GW3 Chapter 1

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one

The sense of relief was palpable in the command room. It was evident in the sensor-operator's tone, largely because she felt somewhat responsible for the previous tension.

Not that she had done anything wrong, but rather had just done her assigned task. When the vessel had left the main traffic corridor 6 Parsecs away, she noted it in the security log mostly out of boredom. When the ship's course altered again to bring it within their sector, she was obliged to mention it to the watch commander. Everyone muttered echoes of her words when she reported that the vessel had veered sharply once it rounded the pulsar to head directly towards their secret location. The grim tension increased rapidly when the captain arrived on the deck, and requested an estimate on the vessel's mass and speed based on the remote observations from the arrays hidden on the far side of the pulsar that hid their celestial neighbourhood from the rest of the galaxy.

If it was indeed a Confederation craft, it was a frigate. This slowed the tension a little, because a frigate was no immediate threat. Yet the frigate's very presence was a sign of their possible discovery, which was the gnawing nightmare of all crew on the secret military installation. The station secreted inside the stray, star-less asteroid floating through almost-empty void pumped power to its massive turrets in preparation for possible hostilities. Ray-straight the vessel roared at the base, then dropped out of hyperspace a scant million kilometers away. Sickening seconds ticked away before light from the intruding vessel could reach the base's passive sensors - showing it to be indeed a Confederation assault frigate.

Then, on the heels of the first sensor readings came the coded E/M signal with the correct password. The sensor operator's tone when she confirmed the encryption and the password to the captain conveyed the same quality of release as the many sighs around the deck.

The human captain's expression went from pasty directly to flushed. "What the BLAZES are they doing here NOW?"

The chork and the yark turret gunners exchanged silent expressions of knowing bemusement: no matter how cranky this visit made the captain, it was infinitely better than being discovered by the rest of the Confederation.

two

The captain's honour guard formed up quietly into two ranks, each flanking one side of the entrance corridor. Their armour glinted dully in the harsh lighting of the metal-skinned hallway, and their blast-rifles were held stiffly at attention. The captain normally dispensed with such pomp, but this unexpected visit made him wish to impress upon these "surprise guests" exactly who was in command here. He eyed the guards with satisfaction, then glanced up at his security commander.

The juntoid security commander inclined his head towards his captain and grunted, "3 humans, 2 chorks, and a 'luruk... any moment now."

The captain returned the grunt, and impatiently levelled his gaze at the heavy inner-lock doors plugging the far end of the chamber. After a moment, the indicator lamp above the door went from steady green to flashing red, and the airlock cycled the doors open by folding them neatly into recesses in the side walls.

Expecting an impromptu inspection from a high-ranking customer, the captain was somewhat startled to see that none of the beings wore uniforms or insignia of any kind. Then he winced to himself, "spooks" - and tried to imagine what a troupe of "intelligence" operatives re-asking old questions would do to his schedule.

"What is the status of the project?"

The captain blinked with more surprise, and openly glared at the un-ranked human that had asked the question before approaching near enough for civilized tones. The clean-cut freshly-minted-looking human strode at the front of the approaching group, and his lack of even ornamental pistols conveyed a sense of hauteur that only an ignorant civilian could possess. Smouldering, the captain waited for the human to draw nearer, and noted with some pleasure that all twenty of his honour guard had their cold attention fixed on him - and hoped he felt suitably uneasy for his arrogance.

"As I clearly outlined in my last report-" began the captain in an almost-patient drone.

"We're aware of your projected schedule, captain." The leading human did not even pause as he walked past the captain and cut him off. "We need to know the status of the project AT THIS MOMENT." With the human continuing down the corridor, the captain blinked again in an attempt to contain his composure and followed with a not-entirely-relaxed stride abreast of the other visitors.

Caught momentarily off guard, the juntoid security commander muttered a glottal curse in his mother tongue and hastily gesticulated sign-commands for the honour guard to form up to follow the exiting party. These visitors struck a dissonant chord in the juntoid's seasoned situational awareness. Other than the garish and slightly flamboyant lead human, the rest were of an imposing countenance: sporting old scars, wearing clothing that could conceal considerable weaponry and equipment, and moved with the balanced ease of confident combatants.

What was that? A muted echo of a metallic click... maybe - from an empty corner of the entrance corridor, near the recessed airlock doors? SOMETHING was making the juntoid's neck-hairs tingle and stand on end.

"Is everything all right, commander?"

It took all of the juntoid's willpower to suppress the flinch. Instead of plowing past him with the rest of his companions, the gra-luruk had paused quietly beside him and stood there without him noticing. That was worrisome by itself; a 3-meter-tall 1-tonne monster should not be so easily missed. Even the large, powerful juntoid felt dwarfed by the 'luruk's presence... and it was more than just a physical sensation.

