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In Fire and Ash
By Aaron S.

An Introduction

The floor lurched and the walls shuttered violently as Admiral Norvitz and his entourage raced through the crumbling old battleship toward their waiting escape pod. In all his years of service, the Admiral never expected to see his old warship destroyed with him still at the command. All his years serving aboard the old girl were disintegrating in fire and ash. There was little time to reminisce now, their pod awaited.

"Admiral", the young ensign shouted over the explosions "We must move faster! Your safety is imperative!"

Admiral Novitz turned his attention to the determined young man and intended to speak his mind, to tell him never to be so disrespectful to a man of such high standing. Before he could say anything an explosion ripped through the corridor. There was no sound, merely a red-hot searing wind as the force of a thunderclap knocked everyone to the ground. As fire spread above his waylaid team, the surrounding world slowly clouded...

The Admiral opened his eyes, unsure of the time that had passed. He was no longer on board his ship. He was now lying on the cold metal floor of an escape pod from the C.W.S. Coat of Arms; he recognized the insignia of his old ship. The escort, sitting inside in a circle around him, once fifty strong, now consisted of seven men, burned and bleeding from every area of exposed flesh.

"My ship...Where are we?" the Admiral asked of his shaken troops.

"We're safe for now. That's about all we know, sir."

The lantern jawed man looking down at him with cool blue eyes was a welcome sight. His best Captain had survived the slaughter. Deep inside, the Admiral knew he would. The man could not be killed, it was that simple.

"Captain Airoue. It's good to see your ugly face", the Admiral grinned. "Where are we? Where is the rest of my crew?"

Airoue's face tightened only for a moment. The man had a strong composure. "I can answer one of those questions, Admiral...if you really want the answer." The Captain looked down at Norvitz with a face so full of anger it could frighten a stone, anger intended for their enemy. The Admiral knew before he asked that his crew were all killed. There was no point in avoiding the fact.

The Admiral, with the help of several bloodied soldiers, strained to the nearest window where the Captain had been setting his gaze. He expected to see something of interest, but saw nothing. No planets, no nebulae, not even a nearby star system. The blackness of space permeated everything where a small pinpoint of light from a distant star did not.

At the head of the oblong pod, attempting to work the communications, was the ensign who had been so rude to the Admiral before. All of that was overshadowed by their trouble now.

"You didn't answer my other question" the Admiral said to his Captain, "Where the hell are we?"

Captain Airoue merely shook his head and continued looking out the window as he said, "We haven't got a clue." The man quickly turned to face the aching Admiral and informed him of the situation at hand.

"Sir, we've passed through a wormhole. We're not sure where we are. We have only a few days worth of rations on board. Lieutenant Arturo managed to target a nearby planet and direct us towards it, it's only a matter of time now."

So the young man was a Lieutenant, the old Admiral thought. Age must be creeping up on him; he had always known his crew inside and out. The old man hoisted himself up to one of the seats next to the Captain.

"Captain, do we know of any life on the planet?" The Admiral asked.

"Sir, as I just said, we don't know where we are." Airoue looked at the Admiral with a questioning glance.

The Admiral could not believe his redundancy. He should have known that. Such a look from his Captain spoke volumes. The Admiral would not ask any more questions. He could not afford to have his few remaining troops thinking their leader was a simpering old fool. He looked out the porthole to his right and waited. They all waited in uncertainty; waited for more uncertainty...


The Search for Hope

On board the C.W.S. Saratoga the search and rescue equipment was going crazy. Warning lights flashed, ion trail detection devices showed hundreds of paths leading to and from the battle site and the extraction gear was pulling metal shards and pieces of bodies alike out of the cold space. The area had become a junkyard. Where once the pristine Confederation of Worlds' Armada had rested, undergoing deep space reconnaissance, now only frozen pieces of metal floated in the abyss. Captain Serman searched the darkness with unforgiving eyes. He dared an enemy ship to attack now, to attack a Human starship that was ready for battle. He almost wanted some unknown evil to spring from the darkness. The long range sensors already relayed that no enemies remained, but he searched nonetheless, perhaps to pick up something the sensors could not. However, all the cowardly Saurians had long fled the scene of their attack. They would not have stuck around long after such a horrific assault.

"Sir, the recovery teams say there is nothing left but flotsam out there." One of the young officers said.

"Keep searching." Captain Serman said coolly.

"But, sir, there's nothing left..." the ensign stated unsurely.

Turning his head from the empty blackness, the Captain merely looked at the officer at the helm.

"Yes, sir. Dispatching a second recovery crew now." The ensign said, under the weighty eyes of his commanding officer.

Captain Serman would not give up on the old Admiral who had once given him what he thought were such pointless commands. Somehow he knew the man was still alive. Even if he were clinging to a shard of metal and holding his breath...the Captain smiled. He remembered how he was once ordered to scour an enemy shipyard, filled only with empty hulls of stripped down vessels. What seemed like a fruitless task produced a hidden cache of enemy star maps and trade routes. Captain Serman would find this man if he had to search every piece of wreckage by hand himself. He would not give up on the man who did not give up on him.

