With a soft ding, a tray with scrambled eggs and toast rose from the center of the table on the massive panoramic observation deck. The two humans ate breakfast while watching clouds of dust on the horizon moving in the morning rays of the bleached planet’s white star. Their city, a collection of large modules broken off from the spaceship that brought them here more than 30 years ago, was nestled in a mountain pass. This was by design. To protect themselves from those responsible for those traveling clouds. Only entrances and strategically aligned windows were exposed.
An overlay on the window zoomed in on the clouds to show massive, gaunt machinery sawing into rocks to extract smooth, polished cubes loaded onto spider-like contraptions that would somehow manage to scurry across the desert despite their enormous bulk. After three decades, the humans knew these were robots which extracted precious metals from the rich veins that ran under this planet’s surface in ten refineries that moved as their machine crews slowly scoured an area the size of a megacity at a time. But without a single marking or much two way interaction with anything off-world, there was no telling who these aliens were or why they needed so much ore.
“Hey, wanna watch the exchange?” asked a crew mate jogging by, on his way to Mission Control. “We think they’re here!”
“Oh, shit, it’s today?” the observers gasped, quickly discarding their dishes and joining their colleague. They had yet to miss the exchange and certainly weren’t going to miss one now.
The large, curved primary screen in mission control trained satellites on the patch of space where they were sure the alien craft would emerge. Now, the appearance of alien spaceships itself wasn’t a big deal because transports to collect the refined ore showed up on a regular basis. But the exchange was a different animal altogether. Weird, completely different craft would show up and collect a significant quantity of the precious metals. The scientists used to think that these were just a different class of ships, but had to eventually drop this idea and conclude that they belong to a different alien species.
While the Miners’ transports were huge pods that interlocked to form giant centipede shaped craft, the ships that came for the exchange were sleek and imposing. Most of them looked like supercars blown up to the size of some of the biggest skyscrapers ever built and refashioned for flight, some looked like tiny floating octopi, orbiting around the fleet, and others seemed to be custom designed to capture the Miners’ pods, do something strange to them a few moments after capture was completed, then carry them to wherever these aliens called home. All of these ships were jet black save for eerie red auroras dancing around their outlines, and emblazoned with what looked a lot like a red tribal symbol for a flame encircled by sharp, angular runes.
Another major difference was their modes of propulsion. The Miners used some sort of antimatter drive to haul themselves into deep space. The sleek aliens seemed to appear out of empty space and disappear back into it, but one of the humans’ experiments in detecting gravitational waves was able to sense disturbances as they approached and disappeared by pure accident. It seemed to some of the physicists that these beings were using an honest to goodness warp drive to travel faster than light, but their idea was still more controversial than not. It would imply that not only were these ships built or at the very least operated by two different species from two different worlds without question, but that one of them was a lot more advanced.
Taking that idea to its ultimate conclusion, some humans decided that the miners were paying tribute to the planet’s true owners. This idea was also a major point of debate because there was nothing obviously tying this world to any particular species. As far as they could tell, complex life on this planet died out a long time ago and all that was left were microbes. How the two species would communicate was also unclear. Someone had to schedule the exchanges, agree what was to be exchanged, and make sure that the things agreed to actually changed hands, and schedule the next one. For as long as they monitored the communications between the Miners and their satellites in high orbit, they never saw any indication that they were receiving signals from another species.
All the laser bursts came from the same directions and a lot more data was being sent out than was received. Maybe hidden somewhere in those bursts were the clues, but no one knew how to decipher them. After 30 years, the language used by the Miners was still an enigma. Yet another mystery was why the Miners and the Collectors let the humans watch. Surely, aliens as advanced as them knew perfectly well about the humans’ presence and the satellites watching them in orbit, even taking effort to make sure they were maneuvering their craft in different orbits, then proceeded to ignore all the eyes on them completely. The most accepted explanation for this behavior was that they were dealing with the aliens’ machines which had no routine for making first contact with another species, hence the cold shoulder.
“Not really sure if they’re here, the signal is very weak, but they’re at least close by,” said one of the scientists looking at his tablet.
