The announcement was made to all of Homeship. "The destruction of the vermin nests is well on its way to completion. Landing Day should commence within the cycle. Everyone, begin your preparations to descend to the planet. Anyone not otherwise occupied should acquire armor, and accustom themselves to it."
Armor was specialty gear, not general supplies, and not normally under Sippiyid's jurisdiction. However, normally it wasn't required to provide it to all of Homeship at once. Sippiyid was well used to overseeing the moving of supplies throughout Home. Thus, this job was accomplished by a collaboration between departments.
Ebbiar and the other Distributors helped hand it out. It was many sub-cycles before they were done, and finally had a chance to grab some for themselves. Ebbiar had never worn armor before. Of course, neither had any of the others. It was only used for venturing outside Homeship, and those with experience with such things were all down on the Harbingers now.
Ebbiar took a deep breath before stepping back into the armor frame and activating it. The membrane moved first, wrapping itself around her and adjusting like a second skin. It had a strange, spongey feel, and her skin prickled as it settled into place, coming into resonance with her nervous system. Then the armor itself closed up around her. The limbs were longer than her own, and then there was the mass of bio-tentacles extending from the back. The membrane provided a conduit through which to control all of it.
It felt slightly awkward, at first, as if all her movements were second hand. However, she got used to it quickly. She could walk and gesture freely, even flex the tentacles as she liked. She had seen Garasso in his armor on plenty of occassions, and always thought he looked impressive. Now she was wearing it herself.
She wondered what he'd think when he saw her. Would he be impressed as well? Would he say she looked all grown up? She almost felt it.
It was a surprising development, at this stage, but it didn't take any of the Harbingers long to notice. There was a buzzing of purpose, of anticipation and hope, and determination, coming from the surface below—from everywhere on the surface, like some network that covered the whole planet. They'd thought the vermin were as good as beaten, but apparently the vermin hadn't gotten that message.
The resulting orders from Homeship were simple. "Find hotspots. Find center if possible. Target and destroy." It wasn't hard to locate those hotspots, the places where it was actually coming from, and soon numerous Harbingers had adjusted course toward their new targets. Harbinger 2-6 had picked one up us well.
"It feels… Do you think we've found the center of the phenomenon?" Atchak asked Terryf.
"Maybe. You're right, there is a sense about it as if it might be. Either way, it's definitely a hotspot."
Atchak nodded. "It looks like a fallback nest. It's small, compared to the original nests," he observed, studying the images on the screen. "There won't be much to conduct the cascade, but then, it won't need to go far. Adjust course."
"I wonder what the vermin mean to try?" Terryf mused. "Clearly, something, but what can they do? They tried that flare weapon, but it didn't gain them anything."
"Perhaps that fact didn't sink in. I don't suppose it matters. We aren't going to give them time to do much of anything."
It wasn't long before a fleet of native craft emerged from the nest ahead. While coming in their general direction, the craft warily kept their distance. Even so, Atchak had the Striker pilots poised to take off, just in case. Of course, in some cases, there was little stopping them anyway.
Garasso was right where he'd insisted on being, at the front of the fleet, ready to go out there as soon as he got the chance. As he tensely waited, Garasso mused how strange it seemed, this serious anticipation. Normally, he and Veen would be challenging each other right now, boasting about their accomplishments to come and mocking the other. But Veen was gone now, thanks to them.
Garasso vowed to himself that they'd pay.
Eariot looked at the screen in surprise as it reported a ship coming in. A Scout. But there had been no Scouts deployed for master-cycles, not since they'd gathered in the last of them shortly before reaching this planet. They were well past the point of surveillance and study.
Proximity had activated its automatic homing approach at the same time it had alerted his system to its existance, and the Scout was already inside Homeship, making its way steadily toward the docks. The system was waiting for Eariot to input a dock assignment.
Homeship's Descent was planned for the imminent future, as soon as they had confirmation that a newly discovered rash of fallback nests had been burned out. Nearly everybody was already gathered on the Great Floor, ceremoniously waiting for the Descent to begin. Eariot could hear them, wondering what was with the Scout that was now flying over their heads. Eariot wondered that himself.
He checked the ship's number, and blinked in surprise. He remembered that one. It was one of the first Scouts sent to study this planet, back when they'd originally detected it. It was the one that had been lost. He'd always thought it was destroyed, but it seemed it had found its way back, after all this time.
