Nova was drifting along in zero gravity, what looked like 400 kilometers above Edea. She wasn’t wearing a space suit, but she did have a motorcycle helmet, which ought to be enough. She was pretty tough, after all. She could even reliably sleep in bed sheets that weren’t made of silk, nowadays! How much tougher than that could you possibly get? And anyway, a little bit of vacuum never hurt anyone.
No, vacuum wasn’t the problem. Through magical shenanigans of one sort or another, Nova could somehow breathe, and her blood wasn’t boiling in her veins. Hopefully, the magical shenanigans would remember to shield her from the radiation the sun was no doubt blasting at her body right now and hiking up her chance to die of cancer a few years from now.
The real problem was that she couldn’t control her flight.
Her uncontrolled spinning sometimes put her face to face with Edea, so Nova had a pretty good idea of roughly where she would land – very roughly, with a degree of precision not in meters or kilometers but in continents. And as it happened, she wasn’t falling toward the right one. In fact, Altera wasn’t even on this side of Edea. If the planet didn’t suddenly decide to spin faster to accommodate its returning citizen, Nova would have quite the hike ahead of her to go back home. She definitely wouldn’t be in time for that ball Louis had invited her to.
I wonder if the other three are falling toward more convenient locations.
Apart from the lucky ones who’d been teleported away by the god-thing before shit hit the fan, the other three who were cast into space alongside Nova had long since been separated from her. They’d been flung in roughly the same direction as Nova, but their velocity had still been different from hers. Then, time had increased the distance between them until they were far enough that Nova could no longer see any of them.
At least, she was falling toward Edea, not drifting off into the empty void.
Though, when she could look away from Edea and toward outer space, Nova could see that it was no longer quite so empty a void. Where before only the glow of the distant stars would have broken the darkness, now, dozens of iridescent vortexes had appeared everywhere, as if to surround Edea. Up, down, front, back, left, and right; the planet was hemmed in on all sides. Strands of color Nova had never seen or even imagined before seeped out of the spiraling arms of each vortex into the space around them, like ink spreading through water. Looking at them gave Nova the beginnings of a headache, but she didn’t have to do so for very long before the situation changed. She had a front-row seat to the gradual appearance of a gigantic landmass from one of these wormholes. Like a sunken ship breaking the surface of the sea, it slowly emerged, casting luminous ripples all around it as if its very presence was so heavy it warped spacetime everywhere it went. Nova was too far away from it to catch any details, but the landmass’s surface was covered in hues of greens and blues. It looked as fit for life as Edea itself and as broad as any one of its continents. Once it was completely out, the vortex behind it slowly stopped spinning and faded away. The landmass also halted and remained floating there above Edea.
Like a spaceship exiting hyperspace… Are there people living on there? The enemy the god-thing spoke of? Or the reinforcements? How am I supposed to tell the difference?
Out of the other wormholes came different… vessels, if they could be called that. Not all of them looked like a continent torn out from a planet as-is, like the first Nova had seen. One was an actual vessel, a ship, built like a Viking Drakkar. It was gigantic. Atop its deck was built a palace of gleaming wood and gold, like an overgrown, ornamented mead hall with decorated eaves whose corners were shaped like roaring beasts. The ship’s thick mast pierced through the middle of the palace’s roof. Another vessel was a tiny round moon of grey rock. From a glance, it looked dead and lifeless, but upon further inspection, the dim yellow and orange glow of lights formed thin, regular lines and patterns over its surface as a clear sign of inhabitants. Another vessel was a blood-red sea that flowed out of its vortex like a tsunami fit to devour planets. Fortunately, it stopped before reaching Edea and simply hovered in orbit, somehow contained by invisible walls. Waves so terrible they were visible all the way from Nova’s position, hundreds of kilometers away, scoured its surface. Yet another was what looked like a moon-sized beehive. Another was an even larger sword, with a tall pagoda growing out of its pommel. Another was a giant mecha with a vast gothic citadel, with towers and spires and buttresses and gargoyles aplenty, built over its shoulders in place of a head.
But with every new vessel that arrived, Nova’s dread grew. If all of these were enemies, then they were absolutely fucked. And if they were all allies, then they were still absolutely fucked, because it meant the enemies were of comparable level or higher.
