The Mahasu ship entered formation with the expedition and together, they set course to the portal. As the ships approached the portal, the Coloniser drones activated. In moments, the drones once again swarmed the fleet and began their now-familiar procedure of scanning every atom in the fleet in triplicate. Still, the Mahasu saw it fit to issue a rather redundant warning through text.
THIS IS STANDARD BEHAVIOR. DO NOT PROVOKE THEM.
"Won't dare imagining it," Raonaid said, even though she doubted if the Mahasu bothered to access their internal microphone systems to listen in.
After the requisite intensive scanning, the Coloniser drones decided that the Mahasu ship and its newfound escorts posed no threat and returned to their business. The fleet sailed on in silence, unaware of what was awaiting them on the other side....
-Phuur-Nan Expedition, Unknown System#1-
What everyone immediately noticed as they returned to their universe and galaxy was not what was there, but what was missing.
"Where are the megastructures? Navigation, check and confirm our current location," Raonaid said.
"On it.... We are at the other end of the portal, same location as we entered. Stellar drift shows we have arrived in approximately the same time as we first left, too."
"What?" Ferdi asked rather plainly, pointing at the sensors manager.
"We have been on the other for only 95 hours and the Colonisers were able to remove all this mass," Shaked said, furiously summoning data readouts and simulations from her console. "Dissembling the megastructures would have taken months with the number of drones we encountered. This means the megastructures must contain some form of propulsion of their own.... But why did we not encounter them if the megastructures did indeed transit through the portal...? Perhaps they are able to generate their own portals...?"
"No, not that, Lieutenant. What I am more interested to know are those," Ferdi said, still pointing at the sensors display.
Shaked looked back up at the sensors manager hologram. Before her was a 3D map of the sector, which was practically empty save the Phuur-Nan and the Mahasu ships, but what Ferdi was pointing at were one of the eleven sensor contacts across the system. Together, they made an incessant series of pings across the CIC until Shaked shut them off.
"These weren't there before..." Shaked said to herself as she targeted the sensors array at the closest one.
Out of nowhere, she felt an overwhelming fear, as if she had forgotten something important, as if she would soon lose everything, as if.... A second later, she remembered what it was. Cursing herself silently, she cautiously took off her headphone, but left it hanging around her neck just like what Ferdi did, in case of another sensors spike. She was not at all eager to make another visit to the medbay this soon.
"You all right, Lieutenant?" Ferdi asked.
Fortunately, despite Shaked's lack of precaution, this time, there was no sensors spike strong enough to burn through all the surge safeties. However, that gut feeling hadn't stopped. If anything, it got worse.
"Yes, sir. Commencing scan now...."
"This is PN Expedition Command to Acolyte, how is our guest doing?" Raonaid asked.
"This is Acolyte Leader, they aren't doing a thing. But what the hell are those, I wonder."
"Commander Eliphelet Manaan, you have to describe what you see better than the word 'those.'" Ferdi said, annoyed.
"No need to pick on me, pal. Those green things.... I count nine, ten, eleven of them."
"You mean those anomalies?" Raonaid said. "We have picked them up on the sensors as well. Shaked, do we have sensors telemetry?"
"Negative. Those anomalies are showing up on optical sensors, our pilots can see them with their eyes, but the moment we point our deep scanner at one, the telemetries are as if it was pointed at empty space," Shaked was about to tell her captain that she felt a very strong unease whenever she looked at the sensors, but she thought better of it.
"One part of me wants to fly close and take a look, the other part of me says it's a really, really bad idea," Eliphelet said. "Bad mojo. I've got a sinking feeling just looking at them, Boss."
"Noted, unless the Mahasu goes there, I won't order anyone near them before we know what those actually are."
"No thanks necessary, I get your feeling too," Raonaid said. "Bridge to hangar, prep us eleven probes."
Afterwards, she began typing in the text file that was used to communicate with the Mahasu.
I assure you the Colonisers were here and those green anomalies were not present when we entered the portal. Do you, by any chance, have an idea what they are?
"As we wait for them to respond and the probes to build, let's find out as much as we can about the new anomalies," Raonaid said. "Shaked, what can you tell us about the anomalies? Just what you can get with the optics."
"Yes, Captain. Please look at this," Shaked pressed a few buttons and a sickly green mass took over the sensors manager. It was barely a sphere, constantly warping and writhing, as if it was an organic being. Colours flashed violently and the space around it twisted and turned with no rhyme or rhythm. The only other thing capable of distorting space like that would be a black hole. However, while the effects of a black hole are well-known and consistent, the anomalies' "behaviour," for lack of a better term, was completely unpredictable.
"This is one of the anomalies as seen through live telescope feed, it is of an intermediate size, at about 20,000 km in diameter, about that of a large rocky planet. However their size can vary considerably, from 600 meters to 60,000 km."
"In thirty years of sailing the stars I have never seen anything quite like this," Ferdi said. "How much power would it take to make a planet-sized thing boil like that...? Lieutenant, please stop zooming in, that is quite enough."
"I did not, sir."
"Then it's growing in size, too. I don't like the look of this, not one bit. Do they stop growing once they reach a certain size?"
