An eccentric, trigger-happy captain and a level-headed commander vie for control of the Starship Gemini, but are forced to mix their two very divided crews when they encounter a space barge full of militarised waste. They say it takes two to tango, but when facing this planet-destroying vessel, and the rumour of an ancient, hidden foe in the Umbra, it takes the military might of Captain Skip Sutridge and the scientific genius of Commander Maggie Antwa to be in with a fighting chance. Some say the stars are infinite, but the potential to defy cosmic threats is greater still when divisions are set aside for a greater good. That's a lesson that isn't easily learned by these space-faring twins, but it's not a lesson that will go to waste.
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Dean F. Wilson
An action-packed space opera adventure.
An eccentric, trigger-happy captain and a level-headed commander vie for control of the starship Gemini, but are forced to mix their two very divided crews when they encounter a space barge full of militarised waste.
Chapter 1 – Wait
The alarms aboard the Starship Gemini were deafening. That's how Skip Sutridge, Captain Exquisite, liked it. He wanted his thoughts drowned in the endless stars. He wanted the panic of his crew to overwhelm his mind, until all that was left was instinct. The instinct to pull the trigger, to push the button, to start a war—or end one.
The Starship Gemini hung in orbit of Sonata V, its twin Infinite engines turned off. It drifted around that blackened globe, burned to a crisp in some ancient battle. The weight of the weaponry on the left rocket made it coast that planet with a slight tilt. The weight of a decision to act rested with Skip alone. He'd been made to share this vessel, but he wouldn't share command of a battle. Maggie Antwa, Commander of Gemini Right, had no authority there.
The space barge came into focus on the viewscreen, with most of it extending far off out of their field of vision. It didn't drift. It sat in the stillness of space, unmoving, exerting a subtle gravity of its own. Its grey metal was shrouded in shadow. Its lights were off. That was always a bad sign. It either meant the crew were dead or they were planning to kill you. More often than not for Skip Sutridge, General Extraordinaire, it was the latter.
“Wait,” Maggie said over the intercom. He didn't like her voice, her calm, her certainty. The only surety was in the trigger. Shoot and shoot later. Never ask questions. Never give answers.
“It's a threat,” Skip replied through gritted teeth. He kept his finger dangling. The only thing that held it back was the knowledge of how this had panned out last time. His crew were starting to listen to her, listen to “reason,” whatever that was. He remembered the awe with which they viewed him when he first came on board. That was fading fast.
“We don't know that yet,” Maggie pointed out. She liked pointing out things, everything but the enemy's weaknesses. She always wanted to know more, to probe further, to prod deeper. Skip thought a laser could do that just fine.
Even from this far off, Skip could see the giant storage containers piled high across the space barge, held in place with a powerful magnetic hull. It was so potent it tugged even at the Gemini, threatening to separate the twins. Skip almost didn't mind. All the weaponry was on his side of the ship. Only the two giant fighters joined those rockets together, connecting the Infinite engines, letting them travel farther than one alone.
“Just … give me a minute,” Maggie urged. He could hear the beeps of buttons in the background as her fingers worked frantically. Skip only needed one button. As the seconds grew old and died, his finger got a little closer. He wondered how many wars began with gravity.
“There,” Maggie said, sending across a report from her scanners. The overlay added a lot of text and faded schematics on the viewscreen, making the colossal space barge look a little less daunting.
“No crew?” Skip asked.
“No life signs.”
He didn't like how she said that, as if it meant something else. She was always correcting him. Life had been hell since she boarded. He wouldn't have been surprised if she picked up nothing from him as well.
“What's in the containers?”
More beeps and finger-bashing. “It looks like … some kind of waste.”
“Just as well you didn't fire, huh?” Her smug laugh was cut short. “Wait.” She always waited. That was her trouble, and she was his.
By the time she noticed the incoming missile, she barely had time to put up the shields on her side of the vessel. It was just as well Skip had noticed. It was just as well he'd fired first.
Chapter 2 – An Executive Decision
Maggie Antwa hammered her fist down on the shield button. The generators were already primed and ready. Outside, a bubble of energy extended around the most vital parts of Gemini Right: the antennae, the specimen globes, the medical bay, the engine room, the crew quarters. The left rocket—Skip's domain—was left almost entirely defenceless. It was just as well he considered attack the best form of defence.
The missile wormed its way from the space barge towards them, while Skip's answering shot—or questioning shot, even—wiggled along in return. They united in the middle with an explosion that shook the starship, but barely nudged the space barge at all.
“So much for waiting,” Skip crooned over the intercom.
Before she could reply, he ended the transmission. She knew what to expect next. No one fired at Skip Sutridge and got away without an answering barrage. If he had to, he'd use up every torpedo he had, and that was a lot. He'd make a lesson out of them. Anyone who knew Skip had learned that lesson early on.
“We've lost steering,” her oarsman said.
Skip had used his one Executive Star of the month to take over the steering of the entire vessel. She could have used hers to take it back, but she was saving it. Petty vengeance was one of his tactics, not hers. She'd wait.
The Gemini turned about until the left rocket, armed to the teeth, had its port side facing the space barge. The turrets rotated into place. Hatches opened. The volley began. The flak cannons boomed. The blaster rigs sparked. The torpedo bays were emptied. The dark canvas of space was momentarily splattered with light and colour. It was enough to down a lesser vessel, but the space barge was anything but. By the end of it, it seemed like no damage was inflicted at all.
“Are you done?” Maggie asked, forcing open the comms again.
“I was going to tell you that they've got shielding.”
“I was gonna tell you I don't care.”
“It's a waste of weapons.”
“Weapons are never a waste, Commander.”
“Some of them are, Captain,” Maggie said. “That barge isn't commercial. Our latest scans have just come through. I'm sending them over.”
“What am I seeing?” Skip asked. He never could read reports. She wondered if he could even read at all.
“It's not just waste, Skip. It's militarised. This is all rigged to blow.”
“All the more reason to destroy it.”
“It'll destroy itself, and us, and everything else for half the galaxy.”
She could hear him grumble. “Why is it here?”
“I don't know.”
“Why did they fire at us?”
“I'm not sure. I think it's an automated system. You fired first, so—”
“I always fire first.”
“We need to know where this is heading,” Skip said.
“I agree. I can probably have an analysis done in a few hours.”
“That's too long.”
“It is what it is.”
“I'm going over.”
“Are you mad?” She wasn't sure why she asked.
“We've got a powerful weapon sitting in our back yard, Commander. That'll be good for the Empire.”
“Or bad for us.”
Skip's voice deepened. “Or bad for everyone.”
“We should wait. We should investigate.”
“Sure thing,” he said. “But I'll use my own eyes for that.”
Chapter 3 – The Offspring
Skip wasted no time explaining himself or justifying his decision. His crew didn't ask him. Even Maggie didn't, though she had done it plenty of times before. He never prepared a defence for such questioning. He just didn't answer. It was even better when he jammed Maggie's signals.
“Do you need a team?” the oarsman of Gemini Left, Lieutenant Larsman, asked. Larsman was a good soldier, but an even better pilot. Skip was confident about leaving him at the wheel.
“I will be fine on my own,” Skip replied, heading for the nearest transporter.
Like a good soldier, Larsman didn't argue. He had only served once before with Skip, but he had learned then how well he worked alone. A one-man army, as the slogans often said. The Empire regularly broadcast footage of Skip wading through swarms of enemies, often with a smile on his face, earning him the nickname The Man of No Tears. Skip remembered posing for those shoots. They weren't quite as glorious as they appeared. The battles were fake, but the deaths were real. He wished he could jam the memories.
The transporter took him to the boarding gate of the Offspring, the massive fighter at the front of the vessel. Its wings were clipped at the ends, allowing it to clamp into notches on the sides of both rockets, acting as a bridge between them. There were doors in the wings, and wiring and tubes that connected the fighter's systems to the rockets, allowing each part to support the other.
Before he boarded, he pulled out his datapad and turned on the mirror. This was a little ritual he did before battle, one he rarely told people about, though he was sure many had seen him do it. He stared at his image for a moment, taking in the big, bright eyes, the square jaw and puckered chin, and that suave smile—which was often there even when he wasn't really smiling inside. He tidied up that single blonde curl that hung over his forehead, something he was known for, and was often exaggerated in the posters of him. His hair was thick, but combed neatly, except for that little curl, which he'd had since he was a boy. It was like a little rebellion, an escape from the order of everything else. He thought maybe that was why, despite military regulation, he insisted on keeping it. Some people thought it was narcissism that made Skip complete this little ritual so often, and maybe there was an element of that. Yet, really he was taking one last look so that he could remind himself of who he was, and where he came from. The ranks and armour changed that for many, but he wanted to make certain it never happened to him.
He was about to board when Alex Primus, the sixteen-year-old member of the Empire's celebrated royal family, raced up, panting. He was allowed to board Gemini Left as a favour to his father, who predicted Gemini's voyages would become the stuff of legend—and thus the stuff of status.
“Wait,” the teen said, resting against the doorframe.
“I'm kind of busy,” Skip said.
“I could come help … if you'd like.”
Skip paused. “You?”
Alex looked to the floor. “Yeah.”
“I don't think that would be very fitting now, would it? Imagine what the Emperor would say if the royals were suiting up for battle.”
“But I can help.”
“You're serving the Empire by doing your duty as a royal.”
“You mean a puppet.”
“I'll pretend I didn't hear that.”
