Force - Ruby Catalyst Dockmaster Fensworth poked tentatively at the lightscreen keyboard that now illuminated a small portion of his desk. He hadn’t used one in over three decades, the development of smart voice recognition software having rendered such peripherals unnecessary - until now. His parched throat burned as he swallowed uneasily while he slowly tapped out another message to his neighboring outpost on the planet Lifar. This really was the last straw. It was one thing to be left in charge of an outpost in the middle of nowhere; it was entirely another thing for the entire command to be all but ignored or forgotten. Usually Fensworth wouldn’t have minded being forgotten. This position had been a nice quiet escape from the war torn Defia that had been his previous post. Here, on the outskirts of humanity all he had to do was make sure the expedition groups ran smoothly as well as those monthly supply runs. The scientists kept to themselves and supplies ships had run like clockwork. All in all, it had been like an eight year paid vacation. Only one problem: And as far as Fensworth could work out, it all stemmed from some idiot higher up in command that had thought it was a good idea to plant Brizo outpost right on a planet that was probably eighty percent sand and twenty percent rock. If there was water anywhere, it would have been deep underground, out of his reach. This lack of local water would have been nothing but a minor annoyance if his regular supply ship was not overdue by over a fortnight. As a result, water was now strictly rationed and each person was given barely enough to drink each day. Which really wasn’t enough; given the dry climate and heat. The showers had long since been turned off and the base stank of unclean recycled air. Fensworth was silently thankful that no flies or other pests existed on his base. Though to be fair, none would have survived. No other life had been found on this planet. A flicker of light in the corner of his eye caught his attention as his personal aid, Bart, chose to project himself upon the holopad on his desk. Originally christened Bartholomew when assigned to Brizo base, its inhabitants had quickly found the name a distasteful mouthful and simply called him Bart. Fensworth watched from the corner of his eye as the Avatar of a smartly dressed man in a business suit pretended to peer over at his screen. He didn’t have to of course. It was all for show, nothing happened on this base without Bart knowing about it. He certainly didn't have to look at the screen. The AI seemed genuinely amused by the predicament they were in, but while Bart never voiced such sentiments, these small subtle hints were really starting to piss him off. Whoever had programmed his personality was a dick. His screen darkened, leaving only four words illuminated: A message from Lifar. Fensworth turned and glared at the avatar. Bart smirked. “Well no one talks to me these days, so I thought I’d give this a try.” “What does it say?” croaked Fensworth. “Well,” Bart cocked his head for a second as if considering something. “It’s more of a distress signal than a message really,” another pause, "seems like they were attacked.” “What?” “Yes,” Bart muttered. “Amazing this got through to us actually. Seems like they got jammed during transmit. There’s no checksum or confirmation. I suspect we didn’t receive the full message.” “Why? By who?” Fensworth asked. Who would attack a border post that barely qualified for attention from its own command chain? “I don’t know.” “Did you request a correction?” Bart sniffed. That was a yes then. And no response either. “What about Fort Eilya?” Bart snorted again. “They didn’t respond when you started to run out of water. What makes you think they’ll…hold on.” A small pinging sound emitted from his monitor and Fensworth turned back to his screen just in time to see Bart’s message disappear to be replaced by his long range scanners. A small blip had appeared on the edge of his screen. “The supply ship?” he asked hopefully. Bart shook his head. “Too small to be a freighter. Too fast as well. Doesn’t look like a fighter though. Might be one of the expeditions returning. Maybe they’ll have water.” Fensworth doubted that. Sometimes he honestly thought the only reason scientists bothered to return was for food and fuel. He followed the small blip on the map with a mix of disappointment and despair as it slowly travelled towards Brizo base. If it was an expedition return, there would be more mouths to feed and he was running out of food too. “Maybe it won’t be too bad. I hear cannibalism is only frowned upon by humans now,” Bart said as if reading his thoughts. “You know I could always-” The AI paused as the scanner started to ping again, several times in quick succession. On the screen, half a dozen more blips joined the first. Most were smaller than the original. But one was extremely large. Based on his experience, it was around about the size of a capital ship. “Woah,” said Bart. ‘Woah’ was right, thought Fensworth as sirens started going off all over the base. ** Isley cursed silently as the ship entered another spin. The small room he shared with the other scientists turned upside down again. He closed his eyes as something wet warm and sticky smacked him in the face. Vomit. Great, he thought. At least it wasn’t some of the acid these whack jobs had locked away in the same damn room. He felt like throwing up too; the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything since becoming a Shade be damned. He knew he should have had his boots fixed before departing. He was screwed the moment the small lab ship lost its artificial gravity. His free hand grasped the small pendant like loom that hung around his neck. For the briefest moment he had the urge to unweave himself from the instance, if only temporarily. The impulse passed quickly though. He was a trained Order Enforcer after all, and he knew only too well how unreliable reweaving was. Anything could happen in between. He might not be able to return at all. Besides, he was holding the fragment. He regarded the small ruby shard in his left fist. Such a small inconspicuous crystal, some would even call it dull. Yet