Twenty years after the Battle of Omar, Aludra and Chira would face the greatest challenge in their history.
The Szakade, as the creatures came to be known in Aludran, are two species with intertwined fates: the species most recognise as Szakade, and the Veda.
Both evolved in the deep ocean trenches of Hazad, a watery planet that circled a great distance from a gigantic star. Hazad was a strange world, with an atmosphere choked in poisons from a process resembling photosynthesis and beaches scoured clean by regular releases of near-pure fluorine. The jungles of Hazad were pristine but void of all life. Only a species of virtually indestructible crustacean-like creatures, the Szarak, dared to venture on the land.
The Veda were an intelligence formed from neural networks of bacteria with telepathic abilities*, and they parasitized a simplistic species of fish-creatures with dextrous forelimbs, compelling the solitary creatures to form groups so that the Veda could reproduce more easily and dwelling in colonies on their bodies.
This species, the Szakade are an all-female species with biped-like torsos and fish-like tails with long, flowing fins. Deep-sea predators, they possess sharp teeth and extremely sensitive inky-grey eyes. As a relic of their less intelligent ancestors, they retain two lures that extend from their foreheads, glowing patches under their eyes, and flashing bioluminescent bands down their sides. Previously used to draw prey close to them, the flashes were already becoming a means of communicating simple signals to each other when the Veda found them.
The Szakade were once colonials, with even their blood made from co-opted bacteria; another type could easily be added, and the Veda settled everywhere on their skin except the stripes on their flanks already home to bioluminescent cells, their transparent skin changing to a glossy black that shimmered as they moved. A dozen Szakade were a safe host for a single Veda Groupmind, with far fewer worries about predators than in their old plankton-like state.
Stem cells from Szakade eggs gave the Veda a resource they never had before, a mutable form of cell very different to their unchanging unicellular form. Normally Szakade would court each other and then one lay an egg and the other lay her egg alongside it, the two joining together and starting to grow. Veda harvested proto-eggs to form a bed of stem cells that constantly renewed itself, and used this as a basis for biomechanical constructs that were their earliest form of technology.
The Szakade in turn grew more sophisticated, the signals from each other's bioluminescent flashes becoming a full-fledged language, and parasitism became symbiosis as the enforced groupings became a thriving society centred on Veda bio-constructs and metals worked in deep-sea thermal vents. The Veda, regretting the way they had dealt with the Szakade before, now treated them as companions and allowed them free will and an equal say in the running of their homelands.
Szarak would often wander into the deep trenches and were docile and friendly to just about everything, and the early Szakade societies used them as beasts of burden. The 30-ton adults could move just about anything with their immense strength if properly guided.
It was around this time that organised religion began to appear, with the creation of the first Szakade cities. For as long as they were able to think, both species had thought about their place in the world, and various rituals related to special places crystallised into the veneration of a mother-Goddess of the oceans. It was said this figure saved her daughters from the evils of the land by creating the sea for them to live in and had left a Promise that someday she would lead them to an ocean paradise if they kept the word in their hearts and followed the law.
Like most sentient societies, there were conflicts among groups of Veda and Szakade over values and resources. The nature of the species, with their fine hearing, and ability to sense tiny currents, meant their methods of conflict were unique, focused on fighting in perfect silence with small units, slow, careful movements, and increasingly cunning weaponry, moving from spearguns to propelling rifles.
As their technology advanced, the Veda learned to create "biometals" which, like their biomechanical organisms, responded to their thoughts, giving them the ability to shape them as they saw fit. Their technology surged forward as they discovered the principles of science and learned to manipulate pure energy and even the barriers between dimensions, allowing wireless power transmission and dimensional "tunnels" though which thermal power could be extracted safely without drilling. A darker side of this technology was the development of energy weapons, firing coherent energy bolts that could travel even in the deepest depths. As a counter to this, they created a device called the Siphon, a personal shield that absorbed energy into a pocket dimension. Civilian Siphon-based power systems quickly replaced the use of chemical batteries in just about every conceivable application.
Since biometals could hover in the water around the user, their militaries focused on adaptable multi-part variable energy guns that could split apart or join together to form weapons with almost any function the user could imagine. As these weapons became commonplace, the Szakade horror at swimming in the blood of their enemies became a cultural taboo about physically touching weapons, which they considered barbaric. Warfare became a matter of technology versus technology, with drone sensors gathering information and battlefields littered with seeker mines that responded to sound. The Szakade never saw any need for armed vehicles since they would give away the location of infantry.
