Chapter 18: The Third Kind
In the black vacuum of space a ship drifted through the void, a quarter mile long and one fourth that wide and thick. Its design shared similarities with naval battleships on various seas, except that it had massive engines in the rear and the interior was completely airtight. Starlight reflected off the ship's green hull, and an especially bright reflection came from the light of a star directly ahead. There were no markings on the ship to identify it, nothing to give away that this lonely ship was Skuttlebutt.
The vessel that belonged to Beta Ray Bill.
"Warning: This sector is restricted. Passage through it is expressly prohibited."
The voice of Skuttlebutt's artificial intelligence was ignored by the pilot in the bridge, who sat in a large chair looking at wide visual monitors set over and further back from a set of control consoles. The monitors displayed the view of the void ahead of Skuttlebutt, which was mostly dominated by a lonely yellow star in the prime of its life. A ringed gas giant planet passed by on the left, and its distance from the star it orbited was a promising sign for the conditions of space ahead.
"Proceed to the terrestrial planets."
Voice command made Skuttlebutt's engines flare up for a burst in speed, providing quick acceleration before calming down to let the ship coast into the inner star system. The perspective seen in the monitors shifted to take the star out of focus, and then zoomed in on a set of small planets with solid surfaces. It seemed like a stroke of luck that the four small worlds were all on the same side of the star, and if their orbits were stable it seemed like they would soon line up in an astronomical miracle.
Two of the terrestrial planets were barren worlds with hardly any atmosphere, one scorching hot in close proximity to the star and the other freezing cold in space too far away. A third planet was shrouded in a thick layer of corrosive clouds, and would require closer inspection to determine what kind of surface was veiled from view. The last planet was in between the veiled and frozen planets, within a tolerable distance from the star and was also paired with a large barren moon.
"There." A four digit hand pointed at a world saturated with water. "That planet has the potential to support life."
"Secondary Warning: This sector was declared off-limits during the Shi'ar neutrality accords. Any vessel detected in neutral space could escalate hostilities between the Kree and the Skrulls."
"That powder keg will explode eventually." A few button presses programmed a course for the promising planet. "It's only a matter of time before the Guardians set it off."
Skuttlebutt flew towards the third rock from the star, and the view in the monitors focused on that planet. Most of the planet's land mass was in a large continent that dominated a hemisphere, a chain of volcanic islands poked out of the other hemisphere's vast ocean, and a pair of ice caps covered the poles. Smaller details observed by Skuttlebutt's sensors appeared on the monitors as lines of text, but one only needed a glance to learn a vital fact.
This planet was inhabited.
Radio signals emanated from urban areas on the surface, clearly directed at each other but unintentionally propagating into space. A massive circular wall in the north-eastern corner of the continent could be seen from orbit, an impossible construction by natural forces. Artificial lights dotted the dark side of the planet, so many and so compact that they marked the location of cities. A sentient species called this planet home, one that was somewhere in its early industrial phase of civilization.
A sigh echoed through the bridge. "Go into orbit and prepare air and water restocking procedures." There was a pause as his sight settled on the moon behind the planet. "And analyze that satellite. It's very large for a planet of this size."
As Skuttlebutt drifted into a polar orbit more sensor readings appeared on the monitors, detailing the planet's atmospheric composition on one side and scans of its moon on the other. But then a large red X sign appeared onscreen. "Warning: Transdimensional Anomaly Detected!"
Just a couple thousand miles ahead of Skuttlebutt, over the planet's southern pole, there was a ripple near the top of the atmosphere. From that ripple darkness flowed out, splitting into many pieces that took the shapes of various animals. Those animals made from darkness flew through the void straight towards Skuttlebutt, baring fangs and extending claws along the way. Their numbers grew into the hundreds as more followed through the ripple, great enough to form a swarm.
On the monitors a number of crosshairs appeared on the closest demons. "Target Acquired."
Along the sides and top of Skuttlebutt's hull a dozen twin barreled cannons slid into place, all pointed directly at the incoming swarm. The cannons fired rapid shots of red plasma at high velocity at their targets, and the shots that hit their targets each vaporized a demon on impact. The swarm scattered in every direction, and for each demon vaporized two more emerged from the ripple to replace them. In a much wider pattern the demons rushed at Skuttlebutt, their numbers too great for the cannons to deal with.
