Two thousand, three hundred and four years later.
"Trysten, you are to answer the question. What does the book mean by 'convergent advancement?"
Tryst looked up from his desk, 'my name is Tryst...' he thought at the teacher. But it was useless; the man was far too formal. He held his slightly tatty textbook looking at the diagrams and timeline of development and scientific discovery made by their world. And below were a few other parallel timelines with similar discoveries and advances labelled, for several other planets and races. He sighed and stood up, the other students sat at their tatty desks, heads resting in hand, eyes looking out the windows. 'Interplanetary studies is SO boring,' in everyone's opinions, 'who cares about worlds only traders and rich people will ever see?' but the course was compulsory, no matter how seemingly pointless.
He brushed his fingers, pushing his tatty brown hair aside as he stood up and answered.
"Convergent advancement is the theory that it isn't our environments that judge how a sentient race develops, but our genes, or some other factor. The evidence for that is that the consortium of planets, all have similar timelines of war and science, changed only by the time at which the planet's population first stabilised after the colony blackout." He slumped back down. And the teacher resumed reading from the book to them.
"It was a few thousand years ago the colony blackout occurred. All the consortium planets, and in theory more which have not yet been found yet, were colonies to one species, but something happened and the colonies all shut down. The population's devolved and destabilised, becoming tribal or medieval styled, until whatever order was found or created stabilised things once more. It was so long ago most remains of those colonies are gone now. It took a long time for anyone to even believe it, that they weren't native to their home worlds. No one knows why the colonies shut down, or who the original race was either." 'And who even cares, we're alive and they aren't' thought Trysten. He thumped his head onto the desk in boredom,
"Trysten, pay atte-"
An air raid siren pierced the room, everyone looked out the windows and stood up, the teacher included. The city seemed normal, a clear day... more sirens played up, and a voice on a loud speaker outside, a police man was shouting to exit buildings and evacuate. Military trucks were pulling into the city from somewhere, cars on the road being forced to pull over for them. The class was beginning to panic, Tryst's own cool attitude gone, he looked at their teacher,
"Everyone stay calm, leave your things, we need to go." The students hesitated but for once listened to the pencil-like man, and rushed out the doors. Tryst was still looking out the window; he could hear the roar of engines ripping at the air,
"Sir look!" The teacher rushed over,
"Trysten we need to go!" he took his arm gently to usher him on,
"BUT LOOK!" Twenty floors up gave them a good view, and Tryst pointed at the space port, where large numbers of ships were shooting out of the hanger bays built into the side of an old mountain. Far more than normal,
"What are they doing?!" The small ships didn't follow the normal flight paths, many arcing around and flying far off course, as if away from something. He stretched to see the sky, but it was clear there was the moon... and then.... the teacher saw it too,
"What is...." near the moon a silvery sheen painted the sky. Like a shining cloud. It was growing, fast. Trysten looked back at the space port, the great dry dock doors had opened, and a vast battleship was lifting from the bay, thousands of powerful ion repulsors lifted the great kilometre long beast, many of the launching ships started changing course and falling into formation behind it, merchant vessel and military fighter alike. High above, the great cloud was now visible. They looked like toys to Trysten, they were so far... several dozen massive battleships, with other smaller vessels scattered around them, hung in the sky. And then.... thousands upon thousands of what he guessed were fighter craft. They flew like birds, swarming and flowing in a great cloud. It took him a moment to even realise they were within the atmosphere.
The battleship was out of dock, Trysten could make out the name 'Hortensia' on the hull. he could see the blur of its shield fluctuating and charging up, the large guns turning towards the flock of ships, its 'escort' held behind it, to give the great cannons a clean line, or perhaps they were hiding behind the battleship. A crack of thunder rolled over the city, and pale green light flashed as the Hortensia's main cannons fired, and again and again, into the swarm. The plasma projectiles, large as Lorries, shot through the swarm but the cloud made holes, curved and danced around the shots. A few must have been hit, but not enough. He could see the enemy craft now; they even looked like birds, two wings curving back, behind them. Behind the cloud, other larger ships were flying into orbit, but they were much bulkier.
"Landing craft?" The teacher commented. He too was mesmerized by the scene. It didn't seem real, as though they were watching some movie play against the glass. "I don't recognise any of those ships though..."
