Escape from Angra-Mainyu

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Cycle Three, Day 5

08:45 hours (Mnepsy time)

Sa-Kolis’s black eyes were fixed upon a datapad in her hands.

A holographic interface illuminated the screen, and contained within were a series of news reports beamed directly from the homeworld. None of the articles particularly interested Sa-Kolis, but she read every word, regardless.

A report on a daring rescue carried out on a damaged submarine.

A marriage between two influential politicians.

The construction of a new dreadnought with a cutting-edge shielding system.

As Sa-Kolis read, the muted hum of the ship’s engines was occasionally interrupted by a quiet exhalation coming from the person sitting to her left. A pattern had been established over the last hour: he would sigh, shuffle in his seat, and thereafter would follow a period of silence before he would once again huff in frustration.

Sa-Kolis ignored him, continuing to read a report concerning the discovery of a planet which, owing to incredible pressure in its upper atmosphere a million years ago, had rained diamonds upon the surface. The diamonds were being harvested for an art installation the article described as ambitious, and which Sa-Kolis would have described as imbecilic. The technology existed to create synthetic diamonds of any size or shape. What was the sense in plucking them from the surface of a dead rock millions of kilometres away?

Beside her, Ushen-Takaan sighed again, and turned in his seat.

“You’re bored,” Sa-Kolis observed, not taking her eyes off her screen.

“No,” Ushen-Takaan replied, and then, after a beat: “Oh, alright. I suppose so. Yes.”

“It’s only been a matter of weeks since we came aboard,” Sa-Kolis said. “Yet you’re already struggling. I had a feeling this might happen.”

“I’ve never lived on a starship before,” Ushen-Takaan retorted, setting his datapad aside. Sa-Kolis saw him rub at his narrow jaw out of her peripheral vision. “It’s going to take some adjustment on my part.”

“Our tasks don’t interest you, then? So far we’ve encountered crazed Artisan queens, abandoned settlements, worlds swarming with semi-sentient spores…”

Ambassador Sa-Kolis Ondul

“It’s not that I’m not interested,” Ushen-Takaan sighed heavily. “It’s just that there is so much empty time on the ship. And not much to do. I’ve never had so little to fill the seconds with. The hours.”

“There’s a great deal to do,” Sa-Kolis replied, getting to the end of the article and putting her own datapad aside. “Did you think it was going to be some grand adventure every day?”

“I just hadn’t considered what it would mean to have so much free time,” Ushen-Takaan shrugged. “And here on the ship, the days seem to stretch for a very long while.”

“Learn to enjoy it,” Sa-Kolis grunted, shifting in the captain’s chair, trying to find a more comfortable position. The ship was of Artisan design, not built for her Rit-Phyr physiology. It felt like the seat didn’t cradle her hips in quite the right way. “Or at least stop huffing so much. You’re interrupting my reading.”

“I can’t help it,” Ushen-Takaan muttered. “It’s been weeks since we did something big.”

“Space is a big place, Ushen-Takaan. Something will come up.”

“Space is a big place, Sa-Kolis. Something may never come up,” Ushen-Takaan countered, and Sa-Kolis threw him a scowl.

“I think you’re getting as bored as me, although you don’t show it as much,” Ushen-Takaan continued, looking at her with a curious expression. At least, it seemed a curious expression to Sa-Kolis. Ushen-Takaan was a Zurxok after all, and their oddly flat, skull-like faces were difficult to read. Presently, Ushen-Takaan’s thin, slitted mouth was curled slightly on one side, which Sa-Kolis recognised as a sign of amusement.

“Crave all the action you want; you can’t invoke it on a whim,” Sa-Kolis snapped, “And you damn well shouldn’t. As I said, learn to enjoy these moments of peace. When you get to my age – or the Zurxok equivalent, I suppose – you’ll savor the chances you have to enjoy the quiet.”

“If you’re suggesting your age has made you quiet and retiring, Sa-Kolis, I’m afraid you are mistaken,” Ushen-Takaan teased.

“Shut up and read your reports,” Sa-Kolis said.

Ushen-Takaan sighed again, gaze cutting to the ceiling in exasperation. “Could we not pass some of the time, I don’t know, talking?”

“I’m not one for small talk.”

“Shocking,” Ushen-Takaan quipped. “You could tell me something about yourself,” he suggested. “You were a General, once. You were a famous soldier before that. Surely you have some stories.”

“Many,” Sa-Kolis replied, picking her datapad up and continuing where she had left off.

There was a pause.

“Well, hurry up, and regale me!” Ushen-Takaan exclaimed.

Clearly he wasn’t going to drop the matter. Sa-Kolis’ thoughts sifted through hundreds of different missions and encounters, a litany of scars carved into her psyche.

“Some years ago,” Sa-Kolis began slowly, “I was sent, undercover, to a city called Pescei. It is on the Rit-Phyr homeworld, Mnepsy. Since before recorded time, the city of Pescei has been for the elite. In the ancient past it was where wealthy merchants and priestesses congregated, and now it’s a resort for politicians and business types.”

“Not for soldiers?”

“Generals, perhaps,” Sa-Kolis conceded, “But I was not a General then, and even when I became a General, I never thought to return to Pescei.”

“I thought you said you savoured your moments of ‘quiet’ and ‘relaxation’?” Ushen-Takaan said cheekily. “Why, you give the impression of being the very soul of moderation when not occupied with shooting things.”

“You don’t know anything about Pescei,” Sa-Kolis shot back. “I told you it’s where the upper echelons go to mingle, congratulate themselves, and engage in vicious vices. That is not my idea of leisure. Besides, you’re interrupting me. Do you want to hear this story or not?”


“As I was saying, I was sent to Pescei to investigate the port authority’s Chief Administrator,” Sa-Kolis continued. “Administrator Ul-Wir was suspected of taking bribes from the clientele at the nearby resort. His clients would transfer sums into his personal accounts, and he would alter shipping manifests for them so they could smuggle things out of the city. Understand this: Pescei operates a little outside of usual Empire law. Things which would be illegal elsewhere are tolerated in Pescei…To a certain extent at least.”

“But not bribery?” Ushen-Takaan asked.

“Not this sort of bribery,” Sa-Kolis replied. “Ul-Wir’s actions were suspected as having a damaging effect on profits and ventures of other interested parties. If he’d just been skimming credits, it might have gone unnoticed, but he crossed the wrong people.”

“I see. Then what?”

“First, I had to determine the nature of what was being smuggled. We could tell by activity on his accounts that he was getting paid, but we couldn’t tell by whom or for what. I had to go digging and ask around. Intimidate the ones likely to talk. Rough up the ones who wouldn’t,” Sa-Kolis explained.

“And what did you find?”

“The Administrator was innocent,” Sa-Kolis said, nodding at Ushen-Takaan’s surprised look. “A sophisticated hacking AI had planted false flags in the Administrator’s credit account. These transactions were made in unusual frequencies, and I suspected part of the reason was to hide larger transactions which were taking place between the real culprits.”

Ushen-Takaan tilted his head. “Someone else at the resort, then. Another official? Head of Security, maybe.”

Sa-Kolis clicked her chelicerae at him in approval. “Excellent instincts. That was exactly the case. Her name was Tav-Ia, and she’d been helping an upstart scientist at a firm called Helix. The scientist in question was named Dr. Ak-Zul, and he’d been operating in the black market for some time.” Sa-Kolis crossed her arms. “Here is a cultural tidbit for you, Ushen-Takaan. Some Rit-Phyr will pay a great deal of money for genetically modified organs; usually athletes and soldiers. Anything to get an edge.”

“And that’s on top of baseline genetic engineering during childhood,” Ushen-Takaan guessed.

“Correct. Climbing the ranks is cut-throat. I’m sure you can relate, being a Zurxok. Your people have a technocracy, and I’ve little doubt it operates in a similar way, with the ambitious doing everything they can to prove they are exceptional. Anyway, Ak-Zul was using Helix’s labs to create the organs, and Tav-Ia would then modify the ship manifests. She got a cut of his profits when the organs were sold. But that wasn’t the truly strange part.”


“The organs were being grown inside of animals.”

“What?” Ushen-Takaan asked, face contorting in disgust.

“There’s a certain species on my homeworld we call a weaver,” Sa-Kolis explained. “Intelligent. Very dangerous. And they have cultural significance to the Rit-Phyr, so they’re a protected species now. Unfortunately, there’s a pervasive myth that eating a weaver, especially their liver, will increase longevity and fertility, among other things. It’s a load of crap, but that doesn’t stop some people from buying.”

Ushen-Takaan thought about it. “Are you saying that this Dr. Ak-Zul was growing extra organs inside of these living weavers?”

“Exactly so,” Sa-Kolis replied. “He’d genetically engineered the animals to allow for the extra growths, and the new organs themselves were far larger than normal. That would fetch a higher price. Of course, none of that was legal. Not to mention the wanton cruelty of it all. Many of the weavers we recovered were in pain, very sick. Dr. Ak-Zul and his associates didn’t consider the welfare of the animals at all. And before you ask, they could not have just grown the organs in a tank. The buyers want to see the animal being butchered in front of them, so they can be assured the organs are fresh.”

“That’s disgusting,” Ushen-Takaan said. “Did the bastards get what they deserved?”