When the demons swooped in all around Skuttlebutt dozens of smaller plasma guns emerged from all over the hull, each targeting the closet demon within its sights. Those guns fired smaller shots that tore chunks out of the demons they hit, some losing limbs while others found holes in their torsos. The demons shrank as their mass filled in their wounds, and they kept on coming towards Skuttlebutt. Plasma fire whittled away at the demons as the closed the gap, rendering them barely larger than a meter when they reached Skuttlebutt's hull.
Demons that survived the plasma fire barrage began their own attack, clawing and biting at everything they could reach. They found weak points in the plasma cannons and ripped them open, exposing circuitry and power cables before slashing them apart. The damage the demons inflicted forced some of the cannons to shut down, allowing more demons to reach Skuttlebutt to attack. Other demons clawed at the hull and peeled away metal bit by bit, determined to get inside and truly harm the intruder.
"Warning: Hull Breach in eighteen nanoclicks."
"Polarize the outer plating and ignite the main thrusters."
A powerful electric current surged through Skuttlebutts entire hull, channeling extremely high voltage into every demon touching metal. Sheer agony from the electricity made all of them let go of the hull for a brief moment, and in that moment the engines flared for a burst of speed. Skuttlebutt rammed through the horde of demons and scattered them in its wake, and in only a moment Skuttlebutt flew past the ripple in space and left it well behind.
The view in the bridge monitors changed to show the space behind Skuttlebutt, where the demons were gathering around the ripple and disappearing into it. "No pursuit detected."
"They must be territorial." A button press changed the view back to the space ahead of Skuttlebutt, where the planet's moon was front and center. "Go around the far side of that satellite for a gravity assist. After the slingshot set a course to leave this system on the same vector we entered from."
Skuttlebutt obeyed the command and flew towards the moon, which from this angle appeared to be fully illuminated by the nearby star. Further scans of the moon appeared on the monitor in text, but they revealed nothing particularly special about it. As far as Skuttlebutt could tell this moon was just a barren ball of rock tidally locked with its planet, having no atmosphere or water that was required to sustain life.
But then the moonlight changed. It became brighter and condensed in a shrinking range of space. Like some cosmic lighthouse the moonlight focused into a narrow and incredibly bright beam, which was aimed directly into the front of Skuttlebutt. The intense moonlight was nearly blinding through the monitors, even with automatic filters attempting to lessen the brightness.
A muscular arm rose to shield eyes. "What sorcery is this?"
An alarm went off inside the bridge. "Warning: Second Transdimensional Anomaly Detected!"
On the monitor a figure appeared in the focused moonlight, which he would later recall that it resembled one of the locals from the planet. Graceful curves and slim limbs suggested that it was female, and she had long flowing white hair that contrasted relatively darker skin. Then she seemed to pass right through the monitors and into the bridge, floating into the space in front of Beta Ray Bill. Though she seemed relatively peaceful, her presence set off another alarm.
"Intruder Detected! Repeat: Intruder Detected!"
Beta Ray Bill was already acting, charging at the lunar apparition and throwing a right hand punch. But then his fist passed right through the apparition's head, followed by his whole body passing through the rest of it. Both of them turned around and made eye contact, each finding the other equally alien to their eyes. The apparition's lips moved and made sound, but the words spoken were not in a familiar tongue.
"Communicating is going to be a problem."
More alien words were spoken, and the apparition shrugged and threw her head back. She floated up match Bill's eye level, and then reached for him with both hands. One touched his forehead and the other went on his chest, and Bill found himself unable to move. It felt like the apparition was reaching inside his psyche and flooding it with information, and as the apparition spoke the sounds suddenly came into clarity.
The hands pulled away and Bill blinked a few times. "What?"
The apparition floated back a few feet. "Do you understand me?"
There was a sigh at the realization of a lack of hostility. "You… gave me your language?"
"Yes." The apparition made an unfamiliar gesture, leaning her upper half forward while putting her hands together. "I once lived on the world below, but seventy-one years ago I joined the spirits."
The unfamiliar gesture was mimicked in an attempt to show respect for another culture, though some of the finer movements were lost in translation. "Get to the point."
