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Galandis Refinery


The Khanate


This seemed to be what he lived for, nowadays. 


He'd long since turned in his resignation at work. The guys at the aeronautics firm might have been willing to excuse his "long lunches" every now and again, but this was a different matter entirely. He had explained he was going to take a "sabbatical"; they acted like they understood, but he had a feeling that the position might be filled by the time he got back to Earth for any long stretch of time.


If he got back to Earth. 


Sometimes, he wondered if he'd cracked. Here he was, alone, in the last place in the galaxy anyone wanted to be. He hadn't starting thinking about snails crawling along the edge of straight razors yet, so that was a point in favor of sanity. But there was still that urge, that drive. The need to do everything to the enemy that had been done to him and his people.


He knew what lay down that road. But damn if it wasn't a tempting one to walk.


Cavalier sighed. The personal reflection could wait. He had work to do. And so, he adjusted his visor to meet the swirling storm of dark silt, and trudged off towards his objective. 

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One of the things Kyle had first learned going into space was that George Lucas had a lot to answer for, and not just the obvious. There was this idea in the human mind to boil things down and simplify them, to make one world one thing entirely. Here the ice world, here the desert world, here the volcano world. A mind that had trouble comprehending the infinite variety of one planet might easily narrow down the landscape of another planet to a handful of recognizable features, all against one landscape. And while he'd seen his share of tidally-locked and primordial worlds, Kyle knew that most planets capable of supporting life had a lot more variety than that. 


This was not one of those worlds. Korivan had one biome, and that biome seemed to be "craphole." Although it had an atmosphere with a good enough balance of oxygen and nitrogen to allow for breathing, there wasn't much soil to speak of. Instead, most of the planet was several shades of black silica, from large rocky outcroppings to dust that whipped up into blinding storms. But the planet had been valuable to the Khanate as a mining world, its deeper riches ready to be plucked from beneath the inhospitable surface. 


And if it was a bad place then, the arrival of the Communion had made it worse. Veins of silvery-black computronium ran through the planet now, drawing on the planet's natural silicon composition to serve as a gigantic circuit board. But that wasn't the only reason the Communion had invested so many forces on this planet. The Khanate had recently discovered a radioactive ore - talavix was the Khanate's term, something that didn't quite translate and had likely been made up to keep others from giving it a name of their own. It had been of some interest, but compared to uranium or plutonium, it had substandard yield for the engines of Khanate ships. But the Communion apparently knew how to draw everything out of the ore, to work it for its full potential. Those engines had to run on something, after all, and bioelectricity just wasn't that efficient a source. They'd attacked the mines first, integrating the miners and working them until they broke. And when they broke, they were rebuilt in new and terrible ways. 


Such mines would be heavily guarded and heavily converted. But, there would also be large deposits of unrefined talavix. Which, with the right wavelength of a well-attuned blaster, would blow up real good. And Cavalier was ready to make some fireworks. 

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The first wave of surveillance drones was simple. A quick adjustment of the energy wavelengths of his suit was enough to guard him from normal visual range, infravision, UV radiation, and x-ray sight. The second wave would be difficult. These ones were repurposed mining units, meant to pick up on a glimmer of talavix through miles of rock - meaning they were very receptive to tremors on the ground. A quick burst of flight, as well as a well-timed blast at some precariously-piled rocks, was enough to keep them looking exactly where they shouldn't. The third wave... well...


At some point, they'd been people. Everyone here had been people, at some point, but these were the most obvious. But they'd been made more. Hulking, shambling wrecks of people, pumped so full of nanotechnology that it seemed the skin and muscles had sundered, leaving a wreck of metal on top of a skeleton. Their arms and legs were covered in mining tools, the kind that would also be very good at killing whoever got in the way. They also knew how to read the movements of the air, a leftover of detecting the first signs of cave-in or avalanche. Moving past them was suicide. Engaging them was suicide. And they were gathered in a tight huddle around the mouth of Shaft Delta (at least, that was his term for it), one of the richest veins of talavix in the whole complex. 


So. Suicide it was. 


If pressed to overload, Cavalier's blaster could produce a round like a grenade launcher, a high-intensity burst of energy that would utterly wreck anyone's day. He fired it right into the mass of guards, giving them a second to realize what the glowing things was before it detonated with terrible fury. Even as it tore and melted their metal flesh, they still remained standing, if substantially more pissed off. And with the round fired, his blaster would need time to recharge. But he didn't plan to engage them from range. 