Alex clenched his fists. Normally Skip liked to see that in a young man readying for battle, but not now. “That's what all this is, right?” Alex asked. “A pretence.”
Skip grabbed Alex by the shoulder. “Cut out that talk, boy. You're dishonouring your name.”
Alex shook off Skip's grip and backed away. “You can't dishonour what doesn't have any honour to begin with. It's all a sham. Why can't I fight?”
“Because you don't believe in anything,” Skip replied. “You have to have something to fight for.”
He turned and boarded the Offspring, quickly sealing the doors as Alex tried to race inside. He could hear the teen mumbling something through the glass. Maybe Alex had to have the last word. Skip often had the last word, usually because the other person was dead.
Skip trotted down the long corridor that led through the wing of the fighter and into the spacious cockpit, with enough space to sleep a dozen people. His Second, Akt Ontri, was there, preparing the vessel for flight.
If there was one person Skip could count on, it wasn't a person at all: it was Akt Ontri. Ontri was an android, more colloquially (and, some would argue, offensively) known as an aut, short for autonomous thing. He was ninth generation, the most advanced yet, and a bit of an experiment aboard the experiment that was the Gemini. Skip had no illusions that his mission was anything else, but knowing it didn't help with the feeling that he wasn't so much the most celebrated man of the galaxy, but just another guinea pig. He knew what the Emperor might say: why can't you be both?
Ontri was humanoid in shape, but didn't look human at all. They'd tried that with seventh generation models, with disastrous results. People didn't like their androids blending in too much, looking too real. It made them uncomfortable. It made it harder to look at them as autonomous things. Most seventh generation auts were destroyed in the so-called Electric Cleansing of 2810, but a few of them were said to be around, in hiding somewhere. It was a crime to harbour one, though some, like Maggie, thought it was a crime to turn them in. It was no wonder she'd gotten on the wrong side of the government. Skip just wondered why he got bundled with her.
“Good sir!” Ontri exclaimed on seeing Skip. That was his familiar, ever-enthusiastic greeting, just for him. The Captain didn't care if it was programmed. Stars, if he could programme all the crew to do it, he'd give the order now.
“Ontri,” Skip said. Some people didn't respond to the “pleasantries” of auts, as if the pleasantries of humans were any more real. It always grated on him when he saw a crew member treat Ontri like he wasn't second in command. It reminded him a little too much of his childhood on Alpha Prime, where he was teased for being Rockborn, someone born on one of the galaxy's many asteroid colonies. His family moved to give him a better life, but he had to fight for it. It was no wonder he ended up in the military. No doubt it was a great wonder to the Alphans that he was so good at it too.
Things were much different now. He had Alphans aboard the Gemini, like Larsman. No one dared call him Rockborn now. Few dared defy Ontri either. Skip liked to give his crew a regular reminder that his word was gold up here, and that Ontri spoke his word just as much as he did. He wasn't exaggerating. You couldn't get better programming outside a cult.
“I have prepared your vessel,” Ontri said, gesturing towards the controls. Skip and Maggie hadn't come to an agreement on who exactly “owned” the giant fighter at the front of their shared ship, or the even larger fighter-bomber at the back, the so-called Bridge. Those two vessels were what joined the rockets of Gemini Left and Right together, and the only thing that separated their two very different crew. Yet, while no agreement was made, Skip still considered the fighters under his jurisdiction, given he was in charge of the military side of affairs. He made sure Ontri knew that, and, unlike Maggie, Ontri didn't argue at all.
Chapter 4 – Punching Through
The Offspring disembarked, unclamping from the rockets on either side. Its thrusters flared up, its engine thrummed, and its outer lights flickered on. And, because it was Skip on board, its weapon systems activated, immediately locking onto the space barge. It didn't require delicate aiming. It'd be hard to miss.
“You're clear to go,” Larsman said over the comms. His was one of the few signals Skip was letting through.
“Rolling out,” Skip replied.
“You're taking Ontri?”
“I'm not taking him. He's coming with me,” Skip said.
“I am rather eager to go,” Ontri said enthusiastically. There was nothing like a good Emotion Approximation Chip.
“But that leaves me in charge, right?” Larsman asked.
“You've got the wheel,” Skip said. That wasn't quite what Larsman wanted to hear, but then Skip didn't want to say it. As far as he was concerned, he was in charge, whether he was on the ship or not. He could've been sipping tea back on Alpha Prime, and he'd still be in charge out here near the Edge, the little-known region at the rim of the Imperius Galaxy, the home of the Pan-Galactic Empire. Skip didn't mind Larsman having the wheel, but not the whole ship.
Skip steered the Offspring towards the space barge. He could really appreciate its size now that he was on an even smaller vessel. By the time he was close, he couldn't see the end of it in either direction. It was like looking at space, if space was a block of metal.
“Are those shields still up?” he asked Ontri.
Ontri was plugged into the ship's computer, getting scanner results sent straight to his processor. One of his eyes flickered as it worked, almost like the robotic equivalent of a twitch. That was one of the things Skip liked about him. For someone, or some thing, so artificial, he had those little idiosyncrasies that made him real. He dismissed the technicians' appraisals that they were faults.
“Yes,” Ontri said. “Their shields are at ninety-nine point nine nine seven six—”
“Right, I've got it. Prepare the Shield Buster.”
The Shield Buster was a specialised weapon designed for punching a small hole through an energy shield, enough to allow a small vessel with a boarding party through (which had earned it the alternative name of Boarder Buster). It was incredibly expensive to make, utilising some of the same fusion technology that powered the Infinite engines. The Gemini only carried two at a time, and had to go back to one of the Core Worlds to restock them. Skip was cautioned to use them wisely, but he didn't go in much for wisdom. He relied on his gut, and his gut used the same language Skip used. It said, “Fire!”
“Primed and armed,” Ontri said.
Ontri fired the missile, which was loaded under the cockpit. It had its own thrusters and navigational system, and several small auts that lived inside the shell, making small repairs to it as it slowly degenerated from lack of use. Those were sacrificial androids, much like a lot of the soldiers Skip led into battle. You couldn't get too sentimental. It was just the way of things, like the sky was up, like the universe didn't have any directions.
The missile sped towards its target. Answering missiles came out of the space barge, but the auts inside fired smaller missile-destroyers out of tiny ports, ensuring it would reach its destination. It smacked the side of the energy shield with an amplified thud, followed by an electrical wobble as the entire fabric of the shield reacted to the impact. A small wave of energy spread out from the site across the entire shield, highlighting an encasing that would otherwise be difficult to see.
“That'll do it,” Skip said.
He pushed hard on the accelerators, sending the fighter through the tiny opening the Shield Buster caused. He knew it would take a few hours to repair the breach. That'd give him plenty of time inside.
The tug of the magnetic hull of the space barge was strong, so strong that he barely needed to clamp into place once he landed on the surface. He used the clamps anyway, just in case the magnetism was turned off. It wouldn't have been the first time Skip was left plummeting. You learned quick in war. If you didn't, you died.
“Cut us a door, please,” Skip asked.
Ontri was already on it. He could almost predict Skip's commands. Skip didn't think it was that exceptional, given there were posters and holograms of him all across the galaxy, with his orders used as slogans. He wondered how many children had given a salute before shouting, “Bombs away!” It was amusing, and a little satisfying, to know that Alphan children were emulating his words now. How things had changed.
“I suggest power armour,” Ontri said as he assembled his tools to cut through the space barge's hull.
“Yeah, I've got it.”
Skip headed to the armoury behind the cockpit. He pulled on the heavy boots, then the motorised metal trousers, with pistons inside to make them move. He donned the bulky chest armour, the great shoulder pads, the huge iron gauntlets. By the end of it, he looked like some kind of mutant with a huge body and a tiny head. This was the armour of the Pan-Galactic Marines, the so-called Heavies. This was as normal to Skip as his everyday clothes. In the Marines, you lived inside your armour. Often, you died in it too.
He stomped out into the cockpit, then down to where Ontri was waiting. He had already cut a hole into the space barge and closed the door of the Offspring to block the way, just in case.
“Safety first,” Ontri said, tapping one of his tools off Skip's helmet.
“Now,” Skip said, placing his helmet on. It made a hiss as the pressure changed inside. “Time to find out what we've got sittin' out here on the Edge.”
Chapter 5 – One Heart Beating
Skip stepped aboard the space barge. His armoured boot made a clang that echoed through the dark corridors ominously. He was never one for stealth, but his gut told him he might need it now. It told him he'd need that armour too.
He sealed the hatch behind him, but didn't remove his helmet. His visor showed the air was breathable, but he didn't always trust technology. If there was one thing he had learned time and time again on the battlefield, it was not to lose your helmet. The renowned Admiral Mendan Ennas had learned that too, though a bit too late. That probably explained his madness.
He jammed Maggie's incoming signals. No doubt she was berating him. He didn't need to hear her to know how it'd go. He'd heard it plenty of times before. He needed no distractions now. He needed to focus. That's how you got the kill.
The corridor of the space barge was completely black, darker even than space. At least there were stars out there. Only the glow of the light in his visor illuminated the area around him, and that was faint. There was something about the darkness here that seemed different, like maybe it was staring back.
He turned on the flashlight attached to his right arm and held it before him. The light showed what seemed like a never-ending hexagonal corridor, metal plated on all sides. The plating was the same throughout, so you weren't fully sure if you were standing on the floor or the ceiling. It was like being out in space. It was a little bit disorientating.