"Earth has fallen out of balance," the apparition stated. She held up her right hand, which was starting to fade away. "Darkness has risen from the people of my birth, a darkness that has infected those that attacked your vessel. If it is not stopped the imbalance will spread across the globe, and begin ten thousand years of darkness."
"Not my problem." He turned back to the controls of Skuttlebutt, which was approaching the moon and about to pass around it. "There are countless habitable planets in this arm of the galaxy alone. I can find one that suits my needs elsewhere."
"You must intervene!" the apparition demanded, and now her whole right arm had disappeared. "My people are at risk of extinction!"
"As are mine!" The push of a button displayed another part of Skuttlebutt on the monitor, showing a chamber filled with similar beings to him held in suspended animation. "And my prime directive is to keep them safe until I find them a new home."
There would have been more arguing, but the apparition's voice failed her. She appeared startled, right before she vanished into nothing. The monitor returned to the forward view, where the moon was no longer in sight. Skuttlebutt was beginning its flight path around the dark side of the moon, where there was no moonlight for the apparition to manifest from. And without that distraction all attention returned to the task at hand, which was turning Skuttlebutt around to leave this system.
"Begin the gravity slingshot maneuver."
A third of the way around the dark side an alarm went off. "Warning: Multiple Transdimensional Anomalies Detected! Danger Extreme!"
The monitor view zoomed in on the moon's surface, just barely visible in the light of the stars. Shadows coalesced in the lunar craters and took the shape of alien crabs with rock-like carapaces, their size varying from the smallest pebbles to the largest boulders. All of them leaped out of the craters and escaped the relatively weak lunar gravity, and they were all heading straight for Skuttlebutt even as its bottom plasma guns opened fire.
All thrusters ignited at their physically greatest capacity, giving Skuttlebutt a burst of speed that made most of the shadow crabs miss. But one particularly large crab leaped directly ahead of Skuttlebutt and collided with it, and was big enough to cover the front of the ship. Even in weak lunar gravity the giant crab's weight tipped down Skuttlebutt's front end, pulling it off course towards the lunar surface. All of Skuttlebutt's plasma guns fired at the giant crab, but its sheer mass made the firepower ineffective.
"Warning: Surface Impact Imminent!"
"Engage manual maneuvering."
Part of the control console slid open and a double joystick slid out, which Bill grasped in both hands. And then he promptly pushed forward, which made Skuttlebutt dive towards the lunar surface even faster. At a thirty-five degree angle Skuttlebutt plowed into the lunar surface, pinning the giant crab in between the hull and the surface while grinding it against lunar rock. Sheer friction wore away the giant crab's mass and quickly tore it to shreds, freeing Skuttlebutt from its grip.
But then a large crater approached far too quickly, and Skuttlebutt flew straight into the crater's ridge. Lunar rock scrapped and grinded against Skuttlebutt's underbelly, peeling away strips of the hull and tearing into the underlying circuitry. Alarm sirens went off and Bill pulled on the joystick, getting Skuttlbutt to rise up from the lunar surface. The alarms kept blaring inside Skuttlebutt, and error symbols appeared on the monitors.
"Hull Integrity Compromised! Risk of Breach: Seventy Nine Percent!"
A moment later Skuttlebutt cleared the dark side of the moon, crossing over into the daylight side and bringing the planet back into view. Momentum, gravitational assistance, and additional thruster burn allowed Skuttlebutt to easily achieve escape velocity, leaving the moon behind and flying back towards the planet. Tiny pieces of metal and paint fell off Skuttlebutt's underbelly and were left behind in its wake, littering the space between planet and moon with a trail of debris.
As the planet quickly filled up the monitor view Bill looked for the most efficient way to go around it. Passing it far to the side would be safest, but expend the most fuel. Passing it up close would provide gravitational acceleration, but risk encountering the shadow demons again. Wanting to get leave this system as quickly as possible, Bill chose the latter option and set a course to pass the planet by the very edge of its atmosphere.
In what felt like no time at all Skuttlebutt was diving into the planet's gravity well, on a course to fly over its southern pole again. Skuttlebutt's trajectory was underneath the spot where the shadow demons had first emerged, and was moving so fast that it would be in and out before any shadow demons could react. Bill kept a tight grip as he guided Skuttlebutt on this path, metaphorically threading the needle for the gravity assist.
