Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Phantom Server: Black Sun by A. Livadny - Chapter 1

PHANTOM SERVER Book III: Black Sun

by Andrei Livadny


purchase: book I, book II, book III
or start reading from the beginning - Book I, Chapter 1

Chapter One


The Darg System. The asteroid belt. On board the Founders’ frigate

Specks of light flickered in Liori’s eyes. Her personal module was awash with soft shadows. Candles burned on the little table next to the figurine of the dancing Drow. Droplets of wax thickened in mid-air, piling up fancy ripples of our memories - the memories of amazing universes where we’d faced danger only too eagerly. Carefree, we’d plunged into the thick of events, finding strength in the promise of a safe respawn, knowing that nothing irreversibly fatal could ever happen to us.

Our real-world lives had flashed past - miserable lives bound with wires, lives that still wriggled, doubled-up, inside in-mode capsules.

We’d felt young and strong regardless of our age. We seriously believed this would last forever. We had no idea that we’d already trespassed reality.

A dull jolt disrupted my thoughts. The bulkheads around me echoed with vibration. External view screens sprang to life, revealing the panorama of the Milky Way overflowing with fiery starlight. Slowly it began to shift as our ship was giving all its subsystems one final check in preparation for combat. Liori’s fathomless eyes glowed with fear and hope. You wouldn’t think she’d long been dead. This was only her identity matrix, remembered and replicated by the nanites that were connected to my mind expander.

We’d been absolutely sure that we were testing a “game of the future” featuring exceptional authenticity levels. Daring and fearless we’d faced peril, innocent of the fact that our every step could have become our last. We’d had no idea that our new skills and discoveries were in fact the source of real-life knowledge which our neuroimplants had reported diligently back to Earth.

Crumbs of knowledge were akin to burning embers. They didn’t illuminate your way, only burned your mind.

“Zander,” with a swipe of her eyes, Liori removed the icy starscape from the screens. The candlelight flared up, momentarily warm, then expired. “It’s time.”

Direct neurosensory contact mode disabled


The system message wiped away the mirage of Liori’s room, dissolving her outline into thin air. I was standing by a low railing in cold crimson twilight.

Far within the depths of the launch deck, a plasma torch exploded in a firework of sparks and tracers, sending long shadows dashing across the bulkheads. To my right, oval slits of power-shielded vacuum docks oozed darkness. One level below lay the delicately chiseled structures of docking pods housing fighter ships where the Haash techs hastily prepared our two Condors for a sortie.

The gravity elevator shaft popped open behind my back. I turned to the sound just in time to see Charon’s lanky figure being extruded onto the platform.

A Haash. Sentient Xenomorph. Level 57. Pilot.


He was clad in an armored suit without a helmet. Short cable sleeves ran down his three-digit hands, ending in glistening connectors that Haash pilots used to tap into their yrobs’ (fighter ships’) systems.

“Zander?” the giant sentient lizard wheezed, tilting his head out of habit. “Zander, wo’rhoom?”

I didn’t know that word. Before, I used to treat our communication difficulties as part of the game’s setting. But now I knew for sure: whoever stood behind the avatars of “sentient xenomorphs” were no human beings in any shape or form.

Charon stood silent waiting for me to answer, his gaze keen. The pupils of his reptilian eyes narrowed. Hot wheezy breath escaped his half-open jaws.

Finally my semantic processor managed to translate the new word. Apparently, wo’rhoom meant someone who was about to “cross the line”. Or, alternatively, someone who was “on edge”.

Hah! You could say that! The Haash mentality had no provision for white lies. They’re blunt and straightforward which is probably why they sometimes create this impression of being merciless.

Another popping sound echoed through the gallery, accompanied by a vectored current of air. “Oops, sorry! Wrong deck!”

“Max? Come over here, please,” I crouched and asked in my best stern voice, “Who gave you permission to wander about the ship?”

The boy smiled shyly. “I’m looking for Liori. She promised to come and play with us. It’s so funny when she appears out of the little floaty bits!”

Charon touched my shoulder, attracting my attention, then forwarded me the alarming image of the boy’s Physical Energy indicator. It was flashing orange.

Mine by now was barely glowing, deep in the red. Ralph had taken to bed. Jurgen and Frieda were still on their feet. Arbido felt better than the rest of us which made sense: he’d logged in to Phantom Server much later than any of us.

Max was only five years old. He couldn’t grasp the entire monstrosity of what was happening.

“Listen, Max,” I said, “would you please go back to the other guys now? I’d like you all to take your seats and buckle up.”

“Okay. But what if the girls don’t listen?”

“Tell them I’ve made you group leader.”

“No! For real?”

“Of course. Come on, off you go!”

Overjoyed, Max hopped and skipped toward the elevator.