He hit a button, directing it to an available dock. There weren't many to choose from. Most of the Strikers were out with the Harbingers (and those that remained, he was letting trainee pilots take turns borrowing), but the Scout docks were fairly full. As the ship angled into place, Eariot waited for whomever was in it to say something, but there was nothing. He wasn't even sure if there was anyone in there. It almost seemed like he could feel a presence, but it was hard to pin down, as if they were trying to conceal themselves.
As the docking clamps locked around the ship, Eariot called out to those currently in authority, the planning council for the harvest, for their input. Baaln told him to leave it for now, unless the pilot actually spoke up, and they'd give it their attention as soon as they could. They were busy just now with final preparations. Fair enough.
While he waited, Eariot brought up the file on the Scout's original loss. It had carried a typical crew of three Eyes, and been among the first exploratory foray. Within a cycle of arriving on the planet, the Scout had sent a message, reporting environment-induced mechanical failure and imminent crash. That had been its last contact, but prompt reports from the other Scouts had confirmed the deaths of two out of the three Eyes. They had failed to locate or make any contact with the survivor, one Pumik, and had had little time to try. Under the threat of further losses, the remaining Scouts had been promptly recalled, so those and all other ships could be proofed against the planet's atmospheric conditions. None of the numerous subsequent studies had found any trace of Pumik's fate, and he was strongly suspected to be long dead.
Eariot looked up at the newly returned ship again. Was he in there, then? Had he survived after all, and finally made his way back? Eariot could see that the Scout had been extensively, and somewhat roughly, repaired. It must have been difficult and time-consuming getting it to fly again, marooned on a planet alone with little to work with. If Pumik had pulled that off, Eariot was impressed. Still, why didn't he speak, or make any move to come out? Why hide?
Eariot was distracted from his musings a moment later, when his console suddenly turned into a fuzzy mess. No, it wasn't just his. There were outcries of startlement, and alarm, from all over Homeship. The whole system seemed to be massively malfunctioning, somehow.
"What's going on?" Eariot wasn't nearly the only one to ask.
Mostly, the responses were "I don't know!", but there was a good bit of outcry from those who were trying to make sense of the problem.
"Is the system failing?"
"I don't think so. It's still working, mostly, but barely."
"Do we know what's causing it?"
"Everything's impaired, but we're still managing to maintain control."
"The primary energy shielding has failed."
"And the Gate's back-up shield?!"
"It's at a fraction of the power, but it's still holding. Otherwise we'd be getting sucked into space about now."
"What happened? Did we take some kind of damage?"
"Maybe it came from the planet. They said the vermin seemed poised to try something."
"No, the problem's internal. Something within the system did it."
"How does something like that happen?"
"We can't trace the source of it, not with everything impaired as it is."
"I think we can get it stabilized, but fixing it's another matter. I don't know how long it will be before we can figure out a real solution."
"Look out, the problem's gone through the stream, too. The Harbingers will be affected as well."
Those on the Harbingers indeed soon found themselves struggling with a suddenly mysteriously impaired system. Though the screens were either fuzzy or flickering erratically, most of them were legible enough to read glyphs. Homeship sent what explanation it could, but it was clear that they didn't know much either.
"We're on the edge of our final triumph, and suddenly we're being troubled with inexplicable problems? There's something about that that doesn't seem proper," Atchak commented. "Ah, well. The system is impaired, and responding sluggishly, but it still seems to work. This shouldn't stop us from getting the job done."
"It doesn't appear that it will," Terryf said slowly. Her answer was slightly distracted, as she was still looking through their systems, making sure it wasn't, in fact, worse than it looked.
They vaguely took notice when the fleet of vermin craft outside finally ventured close enough to start taking tentative shots at them. That was the least of their worries. They took considerable notice, however, when the ship shuddered slightly to the sound of a distant explosion, and the readouts, after a few moments, managed to produce a report that their hull had taken damage.
"That was a vermin attack?! They're hurting the ship?"
Terryf scrutinized the screens. "The energy shielding has been hit harder than most functions by whatever's happening," she informed him. "It's failed completely. We're vulnerable to those explosions. I don't know how much of a threat they really are, but…"
The Harbinger shuddered again, harder. "The vermin clearly noticed the opportunity," Atchak said sourly, narrowing his eyes at the displays. "They're gleefully assaulting our hull."
