Amidst a pile of boots sits a sulking young Korv, brush in hand and polish nearby, wearing an avian-altered academy uniform. He scrubs none too dutifully at a boot, muttering under his breath. Another cadet, this one a gangly brown and tan speckled Vartan, sits across from the Korv, his head propped on one raised knee in an awkward looking position, as though he hasn't grown into his limbs yet.
"You can't just mouth off to the commandant like that, Kensington," sighs the Vartan. His voice holds some sympathy, even if the harsh sounding syllables of the Bosch language don't seem to.
The Korv mutters to himself, then rasps, "He didn't have to come down on me like that. I studied Scimitar formation like he said to. Isn't my fault he went with Dagger and changed the flight plan."
The Vartan winces a bit. "Actually… uh… it is your fault. You're supposed to read the chalkboard an hour before the maneuver drills."
Kensington clacks his beak sharply. "I still say he stuck me as pommel in the formation just to spite me! He hates me, I tell you. The only reason he's commandant of our cadet squadron is because his beak-in-the-air poppa has enough weight in the Luftrittern to-… "
"Warrick! Why are you hanging around with the shoe-shine boy?" The call comes from down the hall, and the Vartan winces as the Korv visibly tenses up to some laughter that follows. A Kujaku, Eeee, and another Korv saunter down the hall. They're dressed much the same, except for the Kujaku, who has some extra insignia on his uniform. His companions are doing the laughing while the Kujaku who spoke simply grins.
"Uh… Gerald, now's really not the time to " begins the Vartan, but the Kujaku interrupts again.
"Airman First Class to you, Warrick. Don't worry, I won't give you a demerit for that. I wouldn't want to see your feathers turn black with them, like Kensington's did!" Gerald's companions laugh at this (the Korv slightly less than the Eeee). "How many are you up to now, Kenny? Have you broken a hundred yet?"
The Korv amongst the boots just grumbles, and Warrick shifts uncomfortably. "Leave him alone, Gerald. The commandant punished him enough."
The airman first class laughs, and claps the Vartan on the shoulder. "Forget the bastard St. Germain! We're going into town for some fun. Come with us!"
At that, Kensington stands up to glare at Gerald. "What'd you call me?!"
"It means 'illegitimately born', Airman Third Class," replies Gerald, smirking.
Kensington throws the boot to the floor, and points at Gerald, his neck-feathers puffing out angrily. "Take that back!"
"Why should he? It's true, isn't it?" chimes in the Eeee.
His Korv friend nods, and stage-whispers to his comrade, "I bet he's got some non-flier in him."
"Heh, heh, no kidding?"
"Where's your Jupani tail, Kensington? Have you got Khatta ears under your crest?"
Kensington's beak opens and closes several times angrily, and he snatches a wooden training sword from the trunk at the end of his bunk. "Take it back, Gerald, or I'll beat an apology out of you!"
The Kujaku laughs again. "You and what squadron? Gergesene's not around to protect you, 'little cousin'."
The other Korv makes goo-goo eyes while the Eeee goes, "Awww… lil' cousin's mad."
Warrick, having stood, shifts uneasily from foot to foot. "Don't do it, Kensington. You don't have good standing in the academy as it is. Just ignore him."
"I should say not," agrees the Kujaku. "It'll look even worse if I assign him stable mucking for the next week. I can do that, you know! Would you like to hang around with the drokkar while we go to town, Kensi-" *Whack!*
The sound of the impact, however, becomes a booming explosion … as the scene abruptly changes. Kensington is no longer … Kensington. He has fur. He has a muzzle, and a cold wet nose. He is surrounded not by the trappings of the academy, but by the forests of Himar. He is gazing at the sky, seeing an airship that has just dropped a black dot. It explodes. The sky breaks like glass.
Kensington's thoughts feel distant… like dim echoes, or a subconscious memory of this Jupani. He shades his eyes to look at the sky, crouching slightly and nearly dropping his fistful of game birds in shock at the explosion in the sky. He glances around hurriedly, and with long strides of strong legs (The Korv memory seems to consider it strange that the knees bend forward like this) he bounds for some cover under the trees.
