First In

Summary: A lazy geomancer finds an unexpected foe waiting on the other side of a portal.

Earth Elemental Petros Pallas almost regretted telling that awful pun to the Tetra Elemental, a lapse in judgment directly attributable to his reassignment to a Gaian Compact First In Team. It was not that the stocky, round-faced man lacked the strength for the assignment, nor the martial training of a professional soldier. His unshaven brown hair and ill-fitting powered nano-suit would have easily warranted extensive punishment by a drill-master, had he been in the Elemental Corps of his younger years.

Petros harbored no illusions about returning to the softer, unfocused training of a peaceful era, before the great multiversal conflagration erupted. He had escaped the exercises and discipline due an unruly recruit by a series of fortunate transfers, which culminated in an accidental departure from his home dimension during a botched rescue. While his interim world held sapient life, it was altogether too primitive and savage for the slovenly wretch.

In spite of his best efforts, Petros found himself being debriefed by the most infamous of intelligence officers after his dimensional sojourn. He had hoped for a period of rest worthy of a geokinetic bearer of Alexander's Gift, but he was quickly reassigned to the frontline of a war he barely comprehended. The eternal curse of professional soldiering bore heavily upon an ageless life, and he returned to that martial machine with social pretentions that replaced his home.

One bad pun is all it had taken to return him to harm's way, denying him the chance to be the sybarite he had long desired to be. He once more donned the emerald green armor of the Elemental Corps, which fit tighter than he remembered it. Issued a new laser pulse rifle with a portal closing Nexus Point Collapser underbarrel attachment, he was equipped with the finest armaments due a FIT squad leader. Behind him were ten-score non-sapient war androids, clad in armor identical to his and fitted with similar armaments. While able to converse with him, his robotic squadmates lacked the initiative and creativity innate to true artificial general intelligence.

When fully equipped, Petros looked felt like one of them. His enclosed helmet and self-repairing suit inured him to the harshest of environments, from radioactive wastelands to hard vacuum to the ocean floor. Eager to avoid infection by unfamiliar pathogens, he double-checked the helmet seal. As FIT squads were intended to be expendable, he was given his choice of additional equipment. His sole expression of this option was a vanity trinket in lieu of a standard sidearm, a flintlock pistol from the barbaric world he had visited.

In his armor, Petros strolled slowly along the Spartan, luminous corridor that lead to the portal chamber. Behind him marched the artificial unison of his synthetic squadmates. He briefly saw support staff through a translucent window, but they paid him no heed. Their gazes were fixed by monitors and holographic displays depicting the esoteric informatics associated with portal operations.

"FIT squad leader, report to position," came a computerized voice over his radio. "Deployment beginning in twenty minutes."

"By Hades, that's not even enough time for dinner," Petros muttered, utterly forgetting the helmet microphone. "Or enough time for a good shit."

"Squad leader," said a robot with a white zero stenciled over its chest and shoulders. "Your catheter and intravenous injector mean that you will not have to remove the suit for at least month."

"So, Zero, I ever tell you the joke about the catheter?"

"Negative, leader."

"It takes the piss," Petros said.

The robot simply stared at him from beneath an opaque visor. Petros chuckled to himself, apathetic to the groans coming from Mission Control. He continued with a smug grin and leisurely saunter until he came through a set of thick, metallic bulkheads. He knew they cared less about his humor than him, so he intended to give them every bitter dose he could. Automated gun turrets, security cameras, and far more advanced defenses the geomancer was nescient of lined the final approach to the chamber beyond.

The final door opened to reveal the terrifying majesty of the Nexus Point. It occupied the center of a Brobdingnagian chamber on a raised platform ringed by automated tank drones, gun turrets, and other weapons platforms. A pair of massive cranes shifted across the ceiling, moving cargo containers towards the room's corner. A rail-line abruptly terminated at the Point like the veins of a beheaded prisoner. Opaque windows filled the upper corners of the room, but only a few actually led to a room behind. The remainder, Petros recalled, were decoys designed to fool anything coming out of the portal. Allowing entrance to the portal was only one half of the facilities purpose, for hard experience had taught the Compact the necessity of defending against things coming from the other direction.

The Nexus Point flickered across Petros' vision whenever he stared at it. The disconcerting hole in existence seemed to oscillate to supermundane stimulus while simultaneously adhering with absolute rigidity to the location it had been planted. The yawning portal tantalized him with glimpses of distant worlds: wandering jungles of motile fungi, sunken cities of forbidden angles, forsaken hellscapes of eternal warfare, and riotous cities of inhuman habitation. A robotic probe, a soft tentacle-tip at the end of a tracked chassis, moved up cautiously to the cosmological chasm. As it analyzed what laid on the other side, the automated defenses turned their lethal members towards the portal.