The Hortensia's smaller guns, spread all over its body began firing, thousands of tiny shots flying against the air at the enemy, who had covered the distance to them, the birdlike fighters swarmed around the battleship, they seemed to be ignoring it completely, Trysten realized with its shields up, the fighters probably couldn't harm it. but its escort... only frigates and larger had generators strong enough to power shields, and even then only the most expensive craft could have their shields up and still be able to fire their weapons without hitting their own shield. The military fighters and merchant ships pulled up and around, breaking formation and engaged the alien craft. Trysten gasped in amazement and hope, they were winning! The small craft were being destroyed in the dozens! But the initial engagement changed fast, as though the enemy were learning how to engage them. Soon it was the military ships taking heavy losses, the capital ship pulled around to face the fight,
"What the hell are they doing?!" Trysten saw as its shield broke up and faded, they had lowered their shields! The fighters could harm it now... and on cue; the alien swarm banked around, and attacked the battleship. The military and merchant fleet, or what was left of it, chased after them.
"I see what they are thinking. Just watch, they know what they're doing, just watch." Tryst could see small lines of smoke where the alien fighters shot, and strange marks on the hull near where they flew, but again it was like they didn't even know how to fight, where the Hortensia's weak points were... as the escort group got close to the battleship, they pulled right up to it, and it re-raised its shields, with them safely inside. His teacher put a hand on Tryst's shoulder, "See, now they are safe inside!.... Wait... with no targets those fighters can engage now... where will th-" he was interrupted as the bladelike alien craft swarmed and swirled in a great ring around the Hortensia. They ignored the capital ship's guns firing in all directions, picking off fighter after fighter, and devoted themselves to the intricate dance... Tryst's bewilderment didn't last long. There was a great rumbling sound, the sky bled crimson through the thin clouds. There was a single silent moment they watched, before the thought to take cover could run through from mind to body. At an unavoidable speed, a great bolt of heat and energy, burning blood red descended from the skies. It cut straight through the Hortensia, passing through its shield as though nothing stood in its way. The bolt itself continued down and into the earth, where it exploded with a great tremor that sent the two of them flying off their feet, just in time for the airborne shockwaves that shattered the window, to miss him.
* * *
Trysten didn't know how long he was out. It could have been hours. The room seemed dark, as he cracked his eyes open. His whole body ached but he ignored it, he had to get up. Tryst put his hand out for support and touched flesh, his hand jumped away instinctively. With muted horror he saw it was the teacher. Shards of glass jutted from his back in several places, trails of blood seeped from his lips. 'But his still warm?' it couldn't have been long, Tryst blocked out his feelings, he had to get out of here now! He pulled himself up with the nearby desk; outside dust clouds overcast the sun. He spared a moment to try and see the situation, but it was hard to make anything out through the grainy fog, and it forced him to blink and squint. What looked like the Hortensia lay several miles from the city. 'It had managed to limp closer?' it was impressive considering the size of the weapon that hit it, but it heartened him, 'maybe an escort ship-' there was one! Outside the building, was one of the military craft, a small corvette; probably had a crew of seven or eight. It seemed pretty beat up, but lights were on.
He turned and fast as his aching body allowed, left the room and limped down the corridor, to the stairs. Tryst gasped as he got into the stairwell, a large gash in the wall opened up the stairs to the outside. The broken concrete seemed stabile but... he carefully sidled down the stairs. Every creak set his teeth on edge, every crack felt like the whole side of the building could collapse. The only other sound he could hear came from outside, through the gash. Shrill birdlike warbles, which he decided were the alien ships flying nearby. They blended like music, both beautiful and harrowing. He had descended three of the twenty flights of stairs when a new sound joined the first. It had the same warbling ripple to it, but was much deeper. He likened it to an old toad croaking, but the pitch extended beyond his ears. 'The larger ships?' the whole building vibrated as one passed right overhead, the stairway cracked further and creaked with stress. Before he knew it, he was running down the flights of stairs, as the whole upper half of the fault split and broke away in great tumbling boulders of concrete. Above he could hear the stairway too, collapsing, but he just ran faster. With a single floor remaining to clear, he lost his nerve as small rocks hit his shoulders and back, and Trysten dove through the doorway, into the hallway of the second floor. Dust filled the room and a great crash heralded the final collapse of that part of the building. The floor he lay upon started to sag and Tryst scrabbled onwards, falling to his feet and running headfirst. As suddenly as it began to fail, the building seemed to stabilize, and fell silent. One final, almost lazy, crash burst out as the centre of the floor caved in. Trysten bent down low, resting his hands upon his knees, wheezing to catch his breath in the dusty air. His heart was racing, but there was no time to rest, he could hear the engines of the corvette fire up, before an unhealthy rattling noise grated against the smooth whooshing, and the engines shut down again. Outside he heard a gruff voice.
