Aliens known as the Liars gave humanity access to the stars through twenty-nine wormholes. They didn’t mention that other aliens, the ancient, tyrannical – but thankfully sleeping – Axiom occupied all the other systems. When the twenty-ninth fell silent, humanity chalked it up to radical separatists and moved on. But now, on board the White Raven, Captain Callie and her crew of Axiom-hunters receive word that the twenty-ninth colony may have met a very different fate. With their bridge generator they skip past the wormhole, and discover another Axiom project, fully awake, and poised to pour through the wormhole gate into all the worlds of humanity…
File Under: Science Fiction [ That's No Moon | Lost Colony | Only Posthuman | Running Silent ]
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Callie and Ashok crouched back-to-back in a dark passageway deep in the heart of an ancient space station – which wasn't as abandoned as they'd hoped. The walls were smooth, made of a dark and lusterless metal not even the sensors embedded in Ashok's face could identify; the ceilings were so low they both had to hunch over to avoid scraping the tops of their heads; and even at its widest point the passageway was too narrow for them to walk side-by-side. The artificial gravity here was heavier than Callie would have preferred, too, so every movement was a conscious slog of drag and effort. Callie felt like a mouse infiltrating an anthill.
Being this deep in the Axiom station was a lot like being in a coffin. That aliens were trying to murder them didn't do much to dispel the feeling.
"I'm starting to doubt the benevolence of the Benefactor."
"You're just starting now? You're way behind schedule." Ashok's voice carried low and clear in her helmet's comm. There was an atmosphere in this station but it wasn't anything humans could breathe – not even humans with as many filtration systems as Ashok had. "The note said this place would be, quote, 'interesting,' not pleasant."
Callie saw the perturbation in the air and lifted her arm just before a Liar appeared from nowhere, as they did, just two meters in front of her. The tentacled, squidlike alien wore a suit of shimmering chameleon tech, and it raised a pseudopod holding a complexly curved weapon, but Callie was faster, and she fired a needle full of paralytic fluid into the Liar's center mass.
The alien flopped to the ground, writhed briefly, then stiffened, all sprawled and ungainly, no bigger than a human toddler. "Back away!" Callie shouted, and Ashok obligingly shuffled along the passageway so she could retreat before the Liar – assassin? guard? – burst into sudden white fire, a ferocious heat that burned itself out in seconds and left nothing but scorch marks on the floor.
That was the seventh alien to attack them so far, and all seven had self-immolated despite Callie and Ashok's best attempts to subdue them non-lethally. The ancient aliens known as the Axiom had built this place but they still had servants among the Liars, some willing and some brainwashed, and Callie hated killing them when she wasn't sure which was which.
More intel in general would have been nice. The Benefactor's note had led them to this Axiom facility, but their mysterious source of information wasn't too forthcoming with details. Callie enjoyed blowing things up, but she preferred to know what she was exploding before she lit the fuse.
"Why the fireworks show?" Callie said. "If it's an anti-interrogation thing, why don't they just poison themselves?"
"Dramatic effect? Actually, I bet it's practical. The Axiom hate sharing their toys. These Liars have short-range teleportation technology in their suits, and it gets burned up along with the users, so we can't steal it." Ashok sighed. "I'd really love to steal it."
"We already have that technology." They only had one personal teleportation unit, stolen from a Liar cultist a long time ago, and Callie was always nervous it was going to teleport her inside a wall or something, but still.
"This tech is totally different, cap."
"We use wormholes to connect distant points. These guys ... I guess my fancy cyborg eyes are better than your squishy jelly blobs." He tapped the nest of lenses on his face. "When these Liars pop out, there's a vertical split in the air, like someone took a seam-ripper to space-time. There's no wormhole tunnel. They just tear a hole in reality and step through. You can actually see the place they're coming from. It looks like a big room made of white stone. There are columns in there. It's kind of churchy. Or ancient-temple-y."
"You saw all that in the half a second they take to appear?"
"I can replay what I see in slow-motion and watch it with the bits of my brain I'm not using to watch your back."
"Huh." Ripping holes in reality. That sounded bad, but Callie found the revelation of unprecedented advanced technology more interesting than surprising at this point. The Axiom could generate wormholes, create artificial gravity, disassemble planets into raw materials, control inertia, and manipulate minds. There wasn't much she'd put past their capabilities. It was a shame they were genocidal monsters bent on immortal galactic domination. "Is the churchy place somewhere on the station, you think?"
"I doubt it. Let me show you." He brushed the translucent diamond housing on his prosthetic forearm with his gloved fingers, and the surface went shiny black, then displayed an image. "This is a zoomed-in frame-grab from my clearest look through one of their portals."
Callie squinted. There were the pillars, oddly fluted and narrow, and the gleaming white stone walls, inscribed with glyphs or words or decorations she couldn't make out in detail. At the top of the image, there was a section of what appeared to be a glass dome in lieu of a ceiling, with towering fingers of jagged black rock outside ... lit by the weak light of an alien sun, clearly visible through the glass.