Charon’s gaze followed him, alarmed and compassionate. Gray spots appeared on his rugged hide: a sign of extreme discomposure.

“We must hurry!” he barked. “You’re all dying, all of you!”

* * *

The force escalator took us down to the docking pads.

We literally moved through time as we floated past numerous machines and devices whose purpose we had as yet failed to discern. Evidence of ancient battles kept drifting into my view: the many traces of fire exposure and the huge ragged patches tacked over the holes in the ship’s hull. After the fall of Argus station, the Founders’ frigate had become our new home - and its depths preserved the memory of its travels through space and of the ancient battles that we might never come to know of.

Only a few days ago, I’d have paid no heed to any of this. Some fire damage and traces of numerous repairs, so what! It was only a well-conceived game setting... or was it?

Now I knew that reality was much more complex than that. Our identities had been sent here via hyperspace, then integrated into an alien technosphere. We were capable of interacting with real-world objects, manipulating them even. That was exactly how the Founders had pioneered the Universe. Their technologies were way beyond our understanding, their principles lying in fields yet unknown to humanity. And still they worked.

Basically, the Darg system was just one insignificant location of the ancient interstellar network. It preserved a dozen derelict space stations ridden by darkness and clusters of debris drifting through space: evidence of bygone battles.

Our real-world controllers used us blindly. The technosphere of the long-gone civilization had suffered a lot of damage. It had remained static until we’d awoken it by collecting the remaining fragments and trying to manipulate them, often crudely and clumsily. Guided by the idea that we were part of a game world whose plot was based on this Founders myth, we hadn’t asked unwanted questions. We’d raided the stations’ perilous depths in search for the ancient AI modules; we’d implanted ourselves with what we’d believed to be cyber upgrades that choked us to death by the impossible authenticity of our experience.

The outlines of our two Condors and three of the Haash’ yrobs bled through the mist: aerospace fighter ships frozen in the grip of delicate service towers. The flickering of their navigation lights cast a meager glow over their dented cargonite hulls.

Danezerath and Maurugael - or Danny and Mark as I called them these days, for the Haash’ names were quite a mouthful - waited for us at the launch pad.

“The Daugoth Clan cargo ship is in position,” Jurgen’s voice echoed in the comm. “Foggs reports his assault groups ready for action.”

“How’s the Relic’s energy levels?”

“I brought the reactors up to 12%. That should be enough for three minutes of power shield activation at full combat capacity.”

“Roger that. We’ll try not to allow it to come to that.”

I turned to the Haash. Themselves ace pilots, today they had to play second fiddle. Storming of the Outlaws’ abandoned base which was now controlled by ancient AIs called for some very special skills which only Liori and I had.

The situation was lethally simple.

Thousands of light years away from here, in the fading silence of deserted megalopolises back on Earth, the tinted plastic of our in-mode capsules flickered with the scarlet blinking of emergency lights inside. Our life support systems had been depleted, our body resources drained. Everything seemed abandoned. No one would visit us to replace life support cartridges. Humans had mysteriously disappeared. I couldn’t offer a rational explanation to this, apart from suggesting that human civilization might have been flooded by a torrent of alien technologies.

It didn’t matter anymore.

We only had one survival scenario. We had to go digital, just like the Founders had done. We had to sever the last remaining threads connecting us to Earth where the failure of our in-modes meant certain death for us all. It could now happen at any moment.

“Zander,” Charon walked over to me and added softly, trying hard to find the right words to express his idea. “You need to act as you did before.”

“You mean as if it’s still a game?”

He nodded energetically, then headed for his yrob.

* * *

The cockpit of my Condor was dark. The long curved shell of the empty pilot’s seat was secured in the grip of its shock absorbers. The onboard life support was off. Traces of recent repairs were everywhere. Many of the screens were still covered in a gossamer web of cracks: we hadn’t yet had time to replace them.

I lingered.

Zander, don’t drag it out. Please.

I picked the tiny fleshfoam lid with my fingernail, revealing a mind expander connector and the dull glimmer of a cybermodule underneath.

In one practiced movement, I ejected it: the wafer-thin plate covered in neurochips. It felt like ripping a part of my soul out. Liori’s voice faded. The mental sensation of our minds touching had disappeared.

The external neuronet has been disconnected.
-5 to your Mnemotechnics skill.


An instrument panel drive squeaked voraciously as a jury-rigged adapter clasped the offered cybermodule and sucked it into the ship’s electronic innards.

Gray mist filled the air as nanites left my armored suit and streamed toward the pilot’s seat, forming Liori’s outline. The vague contour of her body began filling out: I could already make out her face and details of her gear.

“It feels so empty without you,” her whisper scorched my heart. “Empty and cold.”