Summoning his calm, the juntoid grunted, "Nothing is wrong, sir." He nodded in the direction the others had taken. "Let's follow the rest of the group."

The 'luruk seemed satisfied, and turned away with a disturbingly grim purposefulness. As it moved away from him down the corridor, the juntoid security commander's instincts flared non-specific warnings, and he followed after touching the butt of his blaster for reassurance.

three

The captain stopped by the entrance to the main conference room, and was pleased with how the doors automatically surged open at his presence. He was curious to see what positions these visitors would take in the opulently appointed room, as it would tell him much about how they regarded themselves. He particularly looked forward to taking the inconspicuous seat in the corner, and watching their expressions when the floor altered itself so that he ended up being on a raised dais with implied dominance over the whole room.

Disappointment churned in the captains gut as the troupe led by the brash human continued past the entrance without pausing. He cleared his throat, "THIS is the conference room... gentlebeings." The honour guard broke march cadence as the captain's uncertainty made unclear what they should do next - form up on the captain or follow the visitors?

"We are going to the command deck. We want to SEE the current status immediately."

"That's unnecessary, all the information that you require will be made available in the conference room, and it's more... comfortable."

The group of visitors were utterly uninterested in his suggestion, and not one of them faltered in their pace. Without turning back, the lead human raised a hand in a beckoning gesture and commanded, "Come with us, Sir."

The juntoid security commander tapped a message to the command deck security personnel, warning them not to be caught off-guard by the unexpected company, at the same time gesturing for the honour guard to follow the visitors. He hurried towards the captain without running, willing him to be more observant, and once again regretting how soft the captain had become - how, undisciplined.

The captain had started walking slowly, petulantly after the visitors when the juntoid drew up beside him. "Sir, I have a bad feeling about this."

The captain grunted acknowledgement, blinked several times in rapid succession, and the security commander could see that he was still transfixed by the mouthy human that was now about to enter his command deck. Without touching him, the juntoid tried with body language to urge his human captain to speed up his pace. Something was definitely wrong, and he felt it was going to become apparent on the command deck. "Sir, that gra-luruk is... troubling." The juntoid wanted to rub his blunt 4-fingered hand over the hairs that were bristing on the nape of his short neck; a nervous habit he hadn't felt since he was an idealistic Confed trooper in real combat...

"The 'luruk? Grunts don't really trouble me, commander. That zarking human commander makes me wonder if they're trying to provoke me."

The uncomfortable pair stomped unhappily past the twin ranks of honour guard formed neatly along either side of the rampart, and entered the command deck. The group of visitors stood at the center of the tall, elliptical room - arrayed about the command chair that the captain reserved for his own use. Virtually all operations on the deck had been forsaken as the various operators stared in confusion at the visitors.

One look at the expression on the human captain's face was enough to set most of the command deck personnel turning quickly back to their assigned duties. Whatever was happening, it wasn't going to be a pleasant banter.

After a brief, angry silence with the captain and the security commander pausing in the doorway, the visiting human spokesperson folded his arms and said in an even tone, "Let us get started."

Thrusting his jaw forward in furious contemplation, the captain stepped carefully forward. "Before we do ANYTHING, you're going to tell me who you are and what you want here."

The human spokesperson of the visitors tipped his head back to cast a cold gaze down his nose at the flustered station captain. His voice carried an ominous tone, "Our identity is as secret as your activities here, captain." He then softened his tone, and steepled his fingers theatrically, "Indeed, our purpose may be obvious in due course. We are not inclined, however, to declare it yet. By virtue of the implied authority of our hailing codes, we WILL see the current status of the project."

The station captain slumped his shoulders with resignation, and walking to one cove flung his arm with an air of frustration to indicate one of the tall, forward-curving display screens of the control deck. "But there's nothing to SEE! The apparatus is almost completely removed from the test craft, and we've only just begun the final analysis of the component's performance." On the screen showed the bared skeleton of a cruiser, it's vital components garishly revealed due to the lack of outer plating. Crawling over the vessel were scores of tiny-seeming beings; technicians working busily.

More quietly now, almost a whisper, the human visitor spoke carefully and with raptor-keen attention on the captain, "So, the design of the device is complete and been successfully tested, and at this moment lies asunder." The station captain had the distinct impression that something ominous was unfolding, yet was unable to fathom it. It made him shift uncomfortably as the visitor leaned forward and asked him in a voice heavy with portent, "And the process for installing the apparatus is clearly documented in your computers, of course?"

four

Unlike his human captain, the juntoid security commander had not traded his combat experience for the less-honest methods of posturing and manipulation. While everyone else was held in rapt attention by the dynamic showmanship of the human spokesperson, he found himself horribly fascinated by the more-solemn peers. They had subtly arranged themselves according to a logic he did not understand. Yet he was certain that they were not acting randomly, for he spotted furtive non-verbal communication between them, and it seemed as though they altered their position minutely as if perfecting it.