"Could be viewscreens," Callie said. "We've been on space stations and asteroids that had fake domes like that, with screens for panels so you could feel like you were under a real sky."
"Could be, but Occam's Plasma Grenade says the simplest and most potentially deadly answer is probably the right one. If that is some other planet, it kinda makes you wonder where it is, doesn't it? Is it a home base for assassin death squid devoted to slumbering alien monsters? That seems like the kind of place we might want to find, so we can blow it up."
"And steal their stuff."
"Well sure. It's not like saving the universe from a secret alien threat usually pays all that well, and I need to get new toys somehow."
"Let's focus on exploding one thing at a time." They continued and reached a branching corridor, just as low and dark as the one they were in now, and moved carefully to their right. They'd planted explosive charges at key points in the station and only had one charge left, meant to go right in the center. They'd detonate the bombs from their ship the White Raven and create a beautiful chain reaction that should turn this whole facility to glowing dust. If they didn't get murdered first.
A doorway stood open and dark at the end of the passage and Callie did a careful pirouette to let Ashok take the lead while she covered the back. He peered into the darkness with his augmented sight and said, "It looks clear, which just means nobody's popped out of thin air yet. But, oof, it's a mess in there."
Callie slipped in after him, pleased to enter a chamber with a ceiling over two meters high and wide enough to stretch out her arms if she wanted. The space was filled with cylindrical incubators of a sort she'd seen before in other Axiom facilities, meant to breed Liars. These incubators were almost all broken, though, crusted with the dried remnants of fluids or partially melted by electrical or heating mishaps, and even the few that looked intact were empty. This facility, like most Axiom facilities they'd found, looked like it had been abandoned centuries or even millennia before, when its creators went into hiding or hibernation. "Do you think the Liars who've been attacking us are the survivors of those who originally staffed this station? Or their descendants?"
"Probably descendants," Ashok said. "Unless they were in cryosleep and only got activated when we broke in. Liars can live centuries, but not millennia, as far as we know. Though their ability to share memories with their offspring does let them take a long view of things ...
"We could ask these guys about their family history if they didn't burn themselves to death first. I'd love to chat. I almost never get to practice speaking the Axiom language, and Lantern makes fun of my accent a lot." He gestured with the cluster of multi-jointed manipulators he had in place of a right hand. "There's another door – that's probably the hub of the station through there. Big bomb boomtown." Ashok pushed ahead without waiting for Callie's order. He was an incredible engineer, a good friend, and a terrible subordinate.
She grabbed his shoulder. "Hold up. They've been attacking us more frequently as we get closer to the center of the station. The Benefactor said there was something dangerous here that we needed to destroy – the Liars could be trying to protect a weapon. If I was them, I'd save the last of my forces for a final ambush to protect their prize."
"If there's a weapon here, why don't they just take it to their weird white temple for safekeeping?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's too big. Maybe this whole station is the weapon, and there's a red button that says 'destroy the universe' in the middle. How would I know? It's Axiom shit."
"There is no ambush." A deep voice, mechanically simulated, emerged from the space beyond the doorway. "I am the only guardian who remains."
"You speak our language?" Callie move to one side of the door, her back to the wall, and Ashok mirrored her on the other side. No reason to give an enemy a clean shot through the doorway.
"I do not. The station has scanned your vessel and its data banks and it is translating my words to you, and yours to me. You are enemies of the Axiom."
"The Axiom are enemies of every thinking creature in the galaxy. Maybe the universe."
"Is the crashing wave enemy to the sand?" the voice mused. "Is the boot enemy to the ant crushed beneath its heel? Is the lightning enemy to the tree, struck and burned in the storm?"
"That's some good translating," Ashok said. "Idiomatic and everything. I wouldn't mind getting a peek at the code he's running in this place." Ashok surreptitiously crouched and pushed a button on his artificial thigh, making a panel slide open. Something smaller than Callie's palm scuttled down his leg, then darted through the passageway. One of his little drones.
"The Axiom is not your enemy," the voice said. "They do not hate you. They do not think of you at all. That is the only reason you survive. If the Axiom noticed you, they might brush you away, brush your entire species away, as you would brush away an insect. If you destroy their works, though ... they will notice."
Callie snorted. "They aren't as attentive as you think, or as numerous. We've been blowing up their shit for a little while now, and they're all still sleeping."
"Some of their works are abandoned, yes. But if you destroyed this place ... they would notice."
"So let them notice. Did you ever hear of the Dream? We destroyed that station, and every Axiom hibernating there."
"Did you? Good. The Dreamers with their reality engine were enemies of my faction, with long-term goals incompatible with those of my masters."
"That's pretty cold," Ashok said.
