Chapter 01: Innocence Lost
13 years, 10 months, 3 weeks AV
Aetlayus, “Sea Rose” Node-cluster
Ithilanis, Lanth to their friends, or even Ithi’ to their mates so long as nobody else was within sonic range, was having an amazing shift.
The readouts which surrounded Lanth fluoresced in the dappled light which sifted in through the walls of the ‘Tank. They were on to something and could feel it in their oral-arms. If only they had a little more time.
-Ithilanths, your allotted time nears completion. Is there an issue?- Eppithes’s query reverberated against Lanth’s skin at levels imperceptible to most other species. The hypersonic frequencies jostled Lanth out of their thought current and back into the ‘Tank around them.
-No, no issue- Lanth let themselves drift down and away from the panoramic displays which immediately deactivated. -I thought I was approaching something, but not yet. I feel as if I’m so close though!-
Eppi drifted over as a new Ayunian, Lanth’s replacement, swam up and into the vacated displays. -On the new queries, fresh from the node?-
Lanth sent a buzz of affirmation back.
-That’s good! Even the Central Nodes anticipated many iterations on that theme before success, and we’ve only just received the theme data recently.- Eppi swirled their tentacles; the equivalent of a chuckle. -Return to your pod, rest. It will brighten to you, I’m sure.-
They swirled in response. -Yeah, it will. Thank you Eppithes- Lanth made their way to the bottom-center of the ‘Tank to leave while Eppi swam back over to invigorate the starting shift. Everyone took turns as an Invigorator, a sort of tone-setter to pump up the next shift, but Lanth always felt Eppithes had been spawned to it.
Lanth, like just about every other member of their species, was part of an elite think-tank (literally), one of many, that were trying to find a solution to their world’s greatest problem: discovering what went wrong, who trapped them here (besides themselves), and how to get out? Lanth’s entire modern society was structured around the ‘Tanks. Constructed of a sort of gelatinous membrane and containing a type of living circuitry, each ‘Tank was part of a larger cluster of ‘Tanks held in perpetual suspension across great swaths of their world. The depth of any cluster varied while staying within a range that wasn’t too far from the phosphorescent rich epipelagic layer but didn’t dip too deeply into the overly hot abyssopelagic zones. Every ‘Tank was connected by axial extensions of the same membrane to the other ‘Tanks which were, in turn connected into massive nodal structures which functioned as a sort of natural database. The nodes were so large that they tended to create their own micro currents and micro ecologies about them. Ayunians spent the vast entirety of their lives within their ‘Tank, requiring only about one tenth of their time for rest and replenishment, which was taken in a separate structure located usually just above the ‘Tanks with their pod.
There might once have been a time when life didn’t float entirely about the ‘Tanks and their nodes, but nobody alive now could remember it being anything else. With each node and the structures and ‘Tanks connected to it drifting separately in the currents of Aetlayus, there was very little communication between node clusters. What communication they did get came in the form of transmitted information directly into the node from the Central Nodes. This arrangement made for an inherently sub-divided processing style. Each node could be given tasks, or Themes, to work on independently of the others. The Central Nodes could then curate what was sent out to additional nodes as an updated Theme and thus give fresh perspective on it. Ayunians were known for their relatively short attention spans, and so as a node became bored or spent on one Theme, it was very easy to simply pass that theme on to another node and initiate another. This, of course, placed a lot of power and control with those living in the Central Nodes who, it was also known, must be only the best and most attentive of Ayunians. From time to time Lanth would notice the oddity that while some members of a given nodal community may have once lived in another nodal community, no one in any node or ‘Tank had ever lived or even seen one of the Central Nodes. Often a singular member of their node cluster would be singled out and brought to the Central Nodes, but there was never any reason given as to why that Ayunian was chosen. They’d think on the thought as it came, but it wouldn’t take long before that thought was put aside for another. Such was the way of their people.
Lanth swam out beneath the central portal of their ‘Tank and started up and around it’s bulbous side. They could vaguely see the next shift moving about as amorphous shapes within. Looking up, Lanth could see the many individual family pods and beyond them the phosphorescent layer which marked the boundary into the Heavens. The most recent Theme’s to come to them via the node had brought revelation upon revelation as to the history of the Ayunians. It had all come in the format of substrate information; necessary to understanding of the Theme. But whereas most of their ‘Tank-mates mentally swam directly for the answers to the Theme, Lanth had spent more time than they ought to have pondering what this new version of history meant and reconciling it with the History they’d always known: 1. The Ayunians lived in pods, always had lived in pods, and worked in the ‘Tanks to advance their species, 2. It was death to any Ayunian who tried to venture beyond the Phosphorescence above.
History was now clearly wrong; their ‘Tank-mates could see that couldn’t they? There were holes and inconsistencies everywhere when put next to the substrate information for the new Theme. However, Lanth’s wasn’t a very methodical species. Brilliant beyond compare, but that creativity always seemed to lead to a sort of managed chaos which exploded out into one quantum technological leap after another. It was almost like they’d been designed to be an entire race of not but epiphanies. Lanth’s penchant for ruminating made them a bit of a oddity as well by Ayunian standards. Others simply remarked that perhaps they’d be selected for a Central Node before long, but to Lanth, even that oddity raised many further questions. Why could they remember so many of the previous Themes when the others, even their pod-mates, couldn’t?
Lanth swirled to think of all of the thousands of contraptions they’d been part of dreaming up. Whole hosts of machines that no one would ever need or use. Pieces of pieces of the whole; ‘a better way to convert power in this form’ or ‘a new way to align molecules so that this object might be stronger’. Never had those Themes provided a completed picture, but in flashes Lanth would recall just enough to realize that the pieces did make a whole. And now, with the latest wealth of information that this Theme’s substrate had brought, the pieces were coming together for them. It was sobering to think of themself as having the sort of complete picture that a Central Node should have, but that wasn’t the frightening part of all this. What bothered Lanth the most now, was that this new picture of History suggested that the very boundaries of their world hadn’t always been so.
For generations, the Phosphorescence was the limit and there was never a reason to go beyond that. Now that Lanth was seeing the larger picture and had access to the knowledge within this Theme’s substrate, it was clear that their people were once masters of engineering and design, including a whole fleet of starships! There was no historical mention of what their people did with these ships, or where they took them. But the designs and the build-rates for them were clear as still-water in those substrate files.
What was also in those files, and had been sent as part of the substrate material, was that the Central Nodes had re-assembled the true histories some time ago. In the time since, the Central Nodes had coordinated in an attempt to retrace their species’ journey beyond the Phosphorescence and even further beyond the Heavens. Lanth’s mind swam to grasp all of the possibilities and variables at work and failed. Even they, with their oddities of recollection, couldn’t hold the thoughtstream long enough. Vibrating a particular frequency of frustration, Lanth used one of their oral-arms to retrieve a translucent patch from atop their crest. The electromagnetic vibrations of Ayunian anatomy activated the patch into the biomechanical storage device that it was and Lanth parsed the information contained within via the pulses in their tentacles. Strictly speaking, the biopatch was illegal for personal use. It had once been part of one of the ‘Tank’s processing systems but Lanth had serapticiously rescued it from being discarded as faulty when it had failed to accept being wiped during a previous Theme change. Now Lanth used it as a sort of tertiary information storage device. Even their pod-mates didn’t know about the patch. Sure, Lanth really did have a better ability to recall things than others, but somewhere along their swim through life, Lanth realized that recalling just a little bit more wasn’t going to be enough. Now they perused through the information within as the family pods came into sight. Ah, right, there was that thoughtstream again.
The Central Nodes, upon learning that their people had once been in space, desired to go back again. This then led to a few fateful test-jumps up and out of their atmosphere and straight into the Heavenly Abyss which awaited them there. A horrendous super-cluster of gravitational forces surrounded the oceanic planet. Huge ever-changing gravitational eddies and rifts which rent any vessel stupid enough to swim them into apocalyptic shards. It wasn’t until after those few first voyages that further delving of the rediscovered histories that someone found a detailed accounting of the experiment which had enveloped Aetlayus right about the same time as all record of Ayunian experimentation along a more scientific pattern ceased. Their people kept designing and theorizing, but they stopped building and doing.
But all that was changing. The Central Nodes were building again, and they were doing something. But those Central Nodes still needed the ‘Tanks for the thinking and that was where Lanth came in.
Lanth thought back over their ‘Tank’s latest theoretical analysis and followed the current into the natural conclusion. They’d been searching for some gravitational constant beyond the Abyss to which they might navigate, but the nature of time and space relative to gravity was distorting any external constant that they tried to fix upon. How could they navigate without a constant? The answer; they couldn’t. But what did that mean? To most, the subtle step in the puzzle might not have seemed all that important, but to an entire species of thinkers, it was a change to the fundamental question. A complete genesis of new currents of thought. Where might they lead, into what great ocean of solutions could they now swim? That was the thought which Lanth followed as they swiftly maneuvered out of the Warmcurrents. It was a short swim between other pods to the pod where Lanth and their podmates slept and Lanth didn’t acknowledge even a moment of it. Lost in the possibilities of a new question, Lanth was only beginning to realize the truth. Aetlayus had finally found the thoughtstream that would lead an entire people, and an entire planet, to freedom.
10y2m2w3d AV (3 years earlier)
Dominion Embassy Station 172, Visiting Dignitary Suite 126
Zhong jiang Zhao Fan
Zhao Fan stood beside the earthward viewport, waiting for his native China to roll into view. He took a sip from the drink in his hand and felt the ice clink gently against the polyglass rocks-glass. There was something surreal about the moment as he watched the western deserts just start to peak up over the horizon through his magnified view. He treasured the beauty of his home and though he’d already watched it pass beneath him numerous times during his time on the station, he felt that he’d never fail to marvel at the awesome beauty that was his home. He took another sip and semi-consciously noticed the rivulets of welding along the bulkhead where the pressure glass had been added to reinforce the original alien design which had featured only a forcefield as prevention from the vacuum of space. The glass certainly made Fan a bit more comfortable about his present proximity to said viewport.
For as much as a galactic war raged on, Fan, the equivalent of a middle-general in the People’s Liberation Army Navy, couldn’t help but feel only a sense of peace as he watched the deserts of Xinjiang reveal themselves below. While he watched though, his mind churned over more galactic matters.
Russia, never one to miss a chance to compete with their western counterparts, sought a way to ally with the Celzi Alliance against the US and UK’s burgeoning relations with the Dominion. Recent inclusion of Human combatants, purely by circumstance and not design, had turned several battles in the Dominion’s favor. The Alliance was eager to even up their forces with access to their own levy of Human troops. Russia, in turn, was excited about the chance at securing access to a whole host of technologies in trade; technologies which the western powers were already starting to employ into their own arsenal through their contacts within the Dominion.
Fan’s superiors hadn’t been too keen on the idea of trading their own people as charnel for some galactic war any more than they favored sending them to war below on Earth. They weren’t in any sort of position to turn down an offer from the Russians to include one of their representatives in a covert discussion with an Alliance operative either though. And so, Zhong jiang Zhao Fan stood upon the decking of the Dominion Embassy Station 172 and watched his world go by as he reflected on the puzzle.
The covert Alliance contact had yet to make themselves known and the Russians were getting worried. Their worry, combined with the extra wait, had given Zhao Fan ample time to work out much in the way of what their formal invite had not informed them of. Like, for example, that the Russians had secretly hoped to favor their side of the Alliance deal with a decidedly higher proportion of Chinese soldiers than Russian. Or that their insistence on Zhao Fan only bringing a single aid had more to do with controlling China as a party in the agreement and less to do with the shuttle personnel restrictions as they had more formally declared. Not that the last was much of a surprise. Fan didn’t require an entire camp worth of aides to perform his duty, only one really good one. He smiled as his encrypted communications phone buzzed.
“Zhao Fan, report.” His contact within the Party was, rather appropriately, not a verbose man.
“The meeting has yet to take place. I, however, continue to acquire additional information about both the Russian intentions as well as the status of the western powers, sir.”
“And what of our western friends?”
“I have further confirmation that Scotch Creek already has a technological head start that we can’t hope to overcome without a massive infusion of extraterrestrial technology. A few parts here or there won’t do, sir.”
“What about this Byron fellow? You mentioned him as a possible option in your last report.” Zhao thought a moment about the American Mogul.
