Chapter 1 – A Step Leads. A Step Follows.

The name Te'Qal fades from focus. Red anticipation runs into dripping memory as the unknown sprawl of the future stands endless and dark.

Moments before jaws close, reality confronts the mind. Reason pleads with the body.

Every nerve screaming too late to retreat from viral attraction.

Deterministic instinct forces Qugu to jaw-beast. Severed. Paid. Reformed in the belly of sacrifice, repaid.

Drink deep the nectar, and recite…

all change is pain…

…Gloom shades a great Mountain.

Rigid.

Cut against the sky.

Floodplains engulf the Mountain's shadow to every horizon. Coral forests dotted by mossy patches root into red sands and maize-streaked stone. Geothermic silt-rich shallows steep aromatic lichen, and flow through subterranean channels that erode foundations until the surface above falls into slithering grooves across the planet Seht.

Within a sunken valley at the Mountain's base, a Qugu slumps, dying. Cephalopod frame atop bi-pedal, inverted legs, cloaked in a flowing mane of tendril-like tentacles, with a single forelimb reaching from their chest… the deep black eyes infer connection—but primal, lost and alone.

:Te'Juna:cries out alone:extinguishment:the old fear:shared burden:

Their legs have no strength left, but something in the blood compels them forward into the maw of an enormous mollusk beast. The great jaws snap shut. A mane of tentacles limply grope, and then lay still. Remains into the shallows. Life leaves the flesh and gathers again. It splinters and fractures, then melds, entwines. Decomposes, and gestates. A death-grove awakening. Time passes. Te'Juna's rot seeds the grove that drinks from the dark pools beneath the Mountain.

Five rise from the silt and shallow. Their existence burns bright for a time, then dims. Five return in frailty to the death-grove, to the mollusk beast, compelled into its jaws. Their flesh churns to nectar. They seed the grove anew.

A dozen worlds persistently circle a blazing white star. Qugu herds stride the open floodplain, feed-basking the starlight of Se'Tar. Their migrations find the coral edge that falls into the sea. Direction is sought; mane-limbs are offered in ritual symbiosis to the great mollusk of the Mountain—a deified jaw-beast. Vision-bringing nectar is collected, fermented, and imbibed. Seeded death-groves saturate with it. The line of the Qugu people carves valleys deep into Seht. Their existence resonates across time, through consciousness, in voice and actioned flesh.

The children of their children would return to the coral edge, to swim in the depths and pry submerged jaw-beasts to surface. These holy beasts are given new roosts beneath the Mountain. Many cycles pass. A village of salt-stone, lichen and coral shelters the herd. In time, many dot the shallows around the Mountain.

The death-grove churns generations in the silt, and new groves take shape, filling the shallows for miles. Groves anchor villages. Villages spiral into cities that join the Mountain to the sea and reach high to seed bodies in the sky. Qugu voices echo in unity across a shared dream of existence. A haven from fear and loneliness. A horizon of communal ambition.

Memories and concepts—as distant reference—as echoed warning—as guiding hand. Ever sharpening the whole. Living, active reincarnation.

And now, Te'Qal. This expression of the cycle. One of three. One who has seen the skies colored by four stars, the insight of nectar many times, and the perils of 70 years. One who now sees the line of their descendancy, back to its inception; the lives of Te'Qali ancestors entwined and present before them. Above, the stars are absent, a hollow sky.

Te'Qal concentrates on the breadth of the Qugu line—listens to their voices, seeks guidance. In their deepest dreaming moments, Te'Qal would experience their knowledge, feel their gentle pull or push. As if all action had been building to and from their decisions. The herd surrounds them. They stride across the floodplain, together. They wriggle through sea-rock coves and run the paths of their evolution together.

The herd halts under a starless sky. Te'Qal stops but a few paces out of step—so sudden is the loss of momentum—and looks back, draws faces known to them forward, listens.

The herd screams in silence. Their mouths agape in that old extinguishing fear. Te'Qal turns from the line of their ancestors and looks to the starless sky. The floodplains fall away into cliff and void, the starless nothing dripping down to overtake the horizon. And there, at the pointed tip of the Qugu line, Te'Qal sees an end, a precipice of silence, a great yawning tear in the sky of nothing, looming over the Mountain.

An Omen.

Split. To swallow them all.

A vision of purpose.

The culmination of many cycles.

A pivotal step…

…Te'Qal sinks to the floor before stretching mane-tendrils stabilize them. A steady line of blood flows from one freshly nubbed tendril; one of 15 missing from Te'Qal's mane. The bloodied nub spasms with pain. Musical percussion vibrates through their limbs and plants them back in the present, in time to hear a voice address them.

"Awaken, Warden Te'Qal. With the knowledge our forebearers entrust to you, the Seht Armada's Command is now held to the Te line."

Three Qugu elders wrapped in pearlescent second-skin sleeves stand before Te'Qal. A golden-crowned sleeve is suspended above them. The golden mantle, a Will-weaver, to meld disparate intentions into unity.