"Then we'll go out there and remove them." It was Garasso. Like the rest of the ship, he'd been listening, and he was, Atchak realized, already starting to move his Striker forward. Many of the other pilots were poised to follow.
"Wait a moment." Atchak turned to Terryf, who was still studying the system's status. "Has the Strikers' shielding failed as well?"
"I'm afraid so."
"You heard that," Atchak warned the pilots. "You're vulnerable, and if you go out there now, you could easily get shot down. If you engage the vermin, be careful."
"Acknowledged." Atchak wasn't sure that all of the responses were convincing enough, but he let them go. The vermin craft had suddenly become an actual problem, and needed to be dealt with.
Garasso was very determined to deal with them. Bursting out into the open air, he quickly turned his attention to shooting down as many of the native craft as he could. He was rewarded to see one, then another, explode before him, but it was just a beginning. Once, he would have strived to rack up kills, just so he could end up with more than Veen by battle's end. Now, Veen was gone forever, and he would see every vermin here pay for it.
Despite his focus on that task, though, something tore at his attention. It wasn't just vermin that were being blown out of the air. Strikers were being destroyed, and he could hear their pilots dying. He tried to block it out, but the death cries increased, more and more of them all around him. They were dying to the vermin craft.
"One wing, split off," Atchak ordered from inside the Harbinger. "Go ahead to the nest and launch an advance strike." That wasn't necessary, as the Harbinger was going to destroy the nest directly anyway, but the echo of his intention came through clearly enough: "Doing so should keep you alive longer than continuing this fight will."
Were they suddenly so desperate? Well they might be, Garasso realized. Nearly half the Striker fleet had been killed already. They were in real trouble, and he felt what was left of his fury shatter under the shock of that realization. The vermin of this planet, which should have been easily disposed of, had somehow become a true threat to them. The vermin that had killed Veen…
"I'm sorry, Veen," Garasso whispered. "Your death was a warning, and I didn't listen. I was too busy raging to see." Something on his screen drew his eye, and he realized that one of the vermin's exploding projectiles was coming up behind, flying straight for him. He tried to get clear, but the Striker's controls weren't responding quite fast enough, and the thing was already too close. He wouldn't be able to evade it.
Garasso looked upward, in the direction where Homeship waited. "Ebbiar…"
The anticipation among the masses on Homeship had been replaced by consternation. The sudden problem with their systems had been unnerving enough, but now, word was coming from the Harbingers that the vermin were fighting back, and doing real damage. Many of their people were dying down there, a quite a few up here were close enough to some of them to feel it, even over such a distance as that.
Garasso's death struck Ebbiar almost like a blow. One moment, she'd been listening to the confusion and distress of the others around her, and telling herself that surely he could make it through whatever was happening. The next, she clearly heard him, just a instant's worth of a cry that she knew would be the last time she ever did.
"No," she whispered, shocked and reeling. "Oh, no." Turning, Ebbiar stumbled away from the others, and the ceremonial grouping that they still mostly stood in. No one tried to stop her. She felt Sippiyid looking after her in concern, but she didn't try to stop her either. Ebbiar made her way to one of the public screens. The image was unsteady, but it still showed the planet below. Ebbiar stared at the planet that was supposed to have been the cause of their celebration. The planet where Garasso had just died.
Eariot had almost forgotten about the mystery of the Scout, in the shadow of everything else that was going on. His attention was drawn back to it, though, when it suddenly moved. It didn't actually go anywhere, of course – it was clamped into place – but it seemed as if it had tried to take off again, regardless.
Eariot stared at it. What was going on with that ship? The actions of whomever was inside made no sense, and in fact, he still couldn't clearly sense whether there was anyone inside or not. Hmm. Well, it was easily docked close enough to his control room for him to see inside from here, had the windshield not been covered. Eariot tapped at his controls, remote opening the shell covering.
The system was indeed responding sluggishly, but it still worked. Maybe his section hadn't been hit as hard as some others. The shell slowly slid aside. Eariot caught a brief glimpse of movement from within, as if someone, or a few someones, had hastily ducked out of sight as it opened. Someone definitely wanted to hide, but why? Narrowing his eyes in confusion, Eariot cautiously called out. "Who's in there?"
There was no answer. In fact, there was a strange lack of connection, as if whoever it was hadn't heard him. Yet, they were there. He could tell that now. Eariot shook his head in confusion. Who was that, and what were they doing?