“Dr. Ak-Zul evaded me, although he didn’t get very far. He slipped away to one of the colonies before he was caught,” Sa-Kolis continued. “I caught Security Chief Tav-Ia, though.” She paused for a moment, diving into a memory not often recalled. “It occurs to me I didn’t mention Tav-Ia’s motivation for framing the Administrator.”

“She wanted revenge on him,” Ushen-Takaan said, a statement, not a question – and another correct one.

“Correct again,” Sa-Kolis replied. “She’d been jilted by Administrator Ul-Wir a few years prior, and was such a loser she made that particular failing her entire personality and motivation.”

Ushen-Takaan laughed. “And that’s the whole story?”

“What more do you want?” Sa-Kolis shrugged. “That’s the way it goes for an Imperial soldier.”

“Nothing, it was perfect. Truly inspirational,” Ushen-Takaan teased.

“It was a story. Doesn’t mean we’re betrothed,” Sa-Kolis said gruffly.

Ushen-Takaan opened his mouth to say something in response, but was cut off by the distinctive chime of a message connecting to the ship’s bridge. In response, the entire bridge dimmed slightly and the large vidscreen at the forefront of the room shimmered on, interface blinking expectantly.

Sa-Kolis got to her feet, crossing her arms. So far, she had only received text-based communiques and short-range hails from other passing ships. This missive was coming from inside the borders of declared Rit-Phyr space, and it was coming from a politician’s office.

“Well, Ushen-Takaan, it seems your boredom is at an end. Unfortunately,” Sa-Kolis grumbled.

“Who is it?” Ushen-Takaan asked.

“You’ll see soon enough,” Sa-Kolis replied. Instantly alert, with no trace of her earlier ataraxy, Sa-Kolis pressed her hand to the slim panel beside the captain’s chair. A smaller interface was displayed there, and Sa-Kolis swiped through it to connect the ship’s entanglement array with the connection being bounced through the nearby buoy.

The vidscreen shimmered again, colours and shapes coalescing finally into the haughty, attractive face, of Voivode Yox-Opoima. Yox-Opoima was a recent acquaintance; since she’d taken the ship, his presumptuous missives had begin appearing in her private terminal. Sa-Kolis had concluded he was a pain in the ass, but one which could be avoided and ignored.

Not so anymore. Sa-Kolis realised she recognised him, vaguely, from ceremonies and parties attended by high-ranking Rit-Phyr. She’d seen him oozing through the crowds of sycophants who curried the favor of the Voivodes, but hadn’t paid him much mind beyond that. To her, he’d been just another bureaucrat, but it was clear he was determined to be a menace.

“Ambassador Sa-Kolis,” Yox-Opoima said smoothly in greeting. He had a slightly vulpine look, with upturned, almond eyes and golden freckles across the expanse of his forehead. “I trust I am not interrupting anything?”

Voivode Yox-Opoima

“Actually, you were,” Sa-Kolis said bluntly. “What do you want?”

Yox-Opoima laughed. “So rude. It’s actually rather predictable.” His gaze cut away from Sa-Kolis, flitting over the bridge and coming to rest on Ushen-Takaan who was the occupant of the 21C chair.

“And this must be Ushen-Takaan,” Yox-Opoima remarked. His attention slid briefly back to Sa-Kolis. “Travelling with a Zurxok, Sa-Kolis? Unusual, especially for you. Well, in any case, it’s nice to meet you, Ushen-Takaan.”

“Charmed,” Ushen-Takaan replied.

“Your father is a politician, too, is he not?” Yox-Opoima asked. “And what does he think about his son gallivanting around with Ambassador Sa-Kolis? Is he proud or terribly ashamed? I rather think I can see it going either way.”

“What is it you want?” Sa-Kolis snapped. “You’ve read my reports. You sent your little threats. You’ve got no reason to contact me.”

Yox-Opoima’s chelicerae twitched, a gesture of interest. “I have no reason to contact you if I was interested in pleasant conversation – “

“Damn right,” Sa-Kolis chittered.

“But I have many reasons to contact you if I need something done, and I need something done,” Yox-Opoima finished. “Have you heard of Voivode Ma-Tek?”

“Another bureaucrat,” Sa-Kolis shrugged. “A scientist.”

“You’re rather dismissive of us Voivodes, Sa-Kolis, but it wasn’t very long ago that you were climbing the ranks to become one yourself,” Yox-Opoima pointed out.

“So I could be a better one,” Sa-Kolis snapped. “But yes, I do know Ma-Tek. She is the director of the station Angra-Mainyu,” she said, throwing a look over her shoulder to Ushen-Takaan, who was watching the conversation unfold with interest. “It’s a research and development facility,” Sa-Kolis added for his benefit.

“More than that,” Yox-Opoima said, as a series of helpful diagrams and surveillance feeds from the station were suddenly shared through the vidscreen. “It’s a very sophisticated space station which has been used to train and develop the best soldiers in the Rit-Phyr Empire. Its location is useful for weapons testing which would be too dangerous to perform elsewhere.”

“Its location is useful in hiding the nastier parts of military life from the public, and from foreign concerns,” Sa-Kolis countered gruffly.

“As of right now, the Angra-Mainyu is trapped in a decaying orbit,” Yox-Opoima continued, ignoring Sa-Kolis. “The staff evacuated several hours ago, and sent a distress message which I have intercepted. You see, I don’t entirely believe the story they are already telling: that the station’s drive core has malfunctioned beyond repair. I think it is more likely that the Angra-Mainyu is being deliberately scuttled to hide evidence of Ma-Tek’s more controversial experiments. Perhaps something went wrong that she is trying to hide, and this story about an accidental, lethal descent into the gas giant is just that: a story.”

Ushen-Takaan An-Nat vaes Solara

Sa-Kolis laughed in incredulity. “Wait. You want me to go rifle through this station for dirt on one of your fellow Voivodes? While the entire station is sinking into an abyss? No, thanks.”

“You like to play the hero,” Yox-Opoima pointed out. “What if I told you that you could recover data which would put Voivode Ma-Tek away for good? I have intel from agents within his inner circle which suggests she is involved in a number of unauthorised projects. Biological weapons which could kill millions -“

“Ask your agents to gather that evidence,” Sa-Kolis cut him off. “You just told me you have your sources. If you know all this, present the data to the council and leave me out of it.”

“I need something more solid,” Yox-Opoima insisted. “I need data from the Angra-Mainyu. That’s where you come in. No one will be on that station. By now, it will have been completely evacuated. There may still be evidence of wrongdoing, if not on the computers, then in the labs, or on hard copies which haven’t been destroyed. I have the impression the staff left in a hurry, so undoubtedly there is intel on that station that hasn’t been scrubbed. Get in, get out, get that data to me, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Sa-Kolis folded her brawny arms and considered her options. “No. It’s absurdly dangerous. I don’t like it.”

“What’s to like?” Ushen-Takaan muttered quietly behind her.

“If you do this, Sa-Kolis, you could save lives,” Yox-Opoima insisted. “Don’t pretend not to care. You’re many things, but indifferent isn’t one of them. And I’ll remind you that there are few among the Voivode who are prepared to back you in your mission as Ambassador. Most are hoping you will simply drop off the radar and be forgotten. Not me, though. Sa-Kolis, if you back me, then I will back you.”

“And if I go to Angra-Mainyu and find nothing you deem of value, then what?” Sa-Kolis demanded, glaring up at the vidscreen.

Yox-Opoima’s eyes, golden from years of symbiote infestation, glittered. “Then I will know I have a valuable partner, one who will take necessary steps even if success isn’t guaranteed.”

Sa-Kolis huffed. Considered her options.

She wasn’t interested in working with Yox-Opoima, much less being ‘partners’. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ushen-Takaan shift once again in his seat: watching her carefully. Who knew what the Zurxok thought about all this? He was young and naïve in many ways, not conversant with the grimier aspects of life which were necessary to keep the universe spinning.

“I don’t believe you care about the consequences of Ma-Tek’s research,” Sa-Kolis said gruffly. “Saving lives is secondary to you. Getting her out of the game, that’s what you’re after. I’d ask why, but I don’t care. It’s always the same with your type, anyway.” She waited a beat. “But if she has done the things you are accusing her of, then it’s worth the risk.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Yox-Opoima said, tone magnanimous. “I’m sending you some coordinates now. You’ll also need IFF signatures for the station; you’re on an Artisan ship, after all. Expect a package of data in the next few minutes. In the meantime, I suggest you -”

Yox-Opoima’s image abruptly disappeared as Sa-Kolis unceremoniously cut the call.

Ushen-Takaan gracefully got to his feet, an impressive gesture just for the sheer height of him; he was taller than Sa-Kolis, though not as broad. Not nearly as tired-looking, either. The youthful planes of his face were illuminated in a very flattering way courtesy of the overhead lights. Sa-Kolis suspected her own face was not afforded the same effect.

“It’s completely dark inside a gas giant like that,” Ushen-Takaan said suddenly. “Light from the stars cannot hope to penetrate the atmosphere. It is darkness, and perhaps the flashing lights of storms. You know, in our religion, that is, the religion of my people, hell is described in a similar way.”

“Hell is other people,” Sa-Kolis said gruffly. “What’s so frightening about a bit of darkness? Makes it easier to sleep.”