“I thought you were working on a more accurate detector,” the Mission Commander raised her brow.
“This thing was built to detect colliding black holes and rogue stars,” hissed the slighted Scientist, “not a hundred ships. I’m amazed it can actually feel a pulse from them, their energy output is mind-boggling, but by all the more or less established rules, I should’ve just scrubbed over the data as a weird artifact until we started seeing the correlations. So this is all you get.”
Suddenly, the Collectors exploded into view on the screen. From the surface of the planet, ten of the Miners’ pods were reaching their target altitude and aligning themselves for capture by the Collectors’ ships. It was a long, slow dance, making sure every orbit was stable and the capture didn’t knock any ships out of their trajectory. Just like they had dozens of times before, these species had completed the transfer. The surfaces of the pods rippled as if the Collectors’ were forcing them to shed their skin. And just like that, the craft imploded out of view with their cargo.
The Astronomer sighed deeply as she put her cup of coffee on her desk and started pouring over the images collected by the orbital telescopes. Her job became much more urgent when on approach, the humans realized that the planet was inhabited. Without enough fuel to get home due to some critical oversights discovered halfway into their journey, they couldn’t just aim at a new destination and so they carefully orbited, waiting to see if they would get noticed. When nothing came after them, they decided to land and hide for a while. That too seemed safe. It looked like the Miners’ machines had no interest in the visitors to their world and the humans did nothing to try and push their luck or get in the way to maintain this state of affairs.
But then again, some of the higher-ups mused, these were their machines. The actual Miners could be many light years away now, but one day, they could come for an inspection and decide the humans had to go. So part of her job was now to scan the sky for anything suspicious, giving humans an early warming. Over decades, her fellow crew members massively ramped up their military contingent, building hundreds of combat ready machines and drones, and training hundreds of soldiers to fight the unknown, just in case. Every mission was armed, just in case they encountered hostile life forms, and for the worst case scenario, they had a nuclear arsenal to which they’d been steadily adding over the years. In less than a minute, missiles carrying a collective 630 warheads could hit anything on the planet or in low to high orbit, yielding over a megaton with each detonation.
She typed in a few commands and started clicking through images and data dumps. For months now she and her team was following a spike in strange high energy particles that seemed to be hitting the atmosphere. They were picking up the decay of something intense and that something was getting higher and higher in intensity, but the wide area over which they picked up these particles made it hard to nail down the direction from which it was coming. Even more curious, the signal had been getting stronger with time and the area seemed to be getting narrower and narrower. She froze for a moment. Her latest data suggested a sharp spike she could now trace to a particular spot in the sky. She pulled up the picture to see what looked like slight distortions around one of the stars.
A member of her team rolled next into her in his chair with a tablet in his hands, zooming in on an image.
“Does this look like one of the Collectors’ ships to you?” he asked, handing her the tablet with a fuzzy image of one of the Collectors’ octopi robots in the middle of expanding its tentacles.
“Yes it does. What are the coordinates to which its pointing?”
“Right ascension 3 hours, 31 minutes, 15 seconds, declination 8 degrees, one minute even when we adjust for our point of view.”
The Astronomer bit her finger in silent contemplation. There was no way. It couldn’t be that the Collectors were also watching the distortions and high energy particles, because if they were, they were probably concerned about the same thing she was.
“We have a lot of work to do before the morning meeting,” she said. “Double check everything. This is very important. Probably the most important thing we’re going to be doing for the next six months.”
Her colleague nodded and scooted back to his station, his fingers dancing on his keyboard as he wrote new scripts to model what they were seeing in the context of all plausible explanations.
“We’ve ran the numbers every which way,” said the Astronomer. “The only plausible explanation is electrons and pions from antimatter reactions.”
The Chief of Security pursed his lips. He looked at the other commanders sitting at the long table, poring over the same data as him on their tablets. The day they were afraid of was here. The Miners were coming from their home world and their fleet was now decelerating for orbital entry. But for some bizarre reason, the Collectors were just as alarmed and watching the skies with the same intensity. Further observations using the gravity wave experiment picked up signs of their probes warping and in out closer to the solar system’s outer limits, its heliosheath, to presumably take some very careful measurements.
