Contest entry - space invaders
'The Devil is dead,' he muttered, eyes big with disbelief. 'Gone. Turned to stardust.'
Engineer #42 looked at the main screen that covered an entire wall of the Drive, the large hall where monitors blinked with war updates, crews gathered for their missions, and coffee machines worked extra hours. None of that was visible now; the main screen was so bright it made the rest of the Drive non-existent, a place only for shadows.
The left corner of the screen showed a row of pixelated hearts, a highly romanticised indicator of the state of their enemy's ship. The hearts used to be red a few minutes ago, but now, the last one had turned black. Such a calming colour; it made him feel like the Devil had never been there.
The centre of the main screen told a different story; the Devil's spacecraft, an upgraded behemoth of the Destroyer-class, had been blown to bits. The fuel and missiles it carried caused a fireworks Engineer #42 could only dream of, an image made complete by a background of colourful nebulae and shining star clusters.
This was the eighteenth encounter with the Devil, but now, they had won. Everyone at the Drive stared at the screen in silence, mouths hanging wide open. Then a cheer rose from the far corner and got copied by various other throats until the noise avalanched through the room. From the highest commander to the lowest mechanic, all roared as one.
42's colleague, Engineer #39, stood next to him, and let out a victory cry that could pass for a Harbinger's warning siren.
'Colonel Akha'thal did it then,' 39 said. 'Maybe we don't have to see our bodies getting turned into a cloud of pixel dust after all!' he nodded at the screen.
'Perhaps,' 42 answered. He and 39 were scheduled for a far later stage of this war, and both hoped it would never get to that point. 42 eyed the large smile on his colleague's face and tried to grin in the same way. He could do that literally, because all minor engineers were the exact same, middle-aged Tromian with red skin, glasses, and a blue overall. Not that anyone got confused by their similar looks; green, glowing letters hovered above their heads, showing someone's profession and number. The text was big and bright enough to be readable from a distance, but not too much to be distracting.
42's lips stopped curling up as he saw the battle stats pop up on the main screen. This victory had cost them one hundred and twenty Scouts, fifty-seven Battle Stations and six Harbingers. He swallowed. #521 had been on a Harbinger. 42 folded his hands together, hiding the shake they showed.
Suddenly, the main screen turned to black. Darkness descended on the Drive, leaving only room for the faint lights of the minor monitors and the floating names above people's heads. It made the room appear to be filled with greenish ghosts. Engineer #42 shrieked at it, but his colleague laughed. 'Even better; rage quit! Who would have thought?'
TL-lamps flashed on, first with a cautious flicker, then glowing with a harsh, blue light. Panels of the wall behind 42 shoved aside, revealing a glimpse of the Drive's vast fleet. 'The car park', it was lovingly called. It stored every space craft they had - but oddly enough, no one could operate the mechanical arms that kept the ships in place. The Program encoded in the Drive didn't allow them; the war had to progress to a certain level first before more ships became available. 42 and 521 had once tried to sabotage the arms, but without success. The Drive, the Program, and all data and interfaces connected to them were untouchable, controlling the existence of even the tiniest screw. The Drive was their world, the Program their creator.
The fleet of Colonel Akha'thal appeared in the car park, all damage undone. The men stepping out of the ships were in perfect condition too, physically speaking, but 42 could see traces of the fight in their eyes. The gazes of one group, the survivors, darted from left to right, still searching for ways to avoid the photon blasters and autocannons they had escaped from.
The eyes of the others were dead.
No wonder; these people had been dead, and now walked like mindless zombies, unable to see they had returned to the living. Respawning restored the body to perfection, but the mind couldn't cope with it, having died only moments earlier. The process cut personalities to shreds. 42 swallowed away a gag of gal. Please, don't let 521 be one of them…
The battered crew of the fleet were taken in as heroes, no matter whether a soldier had fallen or not. Colonel Akha'thal led them, his horned face and daunting armour making him stand out from the others. The Colonel was a character of importance, hence why he had his own name and a physique that wasn't copy-pasted numerous times.
'We kicked the Devil's arse!' he shouted, smiling his fangs bare. 'His shield showed a gap larger than a Harbinger! We dived in and smashed the bastard to bits!'