Skip strolled through, moving his arm in a circle before him, getting that light into all the corners, burning away the darkness. He couldn't help but think of the tales his father used to tell him as a kid about the Umbra, those so-called creatures of shadow. He knew better now than to flinch at boogeymen, but something about this shade set him on edge. Just as he burned away the darkness, something about the darkness burned away his courage.
“Skip,” a voice said suddenly.
He jumped inside the armoured suit. He was glad its weight didn't make it jump too. The sound would have echoed for days.
“Stars, Maggie,” he grunted. “How did you through?”
“You can't jam me forever, y'know.”
“I can try.”
“It's not good for you.”
“So's a lotta things.”
“I mean, it's not wise. You're all alone out there.”
“If I'm alone, then I'm fine.”
He waited for her to make some quip about him only needing himself to get into trouble. He was preparing his retort, which might have involved listing all the awards he'd won—by his lonesome, mind—and how really any apparent “trouble” he got into was just a demonstration of how to get out of it. Or something like that.
“Don't be so certain about anything over there,” Maggie said finally. “I'm running several tests right now. I'll have the reports—”
“Oh, enough of your reports.”
He jammed the signal again. He used Admiral Ennas' technique for that. He was the one who taught him that the first call of action in a war should be to cut communications. Silence was as much a weapon as it was a shield. That's what worried him about the space barge. It was altogether silent.
Part of him, a part he'd thought he'd killed off years ago with training, wanted to reopen communication with the Gemini. He had a channel ready for Ontri, but he had a feeling Maggie would be waiting for him on the other end of that as well. No doubt she was working frantically to get back in touch with him, to send him on some more reports. There were wars that were won and lost while people were writing reports. The only report he cared about was the one that said “Victory.”
He continued through the ship, hammering his gauntleted fist against access pads beside the hexagonally-shaped doors (which also looked the same no matter which way was up). Most of the doors were sealed tight, and probably for good reason. If this ship really was full to the brim with nuclear waste, he hoped to the stars he couldn't get through so easily. Even his entry aboard the barge was a little too effortless, as if someone had let him in. He didn't like that. He'd rather fight his way aboard.
There was a sound like scurrying feet behind him. He turned as fast as the heavy suit would allow, barely catching a glimpse of something darting into the shadow.
It looked like he might get his fight after all.
Chapter 6 – First Contact
Skip grabbed the blaster from his left hip. He aimed it down the corridor, into the darkness, at the darkness. He brought the torch light up slowly, knowing that as soon as he revealed whatever was hiding there, the battle would commence. It had to happen at the right moment. The right moment was when his finger hit the trigger.
As soon as the light illuminated a hunched-over figure with broad shoulders and a gnarled head, he fired. It didn't matter who or what it was. Skip had been in too many wars to let sentiment slow him down.
But the laser blast missed, leaving a charred mark on the wall instead. His aim was right, but the creature was quick. He only knew it was a creature by how it ran towards him, bounding down on all fours. It dived, right into the blast of a second bolt. Its snarl was ear-piercing. It curled into a ball as soon as its body hit the floor.
Skip took a careful step forward, shining his torch on the creature, and keeping his blaster pointed there too. It was hard to tell what it was. It almost looked like a mutated rat, which hadn't just grown big, but had a grown a little human too. Skip was well used to hybrids at this stage. The galaxy was full of them. But he hadn't encountered, or even heard of, something like this.
“You,” he said, kicking one of its paws. It curled up tighter. “What are you?” Skip added. “Are there more of you on board?”
Skip had barely finished the sentence when he heard a flurry of feet behind him. He turned, slowed by his power suit, to see two more of the rat-men diving at him, claws slashing. They seemed to have had artificial blades added to their hands to enhance each stab and slash. They clanged with fury against the metal of Skip's suit.
He stumbled backwards, his back striking the wall. As he lifted the blaster up, one of the rat-men knocked it from his hand. The other tried to break the glass on Skip's mask, driving the knife-like claws straight against the visor. Skip was glad it was reinforced, but their blades seemed to be reinforced too. Each strike left a little pocket in the glass, which obstructed Skip's vision.
The creatures were so close, clinging to his body, that Skip had no room to use another weapon. He swung with his armoured fists, striking one of the creatures straight in the jaw. He could hear the crunch as metal met with bone. The creature fell backwards, then scurried off into the darkness, howling as it went. Skip didn't like that—not because he felt bad for the fiend, but because howling creatures tended to come back with more.
The other rat-man disappeared from his vision for a moment, but he could hear its frantic steps. Skip turned to find it reaching for his fallen blaster. He threw himself at it, and it took all his strength to jump in that armour. The weight of it came down on the creature just as it pointed the blaster. He crushed it into the ground, hearing the snap of ribs and its muted, blood-clogged cry.
Skip struggled to push himself up and get back to his feet. He remembered Admiral Mendan's frequent caution: Don't you damn fall over in that, unless it's right into your grave. It only took a few seconds to get back up, but it only took a few seconds to kill you too.
Skip yanked the blaster from the rat-man's claw, putting it back into its holster. He pulled a bigger gun from his back: a plasma rifle. Then he turned back to where the other creature fled. He followed it into the darkness, expecting to see it curled up in the corner, licking its wounds or playing dead. He couldn't find it at all.
He continued on, deeper and farther, until the shadow swallowed the dead and wounded rat-men behind him. He could still hear the faint moan of the first creature, until the overwhelming silence of the ship swallowed that too.
He reached a barred door at the end. Beside it was a keypad with a blinking light. Skip tapped the side of his helmet, close to his left temple. A faded image of Ontri appeared in his visor, with one of the puck marks obscuring the robot's right eye.
“What can I do for you, good sir?” Ontri asked in his usual over-polite way.
“Get me a code for this, will ya?” Skip sent an image of the keypad over.
“Acquire quicker, if you can.” Skip knew that some auts performed the same all the time, but Ontri could overclock himself. He'd burned out his circuits a few times before by doing it, but on most occasions he got better results in half the time. Skip had a feeling he needed every second he could get.
“Acquired,” Ontri said.
The code immediately appeared in his visor. Skip tried to delicately tip the numbers on the pad with his armoured index finger. The pad beeped a failure notice twice as he hit the wrong digits.
“Do you require aid, Captain?” Ontri asked.
“I require smaller bloody fingers,” Skip growled. He holstered the plasma rifle and pulled off his right gauntlet. He flexed his fingers, then bashed the code in swiftly. The door beeped and opened.
Skip didn't realise that he'd gasped.
“Do you require aid, Captain?” Ontri repeated.
The visor wasn't big enough to see everything. There must have been hundreds of those creatures in the next room, many of them labouring over gigantic nuclear torpedoes. Many others were lined up near the door, some of them with claws, others with guns.
Skip hammered his fist down on the keypad, shutting the door firmly.
“I need an army,” he said.
Chapter 7 – On the Run
Despite his natural bravado, Skip knew when to fight and when to run. There was a big difference between being brave and being suicidal. Some said Skip was a little bit of both. Others preferred to use the word “homicidal.”
He ran, thundering back down the corridor, slowed by the weight of his armour. Sometimes soldiers didn't get a choice at all. With that armour, they couldn't run.
He heard the door open behind him, but he couldn't glance back. Instead, he tapped his index and middle fingers of his right hand against his left wrist, where camouflage markings on the armour indicated some touch panels. A camera on the back of his helmet turned on, and his visor displayed the image of a dozen rat-men charging along behind him.
He kept running, but now he moved his right fist in a circle beneath his left forearm, which triggered another piece of his armour: the shoulder-mounted gun. A hatch opened in the large shoulder pad, and a small turret rose from it. It swivelled around, automatically locking onto its first target.
“Full auto,” Skip said with a pant. That was another thing about running. Sometimes the heaving and huffing made those voice commands hard to register. Like now.
The gun sat idle, while the first bolts from the enemy came in, pinging off the armour, searing the walls.
Skip gulped down his breath. “Full. Auto,” he repeated more forcefully, articulating the words better, pronouncing them more slowly.
The turret kicked into action, firing a flurry of bolts at its first target before immediately moving on to the next. It didn't wait for the kill like a human might. It assumed it got it. There was no room for doubt with machines. It was what made Ontri such a valuable ally—and such a dangerous one.
Skip didn't slow down. He leapt—so much as the armour would let him leap—over the fallen rat-man that had started this whole mess. He was still playing dead, but he would only be playing for so long. Skip wasn't even sure it was a he, but it helped. It was easier to kill men. And if they were rodents too? Well, that just made it damn simple.
He bounded down the corridor, skidding at the corner and crashing into the wall. Then he was off again, darting down the next passage, and the next. Not a single panel on the walls or floor or ceiling looked remotely different. Only the doors gave it any distinction. Maybe it was designed that way on purpose. Invaders would get instantly lost.
Skip wasn't sure what turn to take to make it back to his ship. He let his gut guide him. That had proved reliable in the past. Yet, everything failed you some time. Today was the day for Skip. Something told him he had taken the wrong turn, but there was no time to change that now. The gunfire behind him was growing stronger, despite the dozens of slain rat-men his shoulder-mounted turret left in his wake.
He opened the comms to Ontri. “Get me a route out of here, will ya?”
“Stars, I need it now!”
It didn't matter that the gunfire could be heard on the comms. Ontri's Emotion Approximation Chip was just a series of algorithms that simulated responses to certain detected situations, based on a variety of parameters. He didn't register the “urgency” of the situation like Maggie might—but he wouldn't say “I told you so” either.