Time seemed to thump by in long, slow moments.

Just as the ominous undertone of the orating human's questions sunk in, the juntoid realized that all the others had their hands on items beneath their cloaks. Reading their enforced calm, he could sense their latent purposefulness, and knew that they had heavy weaponry. In the thin sliver of time it took for the juntoid's blunt thumb to tap an emergency summons to the general security staff, he realized that the monster gra-luruk was waiting for exactly that response.

While the security commander snatched at his heavy blaster and began yelling a warning, his eyes locked with those of the towering 'luruk. Generally known to be simple-minded brutes, this gra-luruk's gaze revealed a depth and clarity he had never beheld in any species. With a mental CLICK that made him more frightened than everything else combined, he recognized the 'luruk from stories he had heard over the years: MOTGRICHE! Fast - too fast - Motgriche's arms raised two horribly-large blasters, and the juntoid changed his focus from drawing his own weapon to shifting his own considerable bulk out of their way.

In a frustrating moment, the juntoid saw the two other humans and two chorks of the visiting party yank malevolent-looking plasma rifles to their shoulders - as he felt the collated energy of one of Motgriche's pistols slam heavily into his side, and felt the heat of the twin blast as it sizzled by his cheek to smash a console.

Still in mid tumble from the dive that saved his head from being blown entirely off, and from absorbing the impact of the blaster hit, the juntoid security commander extended his own pistol two-handed. Arms jutting between his knees as he rolled onto one shoulder, he sent a blast back at Motgriche. Even in his aggressive stance, the 'luruk managed to lean over enough to allow the shot to pass harmlessly by - blasting a view screen across the command deck so that it flashed with a spray of sizzling sparks and went dark.

The two chorks and one of the humans had already used their plasma rifles to explosively vaporize vital organs of all three of the security officers on the command deck before they had a chance to even heft their blast rifles usefully. The other weapon-bearing human had blown a carefully-place hole in one of the control panels. With confusion, the juntoid recognized the console as the primary communications hub. Who did these raiders think they were going to call? The flamboyant human had ducked behind another console, and was not immediately visible in the confusion. The various operators threw themselves from their seats in search of cover, or to pull what sidearms they had available.

Rolling to his feet now, the juntoid heaved himself forward - to try to evade Motgriche's next set of blasts, and to leap past the frozen captain. That idiot! He had wasted too much of his time scheming and playing his political games, and now was going to get himself killed by his lapse in simple combat reaction. Hopefully those 20 honour guards would be able to mop up these brazen fools before they got to the captain. The thought carried additional emphasis as both of Motgriche's heavy pistols ripped blasts through the juntoid's blubbery hide and into the thick muscles of his right leg. Gritting his teeth in controlled agony, the juntoid let his considerable momentum carry him behind a console, and without delicacy snatched the captain with one hand and hefted him along. A sickening crunch came from beneath his elbow as his 700-kilo frame crushed a fragile human sensor operator when he thudded to the deck.

A few frantic shots rang out from the sidearms of the command deck crew who were either brave or stupid enough, but they were hopelessly outclassed. Every blast and beam was easily avoided by the ducking and veering raiders. While one plasma-rifle-wielding human flashed a burn hole through one turret gunner's favourite portions of anatomy, the other raiders turned their plasma rifles to blaze holes through the now-opening main door. The magnetically-encapsulated bundles of superheated gas sailed through the heavy metal doors, flashing the all the material in their path to vapour - until the limits of the magnetic capusule had been passed and the remaining plasma burst out in a small concussive explosion. The blast rifles of the honour guard, while lethal enough, had no such penetrating power. So several of their number were cut down before they could even get the doors open enough to lay down some suppressing fire. Even when the double doors finally slid open enough to permit their access, they were unwilling to harm the captain or what other surviving command deck crew there might be.

Unhampered by such concerns, the plasma rifles of the raiders flung more devastation completely through their insufficiently-armoured targets. Motgriche used his twin titanic pistols to blast apart one brave yark's chest. The force of the blast sent his tattered corpse crashing against one display panel, to tumble in grisly disarray next to the juntoid security commander and the captain.