No idea how she must have felt. If the ship were shot down now, all that would be left of her would be a handful of chips floating amid the debris. Liori knew this perfectly well. Still, there were no other options. We had to split. The Haash had no Mnemotechnics skill - and on my own I wouldn’t be able to cover the target with Steel Mist. Neither would I be able to blanket their space defense sensors.

Instinctively I glanced at the translucent icons of my gaming interface. Charon had been right. Nothing had changed there. My char’s levels, skills, abilities - everything functioned normally.

By learning the truth about ourselves, we had overstepped the boundaries of the game world. The question remained: who kept all the gaming attributes up and running? And why?

‘Zander,” Jurgen’s voice in the speakers exploded the silence, “We’re ready. Where the heck are you?”

“Go,” Liori whispered. “I’m not saying goodbye.”

Her image blurred as part of the nanites headed toward the ship’s devices to form the nucleus of the fighter’s cyber systems.

* * *

The docking pod slid out of the frigate’s body and swung round, launch deck structures flashing across the observation screens.

An oxygen mist rose, then dissipated slowly as the pod was being pumped free of atmosphere. Just beyond the force field I could make out the outlines of enormous rocks rotating slowly.

Acceleration threw me back into my seat.

Glittering with ice, asteroids swarmed toward me. I gave a correctional burst of the thrusters. The asteroids parted, speeding past, revealing a panorama of outer space.

The brownish sphere of Wearong, the system’s gas giant, lit up the starboard screens. Far-off Darg the size of a pea glistened to my left.

Switching between view modes, my gaze lingered on the Relic. The Founders’ frigate was shaped as a devilfish, the smooth curves of its six-hundred-foot body ripped by a random pattern of impacts. The ship was leaking radiation as the reactor blocks kept malfunctioning.

The Relic’s power shields were barely glowing. The system kept streaming me its on-board systems status. Eleven of its electromagnetic coilguns (or ECGs as we called them) were ready for action as well as one of the directional plasma generators.

The frigate was covered with wounds and badly patched up.

Two Wearongs accompanied it: amazing creatures indigenous to the planet of the same name. Capable of sentient actions, they were helping us of their own accord. Their giant translucent bodies glowed weakly as they banked into fiery spirals tracing the frigate’s body, ready to shield it at any moment.

I came on course.

Liori’s Condor steered a confident path next to mine. The Haash yrobs followed about fifteen hundred miles in our wake. The Relic’s signature faded as the frigate lagged behind, maneuvering at a respectful distance from the targets. It would only join battle in the case of an emergency.

Having accelerated, I killed the engines. We now coasted, skirting a thin cloud of gas and dust.

Data kept pouring into my mind expander. There it was, the asteroid. About three miles long, it looked like a potato riddled with craters. One of the Outlaws’ deserted bases, it had now been taken over by the Founders’ AIs.

The unclear schematic picture gained brightness and detail. I could see the structures built around an ancient mine shaft: two oblong vacuum docks, locked and powdered with a fine layer of dust. Between them, the delicate openwork of a loading line glistened silver. The sloping bulk of a cargo ship loomed above the mine, adapted for defensive purposes.

Jurgen’s intel proved correct. The Outlaws had used the space defense system developed by the Technologists clan. They’d concealed the controls deep within the ancient mine and set up their firing points on the asteroid’s satellites: the large chunks of rock orbiting our main target. Together they formed the so-called “asteroid family” - a group of minor celestial bodies that shared the same orbit and speed in their travels through space.

I was met by a surge of radiation. When your nervous system is at one with a ship’s cyber modules, it feels like a gust of hot wind searing your skin, leaving behind the prickling sensation of a sore itch.

Our Condors’ diaphragm hatches opened up, disgorging nanite colonies. Dispersing immediately, they formed a level-10 Steel Mist which concealed us from enemy sensors. Thus camouflaged, Liori and I began scanning our main target.

The asteroid’s depths were threaded with a complex tunnel network that formed five underground levels.

“Zander? This looks like the right signature!”

A green marker lit up about five hundred feet below the asteroid’s surface.

I began studying the object’s power imprint, comparing it with the existing databases.

This was the Founders’ artifact, no doubt about that. The only identity-copying hyperspace module, the last one in the Darg system!

This was our only chance to survive, the promise of a new life.

We closed in on the target. So far, everything was going to plan. Liori and I had to use our mnemonic abilities to paralyze the enemy’s defenses, turning them into static targets for the Haash yrobs.

New details kept flooding in, filling out the picture.

But what the hell was that?

A cluster of bright red markers appeared out of nowhere within one light second from our position. Three cargo ships, about a hundred drones and... was that really a man-made object?

I banked away from the attacking course, then adjusted my speed to that of the nearest rock, camouflaging myself behind it. Liori mirrored my maneuver. The yrobs slowed down too, taking cover amid the asteroids.