The sky flashes from a clear sky to a swirling vortex of light to an empty void to a clear sky again … only the trees in front of the Jupani suddenly are replaced with a solid red rock wall! He stops just in time to avoid smashing his nose against it. Half of a tree falls away from the newly-formed cliff, and several others follow it, narrowly missing the lupine.
Kensington throws his thick, furry arms over his head with a yelp, this time actually dropping his catch. Scrambling back from the cliff and the suddenly halved trees, he manages to keep a grip on his bow, and runs in the opposite direction. Without thinking, Kensington lolls his tongue as he bolts, fear and adrenaline spurring him to exert himself as much as he can.
The whole clearing is surrounded by sheer stone walls. The light has grown dim now … the only hint of the sun being a point of brightness at the top of this red pit. It looks so … hopeless.
A soft whine developes in the Jupani's throat at this sudden, supernatural-seeming strangeness. The reflex belies a resolve to survive, and Kensington casts about for a tall enough tree to use in an attempt to see as much of the cliffs as he can.
A whole tree yet remains, and the limber Jupani is able to skillfully make his way up … and up … and up … and somehow, he has reached the top of the cliffs! Only he is no longer a Jupani …
Kensington is now a digitigrade feline adorned in armor and robes, suspended inside a plasteel (somehow, he knows what this is) control cage. The controls of the huge walking battlesuit the Titan are strapped around his limbs, echoing his physical movements. Through static-filled viewscreens, operating with technology he or his people have never understood for generations, he can see the red desert stretching out before him … red … save for some green ahead. A vast pit that opens up in the rocky earth, with … trees! Yes, TREES down below! It's as if a great Life Dome, larger than any other, has burst out of the ground, without need of a containing shelter. His Titan's footsteps kick up dust and sand as he moves, in pursuit of the treacherous confederates who ambushed his convoy, raiding it for supplies. They will pay dearly, and not even their wings will allow them to escape. The pit cannot protect them, for this Titan contains fabulous technology.
The echo of a Korv skips across Kensington's mind again, like the fitful flickers of light the readout monitors colour his feline face with. Invisible Life-Dome technology or not, the Confederates won't have a use for it as smoking scrap. The pilot's understanding of the metal behemoth at his disposal lies only along what experience he has with it … but he doesn't need an understanding of its systems to make it work. Willing his steed into action, he follows the trail, the green glow of his HUD appearing as a soft series of chimes and images of light that resemble hands convey the message of, "Targetting systems engaged. Sensor range scale x2.5."
The flight group of Vartans heads over the border of the pit unimpeded by any invisible walls. Of course, they could have simply gone into a well-disguised opening. There are no readings from the sensors on any walls, though. In fact, there are no readings on anything inside the pit. It's just a great big nothing, according to the sensors. A new type of jamming device, perhaps? In any case, the Vartans are attired differently than most Confederates. The lead Vartan is black, incidentally. Kensington didn't know they came in that color before.
"It must be a feather dye… some new way of designating their 'ace'." The spotted feline clenches his fist, and servos whirr as the metal monster grips its sword more tightly than necessary. The targetting reticle changes as a long, smooth cannon over one of the beast's shoulders locks into place. A short whirr signals the boosters charging, and they suddenly roar to life, the warrior directing them to carry him into the pit after his foes.
A few "dummy" lights come on, probably a side-effect of the sudden burst of increased activity. Nothing unusual. The Titan charges forward, ready to do battle with the enemy … and then … as its foot crosses the threshhold and the boosters engage … warning lights start lighting up all across the control panels! Then, they start sputtering and shutting off! Everything shuts off! Even the viewscreen! Blackness. The control cage freezes, holding the pilot, unable to move. All he can feel is his stomach leaving him somewhere above as the booster rockets can be heard sputtering … and dying.
Panic grips Kensington. This is impossible! Total systems failure, all at once? Impossible! He squeezes his eyes shut hopelessly, waiting for the impact. Impossible…
"Impossssible," Kensington hisses, as he stands on the observation deck of the Crystal Coil, a magnificent Imperial cruiser. Before him, through a transplastic portal, he can see the cloudy blue orb of Sinai, with a glittering ring encompassing it. "The humansss are known for making far too many redundant sssyssstems. I refussse to believe it isss a malfunction. It is more probably a russse on their part. They mussst have found sssomething… "
A garter aid looks up to his superior, a King Cobra Naga. "Your exssscellencssy, the humansss are not to be trusssted … but I do not think thisss isss a russse."