“Are you really going to do this?” Ushen-Takaan asked incredulously. “This is idiotic; you know that. Yox-Opoima’s political support won’t help you if you’re dead.”

Sa-Kolis chuckled darkly. “I could just take off and leave him hanging. What can he do?”

“You could tell him you were unavoidably detained,” Ushen-Takaan suggested, thin lips curling in amusement.

Sa-Kolis understood the dangers. She really didn’t want to go. But she knew she was going to do it, anyway.

“Yox-Opoima doesn’t want me dead,” Sa-Kolis said slowly, mulling it over. “He’s been insistently trying to make me a lackey, not a corpse. Besides, if he wanted to assassinate me, there are far easier ways.”

“Here’s another idea: you could contact Voivode Ma-Tek and tell her Yox-Opoima is attempting to inveigle you into doing his dirty work,” Ushen-Takaan said, expression still amused.

“That’s cunning,” Sa-Kolis replied. “I’d expect nothing less from a Zurxok, though I suspect we wouldn’t enjoy partnering with a deranged geneticist.”

“If you find evidence of illegal experimentation on that facility, what would the penalty be for this Voivode Ma-Tek?” Ushen-Takaan asked.

“Execution if found guilty,” Sa-Kolis replied. “Useful for our ‘friend’, Yox-Opoima. Gets rid of a political rival, and allows him to take over Ma-Tek’s portfolio.”

Ushen-Takaan turned his head in the vidscreen’s direction, where a render of the Angra-Mainyu was dwarfed by the round expanse of the gas giant.

“That station’s orbit is decaying fast,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve never seen an entire space station get crushed or incinerated before. I suppose the incineration would happen first?”

“I’ll be long gone before that happens,” Sa-Kolis said. “I’m going to collect my gear and read over Yox-Opoima’s mission brief in my quarters. Meanwhile, Ushen-Takaan, confer with the ship AI and plot a course.”

“Of course,” Ushen-Takaan replied. At Sa-Kolis’ words, a holographic representation of the onboard AI had flickered into being nearby. The AI’s avatar was that of a mushroom-crested tree with gnarled bark and spindly branches outstretched like hands. Sa-Kolis had spent little time talking to it; Artisans designed their AI’s with too much personality for her liking, and she found this particular one annoying.

Sa-Kolis took her leave of Ushen-Takaan, and his AI copilot, walking out of the room and down the main corridor. A ladder at the end of the corridor took her up a level to crew quarters and the astrophysics lab (unused by either Sa-Kolis or Ushen-Takaan). As the only two crew aboard, Sa-Kolis and Ushen-Takaan had their pick of the 6 available rooms. Sa-Kolis, with the privilege of first choice, had elected to take the one room without a window. Everyone knew windows were a structural weakness, and the unsentimental Sa-Kolis had little regard for a view of the cosmos.

On the far side of the room was a recessed alcove, in front of which shimmered a pearlescent force-field. At Sa-Kolis’ approach, it dissolved into nothingness, revealing a neat array of firearms, armor, accessories and other equipment.

She didn’t avail herself of them just yet. Instead, she wandered into the ensuite wash-room, where a bowl of water on a stone pedestal awaited her. This was the one object in her quarters which was a reminder of home: a simple stone bowl filled with clean water, with which she might wash her face, hands and mouthparts.

Had she been back home, sweet leaves from a particular tree would be floating in the bowl, but the only thing on the water’s surface now was her reflection. The face looking back at her was stern, with pale tan skin, a pronounced head crest and black eyes. Her hard, attractive features, coarsened by age, rippled in and out of view as she washed her hands. She washed slowly, methodically, in a ritual she’d performed daily for the past few years, and it never failed to help smooth her jagged nerves.

Back in the main room, Sa-Kolis returned to the gear compartment. Waiting there was her preferred utility belt and attachable pouches containing an array of things useful for field work. She clipped the belt around her waist, which was thereafter joined by a holster and her preferred sidearm.

Yox-Opoima’s initial data packet had shown Angra-Mainyu’s location close to a vein: a wormhole used by interstellar travellers to leap across the starways. The Rit-Phyr did not frequently use the vein in proximity to the Angra-Mainyu, on account of its instability.

‘Supposed instability,’ Sa-Kolis mused. ‘Keeps the intrepid from making use of it, I guess.’

With at least two hours separating the wormhole from the Nemesiid, Sa-Kolis spent the time reviewing what information Yox-Opoima had supplied on her datapad.

His notes, organised into neat sections, indicated several key things. The first was that Voivode Ma-Tek personally oversaw the station and had only made sporadic contact with the rest of the council in the preceding four weeks.

The second was that Ma-Tek’s research involved some sort of genetics research and bio-weaponry. Sa-Kolis had a hunch the weapons weren’t designed to target aliens, but were counter-measures for civil unrest in the Rit-Phyr Empire. That explained the station’s position on the borders of Rit-Phyr space: far enough away the populace wouldn’t stumble across it or take notice, but close enough that Ma-Tek could gather a steady supply of test subjects in as timely a manner as possible.

Sa-Kolis didn’t really think Yox-Opoima wanted the research in order to stamp it out. It was probable he had his own plans for the data, which his briefing insisted she would find in the form of black boxes, data crystals and even live experiments still viable within the station.

‘I don’t like the idea of giving Yox-Opoima that information,’ Sa-Kolis thought to herself. ‘But if he finds out I held out on him… Having even more enemies on the council would be a problem.’

Sa-Kolis sighed, set the datapad aside on the desk and rubbed the back of her hand against her brow. It was going to be a very long day.

The Angra-Mainyu was dome-shaped at the top, tapering into a slender central spire. When external cameras relayed the feed to the bridge’s vidscreen, Ushen-Takaan stood up from his chair so he could get a better view.

Sa-Kolis did him one better by marching to the fore observation deck, where a large window offered an admittedly spectacular view of the Angra-Mainyu. The perspicacious would immediately understand the station’s precarious situation, as did Sa-Kolis. It did indeed appear to be listing on its side, buffeted by powerful winds from the gas giant’s outer layers. The Angra-Mainyu was a slim dark line next to the enormity of the planet, which was dragging the station down into its plummeting storms.

The Nemesiid was built for long-distance space exploration, but Sa-Kolis suddenly felt a cold sensation in her stomach as her dark eyes took in the monstrous planet and the helpless space station drifting above it. The more the station was dragged downwards into hazardous radiation and pressure, the more the Angra-Mainyu’s life-support and external shields were going to be pushed to their limits until they catastrophically failed.

“I know I’ve said it a few times, but I’ll say it again. You can’t go in there,” Ushen-Takaan said. He’d followed Sa-Kolis into the bay and now stood at her shoulder, his attention fixed upon the Angra-Mainyu.

“The AI said I have two hours before the station’s shields are likely to start failing,” Sa-Kolis replied, tone distant as she calculated odds in her head.

“That’s not enough time,” Ushen-Takaan insisted. “This is tantamount to suicide. What if you get injured or lost in there? What if I have to come in after you, and get injured myself? There’s no one close by to help us if we get in trouble, and no time for them to get here if we do.”

Sa-Kolis clicked her chelicerae in agreement, glancing sidelong at Ushen-Takaan beside her as he drew closer. Unlike her, his face betrayed every part of his looming panic, and his blue eyes were hard.

“Prepare the tether,” Sa-Kolis said, her tone even.

“You must be joking,” Ushen-Takaan said, gawping at her. “What about the risk of radiation poisoning? What if debris detaches from the station and -” He paused, as Sa-Kolis regarded him with a blank, emotionless stare. He frowned at her.

“You have a strange sense of humor, Sa-Kolis,” he said. “Don’t joke about things like this.”

“What makes you think I’m joking?” Sa-Kolis replied, deadpan. At Ushen-Takaan’s deepening frown, Sa-Kolis held up her hands in a peaceable gesture.

“An EVA wouldn’t be appropriate given the state the Angra-Mainyu is in,” Sa-Kolis conceded. “My armor isn’t designed for extended deployment in vacuum, either. I’ll take the shuttle across and use Angra-Mainyu’s docking bay.”

“Why bother? I don’t understand why we can’t just program a drone and pilot it remotely,” Ushen-Takaan suggested.

“Are you qualified to operate an Artisan-built drone precisely enough to perform such a mission?” Sa-Kolis said, a little more harshly than intended.

Ushen-Takaan opened his mouth as if to reply, then closed his mouth again with an audible snap.

“Neither am I,” Sa-Kolis said. “It has to be me, and it has to be now. Get to the bridge; I want you monitoring every second of this.”

If the Angra-Mainyu was a speck next to the gas giant, then the Nemesiid’s away shuttle was an errant insect next to the speck, buzzing of the length of the station’s central dome.

Its shields and hull sufficed to zip over to the Angra-Mainyu without endangering Sa-Kolis, but the insistent pull of the gas giant below was still a threat. Sa-Kolis hadn’t enjoyed the brief journey from the Nemesiid to one of Angra-Mainyu’s viable docking bays, and was already eager to complete the mission and put distance between herself and the frightening sight below.

Sa-Kolis was waiting in the airlock, helmeted and at the ready. She held her balance as the shuttle locked with the Angra-Mainyu and the pressure inside the cabin began equalising with that of the Angra-Mainyu’s interior. 

