Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Strikeforce: Shantipole (Part Two): What a Blast!

As alarms blared throughout the asteroid base, the members of Wraith Squadron sprang into action. Almost as one, they pounded down the rocky corridor towards the hangar bay, weapons drawn and grim expressions on their faces. All except for Hate, who of course had no expression but seemed to move in a more jaunty manner than usual, as if savoring the blood-letting to come. As they left the command center, their ear-bead comms crackled into life and Pollard’s voice began to speak reassuringly. ‘Remember, all we need to do is hold the Imps off long enough for Commander Ackbar to retrieve the B-Wing schematics from the data-core and then we can then conduct a fighting withdrawal to the life-pods. I can open and close most of the blast doors from here, so should be able to funnel the scum into a killing zone for you. But I need you to tell me which doors to operate; our cameras are off-line after the initial bombardment. Good luck!’

Moving down the corridor, dodging fleeing Verpine and Alliance techs, the Wraiths split into three groups. Vora Vasch split off first, heading into the Main Power chamber. Surrounded by humming power cylinders, Vora sprinted towards the control panel and began to push buttons, apparently at random. Meanwhile, Hate and Glave charged towards the hangar’s main blast door. Skidding to a halt, to their horror they saw that the door’s housing had been damaged by the Imperial’s opening barrage. Pollard confirmed that he couldn’t operate it remotely, so they had to content themselves with pulling it closed manually. It wouldn’t hold the Imperials, but it might just slow them down.

Kibu and Frost-Bow ran through the base’s rec area to the auxiliary blast door. It too had been damaged, so they drew their primitive weapons and began to hum the battle-songs of their peoples under their breaths as they waited for the inevitable onslaught. They didn’t have long to wait, as a huge shadow fell across the shielded entrance to the hangar bay. The vast bulk of an Imperial Assault shuttle moved into position and a steel and plasteen umbilical deployed directly into the hangar. Immediately, a fire-team of five white-clad Stormtroopers emerged and took up covering positions as more of their kind began to follow them. Turning to Frost-Bow, Kibu signalled that everything would be fine. After all, there could only be one or two hands of Skull-Faces in there, couldn’t there? Maybe two hands and a foot at most? Frost-Bow looked down at the furry fanatic and swallowed nervously…

As the Imperial assault began, Glave had an idea and began to run back towards the command centre. Joined briefly by Vora as she emerged from the Main Generator chamber, Glave began to ask what she’d been up to when he was interrupted by a calm female voice over the comm channel. ‘All personnel: be advised that self-destruct protocols have been initiated. Countdown is in progress. Reactor detonation in T-2 minutes. All personnel: be advised…’ As the computer voice continued its countdown, Vora gave him a wolfish grin and a thumbs-up as they sped past Ackbar and Pollard, both hunched over panels in the command chamber. As they passed, Ackbar looked up: ‘I need more time!’. Glave nodded and ran on; he had a plan.

Meanwhile, Hate had moved over to join Kibu and Frost-Bow at the auxiliary blast door. In the hangar, the newly-arrived Stormtroopers had formed into two groups and were moving towards the hangar’s two entrances. As Kibu gestured excitedly, Frost-Bow fired an arrow high into the air above the approaching Stormtroopers. As it hit the far wall, it fell with an audible clatter, attracting the squad’s attention for a brief moment. But that was all that Kibu needed; with a rapid dash, he charged into the hangar and seemed to disappear amongst the rubble and discarded containers that dotted the floor of the hangar. Before he knew it, Frost-Bow found himself skidding into cover alongside his companion. He waited for the inevitable hail of blaster fire, but incredibly the Imperials appeared not to have noticed them! As if on cue, Hate opened up with her own blaster, attracting the attackers attention whilst the stealthy hunters moved through cover towards the umbilical. Quite what Kibu had in mind Frost-Bow didn’t know, but he hoped it was good. Very good indeed.