Much to Petros' dismay, the light on the end of the probe was green. The tracked vehicle backed away, and his squad was given the order to proceed. He cursed to himself, hoping that the probe would find an uninhabitable, strategically useless world on the other side. That would make things much easier to him, as he longed for another chance to sleep in. With anxiety high and weapons tightly grasped, he advanced towards the portal like a departed soul stepping onto Charon's boat. He closed his eyes and stepped through. He felt weightlessness for an instant, and then felt the comfort of solid ground beneath him.

Petros opened his eyes to a bright sun and unbounded horizons. Scanning the horizon with his sensor-filled visor, he beheld a sun-bathed expanse of perpetual twilight. Unfamiliar constellations declared themselves in the heavens above. To his left, he beheld a vast ocean ringed by a black sand beach. To his right, he saw a distant horizon of ice-capped mountains rising from a darkened plain like the teeth of a mythic monster. The land between were flat and windswept, broken only by irregular rock formations of black basalt.

Petros tugged upon the ground beneath him with his powers, pulling a shard of volcanic glass from the ground beneath him. The obsidian spike protruded from the ground like a skyward sword, a vindication that his powers of geomancy still functioned on this remote rock. While the atmospheric composition was similar to Gaia, he kept his helmet closed for fear of microbial and chemical contamination. Finding the gravity slightly lighter than the world he lived on, he sent a command to Zero to provide him eyes in the sky.

Petros saw the drone aim a bulbous nosed rocket launcher, a canned sat-net payload, at the sky. The multi-stage rocket spiraled into the sky, splitting into other satellites bound for different orbits. Gesturing over to another drone, he engaged the mapping software provided to him. An augmented reality projection of the world hovered before his eyes, overlaid by a projection of his immediate environs. While he was coerced into exploring these desolate worlds, he savored the chance to let the non-sentient machines handle the tedious monotony of cartography.

As minutes passed into hours, Petros further evaluated the geology of his environs. Pulling up a column of grit, stone, and rubble before him, he read the rock layers like a favorite book. While he did not know the geological forces upon this planet, the obsidian shards he beheld indicated a violent period of volcanic eruptions and upheavals. Eager to experiment with the world around him, he began to raise ornate patterns of obsidian walls in labyrinthine patterns. He considered excavating an underground shelter that he could take refuge in while waiting for the drones to conclude their survey.

What the geomancer found strangest about the passage of time on that planet was the total absence of movement of the sun in the sky. The nascent micro-satellite network solved Petros' conundrum from orbit, indicating he emerged on a tidally locked planet that orbited an otherwise unremarkable star. The world was a climatic Janus, with one face scorched by the sun and the other frozen in eternal darkness.

Despite having detailed scans of the area, Petros contentedly played along the rocky beach with a childish enthusiasm. He cast up geysers of mud from the bottoms of tidal pools. He called up walls of obsidian blades, imagining himself to be sole sovereign of some volcanic hell. He ordered his drones to set up a perimeter and survey for a base camp, so that he could continue building his sand castles in someone else's sky.

In the midst of his playful revelry, Petros missed the oddly geometric patterns detected by his satellites above. Even the strangely regular stone nubs that rise from where the Nexus Point deposited him did not draw the geomancer's attention. As he as he buried himself in his ruminations of play and peace, he unwittingly blinded himself to the signs of prior habitation.

It was not until his raising of the earth disturbed what had once been a magnificent cairn that Petros saw he was on a planet of the dead. A cadaver of strangely human similarity protruded from the ground as he raised a stone wall. The mummy-like countenance glared upwards into the sky. Reminding himself of the toxicity readings of the soil, he assumed no decomposers remained to putrefy the body. Looking over its brown face and sunken gaze, he wondered of the civilizations that once inhabited this world.

When the mummy's eyes opened, Petros immediately stepped back in shock. Eyes as black as obsidian mirrors fell upon him. He leapt backwards and drew his pulse rifle, taking cover behind a wall he had raised. He emptied the entire charge into the corpse to no visible effect. The lack of the signature white flash and shockwave of the laser pulses disturbed him far more than the ambulatory cadaver sauntering towards him. Discarding the empty weapon, he directed the drones to open fire.

