Lunula

Annika Bates made herself a legend even before she saved Earth and the moon.

She was the first person to fly the Moonraker Assault Vessel (MAV for short). It was the first armed ship used to defend Lunula, the Earth’s first –and so far only – terraformed city on the moon. Prior to her piloting gig, Annika led the crew who built the Lunula itself, earning her the praise and admiration of billions for such a monumental task. Before that, she was the youngest to be accepted into NASA’s Astronaut Corps at seventeen years old. While her intelligence was on par with the greats in human history, her physical talents were even more prodigious. But her determination pushed her faster and farther than any astronaut, female or male, ever dreamed.

After the completion of Lunula, Annika returned to Earth to oversee the more daunting undertaking of creating a military presence in space. Lunula was utterly vulnerable with no way to disguise or protect a massive dome on a satellite consisting of nothing but rocks and craters. So, the Universal Military Alliance formed, designed by all of the remaining countries not on fire from conflict or drowned by rising seas, and made their first priority the creation of a defense force able to defend the moon city from any and all threats.

Transport ships were plentiful but ill-suited for anything more than moving supplies and people to Lunula. Engineers, scientists, and pilots worked tirelessly to fashion the right design for assault ships. Plans were finalized, with Annika naming the fleet in homage to her love of James Bond films. Production began.

Four months later, and with a week of intense testing yielded perfect results, the first Moonraker Assault Vessel was completed and ready for a manned test. Annika volunteered, shouting down any who tried to dissuade her. This was her baby, and she alone was going to take it out into the eternal black.

The launch, like the testing, was flawless. It exited the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 40,000 miles per hour, bursting into space. Annika’s breath was taken away at the vastness of the galaxy before her. It was this way every single time she flew into space, and she never tired of its grandeur.

She started the predetermined flight tests for maneuverability, gliding the MAV in a series of turns and speeds. She marveled at its ability to navigate at advanced speeds and how effortless it felt. The MAV passed all tests with flying colors. Turning towards Lunula, she gunned it to the last of the maneuverability tests. She landed the MAV, pretty as you please, in the bay built for it outside the dome. Tomorrow they would test the weapons systems, far away from home.

Annika just sat down at her desk reviewing the data from earlier when she was hailed by UMA headquarters on Earth.

“Incoming call from General Saito. Incoming call from General Saito,” the computer voice droned in monotone.

Annika sighed. General Eike Saito was Japan’s contribution to the UMA. She was tough and humorless, but damn it all if she wasn’t also thorough. Probably can’t wait to disseminate the results, Annika thought. This’ll be a barrel of laughs for sure.

“Answer call,” Annika said, bracing for a relentless and tedious review.

The video feed popped up. General Saito’s brow was furrowed, more than her usual stern look, and her eyes flicked about with a sense of worry. Pursed lips completed the look telling that something was wrong.

“General Saito,” said Annika with a nod to the camera, her version of a salute.

“Colonel Bates,” the General nodded back, her expression darkening. “There is an unidentified object approaching at speeds never before documented. We have confirmed this is not a comet or meteor. There are multiple heat signatures in the object. Origin unknown. The trajectory takes it directly between Earth and Lunula.”

Images glowed on the display. Something triangular shot across the screen so fast that it almost escaped the camera providing the feed. Annika squinted. “Is that… Jupiter in the background?”

“Yes it is, Colonel.”

That can’t be right. The object moved so quickly Jupiter was a near blur on the screen. But the familiar giant red dot was unmistakable. It was Jupiter, alright.

Eyes narrowed, Annika said, “Orders, General?”

“We must accelerate our weapons testing. Intercept this unknown object and destroy it.”

“But we have no idea what this is, General.”

“Exactly. And we can’t afford finding out.” The screen went blank.

The colonel sighed, making her way to the hanger to suit up and take off.

∞∞∞

The MAV screamed across the void. Annika set her course to intercept the unknown object. They hadn’t calculated for something moving this rapidly, so she wasn’t sure if their weapons could properly target it. Part of her wanted to disobey orders and discover whether this was the chance for contact with another lifeform, but she pushed that to the back of her mind. Orders were orders.