when pieced together and put in the wrong hands, it would cost the lives of worlds. “We can make it,” shouted Trent from the cockpit. “Someone get to the turret.” “I thought you said they have no power,” Isley yelled back. He kicked off the wall he was plastered against and started floating towards the rear anyway. It was good to do something. In this situation he just felt helpless. “The engines are about to fry,” Trent explained. “They weren’t made to fly this fast for this long. Once we enter free fall I’ll reroute power to the gun and guide with thrusters. Maybe we can get one of these bastards on the way down.” Shooting things: Finally, something he was good at. Isley grinned inwardly at the thought as he reached the controls. He couldn’t wait to get started. ** Fensworth watched, slack jawed, as Bart tracked the lab ship’s progress towards his base. In his career, he had seen some amazing feats displayed by pilots doing flybys or some lucky ones who managed to land crippled ships without burning up on re-entry. But never in his life had he seen an aircraft enter free fall tail first. Not while being chased by two others. “The hell is he doing?” “Looks like the Reichmann maneuver,” Bart said, “But that is only possible on a Sabre class fighter. A civilian craft would not have the engines to stall the fall.” “I don’t think he’s trying to. Either his engines are dead, or he’s insane. He’s routed his power to the -” “Hmmm, this is interesting,” Bart interrupted. “Are you aware that the Civilian XTE-400 is a rather old excavation craft?” “What’s that got to do with anything?” “It doesn’t have a drill like the newer ships. It has a spear-hook.” “Oh you cannot be serious.” But even as the words left his mouth he saw the harpoon lance out towards one of the pursuing ships. Shields weakened by the re-entry burn, the missile sliced straight into its hull, where it remained attached. The pinned craft immediately began to pull up in an attempt to get away, inadvertently slowing both their descents. Probably not the best decision, Fensworth thought, as the line pulled tight, effectively restricting its movement. “Not this either,” mumbled Bart. “My database must be out of date.” “Hmmm?” asked Fensworth offhandedly, his attention glued to the screen. “I can’t find the models of the other ships in my database,” Bart explained. His avatar jabbed at the screen as it changed to show another ship following behind the others. It was much larger than the first, though not big enough to match the size of the capital ship he saw earlier. “I’m sure that would show up somewhere. But I can’t find a match.” Bart was right. Upon closer inspection, Fensworth realized he had never seen anything like it. The design didn’t even look human. “You think its alien too?” Sometimes he wondered if Bart could read his mind. “Time to find out,” Fensworth said, “Get me a lift.” Bart gave him a look as the door behind him slid open. His avatar did a flip. In his suit, it looked utterly ridiculous. “Sir,” the man saluted. “Your ride is waiting.” Bart did another flip. “Do I look slow to you?” he asked before disappearing from his desk. ** Bruli watched as both Isley’s ship and the Voz fighter smashed into the ground despite the efforts of the latter. The pilot was an idiot he thought. Even he would have flown parallel with the falling ship until it smashed into the ground. Then again, he didn’t know how to fly one of those things, so what did he know. Maybe it wasn’t possible. Technology really wasn’t his forte. He felt awkward disguised as one of the Voz. To him, they were hideous creatures. Eight limbs and a hardened exoskeleton really wasn’t his thing. He’d done some disgusting morphs before, and this was right down with giant slugs or mutated sea turtles. From what he could gather, the Interceptor he had infiltrated held about thirty Voz. The good news was, only about a dozen of them were soldiers, and he was apparently one of them. “I want that shard,” barked the leader to the group as a small hole slowly opened up in the center of the chamber where they were gathered. “Kill anything else.” Bruli peered down and saw that they were hovering directly over Isley’s burning wreck. There would have been no survivors from that crash. Except for Isley, he would be okay. Shades were tough. And if Bruli had respect for anything, it would be the luck of the undead. One by one, the Voz abseiled down, attached to silken ropes they spun themselves. Bruli remained where he was and observed as the first ones to land began to tear through the wreckage without regard for the flames. There was a screech of triumph as one of them started dragging Isley’s limp body out of the ship. The fragment was clutched in his left fist. “Well?” clucked the leader, skittering towards him, “You going to jump?” Bruli looked around. They were the only two left in the room. “No,” he said. In one swift motion he brought up one of his many arms, morphed it into the hand he was used to, grasped the Voz by his throat and threw him off the ship. Without looking back, he turned and headed deeper into the Interceptor, shifting back to his true form as he ran. He trusted Isley to take care of himself. Besides, he had his own part of the mission to do. ** Isley cracked his eyes open but kept still as he felt himself being dragged out of the ship. One of the soldiers had entangled him with those silky strands they seemed to be able to produce on demand. He wasn’t heavy for a Shade. Unlike the others, his armor was designed by the Order and built to be weightless. Each piece was attached separately, functioned separately, but could work together to project illusions, holograms, or even camouflage. Created more for espionage than actual combat, only the chest piece offered substantial protection. The rest was in place mostly to encase a viral gel. The gel was a regenerative substance that could repair any minor damage to the suit. Not that the suit mattered. After all, his un-beating heart, home to millions of Nano parasites, was his only true weakness. Armor did not Shades powerful. The parasites did. Still, he wasn’t light. The fact that just one of them could shift him meant that these Voz were