That’s when I realize that everything has been going too well and that I really should have known better. Life imitates art, and there seems to be this pervasive theme in books and stories that only bad things can go too smoothly, and then only up to a certain point. That’s why I have been preparing for when shit’s going to go tits up, but now that stuff is actually going wrong in bad ways, I’m just sitting here, too shook to react.
And everything had gone very well for a while. Bord and Angeta were first reinforced by Vox, who went and kicked satellite butt in his own way. Then the rest of my students all found their way onto the frontlines of long-range space warfare. Ket and Tess combined their skills in surprising ways. Tess just dragged Ket along into the shadows, and the void of space is nothing but shadow when seen from a certain perspective.
Ragni provided large scale protection, spreading truly impressive amounts of finely woven gauze in a massive area around herself. Where Angeta seems to have gone down the path of highly intricate and detailed weaves, her childhood frenemy has taken a more industrial mass production approach. The bullets aimed at her had to go through so many layers of weave over such long distances; their momentum got arrested before impact.
The hundreds of large scale artillery weapons also wrought lots of havoc. I do suspect that the beam cannons did more damage to the atmosphere than the satellites, but I’d need to run the numbers on that to be sure. The airborne drone-mounted beam emitters did awesome damage once the atmosphere was no longer getting in the way. As long as they weren’t shot down, at least. The first autonomous beam artillery drone reaching the stratosphere provoked the only case of simultaneous satellite fire I’ve seen so far.
Such a large amount of satellites had been taken down, that Rhea has been sending wounded cultivators on retrieval missions. Most have crashlanded into the sea, but a few landed dangerously close to population centers. Rhea, being the diligent manager she is, saw an opportunity, and sent a few retrieval crews.
These crews have not met with any form of success so far. Soft ground and mere rock are far from competent at stopping the falling stars. Each satellite weighs in at several thousand tonnes at the very least while being around the size of a large car or horsedrawn cart. That’s a couple of hundred times heavier than an equivalent sized block of solid steel. There is once again plenty of density fuckery going on with these things. This also explains why they are so vulnerable to Bord’s gravity manipulation.
While all that has been going on, I’ve been preparing too. I’m slowly gathering power, sinking it into my blade, just to be sure. I can pull upon all the power inside Tree, sure, but I’d rather have an easily accessible source right at hand. That way, I won’t have to rely on nebulous and not clearly defined connections with pocket dimensions. There are at least a hundred spatially locking techniques that I can name without even looking it up, and I’m not willing to risk anything at this point.
Lola also seems to be doing fine, somehow. She is sitting on my shoulder now and is just chilling there; her eyes closed while keeping hold of her entire cultivation base. There is still the slightest hint of a ghost poking from her underside. Her entire cultivation base is being pulled downwards, and she seems to be doing similar training as me.
Nexus is still trying to turn me into nothing with its information beam, and the Core beneath my feet is still filling up with qi. It’s now surrounded by a shallow cone of dense and quickly-moving power. It is pulling in qi from well over the horizon. I do wonder what is happening to the ground and earth through which all this power is being pulled. I’m honestly a little swamped with mental calculations as is, so I make a note to check that out later and resume my vigil.
All in all, everything is going really well. Those two beastkin scientists came up with a unifying theory, using the constant stream of superheavy objects landing on the poles in order to correctly assess the number of satellites in orbit around the planet. They calculated where all that super dense trash is coming from, and the answer honestly surprised me.
They first thought they all originated from the sun, as their incoming trajectories pretty much dictated that. They went through all the observation data on the sun they have so far and concluded that nothing has changed about the star. No orbiting production facilities, no proof of qi infection, and no clue as to where the items were coming from.
They then extrapolated the orbit beyond the sun and found out that they all just had a near brush with the sun’s outer atmosphere. It’s close enough to disintegrate almost anything, but the other-dimensional artifacts must have shrugged off these conditions with ease. Following the orbits even further back had thrown them for a loop, as their origin point seemed to be this planet. I’d interjected then, and told them to add the moon into their model.