“The security access Voivode Yox-Opoima provided is working,” Ushen-Takaan’s voice rang out from inside of her helmet. “Out ship’s computer is interfacing with the station AI.”

At that the lights in the cabin switched from red back to yellow and the Angra-Mainyu’s AI was suddenly speaking to her over comms in a synthetic, emotionless voice:

“Docking protocols completed. Logged: General Sa-Kolis Ondul now aboard with full clearance. Welcome, General Sa-Kolis. Please proceed to arrivals gate. Watch your step please as you exit the shuttlecraft.”

The hexagonal airlock doors, whirred as their segmented sections unsealed and slid open.

Beyond them was a quarantine lobby for the station, a large and empty space filled with neat rows of waiting chairs, a customs counter and an abandoned security kiosk.

Over the sound system, calming music played softly. Considering the circumstances, the music had the opposite effect and instead created an incongruous, eerie atmosphere.

”How cozy,” Sa-Kolis remarked, voice sardonic.

“Creepy,” Ushen-Takaan muttered over the radio. “And it looks like the AI here hasn’t been updated in a while. It still thinks you’re a General. Maybe damage to the station has caused it to malfunction? Or do you think some of its memories have been wiped…?”

Sa-Kolis had already noted all of those things and come to similar conclusions, but there was little point in talking about it. Her job was to get in, get whatever-the-hell answers she could out of this mess, and get out.

“I’m heading inside,” Sa-Kolis replied curtly. “Let’s cut the small talk. I need to concentrate.”


Sa-Kolis stepped into the empty arrivals lobby, fingers unconsciously drifting to the sidearm holstered on her belt. The sound of her boots was loud on the polished tiles, and it made the space between her shoulder blades itch. 

She walked up to the customs desk and stepped behind the counter. On top of the desk sat a small computer sphere, holoscreen still turned on and halfway through an abandoned puzzle game. The desk was strewn with the detritus of the security guards who had been posted there; requisition papers were in an untidy pile beside a tin of hand-wipes and an open sketchbook. Sa-Kolis picked it up to peer at the crude drawing on one of the pages, depicting a forlorn male Rit-Phyr sitting amongst towers of paperwork. The artist had drawn an arrow pointing to the picture with a caption simply reading, ‘Me’.

Sa-Kolis closed the computer game and opened up the administrator program, calling up the station AI. The holographic pedestal beside the screen thrummed to life and a rotating sphere of colours manifested above it in a shower of sparkles.

“Hello, General Sa-Kolis,” the station AI greeted her in its tranquil male voice. “Welcome to the Angra-Mainyu. I am Requiem, the synthetic intelligence for the station. How may I help you today?”

“Who is the ranking officer on this ship?” Sa-Kolis asked.

“You are the highest ranked officer aboard,” The AI confirmed. “The station director and chief administrator is Voivode Ma-Tek.”

“And where is she?”

“Unknown. The staff of the Angra-Mainyu evacuated 12 hours and 33 minutes ago. Their present whereabouts are unknown.”

“Why did they evacuate?”

“The Angra-Mainyu is in immediate danger from the nearby gas giant,” Requiem explained. “Navigation systems have been locked.”

“Why?” Sa-Kolis persisted. “What happened here?”

“Unfortunately, General, that data has been expunged from my system,” Requiem replied. It seemed to bob in place for a few moments as it calculated its next response. “Please be advised that the station is unsafe. Navigation and propulsion systems are damaged. The Angra-Mainyu is being pulled into the gas giant, named informally by staff as ‘Demon Mouth’. Radiation will overload the Angra-Mainyu’s shields at a distance of 200,000 km. Pressure and temperature beyond this range is sufficient to cause total destruction of the station.”

“Wow, is that so?” Sa-Kolis said sarcastically. “Thank goodness you told me that; I never would have guessed.”

“Immediate evacuation is strongly advised, General. Continued inhabitation of the station will result in death. My latest simulation indicates that in 3 hours and 22 minutes the Angra-Mainyu will be within the lethal zone. Shields will hold for a further 27 minutes -“

“I get it, shut up. What sort of data do you have in your files?” Sa-Kolis asked, ignoring the warning.

“Conversation transcripts, audio-visual recordings, mission reports, scientific theses, intranet browsing histories, interactive entertainment simulation results -”

“No, no,” Sa-Kolis said, sitting down in the nearby office chair. “I need information about the kind of research that has been taking place here.”

“That information is restricted,” Requiem said.

“Sure is,” Sa-Kolis said. “But I have clearance. Check my citizen I.D again.” She sighed. “Why, oh why, do we Rit-Phyr program our AI’s to be so dumb? That’s a rhetorical question, Requiem. Don’t answer that. Just check my clearance, please and return to the previous question.”

There was a pause. “Confirmed,” Requiem said in its toneless way. “Research on the Angra-Mainyu includes: ballistic weapons development, aircraft and vessel testing, genetics research, genetics augmentation, biological weapons development, viral weapons development, tactical military simulations and medical supply manufacture.”

“How much of this work would have been classified as illegal, Requiem?” Sa-Kolis asked.

Requiem spun on his pedestal, rainbow colours flashing. “I am not programmed to allow unsanctioned research on the Angra-Mainyu, for health and safety reasons. The experiments in those departments and the use of test subjects were sanctioned by Voivode Ma-Tek.”

“Test subjects for viral weaponry…!” Sa-Kolis frowned at the floating orb before her. Perhaps some of the test subjects had been left behind. It was an unbelievably cruel way of dispatching ‘loose ends’, but an effective one. 

Sa-Kolis gave an angry churr, smacking her fist against the desk. “I need the results from that research.”

“That data has been removed from the system,” Requiem replied quickly.

“There has to be back-ups, stop trying to misdirect me.”

“In the archives room is a back-up of all files created in the last 60 days,” Requiem admitted after another pause.

“Can you upload the data onto my hardsuit?” Sa-Kolis demanded.

“Negative. The backups are imprinted onto data crystals.”

Sa-Kolis chittered grumpily. “All right. Where is the archive room?”

“Deck 19,” Requiem answered, calling up a three-dimensional map showing Sa-Kolis’ location on deck three and the archive room 16 levels down.

“I’m heading downstairs,” Sa-Kolis said. “Anything down there which would present a hazard?”

Requiem paused again. “I advise immediate evacuation.”

“Yeah, I got that part. Is there something dangerous on the lower decks, Requiem? I’m talking about damaged areas of the ship or places where chemicals poisonous to Rit-Phyr are out of containment,” Sa-Kolis explained slowly. Requiem didn’t seem as sharp as an AI ought to be; some hand-holding was probably necessary in order to get a straight answer.

“No hazards detected,” Requiem intoned. “You may proceed to the far elevator.”

Sa-Kolis frowned but said nothing, walking towards the beckoning elevator and stepping into the circular carriage. The elevator doors closed with a mellifluous hum and the interior lights in the elevator dimmed as it began its rapid descent downwards. Video screens built behind the glass walls of the lift displayed idealised images of somewhere on the homeworld: a lush, misty woodland with towering trees. 

The elevator stopped gently, doors humming open again to reveal another empty room, this time a suite of hushed offices. Like the elevator, the walls here displayed holographic projections; presently, the view was that of bustling city streets. The projections were a comfort meant to alleviate the claustrophobia and isolation which came with living in such an environment.

Sa-Kolis knew from experience the psychological pressure but didn’t see the appeal of the city streets. The view from the elevator was more appealing: natural spaces, clean air and not a single other soul in sight.

“Requiem, where are the main backups?” Sa-Kolis asked aloud.

“Records room 3, section 4,” came the disembodied response through the intercom. “Please proceed through this hallway for thirty metres and then take the door to the left.”

Sa-Kolis did as instructed, coming to a nicely furnished office panelled with rich, amber-coloured wood (which looked and smelled real, not synthetic), thick rugs and another high-tech computer on a wooden desk. She padded around the desk, turning on the computer and accessing the main drive. The interface displayed an array of files and programs, but nothing to indicate the whereabouts of the supposed backup drives with all of Ma-Tek’s secrets.

“Where are the data crystals?” Sa-Kolis demanded.

“An authenticator will allow you to override the lock on the storage capsule to your left,” Requiem instructed.

Rummaging inside of the utility belt built into the lining of her suit, Sa-Kolis pulled out a tiny crystal disc, nestled inside of a clear case. Both disc and case were made of a flexible material that allowed them to be folded up inside the confines of her clothes. She inserted the disc into the computer as instructed and let the program do its work. A sluggish progress bar blinked in the lower right bar of the interface, which Sa-Kolis watched impatiently.

In time, there was a mechanical hiss and the discreet, cylindrical column behind the desk popped open. Inside were three data crystals, vaguely the size and shape of snowflakes, suspended on a vertical rack. They were cold to the touch, and Sa-Kolis carefully placed them inside an ultra-slim storage case before returning the case to a panel on her breastplate.

“General Sa-Kolis,” Requiem helpfully chimed in, “Additional information can be found on Voivode Ma-Tek’s private terminal. Her private logs may provide useful context to the backups. You will find her office is at the far end of archives.”

Sa-Kolis halted. Minutes were slipping away, each one precious. On the other hand, if anything was going to topple Ma-Tek and prevent her from worming out of accountability, it was going to be her own damn notes.

