There was nothing on the dry, desolate rock that made up the surface of the planet but dust that remained undisturbed by even the whisper of a breeze.
And then, there was something. A something that opened, and from which emerged two figures. One was a humanoid female, of Japanese origin with long white hair but who moved with a grace and poise that would have put a woman (or man) half her age to shame. And the other was a male, younger than his companion, although his age was hard to determine beneath the bone mask he wore. While the woman radiated alertness, he was more interested in the device in his hand.
“You, Cousin,” said the female admonishingly, “could have been dead several times over in the few seconds since we arrived. Your…technology,” she said with distaste, “is of no use if the person supposed to use it has been killed because he did not assess his surroundings.”
“With all respect, Mother Hangaku,” replied the male, “if there was any danger around, I would expect you to sense it before me, and this device to detect it before you. Different methods, same goal. It’s why we’ve both been sent here, to cover all bases.”
“And what does your little machine tell you?”
“That it’s far too bloody hot to be wearing this thing,” he said, removing his bone mask.
Hangaku looked at him sardonically. “You need the device to tell you that?”
“Well, no. The device tells me that this planet does not rotate while it orbits its sun, so that it has a permanent light and dark side, that there is some water and vegetation around the equator that generates a just about breathable layer of oxygen, and that we are right in the middle of an arid plane on which probably no life has ever naturally developed. Which all adds up to the fact that it’s too bloody hot to wear the mask.”
“Does it also tell you if there are any life-forms in the vicinity?”
“It does,-or rather, it would if there were any. But there aren’t. Apart from ourselves, obviously. By the way, do we really need all of this formality? You’ve not even asked me for my name. You can call me…”
“You do not have a name as I am concerned. You are simply a Cousin until you have earned the right to have a name.”
“Fine, then my name is Cousin Cousin. So you’ve used my name already.”
“Before you opened your mouth I thought you might be a fool. Now my suspicions have been confirmed. You lack any respect.”
“Ok, ok, you don’t like me, I get it. But you’re not exactly making things easy.”
“Your presence here is not welcome. I prefer to work alone without the encumbrance of having others to protect.”
“I’d kind of gotten that impression,” said Cousin Cousin. “Look, I’m here because the Faction recognised that my skills would probably be a help to you, even if you don’t want to admit it. You remember the briefing – the previous team were working on cross-dimensional research, trying to map the Faction’s mystical approach with the advanced technology left behind at the research base found dug into the surface of this planet. Now, you are without question the finest warrior I have ever encountered, but I doubt you are quite so skilled in the operation of advanced alien technology – and that’s where I come in.”
“I hope those skills come in useful Cousin,’ Hangaku replied, “but given that the team in question have gone ominously silent despite being comprised of people with your skills, I suspect that my abilities will prove the more useful. Now, we’ve wasted enough time. The base’s entrance is this way, and we are an open target on such flat terrain. Come along and keeps your eyes open.”
They had arrived a short distance from the entrance to the base as a safety precaution, so they could look for obvious signs of danger and also to keep their ship safe – neither Faction agent was under any illusion that the loss of their time machine would be considered a much worse outcome than the loss of their lives. As they approached the entrance of the base there was no sign of any life or movement.
“Speaking of it being hotter than a glass-blower’s arse, do you really need to be carrying that thing,” said Cousin Cousin indicating Hangaku’s katana, “when you have a perfectly lethal shadow-blade?”
“My katana only leaves my side when it is in my hand. Have you found the entrance yet?”
“Yes. It’s juuuuuuuust…here,” said Cousin Cousin, consulting the device in his hand, and indicating with the other. Buried in the ground was a solar panel with a handle at its edge.
“Something is wrong,” said Hangaku, putting her hand on the Cousin’s arm to prevent him going near it. “There is no sand or dust on the panel.”
“Well, there wouldn’t be,” replied Cousin Cousin. He knelt for a closer look. “This is very impressive you know.”
