plato asked, ignoring Basil’s glare. “Not that I advocate it, of course. I’m just surprised.”
“Mister Who-Feeds-Me never allows me to eat humans,” Rosemarine replied. “I don’t want Mister to scold me.”
Aww, Rosemarine was maturing! She had learned boundaries and foresight!
“Thank you for your concern, Rosemarine, it’ll earn you a treat,” Basil replied, much to her joy. Positive reinforcement always won the day. “We’ll bury them after taking everything we can carry.”
“They smell wrong, Basil,” Plato warned with a frown. “I sense… ah, what do you call that stinking liquid you used to spray all over the house’s floor once a month?”
“Javel?” Somehow Basil doubted the ISS crew used common cleaning products.
“Yes, they smell the same.”
Basil inhaled the Soyuz’s smoke-infested air. He indeed detected a strong scent of chemicals stronger than the smell of burning flesh. Did the Unity use poison on them? Or did they practice chemical warfare among the stars?
“Rosemarine, can you help me take them out of the shuttle?” Basil asked before removing the astronauts’ belts and seat safeties. “If the corpses move and strike back, you can eat them. Better safe than sorry.”
“Yes, Mister.” Rosemarine obeyed the order, her slippery tongue closing around each astronaut’s waist and pulling them out of the Soyuz. She dropped the corpses on the ground with surprising delicateness.
“Plato, check the shuttle from within,” Basil asked his cat. “Take out anything that isn’t nailed down.”
“Are you kidding?” Plato hissed back. “It’s dirty! Why me?”
“Because you’re small and cuddly,” Basil mocked him. “Besides, you should have experience with stealing.”
“Is this about that time I hid your Switch away?” Plato glared back at his best friend. “I only did it because you used the pointer first. You don’t bring a pointer to a snuggle fight, Basil.”
“That plays a part, but honestly you’re the only one of us small enough to check the shuttle and bolt out of it if anything happens.”
Plato glanced at the shuttle with suspicion. “If that thing explodes and costs me another life, I’ll come back to haunt you. This is the right night for it.”
Basil patted his cat on the back and watched him enter the Soyuz. Plato grumbled all the way through but did as he was asked.
“Mister, over there!” Rosemarine uttered a warning.
Basil turned his head in her direction and barely had time to dodge a projectile. A red sphere missed his skull by a few inches.
“I missed!” A monster walked into view at the crater’s edge. For a moment, Basil thought he was watching a remake of Stephen King’s It. The creature was a monstrous clown with sharp long fangs and a garish costume. His hands juggled bloody bouncing balls. “How could I miss?!”
Another horror, a crumbling mummy wielding a rusted axe, shambled after the clown.
“Flesh…” It said with a rasping noise. A black spider the size of a horse followed in the undead’s wake. “Flesh…”
“Get the human!” the clown rasped, blood dripping from his fangs. Basil might have found him scary twenty years ago, but a lifetime of watching low-budget horror movies had raised his fright threshold tenfold. “Kill him!”
Level 10 [Demon]
Level 13 [Bug]
Level 12 [Undead]
Damn it, Halloween was already spawning monsters with levels in the two digits. “Rosemarine—”
The noise of a massive tail hitting the ground interrupted Basil’s sentence. Rosemarine squashed the three monsters like bugs, their broken remains swiftly transforming into Halloween candy.
“Good job,” Basil complimented Rosemarine.
“I hope they will wake up healed of their wounds,” she whispered kindly. “So they can suffer all over again.”
“Just wait, Rosemarine,” Basil said as he examined the astronaut corpses. “At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before something capable of fighting back spawns from nowhere.”
The charred corpse held nothing but his spacesuit and a pistol, which was surprising enough by itself. Basil didn’t remember astronauts being allowed to carry weapons on the ISS. As for the woman, she was clutching a black camera with a telescope accessory. The device appeared relatively undamaged by the crash, mostly because the astronaut shielded it with her body.
