Jek's heels clicked as she crossed the bridge onto the The Massive, the largest and most intimidating ship of the Irken Armada. Her footsteps created a sharp, hollow, echoing sound despite the hundreds of other ship-bound Irkens reporting to duty all around her. The sheer size of its massive massiveness required it to be operated by thousands of Irkens: drones, palace guards, soldiers, navigators such as herself, and… mostly drones.
What made The Massive most special was that it was headed by the Almighty Tallest, the tallest and most powerful two individuals of the Irken race. It was an enormous red ship, Vort invented, Irken designed. Jek found herself honored to assist in navigating The Massive alongside the Almighty Tallest and nineteen other Irken Navigators, some of whom she had shared smeethood with.
Navigating the ship had been Jek's job for nearly fourteen Irken years – plenty of time for her to experience multiple planetary take-overs, Organic Sweeps, and a myriad of space battles against other alien races. As resilient and stubborn as these other races have been against Irken military technology, science and tactics, none have ever been capable of decimating the Irken Armada. Their numbers alone were often enough to destroy any population, but Jek was convinced that Irken intelligence, prowess, and cunning was the genuine reason for their endless success in galactic conquest.
"And then I was like… Look, our ships have a no refund policy, even if your Voot Cruiser's plasma boosters were accidentally replaced with two very subtly, strategically placed mini nukes. You'll have to take it up with corporate – "
Jek entered the command center of The Massive where she was greeted with the enormity of the holoscreen being operated by the Tallest, who were speaking with an off-world Invader about their unsurprising lack of success in global domination.
One of the Tallest, Tallest Zeta, stuffed probably about five soft pretzels into her mouth as her fellow Tallest, Tallest Tau, shared his council and wisdom to the troubled Invader.
"And the galactic navigator won't work!" the Invader said, with half a right antenna and deep green scratches freckling his face. "I keep getting this strange error. It's like, like a blue screen with a bunch of white letters on it."
Tallest Tau rested his gloved hand on his chin for several moments in deep, considerable contemplation before replying, "Have you tried turning it on and off again?"
The Invader on-screen gave a flabbergasted expression, shoulders slumping. He opened his mouth to speak again when a loud, resonating beeping sound echoed across the command center.
"Oh, sorry Invader Whatchamacallits, we're getting another call. We'll call you right back -- promise! Buh-bye now!"
The screen flickered the image of another Invader, and Tallest Tau promptly began advising them on a planetary conquest tactic that had been used by the Irkens for thousands of years called "starving the populace until they give up or die".
Jek seated herself, swiveling in her chair to face her personal command screen. The blue backlight reflected off of her round, ruby eyes, changing them to a ghostly shade of milky pink. Ironically, the color of Irken blood.
She adjusted her headset to the correct frequency to monitor any incoming traffic from the other Navigators of the Irken ships in the Armada, Invaders, and any natural radio waves from the surrounding planets, moons, and other orbital bodies, as well as any foreign ships entering or exiting the system. Most of the time the traffic was extremely boring, but sometimes on rare occasions something interesting would happen.
Every day of her life was the same: dress, report for duty, and repeat. And in between those steps, there was a lot of eating involved. There were not many other things that she thought about other than serving her empire and when her next meal would be. Jek's relationships with other Irkens, including coworkers, was minimal. Except with Dirk.
"Jek," a voice mumbled from beside her. "You're as aloof and as radiant as ever. Did you do something new with your antennae? They look especially curled today. Trying to impress me?"
"Dirk," Jek said. Her smirk was covered by the raised collar of her Navigator's uniform, which concealed their faces from the eyes down. "You remind me daily of how grateful I am that they integrated the smeeteries into our society long before either of our births, so that I may never have the unfortunate luck of being disgraced by the mere possibility of being paired with you."
Dirk chuckled softly, green eyes narrowing in amusement above a veiled grin, but he was otherwise silent.