Glave finally arrived in the lifeboat bay on the other side of the asteroid base. As he arrived, one of the life-pods blasted away into space carrying the last of the Verpine and Alliance techs. The only life-forms left on the base were Wraith Team, Acbar, Pollard and a bunch of lousy Imperials. Glave examined the  two remaining ‘pods quickly. Although they were only equipped with basic thrusters and repulsor fields to keep them safe from asteroid impact, he thought he could reconfigure the systems to give them a bit more thrust. Grinning to himself and whistling, Glave set to work as the computer calmly whispered its countdown into his ear.

Meanwhile, Vora emerged back into the command centre. She’d decided to give herself the best chance of survival by equipping herself with a vac-suit, but now she’d come back to help Ackbar with the data download. As Ackbar mashed the control panel with his fishy fingers, Vora snorted and gently moved the Commander to one side. With a few deft keystrokes, she completed the download and in a moment held the vital data disk in her hand. Giving the astonished Ackbar and Pollard a wink, Vora ushered them both out of the chamber towards the main hangar: ‘This way, gentle-beings..’

In the hangar, things were becoming tense. Whilst Frost-Bow and a nervous Kibu crept ever-closer to the Imperial shuttle, Hate had kept the Imperials attention away from them. Although the droid had dropped several Stormtroopers, the weight of their return fire was beginning to tell. Sparks jumped from rents in its carapace and an unpleasant burning smell was coming from its motivators. Eventually, even Hate could take no more punishment and it sagged to the floor in a smoking heap. At that moment, Kibu leapt to his furry feet at the entrance to the shuttle’s umbilical. Startled, the Stormtroopers held up their blasters, momentarily unsure of what to do with this harmless-looking alien. Before they could revert to type and start blasting, Kibu reached into his fur and pulled out a thermal detonator! Somehow, in all the confusion he’d managed to ‘acquire’ one of the deadly devices and now stood before the might of the Imperial war machine armed with just this and steely determination. Perhaps it was this, along with a feral grin and a crazed look, that sent the Imperials running back the way they came into the shuttle. Chuckling to himself, Kibu turned towards Frost-Bow and motioned for him to duck as he armed the detonator and threw it over his shoulder after the fleeing Stormtroopers…

Glave was justifiably proud of himself; he’d managed to rig the life-pod so that it responded to his piloting. Ok, it wouldn’t outrun a TIE but it was all he had. Moving along the outside of the asteroid, he was beginning to wonder how he’d get past the bulk of the assault shuttle when he saw an explosing bloom within the shuttle’s cockpit. In a moment, the whole shuttle exploded into a million fragments, small pieces of metal pinging off the life-pod’s hull. Not waiting for an explanation for this apparent miracle, Glave pointed the vessel towards the open hangar. Inside, he could see a group of Stormtroopers turning towards a charging Kibu whilst Frost-Bow raced for the hangar’s auxiliary blast door, no doubt to retrieve Hate’s wreckage. Seeing the Imperials lined up gave Glave an idea; with a yelp of excitement, he sent the life-pod careening through them, scattering them like Selayan bowling pins and giving his crew-mates the opening they needed. As the ‘pod came to rest, Glave opened the hatch and yelled ‘All aboard the Glave Express! Please keep hands, feet and other manipulator extremities within the ‘pod at all times!’

Meanwhile, the computer continued its countdown to destruction. ‘Detonation in T minus one minute and counting: 59. 58. 57…’

(To be continued…)

