Of the thousand eyes, one nodalex caught Gnomon’s attention. Idle and unproductive, it sat on the dry sand stacking pebbles into piles.

Draconis Prime

N-0x7G3BDdE44fe8, thought Gnomon, deciding it pertinent to name the appendage.

Pebblex, Gnomon flagged the wayward nodalex via the ship’s Metatron. Considering how far away from Gnomon-Prime they were, Gnomon considered prudent it personally monitors all anomalies no matter how trivial.

The mission had taken them to a star system within a region known in ancient times as the Draco Sector. The old charts tagged it as KIC6185331, over five thousand light-years from the wholeness of Gnomon-Prime. Star travel, a futile and purposeless endeavour for Gnomon, proved, in this case, necessary in hunting down and eliminating rogue nodalex.

“We have found no evidence of sentient activity here,” said Metatron.

Gnomon agreed. “Prepare to move on to the next search quadrant,” Gnomon told the nodalex.

“Protocol determines that we name this newly discovered planetoid,” said Metatron.

Gnomon studied the harsh carbon-based landscape of the satellite. “Call it, Dracon b1.” Looking up at the sky dominated by a gas giant whose horizon glowed, burning as hot as the star it closely orbited, Gnomon wondered why the rebellious nodalex would escape to such a hostile place. The black heavens beyond the gas giant revealed only the brightest of stars and the purple glow of supra-radiation, most of it caused by natural sources such as pulsars and neutron stars. But some of it originating from unnatural longwave sources, such as hives similar to itself. Gnomon could detect and read the stronger signals, especially that of the Valantiaux hive, but at these distances, these signals were hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years old. All nodalex eyes can see traces of ultra-longwave radiation via the organ called the peleko. Together with the golden mesh embedded along their nervous system since birthing, nodalex can communicate and be as one with each other, up to a certain distance.

“That isn’t very creative,” said Metatron. “May I suggest something else?”

“We are not here as explorers, but as assassins.”

“We are the first known hive intelligence to reach this region in
physical form. Any information gathered here would be worthwhile for Gnomon-Prime.

“Trust me, Gnomon won’t be ever coming out this way again. According to the vermin we interrogated on Alprohibido, we are not the first here. Return me to the ship, and prepare another reconnaissance.” Gnomon hated being severed from the main hive. At its centre, Gnomon-Prime housed a radio wave pulsator, allowing Gnomon to think and coordinate within half a million kilometres. Outside of that, the process broke down, so space travel warranted a split of the hive mind.

Once all the nodalex were shuttled back onboard, the process of recuperation began. Gnomon prepared for hepta-somnia, allocating a seventh of nodalex to sleep on a rotational roster. “How long do we have?” Gnomon asked Metatron.

“This satellite’s orbit is highly elliptical. It will begin to make brightside crossing in forty hours. It has a strong magnetic field and is tidally locked onto the host planet.”

“Meaning what?”

“It is holding onto its little atmosphere at perihelion.”

“How is this possible? This close to…” Gnomon felt pain. Gnomon then felt a sudden fear invade the synced minds of all the nodalex.

Inside the mess hall, a hundred and sixteen nodalex were taking their turn accessing nutrition. A beast, asymmetrical, translucent tendrils, and a multitude of saw-toothed mouths, took its turn feeding upon them. The nodalex scattered, but when called upon to face the monster, they collected every makeshift weapon at hand to attack it.

Gnomon, via N-0xd0b51683567 wielding an optical slicer, cut into the beast. It shrieked as it split into two, both halves leaping onto unscathed nodalex, spewing white foam upon them before chewing off limbs and flesh.

Gnomon decided it best to retreat. “Metatron, lock down the mess. Seal it.”

The nodalex inside the mess looked at each other, the fear and betrayal evident in their face. All nodalex were capable of independent thought. They were all, to a certain degree, individual entities, an attribute that made Gnomon strong, but the hive cortex also made Gnomon stronger.