He dived in as fast as he could, flying at breakneck speed. The guards tried to close with him, but they were behemoths as he was a fly. On first pass, he wove between them, though his armor took a few scratches. Behind him, he heard the high-pitched whine. They were charging up their mining lasers, which - as something of an added feature - could do absolutely horrible things to flesh and metal at 400 yards. And so, like a jackass, he dove back towards the barrage. As he drew closer, he could hear the whine of charging blasters growing higher and higher - but that was what he wanted. The laser of the first guard fired, but went wild. A second later, and he'd be toast. But he just needed a second. He slammed at full force into one of the guards, slamming him deep into Shaft Delta - where the laser caught a node of talavix


He pushed on as the explosion hit him like a sledgehammer, the world falling away beneath him. He could hear the earth cracking beneath him, the guards sending up a shriek like scraping metal as they tried to regain their footing. And behind him, he could hear the other drones rearing up, chasing after him at top speed. He knew he might not be able to outrace them forever.


At least he had crippled him. He could ask that much of his death. 

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The sound of the drones' footsteps was abruptly drowned by the sharp, high pitched twang of heavy laser fire and the roar of atmospheric engines. A mid-scale Lor cruiser swept down through Korivan's caustic cloud cover like a massive bird of prey rendered in blocky shapes and hovered just past Cavalier, close enough to the ground to send waves of loose silica blowing outward in its wake. Six months prior no Lor captain could have imagined allowing their ship to be seen in such a state, carbon scoring across its nose, mismatched patches dotting the hull and obviously nonstandard modifications taking the place of the stately, subdued design that had taken countless committees to approve.


There were a lot of things no Lor would have been able to imagine six months prior.


Darts of deadly photons designed to punch through warship bulkheads came in a barrage, hot and fast but only succeeding in slowing down the monstrous cyborgs. A lucky shot or two vaporized residual organic material in a flash but mining equipment designed with durability in mind above all else was no more impressed by ship-to-ship weapons than Star Knight armor. Fortunately slowing them down was all the cruiser needed to accomplish. Flood lights on the vessel's underbelly lit up to shine down on Cavalier while a woman's voice sounded from a loudspeaker, "Making friends as always, handsome. We should go."

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Cavalier smiled as the familiar ship buzzed right over his head. Just as he did, he heard the humming in his suit cut off with a small ping - his blaster was back online. "Right there with you," he said. He pulled a flip - not the easiest thing to do when going so fast - his internal flight calibrator pushing him back instead of forward. He was facing his pursuers, which was not the best position to be in, all things considered. But it made this a hell of a lot easier. He opened fire, unloading on their enemies. His firepower was reduced, compared to the guns on Shepherd's ship - but he could also pick off the targets their autofire couldn't easily calibrate. His main targets were the smaller drones - he'd seen what Communion entities could do, and it was likely that even the smaller ones had some sort of nanotech payload that could cripple, if not entirely overtake, a ship. Fortunately, it wasn't the kind of thing to spray wildly into the air - and high enough temperatures could disrupt it entirely. The heavier hardware was in the bigger targets. Which were just starting to catch up.


He knocked on the hull. "Took care of some of the stragglers," he said. "That means it's only the big, pissed-off ones that are a problem. Roll the window down a little, and we can get the hell out of here."  

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The cruiser began accelerating away from the charging horde of reconstructed horrors with Cavalier clinging to the hull. The closest airlock to the Star Knight irised open with a hiss that was covered by the roar of wind just as the forerunners of the most heavily armored drones broke into a lumbering sprint to close the distance. The starship angled backward at the last moment so that the blistering heat and turbulent force of its atmospheric engines blasted into its pursuers and sent them tumbling back into each other before rocketing into the upper atmosphere. By the time the inner airlock had cycled to allow Kyle fully inside they had already broken orbit and pointed toward space.


Stepping into the ship's interior, he was greeted not by a Lor but an androgynous red skinned humanoid with pointed ears and a smooth expanse where most species of comparable build would have had some configuration of mouth and nose. Dressed in simple military slacks, impressively stompy combat boots buckled nearly up to the knee and a the jacket of a Lor flight officer left undone and hanging open over a bare chest, the Grue hefted a heavy laser rifle at the ready, albeit not pointed directly at Cavalier as it tilted its head to one side quizzically.

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Well. There was a time the sight of a Grue might have had Cavalier reaching for his blaster. And, truth be told, he still didn't entirely trust the Grue. But he'd heard what had happened in the reaches. If there was any time for strange bedfellows, it was now. He held his hands up. "Easy there," he said. "I'm a big boy. I know explosions are an outside thing." 


Don't misgender, don't misgender - wait, do Grue have gender? I can never remember... Cavalier decided now would not be the best time to find that out. When he was sure that matters were at ease with the Grue, he lowered his hands. "All right. I know this one's a cliche, and I'm pretty sure everyone's sick of it, but... take me to your leader." 