Atchak was not happy at all. The Striker fleet had been decimated, and it appeared that the crews of many other Harbingers, maybe even all of them, had suffered the same fate. The vermin had taken advantage of their moment of weakness with devastating effect. Atchak wasn't sure he wanted to think of what that might imply about the cause of that moment of weakness.
On the other hand, the Harbinger itself had weathered the vermin's attacks, despite considerable surface damage to the hull, and they had now reached their target: the small nest that had produced these attacking craft. They'd see if burning that nest put a stop to this.
"Open the panels and prepare the thermetic cascade to fire," Atchak ordered. "Pilots …those who remain, prepare to get clear. Without energy shielding, you won't survive being in range of the cascade."
"The cascade's system is responding slowly as well," someone reported.
"Will it still work properly?" Atchak asked, concerned.
"Yes. It will take slightly longer than usual, but it will work as it should."
A moment later, there was a brief rippling of alarm. "One of the vermin weapons struck a panel. No harm done, but that was dangerously close to the device itself."
Terryf looked up, concerned. "If the cascade is damaged, especially while we're in the process of firing it…"
"I know. Make sure that doesn't happen again," he ordered the pilots.
Immediately, one of them called back, "A vermin craft is going straight for the cascade. It's clearly intending to attack it directly." A moment later, he reported again, "It's all right. I took it out. It doesn't appear any more are trying that."
Indeed, it felt like the vermin were on the verge of giving up and pulling back at last. However, Atchak barely had time to be relieved when he felt them resurging, as if to renew their attack. However, the cascade was nearly ready. "Just hold them back a little bit longer."
That pilot from before responded in alarm, "They're hitting us more fiercely. I don't think…" Then, with a cry, he was gone. It seemed nearly all of the pilots were, and those few who remained were dwindling quickly. Atchak gripped the side of a console in frustration.
"Wait. Are the vermin backing off again?" Terryf asked. "Or, no, they…"
"They're giving off mixed signals. It doesn't matter anymore. Fire the thermetic cascade!"
The carrier beam was targetted, and though slightly delayed, the pulse would soon be released. "Hold on! One of the vermin craft is right in the beam."
Atchak snarled in frustration at this report. "It will intercept the pulse that way. Someone, down that craft!" There was no one outside left to answer. Atchak whirled and looked at the screen. The offending craft didn't move on. In fact, it was flying upwards toward them—while still firmly within the carrier beam. "It's getting too close. That will be far worse than just intercepting. Withhold the pulse."
"We can't! It's already set, and the system won't respond quickly enough for the new command to go through. We can't stop it from firing!"
The crewmember's report rang with fear, and Atchak didn't blame him. He and Terryf looked at each other in horror. They knew what was about to happen. As close as that craft was, it would inevitably intercept, and set off, the pulse in range of their own ship. The cascade would rip through the Harbinger, destroying it, and everyone on board.
Atchak heard the soft but unmistakable sound of the pulse firing. He closed his eyes. "Oh, Void."
His world exploded.
Felluw looked around sharply as one of his crew reported, "We've just lost 2-7 and 1-12 as well."
"More Harbingers destroyed?" It wasn't bad enough that his Striker fleet had been nearly destroyed by those wretched vermin out there, and that they were still blowing off pieces of his outer hull, now it seemed they were being inundated with reports of actual Harbingers lost. "How are the vermin doing that?! They can't hit that hard!"
"Apparently, they're targeting the thermetic cascade, to devastating effect. As far as we can tell, two ships were destroyed by direct backfire, the other three by terminal breach."
Felluw growled in frustration. Suddenly, there was a cry of alarm. "The vermin are attacking the cascade on our ship as well! The panels have been blown off! What's left of the Strikers can't get close enough to intercept."
"No!" Felluw looked around wildly, searching in vain for an inspiration. "Is there any way that we can stop them?"
The reply was stark and to the point. "No. There isn't."
On Homeship, confusion and fear reigned. Their Harbingers were being destroyed, and those on them were dying in droves. On the very edge of their victory, with Landing Day imminent, everything was falling apart, and they could barely make sense of it. While those who currently had direct responsibilities were still trying to find something they could do, most of the masses on the Great Floor had joined in the Thoughtsea, the better to cling to each other in the midst of the incomprehensible disaster.
Ebbiar didn't join them. She saw that Sippiyid had, and Ebbiar didn't blame her or any of them, but she didn't think there was any comfort to be had that way. What would fill the Thoughtsea now, but the fear and confusion that already gripped them, amplified all around them?