Their wireless power transmission was used to keep soldiers agile since they did not have to carry anything but the weapons themselves; relays were mounted on Szarak, which would wander around and graze and show little sign of being aware a battle was taking place. It was considered a crime to actually harm one, no different to killing a civilian.
As their computers grew more reliable than their bacterial bodies, most Veda transferred their minds into electronic form, leaving behind their old selves as symbiotes that remained part of the Szakade. These AI-like creatures retained the ability to reproduce by creating a "seed" of a child-mind, which gathers data around itself to form a new, distinct personality. With the understanding of biology the two species had, a Szakade and a Veda could create DNA allowing a biological child to be "theirs," and there was no question that such relationships were right.
A few Veda spurned this development: these "old ones" saw it as abandoning their physical bond with the Szakade, something they considered sacred. All were ancient, the custodians of the memories of thousands of Szakade they had loved though centuries and millennia. While Veda and Szakade both valued these Groupminds for their wisdom and immense experience, their claims that this development would lead to the Veda discarding the Szakade entirely were not taken seriously. The new generation of Veda felt that physically inhabiting the Szakade was an unpleasant reminder of their parasitic past.
The cells that were once Veda remained in the bodies of the Szakade, tiny childlike shadow-personalities that reassured and supported them subconsciously. The Veda's telepathy remained a part of the Szakade even after their departure, allowing them to control Veda biometals themselves. Their society flourished, and they discovered means to send craft outside the poisonous atmosphere and explore the universe around them. But it was in this moment of triumph that they uncovered a horrible truth, one that at first they refused to believe.
The best scientists checked and double-checked their findings, but every survey, probe and reading led to the same unthinkable conclusion: Hazad's immense sun was dying. They had assumed the receding oceans were part of some natural cycle, but it was the swelling of the star. Hazad would die either slowly as the star grew and grew, or consumed in an instant if the unstable core collapsed. There was no stopping it.
There were great arguments, even wars, over what should be done; whether this was a test by the Goddess and they should have faith, or do something about it, or simply give up and accept their fate. Even with all their technology there was nothing they could do to the star, but a group of Szakade engineers made a breakthrough, a "jump drive" that would allow a vessel to travel the immense distances between the stars if it could only be made to work in time. The precise method of jumping took decades in Aludran terms** while over a hundred years passed outside the ship, this was seen as hardly important.
The largest Szakade trench-cities came together, and the result was the ship Aludra refers to as Leviathan. It is actually called Home 2 in their own language. The ship would have to carry as many as possible; the eventual design, a beautiful, almost swan-like lifting body eighty-five miles long and twenty-five across the wings, had enough space for eighty million Szakade and Veda. An eight-mile saucer-shaped detachable "battle" segment, Guardian, would protect it, controlled by one of the oldest Veda Groupminds; Guardian would have no jump drive, as creating even one such device in time would be difficult enough. Guardian's shape was due to the Szakade ancestral fear of their world's immense jellyfish, one of their ancient predators.
Guardian would not be alone: hurried brainstorming and simulations by Veda Groupminds led to the development of their first atmospheric aircraft, a sleek biometal fighter which could change shape in-flight at will, equipped with two powerful energy cannons. The Szakade had no idea how many they might need, but five hundred and fifty were all they felt safe providing materials for with all the other resources that would be taken up constructing Home 2 and Guardian.
Home 2 would use an immense form of Siphon to gather energy created by her own re-entry, and drain it slowly to provide near-limitless clean power for her people; as she was designed to land on water, she would use several novel applications of the same technology to reduce the vast waves she would otherwise create. While that was perfect, the reaction drive that got her out of the atmosphere would not be so gentle; firing the main engine would be enough to boil the oceans and kill every living thing still on Hazad. But they were already dead, and dying like animals struggling for the last drops of water was no way to go, so it was agreed that all those who would not be passengers would say their goodbyes and commit themselves into the arms of the Goddess, in the hope that, somehow, the Promise would still be fulfilled.
The jump drive's creator chose to remain on Hazad with her family, wishing all the best to those who left; she felt it would be cowardly to use the device she intended to save her people just to save herself.
Even as Home 2 powered up, readings from the giant star were spiking, and when she rose to the surface cameras showed immense flares arcing out from its surface. Solemnly, the crew of Home 2 made their last prayers, flooded the rear ballast tanks, and fired the engine, every trace that they had ever lived on Hazad vanishing in an instant.
The star tore itself apart as Home 2 prepared to make her first jump, and the giant ship and her eighty million occupants barely escaped. As she reappeared in the depths of space, everyone on board tried to deal with the loss of an entire world.
