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Many years from now, many centuries from now in fact, a furred, tailed Teacher stood in a beautiful garden on Cait, holding a book. It was a heavy, ancient book, a book that had been carefully passed down from generation to generation. A book that was now open in one paw, as the Teacher taught her class.
"And thus the Truths of the Great Mother remain, My Cubs, as clear and unignorable and eternal as the sun that shines in our sky..."
Deep Space, A Thousand Years Ago:
"Well, Cub? Talk to me."
"Great Mother... it's so long and hard... it goes on forever... I can't get my arms around it..."
Still harnessed in their explorer pod, idly raising the internal temperature of his pressure suit, Prime Technician Hsuuras grunted. "S'Tow, I'm already old and decrepit and can ill afford to be out here soaking up ambient cosmic radiation while you spout cubbish innuendo. Something more useful, please?"
Still, he privately admitted that the alien Artefact that had drawn them out here into the darkness of Deep Space was undeniably phallic: cylindrical, 200 ujars long and 20 ujars in diameter, with a propulsion system on one end, its surface coated in a dark green, impenetrable neutronium alloy, but with accessible portals here and there.
One portal of which was now opened, courtesy of his apprentice. First Technician S'Tow was halfway inside, her pressure suit looking more flattering on her than his did on himself, and moved in nil-grav with far more ease, her tail swishing about in her pressure suit's sheath. Not surprising, really; as one of the younger generation in the Ark Fleet, she had spent more time in space than on any planet.
And she was brilliant, intuitive, hard-working, and professional. When she wanted to be. "Definitely an automated vessel, like a probe or a communications relay. The neutronium exterior prevents an accurate analysis of the age, but not so the iridium dust I found in the cracks of the portal I found. This thing hasn't been opened up in at least ten thousand years."
Hsuuras breathed in sharply. Since fleeing the Motherworld over thirty years ago, the Pure People had stumbled upon very little in the way of evidence of alien life or technology. He supposed it was a blessing; in their quest to find a new home, there was little desire for competition. "What about the interior? Any computers, writings? Clues as to the builders of the Artefact?"
From his vantage point, he watched S'Tow's sheathed tail swish with excitement. "No script, nothing but a symbol: six- no, seven red concentric circles, embossed everywhere inside. There's some sort of computer unit, but its workings are fried, possibly from some security mechanism to prevent outsiders from accessing data on the makers. But there are active isomagnetic cages like our antimatter containment systems, employing a rather ingenious self-replicating crystalline matrix to prevent degradation."
"A fuel storage system that can last ten thousand years?"
"Yeah, it's strange. Actually, I don't think it's protecting fuel, it- it-"
Hsuuras had been idly scratching some dust off of his helmet's visor, when he smirked at her pause. "What is it, Cub? Are you stuck in there, like when I had to rescue you out of that ventilation shaft on Ark 4 and-"
He stopped the banter as he saw S'Tow propel herself off of the Artefact, twisting in space and using her impellers to frantically return to the pod. "We have to get away. Now. Alert the Fleet Commander."
"The Fleet Commander? Why? What is it, S'Tow?"
"DO IT, HSUURAS! PLEASE!"
Two minutes later, on their way back to Ark 1, S'Tow had explained the reasons for her panicked retreat.
Ninety-eight minutes after that, Hsurras and S'Tol were onboard, and in the presence of Fleet Commander Laaw, an ash-furred female who was among the oldest surviving members of the tens of thousands of the Pure People who had fled from the Augmented on Ferasa. She stood there in the Conference Room, looking up at the recordings the pair had made of the Artefact and its interior, focusing on the blood-red, seven circle symbol. "What am I looking at here?"
Hsuuras glanced at Laaw's senior officers, remaining silent behind her but clearly critical that a meeting like this could be called at such short notice by the likes of Technicians. But Hsuuras had an advantage many of them didn't: knowing the Fleet Commander personally, from before the start of the Exodus. "A symbol adorning the interior of the Artefact, which we believe is a warning sign regarding the contents of the isomagnetic cages. We couldn't locate any physical, magnetic or crystalgraphic records about the builders."
Laaw nodded thoughtfully. "Reminds me of the art from the shrines back on Ferasa, representing the gateway to the Seven Hells..." Now she focused on Hsuuras. "It's not a starship?"