Dirk was her best friend. He has sat beside her at his own command terminal for the past fourteen Irken years, and they were together ten years before that during their smeethood in the education plug. Jek could almost not remember a time when Dirk was not around. Her first memory of him came right after her PAK was attached to her spine within a minute or two of her birth. From the PAK she received all Irken knowledge, a unique name, and a personality belonging to the Irken who owned the PAK before her. Most importantly, PAKs allowed all Irkens to record their memories. Dirk happened to be born and receive his PAK only a moment after Jek. They were both the first Irken the other had ever seen.
A persistent blinking from the corner of her eye cut her train of thought. Jek saw on the top right corner of her screen that The Massive was drifting aimlessly around a foreign moon with previously no name. Now it was simply known as Moon Number 69-420-69, orbiting a planet that had recently been dominated and decimated by an Invader. The planet was formerly named Click Click Cluck by the now deceased native species of moth-like inhabitants that had worshiped their nearest star, Click Cluck Click. Now it had plans to become yet another planet for snack manufacturing.
Jek yawned. She wished it was lunchtime.
The giant holoscreen began beeping again.
"Ugh, another call! What is it with today?" Tallest Tau groaned. "I've been talking all day! Zeta, you do it."
If Tallest Zeta had eyebrows, she would have raised one. "Wha-?" she said, swallowing the last pretzel in her snack bag. "No way, I'm not done eating yet. I've still got all this sugar at the bottom of the bag to eat. It's my favorite."
"No way! You're going to play me in Rock-Paper-Laser for it."
The holoscreen continued beeping.
"Rock, paper, laser – shoot!" they said in unison.
Zeta played laser. Tau played paper.
"Rock, paper, laser – shoot!"
Zeta played laser. Tau played rock.
"Rock, paper, laser – shoot!"
Zeta played laser. Tau played rock.
"I win!" Tallest Tau said gleefully, taking Zeta's snack bag and pouring the sugar down his throat. He relined in his chair as far as it would go, kicking up is feet.
"Not fair! Best three out of five."
"Nah, you're way too easy to beat." Tallest Tau shook his head. "Just answer the call."
"Uuuuuugh." Tallest Zeta groaned. "How does rock beat laser anyway? That doesn't make any sense. We destroy rocks with lasers all the time. Big rocks. Planets."
Tallest Tau gave an indifferent shrug and threw the pretzel bag onto the floor. A dutiful janitorial drone piddled over to begin sweeping up the mess.
Tallest Zeta rolled her eyes, and answered the call. "Yeah, what?"
"My Tallest," the Invader said on screen. "Invader Blue reporting. I have critical information regarding my assigned invasion and domination of the planet hence dubbed 'Portia'."
Tallest Zeta's blue eyes brightened with interest. She flashed a quick toothy smile, opening a bag of Irken Tater Crisps. "Oh, yes! How is progress on the extra-universal portal coming?"
"Excellently, my Tallest. Our military scientists estimate the portal should be fully operational in a mere week's time." Invader Blue's eyes veered off to the bottom right of the screen.
"What is it, Invader Blue? You seem… reluctant to celebrate the good news."
Blue gave a short nod. "You're correct, my Tallest. The excavation team found disturbing evidence of ancient life on this planet."
Tallest Zeta bit into a crisp. "Isn't that why I sent you, Invader Blue? To destroy of all native lifeforms on the planet?"
"Yes, my Tallest. However, those ancient lifeforms have long since died --"
"Well then!" Tallest Zeta interrupted. "There's nothing to worry about!"
Invader Blue shuffled her feet uncomfortably. "But, my Tallest… the evidence we have collected suggests that the ancient life on this planet was Irken. Irken life thousands of years ago."
Tallest Zeta and Tallest Tau exchanged surprised glances with one another. The snacking ceased. The silence fell heavy.
Jek and Dirk also looked to each other, as well as the other Navigators.
"So..." Tallest Tau began, standing up and presenting himself at the screen, "what have you found that suggests our kind has been there before?"
"There is an entire city underground, decimated. Early Irken technologies such as Scoot Cruisers and transport ships were found."
"We haven't used Scoot Cruisers in over five thousand years," Tallest Zeta said, covering her mouth in disbelief.