But then another alarm went off. "Warning: Electromagnetic Surge Detected. Origin Point: Southern Rotational Pole."
That location was directly ahead of Skuttlebutt, and the monitor view zoomed in that spot on the planet's surface. Skuttlebutt's topside was facing the surface, so the ground was on the top half of the screen and upside down. At first the surface of the pole was obscured by thick storm clouds, but moments after the alarm those clouds were broken from below by a rising pillar of light. When the light reached the upper atmosphere it splintered into multiple bands of multi-colored aurora, one of which raced across the sky straight into the path of Skuttlebutt.
Highly charged particles in the aurora slammed into Skuttlebutt and surged through its hull, flooding all of its systems with raw energy. Sensors were blinded, weapons were overloaded, conduits were ruptured, and alarms were sounded. Seconds were all that was needed for the aurora to blind, deafen, and disorient Skuttlebutt, and when it emerged from the aurora the ship was spinning and falling through the atmosphere at an alarming speed.
"Navigation Failure. Orientation Failure. Sensor Failure. Compensating… Failure. Error… Rebooting Affected Systems… Failure. Physical Repairs Required. Shutdown Imminent."
"Override Shutdown!" The monitor he looked at was covered in static, but a vague image of the ground he saw through it was clear enough. "Divert all available power to the inertial suppressors! Prepare for Impact!"
As Skuttlebutt fell through atmosphere at a shallow angle the air started to burn all around it, igniting a massive fireball with the ship at its core. The fire lit up the light sky for the natives below, orange and red light clashing with the multi-colored aurora. Seconds later Skuttlebutt plowed into snow covered ground, dredging up frozen earth over the course of a mile. After creating a long trench behind it Skuttlebutt came to a stop in a large crater, intact but tipped to its left ten degrees.
Bill blacked out during the crash, but some time later he regained consciousness with a large pain in the back of his head. As he recovered he slowly rose onto his hooves, having a little trouble now that the floor was at an angle. "Damage report."
There was a slight delay, but the monitor did light up and start displaying data. "Flight systems: Offline. Weapon systems: Offline. Long range sensors: Offline. Hull integrity: Breached on underside and port side. Artificial gravity: Offline. Life support: Minimal."
"The Korbinites," Bill interrupted.
Another delay, but a green symbol appeared onscreen. "Korbinite stasis systems: Online. Backup redundancies triggered and compensating for primary system damage."
That news prompted a sigh of relief. "Begin automated repairs, primary systems first."
Suddenly a radar interface appeared in one corner of the monitor. "Proximity Alert! Six lifeforms inbound."
"They must have witnessed the crash." So he turned around and started walking towards a door, which automatically opened by sliding into the wall. "Open the starboard airlock."
Bill walked down a corridor to pass through the interior of the ship, passing by a number of chambers along his route. He made a short stop in Skuttlebutt's armory to pick up a basic handheld plasma rifle, which he holstered behind his back. From there he proceeded to the starboard side of the ship and in the middle section, where one of the ship's airlocks was located. This one had been damaged in the crash and only opened halfway, but was still wide enough for him to exit and set hoof on scorched dirt.
Outside Bill was assaulted by thick plumes of smoke and the scent of scorched organic material, and could hear the crackle of distant fires scattered everywhere. After passing through one smoke plume he got a good view of the crater, and started the climb up one side to head for the rim. When he reached the rim he emerged from the smoke and got a good view of the other side, where the locals had just arrived.
Four of the six locals were very similar to each other, all having dark brown skin, brown hair in various lengths and styles, blue eyes, and all wearing blue clothing. One was clearly the male elder of a familial unit, with a male and female offspring along with a female offshoot. The other two locals were clearly different, one with lighter skin carrying a shield and the other having his identity concealed under white and blue armor.
The more emotional female stared at Bill. "First we find dark spirits, then freaks show up, and now a demon?"
Personally insulted, Bill scowled and glared back at her. "I am no demon!" He reached behind his back and drew the plasma rifle, which he aimed at that female. And with the safeties off the weapon's barrel charged with red light. "I am Beta Ray Bill!"