"Not one meant to be crewed, Siress: there was a propulsion system capable of extraluminary speed, and a guidance system, but no life support."
"And what do the cages contain? I'm assuming you've worked that out?"
"Yes, Siress." He turned to a nervous-looking S'Tow. "Go on."
The auburn-furred female swallowed, her tail twitching behind her as she cleared her throat. "Siress, the evidence suggests that the cages within the Artefact contain... Primal Particles."
The response from the senior officers was alarm and derision. Hsuuras didn't blame them. Primal Particles had never been synthesised by the People, and their effects had only been observed at a great distance. They were confirmed to be the most powerful substance known, potentially the primal source of the Birth of the Cosmos, with just a few molecules said to be able to provide the energy needs of an entire planet.
Or destroy it, because Primal Particles were also incredibly unstable. During the Exodus, cosmophysicists within the Fleet had observed a distant sector of space that, centuries before, had been the home of an advanced civilisation, to judge from the residual radio transmissions, but then had been the victim of a massive explosion that destroyed them, affecting both space and underspace, rendering it, and seemingly everything in it... dead.
It had been assumed that they had been victims of some terrible natural phenomenon involving the Primal Particles. Now, however...
Laaw kept her composure, looking at the schematics of the Artefact. "You're certain of this?"
"Of course we are!" S'Tow responded immediately, her ears and tail dipping in embarrassment at her breach of protocol. "Sorry."
Hsuuras reached out and patted her shoulder reassuringly, looking to Laaw. "We are. The isomagnetic cages generate a counter frequency matching what was originally detected in the Dead Sector by our people years ago. The counter frequency is what keeps them stable."
"And how many particles does it contain?"
"Several million, Siress. Enough to wipe out a planet. Maybe even a planetary system."
The elderly female nodded gravely. "So it's a weapon, a... Doomsday Weapon. Built by some alien race long ago. Perhaps they're long dead now, along with their opponents, and this is all that remains of them. Some legacy." She looked at the Technicians. "Can it be safely moved?"
Hsuuras glanced at S'Tow, before he replied, "Yes, Siress, it's quite stable in itself. We might even be able to fit it with a new propulsion and guidance system. But... may I ask why?"
"We'll be taking it with us to the next system. Our new home."
Hsuuras gasped. "Our... Our new home?"
"Yes. Our scouts have returned from a thorough and detailed scan of a planet in the system ahead of us. It's Arish-class: uninhabited, temperate, with a compatible biosphere, ideal for us. We haven't made an official Fleet-wide announcement yet, so keep it to yourselves for now." She allowed herself a smile, despite the circumstances. "The planet will be designated 'Cait'."
"'Cait'," Hsuuras repeated, recognising the word from the Old Language, meaning 'Home'. Despite himself, his heart raced and his tail swished like a cub in his first Season. Unlike his apprentice, he was old enough to remember living on Ferasa, when the Augmented had taken over and tried to convert or kill those who chose to remain Pure. He was certain that he would spend the rest of his life in space, and that it would be the likes of S'Tow, or even her cubs or grandcubs, who would walk on the ground of their... Cait. Well, he would be happy to die on solid ground, breathing pure air. "But then... why bring the Artefact along?"
"To study it -- carefully -- and then... ready it for our own protection."
"Protection? You can't do that! It's a weapon of mass destruction!" He knew that he was committing his own breach of protocol, but couldn't control himself. "It goes against everything we stand for! We fled our world because we wished to embrace peace!"
"Yes... but in that time I have come to believe that those who wish to embrace peace must not be blind to the danger."
She nodded. "The greatest danger of all: that the danger is never over. That there are those who do not embrace peace. The Augmented back on Ferasa." She pointed to the symbol. "The aliens who constructed this... this Seven Hells. Their enemies. Even if both sides of the conflict that prompted the creation of this superweapon are now dead, there will no doubt be others; it's a big universe.
While we build our new life on Cait, the existence of the Seven Hells will remain classified, will be passed down from generation to generation... our terrible hidden protector and avenger.
And I hope to the Great Mother that none of our descendants will ever seriously contemplate using it..."
USS Triton, Bridge, Outer Caitian System, Today:
"Sir? The Ferasans are... retreating."
Admiral Tattok glanced up from his station. "Retreating? Back towards Cait? Without attacking?"
"Aye, Sir! At full impulse! They're not responding to our hails to power down and surrender!"
