The small robot’s tracks softly crunched their way down the rocks and sand, into the shallow crater toward its destination. Its cameras and sensors made thorough 3D maps of the terrain while carefully tracking the light from the bluish gas giant that took up almost a tenth of the sky, its bright, icy rings making a ghostly impression in the hazy skies. In the control room, almost a hundred miles away, the pilot shook his head and rubbed his eyes. With an exhausted sigh, he reached for a thermos of coffee. The woman next to him ran a quick status check on the quadcopter drone hovering overhead.
“Hawk One is holding steady, no activity detected,” she reported. “Switching to active scan.”
On a tabletop, a holographic model of their target quickly took shape. They were certain they saw it from orbit when they landed on this world, but couldn’t be completely sure what it was. Now, after days of flying drones around it and sending a rover to investigate on the ground, they anxiously stared at their screens as the countless scans and images of an alien temple complex started to tell a story they didn’t quite know how to understand.
It looked absolutely primeval, like it was grown out of the ground on its own than constructed. The large, central, dome structure was flanked by what could only be described as giant, predatory claws tearing through the rocks in the rear, and by a path of hexagonal cobblestones stretching more than a mile in length, lined with giant slabs of stone with rough edges but perfectly polished sides. All were tastefully decorated by neat, sharp, angular runes, and intricate, simple images of solar systems, celestial alignments, and even maps of galactic arms. It’s those last types of images that blew the scientists away. Whatever species built this knew with awe-inspiring precision where they were in the grand scheme of things.
“It has to be an outpost,” said one of the scientists when they first figured out what the images actually represented. “Look around, there’s no city, there’s an absolute lack of infrastructure, so this is a marker for a space faring alien species that found this moon first.”
“Hold on now,” cautioned another. “We know there’s evidence of a deep cave system around and under this complex. Maybe that’s where they lived? And one day left or died out? Because it’s awfully silent for an outpost which, I’d think, means no one’s there anymore.”
Her colleagues all frowned and shook their heads. “Caves look empty on all the scans and there’s no activity anywhere in or around it. There’s no way we’re looking at an entrance to a subterranean city. Too many details don’t add up for this to be a native species.”
“I know,” she sighed. “But think of what we’re all saying but not saying. We’re looking at the artifacts of an alien species every bit as advanced as us at the very least. They landed on an planet light years away and 3D printed a large complex that looks vaguely religious, but could actually be hell knows what. I don’t know about you, but to me, this is a little unsettling. We’re 300 miles away from something potentially dangerous. Not that anything short of just leaving the planet would be more comforting.”
Despite their understandable caution, they had to investigate. This is why a rover was approaching the central structure with a drone lookout, while the robots were both tracked by a powerful satellite able to resolve each of the hexagonal pebbles in the temple complex’s pathway.
A soft alarm pinged in the control room.
“Having a little trouble with the left aft motor,” notified the Drone Pilot. “I’m sending out Hawk Two to swap out.”
“What’s the problem?” asked the Mission Supervisor.
“It’s pulling down and to the left, then overcompensating until it settles. Not sure exactly what’s wrong, but the diagnostic indicates a wiring issue.”
“All right, bring it in,” nodded the Supervisor.
Meantime, the rover came to a stop just inches away from what looked like an entrance into the alien dome, indicated by a recess in the seemingly solid stone. The rover’s arm flexed, testing its mechanical fingers.
“Permission to contact?” asked the Rover Pilot.
“Standby,” anxiously sighed the Supervisor and turned to the panel of even more anxious scientists who looked amongst themselves and nodded in one way or another.
“Permission granted,” he exhaled, turning back. “You are go to make contact with the artifact at will.”
With a slight push of the joystick, the pilot extended the rover’s arm, ever so gently touching the eldritch building. Outwardly, nothing happened, but the humans were suddenly struck an odd sense of dread. The silence around the complex no longer seemed to indicate a calm absence, as much as conceal a potentially malevolent presence.
Less than a minute later, the seismographs detected increasing motion. The ground under the crater began to rumble. A low thump with a disturbingly long echo bellowed from the complex. Every marking and rune lit up with a ferocious red light, pulsing at regular intervals until it finally settled down.
The Supervisor’s eyes shot up immediately to a panel of scientists watching from the upper level. He saw nothing assuring in their looks. Whatever was peacefully sleeping underneath the surface was wide awake now. So far, the only thing he found comforting was that aside from the quakes and the laser light show, there was no other reaction form the artifacts. Maybe they only powered up a simple mechanism?
“Sir, I think we just lost control of Hawk One,” panicked the Drone Pilot. “We have Hawk Two approaching soon, but One is about to crash.”
