THE CRATER, EVEN AT SEVEN KLICKS AWAY, was clearly visible from space. The destructive forced needed to have created the dent on such a large scale was phenomenal. It was as if someone, some ancient God, had taken a gigantic hammer and hit it the moon on one side. Gasps had echoed round the darkened bridge as images had popped into life on the master screens.

Whispers now endured as commands were given and ‘Aye-ayes’ of acknowledgment barked in reply. The bridge was alive with subdued activity but no one, busy at console or board, could concentrate for more than a moment before they glanced back at the slowly looming mass of the devastated moon.

The moon itself was now on a rather awkward ellipse towards the small planet—that held it in its thrall—one of three uninhabitable desolate rocks that orbited the solar system’s star. There was every possibility it would crash into the small planet causing yet more local devastation, and who knew what sort of long term repercussions that would have in the future for the local area.

The Kigva, and her small flotilla of ships, had taken a number of hours to pass through just one of the many debris fields that littered this whole area of space, inbound toward the desolate moon.

Inbound to what, though. Arianrhod thought. She paced a tiny section of the bridge in front of her chair. The Captain’s chair, the central of three.

A tall pensive willowy woman, back straight, arms held behind, lost in thought. She quietly walked back and forth, occasionally glancing up at the screens, as with each passing hour the moon grew in size as the crater grew in size. Her mind never stopped calculating, analyzing, thinking. Static crackled from her, a spark flew. It brought subverted glance from round the room. Stillness settled in, people turned their heads back to their workstations.

Arianrhod brushed a stray curl back into place displaced by the effect. Her thick black curly mass of hair was plaited and held into place with a single item of color in the darkness. A red ribbon. It stood out in stark contrast to the jet-black hair and black uniform she wore. She sparked once more. The tiny burst of golden energy lit up her face for a fraction of a second illuminating the curve of sculptured face and pale freckled skin. The almond eyes almost as dark in color as her hair.

The Captain muttered under her breath and sat in her chair. She looked out over her crew from her position on the Command shelf, they were busy trying to look busy. Though in truth no one could do much, not at this stage, not till they came in for orbit. If, in fact, an orbit could be achieved. She looked back up at the screens and, uncharacteristically, sighed.

Several hours of discussions back and forth between ships captains and the analysts and still no one could come up with a suitable explanation or scenario for the devastation that they were all now witnessing.

How. When. Why. Who and, of course, what. She had gone through them all. When was easy. They knew an ‘event’ had occurred courtesy of all the crazy communications chatter they’d picked up, one sector over from where her miniature Fleet was on patrol, in the Dorin Sector. A relatively empty desolate area that boarded their space. Only twelve hours out and just inside the Dead Zone.

Arianrhod, without waiting for consultation or even approval from the Admiralty, let alone Moth—the head of the Bright Worlds Council—had responded immediately. It was the first positive thing she had been able to do in the last several months.

The Captain stood and walked to a railing by the ramp leading down into what was affectionately called the ‘pit’. Her posture still ramrod straight. She stared at the moon on-screen as if it might reveal its secrets from here. What could it tell her? Finally she returned to her seat and almost slouched down, lost in thought.

She hoped to find some answers to all the questions posed by going to the moon’s surface. If they could get dirt-side, that is. Llew was still adamant that it wasn’t the safest thing to attempt, given the moon’s current instability. She had no intention of being dissuaded, though.

The possible ‘Who’ behind the catastrophic event she had already surmised, as they all had the previous day, in discussions. It had to be this new, as yet unseen, enemy, the one they were calling the Destroyer. Who else had that power? Who else had the capability? Who else went ‘round destroying entire planets and their populations?

Everyone thought they had the answer.

Arianrhod thought to wait and see.

This would mark only the second time he, or part of his Battle group, had ventured this close to Bright Worlds space. So far he had held off coming into their territory. Held off any attacks upon them or the Allied planets. A ploy without a doubt, Arianrhod had argued to Moth, in order to forestall the peace-loving Bright World’s council from taking action. Stop them from retaliating against him and his slowly growing Armada of destruction and death. Retaliation was not their way.

That had been a rebuke for her.