Invader Blue continued. "Irken remains were also discovered. Many appeared to have been dismembered, but the cause of death in many more is currently unable to be determined."
"And why is that?" Tallest Tau asked.
"None of our scientists have seen anything like it before, my Tallest. The cause of death is a break in the ribcage."
"That's not too difficult to understand," Tallest Zeta countered. "They were destroyed by someone or something hitting them in the chest."
"I'm afraid not, my Tallest." Invader Blue shook her head. "No, the fatal wounds are far too uniform in nature, and shows evidence of the ribcage being broken from the inside. Something was exiting these Irkens as they died."
Another heavy silence.
"Invader Blue," said Tallest Zeta, "I want you investigate this matter further and keep us updated on the details."
"No," Tallest Tau interjected, pushing Tallest Zeta aside and stepping in front of her. "I will come to Portia personally to see what you have found for myself."
"Tau!" Tallest Zeta hissed softly. She suddenly seemed furious, and pushed herself forward to stand beside him once again. "It's not that big of a deal. They're all dead! Thousands of years of dead!"
Tallest Tau stepped back in front of her, his back to the screen. He pointed a finger at Tallest Zeta, poking her abruptly in the chest. "You obviously don't comprehend the significance of this. You couldn't."
Zeta stiffened her back, leaning forward to meet his eyes. His finger poked deeper into her chest. "Why? Is it because I am younger than you? Are you forgetting my genius idea was the extra-universal portal on that planet? None of this would have been discovered if not for my military expertise and engineering talents." She shoved his hand away. "We will continue operations as planned."
"What if your precious portal is compromised at the expense of your impatience? I am so sick of your chronic laziness and inability to -"
The holoscreen went dark.
"Invader Blue?" Tallest Tau said, but got no answer.
Tallest Zeta stood with her arms crossed, frowning.
The silence returned. Jek repositioned herself in her seat, as she found herself sitting anxiously on the edge of it. As long as she had performed her duty as a Navigator for The Massive, she had never once witnessed an argument between the Tallest. The Tallest were who the lesser Irkens looked to for strength and wisdom. They were the only absolutes of their Empire, and now they were disagreeing.
Dirk gave her a soft look and a comforting nod. For a moment, Jek almost felt reassured by his gesture.
"Get Invader Blue back online, now!" Tallest Zeta shouted, eyes wide with frustration.
"My Tallest, I can't establish a connection," one Navigator said, but he spoke for them all. "It seems communications on their end are offline."
A heartbeat passed.
"I'm going to Portia," Tallest Tau said, already making his way across the bridge with long, heavy steps.
Tallest Zeta uncrossed her arms, throwing them out at her sides. "Tau, you can't. We are the Tallest! We rule together!"
"We rule to serve the Irken Empire. I am not serving my kind by sitting in here watching you eat snacks."
Tallest Tau reached the doorway to the exit and stopped. He turned around, but not to Tallest Zeta; to their navigator crew.
"I need Navigators to pilot a transport ship," he said. "Ten of you."
"Ten?" Tallest Zeta echoed, her voice raised far above his. "That's half of our crew! Only two are needed to operate a transport ship."
"Yeah, and the other eight will operate supporting cruisers along the way and back."
Tallest Zeta said nothing, but her expression spoke thousands of angry words.
"I need ten volunteers," Tallest Tau reiterated, looking to the Navigators expectantly. "No more, no less."
Three Navigators stood up instantly, two of which Jek recognized from the education plug. Two more followed suit, then two more. It was like she was watching her Empire being torn apart.
Something about it didn't seem right.
Another navigator stood.
And another, gripping onto her arm as he did so.
"Dirk?" she breathed, staring up at him with a mixture of fright and disbelief.
Jek didn't think this was right: the Tallest splitting up into two separate places after a heated argument. She learned in the education plug that the Tallest were always together in order to maintain the structure of the Empire, so that not one singular Irken could ever rule. This rule of two was meant to prevent civil wars, political parties, side groups, anarchists, rebels… the list went on. She felt damned if she chose to stay on The Massive, damned if she joined Tallest Tau on Portia.