Over the alien complex, the quadcopter was starting to spin in circles while wobbling from side to side. With a crack, one of its propellers exploded and the drone plunged towards the central dome. It struck hard, shattering into pieces on impact, just as its replacement banked around the crater wall.
The horrified humans watched as the alien structures erupted once again in angry lights in response.
“Oh… shit…” gasped the Supervisor. “Pull back, pull back! Right now! Pull the rover back!”
Slamming the rover in reverse, the pilot accelerated down the path towards the crater’s rim as the ground began to rumble again. It didn’t make it far as something large and terrifying shot out of the ground to meet it. The pilots and mission control saw it for just a moment. It was jet black and spherical, with eight dark chrome tentacles armed with simple, squared off, powerful claws. More than twice as tall as an average human as it crouched, its most notable feature was a large, complex red eye encircled by angular markings that shifted as it moved.
It slammed its open claw down on the rover with the same effect as a heavy boot coming down on a large bug. Swiftly turning to the drone, it fired off a single shot with a powerful laser generated from its eye, easily slicing it in two. Just before it was hit, it captured five other tentacled spheres bursting from their underground lairs.
“Track them on satellite!” yelled the Supervisor to the technicians behind him who had already brought up the three dimensional satellite feed in the big, central holographic display in the middle of the chamber. The aliens moved confidently towards the rim of the crater and made a sharp turn.
“Where are they going?” asked one of the scientists.
As the map zoomed out, they saw the aliens headed towards a small remote research outpost. The dome in the complex launched five sleek gliders into the air. They immediately scattered, one headed for a flyby of the outpost, one spiraling into a holding pattern over the temple complex, and the other gliders taking different routes toward the sprawling human base made from the modules of the huge spacecraft that brought thousands of them to this world a few months ago.
“Get the troops ready, we have incoming!” commanded the Supervisor.
“Warning already dispatched,” confirmed a technician.
In the small, self-assembling outpost, three soldiers pressurized their suits, loaded their machine guns, and took their positions at the entrance. They were getting constant updates from home base. The aliens were coming in fast, and judging by what they saw on their monitors from the rover and the drone, their weapons weren’t going to be enough. Home was dispatching help, well armed Falcon drones and a fully loaded troop carrier, but it was going to take a while to get to them.
Something screamed overhead as a laser beam sliced into the thick, printed walls of the habitat. Five more followed suit. The human soldiers used them as impromptu portholes, firing short bursts at the tentacled horrors which scurried towards them at an alarming speed. More and more laser bursts hit the habitat, carving a large entrance. Before the soldiers knew it, one of the aliens had them in its menacing sights. They hit it with everything they had to no avail. Every bullet was absorbed by a glowing red shield.
With familiar clinks, their digital guns signaled that they were out of ammo, at the mercy of the thing in front of them. But the thing didn’t move. Two others menacingly clinked their claws on what was left of the habitat’s entry to let the humans know they were surrounded, but they too didn’t move in for the kill, seemingly anchored to the remains of the roof.
After a short, extremely tense break, the alien in front of the soldiers looked up at its companions, moved as if it was nodding, and the three scurried off. Incoming drones tracked them moving back to the temple complex and were immediately pulled back as not to start another fight they more than likely couldn’t win. For now, the humans were going to be hands off.
Somewhere, many light years away, something dark and ominous moved in the ghostly white light of what appeared to be a hangar. It effortlessly and slowly slipped into orbit around a massive asteroid, which at first glance was not too dissimilar from countless others like it across the cosmos. But a keen eye would quickly spot that its top was flattened and was home to a city of clean geometric shapes punctuated with spires that looked like giant claws, and sleek towers bustling with lights and activity.
The orbiting object looked like someone took a supercar and refashioned it into a spacecraft. Jet black, but with an eerie red aura dancing around its outline, it seemed to float on the fabric of space and time itself. The craft’s only distinguishing feature was a large seal depicting a flame with a semi-circle of sharp, angular runes floating above it. As it aligned itself towards a distant star, it exploded out of existence, leaving a ghostly trail in virtually every direction that faded almost as quickly as it appeared.
The giant space city remained floating around a massive gas giant in the cold darkness, whatever occupies it unperturbed by the vanishing ship, as if this sort of thing was just business as usual.
Sitting at a wide, long table in a large conference room with a holographic display for a top, the humans tasked with running the mission pored over interactive images of the aliens and their buildings.
“The gliders are still making wide, lazy circles, keeping an eye on us,” said the Chief Pilot. “We don’t know if they’re also armed.”