Yet, Ontri was designed first and foremost to learn. He had learned a variety of phrases that the good Captain would use that boiled down to asking him to overclock himself. “I need it now” was one of them. He ramped up his processor speeds significantly, working through the data more quickly. Something popped as he did this, but it seemed to have zero bearing on the outcome.
“Acquired,” Ontri droned. “Sending now.”
Part of the route lit up in the overlay of the ship in Skip's visor, with a blinking red dot where he was, and not a single blinking light behind him. Skip never fully trusted technology, and this was a good reason why. He could still see the blasts of energy in the corners of his eyes and still hear the scamper of rodent feet behind him.
“Why aren't we picking up vitals?” he asked, taking the next right, then left, then left again. He hammered his fist against a marking on his thigh, which triggered an adrenaline injection. He needed it.
“They appear to have some kind of vitals dampener,” Ontri explained in his usual matter-of-fact manner.
“Already on it, sir.”
Suddenly the visor displayed a lot of other blinking yellow dots behind him. A few of them vanished into the darkness, but it seemed there was always more to fill their places. Skip had been in fights like this before, but usually with bigger guns. Even then, there was always a constant worry: that he'd run out of ammunition before they ran out of bodies.
“By my estimates,” Ontri said, “the quickest and safest route is to circle around at the next right.” A new route displayed in grey, circling back around to where he came from. “You will lead most of the enemy around the square, but you will face heavy resistance once you cross over old territory.”
“Yeah, I guessed that.”
“A suggestion, Captain.”
“Fire away,” Skip said. He suddenly thought better of that wording. “I mean, go ahead.”
Ontri's voice came through crackled, then cut off entirely. Then a sudden, sharp pain pierced through Skip's head. He felt like his brain was on fire. The static in his ears increased until it was like the roar of speakers. He stumbled, grasping at his helmet, cringing from the pain.
He fell, and everything seemed to go black for a moment. When it faded moments later, he saw a furry foot in front of his visor. He glanced up to see a robed rat-man, hunched over like the rest of them, but taller and broader, and leaning on a mechanical staff.
“You and your weapons,” the figure growled.
Something ripped the turret from his shoulder. It had long ran out of ammunition.
“Well,” the figure added, before the stabbing pain began anew. “We have ours.”
Chapter 8 – The Wrong Kind of Waiting
Maggie worked tirelessly to try to override the jam on Skip's signal, but it proved fruitless. Any of the techniques she tried would have worked in normal circumstances, but she knew Skip's reputation more than she knew him: if he wanted to disappear, he'd disappear. He had only returned to the Pan-Galactic Empire a year ago, and she'd heard the whispers that he'd returned changed. They called him the Man of No Tears, the most celebrated man of the Empire, more popular than the Emperor himself. Maggie wondered how many people Skip had left crying.
“What'll we do?” her Second, Toz Ilgi, asked. Skip had the definition of loyalty in his Second, but Toz was a different sort altogether: a hired hand. He'd worked with Maggie before, back in the days when she ran the Ensemble of Environmentalist Elders, or the EEE. Toz was good at getting into places, though not so good at getting out. He was paying the same penance she was: “galaxy service” aboard the flagship of the Empire. It mightn't have even seemed like a punishment, were it not for Skip. She wasn't quite shackled to him, but her ship was chained to his.
“Keep probing,” Maggie said. “I need a walk.”
She left the command room and strolled through the brightly-lit corridors of Gemini Right, putting her bushy, brown hair up into a bobbin as she went. She passed several pod rooms, where double doors sealed in artificial habitats, part of her research work on the vessel (all fuelling the scientific efforts of the Empire). She wasn't given time as a sentence. She was given a goal. Ten monumental discoveries. She had her definition of what “monumental” meant, but the Empire had its own. From the outside of the ship, the pods looked like glass bubbles stuck to the hull, each housing its own unique environment. There was one with snow, one with water, one like a jungle, one like a desert. She didn't need planets. She brought them with her.
She passed by the medical bay, where three of Skip's soldiers were still being treated for burns from the last “mission,” if it could be called that. People said he was more tactical before his disappearance. It seemed like he was getting more and more reckless by the day. That wouldn't be so bad if the lives of four hundred crew members weren't at stake. There was no medical bay on Gemini Left. Skip had had the old one converted into an armoury. That whole ship was just a drifting array of weapons. Maggie had a feeling that Skip considered his crew to be weapons too.
She went to Engineering, where Cada Tybar was holed up. She was one of the most gifted mechanics Maggie had ever met. In the three months since the Gemini launched, she had already pushed the Infinite engines beyond known capacity, allowing them to travel farther into space, out to the Edge. Some explorers had been out there before, but they knew they would never make it back. They let capsules with their maps and data gradually drift to the centre of the galaxy, to civilisation, while the pioneers were lost to the unknown. In many ways, Cada was partly to blame for the current mess. Were it not for her work, they wouldn't be out this far. They wouldn't have encountered that space barge.
“We could dock and board,” Cada said before Maggie had a chance to talk.
“No. Skip's doing the exploring.”
“Yeah, but it's probably safer that way.”
“Not for him.”
A light blinked on the data pad on Maggie's left wrist. She tapped it, revealing a small hologram of Toz, looking as trapped as ever. “What's up?” she asked.
“We've got a problem,” Toz said.
He transferred a signal to the larger screen in Engineering. Maggie expected to see Skip. Instead, she saw some kind of hybrid of man and rat, leaning heavily on a glowing staff. It didn't look like it glowed from any known light source.
“We've got your Captain,” the creature said.
The camera panned down, and there was Skip, bruised, bloodied and dazed. And someone's prisoner. Not like Maggie expected at all.
Chapter 9 – The Language Barrier
Skip was subdued. It wasn't a position he was in often, and not one that suited him. He wasn't just the Man of No Tears—he was the Man Who Didn't Kneel. Yet there was a first time for everything. He was stripped of his armour, with his arms tied behind his back, with the golden curl that so many identified him with now straightened out with sweat. He looked like a wounded man, a broken man. He even looked like that to himself, for he saw his faint reflection in the glass of the camera that was pressed close to his face.
“I am As-hamaz,” the rat-man sneered. “I am your Captain now. Abandon your posts. Leave your vessel for us. If you do it willingly, we will grant you mercy and let six of you take an escape pod to wherever the galaxy leads you. All others will be slaves to the Raetuumaka.”
The other rat-men cheered and chanted, speaking some other tongue which Skip's implanted auto-translator didn't recognise. It tried hard to work out the grammar and syntax, to approximate a translation, but all that came back was “Error. Unrecognised. Attempting deconstruction.” He hadn't yet heard enough of their language for the translator to work on, but he had a feeling he'd be hearing a lot more soon enough.
“We will comply,” Maggie said. Skip was horrified to hear her surrendering already, but then he wasn't sure what he expected from her. She wasn't a military girl. She didn't understand the concept of “No surrender.” She even led starship rallies throughout key sectors in protest against the Empire's policy of letting troops fight to the last bullet and breath instead of working out some means of peace.
As-hamaz grinned, showing his sharpened teeth and long, forked tongue, which he waved like a flag of victory. His whiskers twitched with satisfaction. He rested less on his staff, didn't stoop so low, and held his furry chin on high.
“But,” Maggie added, and it was to Skip like an opening volley. “But you must hand our Captain … I mean, our former Captain … over to us first. I choose him to be one of the six to take the escape pod.”
Good, Skip thought. Now I see it. The trick.
As-hamaz saw it too. He snarled and grabbed Skip by the scruff of the neck.
“He's ours now. For attacking the Raetuumaka, he shall suffer the Dozen Deaths. This is the law of our people. This is the will of the Raetuu. There is no negotiation.”
“It is our law that our Captain always be the first to take an escape pod,” Maggie lied. In fact, it was the opposite. The Captain was supposed to go down with the ship, not that it always transpired that way. Some were too valuable, either for their expertise or their image—or, in Skip's case, both.
As-hamaz cut the transmission. Skip wondered what Maggie made of that. It wasn't the first time Skip had seen a transmission cut in such a tense situation. Sometimes he did it himself. It often paid to play hard ball, to seem like it was all or nothing. The problem was knowing just how far you could go before it was nothing at all.
The rat-man, who might have been some kind of rat-king for all Skip knew, turned to his comrades and spat a series of commands to them in that harsh tongue of theirs. Each new sentence gave Skip's auto-translator something extra to work on, but it still wasn't enough.
“Maybe I can help,” Skip suggested.
As-hamaz turned to him and drew in close, close enough that his whiskers tickled Skip's face. He smelt the foul breath and wondered what those creatures ate. He tried not to wonder too deeply.
“Go on,” As-hamaz said.
“Maybe I can reason with her.”
“Reason? No. There are laws to follow. We have ours, and you have yours. You must face the Dozen Deaths, and yet she must make you take the escape pod first. How do we reconcile this? It must be reconciled.”
“Tell me the name of your law,” Skip said, “in your tongue.”
As-hamaz squinted his eyes. “Daedel Itkua.”
“And what would you call me in … you know, whatever it is you speak?”
“In Raetuum, you are Daedes.”
“The dead?” Skip guessed.
“Soon to be,” As-hamaz snarled.
The rat-man turned back to his associates, rattling off more commands. Skip's auto-translator worked furiously, using the extra words and translation Skip had acquired, until finally it had developed an approximate dictionary of their language, with a basic understanding of their grammar. It constantly updated as they spoke.
“Destroy their escape pods,” As-hamaz ordered in Raetuum.