“Taran!” Arianrhod uttered the single word under her breath and stood. She began pacing again. She blamed Moth for allowing this, listening to those who preached caution and mediation. Moth, of all the Elders, of all the Elementals, should know that this man, this being, would come. Would come for them all, it was just a matter of time. Then they would have to make a stand, then what? Who would be with them, who would be left to stand beside them? All the worlds they had let fall…all those poor souls sucked up into The Destroyer’s nightmare?

It was simply a matter of time before he came. Planet after planet had fallen in the outer regions. If they didn’t act and act soon, they wouldn’t be able to defend even the Bright Worlds themselves. There was only one possibility, one scenario that played out in her mind, almost continually, as to why he hadn’t attacked the richest prize of all. The thought made her heart constrict.

Her mother.

Just what had happened? What bargain had she made with the very Devil himself?

Anger flared. She sparked across the bridge. Little dancing lights of energy. Rebuking herself, Arianrhod dampened her field. The energy, harmless, quickly dissipated. She wondered if the Elementals alone would be able to stand against him, stand against him and win? They were so few of them and with each passing decade fewer were being born. They had become a dying race.

Her attention was drawn across the bridge by the hiss of the doors opening. Llew entered like a dark-clad knight from out the bright light of the corridor beyond, into the semi-gloom. His military uniform was stretched tight across his frame, his dark features, as always, grave. Arianrhod always thought he looked like he was about to burst a seam or a blood vessel. So far, neither event had occurred. She wondered idly if any of the Marines he commanded had a ‘book’ open, taking bets, as the bulk of the man crossed the deck in a handful of strides.

“It’s done.” The man slid into the chair on Arianrhod’s left.

“You could have beeped me.” She faced him. There was something he wasn’t saying.

“I needed the exercise.”

Subtext then. She nodded. ‘He needed exercise’ meant he was still unhappy about the up coming mission and was still prepared to argue with her till the last minute but, had done as he’d been commanded. His part of the team for the Mission, were ready, prepped and waiting on standby. As were those of Captain Keira Thrace, the Ships’ Chief Medical Officer. Who, the Captain thought, was probably still down below, in her own domain, monitoring the incoming bio-data.

Along with the live Vid-feed displayed on the main screens, the drones and probes they had sent out ahead were feeding them some unusual data. One was via Bio-Med that said something was alive on the Moon. Barely alive, but nonetheless, alive. The signal originated in the heart of the blast crater. In the heart of where the massive explosion had occurred.

It was just another piece to this strange enigma.

“If something,” Arianrhod corrected herself, “if someone is still alive down there, on the surface, they may have answers.” She wanted answers, answers to many puzzling questions. But for now, like everyone else, she had to wait. Wait and worry that this wasn’t some elaborate trap like the one that had successfully snared her Mother and killed her.

* * *

Like strangely clad and colour insects three distinct teams emptied from the belly of the landing craft. One after the other each team moved slowly across the blasted terrain intent on the objective, the craters centre a few hundred yards away, as always ever watchful.

The bizarre and persistent acrid precipitation fell making the going tough.

Communications chatter bandied back and forth between the Marine units as they fanned out doing reconnaissance, securing their position even though every probe and surveillance drone had said there was nothing on the blasted ground or topside, in any direction.

Arianrhod listened in but said nothing. This was the Marine Colonel’s mission; she was there—against everyone’s advice and despite several very heated arguments—to see for herself.

Lagging behind, the CMO, Captain Keira Thrace, sweated in her suit despite the cooling unit being on high. The rangy doctor always felt claustrophobic at the best of times, more so at this moment as she followed with her Med-team, trailing in Arianrhod’s wake. They still had no idea what to expect and, accordingly, she’d brought the best she could under the circumstances.

What they found shocked even the normally placid doctor to the core.

The Marine Colonel and his lead team came round one lone piece of structure left standing and saw the body, the corpse, whatever the mutilated form was, laying atop what looked like a stainless-steel med-lab autopsy table. It stood on the only section of concrete still preserved as if someone had dropped the whole piece into the center of the destruction zone.

His immediate response was to warn the others of the grisly sight. It didn’t help. There was an audible gasp from the two Marines with him as they got closer. Benedict, the first up, immediately turned away and began to dry retch in his suit. Jin-lee did no better, turning instead towards his Commander, his face concealed by the shimmering gold visor.

“Sir…” The lone word almost pleaded. The sickened tone said it all.