In short, Nexus has been creating these items, or getting them from somewhere, before launching them into an orbit that will take them near the sun, before they slingshot into the planet’s poles.
Why it does any of this is a very good question and one I’d like answered sometime soon.
At least that allowed scientists to figure out that there are seven layers of satellites around this planet. There could be more in orbits beyond Nexus’s trajectory, but we haven’t seen any hints of that. I keep going over the information that’s being gathered and correlated, double and triple-checking on the progress of everything as I quietly gather power. The Core continues sucking up power, and I’m starting to wonder when it’ll be satisfied. So far, it has gathered more power than I have in my body and Tree combined, at least a dozen times over. Qi might be super dense in Tree compared to the rest of the world; the world is many, many times larger.
Checking in on the progress of the assault, I see that tactics have changed. The initial layer of satellites, between a hundred and two hundred kilometers up, has been cleared a while ago. The second layer got destabilized nearly immediately after, and the last few ones still in space are just about to enter the atmosphere. The rest are in varying states of chaos, more than half of all the satellites have crashed, while only a few are still in their original stable orbits.
The great thing about the super complex ball-shaped stone shooters is that they seem to be capable of maneuvering or firing, but not both. They can do slight course corrections, but so far seem to lack any form of decent propulsion or maneuverability.
My students have adapted to this. Instead of taking on the ones orbiting at extreme altitudes themselves, they are now on protection duty for the few truly long-range specialized cultivators and the floating beam weapons. Ragni is creating pinpoint accurate openings in her defensive cloth parameters, allowing beam fire through while closing them immediately after. Vox is just blasting at things using faster than light beams while Bord pulls him back and forth. Angeta is trying to copy Ragni with plants and failing. Ket is doing his ultra railgun thing again while Tess seems to be pulling projectiles into the shadow realm long enough for them to miss the duo.
All in all, things are going well, and I still know that stuff is going to go wrong. I can feel it. I just can’t find the source of this hunch. I once again go over all the variables, but I only can’t find whatever is causing me this gutwrenching dread. So I decide not to care about that for now. I hate worrying about nothing, and I refuse to waste my time pensively pondering about stuff I can’t change.
So I just blatantly ignore my gut feeling and check in with Rhea. My lovely dragon is getting rather bored at this point, and I can’t really blame her. We shoot the shit for a while, making inane comments on the events happening inside Tree and in the outside world. Then neither of us can take in any more, and we burst into giggles. Tracking and guiding the thousands of people involved in this entire operation takes up most of her attentions, and resisting the power of Nexus and the Core I’m standing on takes up most of mine, so we idly chat about nothing to while away the time while we work.
The sixth layer of orbiting launchers is taken down then, and some of Rhea’s retrieval teams are reporting success when it comes to excavating the crashlanded satellites. The last and final layer takes a lot longer to destabilize, if only because of the massive distances at which they orbit. Bord can only keep up so much of the atmosphere, and most of my students do need to breathe occasionally.
“Ragni is really something, though,” I idly mention a few hours later.
“That won’t work anymore, you know. I believed you at first, but I just can’t see you getting it on with someone that’s less than a percent of your age.”
“You calling me old?” I reply, hoping to rile her up enough to catch her with another unexpected comment that is sure to make her giggle.
“Yeah. You are old. Still just a youngling, though. How does it feel to be the boy-toy of a granny two-and-a-half times your age?”
I try to hide the grin that I’m feeling. “Don’t ignore the sleep difference. I’m not having this discussion for the twenty-second time. I’ve been asleep longer than you’ve been awake!”
“That’s what you argued with the first twenty-one times! Come up with new arguments already. By the way, what’s going to happen now that there are barely any satellites left?”
“Ah!” I suddenly shout out. “That’s why I was getting a bad feeling. I don’t think we should disable them all. Just leave the current ring of defenses in a crippled state, that way-”
“Really? Well, I got bad news, then.”