“My contacts groundside were making progress in that front, however there are rumors that something’s scared Byron pretty bad. We don’t have any idea what it might have been, but whatever it was, I doubt that he’ll be selling any of his most recent advances soon.” “Even to the Americans?”
“Maybe to them, but of that even I’m not certain. My sources say he’s pretty spooked.”
“Very well. What of our other ventures?”
Zhao Fan scoffed, “I’m even more convinced that allying ourselves with the Russians in their bid with the Celzi Alliance is a fool’s choice. Human soldiers or no, that conflict is untenable and would only drain us of resources. Resources, I might add, which have trained primarily for defense and only recently for protracted extension into foreign theatres.”
“Even to acquire technological gains.” It was spoken more as a statement than a question.
“Yes, but what gains sir? The rules forbidding any ETs from giving us nanofactory technology are upheld by even the Celzi. Beyond their construction technology, some of their forcefield tech could be useful, but their hull design and armament mix is woefully uninspiring. I could do more by mounting a revolver on a dinosaur pincher claw and sticking it out the side of this station’s window.”
“I think you are being a bit critical Zhong jiang.”
“Yes, I am, but that doesn’t change the point I’m making.” He took a deep breath. This was the truth he needed the Party to understand. “Yes, taken as a whole, we could gain greatly by obtaining their technology, especially their coilguns and forcefield mechanics. But we couldn’t get the best parts and any hull we got, we lack the facilities to properly reverse engineer fast enough. We might be better off commissioning the Alliance or even the Dominion to build us vessels which we could then use to more quickly obtain access to the knowledge which is being withheld from us. Besides, the western powers still think they have a monopoly on alien tech and, for the moment, I think it unwise to give them reason to think otherwise.”
“And why is that? I seem to recall Sun Tzu having something to say about avoiding fights through showing strength.“
“Fights yes, but this is a battle for knowledge sir, and we’re losing. Let us secure our seat at the table before we show our hand yes? If the Russians or even the British catch on to what we plan, they may try to circumvent our ability to contract at all with alien suppliers. They’ve already found a way to block the Russians attempts to employ a Corti Cyberneticist.”
“Very Well. Is that all?”
He paused, “No. Given that offering masses of troops for the war was never really an option for us, I find that we have little with which to trade in exchange for this technology or these ships. Unless we are prepared to seek direct inclusion within the western Extra-solar Allied Command.”
“Not at this time, no.”
“Then I suggest that our goal, for the time being, will be to discover what, if anything, we have to give.”
“I shall discuss it further with the President.”
“Understood.” The line went dead and Zhao Fan returned to the gorgeous views below for a few moments as he summoned his aide. “Wang Shu, please come in, I believe that I have a task for you.” The full of China in all its glory filled Fan’s magnified view. It truly was a beautiful home.
CGC Star’s Bounty, Gorai System Picket
Goruu felt like his chest had been broken yet again. Beside him, Amyni was reading the same sensor information with a look of utter disbelief on her face. “I don’t… understand.”
Gorai hadn’t been a heavily established colony, but it also wasn’t fledgling either. It was the first colony of his species and was gaining more and more significance in the local galactic markets with each passing revolution. Borrowing an adage from the humans, Firefang and One-Fang Fathers had also decided not to put ‘all their eggs in one basket’ militarily. Disproportionate even to the strong planet-bound development, Gorai’s orbital infrastructure had seen incredible leaps in scale over the past several revolutions to the point where it almost mirrored Gao’s production capacity and tonnage. Gorai’s native system boasted a great wealth of minerals and anyone with more brains than a Naxas could see the advantages to using those minerals here rather than shipping them back to Gao. In order to supply and support such massive industry, a large concentration of Firefang’s squadrons, as well as whatever One-Fang ships were not already detached to the Dominion fleets or assigned to Gao, were stationed specifically at Gorai. Or, at least, they had been.
It was impossible for Goruu to tell just how many of those fighters and ships were represented in the clouds of debris which floated like a haze in orbit of Gorai’s largest cities and he wasn’t keen to try an accounting anyway. Mirroring Amyni’s shock, he looked instead to Geeran who’d finally broken the tableau by stepping over to the communications console. “Geeran, wait.”
“There might be survivors, we should try to find them. I’ll just-”
Goruu moved to stop him. “No, we can’t”
Amyni’s face looked as though it had done the entire span of Gaoin emotion in a few seconds, ending in rage. “What do you mean no!?”
“Think! If what happened on our ship just happened here, we don’t know who the victors were.” This seemed to get through so he continued. “And if it was… whatever those were; Implant Ghosts, or whatever. Then they’ve already seen our warp signature.”
As if to punctuate his comment, three fighters of a design none of them had ever seen before decloaked just off the freighter’s bow.
“CGC Star’s Bounty, we’ve been ordered to escort you to Orbital Station Kinsah to take on provisions and personnel. Please don’t deviate from your assigned route.”
Amyni glanced at Goruu with the ear swiveling equivalent of a raised eyebrow. “‘Huh?’ You think this is a good thing?”
“It might be… They didn’t follow standard procedure.” Goruu had an idea and he was trying to grow it into something resembling a plan.
“Doesn’t that mean they’re more of those Ghosts? Like the ones here?” Geeran interjected, referencing their fallen Brothers onboard.
“Um… yeah.” Goruu needed more time. “Geeran, send a non-verbal acknowledgement, quick.” He started moving from the operations station to navigation into which the helm control was now patched.
Amyni was starting to catch on though. “You’re not really going to follow them, are you?”
“For a bit I am, yeah.”
“And then?” She did that semaphore thing again.
Goruu started to grin. “That trash heap is still programmed into the ship’s computer as an immediate realignment and warp override command right?”
Goruu was the one standing at the navigational console so Amyni assumed the question was rhetorical. Beyond the hull, the CGC Star’s Bounty started to line up with the fighters.
“Geeran, come over here and get ready to re-initiate that command, and get me a comms channel to our escort.”
Caldron’s Cradle Station, Dominion Space
Enivieri’s morning routine was typically brief. A quick run over her pale skin with a dermal refreshing pad, some graceful bending and stretching of her willowy frame as she selected a few accessories for the day, and finally a quick glance over at the notepad hanging beside the door. A bold line now lay through the item marked as ‘Ventral Engine Relay’ and she smiled. Pooja must have stayed up late with the drones to confirm that one done then left it as a surprise for her.
Thoughts of her adopted daughter brought Enivieri around and out of the bridge where she usually slept. She glanced left as she stepped down the slight ramp from the bridge to peek into Pooja’s room. Her people were a solitary type and so it had only made common sense that Pooja might want her own room.
The young Human was sleeping soundly on her mat. Enivieri paused for just a moment to appreciate her ward at her most docile. There was no need to wake her. Besides, she’d told the girl that she’d be out early today to go into the station. Pulling herself away, Enivieri extracted a slightly more modern pad and used it to check in on a few of the many drones which continued to work about the hull. They were starting to focus on the remaining repairs to the warp drives; Pooja must have selected that as the next target based on Enivieri’s comment yesterday. Other drones were moving about the ship on various errands and she selected several of the lesser needed ones and commanded them to take up sentry positions in and around the ship. She didn’t particularly suspect that anyone would try to invade the mostly rebuilt junker, but with Pooja onboard, she wasn’t taking any chances. Perhaps her maternal instincts had been a bit impacted by a love of her ward’s birth culture.
Safety and convenience used to be a bit easier when they had lived on the station rather than having to carve out a living space within the very ship they were repurposing. The Hunter’s ultimatum on Humans had seen to that. She couldn’t dare let slip that she had a Human living within shuttle range of the station. Oh, it wasn’t the Hunters she feared. Well, she did fear them, but more than that she feared for her Pooja. If the Hunters actually did show up, Enivieri wasn’t certain that her small army of drones or other backup options would be enough to save her and hers, but if even one being on the station proper discovered that there was still a Human nearby… Enivieri was certain they’d prefer to destroy the Human this time. They’d let that same Human escape once, they wouldn’t again.
Enivieri’s legs twitched in the human equivalent of a shudder. Their original escape had been a thing of nightmares for her, she could only imagine what it had done for a four year old girl, which was even younger in humans than in Qinis by comparison. Freelance repair work wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that made one rich in the first place. Their apartments had been… marginal at best; squalor would not have been totally off the mark. But they had been a solid home. Two rooms, one for sleeping, one for everything else, within short distance from the primary docking arms of the station. The apartment had also been surreptitiously close to the direct route between the impromptu parts market and the scrap storage. That proximity had afforded her a direct view on just about anything that was deemed not worth resale and shuffled off to be disposed of. She’d learned of a curious yet apt phrase while studying Humans; ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ She didn’t know what being a male had to do with it, but she’d always had a knack for repairing or reusing otherwise useless parts, and so more than one quick sprint to the scrap heap had resulted in yet another drone or a new tool. Eventually, Enivieri had all manner of robotic scout, worker, or protector at work around the station. Most of them she’d sold outright for some menial chore or another. Other vendors or even some customers just passing through would buy one of the useful gizmos or drones off of her and thus provide her with the funds for the things she couldn’t scrounge up in scraps; high end circuitry and food.
As good as Enivieri was with her digits though, Pooja had quickly surpassed her. Together, they had extended Enivieri’s little drone and tool repair into something much bigger. By the time they’d lost their home, the two of them had cemented a reputation for useful tools and drones that not even some of the local Gaoian Clan vendors could claim; they were the go-to shop for such things in this area. That was a good thing too, because all of that extra income was being funneled right into Pooja’s stomach. Fried Processors but that kid could eat! The drone repair business morphed into a small vessel repair business, which led to the purchase of a scrap hull which would become the first Mark 1. That’s about where it all blew up in their faces.
They had been lucky though. One of Enivieri’s scout drones, the one she had just floating around near the fastest-time approach vector for ships traveling to the station from Gao, had picked up the transmission of the news that a single Human had apparently destroyed an entire Swarm of Hunters. That sort of news, while celebration to some, was the sort to set anyone caring for a Human child on edge. But her fear of how dangerous her own adopted child might become was replaced quickly by the horror of the transmission that same scout drone picked up only a short while later:
ULTIMATUM FROM HUNTERS: DEMAND ALL HUMANS BE TURNED OVER ELSE QUOTE SWARM OF SWARMS ENDQUOTE WILL RAID KNOWN HUMAN LOCATIONS. ALL SHIPS, STATIONS CARRYING HUMAN PASSENGERS ADVISED: JETTISON IMMEDIATELY. NOTIFICATION ENDS.
Without waiting to find out just how cemented their reputation really was, Enivieri dropped quite a few credits into a large enough stasis box, stuffed Pooja into it, jumped into her own EVA suit, then hitched a ride between two of her strongest drones as they thrustered her and her treasure straight out an airlock and into the barely livable husk of the first Mark 1. She went back for everything else later.
Enivieri maneuvered her shuttle into the docking bay and stepped out into the other early morning arrivals, not far from where she and Pooja had made their precipitous exit those few short years ago. She spared a few moments to worry once more about the safety of her Pooja back aboard the Mark 2. She knew that she needn’t have worried, it wasn’t the first time she’d come into the station by far, and it wouldn’t be the last. She had her Children watching over Pooja anyway, a few of which had the sort of modifications that she’d never made available to her customers. Pooja was as safe as she could be. But Enivieri would always worry.
Making her way into the station proper, Enivieri turned her mind to the reason for her visit. There were the few parts she’d need to acquire, but the primary reason for her visit was business. She was getting worried about her buyers. Given the station’s proximity to the closest tradeway between Gao and Gorai, despite actually being closer to several other inhabited worlds, recent revolutions had brought a strong upswing in Gaoian activity to the station. It was a welcome change, in Enivieri’s eyes, despite the issues it created. Most Gaoians were a straightforward sort who knew what they wanted and didn’t quibble over stupid stuff. Their cuisine, it turned out, had made for a pleasant supplement to Pooja’s diet which had, until then, consisted heavily of the flavorless ration balls which were edible by every race and palatable to none. Enivieri liked a few of the strictly vegetable dishes as well. The down side, though, was their competition. As the Clans got more and more involved in the local market, Enivieri found that her normally significant margin of quality over what had previously been lack-luster product from other vendors began to shrink. As the Clans brought better and better goods into the market she’d been forced to secure better quality materials and components herself, which in turn meant raising her prices as well. One of the major reasons for starting the Mark 1 project had been to differentiate her product into something that the Clans were unlikely to pursue. It also let her use her superb drone repair skills in a more secondary way towards the end product and thus maintain that market edge.