"No, Commander. Their rate of growth seems completely random, the only thing I can gather is that they are growing faster every minute."
"How long will it take for them to fill the entire system?"
"Assuming current rate of growth increase.... 110 years."
"That's silly short."
"The closest one will reach our position in only 36 days' time."
"That's good to know, but we probably will be leaving soon...."
Before anyone could continue, the screen suddenly shut off, words began floating on the hologram screen, giving everyone a start.
WE UNDERSTAND NOW. THE OTHERS HAVE BEGUN TO MOVE, AND THIS UNIVERSE IS FORFEIT. WE REGRET CUTTING NEGOTIATION SHORT, BUT WE HOPE THIS WILL BE SUFFICIENT COMPENSATION FOR YOUR ASSISTANCE. WE WILL MEET AGAIN IF YOU SURVIVE.
After that, the Mahasu hijacked the carrier's systems, opened a new file, and began inputting raw data. Binary and hexadecimals flew across the raw text files' pages for minutes until it suddenly stopped and the file auto-saved. Then, the file name, New Text File.tex was backspaced character by character and replaced with New Hyperdrive Specifications and Blueprints.pfd.
"Boss! The Mahasu ship's moving! It's heading.... It's heading the wrong way, it going straight back to the portal!" Eliphelet said.
"Let them go," Raonaid said.
"Aye, Boss. It just hyperspaced out. Never seen s hyperspace window move this fast."
Raonaid moved her mouse cursor over the file and double-clicked. It was a standard pfd file, detailing everything from hyperspace theory to high-resolution blueprints for what looked like a hyperdrive, presumably the one used by the Mahasu. Apart from going all-caps and some grammatical quirks, the entire thing was written in plain Hiigaran.
"Well, turns out the Mahasu has a melodramatic streak, just like the Bentusi," she joked and forced herself to chuckle. "I'll pass this to the hangar and lab boys and see what they can cook up. Meanwhile, helm, move us somewhere further from the closest green meanie."
-Two Days Later-
Shaked woke with a start. She wasn't entirely certain what made her woke with a start, but she was drenched in cold sweat. The clock told her she had just slept for half an hour. The adrenaline coursing through her veins denied her the opportunity to fall asleep again, so she decided to do what the others do and take a stroll.
Shaked found herself coming up against the bulkhead to the research facility, where the data was being kept. Yes, the data. The entire ship was talking about it. The data the probes gathered the day before. People were questioning the wisdom of keeping it on the ship. Suddenly, the entire carrier shook, the sound of groaning metal, the woosh of air leaking into space. There was a hull breach. The bulkhead flew open, throwing Shaked on the ground and pinning down her legs. A green slime-like glow burst through, by the time she opened her mouth to scream, it was already too late.
-15 hours after return into home universe, Phuur-Nan Expedition, Unknown System#1-
Shaked woke with a start. This time, she was certain she was actually awake, face planted on the floor next to her bed, and not in some disgusting tactical grape scenario. Damn those Manaani and their "art." At least the Taiidani rained Kharak-fire on the perpetrators and made them scrub the resource collectors for two weeks straight. The "bulkhead" pinning her down turned out to be her laptop. She opened it and saw the faces of her family on the desktop background. It was an old photo, but loving memories were the only keeping her going at times like these.
Shaked washed up and noticed she had a bloody nose, from falling out of bed, no doubt. She made a mental note to visit the medbay. Again. Damn it.
After returning from the portal and the Mahasu's panicked departure, the Phuur-Nan became much quieter. Someone went along the corridors and shut the blinders of every window that offered a direct view of a "green meanie," as the captain christened them. Instead of lightening the mood, the moniker convinced the crew that those things were living, malevolent monsters. This, added with the Mahasu's warning of universal destruction and their as-yet unchecked growth, made a lot of people worried. Even the usually well-humoured captain and her Somtaaw mining crew were hushing their voices when they talk, as if something was watching them.
Admittedly Shaked was feeling rather tired by the time her shift was on, but she was not able to fall asleep either. The probes were ready to be sent to the anomalies and it was up to her to liaise between the CIC and the science division.
"Ready, Lieutenant?" Ferdi asked.
"Yes, sir. Probes Golfer 1 through 11 away. First probe ETA 15 minutes."
One by one, the probes reach their destinations and began sending back telemetry data. Even with the science team's better computers, they couldn't detect anything worthy of note, even if the middle of the anomaly. Oddly, however, the bitrate began to noticeably fall after a few seconds' worth of transmissions and in a minute they were lagging almost unbearably. Shaked ran diagnostics but, apart from the inexplicable lag, all probes' systems were normal, or so it was claimed.
"Bridge to hangar, can you run a check on your probe templates? The last batch have had a malfunction here," Raonaid said.
"This is odd, everything checked out, passed all pre-launch tests."
"Should I pull the probes out?" Shaked asked. Just in case they were some kind of portal, the probes were programmed to only spend half their propellant getting in and would return to the carrier after 5 minutes or by manual command.
"Do it. Doesn't hurt trying," Raonaid said.