strong. Slowly, the fingers in his right hand bunched into a fist to match his left then relaxed. It was a small movement, but it told him several things. First, his cloaking and illusion projectors were broken beyond repair from the crash. Secondly, that by some miracle, his hologram generator wasn’t. And lastly, these Voz weren’t very attentive, for none of them noticed his movements. Isley closed his eyes and waited. Ten of these would be tough odds, even for a Shade. Not for the first time since the mission started, he wished the rest of his team were here. There was a small thump, as if something had fallen off the ship, followed by yells and exclamations. A distraction! Whatever it was, it was his chance! Without hesitation, he grabbed the silky strands binding him and pulled. Caught off guard, his captor was yanked off his feet and toppled over backwards. Catching the spider as he fell, he reached for what he thought was the head and twisted. There was a distinct crack and the Voz crumpled. His shoulder piece whirred and a small round section popped out slightly. He grabbed the small energy pistol concealed within, and shot two more Voz in the back before they realized what was happening. Three were dead before the first had even hit the ground. There was a cry of alarm as he fired at the fourth. He missed. Shit, they were faster than he expected. He dropped to the ground and felt plasma burn his cheek as one shot barely missed. There was a tingling sensation as the Nano-parasites began healing the burn immediately. Without camouflage, he used the next best thing: His hologram projector. Activating it, a copy of him appeared next to him as he charged the nearest Voz. His projector was damaged though, and the hologram was grainy, unrealistic. But it bought him the seconds he needed to decapitate another. That was as far as he got though. His mind registered a loud roar from above, then nothing. ** Fensworth watched through his binoculars as the darkly armored man took out four aliens by himself before being shot by one of the turrets above. He was tall, at least six feet. Definitely a human, he wore no helmet. They were about seven hundred yards out, the hovercrafts closing the distance quickly. Looking around, he noticed that every man with a gun had it trained on one of the six remaining aliens. None had opened fire, these were trained veterans, and for that he was glad. One of the aliens turned towards them then looked at another. He pointed towards them with one of his arms. The other nodded and raised the weapon he was holding. It looked like a rocket launcher. “Oh shit,” breathed Fensworth. He screamed into his headset, “Scatter!” Red bolts of plasma rained down on his platoon, it was like the launcher could fire non-stop. There was an explosion as the bolts connected with one of the vehicles. His men opened fire in retaliation. With no cover, the six aliens were felled rather quickly. Truth be told, Fensworth was rather surprised at the result. He had expected more resistance. Then again, it was six against a platoon. A loud rumble from above, followed by another explosion behind him. The turret! But he didn’t look behind him. He didn’t, because he couldn’t believe what he was seeing ahead. The soldier was back on his feet and looking up at the alien craft hovering overhead, when less than a minute ago; Fensworth would have sworn he had a hole blown in his head. The soldier held what looked like a small pistol in his hand, and he had it pointed at the alien craft. It looked almost comical. If it had been anyone else, Fensworth would have laughed. A small red flare streaked up towards the hole in the middle of the hovercraft. At the same time another man leapt out, grabbing one of the silken strands as he slid down. He hit the ground running, and the pair started running towards Fensworth. Two seconds later, the alien ship… imploded. It was as if something had sucked out a portion of the ship and the hull crumpled inwards like paper. It stayed in the air for about another second before crashing down to earth. ** “So let me get this straight,” Fensworth said. The ruby fragment lay on the table between him and the two strangers. “These Voz are after that ruby my scientists found buried in an asteroid in uncharted space?” The pair looked at one another then nodded. “What is it exactly?” “It’s a power chip, integral to an extremely powerful weapon the Voz control.” “You two expect me to believe this? And you,” he pointed at Isley. “I saw you die. Care to explain that?” The other man cleared his throat. “That isn’t important. What is important is: Are you willing to die for your people?” He spluttered. “Am I what?” “The Voz will stop at nothing to get their hands on this. They will wipe you out to find it. You and every other living thing they encounter.” “But you can kill them.” “I destroyed an Interceptor,” Isley said, “The rest of the Armada cannot far behind.” Silence. “You mentioned dying?” Bart asked. “The thing is, these Voz,” Isley continued, ignoring Bart. “They don’t belong in your instance.” “Instance?” “World,” the other man explained. “There are uncharted…no. Not important. What’s important is how we stop them.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Usually the Order sends an army for this.” “Anyway, we want to give them back their shard.” “What?” “Not that one though,” his hand went into his robes and came up with another identical fragment, “this one.” “What’s the difference?” “This is a virus.” “I see. You want to make it realistic right?” “So you understand.” “Consider it done.” “Make no mistake,” said Isley as he rolled the small shard between his fingers. “If our gambit fails, your people will die. Hell, they might be wiped out regardless. Are you still sure you want to do this?” “We are already dead men walking,” Fensworth said. “Without water, and if what you say is true, there won’t be any. We wouldn’t last another fortnight. Better to go out fighting than wither away.” The pair stood in unison and saluted him silently: Fists to chest. The pendants they both wore glowed and the world shimmered around them. Fensworth blinked and they were gone. No trace remained save a ruby shard.