According to the memories I’d picked out of Tuun’s head, the creature these guys were after (the thing he had called a Leunphia) was the largest native inhabitant of this place. They possessed some kind of natural resistance to certain magical poisons that the Fomorians were fond of using. Resistance beyond what most could easily achieve without heavy magic expenditure, and they had it naturally. A few other animals and plants from this place were also resistant. Hence this outpost. They were investigating the origin of that resistance and whether or not it could be built up. There was also some kind of long-dead society that used to live on this planet, and some of the Seosten thought that whoever those people were might’ve been responsible for the poison-resistance demonstrated by the present animals. So they were looking into that. Which was where a lot of the slaves came in, being used to help dig out the long-buried civilization, collect artifacts, pinpoint promising remains, that kind of thing.
But the scientists who were investigating the actual biological reasoning for the resistance needed a lot of samples of their own, and worked through those samples quickly. Between that and the fact that a lot of what they managed to collect was sent to be utilized in the war, yeah, they always needed more. Like the big guy Tuun and the rest of these people were after.
Helping them get this thing wasn’t my job right now, obviously. I had much bigger things to worry about. Unfortunately, I didn’t know exactly how to go about dealing with those things. The message from Elisabet had just said for me to ‘follow my instincts’ and that I would eventually make my way through all that. I would find Nicholas Petan somehow. But what happened between the moment I got that message and when I actually found my way to Petan? That was a blank. A blank I was apparently supposed to fill in just by taking my best guess at what to do.
Right now, my ‘best guess’ was to fit in and not set off any alarms just yet. I needed more information, and that meant at least playing along for a few minutes to see what happened. The only good part of this whole situation was that I was already in the future. Whatever Fossor had done or had failed to do in those intervening four years was over with. I wasn’t on any kind of clock right now, as far as I knew. However long it took me to get to a point where someone could send me into the past, a few minutes, hours, or even days here didn’t really matter. Well, as long as I didn’t get captured and killed.
Besides, I was supposed to follow my instincts, and part of those were telling me that finding out more about this whole ‘resistance to magical poison’ thing might be relevant and important when it came to Fossor. The Fomorians might’ve written the book on those things, but I was pretty sure Fossor had at least read a few of the chapters.
Scanning Tuun’s mind had also let me know what he was capable of beyond tracking, family identification, and bone manipulation. Thankfully, for the most part aside from the bone thing, it wasn’t anything super-exotic that would turn into an immediate red flag when I couldn’t do it. He was pretty strong and fast, had good vision, decent regeneration, and some kind of paralyzing bite. But their plan didn’t involve him biting this big thing (mostly because it would’ve been ineffective), so that wouldn’t come into play. Most of the rest I could fake. Hopefully. But the bone manipulation could be an issue. I didn’t have that and I couldn’t easily fake it. Thankfully, their plan didn’t involve him using it. If it came up… well, I’d take that as it happened.
Stowing my own staff and replacing it with one of the weapons stowed in the pockets of this suit felt wrong. But again, I needed to blend in. The thing I managed to pull out was a combination pistol-rifle (it swapped between both settings at the touch of a button). I was going to have to make do with it for the time being. At least my guy hadn’t been some great crack shot sniper or anything. That definitely would’ve given me away.
As I’d already reasoned out, Tuun’s part was to stay back, get into position with his rifle, and start shooting the thing once some of the others startled it into running. They would guide it past Tuun (or who they thought was Tuun) on one side and one of the other soldiers on the opposite side. We were supposed to pump enough firepower into it to take the thing down to be harvested. According to my guy’s memories, shots to the legs were most important. Bringing the thing to the ground without damaging precious internal organs was the idea. Once he was down, a couple of the others would deal non-traumatic killing blows with their own powers. They just needed the Leunphia to be on the ground and unable to run away.
God, this was really fucked up when I thought about it too much. Seriously. I knew why they were doing this and that it was for the very good cause of finding a way of defending against the Fomorians. But still, just the thought that they needed to destroy this thing’s legs so it couldn’t run away, then kill it in a special way to preserve its organs… eeesh. Yeah. Fucked up.
Making my way to the position that Tuun had been heading for, I hit the button to turn the pistol into a rifle. Then I cringed. This was the bad part. With a sigh, I got down on my stomach in that nasty snot-water. Yes, it was very shallow right here. Shallow enough that I could lay on my stomach and still keep my head out of it. And yes, I was now wearing a fully-sealed environment suit. But it was still gross.