“See these walkers?” asked the Chief Surveyor, pointing to the sleek, large machines with two sturdy, backwards bending legs that now stood around the crater like sentries. “No idea what they do, but also, can’t be there just for decoration after they engaged with our assets.”
“Do we know what happened to the drone?” asked the Mission Commander wearily rubbing his temples.
“Genuine, honest, 100% ours technical malfunction,” replied the Chief Pilot.
“And you believe these are machines reacting to what they was as an attack, responding with disproportionate force to scare us off?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“How do we explain them heading for the research outpost?”
“Their gliders must be reconnaissance ships that saw it…”
“Not possible,” cut in the Chief Surveyor, “the alien troops went for it before the gliders launched. They were keeping an eye on us and knew where we were in relation to them for a while. They might have even known we were on this moon when we first entered orbit.”
“To me, the most important question is why they retreated when coming face to face with our troops,” mused the Chief of Security. “Not a single round hit even one of those things, we expended all the ammunition we had, and all they did was stare down our soldiers and leave?”
“Maybe they just didn’t know what to do?” offered the Chief Scientist. “They have no idea who we are and what we’re really capable of, so they’d rather err on the side of caution, retreat back to their base, and keep us out for the time being? That behavior would be consistent with machines.”
“Pretty advanced behavior for robots, isn’t it?” the Chief of Security raised an eyebrow. “And if we accept the idea that this is just a remote outpost, could they have also phoned home?”
“We didn’t detect any signals coming out of the complex,” said the Chief of Communications. “As far as we can tell, they’re maintaining silence.”
“As far as we can tell,” nodded the Chief of Security. “How do we know for sure? That’s how I would program my armed drones. Scare off intruders, call for reinforcements, maintain the perimeter.”
“So what’s the plan?” asked the Commander.
“We push our luck a little. If they won’t fire on humans, distract them with a few expendable drones, sneak a specialist team into the complex, see what they’re up to, take some video, and get out.”
“No, not happening,” the Commander shook his head angrily. “We have no idea what we’re dealing with, I’m not risking highly trained personnel on a hunch based on one short firefight.”
“What other choice do we have? Just sit here and wait? We can’t just get off this planet! We’re not going to conduct our mission under the watchful eye of alien robots that might attack at any given moment, you know that’s also not happening.”
“If we don’t provoke them…”
“We provoked them by a malfunctioning drone crashing! One of our rovers backfires and they might send out a death squad. And we’re going to live for who knows how long with this risk? And what if they did call for help? Who knows what will arrive and we’re going to be sticking our heads in the sand, hoping we don’t make them angry on purpose instead of making them mad by accident even though the results are probably going to be the same?”
Groans erupted throughout the conference room. Those attending knew he was probably on to something, but didn’t want to admit it, much less start drawing up a list of soldiers to actually carry out this potentially suicidal operation. Unfortunately they had few other options…
When the humans first arrived on this world, they came in giant ships they carefully disassembled and landed on the surface. It was a massive feat of engineering to create vessels able to comfortably house some 7,000 people on their journey to a moon over 100 light years away, then suddenly flip on their axes and reassemble themselves into a self-sustaining city. It was no accident that so many of them traveled to this distant moon. Their number was the minimum for a genetically viable population able to sustain itself since the mission parameters assumed that they would be away from Earth for generations, if not forever. Faced with the prospect of tiptoeing around potentially hostile aliens for centuries, they concluded they had very little choice but to confront them sooner rather than later.
Their city came with its own compact, but powerful military, armed with a wide array of weapons including killer drone swarms, heavily armed and mobile rovers, several tanks, and if it came to the worst case scenario, full blown nuclear warheads. Since they had no idea what they’ll encounter on their journey and at their destination, they prepared to fight if they had to, hoping they wouldn’t. Now, the elite special forces soldiers trained exactly for this kind of scenario on their way to this solar system, prepared to sneak into the alien temple complex as remotely piloted machines distracted the alien guardians. As they studied their most likely routes, they couldn’t help but feel that whatever built the robots they had to outwit borrowed heavily from the same exact combat playbook they used.
In the days leading up to their mission, the alien robots scurried around to prompt some sort of response. Gliders continuously tested their luck, seeing just how close they could get, sometimes boldly flying overhead, and in one case even buzzing one of the towers. When lazily fired upon, they retreated quickly. These were basic guerrilla tactics. On the one hand, any reasonably clever alien would know not to engage with a superior force with anything other than hit and runs, and raids against supply lines. On the other, this teasing and testing of access denial weapons seemed cribbed straight out of the late 22nd century anti-area denial strategy manuals, only slightly further automated.