Enivieri didn’t fancy herself much of a business person, but she’d been blessed with a keen eye for detail and simply applied that to markets as well as devices. And it was that keen eye of hers which told her that something wasn’t quite right with the most recent communications she’d gotten from her current clients. She was pretty sure that the group was some sort of front for one crime cartel or another, but so long as they didn’t involve her in their crime, she wouldn’t involve them in her morals. Their last communication had implied a possible bonus for expedited delivery, but on what sort of bonus or the timing of that expediting it hadn’t remarked. That was a bit different than the subtle, ‘just don’t draw any attention to us’ sort of timescale they’d been working under before. Something had changed and she needed to find out what. With a quick check to be sure that her shuttle had been securely moved to the side of the bay, she started off into the bustle of the busy station’s markets.
Pooja adjusted her slouched position against the cushioned bulkhead and turned the bit of scrap over in her hands. She squinted just a bit closer into the small crevasse created by the joint between two interlocking microcircuits and twisted one side almost imperceptibly. The pieces came away from each other cleanly and she smiled. Without looking, she set one of the halves aside and picked up a small tool which she then inserted into the slot which had previously been occupied by bits of the other piece. So that’s how… The rest of what had been a perfectly good wormhole beacon lay in bits and pieces around her. The detritus was neatly arrayed, though its pattern would have appeared random to any external observer. In her mind though, each piece was part of an elaborate 4-D model that assembled and unassembled itself over and over again with increasing detail and relative to the pieces on the decking.
Pooja’s eidetic memory, she had learned years ago, was driven by touch and a tactile understanding of the world or galaxy around her. How a thing was constructed wasn’t just a pattern of how it fit but also when it fit together. There was an order to things and once you understood how something moved through time, or what succession of events was needed, you knew the thing. Seeing something, hearing something told you what it was at that moment, a capture of it. But it took manipulation to understand the time of a thing. It was, perhaps, an odd approach to learning or to experiencing her environment. Maybe that was part of being human, or maybe it was part of what the Corti had done to her. She didn’t much care. She didn’t feel defined by it, only that it was part of her.
She would have asked another Human about it, if she had ever seen one. But she never had, not even her birth mother. Pooja let the final piece of her wormhole beacon turned puzzle rest beside her as she turned to look out the forcefield and into space. Her room, previously a small cargo bay just aft of the ship’s bridge, faced away from the station. She enjoyed sitting beside the field and gazing out. Much of her gazing was spent while turning over some mechanical problem in her mind, but from time to time, like now, she thought about her birth mother and what might have been.
There was no question in her heart that Enivieri was her Mama, and despite Enivieri’s peculiar eccentricity of calling all of the drones which currently inhabited the larger cargo bay opposing her room her ‘children’, Pooja knew that the Qinis saw her as no less than her true daughter. But for all that Enivieri had done for Pooja, she wasn’t human.
Enivieri tried though, she really did. She had purchased just about every human thing that she could afford over the few years they’d been together in an effort for Pooja to better understand herself. Pooja wasn’t so naive as to miss that Enivieri also used those human artifacts to learn more about her rather dangerous ward as well. Through what movies or other media they had found, Pooja knew enough to realize that she was far more advanced than a child of her age should have been. So, at least she had some benchmark. But it would never be the same as having a real Human to ask. That thought brought her back to her birth mother and back to her gaze out into the stars. Was she still out there somewhere? Was she still imprisoned by the same Corti who’d abducted her and toyed with Pooja’s brain when she’d still been in her mother’s womb? Likely not. No, her mother was probably dead now. It was a sobering thought, but for some reason it was one that never really brought Pooja any pain.
Mama would be back from the station soon and they’d have work to do when she got back. Pooja’s mind came back to the puzzle at hand and she smiled. Now the fun part began. It had been almost two years since Mama had discovered that Pooja had taken something apart and put it back together, and Pooja had no intention of ruining that streak. She picked up the other half of the piece still in her hand.
Orbital Station Kinsah, Gorai
Squadron-Father Marruk stepped out of his nest-bed and turned his attention from the final reports which trickled in through his implants. The litany of assessments and tactical reports were meant to clarify the results of the last few engagements of the battle for control over Gorai space. It hadn’t been the sort of battle one might typically expect; but instead one where the deadliest weapon had been confusion rather than anything so mundane as a coilgun. The battle had been longer than expected though and the casualty and loss reports were taking similarly longer to make their way in. While he waited for those, it was now time to focus on stabilizing orbital superiority and supporting the planet-side campaign which his fellow agents had well underway. Now that the colony was effectively cut off from any communication with Gao, ground tempo had increased incredibly. There were a few pockets, mostly centered around workhouses which had been in some way affiliated with either Clan Whitecrest or Clan Stoneback, that were still in resistance and one Goldpaw facility had gone dark entirly, but overwhelmingly the rest of the planet was turning to the major information channels for their direction; the major channels which Six-Three now held in his digital claws.
Once orbital superiority was secured, it had been trivial for him to slip into the communications satellites and adjust what few bits of information had made it to Gorai form Gao before the Humans had effectively shut down any other signals. Playing on the mass confusion, Six-Three simply emphasized any evidence present to suggest that it was the Humans themselves who’d attacked Gao and who had ultimately fabricated the rumor that Gao was a target for the nefarious Hunters; hysteria and fear had done the rest. Six-Three knew this to be the very opposite of the truth. It was, of course, his race, the Igraens, who were pulling the strings of the Discarded, a species known to everyone else as the Hunters. It was they who had pointed the Discarded’s dreaded Swarm of Swarms at Gao in the hopes that it would drive a wedge between Gaoians and Humanity.
To the frustration of the Igraen Hierarchy, those efforts had failed to do anything of the sort.
The Humans rallied to their new Gaoian allies, and were already attempting to stave off the horrors that were soon to befall Gao. Six-Three smirked bitterly. He didn’t know if the Humans would be sufficient to do any good before the Discarded arrived, but the simple fact that news of an impending attack from the ‘dreaded’ Swarm of Swarms had failed to separate the Gaoian leadership from their pathetic love of the Humans only further supported his belief that he’d been right all along; the Discarded were no longer a valid Control Species to keep the others in line. That left only the Gaoians as the groomed successor; if they could be properly culled and reset.
Six-Three had seen the decline of the Discarded coming. He’d seen it even from the time that he had inhabited one of the Discarded’s Beta Builders; their weaknesses were not being properly managed by his Igraen kin. And so Six-Three, designated 31 then and formated a bit differently, began a journey which had ultimately brought him to this moment in time, to this instant.
Marruk, Six-Three, let go of the eventuality that was the destruction of the planet Gao and the beginning of the end for the Discarded. Whatever the Humans might accomplish, Six-Three was certain that a galactic conflict which pitted the Discarded against the Humans could only end in the mutual destruction of both. The Igraens would likely have to help to finish off the Humans, of course, but the Gaoians trapped on Gao would become no more than dust between such titanic colliding forces. And let his kin focus on that ‘Cleanse’; more like ‘Massacre’. Someone would have to take charge of the ‘Regenerate’ part and he was now uniquely positioned to do just that. He didn’t just hold the shaft of that ‘speartip’ analogy he liked so much, he was now the highest positioned agent to administrate over the largest concentration of Gaoians beyond the planet Gao: Gorai. He could hold the entire Fyu-damned arsenal! And all he had to do was follow his directives. Perhaps a few of those ancient curses he’d spat weren’t as warranted after all.
He smile-panted lazily at the Female who lay, still sleeping, in the nestbed nearby and finished securing the latch of his Uniform. She was biodroned, of course, but he’d come to terms with the necessity of that long ago. Playthings that he couldn’t control were way too high of a risk in his position. He mused playfully on the convenient quirk of Gaoian culture which made it so easy for him to enjoy his more… base, proclivities without notice. Due to a bit of genetic history and careful social engineering, Gaoians never took lifelong mates, but instead prefered to take temporary partners based around a contracted Mating agreement. Outwardly, Marruk’s revolving pattern of biodroned dalliances appeared as nothing more than an appropriately generous flow of Mating Contracts for a very successful Squadron-Father. Once he tired of them, they’d relocate planetside to one of the more remote comunes and live out quiet motherhoods with little to no notice from the Clan of Females. The irony of his critique on his kin missing the weaknesses of flesh amongst the Discarded while he enjoyed what could be called weaknesses of quite another type of flesh, never even entered his mind. Meatspace should be enjoyed, otherwise what was the point of taking a host anyway?
He spared another glance for the Female and stepped out of his cabin and toward the bridge. She’d been around a while now, perhaps it was time to search for a new ‘mating contract’, a tertiary tendril of his mind went browsing through his records for mention of a Female Associate of Firefang that he recalled seeing was in route for Gorai, he liked ‘fiery’ anyway.
Outwardly Squadron-Father Marruk reached the bridge of his ship and made for his command chair. Despite being docked at the Orbital Station, the full complement of bridge crew and then some were scurrying about at full tilt. Apparently there was much to be done.
“Squadron-Father, we’ve completed 65% of our embarkation. Stores reports 100% load of expected munitions and parts, as well as an additional 4% of capacity worth of munitions secured within discretionary spaces.” Well, he’d told em to pack in as much as gaoianly possible, just so long as they hadn’t stored a missile in his waste reclamation compartment or something. He nodded for the Brother to continue and noted with little interest that it happened to be the same one who’d been briefing him when the Expose, Cleanse, Regenerate order had come through. “Kinsah control estimates only a 23% reduction in their their overall magazine stores on account of the battle but will begin immediate priority replication of armaments to restock.”
“Good, we’ll need them when we get back.” That piece of information hadn’t made it into the reports to his implants earlier, curious. “Only 65% complete on embarkation… why?”
The Brother duck-noded, only slightly less timidly than the last time he’d stood here. “Yes Ship-Father. The personnel gantry was damaged during the battle and took time to repair. It is being used at full capacity now though.” Well, not much he could do about that then.
“Very well, please go discuss with the Brothers overseeing personel the various merits of alacrity.” The Brother left to do so quickly.
The last of the casualty reports filtered into his implants and Marruk set aside the slow moving load of his new ‘crew’ to reflect on the battle which had just been fought. The losses weren’t as bad as he’d initially feared. Having to destroy so much of the current fleet was regrettable, but most of them were now-obsolete craft anyway, not that many other than him and his loyal Ship-Fathers knew that though. Some 135 single pilot Starfang class fighters lay destroyed while just under half of the 24 Comet Class Destroyers and 8 Nova Class Cruisers previously in orbit were in ruins and venting atmosphere. That left about 41 Starfangs, 15 Comets, and just 5 Novas, all of which had taken some damage, mostly internal in the case of the last two classes. Knowing which ships were more heavily implanted than others had let him focus his initial attack on those commanders less likely to fall in line, but even on those that did come to heel, sabotage had been attempted.
He would especially miss the personnel who died in the battle though. Most had not been aboard ships under direct control of someone who was implanted, and the few Agents who were able to quickly jump through those commanders had little time to do more than leave ‘suggestions’ instructing their hosts to command their ships against enemy insurgents posing as their Brothers and Fathers as well as from which Fathers their true orders were coming. The ruse was helped enormously by the fact that One-Eight-Two had recently taken over the Fleet-Father in command of the Gorai fighter garrison. In the end, any ship or fighter which hadn’t been biodroned or followed the commands of the Fleet-Father, had been wiped out. It might have even been a relatively fair fight too if not for the several new cloaked fighters and their escort ships which Six-Three had so carefully smuggled into the system’s outer reaches. The new Voidfang class fighters had appeared out of their cleverly concealed parent ships and torn through the deviant fighters, destroyers, and cruisers like wet paper.
Once the initial shock of the attack was over, and the riskiest of commanders snuffed out, Six-Three had instructed One-Eight-Two to send out a communication to all loyal ships that the Humans had, through their traitorous Gaoian allies, attempted a coup. The misinformation was enhanced further by the shear seniority of those Squadron-Fathers and One-Fang Ship-Fathers which had been implanted taking up with the Firefang Fleet-Father rather than following the hesitation broadcast by the only One-Fang Fleet-Father who’d been present. He’d not been implanted, for some unknown reason, but had at least had the convenience to have been aboard a rather heavily implanted Nova Class Cruiser at the time. His voice hadn’t been hard to silence and, if Marruk were one to care about how such things played out politically, he’d likely solidify as the apparent ringleader of the traitorous Brothers and Fathers once things finally shook out in the capital city on Gorai. That his narrative would have such an easy scapegoat did cause Marruk to grin, however.