“Is this the quest’s treasure?” Basil wondered. A System notification popped up when he grabbed the camera, but the content wasn’t the reward he expected.
You have a Logs message from: Colonel Ronald McVeggie (House Garden Party Leader).
COLONEL RONALD MCVEGGIE: King Basil, Queen Rosemarine, meat besiege castle. Ronald cook them all?
How will you answer?
The Guild’s messaging system worked perfectly. Basil almost regretted destroying the Ogre Den dungeon instead of preserving it. A long-distance system would have made his life much easier in the past few months.
“Tell him to defend the dungeon and that we will return shortly,” Basil said. His words appeared on a screen and a notification followed shortly afterward.
Message sent, message read.
With Plato inside the Soyuz and Rosemarine surveying the crater, Basil examined the camera… after stabbing both corpses with the spike of his halberd just to be sure. Both bled red blood without moving.
It confused Basil. Both astronauts appeared dead, so why would the System prevent him from storing the Soyuz? Was the woman still alive back when he opened his inventory?
“Do you see any monster hidden in the shuttle?” Basil questioned Plato. “A watcher, a fly?”
“Nothing,” Plato replied from inside the Soyuz. “Ugh, the stench is unbearable. Making me toil like this is cat slavery!”
“If you have enough strength to complain, you have strength to work.” After one last glance at the corpses, Basil pressed the camera’s switch and immediately accessed the video files. “Mmm… strange.”
Basil didn’t know the protocols aboard the ISS, but he found it odd they didn’t put safeties or pin codes on such a confidential device. Unless the astronauts wanted everyone to see the content?
Basil checked the most recent files. According to its title, the last entry was recorded this morning. A feed showing the astronaut woman sitting inside the Soyuz appeared when he activated the video.
“This is captain Giulia Valentino,” the woman said. Basil wondered if she spoke in Italian and the System translated it. “I am an engineer, air force pilot for the Aeronautica Militare of the Italian Republic, and for the last three months, the European Space Agency’s representative aboard the International Space Station under NASA Commander Lincoln, now deceased. Considering the high risk of a failed landing without assistance from the ground, I am leaving this recording in case I don’t make it back to Earth alive.”
Ah, that explained it. From the look of it, she had recorded the video right before takeoff.
“The Dismaker Labs reality showcase device…” Captain Valentino grit her teeth in fury. “We aren’t sure how, but it transformed the ISS into a madhouse and cut us away from agencies on the ground. Moreover, hostile drones of alien origins have boarded the station in an attempt to take it over. My crewmates were either captured or killed trying to keep them at bay. Colonel Sergei Vasilov and I are likely the only survivors.”
Basil glanced at the charred corpse next to Valentino’s before continuing the recording. He didn’t know what was worse: that Dismaker Labs had indeed sent dungeons into orbit or that the Unity was now in control of an orbital station four hundred kilometers above everyone’s heads.
“If you are watching this, I am either dead or incapacitated,” said the captain. “You should find a flash drive in a black box in the compartment under my seat. This device contains all the encrypted data, recordings, and files we could salvage from the station’s computer systems. Whoever you are, I beg of you, deliver the device to the nearest space agency immediately. The fate of our civilization, no, of the entire solar system might depend on it.”
“What’s left of it, you mean?” Basil heard a male voice mutter behind the captain in a thick Russian accent. It was probably her co-pilot sitting outside the camera’s range.
“What I am about to tell you may sound crazy… even terrifying. It took me days to process… to process it all.” Captain Giulia stared at the camera with a haunting, hollow gaze. “I suggest you sit and relax before hearing the rest of the recording.”
“I’ve heard,” his cat replied from inside the Soyuz. “I see the box behind the wires. Gimme a minute to pull it out.”
Basil nodded and watched the rest of the video. Captain Valentino let out a heavy breath, as if speaking would be physically painful.
“Everything beyond the moon’s orbit is gone.”
What the fuck is she talking about? A chill went down Basil’s spine. That doesn’t make any sense.