My Condors’ sensors kept collecting data non-stop until a picture of an enormous man-made space body formed in my mental view. Its resembled a bundle of tumbleweed glistening with steel. My mind expander added detail. Now I could make out a gossamer exterior structure holding the body of a behemoth spaceship in the process of construction, several times larger than our frigate!

Was this a shipyard?

In the meantime, the three alien cargo ships had changed course and had opened their hatches, releasing hundreds of tons of cargonite ore into space.

The drones headed for the cloud of ore and began harvesting it with their power fields, delivering it to large energy bubbles. I saw the ore being melted within them, dissolving into clouds of Molecular Mist.

These were ancient technologies at their finest.

“Zander, what do you think you’re doing?” Jurgen’s voice rang out. Impatient, he’d used the laser beam communications. “Why aren’t you attacking it?”

I streamed him the sensors’ data. “I want you to kill the Relic’s engines and activate the shields until further notice. We need some time to sort this out.”

“That’s not an option! I’m not changing course!” the Technologist snapped. I could detect desperate notes in his bravado.

Any delay could mean death for all of us. Literally. Still, a goliath technogenic object just next to our main target screwed up our plans. I refused to believe that the Outlaws could have built something like this “shipyard” themselves. It must have been created by the ancient AIs. They were they only ones who could manipulate industrial quantities of Molecular Mist.

I released a probe to form a general laser communication channel. “Liori? What d’you think?”

“The ship building is being controlled by an AI,” she replied. “But I don’t think it has anything to do with the Outlaws’ base. It’s too far. Besides, I don’t detect any activity in the area of the old mine.”

Frieda sniffed in disbelief. “So you think they might ignore us as long as we don’t approach the shipyard or attack it?”

“Don’t you remember how maintenance robots behave?” Liori answered calmly. “They’re always busy following their routines. They don’t get distracted even if there’s a combat going on just next to them.”

“Weak reasoning,” Charon snapped in his usual straightforward manner. “Our storming of the Outlaws base is bound to draw the AI’s attention!”

This unexpected delay when we’d had our objective already in our sights was preying on our nerves.

“We can’t go back!” Arbido’s voice broke. “You know very well we have no choice!”

“I’m not aborting the attack. Danny,” I addressed Danezerath whose yrob was equipped with an advanced tracking station, “do you register any data exchange between the shipyard and our target?”

“Nowr,” he snapped in the negative.

Our radars were pockmarked with hundreds of bright red dots. I clenched my teeth without even realizing as I watched them. The clusters of markers were all heading for the shipyard. The cargo ships seemed to be leaving to bring another batch of cargonite ore. Soon, their signatures faded, disappearing from sight.

The Founders’ drones de-energized the power bubbles, spilling their contents into space. Molecular mist rose about the shipyard, forming an incandescent veil of gas that shielded it from our scanners.

We kept watching. Just as Liori had suggested, the Founders’ drones minded their own business. They changed their formation, breaking into several groups, then commenced the next production stage, creating electromagnetic fields that compacted the incandescent substance.

This process was followed by a series of dull flashes.

The drones had just used the Object Replication command to create armor plates! I could clearly see the diamond-shaped segments drift through space, oozing heat, until they fused into small formations.

I had to agree with Charon. Our storming of the mine was bound to attract the shipyard’s AI’s attention. But what did it have to offer against our Relic? There were no large ships around. All of Avatroid’s forces were now tied up chasing whatever was left of the Eurasia Colonial Fleet.

‘I’ve got an idea!” Jurgen exclaimed.

“Go ahead.”

“Relic’s tractor beams! I can use them to grab the asteroid and tow it to the edge of the system. And whoever’s holed up inside, we can sort them out nice and quiet later, without attracting the AI’s attention!”

‘That’s logical,” Charon agreed.

“Good. That’s what we’ll do, then,” I had no time to mull over alternatives. “Take your positions! Don’t aggro the drones! And stay away from the shipyard!”

* * *

I had the first of the asteroid’s satellites in my sights.

The oversized boulder kept growing rapidly, its depths concealing a compact reactor. Scanners reported laser and electromagnetic guns outside.

My heart palpitated, but I couldn’t help it.

The ancient alien drones were buzzing around just one light second away. They scurried amid the clouds of molecular mist, collecting the slowly cooling armor segments and transporting them toward the vessel under construction.

My Condor’s systems kept scanning communication frequencies but detected no data exchange between the shipyard and the old mine.

The communication scanner clicked, switching between frequencies. A distant voice broke through, distorted by interference,

“This is Eurasia Station! Mayday! We’re under attack from an unidentified enemy! Our shields are failing! We’re losing atmosphere! Mayday!”

New quest alert: Eurasia Rescue!
Find a way to stop Avatroid. Reward: your relationship with the colonial fleet command will improve considerably. You will be able to trade with the station and use its equipment to repair your ships.