“Solar panels are hardly revolutionary technology,” Hangaku said dismissively.
“Oh really? Look again.”
Hangaku looked. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”
Cousin Cousin sighed. “You’re looking at a reflective surface that’s pointing up at the sky – a sky without a cloud in it and a pretty intense amount of sunlight beaming down. And yet you and I can look at the reflective surface because there is not even the slightest glare coming from it.”
Hangaku hated to admit it to herself, but she was impressed with his observation, and annoyed with herself for not making the same.
“These aren’t just solar panels. They’re not just absorbing energy from the sun – they’re actively pulling it in, without any waste. Even the light that bounces off the surface is sucked back in. I’d say that’s pretty impressive. What’s more this panel is so efficient at absorbing energy that, with the constant supply of light it receives here, it could power an entire city on its own – including the weak force-field that keeps the dust off. Impressed now? Do I deserve a name?”
“Not yet. A whole city?”
“Well, only in conditions like these. Beneath this panel is an energy booster which takes the solar power and magnifies it massively. Whoever built it was quite technologically advanced.”
“That much we already knew. And we won’t learn anything more up here. We’ll open the door together, one at each side of the entrance to reduce the risk of being caught by surprise. Ok? On the count of three. One, two, three…”
Nothing had emerged when the panel had been moved – no indication that the base was still populated or that there were any defence mechanisms in place. When she was sure it was safe, Hangaku lowered herself into the base with Cousin behind her. The chamber they found themselves in was empty and silent. This worried Hangaku – if the Faction’s team had simply had a communications malfunction they should still have been monitoring the entrance and noticed their arrival, yet there was no indication that anyone was aware of their presence – or that there was anyone to be aware of it.
Three doors, each vacuum sealed, led out of the entrance chamber. From the schematic of the base that the team had sent back, Hangaku knew that the door to the left led to the personal quarters – kitchens, beds, medical wing. Through the right were offices and small laboratories where the scientific personal could work in peace. And behind the middle door was the reason the Faction had come to the planet in the first place.
“We’re not going to split up, are we?” asked Cousin Cousin, nervously. “Because that would be a seriously dumb thing to do.”
Hangaku turned her back on him so that he would not see her smile.
“No, Cousin. We will take the personal quarters first. It would seem the least likely place for anything to have gone wrong, so we can hopefully check it quickly and get a feel for the building before moving on to the other wings.”
The door slid open with the slightest hiss.
“Well…” said Cousin Cousin, “there goes that theory.”
The door opened onto the communal area and kitchen, with the staff’s bedrooms down a corridor behind. In the room were three dead Faction Cousins. One was laid on the floor in the middle of the room, another sat in a chair, while the third was slumped over the kitchen work surface. The first two had had their throats slit, and based on the pool of dried blood under the body, the third probably had too. Both Hangaku and Cousin Cousin unsheathed their shadow blades and walked slowly into the room. For all his slackness of attitude outside, Hangaku knew that Cousin Cousin (or whatever his real name was) had passed his combat training and now that he was focussed could handle himself. She was pleased to see him proceed in a combat-ready pose, and to take up a complimentary position in the room to her as they explored.
There was no-one else in the kitchen area, so they cautiously explored the bedrooms. Most were empty, one was not. The occupant of that room had been disfigured and dispatched in the same manner as their Cousins while laid on their bed.
Hangaku closed the door behind them when they entered the final – thankfully empty – bedroom.
“Before we go any further, we need to consider what we have seen to far,” she said. “Four Cousins dead, each in the same manner with their throats slit. There are no blood trails on the ground, suggesting that their assailants committed the murders without receiving any injury in return, despite each of the Cousins having a shadow-blade. The Cousin in the bedroom could have been asleep but the others clearly were not. Somehow all three occupants of the living area were surprised at the same moment, with none of them having time to even react to what was happening.”
“Could there have been a problem with the shadow-blades? Being this close to dimensional engineering could have affected them.”