She strode out of the room and back down the hall. A sudden metallic groan reverberating through the hallway made her stop in place, hands out as if to steady herself. Through the comms, she could hear Ushen-Takaan’s aborted curse.

“Requiem, what was that?” Sa-Kolis asked.

“Increased structural stress on the Angra-Mainyu’s hull due to atmospheric drag,” Requiem replied. “There is a damaged ventilation shaft on deck 20, which is partially collapsed.“

“How did the ventilation shaft get damaged?” Sa-Kolis barked.

“No data available.”

Ushen-Takaan muttered another expletive through the comms. Sa-Kolis knew the feeling, hurrying across to Voivode Ma-Tek’s personal office. Ma-Tek’s quarters were lavish, far more so than the archivist’s office. It was unusual to have real wooden furniture on a military starship, but her office had been panelled in beautifully carved wooden screens. Suspended from the ceiling were silk strips, individually embroidered, a status symbol for wealthy Rit-Phyr.

Sa-Kolis took out a blank data crystal from her pocket and settled behind Ma-Tek’s desk, sinking into the too-soft cushions. Ma-Tek’s computer was still on, and the same authentication program Sa-Kolis had run on the archivist’s desktop sufficed to allow Sa-Kolis access to Ma-Tek’s files as well. It was tempting to spend time sifting through Ma-Tek’s notes right here and now; she was curious herself about what exactly went on inside an installation like the Angra-Mainyu, but there would be time for that later. She set the computer to duplicate everything on the main drive to her crystal.

Minutes passed as several zettabytes worth of information was imprinted upon the crystal; everything from schematics to recordings, to what must have been years of journal entries. Suddenly, an insistent bleat rang out from the computer and the interface dimmed and minimised.

The face of another Rit-Phyr, a female, replaced the GUI. Sa-Kolis recognised the female’s snooty visage: it was Voivode Ma-Tek herself, or rather, a digital duplicate modelled from the real Ma-Tek.

“This is Voivode Ma-Tek speaking,” the hologram crooned in a distinctive, high-pitched warble. The Rit-Phyr did not possess mouths. Their speech was by turns guttural and humming, emanating from powerful vocal chords in the throat. “What’s this I see? An intruder, hmm?”

The hologram waited a beat, probably to extract information about the intruder from Requiem. “Ah, General Sa-Kolis. Welcome to the Angra-Mainyu. I see you are snooping about where you are not welcome, hmm?”

Voivode Ma-Tek was older than Sa-Kolis, with a paunchy face, short chelicerae and orange eyes which were half-lidded in a permanent expression of contempt.

“You have quite a reputation for daring exploits, General, but perhaps you have pushed your luck too far, hmm?” Ma-Tek said. The humming verbal tic was already infuriating to Sa-Kolis.

Sa-Kolis grunted. “I’m helping to recover your records. You evacuated so fast you must not have noticed how much you were leaving behind!”

“Who put you up to this?” Ma-Tek asked conversationally. “We both know you would not be doing this unless ordered to. That’s what you’re good at, hmm? Doing as you’re told.”

“Just performing my civic duty, Voivode,” Sa-Kolis replied. “And it doesn’t matter who put me up to this, as you’re not in any position to do anything about it.”

“There you would be wrong,” Ma-Tek replied. “Won’t you tell me who tipped you off? Was it Voivode Yox-Opoima?”

Sa-Kolis didn’t react to the query, focused on the computer before her. A few more seconds and she could extract the crystal and get the hell out of there.

“He’s been nothing but trouble for me for a very long time,” Ma-Tek remarked. “A terrible shame he didn’t come along with you, hmm? I would have liked to have killed him. But at least I can destroy one of his agents, and a powerful agent, at that: the legendary General Sa-Kolis.”

“Legendary, is it? You’ve got that right. How do you plan on killing me, then?” Sa-Kolis asked, moving to pull out the crystal. “By talking me to death?”

“Not at all,” Ma-Tek said cheerfully. “I’ve left a present for you, General. I do so hope you like it.”

Sa-Kolis frowned at the hologram.

“I had a sense Yox-Opoima would pry, you see,” Ma-Tek continued. “And if not him, then one of his little minions. I see you are a little confused, General Sa-Kolis, so let me explain. My last experiment didn’t pan out the way I had hoped. Early prognosis was good, but the results were a little unstable. Disposing of the failure proved problematic, so I decided to leave it here as a gift for the unwary. That would be you, if you’re still having trouble keeping up.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Sa-Kolis asked, getting up from her chair. She was getting that cold feeling again in her gut; the one which always let her know something bad was about to happen.

Ma-Tek laughed. “You’re as dumb as a rock, hmm? My top scientists are now far beyond your reach, Sa-Kolis. You will never find them. No, I’m afraid you’re going to be torn apart by a monster. Or maybe just burn to death when the Angra-Mainyu enters the upper atmosphere. Perhaps the two will even happen concurrently? That would be exciting.”

“Requiem, what’s happening?” Sa-Kolis asked.

“Requiem isn’t your AI, you fool, he’s mine,” Ma-Tek snapped. “Haven’t you been listening at all? Requiem: disable the force-field on deck 8. Open all doors and vent seals.”

“Acknowledged, Voivode Ma-Tek. Security protocols deactivated,” Requiem said, crisp, cool and definite.

“Goodbye, Ambassador,” Ma-Tek said convivially. “Enjoy hell.”

With that, the call was terminated and Sa-Kolis was left looking at the computer screen, now displaying a completed download to disc. She removed the device and placed it back inside its protective case and slid it into her belt.

“Requiem, what’s happened?” Sa-Kolis asked.

“Quarantine has been lifted from deck 8. Subject Six is no longer contained.”

“I got that part, who is Subject Six?”

“Subject Six is the designation of Prisoner-21 when she volunteered to trial serum 24-3, group 3, lot 2.”


“The prisoners were informed that should their augmentations be successful, their sentences would be commuted. Prisoner-21 underwent genetic augmentation under the supervision of project leader Doctor Na-Pel.”

“They did something to the prisoners. Mutated them,” Ushen-Takaan spoke up. “This Subject Six must be very dangerous indeed if they couldn’t get it under control before they evacuated.”

“For all we know, this prisoner is the reason they needed to evacuate in the first place,” Sa-Kolis mused. She looked around her. “Requiem, what can you tell me about this ‘Subject Six’? What changes happened to the prisoner?”

“Much of that information has been expunged from my system, however I can provide a broad overview of the experiment,” Requiem replied. “Gene therapy was provided to the symbiote attached to the prisoner, and the two were surgically fused. The hypothesis was that altering the genes of the Phyr symbiote rather than the Rit host would result in more potent benefits to the Rit. Initial results were promising, however, Subject Six began to experience significant changes to her physiology within a matter of weeks.”

“Significant changes to her physiology,” Sa-Kolis repeated, voice tight. “Elaborate.”

“Certainly, General,” Requiem replied in its serene, indifferent voice. “Physical enlargement of the mouthparts. Lengthening of bones. Changes to facial morphology. Increased strength. Increased visual and auditory acuity. Increased sensitivity to movement. Epidermal toughening. Keratinized cells. Resistance to extreme temperatures. There were major cosmetic alterations also, including the atrophying of the cranial crest, which later necrotised and detached from the skull.”

“I’m guessing that wasn’t all that happened,” Sa-Kolis said, crossing her arms. “How about her mental state?”

“Subject Six exhibited signs of increased aggression and erratic behaviour. After attacking a number of staff during a medical examination, she sabotaged critical systems aboard the Angra-Mainyu. Quarantine procedures were initiated on deck 8 in order to confine the prisoner to that floor.”

“What about the crew on that deck?” Sa-Kolis asked.

“They were sealed inside with Subject Six. None are alive at this point, General,” Requiem replied.

“Truly inspiring leadership from Voivode Ma-Tek,” Sa-Kolis said sarcastically.

“Subject Six displays extreme hostility and behaviours suggestive of paranoia. Sadistic behaviours evidenced. Approaching the prisoner is not recommended, General,” Requiem said.

“Insightful advice,” Sa-Kolis sneered. “I never would have considered that. The issue, of course, is that for all I know this creature is approaching me. Where is she now?”

“Surgical room 3, deck 8.” There was a pause. “Surgical room 4. Vent access 8-3.”

Sa-Kolis cursed. The creature was on the move, and heading right towards her.

Right then, the room tilted violently on its axis, sending Sa-Kolis, and all the items on the desk, to the floor in a sprawling heap. Another tortured, metallic ululation echoed through the station. The lights flickered, and emergency lighting switched on, appearing in strips on the walls and floor.

From deep inside the station came the distant roars of explosions in the core, almost drowned out by the loud klaxon blare of the evacuation alarms.

“A detonation has been detected inside of the spire,” Requiem informed her. “Fires detected on the lower levels. Please make your way back to the shuttle airlock, General. Life support and anti-gravity systems are malfunctioning”

“A detonation…!”

“These charges were set prior to your arrival on the station,” Requiem explained helpfully.

“And of course you were instructed not to tell me about them,” Sa-Kolis yelled. “Damn it all to hell. I hate computers. I hate people!” She pushed herself up from the floor and out from the pile of personal effects which had fallen on top of her.

“What about the elevators, do they still function?” she asked.

“Disabled during emergency mode.”

