Fictober, Prompt 22 – “No promises.”
Warnings: implied monster/eldritch horror, air strike (but no people hurt).
World-eaters were supposed to be a myth.
We sent out what data we had anyway, in what we hoped was a secure beam to the nearest relay point. It would take a day or so at best to reach sector law enforcement and the trade fleet association. They would probably laugh themselves sick over it, but Vivi had agreed with me that we had to try.
While I was doing that, Vivi returned to an earlier task that we hadn’t yet succeeded at: cracking the encryption on Lin’s hidden files. It was a devilish combination of coding and magic that I was pretty sure was beyond me. “No promises,” she had muttered when she started, but Vivi was better at tricky, mixed hacking jobs – her mind worked through such problems from a different angle than mine did.
The regular seismic rumbles from…below…were getting stronger, and more frequent. Whatever we or anyone else were going to try, we had to do it soon.
I dug further into the unencrypted files, and found enough obliquely phrased information to round out what little about the world-eater myths I could remember.
World-eaters were alive, although the implication had always been that they did not fit into any of the standard categories of life that we used: animal, plant, fungus, or various microbial lifeforms. They were something else, and as such were not subject to the same restraints of life as we knew it.
They moved through space on their own, the legends said, and they ate—
Well, they ate worlds. Whole planets, bitten into chunks and consumed, heedless of anything that might be on or in them.
One document in Lin’s files suggested that they had a natural lifespan, and that at the end of it they did their best to find a suitable planet, into which they would lay a…seed, or a zygote, or whatever the world-eater equivalent was, and then die. Their bodies were then pulled apart sooner or later by various gravitational forces, scattering up into so much unidentifiable space debris.
The problem was that that natural lifespan was too long, from a human perspective. The myths, if they could be believed, spoke of “countless worlds” being consumed before a world-eater disappeared.
There was no myth I had ever heard that spoke of stopping or killing one. Lin’s readily accessible files were suspiciously blank on this point as well.
Hours passed. I left only long enough to get us minimal sustenance and water, but came back quickly. Whatever was going to happen, neither of us wanted to be alone for it. Vivi nodded in acknowledgment whenever I set something by her console, but didn’t speak.
“Yes,” she finally hissed in triumph, and I whipped around in my chair. Mingled code and spellwork flared red across several screens at Vivi’s console, followed by a series of pings as my flagging spells began to find things in these new files as they unencrypted.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” I told Vivi, and she grinned at me briefly before the reality of things set back in.
We dove back in.
“Definitely seems like it’s in the process of…hatching,” Vivi offered within a few minutes, and I nodded.
“Do you suppose it would help if we could force it to come out early?” I wondered, peering at a set of spells that seemed like they would connect to the rest of the spellwork already spread through the planetary crust and maybe…no it wasn’t clear what you would do then. “It looks like there are some spells here that would allow us to send commands out to all the spells in the crust. Could we maybe…force it to hatch early?”
“Would it really be early, given that it’s started to hatch on its own already?” Vivi sounded skeptical. “And even between us, even with amplification, do we really have enough power to crack a whole planet apart?”
“Probably not,” I admitted, in answer to both questions. “But…what else can we do?”
We both turned our chairs to stare at each other.
“At this point,” Vivi said, “I think the best thing we can do is get out. Upload as much of this data as possible to the ship, and get out of here. We’ll start streaming the data out to help convince whoever needs to be convinced. Maybe we can linger nearby long enough to record it hatching, and see which direction it’s going. We might be able to get to the nearest planet ahead of it, in time to warn them.”
We were both silent for a moment, contemplating the fact that no amount of warning had ever allowed anyone to stop a world-eater before.
“We have to try,” I agreed anyway, because we did. Who knew? It had been so long since there had been any record of one. Maybe now we had sufficient firepower, both magical and mundane, to make a difference. “All right, I’ll go get the engine online, if you’re good to handle the data upload?”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
I suited up, and headed for the surface airlock closest to where Vivi had set the ship down. Lin’s ship, a small, two-person transport of middling range, was there too, but we hadn’t done more than a cursory inspection of it.
I was three steps out of the airlock when an alarm blared over the comm, barely a second before Vivi yelled, “Demir, take cover!”
The thunder of engines and the scream of a ship-killer missile were my only additional warning, and I dove for the airlock just in time, half falling in just before the blast hit.
The laser cannon kicked on, and Vivi scored several hits on the fleet of small pirate-type ships that we apparently hadn’t scared off sufficiently the first time.
Or, I thought, peering grimly out of the airlock at what was left of both our and Lin’s ships, they might not actually be pirates at all.
We knew that Lin, at least, had been trying to help the world-eater hatch, and these were the same ships which had shot down the other one when it appeared to be trying to harm the planetary shell.
For as much as I had seen in my life, what would motivate anyone to want to unleash such a danger was beyond me.
Overhead, two of the ships vanished back up into space, the remains of the fellows now strewn across the planet’s surface, smoldering. Vivi did good work, but it was unfortunately too late. I cursed my own complacency – all the signs had been there before, but we hadn’t put those pieces together, hadn’t been on guard. Whoever these people were, they might have intercepted our tight beam too.
And at least some of them had gotten away.
I sealed the airlock and went back down.
Vivi’s face was grim, anger at herself apparent in her face. “The ships?”
I shook my head, and she cursed blisteringly, turning away.
“Don’t,” I told her, “don’t. I didn’t think either. If it’s on us, it’s on us both equally.”
“We’re equally dead either way!” she spat, but then the anger went out of her, her shoulders slumping just a little. Defeated looked unnatural on her.
“Is anything damaged down here?” I asked, and she shook her head.
“Not as far as I can tell, I started the diagnostics going,” she gestured to a screen running checks on the structure.
“Well, we’re still sheltered temporarily then.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “That’s a start.”
She took a deep breath too, and nodded.
“We’ll figure something out,” I said, not at all sure that we would, but determined to try.
“No promises,” Vivi retorted, but mellowed it with a wry smile.
In the next moment, the floor rolled underneath us, sending chairs flying and dropping us both to the floor.
At the console I had been using, the biggest screen flared warning red as the seismic monitoring spells spread a diagnostic image across it. An enormous crack, stretching a full fifth of the planet’s circumference, had opened on the other side of the shell, shaking the entirety of it in a gargantuan earthquake.
The world-eater was hatching.