With resolve, she hurtled towards the rendezvous point. A few minutes remained, so she brought her weapons up to bear. The targeting system confirmed two heat signatures in the craft. There was no denying it was a ship of some kind. The signatures were blurry at best, and their tracking system was unsuccessful with locking onto the ship, as she feared.

“MAV 1 to UMA Base. MAV 1 to UMA Base. Confirmed two heat signatures in object. Weapons systems unable to obtain lock. Permission to switch to manual,” Annika said.

Saito’s response was terse, immediate. “Permission granted, MAV 1.”

With one flick of a switch, the weapons were under Annika’s control. She knew she had one chance at this. The ship’s speed was too great for a second round. Eyes narrowed, she pushed the MAV to its limits. Years of training honed her calculations. Readying herself, she fired.

The lasers, casting a diffused blue trail behind, zoomed to the rendezvous point. The unknown thing did too. Annika felt her body tense as both projectiles moved to intercept. A split second before collision, her communications systems blipped. Someone or something wanted to communicate. It wasn’t UMA command. It was something else. Then laser and object met. A brilliant but brief light burst and disappeared. The object was gone, as was the signal she’d received.

∞∞∞

Sitting in her office at Lunula, she mulled over the past few days. The world made her the savior of the Earth and its moon. She’d saved them all from an alien threat, or so it was told to the masses. Yet, she couldn’t stop thinking about that last moment signal before it was vaporized. She felt like it was more than a signal. After her supposed heroics, Annika had not slept well, that looming feeling clouding her thoughts and dreams.

She shook her head and drained her scotch. No use worrying over it now.  Then…her communications unit beeped. A single blip. She went rigid.

Her screens lit up, displaying countless lines of dark triangular objects moving side by side, Saturn and her rings in the background. A computerized voice boomed from the speakers.

“Beings of the third planet: we are contacting you as a mercy. Our race was passing through your galaxy to our new colony. You destroyed our envoy without provocation. It was our guide, not equipped for fighting. By eliminating our envoy, you have declared war. You now must defend or evacuate your civilization, a chance that is more than you gave our guide.”

Her jaw dropped. She watched the screen as the armada shimmered briefly before innumerable red streaks filled her view.

“Oh my god,” she whispered.

She had doomed them all.

Photo Credit: Richard Bizley

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Ahead

Wendig_Strange_Photo_FF_Challenge

The clouds were forming again.

It had been happening with greater frequency of late, and no one knew why. The obvious thing to do, were you an outsider, would be to ask Aghaidh. The Custodians who tended to Aghaidh knew better. No one had attempted to talk to the Great Head, as it was also known, for centuries. Legends told of only one who had been foolish enough to try such a thing.

A man who proclaimed to be an acolyte of Aghaidh made the trek to speak to his God and divine what he would have done in his name. Some of the lesser members of the temple went with the acolyte as he stepped in front of the massive face jutting from the desiccated landscape but kept their distance out of fear. Its eyes were thankfully closed.

The eyes only ever opened when the clouds formed and swirled above it. It would start slowly at first but pick up intensity and speed, until finally a great cone of clouds and wind spun violently above it. The top of Aghaidh’s head would then peel back when the tempest was at its crescendo, light flooding upwards and bathing the storm in brilliant eerie light. His eyes would turn a crystalline blue at the end of the gathering, squeezing  shut with a great thunderclap, and the storm would shoot into the sky at impossible speed to a destination unknown to the Custodians. Finally, he’d resume his slumber as his head returned to its original form.

The acolyte knew this and so planned his quest when the sky was cloudless.

He approached the Great Head warily. He was grateful that the followers stayed back, as it was far easier to hide his fear with their distance. He held his head high as he approached, forcing a smile upon his face, hoping it was a reverent one. At what he deemed a safe distance away, he stopped. Still in the shadow of Aghaidh, the acolyte was dwarfed by the Great Head, only adding to his trepidation. He summoned his last bit of courage and stretched his arms in the air in worship. He spoke with an authority he didn’t feel.

“Aghaidh! Great and mysterious one! I am Maon, acolyte of the Temple of the Unheralded. I have come to learn your ways and to serve your will. I am but a tool for you to use as you see fit.” Maon bowed, feeling like that was what he should do in the presence of something so unknowable and powerful.

The Great Head stood silent and still.