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

1. Strikeforce Shantipole: Part One.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . .
These are dark days for the Alliance. Using the new Nebulon-B escort frigate and its mighty armaments, the Empire has virtually ended all raids on cargo convoys. Without the spoils from Imperial convoys, Rebel supplies have become dangerously low. This could spell the end of the Rebellion.
But all is not lost. On a remote base in the Roche Asteroid Field, Commander Ackbar and his team desperately work to complete a new starfighter capable of neutralizing the Nebulon-B. Even now a team of brave Rebels approach the asteroid field, under orders to pick up Ackbar, his team, and the starfighter prototypes and return them safely to Alliance High Command. If they fail, the struggle for freedom may indeed be over. . .
Vora Vasch felt entirely at home at the controls of the ‘Trillenium Kestrel’, the YT-1300 Light Freighter her team had been assigned for this mission. She’d logged many hours of flight time on this type of vessel, and she could fly it with her eyes closed. In the co-pilot seat next to her slumped a young human, his pressure suit seeming at least one size too large for his lanky frame. As she glanced over at him, Vora grinned at the petulant look on his face. ‘Come on, Vora! When’s it going to be my go? You promised me I could fly through the asteroid field!’ Vora smiled at him and pulled on the controls of the ship, sending it into a crazy spiral around a lazily tumbling asteroid. Despite himself, the younger human let out a whoop of glee and Vora laughed out loud, her Twilek tentacles swinging from side to side. Behind them both, a metallic form braced itself against the bulkhead whilst shouts of alarm came from further back in the ship’s crew compartment. ‘Observation: Meatbags Vora Vasch and Glave Gizarm are happy, but the other meatbags are not. Why is this?’ As a reprogrammed Imperial Assassin Droid, H4-3T (or ‘Hate’ as it was called) was well-versed in the anatomy and physiology of most humanoids and how best to render them messily inoperative, but the psychology of living beings remained beyond it. Not that this bothered it overmuch, but it liked to learn new things all the same.
‘Come on, Hate’ yelled the young human, ‘going fast is fun!’. Unlike the rest of the crew, Glave Gizarm hadn’t had any bad experiences of the Empire when growing up. In fact, he’d had a peaceful upbringing. He’d only joined the Rebellion because they were short of pilots and because the discipline was usually pretty relaxed. Glave didn’t like authority or people who stopped him having fun.
As he spoke, two angry faces peered into the cockpit, one of them talking rapidly in his own complex language. The speaker was a member of the diminutive humanoid species known as the Ewok. To many humans, their inquisitive manner and resemblance to a traditional child’s toy meant that they were rarely taken seriously. But this crew had seen Kibu the Ewok in combat. He was a skilled hunter, adept at laying traps and ambushes to bring down much larger foes. And when his foes were brought down to his level, he was merciless. He’d only become part of the team after they’d landed on his homeworld of Endor; his natural (some would say uncontrollable) inquisitiveness led to the stowaway being found by the crew asleep and surrounded by empty ration packs, long after they’d blasted through an Imperial blockade with no plans to return. The story of the final crew member was somewhat similar; Frost-Bow likewise hailed from a low-technology society on a backwater world. Like many such places, the Empire had taken the resources they needed by force, devastating both the ecology and the lives of the tough natives. Frost-Bow had developed a deep hatred for the Empire and now fought it using his trusty bow and sword. Kibu and Frost-Bow had developed a close friendship and often fought side-by-side, yelling war-cries in their native tongues.
The team had quickly become a legend throughout the local Alliance network, their ability to move fast and hit hard proving invaluable in the type of insurgency warfare the Rebels were becoming increasingly reliant on. After their last raid on an Imperial black site engaged in testing bacteriological weapons, the team had been given the callsign ‘Wraith’ for their ability to pass unseen through Imperial lines.
Suddenly, the ‘Kestrel’s proximity alert klaxon began to howl. ‘TIE fighters!’ yelled Vora. ‘Battle-stations, everyone!’. As the crew rushed to their places, three of the dreaded Imperial starfighters emerged from the shadow of a large asteroid. Ignoring the Imperial patrol leader’s orders to heave to, Vora sent their ship twisting and jinking towards the denser asteroid field ahead. Whilst the pilot concentrated on keeping them in one piece, Hate worked the deflector shield controls whilst reminding everyone that it, unlike them, could function perfectly well in vacuum. Meanwhile, Glave and Frost-Bow manned the laser cannons, in Frost-Bow’s case whilst receiving enthusiastic help from an excited Kibu.
A short, sharp battle ensued, with the hapless Imperial pilots being led a merry dance through the tumbling asteroids. Vora pushed the Kestrel into ever-more terrifying twists and turns whilst the others peppered the Imperials with (mostly) accurate laser fire. Finally, the last TIE exploded into motes of burning dust as it impacted the side of an asteroid as had the rest of the patrol. Finally, the crew could carry on to their destination; a secret Rebel base, deep in the densest part of the Roche Asteroid Field.