The Drive erupted in victory cries, but 42 didn't join them. He ran towards the battle crew, searching the name tags for the one that spelt 521's.
Gunman #1033… Navigator #279… Mechanic #487… Mechanic #588…
He stopped. 'Mechanic #521' hovered above the head of a Tromian sitting on the ground, face hidden between his knees. 42 sank down next to him. Carefully, he laid a hand on the mechanic's shoulder.
'521?' he asked with a trembling voice. His heart raced in his chest.
The mechanic lifted his head, eyes moving constantly. Then his gaze crossed the engineer's. His eyes steadied at once, and his lips curled into a smile. '42…'
The engineer smiled as well, then wrapped his arms around the mechanic. 'You haven't been shot…' he cried. 'Thank randomness…'
'We almost were, though,' the mechanic said. 'Our shield gave way, our tanks got hit. If the Devil's defences hadn't given out a fraction earlier…'
'Hush, don't think about it.' 42 pulled his friend closer and stroke the back of his head.
More hugs and words of comfort were exchanged around them. 42 didn't pay attention to them; his world did not reach further than the man seeking comfort in his embrace. Tear drops rolled down his cheeks and mixed with those of 521, making the long hair of the mechanic stick to the engineer's skin. 42 wished their tears were glue, then the two of them wouldn't be so easy to separate.
A flash shone through his closed eyelids. 42 tried to ignore it, but the cold light was so strong it destroyed the circumstances needed for tenderness to thrive. He blinked and looked at the source with a groan; the main screen had come back to life. 'Player name', it said. The letters and numbers the cursor revealed behind it made something cold crawl up his spine.
'The Devil is logging in!' 42 screamed. The screen flashed again, now showing the main interface with a tiny cursor floating at its centre. He gasped as he followed the white arrow darting to the button saying 'continue game'. His gaze shot to 521, who stared back at him with eyes enlarged by fear.
Murmurs stirred in the Drive, hovering above the crowd like a noisy cloud, but Colonel Akha'thal calmed everyone down before it escalated into a storm. 'Do not worry!' he bellowed. 'We beat the Devil once, we can do it again!'
'Maybe not,' someone muttered and pointed at the screen. A drop-down menu had appeared, entitled 'difficulty level'. 'Hard' changed to 'medium'. As a result, the Devil's number of hearts increased, but the ones for the Colonel's fleet went down. 42's heart sank with it. There would be more change in the Devil's advantage. He squeezed 521's hand.
'Bastard!' The Colonel cursed and balled his fist at the screen. 'Men of the 18th level, to your stations! We'll blast that Devil out of the galaxy a second time, no matter how much he weakens us. He will never see the end credits, not even in "beginner's mode". We are NPCs, let's show the Devil it stands for non-pitying champions!'
A roar erupted from the Drive, and a sea of fists waved along the crowd as all non-playable characters showed their fighting spirit once more.
Engineer #42 and Mechanic #521 rose to their feet. Their hands slipped away from each other as the mechanic stepped towards his spacecraft again.
42 stayed where he was, unable to follow. The Program wouldn't let him. 'Please come back…' he muttered.
521 did not answer. A loading bar on the main screen slowly filled itself as the mechanic and his crew embarked their ships, preparing for a battle they had already fought.
Sol.Terra - Another World Art Competition
I initially wanted to draw something, but then this idea popped up. I hope it still counts as an entry since technically, this doesn't take place in space, but on a computer - hence the name 'Drive'. Or was 'RAM memory' a more fitting name? It sounds stupid though... Meh, maybe I shouldn't have combined sci-fi with computer stuff and games, I find sci-fi hard enough. Though it was fun to throw in words like 'photonblaster' because technically, that's just a torch. Oh, and 42 of course, as a tribute to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The title is also a hint to the gaming aspect of this story, or am I so old that people here do not see the reference?
I always wondered what those poor NPCs think of getting shot/chopped/blasted to bits constantly. Their life must be such a hell. Shame on you, gamers who kill them, don't you have any compassion?
Wordcount: 1499. I like to live dangerously.