After hours of searching, a voice came in over the VoiceComm.

"Captain", a hurried man blurred, "You need to see this now. Um, sir!"

Serman turned without a word and hurried to the cargo hold. Some shred of the Admirals whereabouts were too much for even his strong will as he broke into a dead sprint down the corridor.

He burst into the recovery bay, out of breath and desperate to see something positive. Instead he was greeted by a fragmented piece of metal that read "...S. Coa...rms". It was easy enough to piece the puzzle together. He would not need to see the other pieces that had been recovered. He turned for the bridge immediately, just as quickly another message came over VoiceComm. The news of what had been found stunned even the stalwart Captain. He walked onto the bridge only moments later with the plan of action already ingrained in his mind. There would be no turning back. This wormhole they had discovered was flailing violently. If they did not pass through now, the tunnel could collapse or begin to lash through space like a sentient worm. He gave the order for their massive deep space vessel to enter at full speed. There was no looking back as the ship became shrouded by the pulsing energies inside the unstable wormhole. The ship was pulled in, hurled towards the unknown.
Uncharted Territory

Several days had passed in the cramped life pod. The planet came into view what seemed like ages ago. A massive green giant coated in beautiful vanilla clouds. The world seemed almost too appealing, as if anyone who saw it would be drawn there. The likeliness of this world being uninhabited was slim in the Admirals mind.

They had finally come within range to begin descending to the surface. As they entered the thick atmosphere, the blue and red fire of a fast descent flashed outside the portholes. Everyone remained fastened to their seats as Lieutenant Arturo piloted the pod to the surface, hoping for a smooth area on which to land.

As the rumbling vessel broke through the cloud cover the oceans and forest of an untouched world appeared below. The pod skimmed low, looking for somewhere to land amidst the massive alien trees. There was no clear area to be found and the ship was descending too fast to search any longer. Novitz gritted his teeth as the craft clipped the trees at a speed he dared not imagine. Everything grew silent as the woods they were flying over ended abruptly in a sheer cliff. The drop below lead to a massive lake. The ship tried to veer to the shore, but could not make the intense turn quickly enough. The trees drew closer at a violent speed. This would not be pleasant. Blackness consumed Novitz's mind, only warm pain existed in the void now.


Chapter 1 - Remnants of Pride

Many decades had passed since the Human and Sakkra forces had begun to clash. The forces fought for pride and nothing else. What had started as border skirmishes developed into a full-blown war when pride turned into an overwhelming hatred of the other race. Their battles were played out on a grand scale; entire worlds massacred in the name of the victorious. There were few allies to be had nearby. The illusive Trilarians were more than happy to fight against the Sakkra, but their numbers were few and their power dwindled. The Meklar refused to aid anyone with flesh and blood. The only other race within range was the scattered Bulrathi. A forgotten empire from a bygone era, they flourished under the helping hands of the Human race. They were given homes and land upon which to live, but they were used as labor and many Bulrathi doubted their value to the Human cause.

The lack of allies did not mean a lack of casualties, however. Most recently a large fleet of ships had simply disappeared off the charts shortly after relaying a distress signal. They had been wiped out and the ship sent to find them, the C.W.S. Saratoga, had vanished without a word. No one knew the fate of the almost 2,500 men that were now unaccounted for. No one except the few survivors who were just then pulling themselves from their crashed life pod...
Light returned to the world again as Admiral Norvitz awoke to a gasp of thick and muggy air. The ground around him was laden with bodies covered in a milky fog. The stench from the mud he was laying in was overpowering. Muffled voices brought a stir to the air as two men were making futile attempts to revive the dead, the obviously dead.

Norvitz rolled his head to his other side only to see the ravaged face of Lieutenant Arturo. His empty eyes gazed beyond Norvitz; they gazed at something no one could see. Norvitz suppressed his throbbing stomach and rolled onto his side away from the glazed eyes of his young officer.

He was immediately greeted by Captain Airoue who had been bandaging the Admiral's leg, which was bent in three directions.

"It's good to see you awake, Admiral", Airoue said, "We were afraid to move you. You're not in good shape, sir."

" many?" Norvitz asked.

"We lost 3 men, sir." Airoue said as the gurgling moans of someone nearby announced a fourth among the dead.

The Admiral attempted to speak, but no words sounded as his mouth worked silently.

"Save your energy, Admiral", Airoue said, "You're going to need it. We have a long hike back to shelter. We saw a cave before the crash."

The Admiral nodded weakly and once again laid his head to rest in the mud. He trusted Airoue and at this point he had no choice. The man was capable enough to handle the group without the ailing Admiral's help.

"Admiral", Airoue looked into his eyes with what appeared to be compassion, "We have to move you. This will hurt."

It had been an understatement. As Airoue lifted the Admiral off the ground, something beyond pain coursed through his body. His leg dangled below the knee, barely attached. The pain was too much for the old man and he fell unconscious. Airoue continued past the wreckage towards the cave they had spotted on the way down.