“Will there be anything else?” he asked.
“No, that’s all we have at this time,” replied the Astronomer.
“Do we have any idea how many ships there are?”
“We do not. We’ll know more in the next two months when they come close enough to get accurate visuals.”
“Can we ask the Collectors?” grimly chuckled the Mission Commander.
“We tried, they’re not replying to our e-mails,” deadpanned the Astronomer.
“Thank you,” nodded the Chief of Intelligence, making it obvious that this was the end of the meeting for those with only a TS/SIGINT clearance.
The Astronomer nodded and left along with several other staffers. The door to the room clinked and a light indicated that built-in countermeasures were enabled to prevent any unauthorized snooping.
Floating in orbit around a Neptune sized world orbiting a red dwarf was an immense asteroid. Or at least it looked just like one at first glance, but its top half was suspiciously level and filled with buildings that alternated designs from sharp, angular, and claw-like, to fluid tear and dome shaped ones. In a way they looked as if they were grown out of the rock and this was in part true. The Collectors printed their buildings with advanced machinery which manipulated the raw materials on a molecular level and instantly extracted the ore they needed. One would think that with technology like that, there would be no need for anyone to pay tribute to them with something they’d be able to extract themselves far more efficiently. And one would be correct. But that was not the point of the payment by the Miners.
In a darkened chamber on the massive asteroid city, a panoramic window displayed the beautiful view from orbit, including the auroras dancing on the cloud tops of massive, surging storms below. A pitch black holographic window with a moving digital scope unfolded out of thing air and a voice spoke to the sole occupant awoken by the call and not necessarily thrilled about the interruption.
“We have an update on the Ar’seg situation. They suddenly withdrew their ambassador and cut off communication.”
“Another temper tantrum,” groaned the Collector. “What do they want this time so we can tell them they’re not getting it?”
“That’s the problem sir, they made no demands this time.”
“Strange, there’s usually an ultimatum or a list of complaints.”
“Correct sir, but they’re sending a fleet to a mining world instead.”
“Should we care? I have half a mind to let the robots handle it.”
“It’s Theta Lambda 63-GX sir.”
After a long, tense pause the Collector softly uttered only a single word that would surely be lost in translation, but the way it was said left absolutely no doubt that it was probably aimed at somethings’ parent and heavily implied very unpleasant and probably nonconsensual mating with it.
Over the five months, the news was rather mixed for the humans. The fleet on its way to their planet was enormous, numbering at least 38,000 heavily armed ships, 5,000 supply craft, and who knows what else hidden inside of them. But as the fleet approached, regular handoffs to the Collectors still took place on time and without incident. Maybe the robots for both species were doing what they were supposed to and when their masters arrived, a swift and violent negotiation would happen. But who knows, maybe it was nothing more than a show of strength. Just Miners showing they’re capable of some force projection of their own and the Collectors taking notice. With a lack of access to what either side was saying, anything was possible.
It was late into the night as the Chief of Security sat in the cafeteria with a stiff drink. He was joined by the Chief of Intelligence who had one as well. They drank silently for a few minutes until the Chief of Intelligence broke the tense pause.
“Do you think we’re doing the right thing?” she asked.
“As sure as I can be,” replied her colleague. “They timed their arrival to the next exchange. We know they’re coming. The Collectors know too and they did nothing yet which means they either don’t care or they have a trick up their sleeves. Considering they’re watching the Miners, I don’t think we’re going to see them turn tail and run. Especially not if that theory about the arrangement is right.”
“Are you starting to think that it is?”
“What else could it be? The miners are paying a tax to be here. They seem to be interested in not paying anymore and they sent a fleet to make that exact statement. And either they’re really good at what they do and start a really long war, or they’re going to get their… well, whatever they’d have for asses handed to them.”
“You know that if we get this wrong, there’s nowhere for us to go, right? I’m really not comfortable not having a Plan B.”
“No one is,” grunted the Chief of Security finishing his drink. “We should get some sleep. The exchange is in two days. That’s all we have left and I don’t think we’ll be getting any rest until then.”