“But that doesn’t explain the lack of defensive wounds on the bodies. Not one of them so much as raised a hand to protect themselves. And they would have done that instinctively if they’d had even a moment’s warning.”
“Could they have been drugged in some way? Something in the food or air? Oh…” Cousin brought their device out of their pocket and quickly tapped away at the screen. “Well, I’ve just scanned the air and there’s nothing untoward in any room we’ve been in so unless it’s been vented out, or is so completely different to anything in our memory banks that the scanner doesn’t even recognise it, it’s not that.”
“I think we’re learned all we’re going to here. We’ll check the offices wing next. Then the main chamber.”
The offices wing proved similar to what they had already seen – various Cousins found slumped on chairs or over desks, throats slit and no suggestion of where the assailants had gone to. Cousin scanned the air again and found nothing to account for the lack of any obvious reaction from the dead at the time they were attacked.
“Well, we know where that leaves,” he said.
They stepped into the main chamber and this time the bodies of the dead did not immediately register – not from any callousness on their part, but because the rest of the room commanded the attention.
“Wow,” said Cousin Cousin. “How Stargate is this?”
Hangaku didn’t understand the reference but the room seemed to speak for itself. At one end stood some kind of portal, large enough for two people to pass through at a time. Facing it in the centre of the room was what looked to be some kind of projection device, which at present was not projecting anything visible. Around these two items was a circle of computer work stations.
Cousin Cousin had gone to one of the terminals. “Let’s see if anything was logged here that might tell us what’s been going on.”
Hangaku left him to his technology, and made a protective rune sign in the air before examining the rest of the room for any sign of what had left the bodies of the Family on the floor.
“Are you feeling at all…strange?”
“In what way?”
“Well, I’ve just tried to log into this terminal but my arm feels funny. I’m finding it difficult to move, like there’s some kind of weight or pressure on it.”
Hangaku focussed on herself, tensing and relaxing the muscles in her body, feeling for the expected responses. The Cousin was right, her arm also felt somewhat less responsive than usual.
“I feel the same. Can you operate the terminal?”
“Yes, my other arm isn’t affected yet, so I’ll use that. Hang on.” He pressed a series of buttons. “Right…it looks like the Cousins were translating the notes of the previous occupants and had pretty much finished. The projector there seems to fire some kind of light…what they called Pure Light according to the translation. According to this, if the light is ever switched off…oh.”
“Oh. The Cousins obviously hadn’t translated that bit when they switched the beam off.” Cousin Cousin ran to the projector and started flicking any switch he could see. “Damn, these controls just seem to adjust the beam, the main control must be activated remotely.” He ran back to the console and Hangaku noticed how stiffly he was carrying his right arm – and then realised just how heavy her own felt.
“What is happening Cousin?” she demanded.
“Just a second. Should be…this one.” He hit a command at the terminal and the projector burned into life. A beam of intense, solid light erupted from its end and hit the portal.
“Right, hopefully that’ll sort…”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence because at that moment his right arm swung up, shadow-blade extended, and slit his throat open.
At the same moment Hangaku felt her own arm begin to move. Years of training dedicated to muscular control enabled her to slow, but not stop, her arm making the same movement, and bought her enough time to reach her katana with her left hand and bring it up level with her face. The shadow blade hit the katana, and took another swing, this time at her stomach. Hangaku parried again, grateful that her training had involved wielding weapons with both hands, but without knowing how to destroy her shadow weapon while her arm was possessed she could only defend herself until she made a mistake.
“The light…” hissed Cousin Cousin, who was holding his throat closed with his hand and flying flat on his other arm to restrain it.