“Mars, Venus, even the sun, they’re all gone,” the captain explained. “Vanished. The stars, the constellations? They’re illusions. Ghostlights. The solar system, the Milky Way, Andromeda… everything beyond the moon’s orbit disappeared months ago.”
Basil paused the recording and exchanged a glance with Rosemarine. The tropidrake returned his gaze, utterly confused. Even Plato’s head peeked out of the Soyuz to better listen.
Basil silently played the video once more.
“We don’t understand how it happened, or how it is even possible,” the captain explained with a disturbing kind of calmness. “But all objects within the Earth-Moon satellite system were physically displaced inside a hermetically sealed sphere of colossal proportion. Its surface mimics the appearance of the night sky, so individuals on the surface won’t notice the difference without special equipment. Moreover, our research indicates that the sphere is held in the palm of an… an inhuman entity roughly twice the size of Jupiter, if not larger.”
Is this a joke? Basil searched for any hint of a lie in the captain’s face and didn’t find any. He had made a mistake. Captain Valentino wasn’t calm but exhausted. She went beyond denial and straight to acceptance. Shit, she is serious.
“I know my words sound outlandish, but this is the truth. You will find the data we gathered to prove it in the flash drive. And if that’s not enough…” She stared at the camera with such intensity that Basil thought her ghost would emerge from the video, Ring-style. “You can check the video file 15-10-2022 and see for yourself.”
Basil checked the video folder. Recordings were classified by date, so he assumed she referred to the one from October 15th.
“If I do not make it out… tell my mother that I love her.” The captain smiled at the camera. The deafening noise of a propulsion device resonated in the background and caused the feed to shake. “I’ll return, Mom. One way or another.”
The video cut off on these words. Basil glanced at the corpses and examined Captain Valentino’s remains. He hoped that he could find ID papers, a passport, anything that would help him find her family. It was a long shot, but he couldn’t ignore that woman’s last request without at least trying to fulfill it.
“I don’t know what catnip they’re sniffing in space, but I want some for myself,” Plato said in disbelief.
“You don’t believe her?” Basil asked. His body search came up empty, much to his chagrin. The astronauts must have left in a hurry.
His cat squinted at him. “Do you?”
“I don’t know.” The astronaut’s last words sounded outlandish, but she had said them with utter conviction. Only madmen or experts spoke with such certainty. “We’ve seen so much shit lately, nothing will surprise me anymore.”
“Basil, Basil, there are thresholds of weirdness,” Plato argued. “I can believe in giant birds and gods walking the earth, but come on, the entire universe vanishing? That’s too big.”
“You believed Estrid when she told us how her world had been destroyed,” Basil pointed out. “That was just as big.”
“I didn’t believe her. I believed in you, who believed in her.” Plato leaped out of the Soyuz with a black, hand-sized electronic safe in his paws. “Anyway, here’s the treasure chest.”
Basil examined it and clenched his jaw. Not only was the safe password protected, but the keypad didn’t respond to his touch. He would need a specialist to unlock it without damaging the contents.
“So, did we complete the quest?” Plato asked.
“Not yet,” Basil replied before storing the safe in his inventory. The Soyuz creaked in response, perhaps from the heat of malfunctioning electronics.
“So it’s not the right treasure?”
“Or it’s still in danger.” The quest said that Basil’s party had to recover the treasure before Halloween monsters destroyed it, and the night barely started. “You didn’t find anything else?”
Plato shook his head. “Can we go back to killing monsters who can’t fight back, please? All this cosmic stuff is giving me a headache.”
“What about the sun, Mister?” Rosemarine asked with surprising insight. “Is it destroyed too? I hope I can still eat it.”
“Oh right, isn’t it farther than the moon?” Plato pointed out. “Shouldn’t it have vanished too? Yet it shines all the time.”
Well, there's proof, or so she said. Basil gazed at the video file folder in silence. He knew that the safest option was to return home, deal with the Halloween event, and examine the videos from a safe place. Yet the October 15th recording was barely five minutes long and Ronald hadn’t sent any urgent messages. Five minutes…
Unable to suppress his curiosity, Basil played the video. He hoped it wasn’t a cursed feed or ghost summoning tape.