As Dirk joined the others, Jek already felt her volunteering herself. She may not have agreed with the idea, but Tau was one of her Tallest, and she couldn't imagine being split up from Dirk. So, she followed them quietly.
She, Dirk and the other eight navigators prepared a transport ship, equipped with eight support cruisers in the hull. The ship was nowhere close to The Massive, but it was five times as large as a Voot Runner. It was sleek, red on the inside and purple the outside. It was clean and up to date with the latest Irken technology, unusual for a transport ship. It also seemed brand new, unused.
There were two chairs situated at the front of the ship with a front window glaring out into space. Jek, Dirk and the eight other Navigators stood around in silence, taking it all in.
"Who's been here the longest?" Tallest Tau said as he approached them from behind. The Navigators turned meet him.
"Navigator Jek and I have, my Tallest," Dirk said with a slight bow. "We both became Navigators at the same time."
"Fourteen years, my Tallest."
"You all normally don't last that long, navigating military cruisers during Sweeps and such. You must be pretty good."
Dirk blushed slightly. "Well, I may have operated a military cruiser once --"
"You." Tallest Tau pointed to Jek. "You both have similar experience?"
Jek nodded quickly, overwhelmed. "Yes, my Tallest."
"Excellent! You'll operate the transport ship as the main pilot."
She had to contain herself, to keep her legs steady enough to stand. "My Tallest?"
"Yeah, I like the looks of you better than Navigator Dirk," he said, turning back to Dirk. "No offense, but your eyes are shaped all weird. You'll co-pilot. Everyone else will operate the support cruisers. Get to your ships. We leave in three minutes."
Any ounce of confidence Dirk had was shattered that moment. His shoulders slumped, and his blush turned into one of shame, not flattery.
The other Navigators nodded, all of them rushing toward the hull at once.
"Alright, let's get going!" Tallest Tau clapped his hands, and took position in the captain's chair in the middle of the flight deck.
Jek took her seat and booted up the pilot's control screen. "Computer, navigate us to sector 782, quadrant 4, to the planet Portia."
"Navigate us, she says," the computer grumbled. "You didn't say please."
Jek's map on the control screen showed a trail of blue dots leading out of this planetary system, into the next. From her command station she transmitted the coordinates to the eight cruisers. Jek and Dirk adjusted their headsets to the communications frequency, and the Navigators began reporting in.
"Ready and waiting."
"Let's go already. I want to eat a donut."
All the Navigators reported in. Jek gave Dirk a nod, and he flipped the accelerator switch in front of him. He nodded back.
Jek closed her eyes, breathed in, and heaved a heavy sigh. I have a bad feeling about this.
The transport ship grumbled as Jek slowly and carefully piloted out of the Irken docking station using a main control stick. On top of the stick was an analog stick that controlled the relative velocity of the ship. Jek pushed it slightly forward and the ship began to gain speed.
"Exiting the atmosphere in one minute."
"Life support systems stable, hyperdrive fully functional," Dirk said.
Jek pressed in the analog stick, and flipped a flashing blue switch to her right.
The transport ship jutted out of the atmosphere into space with amazing speed. They seemed to shoot past the stars millions of units away, but it was an illusion. In mere seconds, the planet Irk was a small speck behind them, glittering a faint purple hue against the vast, black void that was space.
"Ships One through Eight, separate from the mother and prepare to initialize hyperdrive to Portia," Jek spoke through her comm. She pressed "Release Hull" on the pilot screen's interface, which would give all the Navigators twenty seconds to exit the ship before the hull closed again.
Dirk pulled up the rear-view feed. Together they watched as all eight ships exited the hull and fall back three hundred units behind them.
"Hyperdrive active. All units converge. Initialize in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1..." Dirk shifted a lever and pushed it down into a socket, locking it into place. With a press of a button, the ship began to whir and buzz before disappearing further into the nothingness of their known universe toward the planet Portia, eight other ships following suit.