“Sir, we intercepted a freighter, the Star’s Bounty making transit into Gorai space.” The Brother working the communications and operations station spoke up.
Six-Three brought its mind back to the present. That was the transport Seven-Three-Four was on wasn’t it? Why hadn’t it checked in? “And?”
“Sorry, Squadron-Father. They initially came to and complied with our retasking orders before suddenly sending a transmission and jumping back into warp.”
The Brother keyed a playback on his console, “Fighter escort, please be advised our navigational computer has been locked out from our control and is, at this moment calculating for a jump, we are attempting to access the lock-out now.”
“Star’s Bounty, you are not, I repeat, not cleared to deviate from your current route. Do you comply?”
“I think we almost got it, just need a few more seconds to deactivate the command.” “Star’s Bounty, You’ve deviated from your assigned trajectory, you have eight seconds to comply or you will be fired upon.”
“Uh… Everything’s perfectly alright now, we’re fine, we’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?”
“And then?” Six-Three’s patience with the conversation had ended quickly with the last line. Firefang standard operating procedure during wartime would have been to fire upon the errant ship the second it strayed, perhaps a review of his biodrone tasking was in order.
“That was it Squadron-Father, they went into warp before our pilot could reassess.”
“Do we know to where?”
“To a trash heap, Squadron-Father.” At least the Brother was being respectful about it if a bit daft; he was, after all a recent addition to Six-Three’s command crew.
“Very well, we’ll have to send someone after them once we finish loading up…” He realized the mistake. This Brother was very new. He’d never been out to the Trash Heap before. He didn’t know the difference. “Which trash beacon exactly did they jump to?” Cosmic irony suggested that he knew that answer already.
Caldron’s Cradle Station, Dominion Space
The energy in the markets was different today. Making her way through the crowds had taken a certain extra effort, as though everyone on the station was suddenly and collectively busier. It was an energy she’d seen before, one that usually heralded ill news. The last time she could remember such a buzz had been the day of the Hunter Ultimatum. It wasn’t until she reached one of the central info-hubs that the commotion congealed into something resembling information.
“… passenger travel to and from the planets Gao and Gorai is temporarily suspended. Those carrying passage reservations are directed to Servicing on level d-sub-4 to claim redirection vouchers. We repeat; All passenger…”
Enivieri’s attention shifted to a nearby conversation. “…heard it was the Humans, they finally attacked Gao.”
“I thought they were allies?” This from a rather grumpy looking Robalin, his several artificial limbs placed him as one of the very few veterans of the Alliance and Dominion war. A war which had recently entered into a rather abrupt ceasefire.
The original Rrrrtk shopkeeper continued. “Allies huh? Well what do you expect from deathworlders. You ever met a Human?”
“Only once, and only from afar… during the war, on Helictor-4.”
“Huh, and did he seem stable to you?”
“You know, now that you mention it, he didn’t exactly fight by the rules.”
“Like I said, the Humans, they can’t be trusted right? You watch, I’ve been hearing some things out of Origin, the Corti have been fiddling just a bit too much with those savages, they’ll be next, you’ll see.”
Eniveiri didn’t particularly care to stick around for the rest of that conversation or to hear about what the Robalin was going to ‘see’. A conflict between the Gaoians and anyone would have been enough to throw the Caldron’s Cradle, positioned so directly within route from Gao to Gorai, into disarray. But a fight with the Humans? Enivieri could only imagine how this was going to impact her clients.
She found Ttkkrttrk, as she usually did, trying for all the universe to appear as just some common ‘heavy’ leaning against the doorway into one of the local drinking establishments. To Enivieri, who’d lived on or near this particular station most of her life, the ruse was laughably obvious. Emavvill’s wasn’t the kind of place to need a bouncer nor would it’s owner ever be so financially careless as to pay for one. But Vzk’tk were known for their tardiness to the galactic brain dispensers. And so he leaned, and pretended that anyone passing by assumed he was working as a ‘heavy’. Enivieri suppressed her amusement knowing that her Pooja could probably destroy him were she to so much as give him an enthusiastic hug.
“Ttkkr…” She crossed her arms and waited.
He pretended to keep scanning the trickling crowd, ignoring Enivieri who stood less than a meter directly in front of him. Finally he let out a sort of pouting huff and looked right at her. “What do you want… lady.”
“Shall we talk out here, or can your employer spare you at the door for a bit?”
He seemed to slump a little before putting on a false bravado. “He owes me a break anyway.” They walked a few meters into a nearby alcove where he, a bit too obviously, activated a privacy field. “Whaddya want? The ship’s done?”
“No, as I’ve discussed with you and your Captain, the ship will be completed upon the prearranged timetable. Now, her most recent communication implied some sort of rush bonus?” She watched for any kind of hint in his response but saw none. “I don’t normally agree to such things, they don’t fit some of my more specific business needs, you see.”
He seemed to regard her for a few moments before screwing up his shoulders in what she could only assume was meant to be an imitation of a human shrug. No doubt it was an affectation he was trying out to go with his tough guy routine. “You better talk with the Captain then.” He finally produced the communication device from his pouch and activated it. “Uh, Captain, the Qinis ship-maker wanted to know something about bonus rushings? I don’t know what rushings are, but she says you offered her one?”
“Trkkr, remind me why I even leave you on that station.” Enivieri resisted her display of amusement.
“Uhh, you said it was something to do with how good I am at stuff.”
“… right. Shipwright Enivieri, I’m afraid our timetables will have to advance considerably; enough so that I am willing to compensate you triple the agreed on rate should you complete the overhaul of your so-called Mark Two within the next five rotations.”
Triple!? “What’s so important about the next five rotations?” She didn’t expect a response but the question gave her time to do the math on whether it would even be possible.
“You know, I don’t quite recall why.”
“Um, we’re going to go after the Human ships at Gao, right Captain?”
“Shut it Trkkr! Say one more word and you’re fired.”
“Aww, sorry Captain… I was just trying to help.”
“Shipwright Enivieri, do we have a deal?”
She and Pooja would have just barely enough time to make it, but it was possible. She factored in that they could just load up the raw materials needed for the remaining Lahore drones and let the few they had already built start building their siblings. She was eminently grateful that the warp drives could be completed by tomorrow. She still hadn’t sorted where she and Pooja were going to get a new hull to move into within a matter of rotations, but that was a problem for tomorrow as well, and she was out of time to think. “We have a deal.”
Five rotations? What was I thinking!? As Enivieri’s long strides took her back through the station, she reflected that she had either gone as crazy as her client or as stupid as Trkkr. And Captain Rixiag was crazy, even for a Locayl, a species known for their risks. For scrappers, swarming what remained after a battle was pretty much a staple of their business. Those with scruples would simply claim the shiply remains as payment for the de facto Search-And-Rescue that their prospecting provided and those without? Well, slavery was a booming trade and soldiers, if properly nursed back to heath, made for great slaves. Enivieri’s legs twitched at the thought.
But that was for something as common as an Alliance and Dominion battle, where neither side could quickly muster their own SAR having thrown everything they had into the battle in the first place. Oh sure, the victors would likely comb the wreckage for anything they could resurrect, but any ship too far gone was simply written off as not worth the time and effort to collect before the fleet had to move on. Enivieri further reflected that perhaps it was knowing that the salvagers would clean up the mess which led to many of the Dominion and Alliance commanders wasting little time with something so arduous as SAR. Rumor had it that some commanders would even sell knowledge of an impending battle to their favorite pirates or scrappers.
That was likely how Captain Rixiag had learned of it, her gang’s reach had expanded considerably in years since they’d reclaimed that little slaver mine they were rumored to have crawled out of. Likely it had been a Gaoian contact; the humans certainly didn’t have the same careless regard for their casualties, both synthetic and biologic. That was something that had come as a bit of a surprise to Enivieri in her research on Humans though it gave her comfort as well to know. Humans had an almost paradoxical reverence for their dead and especially for their close kin. Nowhere was this more emphasized than in their fables and those mythical tales they called ‘movies’. For Enivieri, adopting Pooja had been an act of mercy. One that she may still come to regret. Though, were she to see that tiny stasis capsule buried in a scrap heap, she’d have opened it up all over again. Pooja was family now. While that may not mean a lot to a being as typically solitary as a Qinis, it would mean something to Pooja. Perhaps one day her adopted daughter might protect her. A comforting thought.
Enivieri passed through the info centers again, still communicating their confusion over local events, and she turned instead towards the markets. She’d need some higher quality parts if they were going to meet the new deadline and that meant any time spent digging for them in scrap piles or within some other hull was time not building the Mark 2. Her shopping list formed in her head as her thoughts turned back over to Captain Rixiag’s insanity. Human soldiers, it seemed, were essentially socially programmed to adopt their comrades as blood-kin. So to Enivieri, that meant they weren’t likely to simply abandon their losses. The good Captain was going to find a nasty surprise when she started poking her nose into that battlefield. But perhaps she was counting on the ability just to shoot a few Lahore drones into the wreckage and scoot to the periphery, hoping to get even a few scraps without commiting. It could work, she supposed. But it was still incredibly risky.
Five rotations… yeah. Enivieri thanked the vendor of her first stop and initiated the transfer of credits. Money was going to get a little tight too. She continued to pull the puzzle over in her mind. It just didn’t fit. Why were the Gaoians fighting the Humans. Sure, it was possible that the Humans could have betrayed them and initiated the attack, and sure, of all the current Dominion species, the Gaoians seemed to be the most hearty and most capable of meeting the Humans in a fight. With the Alliance and Dominion war on hold, it certainly explained how the scrappers were freed up and hungry for something risky, but all of the ships that the Gaoians had committed to the war were still stationed out with those forces to ensure the enforced peace. At least she thought they still were based on the chatter from those crew lucky enough to rotate back through the Cauldron’s Cradle on leave. Were the Humans so mercurial as to attempt a strike while the Gaoians were undefended? She’d seen enough of human myth to believe them capable, but try as she might, she just couldn’t envision Pooja doing something so two-faced. But was her daughter the exception, or the norm? Might Pooja one day turn on her?
She twitched her legs and forcibly ended that thought. Pooja was her daughter. Never. Whether the Humans were or were not capable of such treachery, that was a matter for the future. Maybe there was something else at work here, but spending any more time on it was pointless. She had a client, the client offered more money, Enivieri had to deliver. As she concluded her business and turned down the corridor that would lead her back to her shuttle, she passed by an old alcove. Enivieri’s eyes darted to look down it wistfully but she kept moving. The crevasse never failed to bring back the memories though. Memories of terror and the Hunter’s Ultimatum. She pushed the memories aside and continued to the shuttle with her small hover-pallet of goods in tow.
The memories did return though, as she brought the shuttle out of the forcefield and into space. She thought of what it had been like to move into that first hull together. They’d had to leave just about everything behind and didn’t know even if Enivieri would return to claim it. Their hull had boasted only a single cargo bay worth of oxygen with three crude emergency portable air recyclers. The cockpit had been almost entirely blown off and would require the most work of any of it. But they’d done it. They’d made it their new home, bit by bit. Selling her baby, the very first Mark 1, had been tough though. If it hadn’t have been such a clean deal she might not have been so fast to part with the ship that had saved them. The deal had been a direct, straight up contract with Clan One-Fang that gave her the funds to purchase her next two hulls. Putting that ship to work on trash heaps wasn’t glamorous, but it was a job to which it had been well designed.
Enivieri brought the shuttle into the largest of the Mark 2’s docking bays and began offloading the new parts. A few minutes into the task and Pooja hadn’t come down to join her. That was unlike the girl. She called out over the comms but there was no answer. “Pooja?!” Those memories that had threatened to get to her earlier leapt back into her mind and she started moving swiftly through the ship, the new components abandoned. Could somebody have discovered there was a Human on board? Would Captain Rixiag have taken her as some sort of collateral? What if she had tried to work on one of the more dangerous parts of the ship unsupervised. What if…
Enivieri came around the corner to look into Pooja’s room where she found the girl fast asleep, a wormhole beacon perched gently on the sleeping mat beside her. Enivieri glanced back over her shoulder into the opposing room to see a veritable sea of optical sensors staring back at her as if to display confusion over her sudden alarm.