"God fucking damn it!" Kyle slammed his fist against the hull of the engine, small dents where his fist impacted distorted the sheet of metal. He opened his hand and patted it more softly and graciously said,
"If there's ever'a time I need you its now, so work, come on darling come on..." in defeat he lent heavily with his left hand on the smooth metal work, and patted the engine a little more. Inside the vessel, the only other surviving crewman, his captain, was typing away on the ship's onboard console, overriding all the fail-safes and bypassing several damaged systems. They had taken a glance from one of the blade ship's lasers, but the small patrol boat was mostly intact. The shot had hit some of the circuitry and fried the damage monitor systems.
"Kyle, I'm powering up the laser cannons. This ship may be brain-dead, but I can still use the turrets to hold them at bay if they have another go at us, god forbid." His clear accent exposed his training. Perfectly calm, even upbeat, despite the dire situation. Kyle looked up and watched the blade ships that circled overhead... they weren't trying to kill them, and it unnerved him.
"Captain, you SAW what them monsters have on their side! Let's get the ol' girl in the air and run for Christ's sake!"
"Well if you can repair the engine we can." Kyle sank lower and punched a few codes into the keypad, under the maintenance hatch he had open and reached for the test fire lever again, but paused as someone shouted,
"Wait, don't go without me!" Trysten slid down the smooth collapsed flooring and out the side of the husk of a building. Kyle looked over his shoulder at him, and breathed heavy before turning to face Tryst,
"A civvie? I thought you were meant to be evacuated... still you look strong..."
"Yeah there was a problem. I'm Trysten."
"Name's Kyle. Well, you've just been conscripted, Captain's in the cockpit, he'll show you what to do. We lost our gunner when we went down." He turned back to the engine and pulled the small lever, and the engine fired up, choked, then shut down again. He grumbled and leant back to wait for the captain to remove a few more safety constraints. Then engine wasn't badly damaged, but the wires for the damage detection console had been severed, the computer thought there was huge damage to them. So it kept shutting them down. Trysten stepped through the small airlock of the corvette and into the cramped deck area. There was barely two by six foot floor space, with the sunken down cockpit at the bow of the craft. There were four seats facing outwards, also sunk into the floor, at the port and starboard, with keyboards, control sticks and monitors. There was a final seat, with monitor displays to the left and right, at the stern of the craft. Seemed to be some sort of damage control and onboard mechanic's station.
"Trysten, think you can handle the ship's starboard laser battery?" He looked up at the captain, the man still sat in his pilot's seat, typing calmly. He hit enter, and the command lines he dictated started running through the console, and he reached up and grabbed onto a handle above the chair, with which he lifted himself up and stepped out into the gangway.
"Here," He motioned to the gunnery cockpit, and Trysten obeyed without question. He jumped over and slid his legs into the space beneath what he only guessed could be where the lasers hardware was. The captain leant over and used the controls, activating the laser cannons, and set it up for Trysten to use.
"Ok it's just like a video game; this crosshair on the monitor is the manual aiming point. That's where the cannons are aiming. Use the control stick to aim and trigger to fire. Anything that has a targeting box around it, is something the targeting computer has locked onto, use the other trigger for the lasers to ignore analogue input while you hold it, and they will lock onto the nearest target. The computer can judge and aim well, but it's not perfect, so you take over when it can't handle things, like if they swarm us. Just keep calm, and keep shooting, ok?" Trysten hesitated as he took the controls, and with a touch of uncertainty answered,
"Yes captain." The man patted him on the shoulder,
"Good lad," and returned to his own seat, and checked the console. Kyle, fire the engines again, I believe I got it this time."