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"I'm sure that's hilarious if you're Terran," Shepherd-07 drawled as she strode confidently into disembarking chamber. The Lor clone wore a gunmetal grey set of powered under-armor, a full body jumpsuit on top of which any number of different combat armor loadouts could be mounted, topped with a softer, hooded jacket emblazoned with the emblem of a fighting unit Cavalier didn't immediately recognize. The Star Knight didn't think he'd even seen Seven completely out of armor since meeting her at Lor-Van but then she could have said the same about him.

The redhead motioned for Kyle to follow her out of the room and down a hall further into the cruiser to its command information center, the rifle-totting Grue following easily behind. "You've already met Gio'nn. Xe joined up after Kobalii." A Grue birthing world, the Communion had reached Kobalii a little more than four months prior. The Metamind had made the planet a sacrificial lamb, detonating its facilities there to expend the enemy's attacking forces and deeming the Grue drones on the ground acceptable losses. In a chain reaction of hivemind giving way to individual sentience nearly a fifth of those drones had awakened to metamorph status, a large portion of them commandeering cargo transports and escaping to join the Coalition. Those metamorphs were said to hate the Metamind almost as much as the Communion but the damage done at Kobalii had also bought nearly a week to fortify the adjacent systems while the Communion regrouped. It was a touchy subject.

The middle of CIC featured a holographic abstraction of the galaxy, accurate scale given less importance than military significance and level of recent activity. Entire solar systems were reduced to dots of red, blue and green with arrows and dashed lines indicating the movement of forces and noteworthy borders.

There were so many red dots.

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Cavalier really didn't know what to say in a situation like that. He'd said all he could to Shepherd-07 after Lor-Van had been destroyed - well, as much as could be legible between the taciturn silence and the episodes triggered as the memories of the planet's sundering had come back to him - but her reaction had told him it was the kind of thing where an "I'm sorry for your loss" wouldn't work. Instead, he popped his helmet, letting the casing slide back and the atmosphere of the ship hit him in the face. He looked right in Gio'nn's eyes and gave him a respectful nod, one that he hoped conveyed a feeling of solidarity.


With part of the plating off, he figured he might as well go for broke. The rest of his armor receded, the energy plating vanishing and the other metal drawn back into the bracelet on his wrist. It had been a while since he'd popped off the casing, and while there were measures in place to keep him from becoming absolutely rank, they could not work miracles. "Feels good to breathe," he said, "or have the luxury of it. If I smell like dead brevan, then feel free to shove me in an airlock for decon. Just... need a break." He turned to the grid. "...crap. So many hot zones. You take one out, two more pop up." He shook his head. "But if you don't hit it, then you've got three. Anything in particular need hitting?" 

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The Grue looked at Cavalier unblinkingly for several moments, completely still and impassive until something finally clicked and xe realized the intent of the nod. Somewhat haltingly Gio'nn returned the gesture, an exact mirror of Kyle's body language except for the note of hesitation from someone still getting used to communicating on a personal level.
"Take your pick, Earthman," Seven noted with a small snort. She'd certainly seen a real shower more recently than the Star Knight but she looked tired, worn down at the edges. The carrier soldier was holding up better than the waves of refugees to be found packed into every reasonably safe spaceport in nominally Lor space but everyone was running on fumes. The Communion and its drones, on the other hand, never tired. If they had any hope of winning the war it would need to be soon.
"Crew of bounty hunters got hold of some sensor footage a while back, took the labbies and spooks some time to go over. They figure it's the mothership, calling the shots for all the 'Munies. Which would help more if we knew where it was now," she continued, pointing out the spot on the galactic map where the recording had been taken. "Got a team following up a lead on that here." Another red dot on the map, surrounded by red dots. That team would be lucky to make it in alive let alone back out, Cavalier knew. "Word is command's got some ideas about why some worlds are getting converted into computronium and some are getting turned into wormholes, too, but you can guess how much they tell us on the front lines." The captain didn't completely succeed in keeping the irritation out of her voice; Kyle wasn't sure she'd even really been trying to do so. "You know we actually got a confirmed sighting of the Gorgon three weeks back? The karking Gorgon and it gets labeled 'low priority'. That's the galaxy we're living in now."

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The Gorgon. That was one Cavalier had missed, for the most part. He'd still been in the Cloud when it had appeared over Earth, but he'd read a number of after-action reports. The panic in the streets, the general sense of doomsday, all the horror that had swept through the planet... that was nothing, by comparison. "I've been trying to draw up theories of my own," he said. "For the... pick-and-choose nature of whether a world's destroyed, assimilated, or just left alone. It may be that the Communion wants data it doesn't have. Some of these worlds may have already had some of the populace swept up into its ranks. This thing talks a big game about preserving all knowledge, giving immortality to people... but it's probably just talk. In the end, it's got an elect of its own. If you've got valuable intel, welcome to the choir. If not, welcome to oblivion."