“But then none of them can leave,” another replied.
“Exactly. Then our laws are reconciled.”
He turned back to the camera, signalling with his claw. The image of Maggie, more tense than ever, came on. The waves of her bushy, brown hair took up most of the screen, along with her big, blue eyes, wide with apprehension.
“I think we got off—”
“We've found a solution,” As-hamaz said with glee.
Skip saw the rat-men heading to their gun-chambers. He saw in Maggie's face that she would try to negotiate, but there was no negotiation. Already the offer of six people saved was off the table. Everyone would die or become slaves.
“Good,” Maggie said. “We are happy to reach some kind of compromise.”
“Retreat!” Skip shouted.
Maggie's face looked more surprised than ever.
“It's a lie,” Skip said. “Get out of here, Mags! Full throttle!”
As-hamaz knocked off the screen and smacked Skip across the mouth.
He spat blood. “That all ya got?”
As-hamaz snarled. “I'm saving your lives for the Dozen Deaths. But let's not save them any longer. Let's get started with the first one.”
Chapter 10 – A Hard Turn
Maggie immediately issued a Code Yellow command to both sections of the Gemini, followed swiftly by a video recording of Skip's desperate plea. She had to do this for his troops, because she knew they would never follow her direction otherwise. As demoralising as it was, she needed them to focus on getting away.
The large fighter-bomber that joined the rear of both rockets, dubbed the Bridge, broke off, controlled by an Automated Auxiliary Android, or AAA, which powered up and left its alcove to take the wheel. The right rocket began to turn, while the left drifted for a moment as the crew there were somewhat panicked by seeing their Captain taken.
Maggie took the nearest transporter, which brought her straight to the command room. Axel Hoodan was at the wheel, gesturing dramatically over the motion-controlled grid. The rocket turned slowly in response.
“Get our shields up,” Maggie told her Second.
Toz was already working on it, but Maggie raced over to one of the tactical stations on either side and started powering up some of the shields herself. There were dozens of them throughout the vessel, all independent from one another, an idea she and Cada came up with in case of a cyber attack or power outage. It was safer that way, but it also took longer to get all those shields online.
The vessel rocked as a turret on the space barge opened fire. The blasts struck the shields guarding some of the environmental modules, which the attackers must have mistaken for escape pods.
“We've lost ten percent shields,” Toz said. He manned the other tactical station, rerouting power from the shields on the other side of the vessel.
“Get us out of here, Axel!” Maggie barked.
“I'm trying!” Axel moved quicker than before, but nothing could speed up the turning of such a large vessel. He'd given as much power as possible to the thrusters. Anything else would need to come from the shields.
Another volley hit, rocking the vessel. They gave it their all, stealing power from unessential systems, throwing everything at the thrusters. Axel was a pantomime on stage, arms waving madly, watched only by the stars outside. Everyone else was glued to their respective screens.
All they could do was turn and try to flee, holding up the shields for as long as they could. They couldn't fire back. There were no weapons on Gemini Right. Everything was on the other side.
Then a shadow passed over the entire room, and Maggie turned to see the other rocket cruising past. It moved between her vessel and the space barge, with its own turrets turning in place. She could hear the rounds of flak fire as it drifted through. Then she saw the fiery, smoking ruins of the guns on the space barge, and some smaller pockets of smoke trailing behind Gemini Left. It moved faster than her vessel, because no energy was being routed to the shields. Everything was put into the thrusters and weapons.
Axel relaxed his frantic arms, but the moment of victory was short-lived. No sooner did the crew of her ship smile before it was wiped clean off their faces. Hatches opened up across the space barge, out of which flooded dozens of fighters.
Chapter 11 – Against Programming
Maggie issued the same command to the Offspring, where Ontri sat patiently, completely unfazed by the events that were transpiring. The command triggered a set reaction: to follow it to the letter. Yet, when he saw the video footage of Skip's distress, his Emotion Approximation Chip triggered a different reaction: to defy that command. He was torn between the conflicting information, but unlike humans, he immediately calculated a resolution.
He gently pressed the Auto button on the touchscreen before him, then stood up as the closest AAA aboard the Offspring powered up. A hidden door in the wall opened, revealing an alcove in which the android was stored. Ontri paused and cocked his head as it passed him. He was naturally curious about all beings, but he wondered about auts more than most. He even wondered if he was made to wonder, and if maybe, deep down, on perhaps a microscopic level, the other races had their own kind of wiring and coding too.
He strolled to the hatch door, naturally adjusting to the shifting of the fighter as the AAA started to steer it off at an angle. Ontri performed a quick scan for life aboard the vessel, a requirement of his Preservation Chip, before opening the door to the vacuum of space. He leapt out, and the force of the space barge's magnetic hull yanked him towards it, until he struck with a clang.
If he could breathe, he would have taken a deep breath. Then he calculated his next move, faced with the biggest wonder of all: how he would rescue the good Captain Sutridge.
Chapter 12 – Death by a Thousand Stings
The Gemini rockets flew roughly parallel, each one taking over the other a little, both crew desperately trying to align them, while even more desperately trying to escape from the approaching swarm of fighters. The Bridge hovered over both rockets, waiting for the opportune time to clamp into place. The Offspring, on the other hand, lagged behind, trailed by the swarm.
“Get us out of here!” Maggie shouted.
“I can't power up the Infinite engines until our fighters dock,” Axel replied.
Maggie turned back to the screen, where the blinking blue dot that marked the Offspring seemed to vanish in a sea of red. The enemy was everywhere. If both fighters weren't locked together with the rockets, they would be left behind when hitting warp speeds. The rockets would also travel significantly slower when flown independently.
Maggie tried to open up the comms to Ontri, but it was blocked. Then she tried Lieutenant Larsman, who she knew was always eager to get up close and personal with the enemy.
“We're busy here!” Larsman replied. He was steering the ship with his left hand and manning a remote gun station with his right. You could tell, because he gritted his teeth and roared as he rattled off his shots. Some called him the Octopus, because he'd be manning eight stations at once. Skip might've been a one-man army, but Larsman was a one-man crew.
“I need you to take over the Offspring,” Maggie said. “Ontri's not answering, and … I think it needs a human touch.”
“I'm game,” he replied. “Here, Drom. Take the wheel.”
Even when Drom came over, Larsman kept firing away. Maggie wasn't all that surprised. With Skip's crew, it was hard to peel them away from a battle. She wondered if they'd keep on shooting even after they were dead. She had a feeling she might know the answer soon enough.
* * *
The Offspring headed straight for the Gemini, taking evasive action as it went. The AAA routed shields to the rear and made no effort to fire back. The command Ontri left was to get back to the ship as soon as possible. It was getting there, but not soon enough.
Larsman's grizzled face appeared on the screen. “You're relieved.”
The AAA immediately left its station and returned to its alcove, where it powered down. It made no assessment of the risk it faced there, of the raging battle outside. There were humans who wished they could turn off so easily.
Larsman took over the controls, taking a hard left, leading half the fighters around after him. He dove down, then pulled up sharply, performing a loop until he was behind enemy lines. He rattled off the guns, tearing through two of the fighters before he flew through the blaze. The debris clattered off the shields and bounced away into some of the other fighters. That was one of the few good things about fighting a swarm. With a bit of luck, taking out some would inadvertently take out others too.
The bad part was that there were many more to take their place.
Aboard Gemini Left, Larsman toyed with the controls. He remembered his first drone as a child, which he flew over government territory, taking photos along the way. That was when he saw the bigger drones, the bigger ships. That was when he wanted to fly those. Steering the Offspring was easy, like a dance, not like the unresponsive rocket. There was no space ballet with that.
He zig-zagged through the crowd of fighters, spinning here, rolling there. He fit through spaces others wouldn't have dared fly through, and dodged the undodgeable. It was all second nature to him. He could do it in his sleep—and often did. That was why he got bored so easily, why he so often ended up pulling over a second or third console to do something else.
He did that now, reaching for a gun station, keeping one eye pinned to the screen. His finger touched the edge of the flak cannon's trigger, but the explosion he saw was on the Offspring. His jaw almost dropped as the fighter halted suddenly.
“What happened?” Maggie asked over the comms.
“Damn!” he said. “The controller's been hit. I've lost control.”
The Offspring was a sitting duck.
Chapter 13 – Unbreakable
The Raetuumaka dragged Skip away and cast him into a holding cell, binding his hands in an energy ball. He could stretch his fingers inside, but he couldn't touch or grasp anything outside the globe. Some “energy magicians”, like the galaxy famous Parahoudini, claimed to be able to get out of those cuffs, but it was all games and tricks. This was altogether real.
“Human, I guess,” a voice said from the shadows in the corner. Skip didn't like when shadows seemed to move or talk. It made those childhood tales of the Umbra feel a little real as well.
“Who's there?” Skip asked. He would have rather asked it with a gun.
The figure leaned forward, letting the light reveal its snout and whiskers. It was a rat-man, just like the rest of them, though its hands were sealed in an energy ball too.
“I am El-erae,” she said. Skip wasn't sure why he assumed it was a she, but she spoke a little softer than many of the others, and had softer features too. Her fur was a light brown, with a patch of white across one eye. “The Outcast,” she added.
“What'd you do?”
El-erae gave a meek smile. “No introduction then?”
“I don't do introductions.”
“If I have a weapon, then yeah.”
“Maybe you will get on with my kin.”
Skip held up his bound hands. “Yeah, I don't think so.”