Probably higher. If I understood the god-thing correctly, his previous battlefield was lost, and our reinforcements retreated here. Or, if I want to read between the lines a bit more, they fled here with their tails between their legs.
Nova soon received her answer. A second wave of wormholes appeared further from the planet than the first, so that the vessels that had already arrived formed a defensive line of sorts between them and Edea. These new wormholes were much smaller, but also much more numerous.
Nova expected them to spit out new vessels. Instead, they vomited thick black mist into their surroundings. There were so many wormholes around the planet that the countless streams of mist soon merged into something like a solid black wall, a dark Dyson sphere trapping Edea and the defending vessels within its confines. Bright flashes of lightning flickered in the depths of the mist and lit it up like the heart of a thunderstorm. It completely hid the sun and the stars beyond and isolated Edea from the rest of the universe.
It wasn’t like anyone on Edea possessed working spaceships, anyway, but it was still a disquieting thought to realize that their enemies had immediately cut off any escape route as soon as they arrived. Like the god-thing had said, there would be no avoiding this storm.
It was an even more disquieting thought that Edea was now cut off from its fucking sun. Nova wasn’t a true science buff, not like her dad, but she was pretty sure sunlight was a fairly important part of what made a planet even remotely capable of bearing life. Fighting a war would be hard enough; doing it in the middle of an ice age would be downright impossible.
Soon, the new wormholes too faded, and the ocean of mist flowed downward to devour the defending vessels. Nova watched with bated breath as every vessel deployed some sort of force field glowing in the same alien colors the wormholes had shown earlier. The radiant barriers both prevented the mist from swallowing the vessels themselves and protected Edea behind them. Only a few tiny gaps were left between the overlapping layers of shields, and the bulk of the black mist was stopped outside. But those gaps were only few and tiny compared to the vast surface area of Edea’s orbit. In absolute terms, there were still dozens, and even the smallest gap was probably a good 10 km across. Tendrils of black mist snuck through them and rained down toward Edea like enormous waterfalls.
The really bad news was that one such waterfall was aiming straight for Nova. Not entirely straight – she’d be more on the fringes than the center of it – but straight enough that it would still engulf her.
Oh, shit. Today really isn’t my day, is it? And it started so pleasantly, too.
Nova’s blood ran cold as what, from her perspective, looked like a cosmic battering ram of black mist shot down toward her. She only had time for a quick wish that whatever mystical barrier the god-thing had erected around her to protect her from the vacuum of space would also protect her from… whatever this was, before the mist was right in front of her.
Here it comes…!
Nova reflexively held her breath, and her entire body tensed. Then the mist swallowed her. There was so much of it that the weight of it was like a physical blow that pushed her down and increased the speed of her fall. Her world suddenly turned monochrome. With constant, loud cracks of thunder, it switched back and forth between complete darkness and bright, blinding light whenever a lightning bolt flashed in her surroundings. Electricity snaked through the mist all around her and sometimes sparked against her body, but fortunately, the god-thing’s shield was holding – and even protecting her from the light and the noise. Otherwise, she doubtlessly would have been instantly, permanently blinded and deafened. Standing right in the heart of a thunderstorm was inadvisable for someone suffering from sensory hypersensitivity.
…In truth, it probably was inadvisable for everyone else, too.
Thus, Nova could even keep her eyes and ears wide open to enjoy the full brunt of the experience. It was breathlessly terrifying. It made her feel small and powerless, like a tiny, worthless particle of plankton standing in front of the open maw of a humongous whale during a raging hurricane. Even more so when she remembered that the bulk of the mist had been prevented from drowning out the entire planet at once, and that this unending torrent was nothing more than a tiny thread, a little wisp of the whole.
And at the same time, as Nova recognized that she was under no immediate threat and her fear slowly diminished, she found that her surroundings also had a sort of terrible beauty to them. A beauty like a solar flare, or a gamma ray burst from the heart of a collapsing star. Something that could easily, effortlessly render her into her constituent atoms along with her entire planet – or solar system. Something made beautiful by virtue of its sheer scale and power and, indeed, danger.