"Right you are captain," he shouted from outside. In a single moment great humming engulfed the tiny space within the ship as the engines roared into life once more. One moment. Five moments. They stayed online this time; Kyle stuck his head into the ship,
"Seems to be holding steady captain, your orders?" with great spirit he ordered,
"Close the maintenance hatches, and get into the port gunnery seat. I'd say damage control is collateral at this point. We fight our way out, or die where we sit.
"Aye captain." He withdrew his head for several moments, then re-entered, shutting the airlock behind himself, and jumped into the port gunner's seat, opposite Trysten's side.
Outside, on the monitors, Trysten could see the large alien drop ships reaching the surface. The closest pulled right down close to the street, several hundred metres away, in Trysten's line of fire. It had three scratches over the port side, like some great beast had clawed at it.
"Hold Trysten, they might not be after us." The captain manipulated his controls, testing the secondary and navigation ion engines. The strange, but bulky, silvery tinted drop ship hovered eight feet over the road, and the bottom slid open, a narrow platform, held with several hydraulic pumps lowered down, and touched the street, and sixteen humanoid's stepped off. They were clad in dark full body armour, a thin visor stretched across the helmets, a dark cyan hue against the black. The platform retracted back in, then came back down and another sixteen jumped down. The group backed away from the ship, which pulled up and flew away, Trysten guessed to collect another invasion party. The humanoid soldiers held large rifle like weapons, he could zoom in with the controls, and examined them. The gun lacked a barrel, and instead had two long metallic protrusions at the end, and a nozzle to one side. He zoomed out again; the squad loosely arranged into four columns of eight men and started jogging in their direction.
"Mark your targets and fire at will, I'm taking her up." The captain calmly spoke, Trysten pulled the trigger and the beam fired into the squad. They jumped and dodged aside with inhuman speed; the first few took the hit and fell back. Their armour smoked with cooking flesh. The others took cover behind bits of rubble, Tryst fired the beam over and over, holding the trigger and swinging it around, a small gauge which he guessed was the laser cannons internal temperature started filling up and he slowed down, to firing in short bursts. Their own corvette lurched upwards, and started slowly rising and turning as the captain realigned it to take off down the road. If he took off vertically, they would be picked apart by the blade ships, the buildings gave them some cover as it was, and with the speed from a run up, he could try to fly them out of there. The ship turned until the soldiers down below were no longer in his view, they had kept behind their cover to avoid the heavy laser fire. He lent back and looked over at the captain's monitor. The digital imaging of the exterior and surroundings showed the squads breaking cover and aiming their strange weapons up at them. They weren't firing though, just aiming. Tryst thought they would make it out of there! The ship was almost aligned with the narrow street between the skyscrapers.
"Massive spike in alpha radiation levels captain!" Kyle exclaimed, Trysten saw he had configured the co-gunner's computer next to his, to take over the tasks of damage control. "It's not us, it's from outside the ship! Raising Ion shields sir." He leant over and punched in a command to the console, raising the magnetic shields to protect the ship from malfunction. Tryst looked back at the infantry outside,
"Kyle those soldiers, their guns!" his pupils dilated as the weapons lit up at the tip and for a fraction of a second he realised what was coming. Railguns were not a common weapon. Difficult to produce, and much more often sold on the black market to pirate factions, for hunting poor traders travelling to the outer reaches for rare trade. All this shot through his head, at lightning speed, much the same as the arcs of highly concentrated electrons streamed from the tips of their Railguns at the now highly positively charged corvette. The sweeping and lacing bolts of blue light licked against the outside of the hull, warping in shape around the magnetic barriers.
"The Ion shields can't take it captain, they're shorting out!" the captain gritted his teeth and slammed the engines on full, to get away. The craft lurched forwards with concussive momentum. All the monitors lit up and crackled with sparks and fire, the electronics fizzled and shorted out, bands of electricity dancing through them like in intricate, beautiful patterns, tracing the veins and arteries of electricity. The engines lurched and shuddered. The Ion shields had failed and the debilitating electrical force destroyed the ship's systems. Brain dead, it continued onwards, the engines sputtering and choking into death, guidance and propulsion streams lost synchronisation. The craft banked hard left, turning sharply downwards. Were it not for the heavy metal over his legs pinning him in, Tryst knew he would have been tossed about the cabin with Kyle's tools. The spinning craft crashed into the edge of a building and folded in at the front, crushing the Captain. Blood spattered all over the inside of the ship, flecking against Tryst's face, drops even entering his shouting, terrified mouth and tainting against his tongue as he choked on the man's taste.