Hangaku staggered towards the projector, fighting herself at close quarters. Luckily her muscle control was making her shadow-weapon clumsy, although the effort was making her tire. She managed to reach the projector. The shadow-blade seemed to sense what she was trying to do and fought harder but Hangaku pushed forward, and the shadow-blade pierced the beam of Pure Light. Instantly the pressure in her arm lessened, and she was able to twist so that all of the weapon was exposed. When she had finished, the entire weapon had been burned away by the Pure Light. She glanced over at the Cousin – he was clearly dead. She crossed over to him and slipped the scanning device from his pocket…before executing a perfect backwards roll to avoid his shadow-blade swinging out from under his body and slicing her feet off at the ankle. She landed near one of the bodies that they had found there, and rolled sideways to avoid being sliced in two by the corpse. All around her the bodies of the dead were moving, their shadow-weapons struggling against the dead-weight of the soft machines they were attached to. For a moment it was as though Hangaku were on an island and the bodies throwing out their hands in desperation as they drowned around her. But they were neither waving nor drowning. She jumped over the bodies in her way to the console Cousin Cousin had been reading from. It was still showing the final entry in the log in which the translation had been completed.
“Oh,” she said.
”Please, Mother Hangaku, complete your report.”
“In conclusion, it would appear that the base had been an attempt to enable cross-dimensional travel. Unfortunately the portal had opened into what the scientists simply referred to as ‘The Shadow Dimension’. The life in that dimension had proven hostile to the scientists – whether due to a naturally aggressive nature or in defence against what they saw as an invasion is not clear – and gone on the offensive. The scientists had managed to rig up another aspect of their technology – a Pure Light generator – and aimed it at the portal. Pure Light is the antithesis of the Shadow creatures, and effectively damns up the entrance to our dimension and could be powered permanently by the solar generators on the planet’s surface. They then left the base on automatic as the technology is self-repairing. When the Cousins started exploring the base they switched off the generator while they explored its function. This allowed the creatures of the Shadow dimension to influence our own – in particular our shadow-weapons which seem to be of a similar nature to their technology.”
“So the dead Cousins were killed by their own weapons.”
“Yes, which were being somehow manipulated by creatures from that other dimension, perhaps…”
“It is unlike you to show such hesitancy in a report Mother”
“I know. I pause because I even now I am searing my reasoning for any fault, any flaw in my logic that can save me from my own conclusions. But there is none.”
“My initial thought was that the shadow weapons were being manipulated from the other dimension to attack their wearers. However, the corpses attacked me after the Pure Light beam blocked the entranceway. And if that hypothesis had been true, why did our weapons not attempt to slay us the moment we entered the base?”
“You have a theory?”
“Yes. I believe that the weapons were not manipulated so much as persuaded into attacking their hosts. I believe that whatever life-forms inhabit the Shadow Dimension, they share a similar kind of existence to our weapons. When we entered the base we were not immediately attacked because our weapons had not yet been convinced to either kill us, or to allow us to be slain.”
“But convinced they ultimately were.”
“If this hypothesis is correct, any contact with this dimension could result in our very shadow-blades turning against us. And more; it suggests that our shadow-weapons might even possess a level of independent life and intelligence that we had never suspected, and they may resent their enslavement to our cause.”
“This is a most worrying thought, Mother. You will not breathe another word of your theory to anyone apart from those of us in this de-briefing – you understand?”
“Of course. In conclusion; with the Pure Light generator switched back on, the creatures of the Shadow Dimension should be unable to enter our universe and influence our weapons further – at least via that entrance. However I can not rule out the possibility of other entrances to that dimension opening, either by other species experimenting in the same manner, or by some natural phenomenon.”
“That would be disastrous.”
“Indeed it would. Which is why I cast a rune over the entrance to hide it from view. No-one will ever be able to find it and disturb its important work again. Have you analysed the data I brought back?”
“We have. The readings of the distortions caused by the gateway are previously unknown to us, and we can find no equivalent in the locations where Faction agents have carried out missions, suggesting that none of our other agents have come into contact with any such portals, As such this would appear to be an isolated incident rather than a wider threat at this point. You will continue your investigations.”
“Speaking of which, we have another mission for you. A rescue mission.”
”A Faction agent?”
“No. A child…”