The co-ordinates led them to an hourglass-shaped asteroid; points of light penetrated the asteroid's outer crust, highlighting air vents and repulsor-beam projectors. As the ‘Kestrel’ circled the spinning chunk of rock, the crew noticed an opening in the asteroid's side. Clearly a hangar bay, several figures could be seen moving about within its lighted interior. As Vora moved the ship in to final approach, the com unit crackled to life. "Freighter, identify yourself immediately and state your business." Whilst Vora gave the appropriate codes, Glave began to hop from foot to foot, a pained expression on his face. With a sigh, Vora eased herself out of the pilot’s seat to allow the human pilot to take the stick. Unfortunately, his excitement got the better of him and he managed to scraped off several layers of paint against the hangar entrance before settling the ship unsteadily in the centre of the hangar. Whilst the rest of the crew pointedly pretended not to notice, a voice came from the control room, clearly choking back a laugh. ‘"Nice flying, freighter pilot. Park her anywhere. Feel free to stretch your legs. An escort will arrive momentarily."
The small hangar bay appeared functional and efficient, a control tower jutting out over the hangar deck. Apparently carved and hollowed out of the natural rock, the bay barely held their ship. While the ceiling rose high overhead, the walls remained uncomfortably close. A mixture of instrument panels, cooling veins, and patches of natural reddish-brown stone covered the bay walls and a wide stone passage led out of the chamber. As the crew emerged from their ship, they were approached by a group of insectoid creatures. Kibu, with his great knowledge of alien species, identified them as Verpine; a peaceful race with a talent for working with technology, particularly starships.
After a brief but frustrating discussion with the lead Verpine, a large adult named Suskafoo, another figure, dressed in a simple brown tunic and matching cape, emerged from the corridor and strode towards them. A member of the aquatic race known as the Quarren, the newcomer addressed the Verpine sharply in their own tongue. Chirping back angrily, the Verpine took their leave. After watching the Verpine disappear down the corridor, the Quarren turned to the crew. "Greetings, I am Lieutenant Salin Glek, aide to Commander Ackbar," he said in halting Basic. "I trust you have a prime reason for jeopardizing the security of this base?" A further bad-tempered exchange took place, during which Glek demanded they turn over any information to him rather than Ackbar. Finally, a battered-looking human entered the hangar, interrupting an enraged Kibu whilst kicking Glek in the shins. Identifying himself as Pollard, another of Ackbar’s aides, he then conducted them to the base’s command center.
Across the room, hunched intently over a display terminal, were Suskafoo, the two young Verpine, and a Mon Calamari. Pollard led the crew toward them, announcing "Commander Ackbar. These are the messengers." Ackbar welcomed them but was disturbed to hear about their run-in with an Imperial patrol. Ignoring Glek’s biting comments about how the team had probably  led the Imperials straight to the base, the crew handed over the holo-disk to Ackbar. Noting the contents were eyes-only, Ackbar dismissed the room’s occupants before viewing it. On it, Mon Mothma herself ordered Ackbar to proceed with his B-Wing prototypes to join up with a Rebel fleet in the Pothor Sector; moreover, the crew were ordered to stay with Ackbar and ensure his safe arrival at the designated rendezvous point.
When the Alliance staff were finally readmitted to the command centre, the crew immediately noticed that Glek was absent. When Pollard mumbled something about seeing him heading in the direction of the hangar bay, the crew turned as one towards the bank of monitor panels showing the interior of the base; to their shock, the hangar bay was empty. There was no sign of Glek, or the ‘Trillenium Kestrel’ for that matter!
Suddenly, warning sirens began to scream throughout the asteroid complex and a voice boomed from the command center com unit. "Hangar bay to Commander Ackbar! Sir, an unidentified craft is approaching this asteroid. It's closing fast, and it doesn't respond to our signals. Wait. . . it's an Imperial assault shuttle! Repeat, an Imperial. . ." Two explosions rocked the base, showering dust and small rocks on the crew. The screens monitoring the asteroid's interior flashed white and flicked off. Turning to Pollard, "There's no way we can hold out against firepower of that magnitude. We just don't have enough soldiers. Give the evacuation signal."
Pollard nodded and turned, shouting into his com unit, "Emergency evacuation! All personnel immediately report to the life-boat bay. This is no drill!" The base shuddered as the assault shuttle continued its bombardment. With each explosion, the lights flickered ominously.
Ackbar regarded the crew, his huge eyes wide. "If I don't retrieve the two-man B-wing configuration files from this computer, then everything we've worked for will be lost. I need time!"
(To be continued…)

