After days of explosions and gunfire, the human city was little more than a shattered husk. The dust and ash from the fighting and firestorms cast a pall over the land, reducing high noon to a red and bleary half-light.
Lagral, Scholar of the Second Order and Primus of the Glorlon Archival Research Team responsible for the destruction of the city, studied the desolation impassively.
Here and there, Lagral’s students and guardians skittered along walls, their movements fluid, precise, and almost too fast for a human eye to follow. A warrior towered over the Scholar, the hot, moist breath expelled through the behemoth’s gills kicking up eddies in the city’s bone dust. Despite the quiet--or perhaps because of it--the creature’s cannons were still held at the ready, and the glow of its plasma throwers cast a subtle green light largely swallowed by the ruddy dusk. The warrior shifted its massive bulk, cracking the pavement beneath it. Its song was deep and tenebrious, carrying oddly through the air instead of the water it was made for.
Ambush? it sang.
Lagral studied the half ruined building in front of it. The Scholar flicked through various spectrums--infrared, ultraviolet--but found nothing threatening in the structure.
No, the Primus sang back, I do not believe so. Guard this place.
The warrior lowed its acknowledgement and ponderously turned about, jointed legs punching more holes in the ground. The light from its plasma throwers brightened somewhat.
Lagral picked its way through the debris, almost insect-like, wending a path up the broken steps. The wreck of a human vehicle still smoldered, flames licking out now and again through the curtain of smoke. The Glorlon poked the wreck with a carapaced leg--there was a small tink as chitin met steel.
Why the humans use such cold and stiff shells I may never understand, Lagral sang.
? sang the warrior.
Pay no heed. Mind your post.
The warrior sang its obedience.
The structure--a human data repository of some kind--was half collapsed, the upper floors sagging as though beaten. Searching the ground floor the Scholar found naught but burned papers and slagged datachips, melted by fire, acid, or both. The detritus clattered and shifted beneath Lagral’s pointed legs, and, spying nothing of interest, the Glorlon made its way to the second floor of the building. And the third. And then the fourth. Each was more disappointing (not to mention less structurally sound) than the last, and the Scholar retraced its steps to the ground floor. As it turned to leave, though, it noticed something--a storage container fallen across an opening in the floor.
Setting its legs into cracks in the stone floor, the Scholar pushed, tendons and exoskeleton creaking from the strain. Grudgingly, the fallen shelving unit shifted, and Lagral found itself looking into the mouth of a dark and litter-strewn staircase.
Perhaps the lower levels faired better.
The click, click, click of the alien’s legs on the marble of the staircase echoed down and through the subterranean hall. The dim light from the surface quickly petered out, and Lagral flicked on its shell’s echolocation array. The darkness faded, replaced by the shape of the hallway, the piles of rubble and fallen masonry. A fluted stone column had broken, and now blocked the passage forward.
No. Not entirely blocked. Low on the right hand side there was a gap.
Lagral bent down and pinged the passage opposite.
And there they were.
Shelves and stacks of infopads and datacrystals, memory cells and storage chips. A trove of information lay just out of reach. But there… just there… the fallen column supported the roof of the room and the floor of the level above. Calling a warrior or guardian to shift the mass would be worse than useless, and the Primus could not reach the archive as things stood.
The Scholar studied the situation for some few moments before reaching its decision.
Joints of the Glorlon’s carapace shifted and peeled wetly. Nerves pulled back from interfaces and nestled back within the Scholar’s own tissues. Tentacles withdrew from armor and weaponry and, with a series of shuddering, hissing pops, Lagral shed its shell, molting like some form of aquatic spider. The shell stood, empty and barely alive, while the Glorlon itself stood upon its own tentacles, cold and wetly exposed.
Almost amorphous, the Glorlon lowered itself to the opening beneath the column. At first it seemed like the Scholar would never be able to fit through the gap, but with surprising ease the cartilaginous structure of the Glorlon folded and squeezed in upon itself, and with a moist noise, the alien was through, strings of mucus marking its passage.