Bill squeezed the trigger to fire the rifle, unleashing a bolt of red plasma at the target. The female just barely dodged the shot in time, though it still grazed her left arm and left a coin sized burn and a hole in her coat sleeve. She rolled across the scorched earth before getting back up, swinging her arms around at the same time. At first the motion appeared to have no meaning to it, but then something unusual occurred. A gust of wind blew from her hands and slammed into Bill, surprising him and making him stumble back.
"Sorcery," Bill cursed, right before taking aim again. But then he saw more unnatural phenomenon, but now from the other locals besides the wind walker.
The armored local was thrusting both hands forward, and plumes of fire erupted from his palms. The elder was moving his arms and water burst out from beneath the ground, defying gravity's pull and forming long liquid whips. The two offspring were making similar motions and drawing more water, but were instead somehow turning it into shards of ice and propelling them. The wind walker was channeling her power with one hand, and with the other hand she was creating fire. Only the shield bearer wasn't performing any sorcery, seemingly incapable of doing so.
Bill sidestepped out of the way and the elements collided where he used to be, creating an eruption of steam that was quickly blown away. He took aim and fired at the armored pyromancer, even as the shield bearer got in front of his comrade. The shot struck the local's shield and ricocheted off it, sending it off into the sky harmlessly. Then he started taking aim and firing at the other locals, but now they knew to stay out his rifle's sights and refused to stay still long enough for an accurate shot.
While running to the left the elder swung his waterwhip around, and the very end of it snared the barrel of the plasma rifle. A strong yank on the whip ripped the weapon from Bill's hands and tossed it away, clattering on the ground out of his reach. Instead of going for the rifle Bill charged at the elder instead, getting up close before punching the elder's face. The blow knocked the elder down and back several feet, but before Bill could strike again a sudden wall of ice blocked his path.
The two remaining hydrokinetics combined their skills and summoned a large wave of water from the bottom of the slope, which they sent straight at Bill. The water slammed into him and carried him up the slope and almost to the top of the crater before he fell out, getting back on scorched earth while wet but otherwise fine. Bill charged down the slope and zigzagged to avoid more water and fire, quickly reaching the siblings and slamming his arms into their chests to knock them over.
Suddenly something hit the side of his head, and after the blow Bill saw a shield return to its wielder. Then he saw the armored pyromancer attack again, and he had to duck to get under the flames. The pyromancer was also sliding across the slope at an angle, blasting fire behind with one hand for thrust while attacking with the other. With nimble hoofwork Bill avoided the flames and let the pyromancer get closer, and at the right moment rushed in to strike.
Up close Bill grabbed the pyromancer's right wrist and twisted it to the side, and he also squeezed as hard as he could. Crude metal crumpled around flesh and inflicted plenty of pain, enough for the pyromancer to scream in agony. Then Bill grabbed the other wrist and squeezed it too, this time hearing something break inside the crumbled metal. The pyromancer slammed his head into Bill's, but then Bill responded in kind with more force. The second impact between heads nearly knocked out the pyromancer, right before Bill pulled him down to the ground.
"Get away from him!"
The voice of the wind walker drew Bill's attention, and he spotted her holding his plasma rifle in both hands. She was clearly mimicking the grip he had used before the weapon had been taken away, although the rifle was a little too big for her hands to hold onto with stability. Her shaky aim was centered on Bill and her finger was getting a little itchy, and her glare was almost begging for Bill to give her an excuse to shoot.
"As you wish," Bill said, and he charged straight towards the wind walker.
The wind walker squeezed the trigger, but the rifle did not fire. "What gives?"
By then Bill was up close and he grabbed the rifle by the barrel. "You're not a Korbinite."
Bill yanked the rifle out of the wind walker's hands and threw it over the crater rim, and then grabbed the front of her coat and lifted her off the ground. The wind walker tried to summon her magics, but then Bill threw her across the battlefield and she collided with the shield bearer. Both of them fell to the ground tangled in each other, and by the time they separated and got up Bill was nearly upon them. However, in the corner of his eye, Bill spotted the elder performing some strange motions.
