Expanding clouds of fire filled the space around the Gate. The ships of the Consciousness hunted down remnants of the First Fleet, ignoring the frantic pleas for mercy. White starbursts emanated from the hulls of the thought-ships, sending blasts of energy at relativistic speeds, collapsing gravity shields and crushing hull armor. Small spheres moved in unnatural patterns, displacing themselves before weapons fire hit them. No engine wakes, no thrusters marked these craft. Larger ships surrounded the Republic cruisers and dreadnaughts, pounding them with grid blasts until they ripped apart, venting gas and corpses into space. Three of the smaller spheres pursued a fleeing Hawking ship. It tried to dodge by accelerating below the ecliptic, but shots from each of the three pursuers caught it before the engines could fully activate. Large holes appeared in its sides. It drifted for a while before internal fires gutted it.
However, the thought-ships were not invincible. A few Republic ships banded together and concentrated fire on their hulls. No shields protected the sphere ships; an incredibly dense and durable armor surrounded them. Eventually, this armor buckled under the combined firepower of particle beams and missiles, dissipating in a cloud of grid energy. Any victory was short-lived. It was too little, too late. More ships poured in through the gate. Twenty. Thirty. Fifty. A hundred. A thousand. They came unending. Some First Fleet ships tried to flee using their grid drives, but strange burning energy discharges from the larger spheres caught them, enveloping them in electromagnetic fields. The activation of the grid drives caused a backfire effect, disabling all the systems on the ships, now easy prey for their enemies.
The Advisor stood in the viewing room, watching the carnage unfold. In the corner of his eye, he saw a dreadnaught explode in a flash of light, its debris pushed away at extreme velocities. Megaton and gigaton-scaled explosions filled his vision. The viewing room’s computer kept a filter on the viewscreen, preventing him from going blind. He took a drag on his cigarette. A sphere ship took position near the dreadnaught’s carcass. He watched its surface vibrate in a diverse array of colors. The vibration stopped and he saw its hull reflect his own image back at him.
The Valkyrie entered, her gait slow and rigid, still injured from the admiral’s shot. She stood next to the Advisor, noting the long futile struggle in front of them. They watched the silent massacre unfolding, their thoughts hidden to each other.
“How’s the admiral?” the Advisor finally asked, moving the cigarette around his fingers.
The Valkyrie made an inhuman clicking noise, signifying that the auto-repair system was working on her vocal cords. “He’s ordered all non-essential personnel to evacuate the ship. He retreated into his quarters. He did nothing else,” she said. She could hardly talk, but the occasion called for more than just subvocalization.
He nodded. The Advisor turned to the images in front of them. “Do you disapprove?” He swept his arm in front of him, encompassing the entirety of the viewscreen.
She paused, letting a few breaths in. “The sectors made their vote. It was unavoidable and inevitable. Now, we live and die with it. We trust in the wisdom of the many.”
“And so you played your part like a puppet, Mihaela Irwin. Perfect. I can see why they let you run around free for so long. You have done well.” He paused in thought. “Although, I must admit, your behavior was quite infuriating. First, the running away into enemy territory. Then, the business with the refugee ship. Now, that little performance from earlier. We might have permanently lost those candidates.”
“I had to know if he was worthy,” Mihaela answered. His gaze fell over her, noting the contrast between her pale skin and the black suit hugging her body.
The Advisor chuckled. “You are a special person. One-of-a-kind even. But you’re a terrible liar.” His face grew grave. “He won’t escape, you know.”
Mihaela looked down at her hands, covered in the black film of the skinsuit. “I know. He is a key piece of their Plan. She is, too. The Consciousness won’t let them go.”
The Advisor started to probe further, but decided against it. A corvette-sized sphere passed in front of them, its red and black lights reflecting off his eyes. “I’ll let you have this small moment. I’m not sure about our masters, though.” He brushed his hair back.
A large explosion rocked the ship. Both stumbled. The lights blinked out, and then blinked on again as the auxiliary power activated. The air grew thinner. “Warning, oxygen levels rapidly dropping. Respirators highly advised,” the computer’s tinny voice announced.
Mihaela stepped back. “The ship’s disabled. They’re coming.”
The Advisor dropped the cigarette and then crushed it with his shoe. Its ashes spread out on the floor. As he waited, a long buried memory rose up from his subconscious. His heart beat with a bitter nostalgia. “Swallowed up in the womb of uncreated night, indeed,” he murmured. The door to the viewing room crashed behind them, as a presence forced its way in.
The air heated around them. The Advisor turned around to face the intruder. Mihaela looked down as the floor dissolved around them. A glowing white light engulfed them. The superheated air stripped off their skin and the force of the presence ground their bones into dust. Their egos dissolved into the gestalt, the electricity of their thoughts used to feed other beings. They were no more.
Admiral Vendrian sat at his console. It stayed on despite the power outage. His hands shook as he heard the screams outside. He stared at the pistol beside him, set down on the desk. The smell of the discharge lingered in the air. Another explosion rocked the ship. In the back of his mind, he wondered why they had not destroyed the Leif Erickson. It didn’t matter. There would be no more time to think about it. How quickly hope had betrayed him. He should have listened to himself, known that it was all an illusion. Yet, he knew that he could never resist the promise of that vision.
He started typing on his computer.
This is the last log of Admiral Yuri Vendrian. We are now deep in the Ramanujan Expanse. I hear them outside, roaming the corridors of the ship. In my quest to take us out of hell, I unleashed a far greater evil. I fear that this is the end for us all. The salvation promised to us was a façade. Their voices were so seductive, their arguments so sweet, that I became blinded by my desire. The souls of thousands who died under me, and the billions more who will suffer, will haunt me for the rest of eternity.
Forgive me, Maria. Forgive me, Philip.
Signing off, Admiral-
He blinked and he was once again greeted by a blank screen. Did he really write that message? Or was it a hallucination caused by guilt-tinged desperation? Whatever it was, it hardly mattered. A large crash interrupted his questions.
Heat and rust surrounded him. “I’m sorry, Alan,” he whispered as he put up his arms to protect his face. An alien wail pierced his ears as a blinding white light filled his vision. The pain came back a thousand-fold. He screamed, but only for a half-second.
The Leif Eriksson grew quiet as the invaders took or slaughtered the last of the crew. Large sphere ships disconnected themselves from the flagship. As if giving a final insult, they fired repeatedly into it, breaking the hull into its constituent parts and instigating shockwaves that radiated at the speed of light. The nameplate flew off into the void.
The Gate spun again, even faster than before. Ten giant thought-ships materialized from it, each of them five times as large as a Republic starbase. They overshadowed the rest of the fleet. Their surfaces glowed with furious light, from emerald to ruby and patterns beyond the visible spectrum, evoking shapes and meaning known only to their inhabitants. Large openings appeared in them, and out came vast amounts of corvette and destroyer-sized orbs. These groups divided into attack group formations, swarming the space around like a school of fish. Soon, uncountable numbers of fleets formed, going off towards both the Earth Republic and the Kenzenken Coalition. The invasion began.