“Liori? Did you hear that?”

“I did! I also got a quest!”

We zeroed in on our target. Our Condors circled it rapidly, intersecting each other’s orbits. Our guns were silent. We attacked the space defense unit using nanites alone, controlling them with our Mnemotechnics skill. The microscopic robots penetrated the defense installations, blinding their sensors and disrupting their data exchange, paralyzing their kinematics. The enemy batteries began sporting tags which read,

System Failure
Critical Damage
Equipment Failure


This one was done for! We changed course, bringing the next satellite into our crosshairs. The faint signature of the Relic reappeared just within my scanners’ range. The frigate was heading toward our main target. The Haash yrobs stormed the paralyzed defense unit. They had two minutes to scorch its gun nests. Liori and I repeated our attack.

System Failure
Critical Damage
Equipment Failure


The second satellite had been deactivated! Now that we’d made a dent in the enemy’s defenses, we headed for the ancient mine shaft. Our Condors were still concealed by Steel Mist. I wish I could say the same about the Haash yrobs who now came under long-range fire. True, the enemy’s firing arcs were awkward but still it was hardly pleasant.

We didn’t meet with much resistance. No one had expected us to attack. At the moment, everything was going to plan, but still the proximity of the shipyard made me uneasy.

The Relic kept accelerating, its signature glowing brighter with every moment. It was closely followed by the bright dot of a cargo ship transporting the assault groups of the Daugoth clan. The moment the frigate grabbed the asteroid with its tractor beams, Vandal and Foggs were to take their men inside.

I was a bit worried about the old spaceship that the Outlaws had turned into a permanent fire position. I marked it as target. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough nanites so we were forced to continue orbiting the asteroid looking for a structure rich in cargonite suitable for utilizing.

Finally, we found one. The small crater lit up with a series of flashes as we began the nanite replication process. A system message appeared in my mental view,

Your nanite stocks have been refilled


I focused on the entrance to the mine and sent the nanites in to disable the gun control module and prevent it from coordinating the satellites’ operation.

Now the old spaceship. We dashed to attack it - apparently, just in time. Our sensors detected two batteries of plasma generators. Their signatures glowed brighter with every second as the weapons accumulated enough energy for a volley.

Our coil guns ripped through the ship’s hull, then breached the shields of the ship’s power module. It took but a split second. An explosion gutted the old vessel, ejecting the hatches and gun ports out into open space. The ship’s docking nodes failed. With a jolt, they released its mangled body, sending it into an uncontrollable drift.

I took my bearings.

The Haash had done their job too, littering space with clouds of debris. No casualties.

Four minutes till the Relic’s arrival.

* * *

“Good job!” Liori’s Condor floated up to my side, taking up the position of a wingman.

I switched to autopilot, unsealed my helmet and used the back of my gloved hand to wipe the perspiration from my forehead.

My fingertips twitched. I’d never noticed this before.

A couple more minutes, then everything would be over. Our new life, what was it going to be like? In a moment, the Relic would engage the asteroid with its tractor beams and drag it to the star system’s edge. There we’d mop up the old mine and get to the Founders’ device discovered by the Outlaws. We would then use it to digitize our identities. Basically, we were about to conquer death in emulation of the ancient alien race.

“Scanners report an unidentified signature!”

Danezerath’s report brought me back to reality. My visor’s drives squeaked, sealing the helmet. Both my mind expander and metabolic implant went into overdrive.

Just next to the shipyard, the cloud of diamond-shaped armor segments revealed large clots of swirling matter. The Founders’ drones stopped whatever they’d been doing and surrounded these new formations, pumping them up with energy.

I did a quick evaluation of their power imprints and flinched. “They’re Phantom Raiders!”

I’d been the only one “lucky” enough to witness the alien ships’ materialization just before they had attacked Argus. You just couldn’t mistake it for anything else.

“Give me one minute!” Jurgen’s voice pleaded in the earphones. “I’ve already activated the tractor beams!”

“Foggs,” I snapped, “dock your ship in the Relic! Charon, I want you to cover Liori and myself!”

Flash.

My Condor’s optical multipliers streamed the frightful scene into my mind as a fighter ship complete with an AI module loomed out of the incandescent cloud, fire scales still flaking off its armor. Its 10-megawatt shields glowed, betraying their presence; its hull bristled with gun ports, its bow reflected the phantom light of its antimatter engines. The Raider began to accelerate.

I double-checked its course. It was heading for the Relic!

“Just one more moment!” interference drowned out Jurgen’s voice. “I’m busy with the asteroid!”

The vicinity of the shipyard was lit up with yet more arrivals. A volley from a giant laser system missed the Relic by a hair’s breadth, hitting the chaotically rotating asteroid instead.

