When Ace’s destroyer entered an alien solar system thousands of light years away, it flew by a Hot Jupiter, a massive gas giant so close to its star that its orbital period was measured in days. The side of the gas giant turned to the sun was a magnificent vision of hell. It was as if the center of the planet’s sun burnt face was exploding from within; fountains of vaporized nickel sent constant shockwaves that churned enormous, dark clouds of superheated silica.
The small, blue sun perturbed by the gas giant’s gravity shot out spectacular plumes of plasma for millions of miles into space. Some of the giant plumes licked the planet with their fiery tongues, leaving unfathomably hot vapor trails along the parted clouds. On these long, hot vapor trails, blue and white auroras danced with breathtaking fluidity.
Wrapped around the solar system was a thick cloud of bluish dust left over from the giant nebula from which this star and its numerous siblings developed eons ago. From deep within the dust cloud, white, yellow and blue points of light gently shone.
“Oh wow…” gasped Christine as she looked at this stunning and alien view on the destroyer’s holographic wall. “I’d kill to see that with my own eyes and not go blind.”
“I know there are lots of systems like this,” reflected Steve, “but I never thought they looked quite like that.”
“Eh… You get used to it,” shrugged Ace.
“How would you ever get used to seeing that?”
“It’s like a sunset. You tend to stop and admire it at random. If you look at this every day for so long and with that much excitement, kind of wears off.”
Steve sighed, eyeing the beautiful and serene image for the last time as the destroyer spun around and headed to a rocky, barren moon of a bluish gas giant in a much farther orbit. Buzzing around this moon was a huge swarm of destroyers, orbital factories, and GRBGs, the terrifying ships referred to as planet killers. They were monstrous craft capable of generating bursts of energy potent enough to decimate a small world. The power of these planet killers came from a tiny, artificial star encircled by six powerful, claw-like engines that could generate a massive gamma ray burst on command.
As big as a mountain, jet black with a hellish red aura around it, shining with the light of a churning red star the size of a city which produced untold petawatts of energy per second, a planet killer was a terrifying sight. Any species that stared down the barrel of this hyper-weapon knew that the end was near and there was very little they could do to stop it. Sitting on the bridge of Ace’s destroyer, Christine and Steve couldn’t make up their minds as to whether they were very happy that the Nation had planet killers to help them kill the Rexx or whether it was a demonstration of what could be in an orbit around Earth if the humans ever decided to move against the cyborgs.
Ace carefully examined the output and diagnostic data from the planet killers. He smiled, leaned back and snapped his fingers with a strange, metallic click.
“Looks like everything is up to speed,” he said.
“So where are we going first?” asked Christine.
“We are going to have some dinner, of course,” replied Ace. “It’ll take a little while to resupply the fleets. Food, fuel, ammo, tune-ups, check-ups… Machine work basically.”
“Are they coming back from other skirmishes?” asked Christine.
“No,” replied Dot. “Patrol missions, exploration, things like that. You never know when you run across some homicidal alien race out there in deep space.”
“… and so Dot shoots them first and asks questions later,” added Ace with a wink. “If there’s anyone left to answer them. The itchiest trigger finger in the whole armada, I swear.”
Dot gave Ace a token glare and scowl. Ace looked at Steve and Christine, pointing to Dot with fake caution.
“What can I say, she’s dangerous,” he shrugged.
Finally, for the first time since they stepped on board, Steve and Christine started smiling. Steve waved a finger in the air and stepped between Ace and Dot.
“If you need a referee…” he offered.
“Don’t worry Steve, I can handle him,” replied Dot. “He thinks he’s all that with his poisonous fangs and sharp claws and so on and so forth. But we all know that all I really need to do to make him howl is sleep in another ship.”
Christine laughed. Steve frowned. Ace sunk.
“A thousand years and they still have all the power,” sighed Ace. “You say one little thing wrong and you’re screwed.”
“Not screwed,” corrected Dot.
“Right,” winced Ace. “Bad choice of words.”
Steve was about to open his mouth when Christine cut him off.
“Steve, no male solidarity in a co-ed team,” she warned.
Steve closed his mouth and sat down in his chair, muttering and shaking his head. He sighed. “I’m not going to win so I’m not even going to start.”
“Ok everybody good cliché fight, now who’s hungry?” asked Ace after a short pause.
“I am,” replied Dot.
“We are,” seconded Christine.
“Well let’s land on that moon and see what nice things from Earth Nelson negotiated for us…” said Ace entering a command with the keyboard on his arm rest.
The Nation’s destroyers were far too big and heavy to land on any planet or moon. Built entirely in space and equipped with engines only able to propel them well outside of a dense atmosphere, they were generally left circling in orbits with SERVs, while its pilots would take small, sleek transport pods to the worlds below them. Leaving their massive craft circling the moon, in the hangar of an orbiting space city, Ace, Dot, and their human guests descended to a spaceport below and gently touched down on a runway on the outskirts of a small, glowing city. Helpful robots steered it into a vast hangar lined with dozens and dozens of identical military transports.