The diminutive Roylan looked to his advisors, wishing he had a Caitian here to advise him on felinoids thinking. "Scan their intership traffic, use the algorithms provided by Lieutenants Shall and Bellator from the Surefoot."
"On it, Sir- Sir! They seem to be under the impression that we're... a sensor illusion. Not real."
Tattok grunted. "Then send a message to the Surefoot. Tell them to give the Ferasans a taste of harsh reality."
On the Surefoot Bridge, Captain T'Varik and Commander Murphy read the orders, looking to each other, the latter asking, "He wants us to attack first? From behind, without warning?"
Behind them, Petty Officer C'Ria Ctuuri of the Caitian flagship Mother's Fury, who had risked his life to alert Starfleet, stood in the rear, growling, "It's no less than they deserve."
"We're not in the business of vengeance, Mister," Murphy informed him.
"It wasn't your world that was invaded, Commander."
"We have our orders," T'Varik reminded them, raising her voice above the rest. "Lieutenant Shall: First Blood is ours."
Behind her, her partner and Chief of Security didn't have to be told twice.
Outside, a volley of photon torpedoes swept out from the Sabre-class starship to the nearest Ferasan Slithus warship, ripping into the weapons pod and warp array, sending it spinning towards several others before it blew apart.
"Direct hit!" Tattok's aide announced, unnecessarily.
Tattok nodded. "No denying our reality now. Contact the rest of the Task Force, inform them to engage when ready.
Except for the Ajax. Send my son the following..."
On the Ajax Bridge, Commander Kohanim looked up from his board. "Captain, Admiral Tattok has sent a message for you, consisting of one word: 'Skartarrak'."
Captain Weynik straightened up in his seat, black beady eyes shifting on eyestalks and his pulse racing as he smiled. "Oh, yeah..."
"I'm not familiar with that term, Sir," the Zakdorn First Officer admitted. "Care to explain?"
"Skartarraks are pack predators on Royla, Mr Kohanim, renowned for their attack strategy: the strongest, fastest Skartarrak leaps ahead of the rest, wounding as many prey as they can and letting the rest of the pack finish them off." Thank you, Dad; I've been waiting for this ever since these Rat-tails invaded my Big Buddy's planet. "Helm! Tactical! Attack Pattern Alpha One! LET'S GO!"
The small but massively-powerful Defiant-class vessel shot ahead of the Task Force, swooping down fearlessly and letting loose its phaser pulse cannons on one Ferasan vessel, crippling it and leaving it to the mercy of the others, while still moving onto another, and then another, even as the Enemy began accepting the situation and turning to regroup and fire back.
On the edge of the system, deep within the bowels of the cold, dark, dead world of Kuburan, the sentinel to Cait, and a warning to those who might seek to invade the system, within an underground base, dozens of crewmembers of the Caitian flagship Mother's Fury scrambled to complete repairs on their vessel, severely damaged months before when the Ferasans invaded the system.
Nearby, in another section restricted for nearly everyone else, their commanding officer trusted them to continue, while she focused on the Artefact that had been awaiting them here. "Status?"
Chief Engineer Hri Shyman, an older male with blue-black fur greying with age, stared with tired eyes at the display. "Final systems check completed. Target coordinates programmed, impulse and warp engine online and fully operational."
She stared up at the Seven Hells, sitting on the launch pad, the red seven-circle symbol prominent on one side of the neutronium alloy hull. "In other words, it's ready to launch?"
Fleet Captain Ma'Sala Shall looked to him. "Do I detect a note of rebuke?"
He tensed, hesitating.
"We've known each other too long to hold back now, Hri," she reminded him, more softly.
Shyman swallowed and looked to her. "Ma'Sala, in all my decades of knowing about the existence of this... thing... I never envisioned that I would get this close to seeing it deployed in my time."
"To be honest, nor did I. And I haven't decided... yet."
"It can kill hundreds of millions... billions... Can you live with all those deaths on your conscience?"
She tensed, her expression already looking harsh with her cybernetic eye, one of many makeshift replacements she needed following her injuries during the initial attack months before. "I already have almost as many deaths on my conscience, Hri: the hundreds of thousands of Caitians in the Militia and the Planetary Navy when the Ferasans invaded, our colonists in places like Azure Aura, and all of the Caitian civilians on the Motherworld who have since died. All dead, because I was not prepared enough for what happened.