When he heard nothing, he raised his head slightly to look at the mighty Aghaidh. Confusion overtook Maon. Why was the Great Head not responding? He was certain that he – the most devout of all that worshipped in the Temple – could learn the mysteries of the Great Head. In turn, he would share the wishes and dogma with his fellow acolytes and followers. Perhaps, even the Vicar throne was within his grasp, if Aghaidh would speak to him. Since no one had ever heard the unexplainable being speak, he would be special. Exalted, even.

He tried again: “I humbly submit myself to you, Aghaidh. Only tell me what you decree, and I will be the servant of your will.” He kept his eyes locked ahead, hoping for a reaction, a sign.

But there was none. All remained silent.

Confusion morphed in anger within the acolyte. How many years had he sacrificed in supplication to the Great Head? All the taunts of the villagers, the insults, and the accusations of insanity – he’d suffered countless indignations, all in the name of worship. But this? To be ignored by the very thing he had spent his life devoted to and dedicated his every waking moment to honoring was the greatest of insults. How could this happen?

The acolyte screamed, a flood gate of frustration escaping him. “Why won’t you talk to me? Do you have any idea how much I given to you in adulation? Years! Nearly all my life I’ve defended you, despite not fully comprehending your ways, and this is how you would reward your most reverent follower?”

The eyes flew open. A baleful glare from brilliant blue eyes. A menacing scowl appeared on its face. The acolyte took a step back in fear, but moved no further, rooted to the spot by the stare of his God.

The clouds came from nowhere, fast. They circled above Aghaidh, moving in a ferocious circle, darkening the skies. A loud whine grew as the gale of the storm increased beyond the force anyone had seen before. Some of the followers who came with the acolyte stood in horror watching the scene unfold. The rest ran as fast as they could back to the village, an occasional glance back to the Great Head as they raced.

The Great Head’s scalp peeled back, shooting a brilliant shaft of light into the sky. His scowl never wavered, nor did his gaze move from the one who had disturbed his slumber. Until it did, when he closed his eyes and clenched the lids tightly. A tremendous boom came, as the storm shot a lightning bolt from within the maelstrom, incinerating the acolyte. Immediately after wasting Maon, the storm cast off to the Temple of the Unheralded. It crashed down on the structure, decimating it and all the inhabitants within. All that remained was a small crater.

That crater stands as a reminder of the power of Aghaidh. And to this day, no one has ever attempted to speak to the Great Head. The Custodians built a fence around Aghaidh to prevent unwary souls from approaching it and unwittingly unleashing doom another time.

Every time a storm brews, the Custodians cower hoping that they are not the target of Great Head’s wrath once more.

Photo Credit: Wallpaper Awesome

 

 

The Great Tree

The sirens’ abrupt start, coming from everywhere, woke her. It was still dark outside, or as near as she could tell. The lights of the ferry station nearly blinded her with its halogen assault bleeding into every nook and cranny of the place. It was the best location she’d found to sleep because no one kicked her out with protestations of “Get a job!” or other, more profanity-laden, insults. She liked that it was dry and comfortable enough. Can’t find that too much in Seattle. But this siren? That was new and frightening. She stood up from the bench that was her bed for the night, and shuffled to the TV by the ticket booth to try to figure out why the damn alarms were going off.

CNN was on – it was always on here – and some overnight milquetoast broadcaster was excitedly talking, eyes wide.

“According to the NEIC, there was an earthquake in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean measuring 8.6 on the Richter scale. The earthquake, as the graphic shows, is roughly midway between Japan and the Pacific Northwest of the continental United States. They have announced warnings of waves as high as twenty-five feet expected to hit the rural shorelines of Alaska and Russia, with waves in the twenty foot range expected to hit the shores of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. Japan also is expected to have waves in the fifteen to twenty foot range. Hawaii will be less affected, with waves reaching only seven to nine feet. There have been warnings issued to the areas mentioned. If you are in those areas, please get back from the shore as far as you can. The waves are expected to move fast and reach Russia and Alaska by 2:38 AM, and Seattle and San Francisco at approximately 3:02 AM. Those closest to the Pacific Ocean, please get to higher ground immediately. Now we go to Greg Fichtel, spokesperson for the National Earthquake Information Center, for more…”

Slackjawed, she stood transfixed for a few moments. There were no more ferries running at this time of night. She had no way of getting off the island and away from Elliot Bay. She was trapped, and probably doomed. She went and picked up the few possessions she had, then went to the ladies room and into a stall, hoping it would be enough for her to survive the walls of water that were on their way even now.