The enormous rock, already deorbited by the frigate’s tractor beams, spewed flaming slag into space.

186,000 miles was a perfect effective fire range for a weapon firing at the speed of light!

“Jurgen, try to maneuver out of their arc of fire! Take cover behind the asteroids!”

Too late.

A fresh volley hit the frigate. In order to activate the tractor beams, Jurgen had to transfer part of the energy from the shields. The frigate’s power fields surged, then extinguished, unable to absorb all the damage. The laser beam sliced through the frigate’s hull. Luckily, it wasn’t fatal: the impact zone was one of the ship’s already-damaged depressurized areas which luckily prevented an explosion. The ship’s hull was peppered with about a dozen fire-polished breach holes - not large caliber even - but at least it stayed in one piece.

The two Wearongs headed forward, blocking the danger zone and taking the next volley onto themselves.

“Jurgen, get the ship out, now!”

The Relic’s bow glowed with the activated plasma engines. The ship accelerated smoothly, heading toward Argus. This must have been the best decision. For a while at least, they could use the destroyed space station as cover.

The Wearongs (who now resembled two gigantic medusas, their translucent bodies permeated by red-hot veins throbbing with electricity) blocked another volley, then began to fade away. Their glow was rapidly losing its intensity.

The Relic spat back from its main calibers, obliterating the nearest asteroids in a cloud of rock debris which shielded it from the enemy, forcing the Raiders to abort the firefight in order to close in.

Unexpectedly, the Raiders split. Five of them continued their assault while the rest turned back toward the shipyard. Why would they do that?

Their signatures gave the answer. They looked pale and distorted. Did that mean that the shipyard’s AI had failed to build fully-fledged combat ships with whatever molecular mist it had available for armor plate replication?

“The Raiders’ antimatter engines are at 30%!” Liori confirmed my suspicions. “They don’t have enough antiprotons!”

“Attack!”

* * *

We’d been just one pace away from a new life, and what now?

Five Phantom Raiders were coming for us head-on! The rest had been swallowed up by the clouds of molecular mist swirling around the shipyard. They’d left in search of more nanites but they were bound to be back!

Even despite their replication faults, the enemy’s combat characteristics were way out of our league. Both Liori and myself had already encountered them in battle and knew well what they were capable of. Still, we’d come on a lot since then. We’d done some decent leveling and acquired new abilities. If only we could prevent the Phantom Raiders from getting to the Relic!

Slowly the frigate accelerated, heading for Argus. Tethered by tractor beams, the asteroid obediently followed in its wake.

I squeezed every ounce of power out of the engines. We needed to smoke the Raiders ASAP! Liori by my side held a confident course while the Haash yrobs intentionally lagged behind, maneuvering non-stop. Our Haash friends hadn’t wavered under fire: they were diverting the enemy’s attention to themselves, allowing us to regroup for a surprise attack.

The Raiders continued to close in. Still, their scanners couldn’t see us yet, their sensors powerless against the Steel Mist.

Ten thousand miles. Seven... six.

I nudged my thrusters into a strafe. My Condor was still closing with the enemy while shifting to one side. I kept a bead on the Raiders, waiting for the right firing angle that could allow me to attack them all at once.

Got it. Their outlines began to superimpose. I opened fire from all four coil guns.

We were exposed. Spewing fire, my ship strafed to one side, leaving a large plasma arc fading in its wake.

The Raiders’ shields weakened sharply, absorbing damage. Liori’s Condor was strafing in the opposite direction.

The Raiders’ AIs didn’t like our three-dimensional crossfire! They became nervous and left the Haash alone, reacting instantly by switching their targets.

Liori and I were reversing toward the shipyard, picking the targets off one by one.

The AIs hadn’t dared leave us in their rear. They about-faced. Their shields were virtually dead, barely glowing at one megawatt and unable to restore. They’d channeled all their power to their weapons, hoping to wipe us out in one fell swoop.

The Haash jumped at their chance and opened up rapid bursts of laser fire. The already-compromised power shields of two of the Raiders flashed and went out. Crimson scars covered the ships’ hulls; then they exploded in a shower of debris.

Their antimatter engines blew up, blinding my sensors momentarily.

The two leaders were toast! The remaining three were left without shields. I sliced through one with my ECGs. Liori shot down another one. Only one last Raider managed to escape: maneuvering dangerously, it ducked into the safety of the molecular mist.

* * *

The ammo loading indicator kept blinking.

Sweat trickled down my spine. My light onboard suit was soaked.

Switching your mind expander to overdrive always costs you. The seconds of combat burn your body’s resources, followed by acute bouts of sickness when reality seems to lag. Still, it doesn’t last long.

We’d shot down four of the Phantom Raiders. My Condor had gotten away with minimum damage: weakened shields, a couple of red-hot scars still glowing crimson on its hull plus the scorched sensors which had already been replaced by the backups.