Kensington's hood spreads in agitation, the spectacles on the back of his neck glaring sightlessly at a point on the ceiling. He touches a hand to his forehead in brief disorientation as dim notions of a black bird disrupt his train of thought momentarily. What was the matter at hand, again? Oh, yes…
The aide says, "Sssensssorsss indicate a complete sssyssstemsss failure on mossst of the landing vesssselsss. We have been tracking the humansss, but they have disssappeared. I ssshould note … if thisss isss all true … we have no Gate-capable ssship left in the essscort. And no way to transssmit back to the Imperial Ssseat. We're … " The garter gulps, looking as if he has decided that it best not to continue along this line of thought.
Ire and disdain well up in Kensington, though he can't explain it to himself. "Then we ssshall have to remain, and record whatever we can on these anomalousss phenomena. Russse it may be, but I cannot fathom a reassson. If we have been betrayed, the recordsss on the beacon we hide will allow usss our vengeance. The effect ssseemsss localized to the planet… If the effect isss indeed an unknown weapon, it may sssuffer from a short, ground-basssed range. We will remain in orbit. Arm weaponsss and defense ssssystems. High alert; maintain ssscansss of the sssurrounding area. Attempt to re-essstablish communications with the landing teamsss, or pinpoint their locationsss."
"Asss you wisssh, commander!" the garter hisses, then ducks his head in a bow, and hurriedly skitters away out of the chamber. A terminal lights up, with an incoming message on the display, encrypted for the commander's eyes only.
The cobra slithers to the monitor. Raising an eye-ridge, he taps the 'receive' key, hoping for some good news in the midst of all the chaos.
The message de-encrypts, revealing readouts of planets that aren't Sinai. They're of other worlds in the Primus system, named by the coalition sent to explore this world. In particular, the readouts show Abaddon, Ashtoreth and Arcadia. "Breathable atmosphere found. Signs of plant life and water. No sensor irregularities like those found on Sinai."
The commander's hood eases slightly. "Better newsss than before, cssertainly." He ponders a moment, and comes to a decision. "We're currently powerlessss to do anything about the landing on thisss planet, Bridge. Helm, I'm loading three planetary coordinatesss from a readout into the nav computer." Turning from the terminal, the commander raises himself to as great a height as he can, and begins relaying orders rapid fire. "Bring usss about, on a courssse to pass within sssensssor range of each. Any remaining landing crewsss are to essstablish our outpossst on the mossst viable planet. I want whatever kind of lissstening post we can manage trained on Sinai, and I want usss dug in. We mussst be prepared for the duration."
"But there is no need to wait that long," scrawks a Korv next to Kensington, who is now an elderly Vartan. "There is no better time than the present to test the capabilities of the Progenitor."
Before Kensington is a gargantuan insect-like creature. Its brain is visible through the back of its bulbous head, and it pulsates subtly, about the size of a couple of ripe kyootcumbers.
Kensington scratches a patch of fuzzy feathers near his throat, streaks of gray leading around it and his hooked beak. He looks at the Korv … an unusually long look. Just as the stare becomes borderline questionable, he speaks. "The scientific process cannot be rushed, particularly with a project of this importance, this potential magnitude. A mistake could not only be catastrophic to the experiment; it could be downright dangerous. Possibly to everyone involved. If we don't know every possibility, we can't take every precaution."
"That's your problem, Doctor Shreega," says the Eeee across the room. He moves forward into the light. His body is a patchwork of prosthetics and implants, in a losing battle against the alien wasting disease that has afflicted him since his encounter with one of the Abaddonian native life-forms. "And I think you have hindered our progress considerably. We do need your intellect. But I think we can put it to better use now." He snaps his fingers. "Guards! If you would, please."
A couple of large and quite formidable Vartan guards move to pin in the elderly Kensington.