The next day, on every TV:

“Experts around the world are baffled by the appearance in the Pacific Ocean of “The Great Tree,” as many are calling it. As it erupted from the ocean at the exact spot of the epicenter of the earthquake that caused flooding and damage to all shores in the North Pacific, the consensus is that it sprang from the ocean floor, despite that never occurring in any recorded history. As you can see from the shots from the aircraft circling it, it continues to grow up and out, now reaching well over fifteen hundred feet in height and several hundred feet wide. The strange green and purple roots, or at least that what they appear to be from eyewitness reports above, have spread some twenty miles out from the tree, seemingly writhing in the currents as they spread out. There’s no telling how much more this can grow. Reports are in that the countries closest to this strange phenomenon are talking and working through possible strategies to deal with it if it keeps expanding. Words from the President of the United States, just twenty minutes ago:

‘I have been in contact with Russia, China, Japan, Australia and the nations of the South Pacific. We are monitoring the situation closely, and are mobilizing our armed forces to be ready for a joint approach should the situation escalate.’

We will keep you updated as new information comes in. For now, the White House has issued an evacuation order for the areas closest to the ocean on the West Coast, and is coordinating with Pearl Harbor to evacuate citizens from Hawaii. More ships are on their way, according to President Ramirez.”

Three days later…

The Great Tree, as it was dubbed when it came up from the depths of the Pacific, had not grown in two full days, its final height reaching just shy of two thousand feet. Its monstrous trunk was two football fields wide. It swayed slightly in the air despite its immensity as it towered above the water and dwarfed the various crafts flying about it, each hoping to find something new to report back to their home bases. The roots that were still roiling about in the waves had splayed themselves out, but never exceeded their vast perimeter.

Suddenly the swaying stopped and the tree stood still and straight, as if pointing to the heavens. Almost instantaneously, clouds swirled around it, moving faster and faster, darkening as they did so. The sky became ominous, clouding out the sun and putting the entirety of the tree’s reach in blackness. Lightning lit the sky, increasing frequency as the darkness overtook the day. Thunder boomed constantly in a strange symphony with the lightning bolts crashing down into the sea below, striking down many of the aircraft who were attempting to flee. Strangest of all, the ocean around the tree itself was placid and calm, accentuating the foreboding feel of the scene.

The lightning stopped, the thunder soon afterwards. All was eerily calm.

Then the voice came. Not broadcast through the air; this voice touched every mind. The voice was evil itself, freezing the peoples’ minds it invaded.

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” the phlegmy voice oozed into their minds, crushing any other thought.

“But no more. Cthulhu awakens, and you will all rightfully fear his reign.” The image of the mighty Elder God flashed madness into their minds and broke them all. His guttural laugh followed, rendering everyone immobile with fear.

“Behold your master, your God! ALL HAIL CTHULHU!”

As those words assaulted the humans’ brains, a great cracking sound commenced. The Great Tree began shaking its bark free, revealing the monstrous truth beneath. One great tentacle stood, shards of its wooden disguise plummeting into the waters. It waved a moment longer, and then a bubbling began at its base. Water sluiced about the humongous appendage as it wriggled. The air shook with morbid expectancy. Then the true master exploded out of the water, the largest of nightmares made manifest in the sky. The horrific God, now free, glowered at the newest minions and acolytes. Tentacles, too many to number, hung where a mouth should be. Red eyes looked through those unfortunate to be within his gaze.

“Now is my time. All shall come to me.”

All ships flew to him, none firing at this fantastic horror of lore. People walked to him, right off docks, and ships, and buildings the world over, oblivious to anything but The Call. The world was his now, after eons of slumber.

Photo credit: David Prei

Broken Free

The torture would be starting again soon.

The burning wracked him with pain, pushing him to the brink of unconsciousness. Sinister voices whispered his worst fears, making them real. The blackness never subsided, never eroded. The pain was excruciating, but the loneliness was worse. Opaque periods of time without anyone to hear his cries allowed the words of his tormentors to do their awful work on his psyche. His captors were skilled at inflicting pain of all sorts. Their expertise knew no bounds, and they utilized their considerable talents on him.