Further inside the chamber, small cracks in the ceiling let in shafts of dim light.
Yes, Lagral sang to itself, its song warped and strident in the still and dusty air. Yes, this may be have been worthwhile after all.
With grace and delicacy, the Gloloron glided through the stacks in surges, forward, scan the shelves, forward, grab up chips and sheets in some of its countless, dextrous tentacles, forward, snatching up materials with reasoning unknowable to a human, pausing between surges only to reposition limbs.
As the alien surged forward, a knife flashed in a shaft of light, the bright blade just missing the Scholar’s body proper, instead slicing cleanly through one of the Glorlon’s tentacles. The appendage and the datapad it held alike fell to the floor. The tendril curled and uncurled spastically, ichor spilling onto the ground.
Whirling to face its attacker, the Glorlon found itself facing a human, its metal carapace scarred and pockmarked from splatters of acid. The soft flesh of its face was largely obscured by some form of armor, and though the human’s ranged weapon lay some feet away, it appeared to have run out of crude ballistic ammunition, leaving this biped only a sliver of sharpened steel as a weapon. The human gave a primitive battle cry, and the knife darted out again. The Glorlon shifted aside, the human scoring a long gash along the Glorlon’s side. And then it was as good as over.
You dare?! the Glorlon sang, its voice deafening in such close quarters. It wrapped tentacles around the human’s outstretched arm.
You dare attack me?! Tentacles lashed out and entangled the human’s other limbs, forcing the creature to the floor.
You dare attack me, the Primus of an Archival Research Team?! The alien’s tentacles forced and slid their way inside the human’s armor, popping clasps and peeling the metal away as easily as shucking the husk from a vegetable.
You dare attack me, a Scholar of the Second Circle?! Bright red blood began to pour from the human’s mouth as the tentacles tightened their grip inexorably.
You dare attack ME?! I AM LAGRAL! The alien’s song of rage caused a small tremor, the entire room shaking, books and chips falling from shelves or jittering on the ground.
I am the Death of the Iythos, I am the Minder of the Fourth Passage of the Krelic Scripts. I am the Shadow of Jun-Rel, I am the Vizier of the Thranos Nebula. And now, Lagral sang, quietly, I am the end of you.
The Glorlon squeezed tight, and as bones broke and organs ruptured, the alien crushed the life from the human.
Tossing the carcass aside, the Scholar swept up its severed limb and the various bits of lore and information it had selected before the interruption. Quickly, it flipped through the remaining materials in the data repository, throwing some away to shatter on unforgiving walls. After choosing another handful of crystals and pads, Lagral pushed its findings through the gap beneath the column before squeezing itself through the same hole. This time black ichor marked its passage, alongside the stringers of mucous.
While some tentacles stowed the various acquisitions into storage orifices and holding organs, others slipped back into the Scholar’s shell. Once more nerves extended themselves into the waiting muscles and vascular systems, and the shell stirred and awakened, reconnecting itself to its master like a second skin. Warm and inviting, the shell sealed itself around the Glorlon, and even as the alien made its way back towards the surface the shell began to release regeneratives and restoratives into the Scholar. By the time the Scholar could see the blood hazed sky once more, the severed tentacle had been reattached and was functional, if somewhat pained.
Smelling the battle enzymes, the warrior on guard bellowed and stomped up to the Scholar, placing itself between Lagral and whatever threat may have caused the injury.
Hurt? the warrior sang. Enemy?
Lagral took a datacrystal from its newly acquired trove and held it up to the dim sun. The Glorlon could just make out the tiny circuit tracings that could hold the smallest of clues, the most miniscule of hints of the Solution. The Scholar turned back to the depository.
Enemy? the warrior sang again.
The enemy is dead, Lagral sang in reply. Burn it. Burn it all.
The Scholar picked its way down the steps as the warrior behind it opened its plasma throwers fully. Biochemical gel nearly as hot as the sun overhead poured out in great gouts, and the green fires set even the very stone itself alight.
By Jacob Mandell