She looked back into her daughter’s room and tired to let the tension out. A mid-afternoon nap wasn’t exactly their style, but let the girl sleep. Neither of them would be getting much of that over the next five rotations. She smiled, pulled out her data pad to retask the drones into something useful, and headed back toward the cargo bay; there was work to do.
CGC Star’s Bounty, Enroute to Waste Reclamation pt. Ku
“Where in Fyu’s Chambers did that come from?”
“That bit about ‘all fine here, how are you?’”
Oh, that. It’s a human classic: Star Wars. It’s about this kid and his sister who… you know what, nevermind.” He could see that Amyni hadn’t a clue what he was talking about anyway.
“Wait, this is another one of those moo-vee’s isn’t it?” Geeran’s addition to the conversation came out from under the navigational console where he’d been getting himself entirely too familiar with the innards of the ship. “There, I bypassed the navigational command again.” He paused to look out and up at Goruu. “Intentionally inputting a coded nav lockout has got to be about the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. You know we won’t be able to select a new destination right?”
“I thought that’s what you were bypassing.”
“No,” Geeran slipped back under the console to start gathering up the wires and components. “I just stopped us from trying to spool up and micro-jump right back to the same spot once we’d traveled far enough away under impulse.”
Amyni flattened her ears in annoyance. “So, we can at least use impulse now, yes?”
“Great, we can take a tour of the trash heap, we just can’t leave it.” She looked over at Goruu accusingly.
Goruu just shrugged. “It’s a trash heap right? Maybe we can find what we need to repair the ship.” He took the liberty of seating himself into the Ship-Fathers chair with a wince for his healing chest. The look Amyni gave him said much about her disapproval of his fitness for the seat but at the moment he cared a bit less, it was the only semi-comfortable seat available and the quickheal wasn’t working ‘quick’ enough for his tastes. “It’s not like we weren’t going to have to do that anyway, if we don’t find a whole new primary force field power regulator we won’t be flying in this ship much longer anyway.” He looked over at where Geeran was coming out from under the patched up nav station. “That is what was busted right?”
Geeran duck-nodded. “Critically, yeah. But with this now…” He motioned to the nav console. “That’s not gonna be just a simple part swap Brother.”
Goruu looked back over to Amyni who was still giving him a very doubtful look. “We’ll make it work, you’ll see.”
“Oh? I will, will I? How?”
He held her gaze, letting the fact that he was currently sitting nonchalantly in the Ship-Father’s chair boost a courage he wasn’t sure he had. She was far from stupid and he’d need her as much as Geeran if they were to get out of here, but she also wasn’t offering up any better ideas at this point yet. Besides, it was better not to tell them about the riddles he was desperately trying to solve as to who the Ghosts were and what the three of them were going to do about it; could do about it. Amyni seemed to be trusting him just enough so far. He was full Brother and the only one of the three to have seen even simulated combat; guess that put him in the seat just as much as needing it for the injury did.
Well, if he was going to lead, at least for now, he’d better act the part. He decided that yet another movie reference, be it a bit obscure, would do nicely here. With a somewhat forced grin, he answered, “I don’t know, it’s a mystery!”
10y8m2w3d AV (X years earlier)
Undisclosed Training Facility
Sūn Long is now helping with the fields. I think that we will be able to complete the harvest in time this season. Long complains greatly at the added work, but Sheng seems to feel that it is his duty, or some strange thing like that, to have his son pick up what you could not complete.
I do notI am not angry that you chose to leave. I know that in your heart you were never happy here; would never have been happy here. Still, it is hard. I know that I do not carry the same opinion of military service that Sūn Sheng does, but it has taken you from me as I always feared that it could. You chose to go, and that is better than what I feared, but you are still gone. I have thought much on duty these past days. I’ve even tried to meditate, as your mother once did. It has been so long my son, I struggle to remember how. I have begun praying again. I pray for your safe return.
Sheng’s daughter Bai has been by as well. Sometimes she arrives with Long in the morning to help with preparing first meal. She asks about you as well. Perhaps I should speak with Sheng on your behalf. She seems of good heart, and her cooking is agreeable. I think you might like to have someone else who would be better at writing you than just myself. Perhaps this is what her father wishes as well, he always was a bit too in awe of the People’s Army. I am sure you are quite busy and I will not keep you with more worries of an old man. Be smart as time has taught you, steady as I have tried to teach you, and faithful as your mother once taught you. I shall try to be these things as well. I also pray that you will find the world you seek, and that you will never forget the roots you planted.
Chúní let the parchment rest, still held in one hand, on the blankets beside him as he reflected on the letter. It must have taken his father some time to finally write him, but he didn’t fault him. He’d known that his decision wouldn’t be easy for his father and that it was sure to make his father’s life almost unbearably difficult. The guilt of that weighed heavier on him than any of what he’d experienced so far in his fledgling career in the People’s Liberation Army Navy. But he couldn’t wait any longer either. It had been two months since he’d conspired with Sūn Long to take on his father’s paddies as well. In return for the added labor, Chúní would send a portion of his soldier’s pay to see that his father wouldn’t suffer too much. I knew that he couldn’t send the money to his father though, the man would have been too proud to accept anything from his own son; that wasn’t how it worked in his world. Chúní didn’t enjoy going behind his father’s back and he certainly hadn’t enjoyed telling his father that he’d decided to leave and join the PLA, but this was were he belonged, and he knew that in his heart.
Chúní pulled a clipping he’d managed to smuggle into the barracks from inside the lining of his bag beside the cot. Unfolding it, he glanced quickly around to see that no one was watching. Those of his barrack-mates that were present weren’t paying attention and so he took a moment to glance at the captured image of Warhorse, otherwise known as ‘Left Beef’ to the internet and at the two Gaoians beside him. Warhorse was clearly a callsign of some sort, but it made more sense than Beef. The American Air Force serviceman was apparently a medic of some sort, which was why he was caring for the aliens, but despite his average height, the man was built like a war horse. Maybe that was where he’d gotten his name? The uniform he wore looked to be almost bursting. Chúní idolized him, perhaps a bit too much. It wouldn’t go over well for him to be seen idolizing an American, but China hadn’t really found its way into the galactic stage yet so there were few national options for the space-mad Chúní to look up to. Two of his newest squadmates came into the bunk area and Chúní quickly stashed away the clipping.
The journey from the rice terraces of Xianzhulu Xinzhai to the recruiters in Yuanyang had involved a quick hitch with one of the local farmers taking some of their goods into town. He’d seen the magazine in one of the tourist shops in town and purchased it. He couldn’t take the family computer pad with him to enlist but a clipping for inspiration wasn’t exactly restricted. After the single purchase, Chúní continued with the plan he’d been working on, in one form or another, for most of his life.
The beauty of his home was something of a national attraction which brought people from all over China, as well as from other countries, as tourists to the local town. Of particular interest to such tourists, were a small fleet of prop planes which were managed by two local families. The original use for those first few planes was unknown to Chúní as they predated even him by several years. But, whatever their original use, the families soon discovered that they could make far more money selling flights to photographers wishing to get coveted aerial shots of the region. Professional photographers begat semi-professionals who in turn brought amatures who became regular old tourists. Soon one plane was two and then three. As a child, before they’d lost his mother, Chúní had dreamed of learning to fly those planes. On the rare occasions that his parents went into town, or allowed him to, he’d stand outside the landing field and just watch them take off and land. He also managed to befriend one of the sons of the pilots. Chang even let him into the hanger a time or two to explore, told him all about some of the tools and parts of the trade. Chang was older and had enjoyed the attention of being ‘in the know’ and he’d been only too eager to share what his father had taught him with an overly curious little Chúní. Chang had gone on to learn to fly, and when he’d come of age, he’d left to join the Army, just as Chúní was doing now.
But little Chúní hadn’t been born into either of those families. As his name implied, he’d been born to farmers, and his place was ankle deep in the earth. It was something his father had reminded him of constantly. And so little Chúní could only dream of one day taking to the skies as he watched those planes fly overhead from the mud. But he could finally follow his dreams. He would become a pilot.
“Hey paddy-rat, what’cha got there?” He glanced up again to see the apparent ringleader of the newest recruits standing over him with a decidedly smug grin. Chúní wasn’t a fan of bullies and he wasn’t about to let this one gain anything over him.
“Nothing really, just a picture from home.” Normally, he wouldn’t have given the other kid the honor of standing, but he figured that politeness was always a good first impression so he stood. “I’m Huáng Chúní, what’s your name?”
“Only until you get your new name right?” One of the other recruits, one that had been at the temporary mustering barracks only a bit longer than Chúní, joined the conversation with a smirk.
The ringleader hadn’t picked up on the hint until he was about halfway through giving his own name. “I’m Gao Feng.” His tone implied that Chúní would do well to remember it. Chúní, however, had been trying to pay attention to both boys and so had only really caught Feng’s family name.
“Oh! Gao, like the aliens!” There was honest if naive excitement in Chúní’s voice. Perhaps he’d have a compatriot in his love of all things Space.
Feng apparently wasn’t a fan after all. “You mean those weak-shit racoon-people!?” He stepped forward as if to trade blows for the insult.
The very slightly more experienced boy’s blurted laugh interrupted Feng. “Lí! That’s your new name. You’ll be Lí. But then what should we call you?” He turned his malicious grin on Chúní. “You like aliens huh?”
Feng, however, took even more exception to being named after a racoon than he did sharing a name with aliens.”Who put you in charge…” his bluster wilted just a bit once he realized that the other recruit hadn’t introduced himself yet.
“…Chóng” Worm. “‘Cause I used to play in the dirt all day, like him.” He motioned with his head towards Chúní without looking away from Feng. “We don’t get to pick our recruit callsigns Lí but trust me, I’m doing you a favor. My older brother made it all the way to basic without one and the instructors made him regret it.” Feng’s indignation blunted, Chóng turned to Chúní, “Kōngjiān,” he glanced at the place where Chúní had stashed the clipping. “It fits.”
‘Space’ or perhaps ‘void’, if he took it for both meanings perhaps ‘space-head?’ Could be worse. Lí still wasn’t sure how to respond to the apparently ‘kind’ gesture of being named a racoon or after an alien, but Chúní wasn’t eager for him to regain his ground and so spoke up. “You were a rice farmer too?”
“Hell no.” Rather than clarify though, Chóng just turned around and returned to his bunk leaving a still confused Lí ready to reassert his interrupted dominance over at least someone. He never got the chance.
This particular barracks was simply a holding point on the journey to Basic Training. Chúní, Feng, and even Chóng were only waiting for enough others to arrive before being trucked off, as a unit, to their actual base for training somewhere near the eastern coast. The only thing that tied them each together and thus required the staggered arrival, was that each of them had, in one way or another, qualified to try for the pilot pipeline. That meant that they’d be going to a joint PLAAF and PLAN Basic Training specifically designed for pilots. Chúní had no idea where that would be, but it seemed that they were about to find out. Feng and his cadre’s arrival from Northern China marked the last of this batch of pilot wannabes and the shàngshì had just entered with a face entirely void of emotion. It was time to go.
CGC Star’s Bounty, Waste Reclamation pt. Ku
Taking the abused Star’s Bounty on the roughly 18 minute hop from Gorai’s colonial world within the inner system, out past the rich mid and outer belts, and beyond the system limits, left Amyni with just enough time to finally take stock of where fate had landed her. She decided to start in the only place on this Mother-forsaken ship that she could have arguably called hers; her solitary nesting compartment. 18 minutes wouldn’t be a lot of time, but enough. Stepping over the threshold where once a functioning forcefield should have provided a door, she was instantly thankful that her compartment had been one of those more central to the ship. Personal effects and other items lay strewn haphazardly about the room, most of which within only a meter of the threshold. Any further towards the outer hull and her things would have been plundered entirely by the greedy claws of space. Ignoring the personal items on the decking, Amyni moved quickly to the false panel she’d engineered into one of the bulkheads, just inside the utility access for the sand-shower. Reaching gingerly inside, she let out a sigh of relief as her fingers encircled the object within. The communicator, disguised as nothing more than an innocuous bracelet, was still firmly affixed to its hiding place. She unlatched it and pulled it out.