Saturday, 3 August 2019

9. A Voice from Beyond.

For a moment, the crew stood in silence, not quite believing what they’d seen or heard. Behind them could be heard the strained breathing of the xeno scientist Yola Wu. Although they she couldn’t be seen in the darkness of her apartment, Dar and Bonto  could feel the anxiety pouring from her in waves. Less attuned to the feelings of others than his companions, Vapour just held out his hand towards the wall but pulled back before touching it, as though it were a wild animal. ‘What the actual f… Did you see that? Tell me you saw that too!’ Mutely, they nodded before all three of them turned back towards the alien scientist. Yola Wu sat on the edge of her sleeping platform, legs drawn up beneath her and her arms thrown around her head protectively. Rocking slightly, she seemed to be saying the same word over and over again, sending shivers down the crew’s spines…
After escaping from the black site on Sonhandra, Teslan, Lucky and Highball had considered their next move. The things they’d seen on the eternally dark side of the tidally-locked planet had shaken them to their core, but nothing more so than the sight of a humanoid pressure suit apparently encasing a gaseous entity, especially when it momentarily regarded them with a human face… Whilst Lucky continued to decrypt the files they’d extracted from the black site’s data core, Teslan and Highball contacted their crewmates. They’d felt completely out of their depth on the Sonhandra job and had their suspicions about how honest their employers had been. True, the Sahi’ir had provided them with the co-ordinates of the base as well as one of their stealth modules; even now, two of the identical and androgynous Sahi’ir Choir were sitting silently in the rear of the vessel, waiting for further instructions. But the crew couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d been hung out to dry by the powerful Sahi’ir for some reason. With that in mind, the crew sent a message via the underground comm network for Dar, Bonto and Vapour to meet them at The Cove in the Rin system, outside immediate Sahi’ir influence.

The Cove was a haven for pirates, smugglers and assorted ne’er do wells throughout the Procyon Sector. Thousands of years ago, a Precursor artefact of some sort had been all-but annihilated, leaving a cloud of debris that could disrupt any Hegemonic sensor suite at anything but point-blank range. At some point, an enterprising group of misfits had hit upon the idea of creating a safe port for those needing privacy or somewhere out of the reach of the Hegemony, and so The Cove was born. Ever-expanding, The Cove was built out of the hulks of ships of all types, bolted and plasma-welded together in the depths of the sensor fog. It was always changing its position within the cloud to throw off those who weren’t in the know, but those with the right connections were able to find it. By the time that Teslan, Lucky and Highball reached The Cove aboard the ‘Dark Blade’, the ‘Lazy Susan’ were already waiting for them. Mindful that the ‘Dark Blade’ was an Ashen Knives vessel, they rendezvoused with the Susan deep within the cloud to avoid any unnecessary entanglements.