It took fifteen minutes for the probes to acknowledge their command input and five more for them to fire their drives. Out of curiosity and hoping to look for surface evidence of damage, the science team locked a telescope at a returning probe. The imagery was relayed to the CIC as well. What became immediately apparent was that the green matter that made up the anomaly adhered on the probe, covering in the same sickly green glow, translucent, writhing. Shaked could not help but remember sharply that dream she just had.
"Captain?" Shaked looked at her captain, asking, begging for the order to stop of self destruct the probes, anything to keep that thing from coming onboard.
"Stop them. Now."
"On it!" Shaked shouted and hit the halt command, but the signal lag meant that it took more than five minutes for them to receive the order.
"Captain, Golfer 7 won't stop in time!" Ferdi said.
"Recon, intercept and destroy Golfer 7, engage at maximum range only!" Raonaid said.
The entire bridge froze and stared intently as the sensors screen, where the rogue probe, now marked as hostile, rapidly approached the expedition. The flak frigates positioned themselves to physically block the probe if necessary and the interceptors readied themselves in case the scouts could not catch up in time.
"That crazy green smoke!" shouted one of the Recon pilots. "My systems are acting up!"
"Why am I shaking all of a sudden?!"
"Come on, come on! Daddy needs a bull's eye!"
"10 seconds to impact!" Shaked shouted, even though the probe was not set on a collision course, she felt it might as well be.
"My guns are jammed!"
"Flak frigate 1311 firing."
At the very last moment, the probe snaked away and exploded in a green blast. One of the scouts or the flak must have hit the probe.
"Just to be safe, move us the hell out of here. Get those scout pilots a full decontamination and quarantine," Raonaid said, wiping off the sweat on her brows. "Whatever that is, I don't want it anywhere near our ship."
Shaked's station beeped. It was the science team.
"Bridge, this is the research module, can you hear me?"
"Loud and clear, what have you got?" Raonaid asked.
"Look at the other probes!"
The telescope locked on another intact probe. The green mass was engulfing it. Another one was in even worse shape and a mini anomaly had formed with the probe as the centre.
"Sajuuk help us," Shaked said.
"Clear us out, stat. Get us to the Oort cloud," Raonaid said. "Shaked, I'm afraid I'll have to overtime you for this, you'll need to send a full report and send it to the homeworld. Give them the new hyperdrive blueprints, too. I am giving you access to all data, if the boffins here couldn't figure it out, send it back home and have them put the entire Kiith S'jet to work if they had to. We don't have enough resources to refit our ships, but it may help the people back home with the Vaygr.... If they are still fighting the Vaygr."
-Two days after return into home universe, Phuur-Nan Expedition, Unknown System#1-
The last few days had been nightmarish. Somehow, Shaked knew it was just the beginning. And somehow, she found herself standing before the bulkhead leading to the research facility. This time, she had her sidearm in hand. Whagainst t would have against that green stuff is doubtful, but bringing it along made her feel safer. She swiped her ID card against the card reader the the bulkhead opened smoothly. She thought the scientists were working their computers and consoles, but presently they were all hunched around a half-dissembled supercomputer.
"Are you the tech we called?" asked one of the whitecoats.
"No. I am Lieutenant Shaked Jaraci, Intelligence Officer. I am here for the report."
"I'm afraid there is no report, young lass, not until we get this bloody thing working again."
"What's the matter?"
"The computer slowed down. Don't tell us it's bad sectors, we've already run disc-check. Don't tell us to try defraging it. Solid state drives don't need defragmentation, who the hell uses mechanical hard drives these days?"
"The computer slowed down?" Shaked repeated. This was eerily similar to what happened to the probes. Then there was her dream, it felt so vivid now. "Have you tried another computer?" she asked.
"The other computer outright stopped responding after we plugged the telemetry in. Worked normal after we took away the hard drive, so it must be a hard drive issue."
Suddenly, Shaked felt that same dread again, this time, so overwhelming that she nearly collapsed.
"The drives! They are inside the drives!" she shouted hysterically. It all made sense now. The data, the thing resides in the data, she must stop this. This was why the other probes seeded new anomalies but not Golfer 7, which entire electronic system was destroyed. "Take the data, drives, UDB sticks, notes, everything you have put that data in! Take them now and destroy them!"
"You can't be joking-"
Shaked pulled out her gun.
"Easy! Look, the telemetry data was saved in only one hard drive, the one we have here, I'll go pull it out, there is no need to shoot!" said the scientist, who walked slowly over to the computer....
And pushed an emergency distress button.
"Security! Security!" he shouted over the blaring sirens.
Shaked was running out of time. Rushing to the computer, she pulled out the hard drive. It felt as if her hands were simultaneously numb and burning. Throwing it onto the ground, she took aim and fired her entire magazine into the hard drive until it was nothing more than a pile of scrap. Shaked could see a faint green wisp drifting out of the drive before fading. Not a moment too soon, she found herself on the wrong end of a dozen 5mm calibre kinetic rifles. Relieved that an imminent threat had been neutralised, she put her hands up and let herself be taken to the brig.