For those in command, though, there was no time to grieve: their task was to find a new world for their people. The jump drive's creator had discovered a means of deploying probes from Home 2 during jumps and retaining communication with them, and they had hundreds of years of transmissions from probes and observations from space telescopes to sift through.
The best candidate from the perspective of atmosphere and oceanic composition was the worst in just about every other conceivable way. Everything about this world was strange. Ancient transmissions, too garbled to decode, dated to 40 million years ago, but then one day simply stopped. They had sent a probe, but what returned was baffling to every scientist who studied it. They saw a world choked in hideous forests and built of impossible geographical formations, a great red crater amid a sea of black sand, oceans wreathed in strange swirling mists, and three strange energy phenomena the preindustrial civilisations it detected could not have hoped to manipulate, let alone create. Moreover, the creatures it found lived on the land, in defiance of what the Szakade and Veda considered the natural order.
They discarded this strange world from their list of candidates, and set about examining others. Despite their horrible losses and the failure of the Promise, many were still hopeful. Something out there must want them to survive. Home 2 set course for the most promising of the new worlds, and made her second jump.
But each world they tried to settle on was worse than the last. Vicious carnivores with metallic skin, unstable geology and appallingly barbaric aquatic civilisations greeted Home 2's landing; each time she took off again, scouring the surface clean of all but the most simplistic forms of life. It was hopeless. So much so that, very much against Guardian's wishes, Home 2, by this point struggling to function, made her final jump, to the cursed world of surface-dwellers they had ruled out so long ago.
As she blinked into existence, her jump drive exploded in the presence of the gravity wells of four giant planets; since nobody who had left Hazad even knew how the drive worked, nevermind how to repair it, this star system would be either their home or their tomb. Guardian was incensed at Home 2 for even attempting it.
Transmissions from the planet made them more nervous still; rather than the pre-industrial societies their probe had found eight hundred years prior, their sensors found thriving industries and transmissions detailing what were clearly military operations. Home 2's AI, an optimistic "artificial" Veda formed during their journey who have never been in a Groupmind, was hopeful despite the evidence, and got to work trying to decipher the odd sound-based alien languages. Since the breadth of the transmissions indicated a society that was outright impossible, she assumed some must be fiction: she felt it was a good sign that these people told each other stories. Her subordinates, the Szakade bridge crew who had grown up with her, shared her optimism, and the group managed to convince Guardian that it was safe to send down a party to examine the seabed.
They sent down the small party in an unarmed shuttle, the scientists finding wreckage on the seabed; perhaps some sign of a people like their own, and scans from their probes confirmed one of the mysterious anomalies was on the bottom of the ocean too, deep in the mists. They were pondering this as a gigantic alien watercraft approached, and, without warning, began to attack with a weapon unlike any that they had ever seen or heard of.
The survey team barely survived, and their injuries were terrible, tissue ruptures and horrible cavitation injuries across their entire bodies. Guardian was furious; an unprovoked attack by these barbarians on an unarmed survey team, with a weapon that, as far as she was concerned, could have no function but the extermination of a people like theirs. To the Veda, this proved that there were once aquatic peoples on this planet, and the surface-dwellers had waged a genocidal war against them.
Below, the Chiran Cruiser Submarine Sei-Lin 7's crew were baffled; they were there to investigate a report of a crashed, unknown aircraft. The first sonar pings had shown fuzzy contacts that almost looked like divers, but then the contacts, as well as the one on the bottom, had vanished completely. The submarine resumed her duties, later sending a routine report stating they had found nothing.
With this, even Home 2 sadly accepted Guardian's argument that a military deployment would be needed to push the alien forces away from their landing site. There was no option to move on with the jump drive destroyed. She hoped that a show of force would be all that was needed, and that, somehow, the aliens could be persuaded to accept them in time.
Guardian found herself tasked with the difficult problem of selecting a landing site for Home 2, ultimately choosing a path across open ocean which ended in a deep bay near one of the alien cities. While she had no idea what the devices on the cliffs above did, the dense power grid around the largest suggested a weapon of some kind, and so she would have to come up with some way for a species incapable of moving on land to wage a war there. The sheer scale of the device implied it could threaten, if not Home 2 herself, then certainly any attempt by the Szakade to leave.
Still, she was confident: the Siphon fitted to Guardian made it immune to any energy weapon in existence, and she knew of no other way a weapon could function above water, short of a primitive catapult that would be no threat to her.