As they ventured outside the hangar, Christine and Steve took a look at the sky. Looming in the heavens was a stormy, blue gas giant with thin, icy rings. The Nation’s fleet was virtually invisible. Only a few red lights created by the planet killers were noticeable. The dust cloud around the solar system projected a ghostly web of dark blue wisps between the stars.
A few minutes later, they were darting across the barren surface of the moon in another small, flying craft, this one designed solely to fly the cyborgs between different outposts on the same world. It skillfully avoided the jagged rocks protruding from the surface at random as it headed for the glowing city. Just like the space city that was in orbit around Earth, this base was composed of bizarre buildings that seemed to be growing out of the moon’s desolate rocks in wild shapes.
The buildings, as Ace explained, looked like they were growing out of the landscape because they were actually grown, put together from materials found in the rocks and fused molecule by molecule by an army of nanobots. A fully completed city could be grown in just a few weeks. It was the most efficient way to build anything in space because hauling around raw materials for construction wasted a lot of time and energy.
Arriving into the glowing, buzzing city, the pod lined itself up with a magnetic road, and headed towards a dome with windows that provided a panoramic view of the starry sky and the immense gas giant. It landed in a parking lot just outside of the building. From this parking spot they could see that inside, the dome was buzzing with activity.
“Is that some kind of a restaurant?” asked Christine.
“Sure is,” replied Dot.
“Best place to eat in the Cygnus Arm of the galaxy,” winked Ace. He thought for a second and added, “Actually, it’s the only place to eat in the Cygnus Arm of the galaxy. But trust me, it’s good.”
Steve and Christine unsurely exited the pod. Unlike the bridge of the destroyer and the runway outside, the gravity in the city was just right for them. The reactors that powered the city channeled a stream of gravitons throughout the outpost’s power lines, creating a stable gravitational field. When they entered the dome with Ace and Dot, they unwittingly witnessed a very rare event.
Dozens of Children and a few Shadow Demons like Ace enjoyed something they weren’t able to enjoy for over a thousand years. They were eating fresh food grown on Earth and flown in within 72 hours by a special refrigerated transport.
In his dark chamber, the Reaper was looking at an ancient object covered by a thick greenish-brown patina. It was a small cube lined with hieroglyphs, switches, dials and oddly shaped gears. The cube quietly whirred faster and faster as it counted down to something. Finally, it clicked and the hieroglyphs across its surface flashed with a green aura. All of the switches, dials and gears aligned in the same direction and stopped. The entire cube pulsed with a faint radiance until the bizarre mechanisms restarted themselves and the device returned to its normal operation.
The Reaper sighed. His clock just counted exactly 1,117,656 years in human terms since the day the Dark Gods took over as the rulers of the galaxy. He still remembered the City of Ghosts, the citadel of their predecessors and how a shape shifting alien ran from spire to spire and weaved through grand temples to avoid the spiny, amorphous drones of the giant killer worms.
It had been protecting a primeval relic left behind for future species to discover when the time was right. Because of where this relic was placed within the City, the drones of the Dark Gods marching through the ancient citadel inevitably found it and its guardian. After the first few moments of the encounter everything happened so fast. Instincts kicked in. Blood, limbs and broken implants sprayed across the streets. Surprise. Fear. Panic. The tall, jagged spires and dark, abandoned chambers streaking by in the twilight.
The agile shape shifter strangled or impaled its pursuers. It was strong. Wrapping itself around its targets, it cracked armor and crushed vital organs. When it drove its spines deep into a writhing victim, it pierced flesh and synthetics with equal ease. The drones fired their pulse weapons and laser beams with wild abandon, but couldn’t impart more than a superficial scratch on the shape shifter. It skillfully leaped from spire to spire in a fluid curve. But eventually, the determined drones corralled the escaping alien.
With the drones flexing their spines and circling around the shape shifter, the trapped alien changed into its most fearsome forms, unveiling its fangs, claws and razor sharp spikes. It opened its mouth wide enough so swallow three of its opponents at once. It growled and mock charged the drones but they continued their slow, ominous march. As they aligned for the kill, preparing to rush the shape shifter until they could finally tear it to shreds, a thunderous low pitched bellow from the depths of The City immediately halted them.
It was like no sound the shape shifter had ever heard before. The bellow was short, fierce and demanding. Unlike a simple vocalization of an enormous beast, it was a word. Stop. A Dark God commanded its drones to back down and wait. The drones, obeying their master fell back though they still faced the shape shifter with their weapons and spines at the ready.
Heavy footsteps that sent ominous tremors through the ground drew closer and closer. A sleek, giant shape drifted in the gloom of the City. Two monstrous red eyes came into focus as the shape shifter assumed a defensive stance. One of the galaxy’s new overlords towered overhead. But it wasn’t here to finish off the alien. It wanted to ask a few questions. It wanted to know about the Cube. The giant monster was a lot smarter than the last Sentry thought…