The video started with a vision of a porthole. The moon’s surface appeared beyond the reinforced plexiglass, pale and gray. The craft was flying perilously close to it.
“Control, this is research pilot Bob Hopkins speaking,” an offscreen man said. His accent sounded Texan. “I am currently violating a good third of the procedures I spent half my life learning and flying a spacecraft of dubious origins. I hope it is for a good cause.”
“Don’t push it, Bob,” another voice replied in the background. Either a copilot or a voice through the radio. “You drew the short stick.”
“Curse my rotten luck.” The offscreen cameraman chuckled. “I am filming from some kind of alien spacecraft recovered from the ISS's ship hangar, because it has a hangar now. And an alien crèche. I hoped for some Asari or Avatar blue babes, but a man can’t—”
“Bob.” His fellow cut through the chitchat. “Describe what you see.”
“Right, right, better obey or they won’t pick me up on the return trip.” The feed’s resolution sharpened to show a detailed view of the moon’s surface. “Approaching Copernicus crater.”
Colored auroras swirled above the moon’s surface in vast whirlpools of light. Basil would have found the spectacle beautiful, almost entrancing, if it didn’t spell disaster for Earth. The particles floated like currents in a sea of energy above a strange, beehive-shaped structure of alien black metal occupying a colossally large crater. The cameraman had found the moon’s dungeon.
Or in this case, dungeons.
Each alcove in the superstructure—Basil counted at five of them—each as large as Château Muloup. All of them produced a singular aurora with a unique color, the sight reminding Basil of an industrial complex churning smoke into the atmosphere. He wondered the reason behind this dungeon cluster’s peculiar organization.
Then the camera recorded Gearsmen building a neurotower.
It was difficult to distinguish them through the auroras, yet the feed’s enhanced resolution let through a glimpse of the situation on the ground. Basil paused the video in shock and stared at the picture for several seconds. A group of Gearsmen had gathered at the crater’s edge and were busy assembling a tall pillar of steel and gears. The device’s design differed from normal neurotowers, yet matched the one that Neria Elissalde once showed to Basil in Dax.
Dismaker Labs didn’t build dungeons on the moon.
The Unity did it.
Gearsmen must have landed on the moon either on the first day of the System’s initialization or soon after the Incursion. Much like what happened in Dax, they immediately went on to build artificial neurotowers.
With no human troops to stop them, they succeeded.
This is bad. Basil clenched his jaw in frustration. Members of a faction could teleport between dungeons under their control. If the Unity transported troops from the moon to Earth, who could cross the void of space to retaliate? They’ll keep summoning reinforcements to their lunar base with no interruption.
At least the Unity’s moon dungeon network appeared unfinished. Basil and his party still had time to figure out a solution. If there was a solution. Basil struggled to find a way to reach the moon short of building a spaceship himself.
“What the fuck…” the astronaut muttered as he filmed the superdungeon. “I see machines building some kind of fortress and receiver. Control? Control, can you see it too?”
“Visual confirmed,” the other voice said. Statics soon interfered with his words. “Comp… lete… moon tour and return… Bob…“
“Control?” The cameraman sounded worried. “Hey Lincoln, can you hear me? My radio is malfunctioning. Lincoln?”
“B… ob…” The words became garbled beyond recognition.
“No need to shout, manling,” a deep, inhuman voice answered through the radio. “I can hear you just fine.”
Basil winced. “I have the most terrible sensation of déjà-vu.”
“Me too,” Plato said grimly.
The scene played almost exactly as their encounter with Steamslime.
“What the hell?” the cameraman asked. “Who is speaking? Control?”
“This is Queen-ranked General Blackcinders of the Unity and this planet is ours.” The voice sounded similar to Steamslime’s, but different; more feminine, more forceful, and far, far colder. “My forces will assume direct control of your dungeon shortly. Carry my message to your fellow apes: surrender or be destroyed.”