At first glance, this seemed like a bit of a disadvantage. The enemy had a good idea of their likely tactics. But on the other hand, the same could have been said in reverse. And so, hours away from boarding a special transport modified to hopefully be invisible to the alien gliders, they tried their best to clear their minds by obsessively checking every part of their guns until they were interrupted by the Chief of Security and his aides. The soldiers jumped to attention.
“At ease,” nodded the Chief. “In an hour, you will be doing something that’s never been done before. You will be infiltrating an alien base we know very little about. We wish we could give you more information, but our sensors can only scan so much.”
He paused and surveyed the troops. With a heavy sigh he continued.
“I wish you good luck and to come back safely. Know that we’ll do everything in our power to help you get out should the worst happen.”
“Sir,” one of the soldiers raised his hand, “what, um, exactly is the worst that could happen?”
“Don’t know,” grimly smirked the Chief.
With that soothing thought on their minds, the soldiers put on their dark, armored suits with reinforced visors that displayed real time data about their location, the presence of enemy forces, and targeting information. As the operation clock hit T minus 27:00, they heard several swarms of fast, nimble Falcon drones, armed with guided missiles and lasers, wind up and take off for the alien base.
At T minus 19:35, two tanks roared to life. They would be piloted by remote control and take the full brunt of the alien’s attack to allow their transport to hide behind the giant boulders near the crater and outflank the economy forces, sneaking into a cave entrance away from the firefight.
At T minus 2:30, the door of their transport was sealed. Equipped with what were essentially armored screens on the outside and self-cleaning tracks, it should be cloaked from almost every type of sensor the gliders could have deployed. The meta-materials used to display the view on the other side of the transport would’ve swallowed up and redirected any attempts to map its outline as it swiftly crossed the desert.
Precisely on schedule, the bay doors opened and the transport accelerated to catch up with the tanks and drones. Two nervous gliders soared overhead. A technician in mission control kept them informed of the latest observations of the alien machines. They were massing.
Dozens of tentacled spheres were surfacing, many more than they thought, ten sleek ships that looked like interceptors emerged from under the dome and entered a complex holding pattern around the base, and several more walkers appeared out of nowhere. Maybe they were not dealing with a force that’s as inferior in numbers as they thought. No matter. There was no going back now. The operation had begun and the opening salvos would be fired in a matter of minutes…
The tanks proved useless. As soon as they came in range, five alien walkers bent over backwards and revealed massive cannons hidden inside them. In a matter of moments, they unleashed what looked like searing energy pulses with a deafening roar, the ground slightly quaking beneath them. The first tank was reduced to shrapnel, taking all five hits head on. Five additional walkers fired on the second tank, hitting it as it tried to make a hard turn, obliterating its aft. Two more hits, which were probably overkill, completely destroyed it. Later analysis would show that the walkers were armed with immensely powerful railguns which accelerated a solid slug made from an unknown alloy to insane velocities, enveloping it in glowing plasma.
This left much of the heavy lifting to drones which tried their best to dodge laser fire from above and below. Pilots pushed them as hard as they could to prolong the fight, knowing that every extra second gave the troop transport just that much more time to get to the cave entrance. So far, it seemed that the camouflage worked and the gliders were fooled into thinking the north side of the crater was clear. Nothing was coming for the sleek carrier as it slowed down and crept towards its destination, careful not to damage any of its screens on the jagged rocks and potentially blow its cover.
Several of the Falcons, working in concert managed to finally kill one of the tentacled spheres with concentrated laser fire and a missile when its shield faded. One was promptly taken down by an interceptor, but the remaining two managed to kill a severely weakened walker which turned out to be a bit slow on the draw when it came to defending itself against areal assaults.
Seeing their their enemies were not invulnerable, as previously thought, the swarm switched tactics, concentrating fire from multiple drones on a single unit to overwhelm its shields and quickly finish it off. But they were still in the crosshairs of a much more powerful foe. A single direct hit was enough to take down a drone while even the weakest alien unit stood strong after several direct hits without its shields.
In the transport, the soldiers were looking for their entry point and trying to dodge the watchful gliders hovering overhead, slowing down even more if a hit to the boulders between which they were sandwiched sent debris flying towards them. They knew it was there on the map and their sensors seemed to be leading them the right way, but finding it at ground level, dodging the occasional deadly shard was extremely difficult and unnerving.
Finally, they saw it. An entrance just large enough to cover if the transport parked sideways, giving them a cloak from the outside and means to make a run for it if they needed to retreat. With the sounds of pitched battle very uncomfortably close, the carrier aligned itself and opened one of its side doors, letting the soldiers quickly run out, weapons drawn, fingers ready to pull the triggers as they fanned out. By the steady explosions and the data displayed on their visors, they knew the drones were losing the fight badly and the last of their cover was about to be scrap metal.