Now that she was surrounded by black mist and lightning, Nova could no longer see anything else. Even the HUD usually displayed on the inside of her helmet’s visor had flickered and died some time ago. She couldn’t tell how far she still was from Edea, and she couldn’t see if the vessels had somehow engaged an enemy in battle, or if they were sending troops down to the planet, or if they were hanging back and throwing a party. It felt like she was falling pretty fast, now, not only pulled by gravity but pushed by the stream of mist, so her trip to outer space probably wouldn’t last much longer.
Her frantic spike of panic from earlier, when she’d seen the mist heading for her and the lightning had flashed all around her, was gone. But it had left room now for a more quiet and subdued kind of dread that rolled in her stomach and clenched at her heart.
This base instinct was not reassured by Nova’s next realization.
Wait, there are things flying in there.
Fixed images were imprinted on Nova’s retinas with every flashing lightning bolt, painting something similar to a stop-motion movie. And in those brief moments, Nova could see shapes and silhouettes swimming inside the waterfall of black mist. She hadn’t noticed at first, taking these forms to be eddies in the currents of the mist, but they were too regular, too solid, too persistent for that.
Those must be the enemies the god-thing said we’d have to fight. They’re coming down to Edea with the mist…
Nova took a deep breath and tried hard not to think about her family down there, drowned in corrosive mist or eaten alive by alien monsters or enslaved by godlike subjugators. There was nothing she could do for them, at the moment, and Marian had pounded it into her brain over years of training not to obsess over what she couldn’t change. She simply had to take things one step at a time, to grab every advantage she could until she accomplished her goals.
What advantage can I grab, right now? Maybe I should try to hope one of these creatures notices me and attacks me while I still enjoy the protection of the god-thing’s shield? It’d give me a sneak preview of what’s in store for me once I hit Edea’s surface.
However, she was just one tiny human lost in the midst of a pillar of pitch blackness a dozen kilometers in girth and tall enough to link Edea’s surface to its orbit. It would be a remarkable coincidence for a monster to…
Oh, shit, shit, shit! How can my luck be so awful, today? You’ve got to be kidding! Is this karma? I don’t remember doing anything evil enough to deserve that! I even helped a little girl find her dropped pocket change, just a little while ago! That’s gotta count as a good deed!
Now that it had actually happened, Nova didn’t hope for a sneak preview anymore. What she hoped for was for her trip down to Edea to quickly conclude so she could run for the nearest cover.
Screw grabbing every advantage! I just want to get away from here!
The long roar’s sound climbed to a crescendo, and Nova’s heart skipped a beat at the sight revealed by the next flashing lightning bolt. A huge maw, filled with more jagged, irregular teeth than had any right to exist in a single mouth, was aimed at her, looking to devour her. The maw was open so wide it concealed the creature behind it, save for two long pairs of leathery wings stretching to the sides.
In one frame of the stop-motion movie, the creature was still distant. In the next, it was right in front of Nova’s face, taking up her entire view. Rather, its gaping mouth was.
Then, the creature’s jaws snapped shut.
The god-thing’s shield flashed white a couple of times as the creature chewed this more resilient prey than expected. The shield then started shining brightly when the threat against Nova refused to go away. Either the creature was sensitive to light or something magical happened, because the creature howled again, this time in obvious pain.
The jaws opened and spat Nova back out into the mist, none the worse for wear but very disoriented and disturbed by the experience. She’d probably have nightmares about this for a long while. As her hammering heart calmed down again, she chided herself for her cowardice. She knew her fear was unnecessary. The god-thing’s shield still protected her. It was almost embarrassing, really. She knew for a fact that she was safe, but the animal part of her brain didn’t seem to care about that and flooded her brain with primal fear.
In her defense, it was quite an intimidating experience to be chewed up – though ineffectually – by a giant monster.
Seriously, what a day…
Amidst the flashing lightning, Nova saw the gigantic shadow of the creature turn away from her, apparently accepting its failure.
Though not without a parting gift.
The next lightning bolt showed Nova that the creature’s tail, which, it must be noted, must have been as long as an aircraft carrier, was swinging toward her like a last-second slap to the face.
The tail crashed into Nova. The god-thing’s shield let out another bright flash of light. It negated the damage she would have suffered – namely, being turned to dust – but not the momentum imparted to her. Nova found herself flung away, tumbling tail over teakettle like a very uncoordinated cannonball. As she’d already been close to the edge of the waterfall of black mist, her trajectory sent her soaring straight out of it.