I killed the speed and surveyed the scene. The shipyard was a meager seven thousand miles away. Thin clouds of slowly cooling molecular mist were camouflaging me from the enemy but it was a mixed blessing as my scanning range had been decimated. Liori’s Condor was nowhere to be seen. Gremlins prevented my communications with the Haash.

One thing I could detect very well was the Relic’s power imprint. Which was bad news. The ship was still within the asteroid belt and leaving it wasn’t going to be easy.

An unread message icon persistently blinked within my interactive visor. Mechanically I opened it,

You’ve received a new level!
You’ve received +1 to the following skills:
Piloting of Small Spacecraft, 11 (+0.93)
Combat Maneuvering, 13 (+0,74)
Your Navigation skill is at 15 (+0,3)


So the in-game interface was still functioning. Apparently, we’d have to learn to live with it. “Liori?”

No answer. Where was she now?

I maneuvered my Condor along the edge of the artificial cloud enveloping the shipyard, looking for a gap in the incandescent molecular mist large enough to take stock of the situation. No Raiders in sight. Plenty of drones scurrying around through, plus occasional clusters of armor plates that they’d failed to deliver to the ship under construction.

The location where our asteroid had just been was now aglow with silent explosions as its absence had affected other asteroids’ orbits, causing them to collide and crumble into red-hot boulders.

Finally, the Relic was within my line of sight, allowing me to employ laser communications. “Jurgen, report!”

“We’ve got about a dozen breach holes but we’ll live,” he replied instantly. “The tractor beams survived!”

“What’s with the asteroid?”

“Unstable energy emissions. An intense heat imprint. I think that the impact followed by the acceleration might have caused damage to some equipment. The artifact it still there but I really couldn’t tell you whether it’s still operable. Foggs and Vandal are itching to find out.”

“Tell them to wait. You can’t send assault groups down the mine yet. It’s not safe. Can you contact the Haash?”

“I can indeed.”

“Tell Charon I want them to cover the Relic. Whatever it takes. What’s with the Wearongs?”

“Dead.”

“You sure?”

What a shame. Such amazing mysterious creatures.

“Frieda has lost mnemonic contact with them. Our sensors detected two disintegrating signatures. I just hope they have a respawn point back on Wearong somewhere,” he didn’t sound too sure.

“Has Liori contacted you?”

“No,” he sounded surprised and anxious. “Isn’t she with you?”

“She was. We lost each other. She must have chased after the Raider. I’ll go and look for her. I might check what happened to the other Raiders while I’m at it.”

“Zander, be careful!”

He didn’t need to tell me. I just hoped that today Lady Luck had sided up with us for a change.

I approached the shipyard.

The gossamer structure I’d noticed earlier turned out to be part of a much larger installation that counted dozens of shipyards. An entire fleet was currently being built there.

The sheer scope of it humbled you. The Outlaws had resurrected Avatroid without pausing to consider the consequences of their daring experiment. And when they finally had, it had been too late.

I scanned the ships’ bodies. To my surprise, I detected neither sign of bustling activity inside nor the presence of complex equipment.

What could that mean? Could Avatroid lack all the necessary knowledge? Does that imply that he too had to study the Founders’ technological legacy to fill in the gaps, just like we had?

“Zander!” Liori’s Condor slipped out of the crimson cloud just in front of me. “I’ve found them! Eleven Raiders! They’re heading for the Relic!”

* * *

The Founders’ fighter ships sliced through the dark. Liori was right: they were heading for the frigate. They moved fast, concealed within the plumes of molecular mist.

Although our Mnemotechnics skill put us at a slight advantage, our enemy was better armed and protected with their 10-megawatt shields. They'd managed to locate the missing nanites and replenish their active matter stocks for the ships’ antimatter units.

Two against eleven? A chill ran down my spine.

What was it Charon had said? You need to act as you did before. His words pierced my mind. “Liori, we should attack them with nanites, then retreat toward the shipyard.”

“We can’t do it! Nanites can’t penetrate their force fields!”

“I know! We’re going to use Molecular Mist,” I forwarded her my mind expander data.

“You’re crazy...”

We banked in synch, approaching the Raiders. Still safely camouflaged, we breezed through their formations without opening fire, leaving their AIs dumb with amazement.

Replication!
Replication!
Replication!


A trail of newborn nanites followed in our wake. The molecular cloud created by the drones made perfect material for nanite replication.

We accelerated sharply, breaking off and heading toward the nearest building dock.

“Liori, max out the shields! Full energy to the stern hemisphere!”

I activated Plasma Blast.

A blinding sheet of fire cut through the Raiders’ formation, predictably followed by a powerful explosion as the nearest clouds of molecular mist detonated with the impact.