The movement ceased. The ship crackled and sparked with burnt circuits, but it had stopped moving. Trysten had hit his head in the last impact and moaned distantly, touching hand to forehead and finding blood. His own blood this time. Kyle was shouting...
"CAPTAIN! CAPTAIN! No, Niko, NO!" He was sobbing and tearing at the useless monitors and controls the held him in place,
"You bastards. YOU FUCKERS! I'll kill you ALL!" the airlock hissed and both pneumatic seals unlocked then opened up. He was only vaguely aware of it. The struggle that ensued. But he heard Kyle trying to fight the men that shot them down. There was another crackling and cries of pain. Flashing lights and the smell of singed flesh and synthetic fibre. Kyle mumbled incoherently as they stopped shocking him. He weakly pushed them away, but a small hiss of something, and Trysten heard the man collapse in silence. His heart started increasing in speed, numbed senses crying for him to wake up, to run!" he felt a sharp pain, like a bee's sting. And that same hiss. In moments he felt his thoughts swimming, and his vision blacked out.
* * *
He didn't know how much time passed. How many hands his limp body passed between. Where he was, or what was being done to him. Centuries and moments flitted by him in the drunken state the sedatives left him in.
He woke with such shock that he bit his tongue hard. Tryst looked around, 'Kyle, where is Kyle? Where is anyone..." the first real thought in his mind was 'Why am I standing?' indeed he stood. Metal clamps fastened around his midriff and wrists, holding him in place. Another went around his forehead and he fought to look around this cramped tiny space. It was miniscule, barely more room than his body itself took up. This 'coffin' was not wood but silvery metal and translucent frost glass. He realised that through the numbness that still bit into his higher reasoning, he could focus his bleary vision enough to see. His ringing ears to hear. But there was nothing to hear... heavy footsteps, the occasional human moan... quiet and subdued... and then others, pained, primal... he tried to speak, but rather than 'where the hell am I' he moaned,
"Wer he hll a e...." he could see figures moving outside the pod... humans? They wore the same dark armour and helmets. Some had exposed faces, human features... bled of colour and emotion and life... the fully armoured ones carried limp figures... and were placing them into open pods... his heart started racing again, the screams... he would be screaming soon too...
Almost as though on cue, he heard to shutters slip open, near both of his ears. There was a moment of terrifying silence. Then he shuddered and moaned loudly in pain as two metal prongs pressed into his flesh, digging in sharply... a ringing filled his ears and head, whispering voices that weren't his... "Ah- AHHHHGGG!" He shouted, electricity coursed through the prongs into his skull. All his muscles flexed and clamped taught, he found it impossible to think, his mind was being destroyed!
All perception of time bled out of him as feeling became numb, and thoughts silent. Memories died and emotion bled out empty. The torture completely destroyed him. And all that remained was the whispering voices he listened to with fixation. He didn't think about them. only listened. Only to them.
After twenty four hours of the treatment, the pod glass slid open. Two figures stood waiting and as the clamps unlocked he fell silently into their waiting arms. Almost with care, they lifted and took him through the corridor to another room, where they layed Trysten's body down. And after several hours rest, he sat up. Robotically he slid his legs around and off the table. The voices were clearer now. Thousands in unison, conveying their orders. And then the other minds he felt, the workers swarms. Workers like him. Identical and factory built. With a blank face he removed his clothes and donned the dark armour. Listening to all those around him, he walked down a corridor and joined the one of the newly forming squads, one of many under their Echelon commander. He followed formation and entered one of the landing craft. It had three scratches over the port side, like some great beast had clawed at it. He entered with the rest of his squad, all thirty two of them. The airlock closed, and the landing craft undocked. Ready to join the rest of the vast invading forces of the Archon fleet.