Well, looks like that tail slap truly was a parting gift.
Nova let out a sigh of relief when she left the mist behind. She had pretty good night vision, but even she couldn’t see past the tip of her nose in this darkness. Out here, on the other hand, she could see all around her.
Behind her was the foreboding waterfall of black mist, like a towering pillar of shadows, lightning flickering all through its insides. Of course, it stretched up and down beyond sight, but its girth left and right also boggled the mind. It looked like a giant, impenetrable dam, but fortunately, Nova was heading away from it.
Upward, she could still see flashes of color from whatever space battle the vessels had engaged in against the black mist or the creatures lurking inside it. The lights covered the entire sky, forming something akin to a multicolored aurora. It was beautiful, if one disregarded the meaning behind those lights. Still, there was nothing Nova could do here.
Downward was more salient.
Her earlier assumption had been correct. The mist had greatly accelerated her descent. By now, Nova must have only been something like 2 or 3 km up in the air. A fall that should have taken her half an hour had been reduced to a mere few minutes. And the speed imparted to her by the monster’s tail slap had compounded that. Nova could see the ground approaching remarkably fast beneath her. She was too close to Edea now to distinguish the overall shape of the continents, but she was still pretty sure her destination hadn’t appreciably changed in the short time she’d been trapped in the black mist. It looked like returning to Altera would take some work.
Actually, at this rate, I might miss land altogether. This just keeps getting better and better.
At her best guess, Nova was heading for the northern coastline of the country of Crinfrid. The waterfall of black mist behind her plunged down into the ocean, while Nova was falling at an angle toward the coast, but there was still a lot of distance between it and her. At her current velocity, she would fall short.
She could swim, so she wouldn’t necessarily drown, but the black mist surrounding the planet and occluding the sun made it so it was night, and distances could be deceiving, on the sea. She might not have the endurance required to make it all the way back to shore. Or she could be unlucky and have the tides impede her progress. Or, the monsters living in the mist might have infested those waters already and would drag her down to the ocean depths while she futilely tried to claw her way back to the surface.
One good point was that, at this altitude, there was enough air resistance that Nova could control her flight a little. She’d participated in many training exercises and even official operations with Viper Nest where she’d needed to jump from a plane and reach a precise target on the ground. So she wasn’t in entirely unfamiliar territory, here.
Though it was the same experience and knowledge that told her that, no matter what effort she applied, she was still too far. She wouldn’t make it. All she could do, was mitigate the distance she’d have to cross.
A minute or two later, as Nova neared the surface of the water, she’d managed to get as close as possible to the coastline. At most, she’d have to swim a couple of kilometers. It shouldn’t pose a problem for someone in her athletic shape.
Nova’s mood suddenly sunk, however, when the god-thing’s shield decided to start sputtering unsteadily. The protective white aura started blinking on and off around her. The more she neared the ground, the more trails of white light she left in her wake. And the more of this aura left her, the more the speed of her fall put strain on her body.
Sigh… This day just keeps on going…
When Nova crashed into the water, throwing up a great column of spray, the impact was… painful. Less painful than it could’ve been, since hitting water at that speed would have been little different from hitting concrete, under normal circumstances, but a lot more painful than if the god-thing’s faulty shield had remained in place just a few seconds longer.
Nova’s vision blacked out for a few while from the shock of the dive, but she didn’t lose consciousness entirely. This was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, she had the leisure to appreciate pain, which was on a scale that made her crash in that racing car a few weeks back look like a little love tap. On the other hand, she probably would’ve drowned if she’d had the awful luck to genuinely faint.
When her brain fully got back on track and all her faculties returned to her, Nova forced her sore limbs into movement. She swam toward the surface and took a great breath of salty air once she was done spitting out all the water that kept getting into her mouth from the rough waves around her.
Well, at least, the tides won’t be a problem.
Due to the impact from the column of mist now far behind her, deeper into the ocean, fast waves were naturally carrying Nova toward the coast. As long as she took care to pace herself properly, she should be able to extricate herself from her situation. Though she shouldn’t pace herself so much that she died of hypothermia – the water was pretty cold and would soon sap all warmth from her body.
Sighing inwardly, Nova began swimming toward the shore under the starless night sky.