Witnessing the zombification of a transport’s complement of Brothers as well as discovering apparent links between such horrors and implants was definitely the sort of thing that warranted her breaking communications silence to report in, and she’d been looking for a time to do just that after their planned arrival at Gorai. However, the apocalypse that had greeted them at Gorai laid all her worst nightmares bare and she wondered if it was too late anyway. As she clutched the communicator tenderly and used the bodyheat in her foreclaw to activate it’s touch sensors, now she thought only of finding some understanding for what was happening, or why. The signal activated. No longer fearful of having her secret frequency being detected by the ship’s onboard sensors; sensors that either of the two remaining crew were most certainly ignoring at the moment, Amyni didn’t bother to use anything more than the basic encryption. Besides, if they did notice, why would they care? Who would they report her to? Next to genocide level destruction, discovery as an informant to Mother Supreme Yulna, something they should have suspected anyway, was trivial.
She waited, hoping against hope as the signal went out. She had to know, needed to know that Yulna was safe, that her people still had a chance. Memories of sweet-smelling blossoms and the gentle hum of Mothers caring for the youngest of cubs warmed her mind and pushed at the dread; thoughts of lazy commune mornings and cool gentle evenings with the skies painted in hues of blues, greens, teals, and gold. The Mother Supreme embodied all that was good and safe to her; if she was lost, or worse… Like a stab to her side the communicator chirped into a sullen beep. There had been no receipt of her coms request. Yulna should have been at the Wi Kao commune by now, returned from her diplomatic mission to Cimbrean, the Human’s first colonial world. Had she even made it off the planet? What was happening?
The total lack of knowledge and the utter realization that there was absolutely nothing Amyni could do about any of it from some battered up transport on the run, threatened to drag her beyond hope. And, as she recalled that even Yulna had a high grade ocular implant, she gave up and pressed cancel on her second attempt to signal in. A record that she had attempted the contact would remain on the Mother Supreme’s end regardless, so maybe someone would reach out to her eventually. Whatever version of these horrors that Yulna now faced, she would do so without any warning Amyni could provide. She’d failed her Mother. Never in her life had Amyni felt so utterly alone.
“Coming up on the trash heap Sister Amyni, might want to be down here.” Goruu’s voice pulled her from the seeping abyss of worry which had rooted her to her disheveled nestbed. With one last look about the compartment for anything else of use; a few momentos, a comb, emergency power cells, and the earclip that she’d been gifted but never wore, Amyni stepped back out of the compartment for the last time.
The walk to the bridge wasn’t long but she took it in thought, choosing to find a less depressing topic than what she could do nothing about; something more in the here and now perhaps. Goruu? She was a bit unsure as to what to think about her new impromptu commander. A Ship-Father he certainly was not; all swagger, all steely facade and with no experience or tenure to back it. His calls had been sufficient to keep them alive so far, but they seemed to come more out of guile and some reckless instinct than from tactical awareness or study. He’d been what, a simple shiphand?
As she stepped over the threshold and into the bridge, Amyni saw him adjust his healing torso and lean into the conversation he was having with Brother Geeran, oblivious to her entrance. Her memory flashed over an image of entering this same bridge and looking over to see Ship-Father Yalick in that seat. The difference in poise and gravitas was staggering, but Amyni saw something else in the difference; fleeting but there. She saw a purpose. Goruu was still quite young, and that made him reckless and overly daring. But he wasn’t careless and frustrated, and he wasn’t stupid or drunk on the power either. She smirked. He was faking it. She could see it now, from this angle. He knew he was in over his head but he was determined to see it through. That was something she could respect, at least a little.
He glanced her way, noticing for the first time her entrance, and he grinned that too-cocky grin of his. Amyni composed herself quickly, it was one thing to sit and judge your commander silently and quite another to be mistaken for staring like some wistful cub. She’d have to watch this one though, potential was a grand thing, but that cocky-ness, something a bit too rampant in all Firefang in her opinion, might still get them all killed. “You mentioned something about an imminent arrival?” She took on the most unamused posture she could, letting her ears display as little care for his attitude as she could muster. Humility; that was the antidote to all that swagger, and in all her time associated with Firefang she’d gotten pretty good at imposing humility. Why stop now? …especially now…
Yep, she hates me… Goruu’s smirk faded under the dower onslaught that was Amyni’s semaphore but he held his composure. Fine, she didn’t have to like him. Not that anything other than pure survival was on the table at the moment anyway. He duck-nodded at her nonchalauntly just to break the awkward moment then turned back to his conversation with Geeran. “Look, I agree that any waste corral of the size this one is should have at least one tender. All I am saying is why can’t we just take what we need from that?”
“And I’m not saying we can’t, just that we have no idea whether something so menial as a waste tender will have dominion compatible parts, or parts with the power output necessary to fit the Star’s Bounty.” Geeran’s ears emoted a sense of acceptance and frustration. “I’m sorry Brother, but we may just have to abandon this ship in favor of the tender, it should have a rudimentary FTL drive and that’s enough to get us somewhere else.
Goruu was forced to admit, to himself at least, that Geeran’s assessment was correct. As much as he didn’t like that idea of accepting the tactical downgrade, a ship with functioning primary force field generators was fundamentally better than one without… even if it didn’t have weapons or any other defenses to speak of. It just meant that his plans of going anywhere near Gaoian space from here would be shot. At least Geeran had given up on his attempts at pinning Goruu with the field promotion.
By Gaoian naval tradition, any Brother assuming command of anything bigger than a fighter was, at least temporarily, an acting Ship-Father. It was a custom that Gaoians curiously shared with Humans, and to Goruu, it made sense. In the heat of battle or stranded in the far reaches of nowhere, there had to be a single voice of purpose and direction, otherwise the resulting chaos would kill a crew faster than space could. But as Goruu saw it, it wasn’t the size of the ship which warranted the tradition, but rather the size of the crew on that ship. And ‘three’ was essentially a skiff’s compliment, not a proper ship. Geeran had disagreed but couldn’t very well press his case without also admitting that said Acting Ship-Father’s orders to regard him as only a ‘Brother’ had to be followed. And so, Goruu had discovered that Geeran possessed a certain flair for passive-aggressiveness.
Amyni finally joined the conversation. “We’re changing ships?”
“Not unless we have to.” Goruu directed his comment at Geeran to be sure he’d made his point.
“Warp exit in 30 seconds, Brother.” If Geeran had acknowledged the point, he certainly didn’t show it.
Goruu spared one last check that Amyni had found her spot at tactical, into which everything but nav and helm had been rerouted. Geeran had rerouted the latter yet again, this time into Goruu’s commander’s station. Trash heap or no, he wanted ‘the stick’ for whatever they came out into.
The distortions of space around their ship began to fade as telemetry and sensors came back to reading normal space-time. The requisite few moments passed for the sensors to attune to a whole new influx of data and once they did the reality of the ‘trash heap’ was laid bare in the image that Goruu summoned to clarify the confusion of those sensors. Precisionly placed vessels, hewn from a design heritage that was at once so Gaoian and also entirely not, lay patterned out before them like holes in the fabric of space. The now distant dot of Gorai’s primary was still bright enough to provide a ghostly outline of negative space between each hull. It was almost as if the emptiness of space was somehow more reflective than whatever those hulls were made of.
“Cruisers… all of them…” Geeran’s observation broke the silence.
Goruu duck-nodded to himself without realizing. “Ok, but of what design, and whose?”
Geeran leaned into his sensor readout as though proximity might clarify anything. “I can’t get anything more than a general size,… Brother.” Apparently the passive-aggressiveness wasn’t limited by focus. “All the sensors get are Cruiser-shaped holes in space.”
“Huh? Oh, right.” Goruu sent the image he was seeing over to both Amyni and Geeran’s stations. “But do the sensors pick up any activity?”
That was more of a tactical question and Amyni glanced from the new image and back to her own sensors. “Negative. I only see one active signature within range. It’s clearly not large enough to be a cruiser and it’s well on the other side of the fleet from us. Maybe some sort of tender after all?”
“Forget the tender, if one of these things is operational, and uncrewed?” Geeran was already thinking along the same lines as Goruu.
Amyni was less sure though. “But whose are they? I think I know where they might have come from, at least they help to explain a few… discrepancies. But I’m not about to just jump into a ship I know nothing about.”
Goruu ignored Amyni’s sudden revelation of knowing more than she pretended and filed it away for later. “Maybe we should learn a bit more about them then.” He adjusted their course to bring them right up alongside what he thought was the side of one of the ships.
“You think that’s wise? Those fighters back in Gorai are sure to have gotten a fix on our jump trajectory. We’ll be followed.” Amyni was giving him that look again.
“Yes, we will be. All the more reason to get ourselves into a ship that can do something about it don’t ya think?” Merchant transports being expansive as they were, the Star’s Bounty was only marginally smaller than the black nothing that it came up alongside. Thankful that he’d gotten the Cruiser’s sides correct, he set the final maneuvers to dock into the automated maneuvering computer and started gathering himself to stand. Were he any healthier, he’d have sprung to his feet. “Right then, all ashore that’s going ashore!”
“Wait, what?” Geeran turned quickly from his station forward of the command chair.
Amyni, who had been standing nearly alongside Goruu’s seat only let out a labored sigh. “Don’t tell me… Human, right?” Goruu just approximated a human wink in response. “I don’t suppose there is anything I can do to change your mind in this?”
Goruu paused mid step and turned to face her. For the first time since engineering he gave her a very solid and level look, void of swagger or bravado. “I’m not joking Sister Amyni, not on this one. This ship can’t hope to hold against the storm that I suspect is crashing over Gao and Gorai this very moment. And I have absolutely no intention to just ride that storm out huddled in some backwater system either.” He paused for emphasis but left just enough time for her to realize his resolution. “I may not be some great commander or Ship-Father, but I know my Path, Associate Amyni. And my true path will be at my Brothers’ wing, even if I have to fight through claws upon claws of those damn ghost-things to get there.” Reference to the Clan motto seems to bring some flare to Amyni’s eyes and so he continued, this time in a more collaborative tone. “I don’t know what your purpose was on this ship, and I don’t care. No, I know it wasn’t for whatever reason you told the Ship-Father,” his hand belayed her response, “and it doesn’t matter now anyway, does it?” That was definitely rhetorical. “Now, will you help me secure that ship, before more of those ghost-things arrive?”
Faced with such sudden conviction, Amyni felt her own sense of duty stirred and could only duck-nod in response.
“Good. Let’s go.”
The layout of the new ship wasn’t anything like a typical Nova cruiser though all of the interior style and decking seemed identical. The ship was clearly Gaoian, but rather than having passages forking off along the outer hull, just beneath the armor, this ship’s corridors led further and further inward. As hard as Goruu tried, he just couldn’t discern what, other than armor and repair access, could be filling so much of the external portions of the ship’s mass. Finally they came directly to what must have been the central axis corridor of the ship and Goruu had to make a decision. “Geeran, I need you to find engineering and asses what, if any, differences this ship bears in terms of its power stack or operation.”
“You don’t want me on the bridge, Brother?” he didn’t seem upset, merely confused.
“I want you very much on the bridge with me, but I also don’t know what state of readiness this ship is in. If aspects of her systems aren’t complete, or if the main computer isn’t properly installed, we may not be able to reroute much of anything to the bridge, and that includes engineering function.”
Geeran duck-nodded. “Yes Brother.” He immediately turned aft of the intersection.
Amyni glanced at him as he went then turned to Goruu. “Still want me on the bridge?”
“Yeah,” Goruu met her eyes for just a moment then turned back down the forward direction of the corridor smelling just a little bit of anxiety. “It ought to be this way, at least on a Nova it would be.” They both continued at a trot.
Roughly ten meters down the corridor, two massive branches split off to the right and left. Goruu had little time to ponder why, all of the sudden, there were corredors wide enough to drive a hovertank through bisecting the forward half of the ship, but it made his desire to reach the bridge and find out all the more pressing. “I think I see the bridge just ahead.”
“Should be, right?” Amyni’s smile carried little mirth.
The last few strides over the threshold brought them into a bridge entirely worthy of being called a command center. The helm and navigation station, as was typical, were set forward and to the port side of the compartment with what was clearly a fully equipped tactical station, with tactical holo projection no less, set forward and starboard. Letting his glance linger just a bit longer at tactical, Goruu also thought he saw an entire secondary command console, complete with all-stations readouts and information too. In case the tactical officer needed to take over for the Ship-Father? Odd. Just left of central to the compartment and set slightly raised above the other stations sat the commander’s chair and console. Notably, the chair and its entire console were mounted on a swivel of some type. The rotational factor of a commander’s seat escaped his reasoning until he stepped far enough into the compartment to look back and to either side of the corridor entrance.