“Wonderful. What’s the best route back to the arrivals hall?”

“Take maintenance tube eighteen in room 6, and climb to deck 5. Proceed through lecture room 10 to offices of General An-Kal. Remove access panel covering, proceed upwards via ladder to deck 3.”

Sa-Kolis wasted no time, dashing out of the office and into the darkness of the corridor. Her Rit eyes were adapted to darker environs; her eyesight filtered through the gloom as though she were looking through a blue haze. She picked her way through the circular corridors and into the room Requiem had mentioned.

Sa-Kolis scanned the room for the tube’s access panel but could not immediately see it. She stepped further inside, closing the door behind her and knelt below the desk. No luck.

“Ushen-Takaan, can you hear me?” Sa-Kolis asked into her helmet, standing to pull a heavy cabinet away from the wall. Behind the cabinet was the screwed shut panel, which Sa-Kolis got to work prying loose with the little knife kept in her boot.

“I hear you, but you’re not clear,” Ushen-Takaan’s velvety voice crackled in her ear. “Requiem seems to be blocking comms, or maybe it’s just that the station is falling apart so badly it’s messing with your radio. I can see on vidscreen that the spire just exploded, are you okay?”

“I’ve got the data and I’m heading back, but the elevator’s busted,” Sa-Kolis grunted, twisting the first screw loose and moving to the second.

“Where are you?”

“Deck 3, but I’m not sticking around,” Sa-Kolis said, hurriedly ripping the second screw out. “Not with that freakshow Subject Six coming after me. I have to climb through some access tunnels back up. This station is going to hell sooner than we thought. That AI didn’t mention demolition charges, but that’s what just went off on lower decks. Who knows what else it ‘conveniently’ has neglected to mention.”

“You better hurry, Sa-Kolis,” Ushen-Takaan said. “It looks bad from out here.”

Sa-Kolis pulled away the panel covering and shimmied into the tight confines of the tube, barely able to squeeze her hips through. She reached out to clamber onto the slim ladder built into the shaft.

“One problem after another,” Sa-Kolis huffed, speedily ascending rung-by-rung. “If I die, you can have the ship,” Sa-Kolis said.

Ushen-Takaan chuckled darkly but let her climb in silence, as she ascended past deck 7, then 6 before finally making it to level 5. Sa-Kolis kicked open the hatch, and climbed through to find herself in a barracks.

Sleeping capsules were built into the walls, each bed neatly tucked in and bare of any possessions. The only sign that the dormitory had once been inhabited by soldiers were several desks at the far end of the room, upon which a few possessions had been left behind: a hand-mirror, a paper journal, and a single water jug, still partially filled.

Sa-Kolis crept to the door and pressed her palm to the open panel and the door obediently shushed open. The corridor beyond was dark, interrupted by other dormitory doors. One end of the hall led to a requisitions counter, and the other sectioned off into halls for the lecture lounges.

She stalked down the hall in that direction, bracing against the wall as another metallic roar resounded through the vessel, accompanied by further dimming of the lights. It sounded horrendous, like the things were falling apart far below, and the anxiety which followed those thoughts had Sa-Kolis quickening her steps. She took one deep breath and then another, willing herself to calm down. She knew from brutal past experiences that panic was just as much a hazard as any physical threat.

The lecture hall’s doors were open, revealing another room lit by emergency lighting. The auditorium was circular and featured descending rows of chairs. At the bottom and centre of the room was a depression where a section of the lower floor was visible. From the top of the stairs, Sa-Kolis could see the slim door built into the walls of the lower room, which Sa-Kolis figured to be the office of General An-Kal.

Sa-Kolis reached the last row of seats, arranged in an even tighter circle around the little room, the better to observe it from above. Sa-Kolis frowned still deeper at the sight revealed below: a surgical demonstration space, with a restraining chair soaked in blood so fresh the metallic tang reached and stung Sa-Kolis’ fangs. She hopped over the wall to land with a soft thud below, standing slowly to inspect the carnage up close.

The restraining cuffs were sturdy-looking contraptions, and yet they had been torn completely from the arms of the chair. Medical instruments, including knives and cutting lasers, were strewn about as if they had been thrown with great force. Sa-Kolis turned slightly and startled to see what had been in her blind spot, obscured from view.

A body lay crumpled against the opposite wall, curled in such a way Sa-Kolis could not see their face. She came closer and then blanched when she realised she could not see the face because there was no face to see at all. The body was headless, the arterial spray of blood behind its tattered neck indicative of a savage decapitation. The dead Rit-Phyr, still in her surgical suit, was doubtless General An-Kal. One of her hands was still tightly gripping a pair of medical tweezers.

“What happened here?” Ushen-Takaan asked, voice slightly distorted by interference.

Sa-Kolis considered it. “General An-Kal might have tried removing the symbiote from Subject Six as a last ditch effort. It didn’t work, obviously. They couldn’t figure out how to kill her, so they sealed her on deck 8 and then bugged out.”

She turned away from the gory tableau and walked into the office door, shutting and locking it behind her. This room, at least, seemed to be mostly untouched.

Behind the General’s desk was another maintenance tube access covering which Sa-Kolis removed. She had the sudden awful sense that she was not alone in the auditorium, and it made her fingers fumble. The sound of yet another grinding roar did not help her concentration, the terrible noise reverberating through the decks.

Sa-Kolis prised the covering away, certain she had heard the steady thump of footsteps coming down the auditorium steps. She crawled into the shaft, pulling the panel closed behind her More unnerved than she would ever admit, Sa-Kolis scurried up the ladder, clinging on a violent convulsion wracked the station. This time, Sa-Kolis heard the unmistakable sounds of explosions going off in a cascade of booms.

The shaft rattled in response, and suddenly Sa-Kolis’ hands came free from the ladder. She made a sound of alarm deep in her throat, which was cut off as she bounced against the adjacent wall, ricocheting her way down, down, down. She plummeted several levels before reaching out desperate hands to grasp a ladder rung, a ledge, anything to slow her descent. Hands and booted feet found brief leverage on the lip of another opening, before she lost her grip again and dropped to a painful heap at the bottom of the shaft.

Her helmet, breastplate and bodysuit kept her bones from breaking, but the wind was still knocked out of her and she knew she’d be covered with contusions tomorrow – if she lived that long. Sa-Kolis lay there for several moments, breathless and sore, eyes half-lidded as she gazed up at the flickering, blurred lights far above.

Awareness came back to her slowly, as did the crackly, distant voice of Ushen-Takaan in her helmet.

“Hey! Are you okay? Talk to me! I’m seeing more explosions on my side, lighting up that station like a parade. You need to get the hell out of there right now!”

Sa-Kolis pushed herself to her feet, wearily inspecting the distance between herself and the warped remnants of the ladder some twenty feet above.

“Give me a damn minute,” Sa-Kolis snapped, looking around for an exit and finding one just behind her: a narrow-looking tunnel which led who-knew-where. But she figured it was better than just standing around waiting to burn to death on the Angra-Mainyu. “Got a few problems over here. I just took an unpleasant plunge.”

“Where are you now?”

Sa-Kolis crouched down and crawled through the darkened tunnel, head still pounding with each movement. Whether that was from fear, adrenaline or pain, she hardly knew. 

“Hell if I know,” Sa-Kolis muttered, coming to a fork in the tunnel, two different paths stretching out into pure darkness. “Requiem,” She called to the AI. “Where am I?”

No response.

“Requiem, respond,” Sa-Kolis barked, waiting for an answer. She wasn’t surprised at the silence; she guessed something catastrophic had by now happened to the core.

“Ushen-Takaan, can you call up a schematic for the Angra-Mainyu?” Sa-Kolis asked, changing tactics.

“I’m way ahead of you,” Ushen-Takaan replied. “How many levels do you think you fell?”

“I don’t know. It was a damned long fall,” Sa-Kolis replied. “I was in the maintenance tube attached to General An-Kal’s office at the time. Yox-Opoima sent through some schematics of the station, check those for a map.”

“One minute.”

“I don’t have one minute,” Sa-Kolis said angrily, eyes anxiously looking around her in the dark. The beam of her flashlight did not illuminate the entirety of the tube.

“Okay. If you take a left at the first fork, you should end up in one of the cargo holds. There’s another ladder on the far side of the room which will take you back up to the docking ports. Hurry, Sa-Kolis.”

“I’m going as fast as I can,” Sa-Kolis grunted, beginning to crawl down the left tunnel as instructed, breath heavy inside the helmet.

“On the double!” Ushen-Takaan curtly replied.

The end of the tunnel couldn’t come fast enough, and Sa-Kolis let out an exhalation of pure relief when the grate signalling the entrance came into view. Already half-hanging off the frame, a single push from Sa-Kolis’ outstretched hand was sufficient to knock it loose. Crawling to the lip of the tunnel, Sa-Kolis growled in frustration at the sight below.

The floor of the cargo hold was partially collapsed, revealing the floor below and a fire beginning to blaze out of control. As Sa-Kolis watched, the spinning metal grate she’d pushed out was swallowed by flame.

Sa-Kolis swore, leaning further out of the tunnel. The entrance to the ladder was clearly visible in the corner of the large room, but she was cut off from it by the fiery pit below. To her left was a group of cylindrical shipping containers, perched precariously on the edges of the ruined floor. Sa-Kolis felt she could jump across to them and to a buckled walkway leaning against a few overturned crates. From there, it would be a tricky leap to another series of containers beside the ladder.