It had only been dumb luck that the lake was deep enough to absorb some shock, but shallow enough to let them glide to the shore. Still, the crash had been terrifying, even to Airoue. Two of the men, including Arturo, had been dead on impact. The others died from trauma. Now only two men aside from himself and the Admiral were alive. The V.I.P. pods contained the highest ranking among the crew. While most had died in the initial fight to reach the pods, Chief Engineer Davidian Brooks and Crew Counselor Martek Cain had survived. They would not be helpful if the group was forced to fight for their lives, but they were intelligent men and had kept themselves together so far. They pressed on towards the cave.

In the distance, Airoue heard the sounds of indigenous life. They were not pleasant sounds, not sounds that a visitor wanted to hear. Above him, the sky darkened and a light rain began to fall. A fitting weather pattern to match the somber mood of their voyage's end. All around them, massive trees with inch-thick bladed glossy leaves blossomed menacing spiked red and gold blooms above thick, black, gnarled trunks. Oily plants dotted the ground, some even seemed to watch the strange passersby as they neared. Spider web- like moss hung from all the trees and swayed in the gentle breeze that, though it was warm, made Airoue shiver uncomfortably. The ground was a dense mud satiated with strange clear rocks. But for all his searching, Airoue could not find a single form of life within view. Either everything was afraid of the Human gathering or smart enough to stay out of this place they were venturing through. Either way, Airoue did not like the feeling of being watched that he had experienced since they climbed out of the crashed pod.

Airoue examined the remaining men from his squad. Brooks, a short heavyset man was always unshaven and dirty, with short black hair, where there was any hair left, and quiet brown eyes, but was a good mechanic. He could fix anything that was broken and some things that were not. He mumbled when he spoke, but had a powerful voice and commanding tone when shouting orders to his men. He had a very deep respect for authority and was one of the trustworthiest men Airoue had met.

Cain was a different story. Martek Cain was a short man, small in stature, with a strange way of looking down his nose when he spoke to someone. He had no hair to speak of and piercing green eyes. He wore old style glasses and had a way of walking that reeked of arrogance. He looked too deeply into everything a person said, which was, after all, his job. He took everything with a grain of salt and was too quick to give his opinion at the wrong time.

Their trek across the muddy shore and embankments had been strenuous as the mud bogged them down with every step. Sweat rolled down the faces of Airoue and the other two men. The heavy frame of the fragile minded old man weighed down his every step, sinking him deeper and deeper into the primordial sludge.

As Airoue trudged through the hot stinking swamp towards the cave that only he had seen, he could not help but think of the disaster that had befallen the ship. Against his own will, he put the blame on the man slumped in his arms. The old man's mind was slipping, but Airoue had no power over the Admiral. In truth, they only wanted the man along as a symbol, something to boost moral. However, the man had soon tried to issue orders and shove his weight around. He made brainless calls and orders for protocol that were older than Airoue himself. This was not the old military, the one that existed before the Breaking of Sol. This was something different. There was no protocol. Everything was in the hands of the Viceroy on Tau Ceti; he made the ultimate calls. No one on these ships respected a man of higher rank; it was all just a ruse to appear as a collaborated workforce. In truth, a Bulrathi would have more influence by flexing his arm than Airoue could have over his crew. The crew only obeyed their outranking officers in fear. Fear commanded the fleets now.

Lost in thought, Airoue stumbled in the mud and collapsed into the shallow waters. As warm water hit his face, the sulfur in it burned his skin. The foul tasting sewage stained his tongue and he struggled to get back up, the Admiral pinning his arms into the mud. Brooks helped pull the two men back away from the water while Cain watched on. However, it seemed they had reacted too slowly. Something in the water stirred.

Bubbles popped through the top of the toxic lake, bubbles far too large to ignore. Large ripples began moving towards the shore as the three men struggled to get to the cave, now within reach. Airoue now dragged the Admiral along the mud while frantically searching for his sidearm. He always carried his loaded GP450 gauss technology pistol, which he raised and fired into the water, just ahead of the bubbles that were fast approaching the shore. He emptied a full twelve round clip into the water, each bullet striking with penetrating force; anything that was below would have felt that. It was evident when whatever had been coming towards them quickly fled back to the safety of the deeper areas, the water nearby darkening in color.

"What the hell was that?" Brooks demanded.

Airoue calmly responded, "Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever it was, it doesn't want us here. I suggest we take a hint." He said as he pointed at the cave, just a few hundred yards away.

Cain, who normally spoke more than people wanted to hear, had been silent until this point when he exclaimed, "I don't know what that thing was, and I don't want to. Let's just get out of here before it comes back."

The other two nodded in agreement as they trudged the last small distance to the cave. It appeared dark and menacing from a distance. The closer they got the more obvious it became the cave was not empty.

Cain looked up from a large mound as he said, "I think I know what's causing the smell."

Brooks kicked at the bones of a strange four-legged creature that looked to be built for speed. Obviously not enough.

They were unable to remain near the lake and the cave was already occupied. With no other choice, the men decided to venture into the forest. They would have to wait there in hopes that someone would see the ion trail leading to the black hole they entered. There was no guarantee that the forest was any safer than the cave, but they decided to risk it in hopes of finding drinkable water and food. There was obviously life here. Whether it was friendly or not was yet to be decided.


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