Here, the layout of this ship’s command center divorced vehemently from tradition. Where normally just a bulkhead with operations or communications stations would have been, the compartment bubbled out on either side. To his left as he looked back from mid-bridge and starboard to the ship, was not one, but three separate seats across a massive console devoted to communications, operations, and panels which Goruu thought looked distinctly of a flight control nature. Ahead and above the bank of consoles was the largest space Goruu had ever seen devoted to holo-projection, short of a Fleet-Father’s war-room anyway. He glanced back over at the commander’s seat and started walking up the steps to it. Turning the seat and console to sit, Goruu realized that from here alone he could command not just this ship, but an entire squadron of fighters should he need to. What was this ship!?
“Huh?” He realized he’d been near to panting and shook himself back. “Right.” He swiveled the chair one quarter around to the other side of the aft portion of the bridge as Amyni took her place at Tactical. The final section of the bridge boasted a fully integrated engineering and damage control center. Huh, guess Geeran could have come to the bridge afterall. He let it go and tried to access helm control. “Um, this isn’t gonna work.”
“Why not?” Amyni seemed to be well on her way to activating the various consoles of her station, and with it the bridge.
“I can’t re-route helm to the command seat and Geeran’s not here to use his ‘magic’ on it.” He moved as swiftly as his injuries would let him up, out of the seat, and down toward helm and navigation.
“Imagine that.” Amyni smelled of amusement though she didn’t show it.
Goruu was unphased by her sudden and surprising snark. “Right, but unless you have navigation patched into your console, we won’t be going very far with you there, even if I’m here.” He slid into the helm station.
“Oh” her humor evaporated but she hesitated to leave tactical.
“I’m in engineering, Ship… Brother.” Geeran’s voice rang over the comms as the whole of the ship seemed to come to life.
“Acknowledged” He turned to Amyni questioningly.
She ducked her head as if to communicate unsurity. “If we don’t have someone at tactical, how will we shoot back?”
“Hey Geeran? Any chance you have access to navigational control from down there?”
“Um, no? Why? You saying you don’t!?”
“How can you sorta have access? Listen, I can maybe patch bridge controls through down here, but that will mean all of them, right?”
“Yeah… let’s not do that” It was time for another one of those tough calls. “We don’t have time to get you back up here…”
“So you do have an engineering station, thought so.”
“….but you might as well get up here as soon as we get into warp to wherever in Fyu’s name we decide to go.” He turned from speaking upward to noone in particular to face Amyni. “We need ‘go’ much more than we need ‘gun’ right now.”
“Right.” She finally stepped down from the tactical platform.
Goruu spoke again to Geeran. “How long until we can get underway? And can you blow the hatch to the Star’s Bounty remotely?”
“I can do it explosively…”
“Do it, and about the timing on our departure?”
“It looks like sub-light engine will be available in 20 second, FTL in eight minutes. By the way, did you know we’ve got a compliment of eight parasitic fighters and enough spare parts to practically build three more?”
“No, I did not know that…” he glanced first at Amyni with a smirk and then from her over and back to what was decidedly the flight-ops corner of the bridge. “Do tell.”
“There of a design I’ve never seen, similar to those we encountered in Gorai actually… Oh… and I think we have a cloaking field generator… though I have no idea how to activate it.”
“Well, let me know when you figure it out right? That sort of thing might come in-”
Goruu’s smartass remark was cut short by the blaring of a warning from the now abandoned tactical station. Amyni, who had likely been pursuing through their list of destinations, shot up from her seat and back over to tactical.
“Did you find us a destination?”
She responded as she skidded into Tactical. “I found many, which do you prefer? Oh naxas-shit. Um… we’ve got company. A Comet Class Destroyer just dropped in.” She paused for a moment with an odd look on her face. “The computer is assigning it a priority rating… never seen that before.” She looked over at Goruu who was just starting to feel the helm respond as his sensors showed the Star’s Bounty being propelled away, forcefully. “It’s marking it as a minimal threat.”
“Uh, brothers? I think we’ve got unfriendlies”
Goruu shouted up over his shoulder. “Yep, we know.” and then on a whim, “Computer, hold channel to engineering open.” He mused over half expecting some disembodied voice to reply but damn near fell out of his seat as he heard a very positive sounding ping echo through the bridge. “Huh, well that’s nifty.”
“Nifty? What’s nifty?”
“Oh, nothing, we’ve got voice control on board.” He turned his attention back to Amyni. “Hey, we need to get out of here more than we need to trade evaluations with a ‘minimal’ threat right?”
“No, I meant what does ‘nifty’ mea-”
“Computer, mute audio on engineering channel. Sorry, say that again Amyni?”
“I said give me just a moment.” Her tactical holo projector flaired to life and projected an overlay of the surrounding space out into the forward most space of the compartment, just between tactical and the helm. She smelled pleased with herself and started again for the navigational control.
Goruu was less excited. “Great, I’ll strategy them to death. Can you give me something, I don’t know, a little more cockpit’y?”
“You’ve clearly spent way too much time around Humans haven’t you?” She halted her dismount of the tactical station and spun back around to make a few adjustments.
“Eh, they’re not all that bad.”
A few moments later and the holo image flickered over to a forward projection emanating from the nose of their ship.
“Much better! Now,” He saw that the destroyer, which at one time may have been a ways off, was gaining speed on them rapidly and coming in on a heading that would bring its forward mounted, and therefore most powerful, coilguns within range on their ship very soon. “Where do we go?”
“Well, you wanted to get back into the fight.” Amyni’s tone indicated that she didn’t think highly of this choice. “We could go to Gao, or back to Gorai.”
He exhaled loudly. “No, not without a crew, we need a crew first.”
“All I got nearby are stations then.”
“Well, a station it is then, pick one and lets get going.”
Amyni hesitated. “What about them, won’t they just follow us again?”
“Yeah, they will.” He set that problem aside for just a second, not too many options there. “Hey Geeran, Is the warp ready yet?”
There was no response.
Oh, right, “Computer, deactivate mute”
“-aid YES you everloving son of a naxas shit!” a pause, “Oh Fyu… you heard me didn’t you… um… yes. Yes, you have warp… 28 seconds ago actually.”
“Amyni, can you get those nav coordinates into the system? I think I have an idea.” Goruu started turning the ship about to move exactly contrary to the heading Amyni’s chosen station was on. The trajectory was going to take them out and around on a sort of hook first away and then back toward the incoming Destroyer. “Computer, target the Gaoian Destroyer, designate Target One.”
A sound resembling some sort of buzzing squirt responded. Not a happy sound. “Ok, Amyni, can you rig the nav to execute our jump on voice command?”
“Um, no? Can you?”
“Not from here I can’t.” His maneuvering was coming about and generating speed as they went; no time to jump over to tactical or nav. “I guess we go with plan C”
This was going to take some pretty insane timing. His previous parabolic arc, which was meant to bring them on a strafing run for guns against the Destroyer, wouldn’t allow them enough time to slow down and just sit there while she jumped between helm and tactical. He had neither the time needed to learn this ship’s rerouting systems nor to just set some sort of ‘go in circles’ helm macro. No guns for Goruu. Ok, fine. If this ship’s defensive capabilities were good enough to designate one of Gao’s most dangerous classes of Destroyer as a minimal threat, perhaps he’d have to test those defenses. He adjusted their trajectory ever so slightly more in line with the enemy vessel’s heading.
“Wait, Goruu… what are you-”
“Don’t worry about it, just get ready to initiate that warp in five…” He made one final adjustment to bring the ship both in line with their warp vector as well as the very tail end of where the destroyer was about to be, then overcorrected slightly on their exit vector. “…four…”
Someone over there must have figured out either what Goruu was planning or that regardless of his plan, he was clearly not friendly, because coilgun fire began to rain down on their shields without so much as a standard hailing attempt. Not likely real Firefang in that one then. “…three…”
“We’re going to hit!” Amyni braced herself against the console as Goruu did so as well.
“Hey, did you two know that this ship is actually called the Clawbreaker?”
“Geeran! Shut up and hold onto something! One!”
The enemy destroyer tried to turn, striving to bring its aft just out of reach, it almost made it too. As Amyni punched down on the command to spool up the warp drive, the forward impact shielding, force fields specifically designed with multiple layers of increasing hardness to stop even the new human-inspired propelled ammunition, came into direct contact first with the destroyers energy-resistant shielding, and then with the engine housing of the hull itself. The impact would have been enough to prevent the Destroyer from re-aligning to follow them into warp and that had been Goruu’s primary goal. But then the warp fields kicked in just as the battered destroyer started to rebound into a spin away from them, bringing its nose into the edge of their dimensional disruption field. The sorts of matter present in the destroyer’s hull were not particularly used to being treated to distortions of time and space that were suddenly being applied directly to them and they protested by simply disintegrating at an atomic level. A full three meters of the destroyer’s nose became nothing more than a disappearing mist before it could clear the warp projection.
“Great Father Fyu…”
Goruu decided not to pity his enemy. “Clawbreaker you said?”
What remained of the destroyer spiraled out and away from them as the initial engine impact sent it away. Some of its guns still spat back at them futility. Goruu realized, a bit belatedly, that had their shields or their inertia been anything less than what they had been, they’d have been knocked too far off trajectory as well. Rather than worry over the other ship’s mindless firing or what could have been a very unhappy death, he thought instead of a nice bottle of Talamay.
“Well, humans have this really strange custom with new ships, I guess that will have to count.” The image of the destroyer’s engines busted and shattered along with the spray of atmosphere jetting from its nose as it spun did seem a bit like this champagne he’d heard about.
Goruu pushed down the mounting worry that perhaps the other crew had not been implanted, that he’d just doomed many of his actual Brothers to a very unpleasant death. If they were still Gaoian, they’d take to the life-pods, if not? He remembered the look in Curraj’s eyes and he stopped caring.
The Clawbreaker lept into warp with all the fluid lethality of an assassin’s dagger.
Seven-Three-Four metaphorically floated in the dataspace that existed between the circuitry of the Star’s Bounty. Existing for too long outside of a sapient host came with a rather stiff price to an Igraen. It had never really concerned itself with the reasons behind that, but only enough to know that other Igraens had paid with their lives to assert that it was true. And so Seven-Three-Four waited, as patiently as it could, for the vermin who had forced it to retreat from its most recent host and into this sort of electronic purgatory to leave the ship. It could tell through a passive review of which systems were currently active that they’d come out of warp and that after just a little bit of maneuvering around, the vermin had vacated the ship. Only as the life support systems fell to their stand-by levels did it risk venturing beyond it’s hollowed out hiding place.
Events had moved far to quickly in the past few hours for its liking. Seven-Three-Four much prefered to slowly maneuver its opponents into defeating themselves, it was good at that it seemed. So when the transport had first come out of warp into Gorai, it resisted the impulse to move more actively into the nav or communication systems in order to redirect the ship or escape into another host. Its task had been to secure the transport’s cargo as a means of securing biodrones and sustenance for Six-Three’s needs. It was never told what those needs were, only to go and do. So it had gone but not ‘did’. Beings who were willing to go to such lengths as to corrosively gas their enemies and allies just to take Seven-Three-Four out were sure to want to finish the job and so that had precluded the option of being noticed making changes in the nav computer. As for not trying to slip through the communications relays and into a host somewhere in Gorai space, well… It knew just enough of Seven-Three’s reputation not to show up to the war without the food or soldiers it had been tasked to bring.
That left it searching for a third option when it registered that it’s nav redirect subroutine had been triggered anyway. That didn’t compute at all, but at least Seven-Three-Four knew that the vermin would have just as much awareness of what lay at this special ‘waste facility’ of Six-Three’s as it did; which was to say ‘none at all’. And so, now it was time to discover what options were available to it in this corner of meatspace.
Seven-Three-Four slipped into the nav system first to confirm that the ship was still where it thought it was. Yep, good. Next into the ops and communication system. It spared the nanosecond of processing to consider how much it’d gotten used to doing this sort of thing through a host as it struggled to recall the dataspace way of accessing the sensors. Ah, right, that was it. Oddly, there was already an image capture available for it and it puzzled to understand what it was looking at. Without it’s former hosts eyes, the image, visible to it currently in the form of its dataspace equivalent of 1s and 0s, Seven-Three-Four gave up and turned instead directly into the sensors. There it discovered the massive fleet, the single plodding tender ship, and also that the Star’s Bounty was now tumbling listlessly through space due to a rather unfortunate explosion in it’s boarding coupling. It focused back on the fleet. The fleet was clearly what it had been meant to supply after stopping in Gorai.