Shuffling out of the tunnel as much as she could without falling, Sa-Kolis pushed herself away from the wall and landed cleanly on the containers beside her. She hurried across the varying surfaces and to the walkway. It had once connected the upper level of the cargo hold to what might have been a clearance room, but it had been thrown free from its moorings and was only partially connected to the ceiling. Sa-Kolis gave it a nudge with her boot, checking that it was secure.

Not quite satisfied that it was safe, but lacking an adequate alternative, Sa-Kolis pulled herself up onto the cool metal and carefully crawled across it. Upon reaching the containers, an arcing plume of fire billowed out into the room, filling it with heat and smoke. The walkway swung on its hinges, and Sa-Kolis instinctively leapt for the second set of containers just as it snapped loose.

She only half-cleared the jump, torso and arms laying on the surface of the nearest container as her legs dangled over the edge. She hauled herself upwards with a growl of effort, flames licking at her heels. She sprinted to the ladder began her next ascent. Beads of sweat were dripping down her face despite the temperature-controlled interior of her armor.

“Sa-Kolis, I’m losing visuals from your helmet cams. Are you okay?” Ushen-Takaan asked her worriedly over the radio.

“You stupid Zurxok, do I sound okay?” Sa-Kolis barked.

“Well, you’re still insulting me, so at least your personality is still intact. What about Subject Six?”

“Haven’t seen her yet, and if I’m lucky, it will stay that way.”

Making it to the top, Sa-Kolis peered through the lattice of the metal grating at the arrival hall. The emergency lights were flashing red with concurrent alarm bleeps, casting deep black shadows along the walls and floor. She pulled the grate away, cautiously pulling herself halfway out of the tunnel. A row of chairs blocked her view of the rest of the hall and the custom officer’s room she had investigated earlier. She crawled all the way out and moved to stand before abruptly sidestepping into an adjacent hallway.

Inside of the office, far on the other side of the room, loomed an unnatural shape, illuminated by a fire which was picking up strength on the far side of the hall. The extinguisher systems were failing to contain the burgeoning fire, but that wasn’t stopping the creature as it prowled around. Searching for her.

Close to Subject Six’s position were the airlock doors for Sa-Kolis’ shuttle, open and inviting. Safety was literally only metres away, but surrounded by lethal hazards.

Sa-Kolis crouched, brow furrowed, and crawled around the wall to a row of chairs, one hand automatically resting on the firearm at her hip. Given what she’d heard about Subject Six, the sidearm was totally useless.

Cautiously, Sa-Kolis shifted so she could peer through the gap between chairs at the alien figure moving up and down the space: the nameless Prisoner-21, now Subject Six.

She stood unnaturally tall, with gangly, wiry limbs. She easily towered over Sa-Kolis; perhaps she was even as tall as Ushen-Takaan was, as tall as any Zurxok. The lean muscles under the experiment’s taut skin rippled as she moved, searching through the room. A barbed proboscis had formed in between her malformed and sharp chelicerae, and it twitched this way and that as if scenting the air.

As Requiem had told her, Subject Six’s crest, a feature of female Rit-Phyr anatomy, was simply absent. It was a hideous mutilation, and combined with her ruddy skin, covered in sores and dried viscera, Subject Six looked horrifying to Sa-Kolis. She suddenly felt enormous hatred towards Voivode Ma-Tek, and the hubris which had led to the abomination in the first place.

Before Sa-Kolis’ very eyes, Subject Six hopped up on the security officer’s desk and then darted upwards to cling, effortlessly, to the ceiling. She gave a discordant shriek of what might have been annoyance, crawling out of the office and staring down at the arrivals lounge with bulging blue eyes that seemed to shine in the dark.

Sa-Kolis considered shuffling backwards towards the other hallway, or maybe springing back into the tunnel, but then Subject Six had leapt back to the floor too close for comfort. Sa-Kolis rolled underneath the chairs instead.

She tried very hard not to breathe as the creature thumped towards the chairs with slow, predatory steps. Sa-Kolis watched the former prisoner’s bare and mangled feet walk around the bench and come to a stop on her right, just in front of the maintenance panel with its cover removed and still lying on the floor. Sa-Kolis’ mind raced, calculating exit strategies and possible combat scenarios.

She had fought Rej-Jir and Zurxok before, and hand-to-hand, too. Both species were larger and stronger than Rit-Phy, but that didn’t mean it was always hopeless. Those aliens could be overcome with the right approach. Then again, she’d never met a Rej-Jir or Zurxok capable of, let alone willing to, rip someone’s head off their shoulders. Her mind drifted back to An-Kal’s headless corpse, the bloody stump of the general’s neck. The protruding vertebrae, white against the blackened gore of the wound.

She waited for a few tense moments as Subject Six seemed to sniff the air. Abruptly, Subject Six let out a strange, primordial scream unlike any sound a normal Rit-Phyr was capable of producing. Tense moments went by, as Sa-Kolis huddled further inwards and willed herself to stay absolutely still.

Time seemed to slow. Sa-Kolis didn’t move. The creature let out another unnatural cry, and then finally paced away, her steps receding as she angrily stomped back across the room.

With a sharp inhalation of breath, Sa-Kolis took the opportunity to roll across to another row of chairs closer to the airlock. Subject Six heard the movement and immediately swung her head around to give another ear-piercing shriek of frustration. 

Sa-Kolis stayed still as her enemy stalked through the haze of smoke and fire. Subject Six made a circuit of the room, lurching back into the security office. She raised one long, wiry arm, and smashed apart the desk with a single strike of her bloodied fist.

Sa-Kolis watched the chaos unfold and stayed still, taking the shallowest breaths she could. In time, the experiment’s anger seemed to abate, and she disappeared through the back room, where the security officer’s canteen and storage was located.

Sa-Kolis released a breath she hadn’t known she was holding, turning her attention towards the airlock. It was time to move, and she cautiously crawled out from under the chairs.

Just as she was about to stand up, the unpleasant feeling of being watched ran its crooked way up her spine and she turned her head sharply to see Subject Six on the ceiling almost directly above her. The other female was staring down at Sa-Kolis with dead white eyes.

Several things happened then, all at once. Subject Six screamed and launched herself at Sa-Kolis.

Still partially underneath the chairs, Sa-Kolis swore and flipped the entire row upwards with all of her might, so that she was partially shielded from the force of the attack which followed. She was pushed backwards into the wall with enough force to crack the tile. She wrenched herself free just as Subject Six effortlessly bludgeoned the flimsy furniture into pieces.

Sa-Kolis crawled on the ground and felt a hand enclose upon her lower leg with an iron-grip. She was yanked backwards, coming face to face with the snapping, bloody mouth of Subject Six. Sa-Kolis’ arm fumbled behind her back for her sidearm, and she brought it up to point at the barbed proboscis lashing out at her helmet.

Sa-Kolis fired two shots into its gore-crusted mouth. Incredibly, the shots only staggered the monster, but it was enough for Sa-Kolis to pull herself free and make a break for it. Sa-Kolis launched herself into the airlock so hard she practically bounced off of the opposite wall.

The hulking beast was right behind her, and Sa-Kolis fired her pistol several more times, shots ringing out. The creature staggered backwards, and the airlock doors slid shut just before it ducked through. Sa-Kolis lowered her weapon in relief as she heard the rattling screams of Subject Six even from behind layers of metal.

Sa-Kolis rushed towards the controls, fingers dancing over the terminal commands. There was a series of creaks and hisses as the shuttle detached itself from the Angra-Mainyu, mercifully without complaint or malfunction. There was nothing more she could do as the shuttle’s autopilot took care of navigating back to the Nemesiid, so instead she huddled on the far side of the shuttle, as far away from the door as possible, and took one great breath after another.

It took a full minute for Sa-Kolis to note Ushen-Takaan’s plaintive words through the radio.

“Ushen-Takaan?” Sa-Kolis asked.

“Are you injured,” Ushen-Takaan repeated, speaking slowly as though he suspected she was concussed. “Can you hear me?”

“I’m not hurt,” Sa-Kolis said, still somewhat out of breath. There was a thumping sound outside, probably from debris or the winds of Demon Mouth. Her tense, grasping fingertips clenched tighter around the tops of her thighs.

“I’ll be in the shuttle bay when you get here,” Ushen-Takaan said. “You got hit pretty badly.”

“I don’t feel anything,” Sa-Kolis replied.

“You don’t feel anything yet,” Ushen-Takaan corrected. “try to control your breathing; you sound like you might be in shock.”

“I’m fine!” Sa-Kolis insisted. “You don’t need to coddle me.”

Her tone was harsh, but secretly Sa-Kolis was a little glad to hear Ushen-Takaan’s voice. It gave her something to concentrate on. She still had that cold feeling in her stomach that accompanied a bad situation, and it wasn’t going away. She didn’t feel as relieved as she ought to, having escaped a plummeting space station, and she still felt uneasy as the shuttle coasted into the Nemesiid’s flyer bay and set down.

Finally, back in safe haven, Sa-Kolis removed her helmet. Perspiration had accumulated upon her brow and in the sculpted ridges of her eye sockets. She wiped the moisture away with a gloved hand, staggering to the flyer doors as they opened and unfolded into a gangway.