El-erae leaned closer. “What did you do?”
“Came lookin' where I wasn't wanted, I guess.”
El-erae nodded solemnly, as if she understood well what that was like.
“And might have killed a hundred or two,” Skip added.
El-erae didn't nod to that.
“What about you?” Skip asked. “Eat someone else's cheese?”
Skip tutted. “Been there. Stars, been there my whole life. But see, I'm one o' the lucky ones, because when I break the rules, I often get rewarded for it.”
“Except now,” El-erae observed.
Skip grumbled. “Now's not over yet. That's the good thing about now.”
“You might wish it was. You have the energy brand of one facing the Dozen Deaths.” She gestured above Skip, and he noticed for the first time a faint glowing sigil above his head. He didn't recognise the symbol. It must have been part of the Raetuum tongue.
“I've faced more than a dozen in my time,” Skip replied.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I make no assumptions any more. I have lived to see ghosts stalk ships and shadows consume worlds. Once I prayed to the Blinking Gods in the sky, but when I came up here, I found that they were far more distant, that when it came to our troubles, they were blind.”
“So, you're one of those,” Skip said.
“One of what?”
“A … believer.”
“I believe in evil.”
“Do you now?”
El-erae nodded emphatically. “I believe it has taken over my people, that it is using them to orchestrate the devastation of worlds.”
“Just like Sonata V,” Skip said, recalling the scorched surface.
“No,” El-erae said, and her eyes grew grim. “Your people destroyed that.”
Chapter 14 – Something Tactile
Maggie raced to the nearest transporter, taking it straight to the docking bay that led to the Bridge. She entered through the door in the right wing, which was sealed tightly to an entrance on the rear of Gemini Right. The seal was so seamless that it was hard to tell where the two vessels, or parts of the larger vessel, began or ended.
She relieved the AAA, who was perched motionless in the driver's seat, and took the ship off automatic. She fiddled with the touchscreen for a moment, gritting her teeth as she struggled to get to grips with it. She reached beneath the desk and pulled a lever. The touchscreen flipped, revealing a set of joysticks in good old-fashioned leather. That was how she'd learned to fly on her father's farm. She still had it etched into her memory, in both her mind and her hands.
She released the clamps holding the fighter-bomber in place, and watched as the rockets on either side seemed to drift away. She powered up the thrusters, which packed a punch, pushing her vessel harder and faster than they did on the heavier rockets. She would have loved to have had some time to adjust to the controls, to give it a test flight, a few turns and twirls. But there was no time for tests, and there was nothing like the real thing.
She turned sharply, heading for where the majority of the swarm were converging: where the Offspring was slowly rotating around on the spot. That was the problem with AAAs. Until they were given a command, they would just sit there, waiting. The four auts aboard the Offspring were still dozing in their alcoves, oblivious to the battle outside. There should have been five aboard, Maggie thought. She wondered why Ontri had stopped responding, and seemed to be making zero effort to fly away. She couldn't pick up his signal on the fighter, but she presumed it was because of Skip's signal block. He didn't want her getting through, which was fine, but Maggie feared it might cost him his rescue.
She gave the engines everything—everything bar her life. As the tiny specks of the swarm turned into larger fighters on the viewscreen, she had a feeling she might have to give that too.
She scanned the approaching ships. There were no life signs, but then her scans of the space barge produced the same results. Maybe those fighters were empty, controlled from afar, or steered by auts, but Maggie couldn't take the chance. She was going to do this her way, which meant taking no lives. Skip was “all guns blazing,” but Maggie was “think first, shoot never.” She believed first and foremost in the redemption of all, that everything had a place and a purpose, if they could all just find a way to get along. She only hoped that the enemy would see it, and realise she wasn't an enemy at all.
The first wave of ships bypassed the spinning Offspring altogether, much to Maggie's surprise, and came straight for her. She wasn't sure why, and she had no time to find out. She pulled up quick and performed a barrel roll, one of her favourite moves as a child. It was something else entirely inside a fighter-bomber. Even with the g-force stabilisers on, she could feel the weight of the ship as it swung around. That was something you missed with remote flying. It didn't have the same feel, and thus you didn't react the same way at all.
Larsman's image came on her screen. “Stars, Maggie, why didn't you let me steer?”
“You got your chance.”
“Not in person.”
“You'd have killed.”
“I can do it without killing.”
“Good luck with that, Maggie.” He paused. “Stars, good luck to us all.”
Chapter 15 – Battle Without Battle
Maggie armed the torpedoes, which gave her a sick feeling in her stomach. Her fingers hovered over the trigger buttons. She knew that with just a little push, she could end the lives of many. It was a power she didn't like to wield, a power that didn't suit her. For whatever reason, it wasn't so easy to save lives.
The torpedoes launched from beneath the hull, close to the wings. Their speed made them difficult to shoot down, and the explosion would still cause tremendous damage. She watched as they snaked through the inkwell of space, straight towards where the swarm was heading. She clenched her eyes, waiting for the moment of the strike. She could see the explosion behind her eyelids, and feel the shockwave rock her vessel. When she reopened her eyes, she saw where it had made its mark, several metres in front of the oncoming fighters. The shockwave knocked them back, disabling some and sending others spinning. Not a single one was destroyed, and no lives were lost either.
Maggie was a woman of science, of experiment, and this was an experiment that had proven results. She could fight, and use weapons of war, in a different way than anyone else had tried. And maybe, just maybe, she could win.
She launched a second set of torpedoes, farther off, blocking the advancement of a second wave of fighters. Whether it was natural or artificial intelligence inside those vessels, they had learned from the first attack and now veered off sharply. Few were caught in the shockwave. That was the thing about science. Your enemy could learn it too.
So she changed the torpedo pattern, sending some out wide, making others loop. She was able to redirect a few manually, letting them make a flight path for the fighters to detect, before radically changing it. Others she shot down herself, causing the explosion early, throwing off the enemy. In time, they didn't know what she was doing, and couldn't get through the seemingly endless wall of explosions that blocked their advance.
They turned to regroup, possibly forming their own new plan of attack. That was Maggie's window of opportunity. She blasted forward towards the Offspring and hovered over it. She fired magnetic tow cables down. They were meant for cargo, not ships, but they gripped the hull of the Bridge all the same. The Offspring shook as the weight of the larger fighter-bomber yanked it back.
Maggie grunted. She grasped the joysticks tighter, as if she was grabbing a hold of the Bridge itself. She leaned forward, determined. There was nothing like the prospect of death to give you zeal.
The Bridge moved a little. It was like pulling a tractor out of the mud. Maggie had done that many times before, and she hated it with all her heart. It was what had made her leave the life of a farm in the first place. Her father refused the aid of technology, despite her pointing out that his own vehicles were technology too. The pace of advancement frightened him. He said something was being lost. He might even have been right, but a lot was being gained too. Maggie just wished she had something more to get the Bridge moving.
“Maggie,” Larsman said over the comms.
“Yeah,” she replied, her voice as strained as the tethers.
“We need those ships.”
“I'm working on it.”
It didn't help to see Larsman's worried face, so she tapped the viewscreen off, leaving just his worried voice. She could drown that out with her racing thoughts and fleeting breath. It was as if she was pulling that ship herself. There were so-called strongpeople who did just that, hauling entire starships across a docking bay, though she always thought they must've cheated with hidden boosters or hoverpads. She didn't have the luxury of cheating, maybe not even cheating death. The hull of the Offspring bulged like her straining muscles.
The Bridge moved a little more, metre by metre in the immeasurable vacuum of space. Each tug pulled it a little farther, its own momentum starting to help the process. Faster it went, two metres now, then three. All the while, another swarm of fighters approached at lightning speed.
“Come on!” Maggie urged, saying it out loud, an order to herself, a command to her vessel, a plea to the gods of metal and muscle, who found in her a new believer.
She could see the fighters fast approaching, those ominous blinking lights burning little marks in her mind. Then, just as the fighters came into view, and she gave one final tug before readying to release the cables and prepare for battle, Gemini Left cruised by, crashing straight into the oncoming swarm. The explosions came like a chain reaction, some from the fighters, some from the hull of the rocket itself. The remaining fighters turned their guns upon it, while its own guns came out rattling.
Maggie continued her monumental struggle, painfully aware that she might be able to have a bloodless battle, but not everyone else wanted one. Peace required the participation of all parties. Some people, for whatever reason, preferred war.
She hauled the Offspring to its docking position, letting it dangle. Normally an AAA would do the docking, guiding the vessel in gently. Instead, she tried to keep it roughly in place, while crew aboard either rocket fired magnetic tethers from either side and yanked it into place. When she got the go-ahead that it was docked, she loosed her own tethers and began the docking procedure for her own vessel. It was harder than she expected, and it took some time to line up properly, but there was no guesswork when it was done: the lighting aboard the ship changed from red to blue.
“Great work, Maggie,” Larsman said.
She was about to respond, but he interrupted her.
“Now, buckle up. We're gonna go to warp.”
The parts of starship Gemini had barely slotted together before Larsman powered up the Infinite engines. In the blink of an eye, the vessel slingshot across the galaxy, out of the reach of the swarm. The Infinite engines burned bright, connected together by the Bridge, creating energy out of nothing, and fuelling the massive thrusters at the rear of each rocket.
Inside, the warp stabilisers barely managed to keep everyone in place. Without them, the entire crew would have been thrown with such violent force that they would have been killed instantly. So much rested on the stabilisers that they were cordoned off from most of the crew, and given a permanent watch in Engineering on Gemini Right.