The sensors began to register something happening tactically within the vicinity and it thought for a moment to transfer over into those systems to discern what that was. Then it thought better of it. Its priority was survival and it felt that time was of the essence. Catching back on the tender which the sensors had identified, Seven-Three-Four shifted into the comm systems and checked for a relay path to the small and oddly designed vessel. It found one, and slipped through.
The dataspace of the tender seemed somehow brighter, warmer. It was an odd thing for a digital being to sense outside of a host but there it was. Immediately, Seven-Three-Four could identify several biodrones aboard the tender and it wasted no more time skulking about ship computers. Three of the biodrones were Gaoian, one was Vzk’tk, and the last was a Corti. It gleefully chose the Corti having had more than enough of those vermin furbags for a while.
Seeing the interior of the tender, apparently named Shiva, through it’s new host’s eyes was, at first, an onslaught. Every color visible by Corti eyes shone back at it in great sweeping tangles of the most organic designs. It was in a small compartment, a closet of sorts? What was it… Oh, its host was defecating. Right… biological again. Having been biodroned, the Corti would have had absolutely no awareness of the garish vegetation designs which were painted all about the compartment but Seven-Three-Four could see them and understand them for some sort of flowering plant life. But why anyone would choose to lacquer their waste compartment in such things was beyond its comprehension.
It concluded its biologic need and stepped out of the compartment. The ship wasn’t large, consisting primarily of a central habitat space, a forward bridge, just large enough for two or three beings to crew, and a moderately sized cargo hold on the ventral side. The ship’s primary feature, however, was an outboard nanofactory, or nanofac, mounted just aft and above the cargo hold. The ventral hold lined up curiously with the nanofac and in the brief walk which Seven-Three-Four took to the bridge, it had enough time to note the efficiency of the arrangement which let a small crew in the cargo bay feed raw materials directly into the nanofac without need for internal gantry system or anti-grav.
Seven-Three-Four also used the time to review the rest of the ship’s layout, the delivery schedule, and the recorded strength of the ships keeping station outside. Finally, as it stepped its host onto the tiny bridge, it moved directly to the primary ship control station. Unsurprisingly, all function was currently routed through the single station, why waste resources with multiple biodrones working both bridge stations when one would do? The Gaoian drone who was in the station paid him no mind, clearly following orders to worry only about things external to the ship. And, at the moment, he was. The readouts were focused on the ongoing battle between a Comet class Destroyer and one of the new Eclipse class cruisers. So that must have been where those vermin had gone. For just a moment, Seven-Three-Four considered tapping into the weapon systems of a few of the other Eclipses, slaving them to the tender somehow, and blowing that rogue Cruiser out of space.
But that impulse passed quickly and Seven-Three-Four chose, instead, the less risky approach. Destroying the three pests now would certainly be cathartic, but it would do little to further its directive of securing supplies and bodies for droning. A new opportunity would present itself soon. Seven-Three-Four took note of the system to which the fleeing Eclipse Cruiser jumped, following it’s rather spectacular exit, and settled in to wait.
Undisclosed Training Facility
Life in the Pilot pipeline was altogether different than the hold-over barracks had been save for one respect. Over the last four and a half months, Lí had found ways to get his revenge on Chúní. Anything like the sort of hazing that Chúní had once read about on the internet never occurred though. Instead, the strikes were far more calculated and piercing. The instructors supported an internal strength and creativity and so rewarded those who found and illuminated fault with their wingmates. It was a game that Chúní played very poorly. Accommodating by nature, when he did actually notice a fault in a comrade, it went against everything he was to so viciously publicize it. This invariably lead to someone else speaking up faster than he, which in turn Lí would notice and somehow bring to the Instructors attention. The analytical part of the game was hard enough, but it was the creative portion which entirely eluded Chúní. A cadet couldn’t just openly voice said discovered fault, they had to find a way to bring it to everyone’s attention such that the others couldn’t help but see the same flaw. In this way everyone learned not only to better notice the errors, but also to be more attentive to their own and how their weaknesses might show in a way they hadn’t thought of. Chúní didn’t know if the Game was traditional of the PLA or something new cooked up just for his group, but it seemed cruelly effective at pushing him and his squad toward a level of perfection he hadn’t even realized existed.
His weakness was paying him dividends today as Lí eagerly offered critique of their last simulated engagement. “Sir, If Red Fighter Five had chosen to increase thrust and change vector here,” Lí highlighted a section of the playback on his tablet which was also being projected to the rest of the room, “Blue Fighter Three could not have maneuvered to bring guns to bear on Red Fighter Two.”
The instructor nodded in affirmation of the critique. Chúní deflated a little as he’d been Red Fighter Five but the instructor didn’t even seem to notice. “And for what reason, can anyone tell me, did Red Fighter Five not notice and take the correct action?, Cadet Kōngjiān?”
Chúní, of course, knew the exact reason he’d missed the opening which would have kept Red Fighter Two alive, but he hesitated to voice it. His hesitation lost him the chance.
“Sir” Red Fighter Two, Yú’ěr’s soft alto cut the room and Chúní’s pride. “Perhaps Red Fighter Five had over-committed to his current maneuver to avoid fire from Blue Fighter Four.”
“Perhaps, Cadet Yú’ěr” Right on target thought Chúní somewhat disparagingly. He’d been too concerned for his own tail to notice one of his mates in trouble and it had cost both of them as the playback continued and Blue Fighter Three gunned down Yú’ěr before teaming up with Blue Fighter Four to end him.
None of his wing-mates so much as glanced at him as one by one their representative icons on the playback winked out as Team Blue gained a greater and greater advantage. By the time the playback ended once more and the lights in the gallery finally came up, Chúní could feel all attention on him despite everyone facing precisely forward.
“This, ladies and gentleman, was an even match; four Blue against your inexperienced five Red. Reality, however, is seldom fair. Next time, your enemy may be greater, and your allies fewer.” Finally the instructor spared a very brief glance directly at Chúní. “You are to preserve any advantages you have by working together.” The instructor paused for only a moment. “However, a single point of failure cannot be allowed to bring down the entire Wall.”
There was the opening. Someone else had made a mistake as well and the instructor was waiting for it to be pointed out. Try as he might, Chúní was unable to see it. The instructor clearly had seen something and as everyone took to frantically speeding through their playbacks at triple speed the instructor simply nodded and sighed. “Very well, I shall have a report outlining the various additional tactical errors following Red Fighter Five’s error by nightfall submitted to my inbox. Oh, and ladies and gentlemen…” they each took notice part way through their collective discouragement, “there will be only one report submitted, authored by the wing, together.”
Finally they all looked at each other. There’d be no post-op relaxation tonight for anyone, just five cadets jammed into one small common room trying very hard not to miss even one little error. Yay… wing bonding with the people who hated him.
Waste Reclamation pt. Ku
The shattered remains of the Crossing Scar failed to surprise Marruk. It was regrettable that the single available Destroyer he’d sent off to tail the Star’s Bounty met such an unfortunate end, but that they’d failed even to track where the stolen Eclipse Cruiser had warped to was infuriating. Had his needs been any other than they were, he would have blasted what remained of the hulk right where it spun. But he needed whatever crew remained inside, even if they were incompetent. If any officers had survived, they’d be relieved of their incompetence soon enough.
In his haste to try to overtake the Star’s Bounty, Marruk was forced to abandon his transfer to his true command ship, the Shadowbane, which had been cloaked on the other side of Gorai. Overseeing the initial battle from the antiquated Nova in which he still captained had been a tactical reality; as had the direct oversight of onloading additional crew and supplies while his Shadowbane had been collecting its fighter compliment on the other side of the planet. But Marruk had no intention of returning victorious to Gorai aboard the outdated cruiser.
“Shadowbane exiting warp Squadron-Father”
Marruk duck-nodded to no one. “Very-well. I want full command of the fleet passed to the Shadowbane by the time my shuttle lands. Comms, get me an open channel to Farragun.”
“Channel open, Squadron-Father.”
He spared a grudging grin for the officer’s anticipation. “Brother Farragun, a few creative traitors have seized… the Clawbreaker and fled. They are clearly human-nested and must be stopped before they can spread word of our fleet here. You are to take the Swifttail, Jaggedtooth, and the Freshscar and pursue them.” Three cruisers with eight of the new Voidfangs each should be sufficient.
“Understood Squadron-Father, do we have a bearing on where they’ve fled to?” Farragun would already be securing the Shadowbane for Marruk’s arrival and thus Marruk forgave him the lack of having tried to secure that information himself.
“We do not. However, if they were stupid enough to take an unfamiliar ship with only a pawfull of crew into the warzone that is currently orbiting Gao, they will be destroyed.” Marruk failed to say how it was that he knew that, but Farragun hadn’t risen to his current position by asking deadly questions.
“A… Yes Squadron-Father. Perhaps to one of the nearby stations then?”
“Likely, though also stupid.” Six-Three felt an incessant ping in the back of its mind. A summons? Now? “Do not fail me, Ship-Father Farragun.”
“Thank you Squadron-Father, I won’t” The line ended and Six-Three opened a new communication line, this one of a far more secretive nature.
++System notification: Private session between User 0005 and User 0063; Session Opened++
+0005+: Report, what is the condition of Gorai?
+0063+: Orbital space secured, planet-side operation underway, collecting assets and moving to assist with ground operations.
+0005+: Any issues encountered?
+0063+: None so far.
+0005+: Very well. Any Whitecrest or Stoneback installations are to be priority targets for your fighter support as well as any Longear facilities you do not already control. I assume you’ve taken at least a few.
+0063+: Most of them. We now control all communication in and out of Gorai and our version of the Human narrative is gaining acceptance.
+0005+: Do not become complacent such that you fail to anticipate your enemy, Six-Three.
Wasn’t that just about the most hypocritical thing it had ever heard.
System notification: Session closed.
The rapid exchange lasted just long enough for Marruk to rise from his command chair and begin the walk that would take him to the Shadowbane. He anticipated that all supplies and crew would be sufficiently transferred by the time he arrived.
Seven-Three-Four watched Six-Three’s logistical dance and planned. Six-Three clearly wasn’t aware of its presence, and that was all well and good for Seven-Three-Four. It watched through the sensors of the Shiva as Farragun’s task force of three new Eclipse cruisers got underway and started aligning for the nearest station. Interesting, so the disabled Comet hadn’t detected where the Clawbreaker had gone. It knew, from monitoring communication channels, that Farragun had been tasked to hunt down the three vermin who escaped, and while it cared little for that creature’s success, it saw an opportunity to achieve its own goals as well. Just before the task force could spin up their warp drives, Seven-Three-Four reluctantly slipped out of its Corti host, through the comms system, and into the conveniently implanted communications officer aboard one of the three Cruisers.
Marruk watched the three cruiser detachment slip into warp and let go of his frustration and worry over them. They might even complete their mission and make it back to Gorai before the ground campaign was over, but he doubted it. The rest of his fleet, crewed with more biodrones than he’d have liked, was coming online and slowly into formation. Overall it was only about 30% of the total hulls he’d managed to build, but the rest would have to wait until he could scoop up more personnel from the surface. He needed actual Gaoians, implanted but with their minds intact, to handle most of the primary functions of crewing a ship. His call to arms against the Humans was playing out nicely so far, and once the anti-Human faction was victorious on Gorai’s surface, he’d have all the recruits he could ask for to crew Gorai’s new defense fleet. What’s more, they’d not only be willing, but they’d be practically begging him to let them try to retake Gao from whatever the Humans and Discarded leave behind, when the time came. Sure, others in the Igraen Hierarchy, those senior to Six-Three, were sure to take ultimate control, but as with the Discarded before, the single-digits would move on to more loftier concerns. They never much enjoyed the baser pleasures that being in control of a beaten control species offered. Six-Three did. And when the others moved on to galactic aims, Six-Three would remain, ‘humbly’ offering to continue its role in the preservation and realignment of the pre-eminent force of control upon the galaxy.
But first, Gorai and the ‘Regeneration’ of the Gaoians. As one, his fleet activated their cloaking systems and lept into warp.
A massive THANK YOU to TTTA and my Wife for edits and feedback, ctwelve for hosting help, and Hambone for his awesome jverse!