In his flight of abject terror, Petros saw Zero's torso flying through the air towards him. Taking cover with his hand in the sand, he saw his automated companion's remains scattered across the beach. The other machines had taken up textbook positions with standard tactics, laying down suppressive fire on the corpse. The ground around the creature erupted in plasma shockwaves, but none touched the creature. He presumed that those shots that directly hit the creature had similarly been nullified.

Petros heard profane syllables resound directly in his head. Each utterance was spoken in a rasping tone, as if echoed through the walls of an ancient tomb. The words distracted and disoriented him, but the geomancer ignored them to the best of his ability. Tempted to succumb to the catatonia of utter terror, he nevertheless tried what came best to him. He blasted a sheet of obsidian shards at the creature, slicing directly into its torso.

For the first time, Petros saw the creature wail. Feeling the ground shift beneath him like a striking cobra, he leapt out of the way of the stone spear emerged from where he had stood a moment prior. Red messages from his visor indicated his drones were not so fortunate. Now alone on a deserted planet, he sprinted with transhuman celerity as he retreated from the awoken dead.

Much to his horror, Petros turned to see the creature in ceaseless pursuit. It hovered mere centimeters from the ground, seeming to levitate upon a carpet of dust. Its unwavering gaze never deviated from the geomancer. Petros felt the presence behind him commanded the planet with a natural ease, as if the world itself had stepped forth to end him for his playful and unknowing defilement of an alien grave.

Instinct told Petros to run like a spooked dog, but his reason and spirit concurred upon another option. He would not die ignobly on a forgotten planet without a fight. The geokinetic mummy behind him ceased its advance when he turned to face it. Raising a shield of earth before him, he unleashed his fury with a barrage of substrata rock.

Petros opened with a shower of penetrating obsidian shards, firing them like a burst of machinegun bullets. Lying prone, he pointed his finger as if it were a pistol at his target. The mummy drifted behind a rocky outcropping, raising a shield of slate to cover his movement. Switching to a barrage of blunt and heavy stones, he smashed through the cover as if it were ceramic plates. Enraged to be challenged with his own element, the lich strafed towards him with a fusillade of flint fragments. They cut into the geomancer's uniform, but his armor stopped them before they could slash his arteries.

Properly enraged and eager to end the fight, Petros boldly advanced through the black sand. The lich tried to entrap him in mires and sinkholes, but he pressed onwards with a constitution due a descendent of Alexander the Great. The very bones of the earth bent, chipped, and shattered at his whims. Just as his Elemental forebears had conquered their world, he resolved conquer this.

Petros' reckless boldness was not unanswered by the cadaver. The fell forces that animated it rallied to its assistance. Its wounds hardened into stone, and its fluids dried to powder that congealed in its wounds. It tried to bring up a wall of spiked earth, aimed at the advancing Elemental like a line of pikes. The ground shook as the mummy called forth chthonic forces mastered eons ago, and the world itself seemed to thirst for warm blood.

Petros clashed with his peer before a sea that devoured the hulls of a thousand ships and grand cities. The demon of the fallen world called forth a stream of boulders at the interloper, only for the Elemental to counterattack like an unstoppable avalanche. The dead world shook with every footfall, as long dormant seismic forces were ripped from long frozen fault lines. The beach itself was ripped asunder by the duel.

The earth consumed Petros and his rival, but the spat continued beneath the surface. The rooftop of a half-eroded city of geometrically precise streets became the battleground of the tectonic titans. The rough and uncouth structure rolled beneath them as Petros ripped out flagstones of an antediluvian fane. The lich pulled forth pillars that held the roof up, causing the structure to buckle beneath them. Water poured in from the nearby ocean, as the sea advanced to reclaim its prize.

As the temple sank into the mire, Petros brought the walls down. The lich did the same, attempting to prematurely bury him. Petros forced himself to swim through the earthen tide that crashed down upon him, fighting through his exhaustion as he struggled to stay awake. Like a bulky gopher, he emerged upon the sand of the empty beach under the light of an eternally setting sun. He waited for a moment, and sighed in relief.

Petros shrieked a moment later, when he saw the mummy's head erupt from the sand. The mummy struggled to free itself from the sand, as it seemed similarly weakened from its burial attempt. His strength thoroughly exhausted, he drew the one item he had left. With the flintlock pistol in his hand, he blew the creature's brain to bits.

For good measure, Petros squashed what was left underneath a rock. He wanted to avoid further tempting fate on that cursed planet, so he fell back towards the site he emerged from. He had a handful of useable supplies, but the drones had been thorough wrecked. Alone and half-maddened, he started talking to himself. "Yeah, that rocked," he said, chuckling to himself in his traditional fashion.

When the Nexus Point opened once more, he stepped through without looking back.