Llew stepped past them both and held his own gasp, grinding his teeth in disgust and contempt as he took in the full measure of the destruction wrought on one small body. How could anyone do this to another human being? To what had once been human and now looked like nothing more than raw flesh…soaked raw flesh. It hung to the bones. And where the eyes should have been, nothing. Small pieces of flesh had been torn, here and there, along the torso, leaving jagged little edges flapping under the pressure of the strange precipitation.

He stared, unable to tear his eyes away.

“I think a Medivac might be too late Captain.” His voice was taut. He could feel his jaw muscles twitching to suppress the anger building in him. He wanted to rage, call down the Gods on the thing that had done this. But with the utmost control, he held himself in check.

Keira was annoyed that she and her team brought up the rear. As if the precautions had all been necessary given their Intel on the situation, especially as they had Arianrhod along for good measure. She charged passed everyone, including Arianrhod, straight for the Colonel’s side. Arianrhod was a heartbeat behind her when she heard the strangled cry the woman let out over the live communications channel.

“By the Gods…”

Keira seem to sag against Llew who put out an arm to steady the doctor. The rest of the medical crew stood in mute silence behind them.

Arianrhod had to fight her own emotions and the urge to do, as Llew had wanted, rage aloud for the whole Universe to hear. She stepped up to the table, flipped up her gold visor to see better and, in one deft motion, and unclipped the glove from her right hand. She stretched it out over the body. She had to do something.

Intricate patterns beneath her taut skin began to glow all of their own volition. A soft subtle power danced across bare flesh, as Arianrhod ran her hand a few inches above the body. Across the chest first then quickly up to the head, letting her hand hover over where the eyes should have been till it came to rest over the cranium.

“They are alive, breathing and have function.” She snapped in a controlled voice. Her hand flashed as a delicate light penetrated the soft flesh, seeking. She poured a part of herself into the body. Flowing energy lines fluttered, fed by her will.

Without warning, taking them all by surprise, the body suddenly convulsed and began to shake violently, it was as if Arianrhod had switched it on.

“Goddeau bryn.” Dylan of the medical team gasped, retching.

The medical Captain, Keira Thrace, and the rest of her team who, as if suddenly awakened from a trance, moved into action. Arianrhod stepped aside and out the way, moving off to the lone piece of wall. The Colonel joined her. No one else spoke for good few minutes as the medical team busied themselves. The Marines began to erect a makeshift tent so they could work in stabilizing the body before moving it.

Arianrhod reigned in her emotions, thoroughly disturbed to her core. How could this being, this fragment of humanity, still be alive after what they had endured?

Answers, she realized, might be a long time in coming. If at all. At least from this source.

“Initial analysis?” She asked the Colonel some time later. He’d just finished receiving brief reports from the two roving Marine teams, who were now heading back to regroup at their position.

“Nothing that will tell us anything definitive or that we didn’t already know.” She nodded.

“As for that?” The normally rock-solid Marine betrayed a hint of emotion as he stared back at the autopsy table, now surrounded by people and equipment.

“I’ve seen everything…but never, never have I seen something so…” He couldn’t finish his words.

Arianrhod put a gloved hand on his suit. The whole sight had stabbed her through the chest too. What she had seen gave her some small measure of what this Destroyer was capable of but, she knew, knew in her heart, that they didn’t know the half of it. Didn’t know the full import of what he could do, what he would do.

“If this indeed is His handy work,” Llew spoke, “or at least that of one of his henchmen, then they are being daring, even out here in this wasteland of space…he’s arrogant.” He added the last with a spit of anger.

“Why here?” Arianrhod heard herself say.

Why had the man or his people been here? And what was special about this wreck of a human being? Why had they survived where everything else had been so obviously destroyed? There was nothing in every direction but desolation and destruction. What vegetation, Bio had confirmed there had been some, had been consumed in a conflagration.

Arianrhod knew only two people, both Elementals, who were capable of such a conflagration of this size and scale, other than maybe the Destroyer Himself. Herself and her mother. She knew this wasn’t her own doing and, as far as she knew, as far as anyone from the Bright Worlds system knew, her mother was dead. Had died seven months ago.

“I need answers,” she muttered aloud. She saw the Colonel’s head move.

“Aye, Captain,” was all he said. ❦