Shaking off those thoughts, I folded out the electronic scope on the rifle. It had a screen that showed an enhanced look at everything the scope could see, including where all my–errr, Tuun’s teammates were, thanks to trackers in their suits. It also showed me where the Leunphia was quietly grazing on a couple trees a few hundred yards off.
Once I reported being in position, again faking Tuun’s voice, his boss (a guy named Qive) ordered everyone else to sound off. They were all ready, so he gave the word to start the attack.
Or… he started to give the word. But in mid-sentence, as everyone’s attention was on the giant Leunphia, there was a sudden loud alarm through the suit’s communication unit that made me jump in surprise. The alarm muted after a brief moment, before a voice came through, speaking rapidly in Latin. So quickly, unfortunately, that I couldn’t keep up with it. Something about defense and an invader. That last part made me stop breathing for just a second as I looked around quickly. Was it about me? No. At the very least, they didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. Otherwise I wouldn’t be getting the alert too.
“Incoming ship.” That was Rahanvael, floating beside me. “The alert was about an incoming ship. They’re telling the field teams to come back and set up defenses because the station is about to be under attack.”
“Under att–Nicholas,” I abruptly realized. “It’s Petan, it has to be. This is just the kind of thing Tristan said they did–do–whatever. Attacking a Seosten outpost full of slaves, it must be Petan. This is how I’m supposed to meet up with him.” After muttering those words aloud, I was distracted by the sound of this group’s leader ordering everyone to get back to the outpost, immediately.
Rahanvael disappeared once more, as I shifted the rifle back into its pistol form and rose to follow the heat signatures of the other members of Tuun’s team. Petan was coming. Now I just had to figure out how to get close enough to let him know who I was. I had to maintain my cover until the right moment came, and hope everyone here was too distracted by the incoming invading ship to notice anything different about their teammate. At least for a few minutes.
There was a flashing teal dot on the edge of my visor screen, which moved from one side to the top when I turned to follow the other people. Belatedly, I realized it was indicating where the outpost was. Even for people who were actually supposed to be here, it must have been easy to get lost out in the wild. Especially in a swamp like this.
Not that it stayed a swamp for long. Within about ten minutes of running (none of us acknowledged each other, everyone remaining focused on getting out of there), we reached dry ground. There were a couple hover vehicles, basically shaped like trucks with long beds, parked there. The group split up, each half going to one of the trucks. Oh boy, did I hope my guy wasn’t supposed to drive.
He wasn’t, a fact I found out as one of the other guys gave me a push toward the back of the nearest truck, saying something in Latin that amounted to ‘the hell are you waiting for, let’s go.’
Right. Here went nothing. Glancing toward the sky, I moved to climb up onto the truck’s long bed, just as it took off. I barely managed to drop onto the long bench, prompting a few chuckles from the three other guys back there. They were all obviously nervous, glancing up at the sky now and then just as I had, while the truck sped across the open plains. Not that I’d ever been there, but it seemed a lot like driving across the serengeti. Save for the fact that the tall grass and trees were a pale purplish-red color scheme. I saw more wild animals on the way, including a herd of what looked like blue antelope with ram-like horns, and a huge red-black giraffe whose neck extended out to twice its already-decently long length to snatch a soaring bird right out of the sky with its wide, toothy mouth. So, not really like a giraffe then, got it.
The other guys were talking, but I kept my head down to avoid them paying too much attention to me. Now and then I was asked a direct question about what I thought was going on and how bad it was, and mumbled answers. Luckily, everyone was so focused on the attack coming from above that they didn’t really focus on the person sitting right with them. They believed I was the guy I was supposed to be, so they didn’t question it too much.
How was I going to do this? When should I make my move? I needed to get close enough to Nicholas Petan to explain the situation. Which seemed hard to pull off in the middle of a war zone. I could find a place to hole up and wait for the attack to be over, then approach him. He’d definitely recognize me, after what happened last year on the Meregan world. I just had to get to him. He could fix this. He’d sent Tristan back in time, after all. Recently, actually, if my math was right. He’d sent Tristan back, so he’d be able to send me–wait, Dexamene. To make this whole situation work out as well as it had, he had to send Dexamene back first, to the Meregan world so she could help Elisabet, who would in turn help me end up here–damn it, time travel was complicated.
The point was, he had to send Dexamene back to set off the dominoes that would lead to me not ending up Fossor’s nicely packaged prisoner. I would worry about trying to figure out what had happened in the timelines where she wasn’t sent back there to create this loop later. Maybe.