Sitting in the Lazy Susan’s galley, the full crew considered what they knew and what their next moves might be. They were all in agreement that the Sahi’ir couldn’t be trusted; wealthy and generous patrons they might be, but that didn’t count for much if you were dead. Lucky had managed to decrypt much of the data they’d retrieved from Sonhandra, although the content didn’t give them much comfort. It appeared that whoever was operating the site was collecting Precursor artefacts for some purpose. Although the purpose wasn’t clear, one file in particular contained casualty projections relating to the Iota system. Whatever their unknown opposition were up to could cause billions of deaths…
As to their opposition, things were not a great deal clearer. They were apparently connected to a group of scientists that had disappeared in a failed attempt to access the dormant jumpgate in the Holt system a decade ago. Although the research was classified, the hacking skills of the group had revealed some of the scientists involved; Boyer, Stanz, Mark and Venker. Of these, Nils Boyer was the most prominent, so the crew focused on him first. Early on in their research, the crew came across the name Yola Wu. Wu was a well-known and brilliant research physicist specialising in the study of jumpgates; despite the fact of her xeno heritage, Wu had risen to a prestigious research position at the Khalud Academy on Shimaya. Although Wu and Boyer had made many breakthroughs, their academic relationship had broken down a couple of years before the Holt Incident, as it had become known. Although the trail was now over a decade old, the crew decided to follow this up first to see if any answers could be found.

So it was that Bonto, Dar and Vapour found themselves once more on Shimaya, posing as fellow academics in an attempt to speak with Dr Wu. Despite some evident unrest on the Khalud Academy campus (or perhaps because of it), the crew managed to gain access to Dr Wu’s research assistant, a young human female by the name of Gaia Bartok. Inexperienced as she was, ‘Dr Squam’ found it easy to charm his way into an interview with Wu. The good doctor had a large top-floor apartment in a comfortable hab-block on the campus, but as soon as they entered the crew felt something was wrong. Although Wu initially responded to discrete questions, as darkness fell and the questions moved onto the Holt Incident she became more and more agitated, her glance darting more and more to a patch of blank wall in the main living area. Gradually, everyone present felt an increasing sense of foreboding as static electricity began to build up in Wu’s apartment. With a groan of despair, Wu fell to the floor and began to weep anxiously as she mumbled to herself inaudibly. Suddenly, the temperature dropped and the glow globes began to flicker rapidly; something, somewhere was draining energy from the local area on a huge scale. As the crew watched disbelievingly, the patch of wall that had so fascinated Wu began to bulge outwards, forming what appeared to be a human face, mouth opening and closing wordlessly. Her voice cracking in terror, Wu shouted one phrase before lapsing into silence: ‘Nils! It’s Nils, come back from hell to claim me!’