Bleeding heavily, and partially lame, the juntoid grunted in terse battle-speak to his still-shocked captain. "Pull your pistol, and do something useful!" With that, he lunged sideways past the edge of the covering console, and aimed his blaster squarely at Motgriche as he went. Somehow, that monster managed to turn fast enough so that only fur was singed as the heavy blast blinked by. From his sideways stance, Motgriche could only bring one huge blaster to bear on the juntoid. But the juntoid had timed his leap well, and rolled behind another heavy piece of equipment in time to have it take the searing blast instead of him.

With a surge, the honour guard forced their way over their wounded comrades and began to pour into the command deck. Leaping back defensively, the raiders jumped and dodged to avoid the intensifying salvo of blaster fire.

Motgriche leaped with unbelievable lightness between the smoking consoles that the juntoid had been using as cover. With the monster looming directly over him, the security commander threw himself into a backward roll to ensure that he stayed out of Motgriche's reach, and landed shakily on his hooves ready to fling himself aside of the blaster shots he expected next. Tensed and ready, the juntoid locked eyes with Motgriche again, just for an instant. In that instant, a murderous laughing light danced in those dark depths, telling of the enjoyment the monster was experiencing. Then Motgriche whirled about and ducked to the side to avoid the beam from the captain's laser pistol. Obscured by the towering gra-luruk's form, the juntoid could only see Motgriche's massive shoulders tense, suddenly followed by twin thunderous reports and a ghastly reddish mist spraying onto a support stanchion.

The juntoid levelled his heavy blaster at the back of Motgriche's head, but the beast was ducking and turning too quickly - the shot smacked him in one massive shoulder instead. If Motgriche noticed the burn and concussion wound, the juntoid could not detect a sign as he fled towards the knot of security personnel that was starting to keep the raiders at bay by virtue of sheer number.

What was that horrible scream? The ugly, terrified shriek briefly held a poignant timbre of anguish before it ended abruptly. Taking his attention momentarily away from Motgriche, the juntoid reflexively flashed a quick survey of the command deck. His own startled nerves were reflected by the common, disturbed hesitation of his security personnel. More unsettling, was that in that frozen instant the raiders seemed, somehow, to be somewhat relieved... Regardless, the security commander didn't think that the scream came from inside the command deck. When the chorus of similar screams reverberated from the entrance hallway, it was confirmed. The mixed honour guard and other supporting security personnel stopped pushing through the entrance, with those just visible in the aperture seeming to become suddenly more interested in the happenings immediately behind them.

The crescendo of terrified howls and agonized shrieks soared in the thump of a heartbeat. Of the security personnel in that corridor, only the outermost few could be clearly seen from the vantage of the control deck. In the commotion of scrambling bodies, as the two furthest into the room started to bolt from doorway, the third furthest was abruptly wrenched out of sight and his screams joined the others. Then a large sleek shape flew abruptly from the doorway, faster than any eye could distinguish its true form, and impacted one of the fleeing security personnel in the upper torso. The momentum of the thing was such that the hapless guard was jerked off its feet, and the two followed a parabolic arc to the surface of the deck. The monstrous creature made a couple sharp motions before they landed, and on impact the guard simply split open from the slash-wounds such that blood, gore and entrails spurted grotesquely from its sprawled form.

So great was the shock and revulsion of the other security personnel on the command deck that, as they watched with horror the wretched twitchings of their fallen comrade, they almost completely failed to see the thing continue without pause to viciously tear the throat out of the next, nearest guard. To try to watch the thing, it was as though the eyes simply could not keep up with its current position. All that could be seen was a rapid succession of horrific wounds on flailing and dying guards in the wake of that leaping and pouncing beast.

Panic erupted, and volleys of rifle fire were swung to bear, the original marauders forgotten. The thing was quick, and used cover cunningly, but a couple wild shots did manage to burn home. They seemed to have negligible effect. The terrible beast continued sprinting from victim to victim, ripping asunder all that it came in reach of.

The juntoid security commander dropped behind cover after watching the quadruped thing decapitate the captain despite the blast he had delivered to its chest. His mind raced. There had to be something he could do...? In desperation, he glanced around the corner of the support stanchion to peek at the entrance, hoping to find the way clear so that he might give in to his terror and flee as fast as his hooves could carry him. Instead, disturbing the spreading pond of blood in the doorway, two more of the things prowled stealthily into the room.

He stared in frozen terror at the monstrous mingling of robotic components woven with the biological flesh of the hideous creatures, wincing with fear at the metallic clicking of their cruelly long and keen talons on the deck. With a start, he realized that one of the things was glaring at him baleful menace, and he wondered briefly why it hadn't killed him yet. In the next instant, two terrific blaster bolts slammed into the back of his head, sending his corpse tumbling limply to the deck.