When the Battle’s Lost and Won | By Casey Darmody

“The shoggoths are doing well,” Damos says, with a tint of weariness appropriate for the end of a shift. “One has an infection.” It’s freezing, as always. Surrounding him are clean snowy wastes punctuated only by the subtle curves of snow-dunes, the lakes of liquid crystal he’s here to mine, and of course the nearby shoggoth node that towers over it all like a skyscraper. Winding and branching umbilical cord-like Nutrient Lines radiate from it to every shoggoth in a 10km area, those amorphous and mutated workhorses of the Sarkic Ecumene.

His supervisor knits his brow, and raises his voice to speak over the quickly rising wind from the east. “Get that taken care of tomorrow. I don’t want any more complaints from the Pyramid.”

“Neither do I,” he says in a raised, but apologetic voice. His mind begins to wander to his family, but is brusquely guided back to purpose by a subconscious emanation from the west.

*          *          *

Meanwhile, something phases into space, far above the worker and the supervisor so as to be unseen and unknown. Air, light, and thought bend around her, and she perceives without vision. The two Damu walk away from each other: small, dark figures against the all-encompassing white. She turns her immaterial eye, and projects her perception to the far future.

The Pyramid is under siege. Flocks swarm in patterns and military formations, circling the geometric density of weathered crystalline stone. Thin pulses of a pure, white light beat against the structure, which every so often are returned with colorful, sonorous blasts from the car-sized Nephilium laser barrels bored into the material.

Damos and his supervisor are both here, although they won’t last long, especially not after the side they picked. They’re horrified at the enemy. Ironic, considering their own states. Two of thousands, warped and twisted, each plugged into the towering mushroom-like shoggoth nodes.

Knuckles pale on the remote controls of the Nephilium laser, the sensation of its warm heartbeat a comforting connection to the Biosystem, he braces himself against the cold glassy crystal of the Pyramid, eyes and nose subject to stinging numbness from days of intense blizzard. In every direction, the streamlined and simplistic forms of the Ophanim drones fall onto and through the white ground like snowfall.

He observes, with developing shades of confusion and contempt, the bits and pieces of fractured Ophanim more than 500 meters below his station on the rugged eastern face of the Pyramid. No flesh is visible. No organs, nor blood either: not sentient, then, just the cold unfeeling programming of a drone. Surely. He doesn’t understand why they come. Surely to assimilate them into their horde. Then something immense falling from above catches his attention.

It’s a sphere of sapphire the size of a house. Within is a maze of lenses, prisms, and meshes carved from diamond, which catch and scatter the evening light tinted blue by the outer casing. A dim sparkle grows from deep within, like the first light after an eclipse, which streams through the inner workings of the sphere as it falls, building into a sun-like blue inferno.

The casing shatters as it hits the pinnacle of the Pyramid, and a wall of force cascades from it in all directions. Space compresses and rarefacts, sending faults through the lattice of the ancient construction, bursting conchoidal chunks into the air. The wave itself is silent, but the air is filled with the layered orchestra of boulders and shards.

Damos is thrown into the air, his body seized by the momentum of the slab beneath him. One of his mutated fangs brushes what appears to be a blister as his body is shaken like a rag doll, sending him into a momentary cold sweat. The passing air tears at his form, the nearby rubble existing in stasis relative to him for an indeterminate period of time, the surface of the soft snow surging up to him and hitting him, and passing by him.

Time passes.

The world re-asserts itself, and Damos finds himself in complete darkness, shrouded in a blanket of dulling cold. Alone, he hopes, and if not alone, trapped in the snow with a comrade rather than with an enemy.

To his dismay, mechanical tics and groans signal the presence of such, and his own breathing, raspy and unnaturally resonant, very probably signal his. The Ophan speaks suddenly, startling him. “I’ll be found eventually, after the battle’s been won.” Its voice is synth-y and glib, “If we wait here, you’ll have the opportunity to join the Triquetra.” The last phrase ends with an upward intonation one would use with animals.

A period of silence passes, save Damos’ unnatural breathing, then a fear-filled, glottal “Why?” escapes his throat. “Why would I want to die?”

“Oh, it’s not death, it’s Ascension!” The Ophan explains in the same glib tone, similar to how a door-to-door evangelical might explain an obscure piece of theology. Again, a deep glottal plosive emanates from his warped throat.

For many minutes they sit still, listening to each other’s subtle signs of life, the noises far above them growing less frequent over time. Then multiple synth-y voices, unintelligible, grow in intensity and frequency above them, until the sound of digging can be heard: a mix of soft and sharp as the layers of snow and ice are shoveled away, accompanied by mechanical tics. Panic rises in Damos’ mind, and in his throat like the sound of a cornered and hurt animal.

Before they came, those within the Pyramid had prepared for this by giving their protectors and guards an uncommon module. Bracing himself, jaw trembling slightly, he presses the blister with a fang until it rips with a small amount of blood. His mouth is filled with the taste of burnt almonds, as his mouth and throat burn.

“Great. The damn thing killed itself. At least it didn’t destroy my 15th shell this week. By the Sisters, this is going to be a hard report to write. At least we won,” the Ophan thinks to herself.

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