As he walked away, the Chief of Intelligence checked her smartphone. She opened a file in a hidden directory and studied its contents one more time. With a very deep breath, she moved the file to a network drive. The scan pinged, saying it detected nothing untoward. That was good. She‘d rather not use her administrative credentials, leaving any log entries. After a few minutes of watching the night sky, she left for her quarters. Her colleague was right. There wouldn’t be much sleep in her immediate future.
The scene for the tensest exchange was setting up more or less normally on the surface, but the Miners’ fleet was approaching rapidly. They were going to pounce as soon as whatever their machines had in mind happened. For now though, the same large pod filled with ore made its way towards the Collectors’ custom ships. It was captured in their tentacles as per usual, and the always bizarre shedding process began.
In the control room of the human outpost, all the top officials watched the situation unfold in real time, asking for constant status updates on the last minute preparations on their side. They were assured everything was going according to plan. Well, the humans’ plan that is.
“Five minutes before the Miners enter orbit!” called out a technician.
“Any word on the Collectors?” asked the Chief of Security.
“I have no idea,” replied one of the scientists. “We’ve never seen readings like this before, there may be a lot of interference from stellar sources.”
“Terrific…” sighed the Mission Commander.
In orbit, as the Miner pod’s surface finished pulsing in the tentacles of the Collector ship, it went off with a massive blast. Shards slammed into all of the craft around it, doing some serious damage to the ones closest to the explosion while igniting the transparent, red bubble shields of the slightly more distant ships. While they were still reeling, the Miner fleet surged into orbit around the planet, the massive, centipede-like craft with huge spikes in every direction assuming a defensive position.
In the outpost’s control room, one of the scientists dropped his tablet as he bolted from his chair.
“Whatever is coming,” he managed to say as his voice shook, “it’s going to be very, very bad.”
As everyone looked at the main screen, a Collector armada warped into view with something eldritch and horrifying at its core, protected by 50,000 sleek ships just like the ones accompanying the craft meant to capture the Miners’ pods. It looked as if six mountain sized claws captured a red star which was quaking under some sort of invisible strain. Its companions swiftly unlocked their hidden weapons. Missile silos and what looked like laser panels popped up from their smooth hulls and their curved bows peeled away to reveal the menacing cannons around which they seemed to be built. Their red auras lit up like hellfire as they readied for combat and selected their targets.
“We cannot let that thing hit us!” said one of the scientists, “if they fire it, we will be vaporized by the radiation, along with most of the atmosphere.”
“What?!” the Chief of Security sat with his mouth agape. “How?”
“We’re looking at the gamma ray emissions from that… whatever it is, and it looks like a gamma ray burst in spacecraft form. If they fire it at full power, anything living will be gone, forever.”
“Then let’s give them one less reason to fire it,” said the Chief of Security as he regained his composure. “Everyone ready?”
“Ready!” his colleagues affirmed, taking out special fobs out of their uniforms and plugging them into consoles in front of them.
“On three. One. Two…”
Above, the alien ships were moving into positions. The targeting computers beeped and locked on to hundreds of machines in range.
In unison, all the top officials turned their fobs. Hundreds of nuclear missiles roared to life and left their silos. As they did, the Chief of Security opened the network folder where she saved a file the night this plan was hatched. In the same directory was another file identified simply by an underscore. She changed its extension and ran it, hiding her smartphone immediately after the deed was done. Nothing happened so far, which was more disconcerting as the bombardment was about to hit its first targets.
In just a bit over a minute, the Miners’ mobile processing stations all turned into mushroom clouds. Seconds later so did most of their machines. Caught off guard, their fleet now turned towards the planet to face incoming waves of missiles. Using powerful lasers, they attempted to intercept but the design modifications secretly perfected over decades allowed the missiles to reflect enough energy to safely break apart and launch their cache of warheads. All the Miners’ direct hits did was spawn more nukes coming for them.