The drones’ markers blinked and expired. Swirling jets of plasma spewed into the shipyard, cutting through the unfinished ships and melting the gossamer structures of the docks.

Our own shields were hovering dangerously close to zero. I struggled to stay on course. Debris whirled past, tumbling uncontrollably. The translucent windows of my interface flashed a constant flow of messages.

The Raiders. Where were they?

I hurried to employ thrusters, steering my Condor into a narrow gap between two white-hot crossbeams, when they spattered a hail of molten steel, hit by heavy laser guns.

We zipped through the open-work structures and swung round, scanning the area non-stop.

Two of the Raiders were down. The others had survived the plasma blast but lost their shields and received minor damage in the process. They didn’t follow us. They restored their shields and went for the frigate again!

Dammit! My plan had failed to stop them!

Quest alert: Eurasia Rescue. Quest completed!
By destroying the shipyard’s control module, you’ve diverted Avatroid’s attention to yourself, forcing him to abort his attack on the dying Eurasia station. It now has a chance to-


I didn’t read any further. “Charon, nine Raiders are heading toward the Relic!”

“Roger that,” the Haash pilot’s voice barely cut through the interference. The area was at the mercy of a magnetic storm.

The space around us was chock full of cargonite debris.

“Commence nanite replication!”

In two brief flashes, our ships were safely blanketed within a new layer of Steel Mist.

“There’s no way Avatroid’s fleet can get here soon!” Liori’s voice rang with victory. “It’ll take them three hours at least! And now that we’ve destroyed the shipyard’s AI, it can’t make more Phantom Raiders! We’ve smoked over a hundred drones. I’ve done four levels!”

“I’ve done five.”

“Zander, you need to invest in Disintegration. We really need it now!”

Good advice. We had very few ECG projectiles left and mid-range lasers were no good against our enemy’s shields.

There was no time to think it over. We headed off to intercept them. The Phantom Raiders’ antimatter engines were way superior to our weaker plasma units, but the sheer amount of junk littering space didn’t allow them to attain their full capacity.

We closed in.

Our emotions faded. The tension was palpable. The distance between us continued to shrink. The Haash wing couldn’t tackle nine lethal fighters. We had to split the enemy, destroying or at the very least engaging some of them, preventing them from reaching the Relic.

Liori tuned into my idea and began lagging behind, our mnemonic channel offering us a silent means of communication.

A small asteroid came into my crosshairs - complete with a few Raiders skirting it.

Disintegration!


I banked behind a pre-chosen rock, and still my shields dropped all the way down to zero!

The asteroid was reduced to atoms.

My ship’s hull was red-hot. Sensors kept beeping anxiously. I activated the emergency decompression. One less thing to worry about.

The enemy shields were down. Liori charged.

Her Condor traced a complex path through space as she fired non-stop, not letting the Raiders’ AIs restore their shields.

One of the Raiders dissolved in a flash; another’s hull was ripped open by tracers. A weak glow escaped the structural damage - she’d hit the power unit!

The remaining Raiders turned around. Four of them came for me, three went for Liori.

Maneuvering desperately, I broke through their formation, hurrying to her rescue. I got one of the Raiders with my ECGs, showered another one with lasers and sent nanites to attack the third one. I didn’t even try to finish them off but banked into a steep turn - I still had four more AIs tailing me!

We were closing head-on. I focused on their leader, bringing him into my crosshairs.

Disintegration!


Simultaneously two heavy lasers sliced through my Condor. Control panels began exploding all around the cockpit. Navigation equipment and engine controls were down. Spinning uncontrollably, my ship began drifting away from the scene.

I managed to swipe my eyes across the remains of the downed Raider, sending a quick succession of mnemonic commands,

Replication
Emergency Repairs


The latter was an ability I’d acquired when I’d perused the Technologists Clan’s databases.

Immediately nanites set to work with damage control.

I was drifting.

Four of the Raiders had been destroyed but the surviving ones accelerated again and closed on the Relic. They didn’t bother chasing after us to finish us off. We were neither worth their time nor their power resources.

“Zander?” Liori’s voice rang with anxiety.

“I’m fine. You? Any damage?”

“I’ve burned my reverse thrusters. The ship looks like a sieve. But it’s nothing critical. Engines are still working.”

There, I found her! Her reactor was in overload, leaking radiation. Her injuries were much worse than I’d thought. “I want you to try to get to the Relic’s docking pods,” I said. “I’ll catch up with you. My controls are almost restored. Don’t engage anymore. The Haash can finish them off without us now.”

“Zander, I-“

“Just do it! Please!”

We both knew this was a touch-and-go situation. If her reactor failed, there’d be no respawn for her.

“All right... Promise you won’t be long... Make sure you follow me... You promised...”

Her voice distanced, consumed by the crackling of interference.


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