And I am fully aware that, should the Seven Hells be deployed, its victims will include many Ferasan civilians who had never raised a paw against us. And even after a lifetime of fighting them, I hold no particular bloodlust towards seeing more of them die.
But the Ferasans chose the path they find themselves upon. We didn't.
And I haven't launched it... yet."
Her comlink chirped. "Fleet Captain, the Starfleet Task Force that has arrived has engaged in battle with the Ferasan Slithus warships. Do you still wish to maintain communications silence?"
"What's their distance from Kuburan?"
"Half a light year within the Caitian system."
"Maintain silence, but be ready to launch the Mother's Fury when I return. Shall out." She closed the channel. "Program the Seven Hells to launch for the Ferasan system on my command. And maintain the cloak around the facility. I don't want Starfleet anywhere near if it becomes necessary."
"But why, Ma'Sala? Why the silence in the first place? They're our allies!"
She looked back up at the missile. "The exotic molecules within the weapon, the ones we call Primal Particles, are better known -- and feared -- to Federation scientists as Omega. There are classified orders buried in every Starfleet vessel's computer, that make themselves aware upon detection of said particles. Those orders are to investigate and neutralise Omega to the exclusion of everything else, even disregarding the Prime Directive and the sovereignty of Federation member worlds. We need them to focus on dealing with the Ferasans here, not to try and stop the Seven Hells from reaching Ferasa Prime.... should I choose to launch it, that is."
Shyman regarded her. "And if worst comes to worst, and you choose to do so, Cait could end being condemned by the Federation Council for genocide. You could even face trial for war crimes."
She stiffened. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whichever the case, I answer to the Caitian people, not the Federation. Now... finish up here. I want to get back into space, and get home to my family. At least I can be content to know they're safe on Kaijushima..."
Kaijushima Island, Free Seas, Planet Cait:
A fire wave rushed out over the trees shielding the lagoon, burning everything it touched. Kami was shoved down by Papa Bneea, keeping Baby Sreen between them. Still she felt the intense heat rush over them, the roar momentarily drowning out Sreen's wail.
The air was thick and smoky, and the surrounding trees had caught fire from the Ferasans' rocket attack. She gripped her father's massive bicep. "Get- Get up- Under- Underground-"
Bneea let her take her infant back as he rose and helped her up, before frantically checking on the others: Misha had been similarly shielded by his big brother Mirow, and Ptera and Baby Jnill by Papa Mi'Tree. Kami clutched tightly onto a crying Sreen with one paw as she drew out her phaser sidearm with the other, seeing and hearing Ferasan shuttles rapidly descending, the island's transporter inhibitors preventing them from beaming directly. "Quickly! Everyone get to the Lift!"
She kept looking back over her shoulder as the family converged together, helping each other through the winding, burning foliage, even as her command instincts took over, planning for complications, contingencies... and she clutched Sreen tighter to her. I'll keep you safe, Daughter of Mine. I'll keep all of you safe, if it kills me.
They reached the Lift Station -- finding it damaged from rocket fire, inoperable.
"What are we going to do?" Ptera cried, looking around in terror, her baby crying.
Kami immediately handed Sreen over to Bneea and moved to the panel beside the lift, keying in her security code. "There's an auxiliary access shaft on the other side of the airfield, three hundred metres away." She opened the panel, drawing out phaser pistols and rifles, handing them out to the males. "Misha, you know where that is! Take Grandpa Mi'Tree and the others there!"
"I wanna phaser!" Misha demanded.
She ignored him, slipping the sling of a phaser rifle over one shoulder, looking to Bneea. "Give Sreen over to Ptera! You and I will lead the Ferasans away!"
Mi'Tree stepped forward. "What? No! We have to go together!"
"We won't all get down there before they catch up!" She pointed a finger at him. "Get your cubs and grandcubs to safety below, and then seal up the shaft!"
"Mom, no!" Mirow protested. "I'll stay with you and Grandpa Bneea!"
"You have bigger responsibilities! Get going!"
Mi'Tree stared, horrified, looking to his husband for a moment, before grabbing Misha's paw, and clutching a phaser in the other. "Both of you had better damn well stay alive!"
"Go!" Bneea grasped a phaser rifle of his own now, pointing to the interior of the island. "We'll lead them this way!"