Of course, shit couldn’t stay uncomplicated for long. My idea had been to get to the outpost, find a place to hole up, and wait for the fighting to be over before approaching Petan. Instead, there was a sudden shout from one of the other guys in the back of the truck. He was already standing up, pointing toward the sky. I followed everyone else’s gaze, looking that way in time to see some kind of space fighter zooming in. And from the way these guys were reacting, it wasn’t one of theirs.
“Oh… balls,” I managed, just as the fighter opened up with a stream of lasers. Everyone else had already started to fling themselves out of the truck. I followed suit, boosting myself slightly to leap up and off the side, landing in a roll through the tall purple grass just as the truck blew apart in a deafening explosion. The concussion wave from the blast knocked me flat against the dirt, hitting me like a hard kick right across my back. Oww.
Snapping out of that moment of being dazed, I rolled over and looked up in time to see one of the troops I’d been with extending his arms, vine-like, up toward the passing starfighter in an attempt to grab onto one of its wings. At the same time, a handful of small, spiked tentacle things extended from his legs to drive themselves into the ground, as though rooting him there. Around him, a few others were already picking themselves up and shooting at the fighter. A distraction, I realized belatedly. They were sending lasers to hide the extended arms that were about to grab the wing.
Not that it mattered in the end, as a handful of magic runes suddenly glowed brightly on the back of the ship. It vanished from sight, only to reappear back where it had been when it first opened fire. Magic. Teleportation or a physical rewind spell or something. Whatever it was, all the shots and the extended arms missed. And the ship was in prime position to open fire on the troops, which it did, raining hell down on them. In those brief couple of seconds, I saw seven men get blown apart by spaceship lasers. It was a total massacre.
And then the fighter hovered there, orienting toward… me. Wait. Shit, right, they didn’t know I wasn’t–fuck. Eyes widening, I boosted myself as hard as I could, lunging up and out of the way. My speed boost, coupled with the strength of my legs and arms, shoved me a good fifteen feet away, where I rolled just as those lasers tore through the ground where I had been, sending dirt and debris spraying everywhere.
Unfortunately, whoever this pilot was (or gunner, I supposed), they were really good, adjusting their aim almost instantly. Even as I came back to my feet, the lasers were about to fire at me again.
Well, shit. Here went nothing. Seeing the ship start to open up, I focused on my energy absorption power. I’d been trying not to use it, considering I wasn’t sure exactly how much damage I could safely take. But just as the shots came, a flash came to mind. A memory from those weeks spent with Fossor. He had taught me to manipulate death energy, and there was a lot of death around me from those guys who had just been vaporized. With a thought, I yanked at that energy, pulling it into myself to use as a temporary boost before instantly shoving all of it into my absorption power. It just sort of… worked. I guess it was sort of like having a nitrous boost on a car, overcharging my absorption to the point that my whole body started to glow.
Then the ship lasers hit, and I was really glowing. My body was hot. So hot I was literally smoking. My eyes burned, my skin was sizzling. But I was alive. I was in one piece.
I was also standing in a small crater. Literally standing there in a hole, my body glowing so much I could see the light I was casting reflecting off the dirt around me. Discharge. I had to fucking discharge this energy, before it burned me inside out.
No way was I going to attack the ship that had just fired at me. This was all a misunderstanding. They thought I was one of the bad guys, one of the Seosten troops. So, instead of launching all that energy back at them, I pivoted and pointed to the remains of both of the already-destroyed trucks. The power erupted from my hands like… like when you shake up a soda bottle really bad and then open it up. I was literally knocked backward a step from the force of the power that launched itself that way, utterly annihilating the remains of the trucks.
Please. Please let the guy or whatever up in that ship understand what that meant. He’d shot at me, I absorbed the power and demonstrated that I could have destroyed him, but didn’t. Please let that mean he’d actually talk to me.
It worked. Holy shit, it actually worked. I saw the fighter hover there for a few seconds as if taking all that in, then it slowly began to descend. He was going to talk to me. Thank God. He’d talk to me and I could explain the whole–
Something hit the fighter. It just fell out of the sky, splatting like a… like an overripe peach or something. Only it was bloody and… and there were tendrils snaking out of it. . I could see eyes, like… a snail. Fuck, it was a giant snail with tentacles wrapping around the ship, tearing it apart. I barely hurtled myself out of the way as the fighter crashed to the ground, exploding on impact.
The snail-tentacle thing was destroyed in the process. But, lying there on the ground, I looked up to see more of them. And other… other things. Ships. Only they weren’t mechanical. They were living things. Enormous, tentacled, monstrous living ships, similar to things I’d seen before… when the protective spell around Earth had almost been destroyed because Koren and I had figured out who Dare really was.
“Fuck… everything…” I managed.
The Fomorians were here.