"Rise and accept this burden of service."

A massive jaw-beast bubbles with nectar, the taste of it still fresh, its shell bloodied. Providence fills Te'Qal's heart. The hum of spaceflight vibrates in rhythm with the pulse of pain in their mane. This ship, their command. To stand against what is coming.

"The line of Te accepts." Te'Qal stands, raising their mane-tendrils as the golden-crowned sleeve lowers over them and enwraps their form. Data and feeling pour into perception, into control. Te'Qal feels dozens of ships taut at their command, like bladed waves cresting in the wind of Te'Qal's voice.

"In service. For Seht."

*****

Te'Qal hangs suspended in their command sleeve aboard their flagship, two years wiser, having learned to guide the fleet's movements like amorphous ripples across magnetic fields. Now Te'Qal and their Captains react as one. Tendrils twist within sleeve and draw the fleet together. Fifty-three of the armada's finest far-reaching War-pearls drift into formation, their sleek horizontal teardrop shapes rendering them nearly invisible against surrounding space.

Progress? The request awaits an answer.

"The Se'Un Gate is ready to send the fleet, Warden." The voice resonates in Te'Qal's mind from the right flank of their fleet. Captain Je'Gana. "There is no response from Se'Un Receiving."

The Qugu system of Se'Un had fallen silent. There was fear.

Te'Qal speaks to the fleet. "We do not jump in blindness. Our ancestors guide this fleet. We will see what has caused silence in the system of Se'Un and return them into concert with the Qugu. Forward."

The fleet slips from Te'Qal's awareness ship by ship, into the folded space between points and out again, until finally the flagship follows them through to a far-off star.

And there, upon the exodus, the fleet is met with a great yawning tear of nothing. It spans ten times the width of their numbers. Te'Qal's eyes catch something within the void. A gulf that in its deepest reaches burns with jade flame.

:an Omen:

:to swallow them all:

Te'Qal tenses, and the fleet, feeling their apprehension, halts. Te'Qal listens, and the fleet boosts sensors, sending scans deep into the black. Those that probe the tear return no information. The gate behind them cools.

"Je'Gana. Pel'Uma." Te'Qal draws the captains into shared concert.

"It is empty," Je'Gana states flatly. "What is it? A gate?"

"I cannot locate any planetary signal, nor ark-ship, nor groves," Pel'Uma's concern strains the connection.

"I have seen. This is a doom we must avert." Te'Qal is firm, grounding the connection. "Pel'Uma, go to Sehta'Un. The elder of their grove will—"

The tear shudders, sending a shockwave through the fleet. Hundreds of small objects surge forth from the tear, like sparks spitting from sharpened steel. Their trajectories appear random and inelegant until a massive vessel—a graven spinal corridor of obsidian and jade flame—breaches the tear. As it crashes into open space before Te'Qal, the sparks react and scream forward toward the Qugu ships.

Te'Qal scatters the private concert and relays alerts to the fleet.

Battle stations.

The sleek hull plates of the Qugu War-pearls part to release dozens of drones: weapons, shielding, utility, they flock around each ship and form into tight-knit squadrons.

Qugu fusion batteries charge and rip into the incoming swarm, disintegrating swaths of chitinous ships before the attackers close in. Te'Qal contorts sleeved tendrils and directs the fleet into a cloud formation—each captain's sub-command and drones a murmuration within the greater armada—united in fluid motion. They draw the tiny, bladed ships into crossfires and reduce them to ashes.

Te'Qal turns the fleet's attention to the tear and the ship in front of it.

Suddenly, dozens of obsidian vessels burst forth from the tear. Sheets of tiny Rippers dislodge from the larger vessels and cut across space toward the Qugu fleet, supported by salvos of axion volleys.

Qugu fusion fusillades cull hundreds of tiny blades from the surge of approaching ships, but it is not enough to punch clear holes and target their supporting artillery. Te'Qal tries to guide the fleet through an upward arc over the incoming swarm, dodging heavy ordnance and tiny chitinous blades that peck at their flanks through torrents of retaliating fusion energy.

:terror:pain:silence:

One of the fleet is snuffed out. Te'Qal tightens their ranks against the bladed swarm and attempts to redirect fire to the larger ships, but their numbers are quickly beginning to pale to those of the invaders. They watch doom pour from the omen. Another wave of ripping blades blitz through the tear. The invasive surge overwhelms their armaments.

Te'Qal detaches Pel'Uma to spool the gate home, then adjusts tactics. They draw drones in close to chain power between ships. They inhale, and fusion energy flows through the fleet into one unified beam that scatters the swarm of blades and splits two obsidian ships. Then another, and another… Shields fail across the fleet.

:hope:hopelessness:extinguishment:

Te'Qal feels Pel'Uma slip away as their ship is overtaken by a thousand blades, but the gate is ready.

They would need the full might of the Qugu to stand against this horror.

Retreat sounds across the fleet. Se'Un has fallen.

They flee through the swarm, leaving wreckage and fire.