“We did it,” Larsman said, his ugly mug showing up on Maggie's screen once more. She still clutched the joysticks, almost afraid to let them go. The ship shook violently as it thundered down the slipstream, travelling many times faster than light.
Maggie smiled. “We did it.”
Then she thought of Skip, and her smile faded. Then she thought about where their journey would lead them, further out towards the Edge.
Chapter 16 – Uncomfortable Truths
In the dank, dark prison aboard the space barge, Skip had his own troubled thoughts. He didn't like where he was or that he'd been captured, but more than anything he didn't like what El-erae had told him.
“That can't be true,” he said. “Humans have never been out this far.”
“They have, though they never returned. But that doesn't matter. You sent your waste out here, drifting endlessly. In time, Sonata V's gravity pulled some of it in. Then you didn't just let it drift. You calculated flight plans to send it straight into our grasp. It wouldn't be so bad, except it was endless. Infinite waste. Our planet was swallowed up by it, one big dumping ground.”
“Then how did your people survive?”
“That's why we can't complain too much,” El-erae said, “or at all, really. It was your careless dumping that made us, especially your nuclear leftovers. The exposure made us mutate and evolve more rapidly than nature would have allowed, turning us from mere rats in the sewers to this, a race capable of getting up from all fours, of standing up, of reaching out to the very stars—maybe even to the planet that destroyed ours.”
Skip scoffed. “So this is what, revenge?”
“I'm not sure what this is, human. We've come to terms with our conditions, with our quality of life, even with the short lifespan we live, which our scientists think is due to the radiation. But that is life for us. We have known no better. Indeed, we have known worse.”
“So, what changed?”
El-erae's voice became hushed. She seemed hesitant to speak at all. “They came.”
“You've never met them, have you?”
Something twigged in Skip's mind, something uncomfortable. It was buried, deep down, so he pushed the feeling back where it belonged.
El-erae shifted in place. “They go by many names. To us, they are the Yuuamaka, the Masters. They came and lifted our people up, out of the sewers. For generations, we thought they were gods. Some still do. They gave us ships so that we could travel up to heaven. They gave us this space barge, the Ark.”
“This weapon,” Skip said.
“So you know its purpose.”
“I recognise a weapon when I see one.”
“And its target?”
“Still working on that.”
“I wouldn't take too long, human. You might find your home world gone by the time you figure it out.”
“If that's what you call it, then yes.”
“But why? We're not at war with you.”
“Not with us, but you never ended your war with them.”
Skip shook his head. “With who?”
“I think you call them the Umbra. You don't yet call them Masters … but you will.”
Chapter 17 – An Uneasy Interview
On Gemini Left, Galaxy Express journalist Ted Nebula (presumed to not be his real name) was locked in Admiral Mendan's room with the renowned military man. He had just sat down for an interview before all this excitement kicked off, before the crew locked him inside for, they claimed, his own safety.
“What's happening now?” Ted asked when they initiated warp travel. He had never been on a ship that could travel as fast as this, and never one that was this far out beyond the known. It was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.
“You've travelled faster than light before, lad, haven't you?” Mendan croaked. His voice was as frail as he was. He was more shrivelled up than the Ad Farans of the Jolda system, who had been crudely nicknamed the “space raisins” by others in the galaxy. The admiral could barely see, barely walk, need the help of an aut to get out of bed or bathe, and had to get his nutrients by hypershot. At one hundred and fifty-eight years old, he shouldn't just have been retired—he should have been dead. It seemed like it was the will of the Emperor alone that was keeping him alive. By rights, he shouldn't have even been flying. Ted had secretly been preparing a piece about how the admiral was being hauled around as a trophy hero of bygone wars, a way to bolster the Emperor's failing ratings. He knew it would get him in trouble with the Empire. They hired him to write a very different piece.
“Yeah,” Ted said.
“Well, this is faster than faster than light. Didn't you do a piece on the Infinite engines?”
“That was my colleague.”
Mendan grumbled. “They should have sent him.”
Ted clutched his chair as the vessel periodically shook.
“Lad, you won't fall,” Mendan said, picking at the few strands of white hair he had left. “We call that space turbulence. Even with our Dust Deflection Array, we hit some rough patches. They're microscopic, but they cause some trouble. It'd take you years to hit them if we weren't travelling at these speeds. It's the speed that makes it dangerous.”
Ted gulped. “Dangerous,” he said, biting his lip.
Mendan eyed him with not a hint of sympathy. “Take a shot if you've got space sickness.”
“Well, get me one, will ya? I've always hated flying.”
“An admiral that hates flying,” Ted said as he collected a hypershot from a dispenser close to the door. He handed it to Mendan. “Imagine the headline.”
“You won't be writing that,” the admiral said, taking the jab in his arm. He clenched what few teeth he had left. His dappled skin went a little pale—or rather, a little paler.
“Why's that?” Ted asked, making notes in his mind.
“Well, this is all off the record. A military manoeuvre.”
“I wasn't given any—”
“It doesn't matter what you were given or weren't given, lad. You can put that datapad away, and you can turn your ocular implant off too. You won't be using any of that footage if you know what's good for you. You're not under civil law any more. Those were torpedoes fired, and turrets singing. You're under martial law now. We've got different rules.”
“Journalists are neutral parties,” Ted said. He was about to rattle off the Galactic Charter of the Fair and Free Press, but Mendan silenced him with his eyes. It made him wonder what the admiral could do with a gun.
“I've lived through many wars, lad. There's no such thing as neutral parties. You're on our ship, which means if we're boarded, you're just as much at risk of dying as the rest of us. So, if it comes to it, you'll take up a blaster and march out as if you were wearin' the uniform.”
Ted didn't disagree or complain about that idea, at least not openly. He'd been on the front lines of some battles, mostly of uprisings on the dissatisfied planets in the Middle Ring. They were quashed easily, and with far more force than necessary. He'd been “advised” to document that level of violence as deserved by the rebels, as a warning to others. In it too was a warning to him.
“What do you think we're fighting?” Ted asked. He had his own answers to that. The Pan-Galactic Empire was over a thousand years old. It had grown big and unwieldy, spanning almost the entirety of the galaxy—so much so that they'd renamed the galaxy after it. Imperius. The old name was redacted from all the history books. The truth was out there somewhere, perhaps out beyond the Edge. That was what encouraged Ted to accept this job, despite the risk posed by the unknown. It was just a different kind of risk to that of living under Empire rules. Out here, outside the glance and grasp of the Empire, he could dig deeper. He was excited—and a little terrified—about what he might find.
“I know what we're fighting,” the admiral said. He moved about uneasily on his seat. “I kept tellin' people they'd be back.”
“Who? Who'd be back?”
Mendan leaned in close and whispered, “The Umbra.”
Chapter 18 – Savages
Skip would have liked to have learned more from El-erae, but their conversation was cut short by the arrival of As-hamaz, along with several other Raetuumaka similarly robed. These looked like the elders of their species, ones who had evolved intellectually beyond their fellows. They had developed immense powers of the mind, which they could exert on others, and so were called Mern-mazteles, the Mind-killers, in the Raetuum tongue. Even their mere presence was giving Skip a headache.
“Telling more lies, I expect,” As-hamaz said to El-erae. She shimmied further into the shadows in the corner. Skip wasn't sure if she did it voluntarily.
“Hey,” Skip said, drawing As-hamaz's attention. “I hope you brought dinner. I'm starving here. I mean, this isn't how you treat a guest.”
“A guest?” As-hamaz said. His robes billowed as he laughed. “A man doomed to die.”
“Well, what about a last meal, huh? What are ya, savages?”
As-hamaz didn't like that. Perhaps they had been dismissed as barbarians many times before. Perhaps he was attempting to rise above that, to elevate his species. If he was, he wasn't doing a very good job of it.
“Take him to the Way of Waters,” he ordered.
His companions opened the cage door slowly. Skip lunged at them, but they did not defend themselves with their fists. They simply looked at him, and he felt a sudden pressure throughout his body, especially his head. He could barely move. It was like he was wading through a mire. A deafening ringing played in his ears, like some kind of sonic weapon. He was brought to his knees, exhausted, barely able to prod them with a finger, let alone a punch.
“All brash and brawn,” As-hamaz said, though now he smiled. “Can't we settle our differences in a more … elevated way?”
Skip struggled up, shouldering one of the Raetuumaka away and reaching out for As-hamaz's throat. The sound began anew, crippling him, making his muscles like jelly, overwhelming his mind. He tried one last, desperate attempt to grab at his enemy, then collapsed to the floor.
“Why, Captain,” As-hamaz said, “don't be such a savage.”
Chapter 19 – The First Death
They dragged him through many corridors and rooms, so many that it all passed in a blur to him. He wasn't sure if he was mumbling along the way or if their voices were mixed inside his mind. They seemed stronger than before, able to lift him with ease, though he half felt like he was kind of lifting himself. They brought him before an open hatch in the floor of a hexagonal room, dangling his head over the opening. It was dark below, so he couldn't tell how far the drop was.
“Your species,” As-hamaz said, “is a disgrace.”
Skip tried to shrug. “I know,” he murmured. “What about it?”
As-hamaz snarled, then glanced at the others and blushed. He adjusted his robes awkwardly.