Twin spirals of water rose around Bill and spun around him, which then started glowing bright gold. There appeared to be no offensive purpose to this particular sorcery, as it only seemed to provide illumination. Then just as suddenly as they appeared the glowing spirals of water collapsed, spilling all of their volume onto the ground. Bill looked at the elder and found that he had finished his motions, and after the failed technique his hostility faded.
"You're not a spirit," the elder said. "You exist here physically, complete with a body from the material world."
"And you are clearly not demons," Bill said, and he ceased his aggression against the locals. "You share the same planet, but your forms and magics are different."
By then the wind walker was getting back on her feet, but followed the elder's lead and stopped fighting. "Then what are you?"
"Not a demon," Bill reiterated. "I am Beta Ray Bill, a Korbinite."
"And that is…?" the wind walker asked.
Bill pointed to the wind walker and then the elder, and then towards the crater. "You'll understand when you see this."
It was a short walk up and over the crater rim, but one just for the three of them. The shield bearer and the hydrokinetics remained behind, the former trying to remove the pyromancer's damaged armor so that the latter could apply medical treatment. Bill crossed the crater rim first and retrieved his plasma rifle, which he holstered once again. Then the wind walker and elder crossed over, and as the last remnants of smoke cleared away they saw Skuttlebutt.
"By the ocean and moon spirits," the elder invoked. "You're from space!"
"Whoa!" the wind walker said. "Sci Fi!"
The elder faced Bill, somehow keeping a calm demeanor. "Why are you here?"
For that, Bill took in a deep breath and told his tale. "The Korbinite people built their cities in the burning skies from time immemorial, and danced in the sunlight for ages in harmony. But then everything changed when the fire demons attacked."
That sent a chill down the wind walker's spine.
"The demons were relentless, stealing away my people by the score. We were unprepared for such an attack. And then our star began to flare, and we knew the end days had come. Our only hope was to flee our homeworld. As many of the surviving Korbinites as possible were placed in cold sleep, and I was chosen to be their protector."
The elder looked at Skuttlebutt again. "So you're like a Korbinite Avatar?"
"I don't know what that is," Bill said, and then he continued his tale. "As the guardian of my people, I underwent modification. I became Beta Ray Bill, the pinnacle of Korbinite genetics and technology. Together, my ship Skuttlebutt and I fled into the cosmos. Now we search for a world that my people can survive on, a world that we can call home."
"And you chose Earth," the wind walker assumed.
"No," Bill corrected. "Above this 'Earth' I was attacked by shadow demons, and in the conflict Skuttlebutt was damaged and crashed. As soon as repairs are completed, I will leave this world and start my search anew."
The elder seemed relieved. "I'm curious, why is Earth not your choice?"
"Your people have already claimed it," Bill answered. "You are many, and I am but one. Coexistence on this world would inevitably lead to conflict, and your people would prevail through sheer weight in numbers."
"So let's just leave each other alone," the wind walker suggested. "We already have a fight with dark spirits on our hands, we don't need another war."
"Dark spirits," Bill repeated. "If they are the same shadow demons that attacked in orbit, then in a fight against them you may consider me an ally."
The wind walker gave a polite bow. "And if you need a bridge between our peoples, just let me know. Being a bridge is kind of my job as the Avatar."
"Very well," Bill said. Then he opened a small compartment hidden on his waist, from which he removed a small metal chip about the size and shape of a coin, which he then handed to the Avatar. "Speak into this, and I will hear."
"Cool," the Avatar said, accepting the gift. "Is it like a mini radio?"
"Might as well be, from your perspective," Bill surmised. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have repairs to begin."
With that, Bill walked away from the locals and descended the side of the crater, quickly reaching the half open airlock and passing through it again. Once inside Skuttlebutt he walked through the corridors, making a stop at the armory to return his plasma rifle before heading back to the bridge. When he arrived at the bridge Bill found the monitors lit up and scrolling through many lines of code, which then changed to a list of the ship's system status.
"Reboot complete: All software systems operational. Automated repairs are underway."
"Estimate a time to completion."
"Calculating… Nine point two one galactic standard months. Localized time estimate: Two hundred seventeen planetary rotations."
"We have to do better," Bill commented. He pressed a button to display the radar on the screen, which showed the six locals slowly moving away. "So far, it seems like this world will be nothing but trouble."