“Control? Control?” The astronaut repeated, yet the Unity dragonlord didn’t answer this time. “Control, do you hear me?”
The spaceship moved away from the moon’s surface, so the camera stopped showing it. Instead, the cameraman faced a magnificent vision of distant constellations. The stars glowed like fireballs in the vast darkness of space.
“What the fuck was that?” The cameraman’s voice lowered. “The stars… something’s wrong.”
The distance, Basil immediately noticed. The stars looked within reach. These fireballs were not only smaller objects than the real constellations, but so much closer too. They’re replicas.
Moreover, the stars were organized in an abnormal way. A curved gulf of darkness separated multiple constellations from the rest of the ‘sky.’ The isolated stars were gathered into a rounded cluster with a familiar, innocuous shape.
The tip of a finger.
Basil stopped breathing in shock and neither of his pets moved an inch. In that moment, they all realized just how pitifully small they truly were.
For all of their beauty, none of the stars could compare to the sun’s terrible majesty. Where the constellation had become large clusters of fireballs, the sun soon occupied the camera’s entire field of vision. Its divine light caused the screen to glitch. A small sunspot black as sin occupied its center, almost imperceptible with the luminosity.
“Something is wrong…” the cameraman panicked. “Control, something is wrong!”
The central sunspot moved to directly face the camera, the same way a pupil would focus on a moving object.
“It’s not the sun!” The astronaut shouted, his voice trembling with fear and existential dread. The camera’s feed glitched until the entire screen turned into chaotic pixels. “It’s… it’s an—”
It’s an eye, Basil realized to his horror.
The video feed turned into a sea of pixels and the echo of a distorted scream. Then it ended as abruptly as it started.
For a long moment, no one spoke. No one. Basil stared at the camera in shocked silence, his mind struggling to even comprehend what he had just witnessed. Plato’s gaze was hollow, his body tense as a bowstring. Rosemarine was the least affected. She glanced in confusion at her teammates and then broke the silence.
“It’s okay, Mister,” Rosemarine reassured him with her usual cheerfulness. “One day, I will grow large enough to eat the sun… and blind it!”
Her words did nothing to ease Basil’s existential dread, but at least it broke him out of his trance.
An illusion. It had to be an illusion. CGI. A NASA prank meant to top Area 51. Yeah right, that had to be a hoax. Fake news.
Basil told himself all these things and for a moment, he almost let himself be convinced. Then he remembered the quest’s name and realized it might very well have been completely literal.
“The Eye of Brahma,” Basil whispered. He looked up at the moon and tried to imagine the… the sun in its place. Looming. Shining.
It took all of Basil’s willpower to store the camera in his inventory and focus on the present moment. He did so by utterly repressing the last five minutes worth of memory, locking them away in a dark corner of his brain, and reminding himself that his allies in Château Muloup needed his help right now.
“I’m storing them all,” Basil decided. “The Soyuz, the suits, everything.”
Wait a second…
The first video was recorded when the two astronauts boarded the ship. Yet the latter one didn’t sound like someone with acid holes all over his body. Neither did the rest of the capsule show acid damage.
Basil glanced at his halberd. On a closer examination, he noticed drops of green liquid on the blade’s edge. He turned his attention to the Soyuz and noticed similar traces of chemicals where his weapon cut the shielding.
A lost treasure chest in the middle of the woods…
That was the most cliché adventurer trap in the world.
Rosemarine’s colossal size and presence probably delayed an ambush, but if Basil’s suspicions were correct, the creature that killed the astronauts was hidden in plain sight. From the way the Soyuz creaked after they took the safe, it would follow them to recover it.
“Shit!” Basil glared at the Soyuz and took a step back. “Rosemarine, stomp the ship! There’s a mimic in—”
The ooze erupted from the ship’s wreckage without warning.
As tentacles and fangs lunged for Basil’s head, he suddenly realized why the shuttle crashed here of all places.
As it turned out, the Attractive Lair feature could summon monsters all the way from space.