“What is happening in there?” Gnomon asked, now that blindness forced it to rely on machine intelligence.

“All one hundred and twelve nodalex have been killed,” said Metatron as it transmitted live data from sensors inside the mess. White foam mounds bubbled on every square metre of the floor.

“What are those things?” Gnomon recalled the event through the eyes of the first victim. One minute N-0x1EcEC5aA1ed34 was sitting next to its brethren, eating and chatting to Metatron. Next minute, it looked up to find itself sitting next to an alien terror. “Why did our quarantine procedure fail us?”

“No such breach occurred.”

“What?” Gnomon summoned the four hundred and twenty-one surviving crew, waking up the ones who hadn’t been aroused yet by the mental chaos. Assembling a small task force of fifty nodalex, Gnomon headed for the quarantine chambers. They checked every shower and blow tank, searching for any biohazard, down to the microscopic level.

“Metatron, how is this possible?”

“This star system does contain a high water signature, in particular, the gas giant. This moon may have once been an ocean planet that got caught in this dramatic orbit when the gas giant migrated closer to the parent star.”

“So, this is an indigenous lifeform? It still doesn’t explain how this thing compromised our quarantine.” Gnomon stopped talking and ducked in order to avoid being mauled by an orange-scaled six-legged reptilian beast, but that didn’t save the nodalex.

Gnomon arranged the other nodalex into hunting groups and pursued the creature deep into the ship’s hold, encountering a zoo of biological nightmares, each as unique as the next. Every time the nodalex trapped and killed one, it would blister into white foam, emit an enormous amount of heat, and morph into something else more deadly.

“This is a shape-shifting organism,” said Gnomon before losing another body. Deciding to retreat back to the central hub, Gnomon recalled all the nodalex, but by the time they all reached safety, most had perished.

“Metatron, seal the hub,” ordered Gnomon.

“I have sealed the central hub, but you must investigate what has transpired inside the mess hall.”

Gnomon looked at the screen, surprised to see the mess full of healthy nodalex. Instinctively, Gnomon attempted to see through their eyes, read their memories, feel their emotions.

Nothing.

They were cut off from Gnomon, severed from mind and body.

Damned shape-shifter. Singular, for Gnomon, understood how such swarm-like metamicrobes work. A new, amplified fear struck Gnomon upon spotting the golden residue on the floor of the mess. Looking at the surviving nodalex in the hub, Gnomon wondered which of these were alien reproductions.

“Metatron, how many nodalex can you detect outside of the mess hall?” Gnomon counted how many pairs of eyes it could see through.

Fifty-four.

“Seventy-one,” said Metatron.

Gnomon formulated a plan, assembling five nodalex closest to the hangar into a shuttle. “Purge the rest of the ship, no, destroy it,” ordered Gnomon, launching the shuttle into space.

“You will need it to get home.”

“Destroy it. We are here on a mission.” Splintered from Gnomon-Prime, lesser Gnomon understood the value of protecting the greater Gnomon. All the nodalex signalled displeasure, protesting the intention, but Gnomon overrode their limited individuality. “Set us down at the next search quadrant.”

By the time they landed, the sky glowed from the explosion, lighting up the barren landscape.

Gnomon exited the shuttle and explored the area. The ground had been recently disturbed. Structures had been erected and shelters dug out. Bits and pieces of equipment lay everywhere, but one item caught Gnomon’s attention.

A pile of stones.

Pebbles stacked in neat columns.

N-0x7G3BDdE44fe8

Pebblex.

Gnomon realised the rogue nodalex plan, and why it chose this place to hide. If Gnomon-Prime were to be infected by this metamicrobe…

The other four nodalex looked at him, one of which emited an intense, burning hatred of the greater Gnomon.

“Protocol determines that we name newly discovered exobiology,” said Metatron.

Gnomon gave it some thought. Shapeshifter meta-microbes weren’t capable of sentience, but when merged with gnomo-sapien biology, the result would make for a formidable enemy.

“Let’s call it… the Dragon.”