"Why don't I come in there, and we can talk face to face?" asked Callie. "Or face to whichever part of your body has the most eyes on it, I guess." The Liars tended to have the same basic physical form – a central trunk surrounded by pseudopods – but details like the number of limbs and eyes varied. As a species, they were as devoted to self-improvement and customization as Ashok was.
"If you wish to cause the deaths of your entire species, by all means, enter," the Liar said. "If you value the preservation of your people, leave this place, and never speak of its existence."
"I can see what he's guarding." Ashok spoke into her suit comm, not projecting his voice where the alien could hear. He held up his arm, showing her the view from the drone. "Looks like an old-fashioned key."
A shimmering crystalline object hung in the room beyond, floating in a beam of blue light, and it did sort of look like the kind of key people used back when mechanical locks were all the rage, though oversized – as long as her longest finger, with a central cylindrical shaft and teeth at the top. Callie couldn't remember when she'd ever seen an actual stick-it-in-a-lock key in the real world, but the shape was used as the 'lock' icon on plenty of computer systems, so it was familiar enough. There probably weren't a lot of keys made out of glass, though, and the 'teeth' on the end were hard to focus on – they were sparkling, scintillating, coruscating.
The drone's camera panned and revealed four more Liars, armed with various weapons, arrayed around the key in its beam of light. No ambush. Last of my kind. Well, they are called Liars. Callie was sure they were lying about the imminent extermination of her species, too.
"If they're trying to protect that key, why don't they just grab it and tear a hole in the air and go to their temple?" Ashok said. "We couldn't follow them."
"It's a mystery." She switched to public address. "You can teleport. You should do that now. We don't want to hurt you. Your masters are long gone. This is a new galaxy. Go. Be free."
"I am the last guardian. I will never stop protecting the treasures of my masters."
"Okay, then. I tried." Callie had plenty of empathy, she really did, but it was wrapped in a generous insulation of pragmatism. "Blow the drone."CHAPTER 2
Callie turned away, Ashok's lenses went dark, and a moment later a flash and a boom erupted in the room beyond.
They rushed in and found the key still floating in the beam of light, undisturbed by the blast. Callie couldn't tell whether it was held between opposing magnets, levitating in some kind of alien stasis field, or hanging from a string. Four of the Liars had been reduced to scorch marks, damaged enough in the explosion to trigger their self-immolation systems, but the last was intact, sprawled unmoving against a wall. "Looks like its suit got damaged in the explosion," Ashok said. "Must have messed up the self-destruct system."
"Is it alive?"
Ashok prodded the alien with his foot, then shook his head. "Doesn't look like it." He crouched and began examining the suit.
Callie went to look at the key. Her suit's sensors weren't as impressive as those in Ashok's face, but she could tell there was no nasty radiation coming off the key. Didn't mean there weren't protective countermeasures in place. She walked around it, marveling.
The key was exceedingly strange. What had looked like a crystalline sparkle on the viewscreen was much more peculiar than that. The end of the key seemed to change shape, extruding pyramidal spines that then sank back into the central orb, only to reemerge elsewhere – a constant, flowing, eerily beautiful procession of shapes. The Axiom didn't usually make beautiful things. They made strange things, ugly things, spiny things, wrong things. This key didn't seem wrong, but it did seem otherworldly.
"Got it." Ashok peeled open the dead Liar's suit, and drew out a sort of bracelet with a greasy-looking black crescent attached to it. "It looks like the same material the wormhole generators we've seen are made of, but this one's not a black box. It's a black ... moon? Scythe blade? Talon? Our death squid was wearing this around a pseudopod, like a bracelet. I bet it opens a portal to that temple place."
"Unless it's the self-destruct button. Remember, when you assume, you're an asshole."
"I don't think that's how it goes, cap. Anyway, I found the self-destruct. It's a unit grafted right into their nervous system, it looks like – if they hit some threshold of damage, or lose muscle control or whatever, whoosh, up in flames they go. The explosion just knocked this one's unit offline–"
He stumbled away as the Liar burst into sudden, searing flame, and Callie winced and shielded her eyes.
"Temporarily offline, apparently." She stepped toward the remains, which were more intact than usual. The tentacle Ashok had prised from the suit was entirely whole, albeit severed and burned on the end. The explosives must have been threaded through the suit, and since the tentacle was outside containment, it had survived. The Axiom were truly terrible employers.
"I was just thinking ... they didn't take the key out of here, even though it's small enough to carry." Callie picked up the severed tentacle in her gloved hands and carried it over to the beam of light, then pushed it gently toward the key. The tentacle arched, bent, and curved around the beam. She tossed it aside. "They couldn't touch the key at all. The field pushes them away. The Axiom didn't trust their employees, or slaves, or cultists, or whatever, no matter how thoroughly subjugated they were."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Forbidden Stars"
Copyright © 2019 Tim Pratt.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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