Instead, Ebbiar stood alone, looking forlornly at the image of the planet below. She should have been standing on it by now. The Harbingers should have reported all nests burned out, and the Descent should have occurred. Ebbiar would set foot on the surface of a real planet, and Garasso would be there waiting to greet her. They would celebrate the Landing Day festivities together. Then everyone would get to work, clearing out any straggling vermin that remained and gathering the harvest. It would be a great bustle of activity and community, amidst the fascinating environment of the planet.
That was how it should have been. Instead, there was only disaster, and death.
Everything was in shambles. If that was Pumik in that Scout, he'd gained precious little by coming back, Eariot feared. In truth, he wasn't sure the mystery of the Scout and its mysterious occupants mattered so much any more, given everything else that was happening. He supposed he just preferred pondering it to listening too closely to everything going on around him.
Suddenly, two figures revealed themselves within the ship. Eariot stared in shock. They weren't Arretchi. They were… what? The local vermin? But, how? What little he'd sensed from in there had come from them. Seeing them, he was sure, now. There was no one else in there.
But, Arretchi ships couldn't be flown by vermin. If the system didn't scan a proper pilot in there, it wouldn't respond. And if the system wasn't working, it obviously couldn't fly in the first place. So how had those two managed to get here?
The two creatures were making gestures, and pulling strange facial espressions. Were they trying to communicate? Eariot brought up the scanner-translator. There was usually little use for that program, but it was there, just in case some other lifeform was considered worth seeking information from. At least it responded comparatively quickly, considering.
The result that appeared on Eariot's screen was more a crude pictograph than a real glyph. As near as he could translate it, it read, "Ha ha, prepare to die." Eariot looked up in alarm. Before he had time to think further, a large object smashed through the wall. Eariot barely threw himself out of the way as it rammed through the control room and the wall on the other side, coming to rest partway through that wall. It had been fired from the Scout, and seemed to be something akin to a large support beam.
There was a lot of alarmed yelling, mostly from the those who'd been manning the computer station on the other side of the wall. "What's going on?! What is this?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Eariot glimpsed the Scout flying away at high speed. The clamps had come loose, and the creatures were fleeing, after have done their damage—maybe quite a lot of damage, for Eariot now suspected that he knew where the disruption to their system had come from. He quickly relayed the information.
Still mostly sprawled on the floor, Eariot listened as several of the rookie pilots who'd been trying out the Strikers promptly took off in pursuit. He could hear them, yelling furiously or boasting about their imminent kill, as they chased after the Scout. However, despite their boasts, they failed to catch it or shoot it down. It was fleeing back toward the Gate, and someone swiftly closed the hard-doors. Unfortunately, their system was still responding far too sluggishly. The doors didn't close quickly enough, and the Scout escaped through them. Eariot heard the frustration of the furiously pursuing pilots—right before they fatally crashed themselves against those same doors.
Eariot winced. He might have known they weren't ready for a chase demanding real flying skill. If only some of their truly qualified pilots had been around. On the other hand, Eariot noted bitterly, they were probably all dead by now, too. He climbed to his feet and gloomily surveyed the wreckage of his control room.
That beam had torn right through the main console, and that part of the system certainly wouldn't be working any more now, impaired or otherwise. At least most of the side consoles were still intact.
A flicker of movement drew Eariot's gaze to the beam itself. There was a small display panel on the side, with some kind of symbols on it. A couple of the symbols were changing as he watched, like an active read-out; that was what he had seen. In fact, they seemed to be progressing through a pattern, and one of the changing ones took the appearance of the static ones, which were all the same symbol, then froze that way as well. He suspected that the last symbol would soon follow. It was some kind of alignment or countdown.
Wait, didn't the local vermin favor weapons that took the form of solid projectiles, yet unleashed explosions? Weapons they shot from their own small craft?
"Oh, no," he muttered. It was his last thought.
Ebbiar whirled around at the explosion. It was distant, from another part of Homeship, but it was huge, engulfing everything. And everyone; she could feel it. The Core had breached. Ebbiar didn't have time to wonder how that had happened. Somehow, it didn't seem worth wondering. In fact, there was something strangely fitting about it.
Turning her back on the swiftly approaching blast, Ebbiar reached out her hand toward the image of the planet on the screen. The planet they were supposed to celebrate on. The planet where Garasso would have been waiting to greet her.
The explosion hit.