Deeper and deeper into the cave and the sounds of battle faded completely, then very shortly, according to their visors, were unlikely to resume since all the drones had been destroyed. The agitated aliens were busy expanding and securing their perimeter, as if expecting another wave. For now, there wouldn’t be one. It would take days to rebuild all the lost Falcons, but those machines didn’t know that, or needed to.
While the going was tense, it was quite uneventful apart from the sounds of a tentacled sphere scurrying by. Keeping their heads down, they followed a map created by satellite scans, cautiously taking the appropriate turns at all the forks and branches. They didn’t notice a few small robots that resembled spiders following them and hiding in crevices as they looked around. In the darkness of the caves, they easily vanished into the shadows and produced no thermal signature or any sort of signal the soldiers could detect.
The strange spacecraft from the remote asteroid city imploded into view in orbit and quickly dropped ten massive, jet black spheres decorated wth the same seal as the ship and with flat bases. As they entered the atmosphere, they twisted and turned to land near their base. Shortly behind them was a pebble shaped pod with small wings. The human’s satellite caught every moment and officers were scrambling to inform the soldiers inside the base of what was about to descend on them.
The soldiers carefully set foot inside the actual base. They didn’t trigger any alarms and no one seemed to be looking for them. So far, so good. They had no idea what to expect once they emerged from the caves, but as far as their imaginations went, what they found was certainly one of the better cases. Nothing glowed weird colors, there were no slimy alien egg sacks dripping with noxious ooze and making those disgusting squishy sounds that seem to be the hallmark of every horror movie involving aliens. Instead, they were in a fairly unremarkable, spacious room made of what resembled black marble, decorated with occasional tasteful markings much like the ones found on the stone markers leading to the dome.
Soft flood lights were being emitted by something in the ceiling, giving the chamber a fairly welcoming appearance. As they slowly explored, they found absolutely nothing save for an open entrance into another chamber where a whole lot of nothing was also waiting for them. Same with the next chamber and the one after that. In several, they found what looked live shelves built into the walls, but so far, that was the biggest find.
“I think this is a house,” one of the soldiers muttered into the intercom.
“A what?” asked her partner.
“Yeah, it’s kind of laid out like one and it looks like no one moved in here, so it’s just sitting here empty. Maybe this isn’t the nerve center of the base?”
“Recon One, we have incoming,” interrupted a technician from the command center. “We have hostiles in orbit, they just dropped what we assumed to be troop carriers and a pod, headed your way. ETA is two minutes.”
“Please advise on next steps,” requested the Team Leader.
“Our advice is to retreat.”
“But we didn’t get any useful info!”
“We see your feed, we know, but we don’t want to risk your lives any further. If you don’t hurry, your escape path will be completely cut off.”
The team began to retrace its steps but found it a lot more difficult than they thought it should be. Some of the entrances were no longer where they had marked them. Panic sent in as they felt the faint rumbling of the massive alien pods descending and the flurry of activity from the machines outside.
From the satellite feed, the humans in home base saw the spheres unlock into huge, hovering robots and release what they could only assume were additional machines. But among the machines were small shapes they just couldn’t quite place. As the pod slowly came to a landing in front of the path leading to the dome and cooled off, several similar shapes emerged from it and headed towards the base.
“Recon One, occupants of the pods are making their way inside!” rang out the warming form mission control.
“We’re trapped!” hissed the Leader, “we can’t get out!”
With another wrong turn they found themselves in a large atrium. Almost instinctively, they formed a circle, their guns aiming at every entrance. They could hear the aliens coming. After the longest few moments of their lives, they heard the door softly slide open. They were about to come face to face with the alien menace. Fingers were now on triggers, the anxious yelling and arguing at mission control reduced to background noise by their minds as they steadied themselves for battle.
But before a shot rung out, they saw a small group of creatures that looked an awful lot like them. They could’ve even been mistaken for humans from a sufficient distance, dressed in military uniforms, but holding their weapons off to the side, clearly not interested in a fight. Resembling rather well made mannequins, they had all the general, basic shapes of humans, made sleeker and well polished in jet black gel and alloy. All of them had their eyes fully covered by visors, each displaying strange, thin, red jagged marks stretching from the base of their temples to their cheek bones, like war paint on an ancient soldier’s face.
Their leader tapped the side of her visor and it retracted. Her eyes were huge and glowed with a complex red pattern. She extended her hand for a casual handshake and as she spoke, the muscles of her face moved just like those of a human, which was oddly comforting in this situation.
“Please stand down,” she said in English. “We mean you no harm.”