He had no concept of how long he had been at their mercy. Complete darkness has a way of robbing you of time.

How many times had he screamed himself hoarse?

How many times has he begged them to stop, promising to give them anything they wanted if only they would cease their terrible games?

Too many to count. There was no way to measure it, but what good would it do him if he could? Certainly wouldn’t stop the next round of agony they would impose on him.

He did not understand why they tortured him. There was no reason given, no demands made, and no information requested. The only things they said to him were meant to exacerbate his torment.

“You are all alone.”

“No one knows you’re here.”

“You’re getting the pain you deserve.”

“There will never be anyone to save you.”

The other thing was the laughing. The glee they shared while he howled for them to stop plagued him long after they left. Their words haunted him even more than the near constant pain did. The only reprieve he got were those all-too-brief periods where he slept, the kind of sleep only the dead know. He longed for that solace even now, before the terror began anew, but he knew he was damned without knowing why. He braced himself for another onslaught. It had to be soon, he could feel it.

But it didn’t come. Not this time. After all the times of being beaten down, he could not allow himself to hope, though. He’d give that up long ago. Hope was a fool’s errand for him. So he waited in the silence, the blessed silence. After some time, his anticipation waned.

Could it be? Could he finally be free of the endless torture he’d endured?

He willed himself to relax. What harm could it do? Even if (when) they returned, at least he’d been able to have a few fleeting moments of peace.

Suddenly an enormous pressure pushed him back, as if a wall was forcing him back. Behind him something held him in place. He fought the claustrophobia that was taking hold. This was a new method of sadism for the ones who whispered atrocities to him, and it was agony beyond his comprehension.

He felt light-headed as if breath was being forced out of him. Veering towards the safe haven of unconsciousness, he let go, hoping for once to pass that threshold. The pressure released and was simultaneously replaced with light, brilliant and blinding. He recoiled from it, like a toad who’s lived its entire life in a deep cave would, fleeing an unfamiliar invader. It hurt him, but not the way the burning caustic words had. This was the pain of experiencing a previously unknown power, a presence that struck him immobile. It was fear of a different sort.

As he adjusted, he realized that he was not in any real pain. He’d been paralyzed by the unknown, sure, but he was not hurting as he had thought before. He sought to understand this new thing. How would should he proceed? How could he attempt to know this thing that blinded him?

Searing pain pushed the light away and crushed all thought. This burned worse than anything they’d done before. Oh god, what if this is the way they would abuse him from now on? It must be! How could he bear this over and over again? He couldn’t!

He started to scream… and then the pain stopped as abruptly as it had started. The light, that damned too bright light, disappeared too. He felt… nothing. No demons, no fear, no worry. He was free. And so, he drifted devoid of any tether. He floated into nothingness, and was glad for it.

 

“Doctor Freeman, the patient has been prepped and is ready for surgery.”

“Excellent, Nurse Kline. He’s been sedated, correct?” the doctor responded.

“Of course, Doctor Freeman. We did as you instructed. We wanted to be sure to follow every instruction to the letter,” Nurse Kline said.

The doctor nodded his head. “The students are ready as well, I presume?”

“They appear to be quite eager, yes,” she smiled back.

Doctor Freeman exhaled. “Let’s not keep them waiting, then.”

He strode into the operating room with Nurse Kline in tow. He looked the students over. They did indeed look excited, and why wouldn’t they be? Today, they would be witnessing firsthand a radical procedure that held very promising results.

“Good afternoon, students. For those of you who do not know me, I am Doctor Walter Freeman. Today, you are most fortunate. We will be operating on a young man who has suffered a tremendous amount in his short life.” He turned towards the operating table and held out his arm towards his patient.

“This is Andrew Callahan, twenty four years of age. He has been hospitalized since the age of twelve. He suffers from acute schizophrenia, resulting in fits of screaming and violence. He has raved about being tortured, but he cannot talk outside of these outbursts. This is why the other doctors and I agreed that the best treatment for him is a lobotomy, which is what you are here to witness.”

He picked up a small instrument that resembled a small ice pick in one hand. In the other, he held a hammer.

“Shall we begin?” he asked, a bright grin on his face.

Photo Credit: Aranzazu