The humans’ warheads were just powerful enough to disable the ships they hit and let out enough radiation to interfere with the shields of thousands of Miners’ vessels. Wasting no time, the Collectors unleashed a wave of perfect black spheres stamped with red runes. As they approached enemy craft, the runes began to glow hotter and hotter, turning bright white and exploding into clouds of plasma that collapsed on themselves, turning any craft in the vicinity into something resembling pulled putty as it was sucked into what was an undeniable event horizon of a tiny black hole. Almost immediately, that tiny singularity would fizzle, sending out a blast of radioactive particles that hit many of the Miners’ warships, erasing them from existence.
The infuriated Miners began to drop ships towards the planet’s surface and the Collectors followed suit. Their sleek destroyers shot out small fighters, bombers, and large, spherical pods, giving them heavy cover with tsunamis of kinetic missiles that left a trail of glowing plasma behind them and fire from their massive electron lasers that easily sliced through enemy craft.
Beating out the Miners, the Collectors’ pods and fighters spiraled towards the human outpost. Inside, the officials were panicking as they discovered that their targeting systems suddenly started to completely ignore incoming Collector vessels. As the large pods started firing their retrorockets, their top sections raised themselves, revealing what seemed like a pair of red eyes, and their side sections unfolded into crude arms and hands.
One of the technicians was pressing the button to fire at one of these pods without use, getting more ad more frustrated with every click.
“Nothing, there’s nothing,” he yelled, slamming his fist on the panel. “We’re not seeing them as targets without a manual override.”
“What the fuck is going on?” growled the Mission Commander.
“It says…” the Chief of Security froze. “We were infected with a virus. From an account belonging to Intel.” He glared at the Chief of Intelligence with a mix of astonishment and horror.
“Why? Why did you do this? How could you?” he gasped.
“We wanted a Plan B,” she replied calmly. “Now we have one. Just watch.”
Suddenly, the targeting computers pinged and lit up. The Miners’ spider-like machines were swarming over the mountain pass towards them and every remote controlled weapon started automatically locking on to them as the Collectors’ bombers and fighters screamed overhead, dropping bombs that turned the incoming robots into supersonic shrapnel, and shot sleek Miner jets out of the sky.
After a moment’s hesitation, the Chief of Security ordered all troops, drones, and machinery to deploy. Automated sentries with long range guns began to pick off large incoming targets with massive shells, carefully avoiding any of the Collectors’ machines engaged in the same task.
As the humans soldiers, attack drones, tanks, and bombers joined the battle alongside the Collectors giant floating pods, strange robots that looked like black spheres with giant eyes with chrome tentacles, powerful walkers that shot massive kinetic slugs from their railguns, and lighting fast rovers, they were surprised to find themselves almost welcome. The machines fighting alongside them provided cover, sent requests for cover, and acted as if they were all part of one fighting force with the humans.
Missiles and laser fire from orbit carefully thinned out the hordes of large, metallic spiders sent by the Miners. They were being held at bay for now, but it was only a matter of time before they started getting through. More Collector pods carrying robotic troops soared overhead, coming in for hard landings in which they unfolded and started firing their cache of missiles and lasers while deploying their troops as quickly as possible.
From the satellite feed, they could see that the Collectors’ forces moved into their positions and were slowly squeezing parts of the Miner army into a few dense patches that would be taken out from orbit. Overhead, wreckage from the Miner fleet was burning up and exploding in the atmosphere. Several of the flagships were pushed from orbit and lost their engines to Collector fire, falling to the surface because they could no longer escape the planet’s pull.
They were burning up and breaking slow enough for large sections to come crashing down on the desert below, raising clouds of ash, sand, and shards of armor that were visible beyond the horizon, and shock waves felt by the human and Collector forces. By this point, the Miners were outgunned and outnumbered. With the fighting being done predominantly by machines, it seemed that by now, the Collectors were simply shooting until the robots in their sights stopped moving…
As the last of the Miners’ forces were destroyed and the remnants of their craft de-orbited to burn up in the atmosphere, the Collectors didn’t leave. Instead, their ships locked down their weapons and assumed stable orbits, sending out long range probes to scan for any surprises. Human satellites captured several sleek pods sent from the destroyers and lazily burning off their excess speed in large spirals around the human outpost. Their shields lit up as they descended through the densest layers of gas and disengaged as they leveled off and requested permission for landing on one of the humans’ runways. The system automatically cleared them and moved several drones out of the way, diverting one about to land.