He put his hands on the console, studying the map. "Only... if that were the case, it'd be destroying words left and right. Maybe it's a matter of resources. It can't be as infinite as it says. It's playing the long game - maybe leaving some worlds behind so that they can keep learning. Brings a whole new meaning to 'data farming.'" 


He shook his head. The more he thought about it, the less it all made sense. He studied the spot where the mothership had last been traced, trying to figure out if there was some significance. Or if he was just trying to look for a polar bear in a blizzard. 

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Maybe the play of words didn't translate well or maybe the other pair in the room were simply too weary to laugh. Either way there was a heavy silence as Seven and Gio'nn exchanged a look. "She should be told, Shepherd-Seven," the Grue said finally, their somber voice emerging from their mouthless face with a distinctly alien quality.
"He," Seven corrected absently with a small sigh, making a few swiping gestures over the glassy surface of the holomap's controls to zoom the image in to a section of galaxy that was immediately familiar with Cavalier.
Gio'nn blinked twice, each eye closing asynchronously before their forehead creased with frown lines. "Shepherd-Seven is female and these two look alike. Shepherd-Seven is attempting to distract this one with solid nonsense."
"No, I'm-- later. Steward, command didn't much want one of their last remaining Star Knights distracted and emotional but screw 'em. Gio'nn's right, there's another hot spot you need to know about." The map adjusted again as she made an inverted pinching gesture, coalescing into a single solar system with one life-supporting planet. "Right after you went off comms the Communion went after Terra. Earth. Guess they weren't looking for a straight-up fight with all those mutants and whatever you guys have so they made a big feint with some heavy ordinance out at the edge of the system and tried some of the sneaky kark. Stealth nanite bombs, evangelist units, the works. Got their metal noses dented in, is the good news."
"The Grue could have told the Enemy that would not work on Terrans," Gio'nn snorted flatly before giving Kyle a sidelong, vaguely embarrassed look and going silent.
Seven ran a hand down across her face but let the faux pas pass without comment. "Bad news is that the world killer, the one that... the one that was at Lor-Van is still there and it sounds like it's their Plan B." She indicated a spot on the map about where the human knew Pluto's orbit lay. "Daedalus and his crew are engaging but all they're doing is slowing it down now that it's stopped playing with them."

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Earth. Before it had been a little ping in the back of his head, that little bite of nostalgia. Cavalier had gotten used to that - he'd spent six years in the far reaches of space with the planet as nothing more than nostalgia. He'd left it behind months back, knowing that his duties called him out to the further reaches of the void. If he could stop the Communion here, then he wouldn't have to worry about it arriving at his door step.


But that time had long since passed, apparently.


Shepherd was right. Emotion was getting the better of him. And he wanted it to. "I... I have to go back," he said. "If it... I can't just..." He wasn't just trying to get his brain around the words. He was also trying to find a way to talk about the stakes to someone who had seen what defeat meant. "If I leave the sector... I can make sure we get more Star Knights here. We've managed to redouble our efforts. The veterans know how to engage this thing, and the cadets have been trained with the Communion in mind. But... I have to go. I have to try." 

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"See, this is why we get along, Steward," Seven drawled, giving the Star Knight a small, weary smile and a friendly punch in the shoulder. "Do us all a favour and send that spherical son of a 'shtet to the flarking Pit, yeah? And don't do anything stupid like getting yourself killed or I'll track you down in whatever afterlife Terrans believe in and kick your ass."
Gio'nn's forehead wrinkled again as xe tried to parse that particular turn of phrase but before xe could ask for clarification another Lor rushed into the room. No more than sixteen or seventeen with honey blonde hair that had been shaved down to a military standards long enough ago to have grown out again into a pixie cut and a vaguely 'R' shaped hilt hanging from the hip of her white and gold jumpsuit that Kyle recognized as using similar technology to the energy blades generated by Star Knight armor. He'd run into the girl once or twice on Seven's ship before but her name escaped him other than recalling that the rest of the crew called her Princess to her face; he'd never gotten the story behind that nickname. "Captain! We just got another call for evac! It's the Amazri IV team!"


Seven swore lightly under her breath and brought up another star system on the holomap. "Alright. Th'emme, get everybody ready for FTL, we're going to be going in hot." The teenager nodded crisply, pausing just long enough to give Kyle a friendly wave before dashing back out the way she'd come. "Sorry, flyboy, I was hoping to at least offer you a ride but no rest for the wicked."

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