“What?” Why is my stomach making backflips again?
“Remember how you were creating all those Tree portals that’ll replace the crystals?”
“Yeah. Gathering or creating those massive stones is still ongoing, right? How do you like the design?”
“So I started the emerging process in the human capital, as I was hitting the floating crystal’s data transmission capacity. Something I learned from thi-”
“Rhea, what is it?” I interject, knowing full well the tone that she is using. Overly explaining something when you feel like you’ve fucked up is a character trait we seem to share.
“The king shot at the last satellite. The entire city joined in. The last satellite is about to get hit.”
“Haha, very funny. There is no way that foulmouthed idiot can make such an impossible shot.” I try to think of how impossible it must be, to hit something thousands of kilometers away while having to pass through an atmosphere. The chance of even getting close is astronomically small. “Here, I made a quick sum. There is no way that he’ll hit it.”
Silence greets me.
I shove every single thread of power at my disposal into my brain. The wild panic surging up my chest turns from a quick explosion into an arduous journey of terror creeping though my guts as time crawls to a near halt. My sense of smell speeds up before anything else, and my olfactory sense receives a hundred times the usual amount of signals for a fraction of a microsecond. I can somehow smell the cold sweat that’s breaking out all over my skin. The rest of my brain speeds up from twenty to ten thousand times normal speed, and I search for Rhea.
I don’t find a single trace.
Not a single thread.
Only a slowly collapsing patch of vacuum in the shape of a lovely dragon in human form.
Only a quickly disintegrating tree of meaning, translucent branches carrying information, falling apart quickly.
Database overheats immediately. It tried to catch up with my crawl speeds, and that act alone overheated large patches of jade. I manually go through all my senses connected to Tree, and the first thing that strikes me is that the Core beneath my feet is silent. The shallow cone of speeding qi, causing by it’s massive suction force, is slowly losing its integrity, dissipating into loose ambient qi once again. The Core is silent, though. I check my mental map and see it still unchanged. It’s mine, though - my material. Like a part of Tree - and thus my cultivation base - is just hanging outside of it. I pull it into Tree, and the process starts immediately.
Then I notice that Nexus is no longer focussing on me. The spinning shields above my head are protecting me from nothing. A piece of quickly closing vacuum appears beneath me. This one is not shaped like a lithe woman. This one is large and rectangular.
My mind finally manages to make a connection to Tree. Database was taking care of coalescing all of the drone data streams into a coherent whole. Database is now a partially melted puddle of silicon, oxygen and trace elements. I still have access to all the drone data streams, as they are all connected through Tree. I flip through the channels, only to see traces of Rhea’s disappearance everywhere. The faint white branches so telling of her management are starting to crumble in each visual feed.
Then I flip through the data streams coming from my student’s rings, and I see that I’m missing one. I see Tess. Her eyes are fixated on a piece of empty space. Surrounded by metal scraps is a hollow shape that looks an awful lot like a certain skinny boy.
Nexus needs to die. I will crush it and kill it.
Flipping through more channels, I see Angeta reaching out a hand. Ragni is only half there, and even though my perception is crawling at ten thousand times slower than real life, she is vanishing at a visible pace. Just like Rhea’s hands did a while ago, the voluptuous beastkin is vanishing block by small block.
I shout at the Core that just appeared above Tree, inside my core. I scream at it to stop this. Its insides change then, every single cube of identical atoms flicking through the same pattern. I tell it to stop, and stop Nexus.
Then I notice that my legs are slowly breaking.
Wondering how that happened, I see that some part of my mind has been working hard. I’m carving simple laws of motion in my flesh, starting from my toes and working up my body. I find a process bursting veins and ripping cells in just the right pattern to engrave speed upon my skin.
My gaze is still locked upwards, and I know my target. I barely have the presence of mind to reduce the acceleration of my body by a small bit. Lola is still on my shoulder, and I will have to limit how fast I'm speeding up to prevent her from being turned into tomato soup, after all.Previous Chapter Next Chapter