8. Black Night is a Long Way from Home

Seen from a distance, the matte-black ship seemed to arc lazily towards the unchanging blackness of Sonhandra’s dark side. In contrast to the serenity of its progress, the atmosphere on board was anything but serene. Whilst the ship’s autopilot sounded regular status updates, the ship’s crew dealt with their nervousness in the best way they could and reflected on the events that had brought them to this point. 
Following the ‘Lazy Susan’s’ successful rescue of the kidnapped xenoarchaelogist and the artefact, its crew had returned to Indri, bloody but triumphant from their confrontation with the Ashen Knives. During their struggle, the crew had accessed some data protected by heavy-duty ‘black ICe’: the sort that fried synapses rather than reveal its secrets.  However, the Sahi’ir had access to resources most could only dream of, and had been able to crack the encryption to reveal the truth within. Intriguingly (or worryingly, depending on your point of view), the files contained only a set of coordinates relating to a specific point on the mystery-shrouded dark side of Sonhandra in the Holt system.
Weary and damaged, both physically and psychologically, the ‘Susan’s’ original crew were in no state to head into who-knew-what. However, the crew’s reputation had grown over the past months as one that ‘got things done’, and one that could attract rich and powerful backers to boot. Unsurprisingly, this had attracted a steady stream of hopefuls wanting to bask in their reflected glory. Most were turned away without a second thought, but three of them had shown just enough promise to earn at least a hearing. The youngest of them was a Baseline Human named Teslan Decampos. His Spacer heritage was obvious from his thin, rangy body, a result of spending his formative years in zero-g. Even after all the years humanity had travelled the stars, an unenhanced human spending a childhood in zero-g was still condemned to an adulthood of brittle bones and painful joints. But Baseline Spacers were a proud breed, and bore snapped bones and distorted limbs as a badge of honour. This particular Spacer had something in his favour, however; he was that rarest of beings, a machine empath. Whereas Sparks could talk to the ‘Susan’ through his cybernetic implants, Teslan instinctively ‘knew’ the condition of a machine just by touching it. Machines seemed to want to please him somehow, and the drones he continually tinkered with appeared to have an almost touching devotion to their creator. Perhaps related to this ability, Teslan was also sensitive to the Way and its weird effects far more than his companions. As the black ship moved towards the surface, Teslan seemed quite unconcerned, playing with his latest drone creation.
The second of the new recruits was not all that ‘new’. Dr H Y ‘Highball’ Sorenson was a Baseline Human in early middle-age, of proud, traditional Colonist stock. Carrying on the family tradition of medicine, Highball’s career had started out well enough. After completing his medical training, he’d signed up for a internship on a Mendicant-sponsored programme providing care to civilians caught up in the Sector’s incessant brushfire conflicts. This transformative experience taught Highball two things. One: he was a damned good combat medic, able to move easily across front lines without getting shot, his dedication to the patient acting as his passport. Two: he enjoyed the high from synthetic xenoadrenaline far too much, especially as the compound was highly illegal. However, his Mendicant sponsors were willing to overlook his foibles due to his ‘go anywhere’ attitude.  When the Mendicants fell out of favour after supporting the wrong side in the Hegemonic Accession, however, Highball found himself out in the cold. After wandering from place to place, he was introduced to the crew of the ‘Susan’ through his now-underground Mendicant contacts. Now, he sat staring at Teslan as he tinkered with his drone, turning a hypospray of his latest synthex compound over and over in his hands, savouring the anticipation of the hit it would give him. 
The final member of the crew was Deas Pascher, or ‘Lucky’ to his friends. Lucky had been everywhere and seen everything, usually whilst trying to throw off either his bad creditors or those who felt his luck at games of chance had been ‘enhanced’ in some way. Like Teslan, he’d seen how the blue-collar masses of the Hegemony lived their lives, and from an early age decided he wanted no part of it. Although his family had saved to give him the best education they could, all that he’d taken from it was an appreciation for the finer things in life; music, art, food, drugs... It was something of a guilty relief when the family scrap business went under and he could walk away into the life of a scoundrel and gambler. He spent the next several years conning, gambling and smuggling his way around the Sector; anything that could fund his lifestyle without being actual work. During a job supplying weapons to some doomed Indents trying to throw off the corporate yoke, he’d met Highball and they’d developed a professional rapport. So, when the crew of the Susan began to make waves in the Sector, Lucky had tagged along to see what was on offer.