"Consider it an honor," scrawks the Korv. "You'll achieve immortality. And you'll be the FIRST to join the Progenitor's brainpool."
Kensington grunts as he's restrained, trying to flap his wings. He shoots a look of shock, anger, and dismay at the Korv and the Overseer. "What … what's the meaning of this?! You can't do this! If not for the sake of your souls, then for the sake of your lives, you mustn't toy recklessly with… !"
Kensington is strapped into the lap of an upright-sitting bug that serves as a throne. The living chair closes its pincers around the Vartan, holding him tight … as a long tongue with a barbed tip descends toward his unprotected skull.
And then tendrils lash out at him, from the wound he struck with his consecrated blade in the leathery hide of the gargantuan brain of the Progenitor large enough to fill the better part of the room. The priests laugh at him and athis valiant but vain attempt to bring an end once and for all to the reign of the Overseer. How could he have known that this monster could survive such a blow? His sword barely caused a flesh wound, compared to the sheer mass of this monster! And now, the tendrils find openings in his armor, invading his body …
… and his body squirms helplessly. His wings, those of an infant Eeee, are not fully developed. He is unable to do anything except cry. And cry he does. Here are big faces. They look familiar. They are important.
Strong hands carry him. Strong arms that hold him when it is time to feed. He is hungry. But nobody is feeding him. The bright lights and loud noises scare him. The cold hard surface he is laid on scares him, too. And then the big shiny hard creature that gathers him up and starts to eat him … the tendrils … invading his nostrils, his mouth, his eyes …
And then Kensington is a Korv. He's a pirate Korv buried in a pool of red goop, and he has countless stringy tendrils invading every orifice of his body, and a buzzing sensation going through his head!
Furthermore, he's in excruciating pain, and struggling for breath.
Kensington begins thrashing, and gags, attempting to vomit up the tendrils and struggling in a direction any direction for air. His muscles spasm and twitch with the agony, but even if he could scream, his instincts won't let him for fear of filling his lungs.
Somehow, the Korv breaks through the surface, finding himself half-submerged in the mess that was once a large part of the Progenitor. Vein-like tendrils swim around in the goop, and enwrap submerged prey, apparently not being picky about such things. The Progenitor's own fallen guards and priests are among the victims. The tentacles pull down on the Korv, though they haven't the strength to withstand him if he gives his all. The chamber is a wreck, with bits of goop still sliding down the walls. It can't have been more than a few seconds since the explosion happened. What WAS that, anyway? Wynona's ears can be seen above the goo, enwrapped in tendrils. A big black Vartan is lying entangled in the remnants of one of the Huskers. He, likewise, is wrapped up in the stringy things.
The tendrils going down the Korv's throat snap at the tension, though he can feel others trying to move for his beak to regain their hold.
More of the tendrils wrap around Zoltan, and start pulling him inward toward the weakly pulsating remnants of the Progenitor's brain-mass.
Gasping in air, the corsair releases it again in a harsh, slightly crazed war cry as he grasps for the sabre he left lying in the bloody sludge. He rends himself free of the grasping tendrils, his muscles twitching again at the pain, and with vicious swings he begins attempting to hew his way toward the Vartan. "Zoltan, wake up! Wynona!! Wynona, where are ye?!"
The tendrils reluctantly rip free. Others try to creep toward the Korv, but they are nowhere as fast as he. Before the Korv is the entangled body of Zoltan. More of the tendrils are enwrapping him since, after all, he was the closest to the brain-thing. The probes are coming from the remains of the monster. Even some of the chunks scattered about the room are slowly being dragged back to the Progenitor's chitinous skull by the snaking tendrils.
Kensington slashes at the monstrous worm-like horrors binding Zoltan, slicing at any of the marauding brain-fingers that seem to be drawing at the Vartan. He keeps shouting, almost without thinking. "Zoltan, wake up! Wake UP!"
The sliced brain-fingers wriggle in protest, some of them slipping away and falling into the goo. More try to replace them, but not as quickly as the Korv can tear them asunder.
With a snarl, the Korv begins working his way toward the source. His other blade joins the first now, held in his off wing-claw, slicing and chopping his way toward the remaining mass of the shattered brain being, loathing twisting his face.