Ushen-Takaan was already standing there, waiting for her with a medkit in one hand. His cerulean eyes flicked over her, assessing the soot on her suit and the thin cut on Sa-Kolis’ head crest.

“Mission accomplished,” Sa-Kolis said dully, jumping down to meet him. “Let’s not do that again.”

Ushen-Takaan’s eyes lifted away from her, and then widened in alarm as they took in something that was behind her. Sa-Kolis’ instincts, honed from years of combat, caught on to the danger even before conscious thought had caught up to the situation.

She whirled around to see Subject Six leering at them from atop the flyer, clawed hands still clinging to the outer frame. Behind her, Ushen-Takaan shouted something mostly unintelligible, taking several steps backwards. He hurled the medkit at Subject Six, and the container caught the creature right on the shoulder. It did no damage, however, and only served to anger the mutated Rit-Phyr.

“No!” Sa-Kolis called, pre-emptively diverting Subject Six’s attentions from Ushen-Takaan to her. Sa-Kolis waved her arms. “Come on then, you monster. Show me a good fight, why don’t you?”

Subject Six lunged at Sa-Kolis with inhuman speed, her clawed hands slashing through the air. Sa-Kolis dodged the attack, narrowly avoiding being shredded by the mutant’s razor-sharp claws. She countered with a swift kick to Subject Six’s abdomen, sending the other female staggering back.

Subject Six recovered quickly, her enhanced muscles bulging as she lunged again. This time, Sa-Kolis was ready. She sidestepped the creature’s attack and delivered a series of rapid punches to Subject Six’s side, each blow landing with precision.

Subject Six roared in fury and unleashed a flurry of attacks. Sa-Kolis deftly dodged and countered, her movements precise and fluid. Had Subject Six been a normal person, Sa-Kolis would have already put her on the ground, but even Sa-Kolis’ skills weren’t enough to overwhelm the augmented Rit-Phyr. Subject Six pushed Sa-Kolis backwards, sending the former general reeling.

Sa-Kolis then felt hands close themselves around her throat. She raised her arms, trying and failing to prise them away. She kicked out with her legs, attempting to drive Subject Six backwards, but found herself the one falling backwards, thrown to the ground by the other female’s heavier weight.

Subject Six’s hands were still around Sa-Kolis’ neck, squeezing tighter and tighter. The force of the grip around her throat was incredible; in a matter of moments Sa-Kolis was scrabbling futilely at the fingertips around her throat and seeing black spots in her vision.

Sa-Kolis removed her hands from the ones around her throat and instead swiped as hard as she could at Subject Six’s face, raking across the creature’s eyes and jaw, and finding purchase on the proboscis near her fangs. Sa-Kolis gripped the appendage hard and began to pull, and twist, trying to tear it clean out of Subject Six’s face. The hands around her throat disappeared as Subject Six reared back with a cry of agony.

Sa-Kolis had one brief moment in which she was able to look up at the beast from her prone position, and the prisoner seemed to be looking back at Sa-Kolis with murderous intent on her ruined, deformed face. An instant later, Sa-Kolis was looking at the space Subject Six’s head had occupied. Ushen-Takaan stood just behind, hands holding a plasma cutter as though it were a sword. A few paces away, Subject Six’s decapitated head went bouncing across the tiles.

“That’s the second headless corpse I’ve seen today,” Sa-Kolis gasped furiously, wriggling free of the limp corpse, taking Ushen-Takaan’s hand and allowing him to pull her upright.

Ushen-Takaan looked utterly shell-shocked, gaze moving between the remains of Subject Six at his feet and the head which had come to a stop beside some crates.

Sa-Kolis gently took the now-unlit cutter from his hands and gave him a nudge with her shoulder. “Thanks for that,” she said. Her throat was spectacularly sore, but the translator device she used to communicate with Ushen-Takaan didn’t register her muted vocals; her voice from the machine sounded clear and calm.

She put the cutter on a nearby workbench, and then returned to Ushen-Takaan’s side. He was still staring at the body, so she put her hand on his shoulder and gave him a little shake.

“Hey,” Sa-Kolis insisted, succeeding in drawing his attention to her. His blue eyes were very wide.

“Let’s go to the bridge,” Sa-Kolis said, guiding Ushen-Takaan out of the room. “I’ll clean up the, uh, mess, later.”

From a safe distance, Sa-Kolis and Ushen-Takaan watched through the vidscreen as the Angra-Mainyu burned up inside the gas giant’s atmosphere. Demon Mouth. It was aptly named.

The atmosphere and clouds of Demon Mouth seemed to engulf the station, pulling it deeper into its depths with relentless force. The clouds around the station glowed faintly, illuminated by the intense heat and pressure of the descent.

“You don’t see something like that everyday,” Ushen-Takaan remarked to Sa-Kolis. His voice was soft. It was obvious he was still rattled. Sa-Kolis wondered if that was the first time he’d ever had to kill someone (something?).

It occurred to her she’d never actually asked what his time in the military had actually entailed. It was entirely likely that he might have only ever simulated combat, but never been in a real fight. At least, not in a fight which ended so brutally.

She made a note to ask him, but not now. Now, there was the sordid conversation with Yox-Opoima to deal with. His call was happening concurrently with the spectacular scene of the Angra-Mainyu’s demise, his imperious face a separate window overlapping the main view.

“I’ll need to go over the files I collected before I send them to you, Voivode,” Sa-Kolis was saying to him.

“Many of those files are of a sensitive nature,” Yox-Opoima insisted. “And quite beyond your understanding, too. You might as well send them all to me now and review them at your leisure later.”

“Your rival and her associates have been forced to scatter,” Sa-Kolis retorted, getting to her feet and crossing her arms. “I’ll give you the information you asked for, but I need to know what I’m handing over exactly, first. You get some now, some later.”

“Oh? Pray tell what you deign to bequeath me with, then.”

Sa-Kolis ignored his mock-obsequious tone. “My suit recording of the event. It’s enough to establish Voivode Ma-Tek’s involvement in the experiments, as well as what happened to the Angra-Mainyu. I also have files detailing the prisoners used for the tests. Voivode Ma-Tek was smart. She chose convicts who were interred for the gravest crimes, people who had no families. The ones no one would miss or think to look for. They were scum, but that doesn’t mean what happened to them was right. There needs to be accountability for this cruelty.”

“And personnel logs,” Sa-Kolis said, moving on to perhaps a more salient topic. “I’ve gone through who was staffing the station. Most of those hapless idiots were just going along with what they were told. They might have felt they were in too deep to alert anyone back home. You’ll need to sift through the soldiers who are foolish, but innocent, and the ones who w were foolish, but guilty, like General An-Kal.”

Yox-Opoima gave her an interested expression. “General An-Kal was implicated?”

“General An-Kal is dead,” Sa-Kolis said bluntly.

“A pity,” Yox-Opoima sighed. “I worked with her once, you know. She was most agreeable company. Unlike some.”

“She was experimenting on people,” Sa-Kolis snapped. “Your metric for agreeableness is warped.”

“I said she was agreeable. I didn’t say she was righteous,” Yox-Opoima shrugged. “Of course, I prefer you, Ambassador. You get the job done, and no machinations. Straight to the face, as it were. It’s just a shame you’re so stubborn. You really don’t trust me at all, do you?”

“What reason do I have to trust you?” Sa-Kolis shot back. “You were willing to sacrifice me to achieve a higher goal. I understand the notion. I was a general, once. But that doesn’t mean I have to like being on the other side. It doesn’t mean I have to like you, either.”

Yox-Opoima clutched at his chest dramatically. “My dear Ambassador! You view me so negatively. I’m rather heartbroken. What would be the point of throwing your life away like that? It is as I told you: I believed vile things were happening on that station. They were. I believed Voivode Ma-Tek was responsible. She was. And I want to make things right. I will.” He tilted his head at her. “And I knew you could get it done. You did. I didn’t for a moment think I was ‘sacrificing’ you. I always knew you’d return safely.”

“Cram the compliments,” Sa-Kolis replied gruffly. “I won’t be doing anything like that again, just so we’re clear. I’m not going to take kindly to being bullied into missions like that, so don’t try me.”

Yox-Opoima narrowed his eyes at her, managing to convey an air of condescension and indifference with just a look.

“I will keep that in mind, Sa-Kolis,” Yox-Opoima replied. “Still, it seems an awful waste of time for you to make me wait around for all that intel. Certainly, the information was gathered in barbarous fashion… I don’t approve, of course… But that doesn’t mean the research ought to go to waste.”

Sa-Kolis mimicked his theatrical gesture from earlier, pressing a hand to her armored chest. “How distressing for you to have to wait a single second for the things you desire. May I recommend a full day of hand-wringing to help you get over it?”

And with that, she made a cutting gesture to the Nemesiid AI, who promptly closed the channel with Yox-Opoima. Sa-Kolis was glad not to have to look at his face a moment longer.

Ushen-Takaan chuckled softly behind her, and Sa-Kolis sat back down heavily, letting out a weary sigh. They didn’t speak for a time after that, lost to their own thoughts.

They sat quietly together, attention on the vidscreen, and watched as the Angra-Mainyu glowed and burned. It sunk beneath the clouds in a flash of light, like a twinkling star, and disappeared.