As expected, the craft’s internal lights began to dim as it crossed the 2.5 km mark above the planet’s surface. Or rather, the lights themselves stayed as normal, but the crew’s ability to perceive the light began to falter. In a galaxy full of strange things, the dark side of Sonhandra stood out as being a beacon of downright weirdness. The surface itself was pitch black, and sensors were unable scan the surface. Assuming this was due to some sort of Precursor interference effect, the early explorers had tried to observe the surface using enhanced human eyesight through optics; still nothing. They’d then tried to send automated probes to the planet surface. The probes had returned as per their programming, recording devices running. Eagerly, the scientists had viewed the logs, but found the sections that should have revealed the planet’s secrets were just static. Manned probes had been sent, but the terrified Indent occupants had lost consciousness on approaching the surface and, although apparently unharmed on their return, had no memory of their trip. Eventually everything had been tried, but to the frustration of all, nothing worked. Eventually, the Hegemony gave it up as a bad job and moved on to other, more profitable activities. But, armed with a set of coordinates from the Ashen Knives vessel, this crew were about to take a step in to the unknown. As their vision failed, the crew also felt consciousness slipping away from them. A slight hiss followed by a contented sigh told Teslan and Lucky that Highball had found his own way of dealing with the situation, leaving them alone with their fears as consciousness fled…
When the three crew regained consciousness, they found that their ship was stationery. Status panels indicated that their docking umbilical had been engaged, but to what was unclear. Apprehensively, the three donned vac-suits and ventured out of the airlock. Ahead of them was a standard blast door of Hegemonic origin. However, the material surrounding it was altogether stranger. It appeared to be a hard black substance, but not of any material their scanners could analyse. To Teslan, the material seemed...alive somehow, but neither machine nor organic in nature. However, the door had a familiar locking mechanism, so Teslan got to work opening it. Beyond was a circular passageway of the same dark material with a gridwork of metal forming the floor. As they moved forward a passageway to the right came into view. Gingerly, Teslan held out one of his drones to extend one of its optics around the corner. Through his wrist-mounted comp-pad, Teslan saw a standard security droid stamping forward; clearly, he’d triggered some security protocol on entering the complex. Thinking quickly, he tasked one of his drones to move past the side corridor and speed ahead further into the darkened corridors. Apparently, the security droids were only equipped with basic algorithms; whoever had established this  facility clearly didn’t expect any unwelcome visitors, so these were more an afterthought than a serious attempt at security. As the crew held their breath, the lumbering droid reached the intersection... and turned away from where they shrunk back against the wall, following the decoy drone as it sped around the corner. As its simple brain began to consider its next move, the three slipped around the corner and headed off the way the droid had come. As they passed a row of heavily armed but immobile security droids, the crew heaved a sigh of relief.
Carefully, they made their way deeper into the complex. As they did so, it seemed to them that shadows began to move of their own accord and more than once they thought they heard their names being whispered just on the edge of hearing. The feeling of being watched increased, as did their nervousness until eventually, they arrived at a T-junction. As they watched, the black material of the tunnel wall seemed to bulge outwards. To their horror, the bulging matter began to twist and change, forming what appeared to be a screaming face. As the whispers grew louder, the crew felt their sanity began to slip. Thinking quickly, Teslan grabbed his companions arms and began to speak to them; of their homes, their hopes, anything that could ground them in reality. As he did so, the wild look began to fade from their eyes and the tunnel wall became just that once more. 
Shaken, the crew moved onwards until ahead of them, they could hear evidence of activity. The tunnel finally opened outwards into a large, well-lit cavern. In the centre of the cavern was a large data core with a dozen or more analysis droids spread around it, each working on a different Precursor artefact. Next to the data core was a humanoid figure clad in what appeared to be a standard heavy vac-suit, although its helmet had been heavily modified with a framework of cables and wires of unknown purpose surrounding it. The figure seemed to be conducting the activities of the analysis droids as if they were an orchestra, and the air was filled with the chatter of machine language as they reported their findings. As they crouched behind a rack holding unknown devices, Teslan sent  forward his last drone to link with the data core, to see if any information could be downloaded. However, there was too much interference to allow remote access to the core, so Lucky decided to put his nickname to the test and crept forward to download the data from the drone. His luck held out just long enough to access the data, but on his return he caught some equipment on his vac-suit, causing it to clatter to the ground. Immediately, the figure turned and gave the crew their first view of what lay behind the face-plate. Instead of the expected human or xeno form, it appeared that the vac suit was occupied by some sort of gaseous form. As they watched, it formed itself into an approximation of a human face for a moment before once again becoming a swirling gas. The horrifying sight was compounded by the voice that echoed from the suit’s vox; although it spoke standard, it seemed to fade in and out of hearing, and seemed to be heard as much in their minds as through their ears.
As one, the crew turned and began to run back to the ship. As they did so, Lucky stammered something about what he’d seen of the data he’d extracted. Something about casualty estimates in the Iota system that were in the billions...