As Home 2 orbited the largest of the giant planets, Szakade soldiers trained in four-legged exosuits that secured around their tails with their torso outside so they could still use their hands. Power for their suits would be provided by relays mounted on Szarak: testing had shown that the local flora would be fine for the creatures to graze on. Guardian tried to remain confident as she ran them through scenarios she made up as she went along, her ideas very much like the propaganda fiction the Szakade made regarding claiming their new home. Savage, bloodthirsty aliens, all of their technology working precisely as it should.
She, a Veda military commander with centuries of experience, would defeat the aliens in the way all great battles were fought, with clever use of small, disciplined units. With no water to carry sound, she assumed it would travel poorly, and so the 15-foot exoskeletons would be able to operate as stealthily as Szakade troops on the old homeworld. With no water, she assumed conflict would be purely two-dimensional. She ignored Home 2's confused suggestions based on the alien transmissions; she was young and foolish. Guardian could solve this by herself, and by doing so would give her beloved Szakade wife and their children a home. However, the AI's suggestion that the aliens were preparing for war with one another seemed promising; if they depleted their own forces, her task would be that much easier.
Home 2 was baffled at what her long-range sensors picked up and frustrated at Guardian ignoring her. This was not like any war she has witnessed: the broadcast showed one enemy receiving the other as friends. She pondered the possibility of it being some kind of honour code they were following, but the archive films she thought factual seemed very different. Not needlessly destructive, but following a very different set of rules. Ruthless, perhaps that was the right way to think of it. She was perhaps being romantic like Guardian said, but it reminded her of the story of the ancient conflict between two oldest and most powerful trench-cities: how they had finally found common ground in the last battle of all, the one to build her.
On the planet below, things were relatively calm. High above the old, beautiful city of Halleck in Aludra, the 39-inch mass driver Bolverk, the largest gun on the planet, stood guard over the sea. It was more a symbol than a weapon; the Halleck coastal battery had not been fired in anger in almost eighty years. Today a party of schoolchildren would be visiting, and the Battery Commander, a young noble, was busying herself making sure everything was perfect.
At 46, Mariella Lorii was preparing for her final parachute jump as part of Double Edge before retiring from 117 SPU to work as a drill instructor, while her little sister Sophie was preparing for her first alongside her. Her girlfriend Maxine had retired from the military after losing a foot to a mine in Garam during the civil war there, and now ran a motorcycle repair garage. Her older little sister Nadine was studying for a postgraduate degree while running the family burlesque house in the evenings; under her, The Imperial had become one of Alurna's most Respectable places for Ladies to share polite conversation and food while enjoying the acts and appreciating the beauty and elegance of other species.
At 74, Ingrid sen Sola had evaded every possible avenue of retirement, the Field-General still commanding a tank. By now she was on her fifth, Claudia V, an S-4 Black Swan II developed after the Battle of Omar. She was rather enjoying exercises against the first generation of Chiran main battle tanks; she had always felt the Chiran "agile army" concept focusing on light "infantry support vehicles" supported by fast artillery was a mistake. She was also busy dealing with the fact that she had spoken with Claudia V so often that the AI was essentially sentient; this along with Griffon PCAVs*** flying missing-plane formations after the Battle of Omar without ever being programmed to do so had led to a lively debate about AI citizenship.
Shian Xinyang and Shiori Shima, a Chiran-Etrusean duel citizen and an Etrusean, were enjoying a pleasant holiday in Halleck together, taking in the city's famous libraries and bookstores in the old quarter. It was their first time in Aludra, and while Shian had been nervous at going abroad without her beloved girlfriend Fio, so far it had been a pleasant one.
Very few looked to the sky. Aludra and Chira were preoccupied with their first joint military exercise, Operation Double Edge, both eager to show they could make it work but equally eager to show their best and quietly gather as much data as possible about the other's capabilities. Space had never interested either; large space launch complexes would be seen as long-range ballistic missile facilities, a needless provocation, and with both having the ability to shoot down anything the other placed in orbit by this time, space programs were seen as pointless expenditure. It was a private citizen with a small telescope who first sighted Guardian as she passed close to the moon.
*Veda always assumed these were their original bodies, but this turned out to be because Veda in the presence of these cells will instinctively incorporate them into their Groupmind if they are not part of one already. Aludran research indicates they are self-sufficient organisms, and it is now believed the Veda intelligences arose independently of any physical body, with some theorising that their bodies do not exist in this dimension.
**Hazad's year, due to the size of the star, was a lifetime long. Szakade marked their equivalent of years in terms of lunar cycles.
***Pilotless Combat Air Vehicle. Being "unmanned" is fairly normal for Aludran aircraft, and all other options sound silly.