While the pods wound down their engines, a squad of soldiers surrounded them, with the Chief of Security present and armed. They pointed all their guns at a hatch the edges of which flashed into existence. As it slid open to release a ramp, they double checked that their safety was off and whatever was coming out of that ship was going to get shot at least several hundred times before it hit the tarmac. But to their surprise, the aliens that casually strolled out of the pod looked disturbingly humanoid.
It’s not that they actually looked like humans, but they resembled jet black mannequins in dark military uniforms that accommodated several compact sidearms. Their eyes glowed with red irises, their lips were extremely thin, as if someone just drew a line where their mouths should be, and many of the finer features of a human face were just outright missing. What passed for their hair was crystalloid and spiky, forming hard, rigid shells around their skulls like built-in helmets. Jagged red marks resembling swooshes extended from their temples to their cheekbones.
Curiously, more than half of them were obviously women, and they walked in a loose but obvious formation around a cloaked and hooded humanoid figure towards the Chief of Security. The Chief, improvising his first contact protocol, kept his sidearm holstered and took several steps towards them.
The aliens stopped at a respectful distance and the cloaked figure removed its hood. This clearly high ranking Collector was a woman with the same basic features as the rest of her entourage whose piercing eyes and sly smile froze the Chief of Security in place. After a tense few moment, he signed for his troops to lower their weapons.
“We would say welcome to Theta Lambda 63-GX,” the Collector said in clear oddly accented English, “but we understand you’re been here for some time now and made yourselves at home.”
She extended her hand for a handshake. The Chief accepted her invitation, taking note that instead of fingers, she had finger-sized, flexible claws.
A thousand light years away from Theta Lambda 63-GX, an alien species the humans knew as Miners was having a very, very bad day. It all started with a small glider that somehow pierced their defenses and was now flying at its leisure across their enormous capital city. Attempts to shoot it down simply didn’t work as it accelerated out of the way of almost anything and even had a good sense when a laser was about to fire. As their forces scrambled to get in the air and give chase, the sleek, small, winged flyers were hit with laser and missile fire from a large force of Collectors’ fighters and bombers.
Confused and terrified, the Miners tried to launch heavier and bigger forces to defend themselves, but their attempts were interrupted by spikes made of dark metal smashing into their cities from space at relativistic velocity. The impacts were far greater than of any weapon of mass destruction they had, raising enormous mushroom clouds. Less than a minute later, red, blue, and green auroras began to dance high in their atmosphere from the tsunami of bombs that created micro black holes, annihilating their orbital defenses. A shower of lasers and missiles from orbit then followed as a fleet of 250,000 warships warped out of what appeared to be empty space.
The bombers and fighters suddenly broke away from their engagements with remaining Miner craft and shot upwards where they were scooped up from a low orbit as the fleet tried to make room for another artificial star powered ship. Its massive claws retracted and the small red star began to quake and pulse violently. The Collector armada still in orbit quickly parted to give this sinister weapon a clean shot.
As the star gave off a massive burst of raw energy, powerful magnetic fields channeled it into a cohesive beam through the enormous claws. The beam hit the planet below with devastating results, setting the atmosphere on fire and irradiating everything on the surface and below. This gamma ray burst took only a minute to permanently end billions of years of evolution and millions of years of intelligent life, and as it warped out with the rest of the Collector fleet, it left behind a barren, poisonous rock where a thriving jungle world once spun. Only a few Miner ships managed to escape, although it’s not that the Collectors tried to stop them.
Their species would soon be extinct. After years of travel, they would reach fellow Miners on another world, but there were not enough for a stable and healthy population to keep thriving. They could never return to their cities, now reduced to ruins and almost glowing with radiation. To all of the other species dealing with the Collectors, this was a message, and they will hear it loud and clear when they detect the demise of this planet.