“You destroy worlds,” he said solemnly. It kind of sounded like the start of a judgement. There was no trial. “This system was your testing grounds and your landfill. Sonata V, one great dumping ground for the so-called Pan-Galactic Empire. Sonata III, a husk from your nuclear weapon tests. Sonata II, with its quarantine shell, sealing off the results of your biological weapon experiments. You looked at our system, out here on the Edge, and thought nothing of the life here, so less 'evolved' than yours.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Of course not, Captain. Why think of us out here? The glory and wealth is to be found in the Alpha system at the Core of the galaxy. That is where the lie started as a seed. That is where the lie grows and festers, like a disease. If there was one world, or one system, that deserved to be wiped clean, it is that one. It is yours.”
“Maybe so,” Skip said, “but then aren't you just as bad as us?”
As-hamaz's temper flared again. He pushed Skip, who stumbled into the chasm. The fall was about ten feet, and he landed in a shallow pool of water with a splash.
“We will never be like you,” As-hamaz roared down.
Skip struggled to his feet, almost slipping in place.
“Yeah,” he shouted back. “We'll always be better.”
“Mock us all you will, Captain. Now you face the First Death.”
The hatch sealed tight, blocking out most of the light. Only a faint blade came through here and there throughout the passage, barely illuminating the curved metal walls. It didn't take much of an imagination—and Skip didn't have much of one—to think that it looked a bit like a sewers.
Chapter 20 – The Way of Waters
Skip wasn't sure which way to go. The tunnel seemed to go on endlessly in either direction. He didn't ponder it too long though. With nothing to go on, he decided to walk wherever he was facing. If the Raetuumaka weren't being kind to him, maybe the fates would be kinder.
He took a few steps, almost slipping again. He had to reach out to the walls on either side for support, taking each step more carefully. The water was a few inches deep at the bottom. It seemed to move constantly, almost like it had its own tide. Skip wondered what gravitational effect the ship had on it, and had on him. Even more, he wondered what effect those Mind-killers had, and how he could possibly fight them. He was built for wars of might and muscle, the Man of No Tears. He quickly buried the feeling that they might be the first to make him cry.
He followed the passage for a while, then halted as he thought he heard something. He turned around, glancing in both directions, straining his eyes against the darkness. It seemed he was alone. Normally, that was a good thing. It wasn't the first time he found himself wandering alone behind enemy lines. Yet now a part of him felt like maybe he could have done with an ally. He didn't let that thought play out for long. He killed that part of him and gave it a quick burial. He couldn't wait for a friend. He had to do this on his own.
He pressed on, until it seemed like maybe the First Death would be exhaustion or starvation. He could see the thin crack of a hatch door above him every hundred metres or so, but there seemed to be no other means of escape. He tried jumping up to one, but it was too high. He tried running up the curved wall, but his feet skidded off the surface and he came down with a bang.
So he sauntered on, a little more defeated with each attempt to escape. Maybe that was the intent, to whittle him down, to break him. The thought of it only made him more defiant.
He remembered his childhood on Alpha Prime, when the other kids said he couldn't cross the Energy Bars before the metal gave him a zap. They said he had rockarms, that his muscles were too weak from the lower gravity of his asteroid home. They taunted him, and he rose to the challenge. The bars defeated him time and time again. His fingers slipped, or the zap came before he could get across in time. He fell, grazing his knees, and they taunted him more. No matter how strained he felt outside, and how broken inside, he kept getting up, and swore to himself that he would not cry. Day after day he went back there. Some said he was seeking his punishment. He felt he was seeking his reward. He was searching for his ascent above the people who tried to drag him down—just like, perhaps, the Raetuumaka were.
Each day he grew a little stronger and got farther across before he fell. Then some of the Alphans, perhaps feeling threatened by his progress, started to throw rocks at him. “A rock for the Rockborn,” they jeered. No matter how many bashes and bruises, he kept going. He wouldn't let go. As much as he clutched the Bars, he clutched this dream of his to make it to the other side. There, he would find his hidden glory, his way to climb above his station. There, he would find what it meant to be a man, and the strength to be a soldier.
When he finally made it across, the other children said he cheated, but he knew in his heart that he had won that victory through perseverance. From that day forth, whenever he felt that victory was far off, that the odds were too great, he reminded himself that all he had to do was put one hand before the other, that all he had to do was persevere.
Chapter 21 – The Ragged Belt
Maggie had barely gotten up out of her seat when she saw the lights change again. They were slowed down to sub-light speed—already. As much as Cada had overclocked the engines, there was no way they had reached their destination this soon. That only meant bad news.
“What's up, Larsman?” she asked over the comms.
“Buckle up, Maggie. Asteroids ahead.”
The Dust Deflection Array could obliterate the tiniest specks of dust in space, which at faster than light speeds would have otherwise torn the ship apart, but against larger obstacles like asteroids they didn't stand a chance. The impact would have been like setting off all the nuclear waste aboard the space barge they had just fled from. So they slowed to sub-light speeds, turning to manual manoeuvring, and began to separate the different parts of the ship to better traverse the asteroid field.
Maggie sat back down, taking the controls of the Bridge. Larsman boarded the Offspring, taking manual control there, while Toz separated the rockets from the fighters. The ship broke apart just in time for the first group of asteroids, which seemed to be travelling at great speeds. A few of the smaller ones struck the rockets, which took longer to turn, while Maggie and Larsman bobbed and weaved through the others.
The rockets fired off in either direction, attempting to go around the asteroid field, but the distance was vast. Yet, the chances of dodging the space rocks was small. They could have outrun them with the power of the Infinite engines, but the prospect of a high-speed impact was too much to risk.
Maggie watched as Larsman wound his way through the asteroids with ease, taking chances she wouldn't have dared to take. He dove straight towards two rocks that were about to smash into each other, narrowly clearing the gap before they crashed together. They bounced away, opening the path for Maggie to follow.
Gemini Left fired at some of the incoming rocks, breaking them apart or pushing them away. Gemini Right used its many shields to block some of the impacts. Meanwhile, Larsman dived and spun, and Maggie tried desperately to follow his ever-shifting movements.
Then Maggie thought she saw the colours on one of the asteroids change. She tried not to glance back, for fear she would miss a new obstacle on her path. Yet, even with both eyes ahead, she could see the shadow of something pass behind her. The computer picked it up too: a giant, worming creature, which had coiled itself into a ball, its cracked skin camouflaged to look like rock. It travelled with the asteroid field, hidden, waiting for some hapless prey to enter. Then it moved in for the kill.
“We've got company,” Larsman said over the comms. He pulled up hard, skirting over the body of another of the space worms that awoke before him. Maggie turned right, just as the head of the first worm came by, jaws open. She zoomed through its open jaw, clipping the tip of one of its jagged teeth before it chomped down with a force that sent out a shockwave.
“Colony-eaters,” Toz said. Maggie had heard of these before, though there were only three recorded attacks by the illusive creatures. They travelled usually in packs, taking a whole asteroid colony in their mouth before crushing and consuming it. Many scientists believed changes in space weather were causing them to travel farther into the galaxy, seeking new territory. Now the Gemini was in theirs.
“These are smaller than the reports,” Larsman commented.
Maggie studied the awkward movements of the space worms, like the first wobbly steps of a child. “These are newborns,” she surmised. “It's a nesting ground.”
There was some relief in that assertion, for the fully grown forms could have swallowed the Gemini rockets in one gulp. Yet, it also made her think that somewhere out there was the mother or father, and if they came back to find their nest invaded, they'd be very angry.
Larsman had vanished out of sight, though his marker on the screen continued to move. Maggie only hoped it didn't move inside the belly of a beast. But there was no time to worry about others. It was just as dangerous for herself.
The nearest worm coiled itself around a nearby asteroid—or perhaps it was another worm disguised—using it as a kind of springboard to launch itself towards Maggie's ship at greater speeds. She pulled up sharply, coasting along the ridges of its nose, if it was a nose, and then its eyes, and across the back of its neck and down its body. She turned quickly to avoid the lash of its tail at the end.
And there was the second worm, waiting for her, as if to snap the tail of its kin in the search for a meal. It was anyone's guess what these creatures normally ate, and if they were left out here to starve. Yet, whatever kind of compassion or mercy Maggie felt—and it was a lot—it was overcome by her own hunger to survive.
The creature wiggled its way towards her, swimming in the sea of space. Maggie's natural curiosity made her want to study it, to see how it moved through that great vacuum—indeed, how it survived out there, how it breathed, if it even had lungs. Yet if she watched too long, she would learn a different lesson altogether: how it fed.
She gave the thrusters everything, darting forward. She could almost feel the space worm behind her, diving between the asteroids that she passed through, flicking one away with the whip of its tail. Her speed was constant, which must have meant the worm was getting faster, because the computer's sensors went mad, telling her of an incoming “missile.”
Then, just as suddenly, she found her ship engulfed in shadow, and looked out to see that she was in the jaws of the beast. She gasped audibly, so much so that her comrades heard her on the comms and feared the worst. In a moment of genius or madness—and likely a little bit of both—she killed the life support of her vessel, redirecting the power to the thrusters, which propelled her out of the worm's mouth a mere second before the jaws slammed shut.
She felt the sudden chill of the air, and then the increasing pressure, and then the suffocating lack of oxygen. She turned the life support back on, feeling the ship slow again. Maybe it was the reduced oxygen, but now she started to make more daring moves, ones that even Larsman would have hesitated to make. She drove straight for an asteroid, to the point that the computer warned of impact, and dove down sharply at the last moment, like one of the daredevil pilots in the Empire's Galactic Games. The worm came along behind her, swift and sudden, but its bulk made it harder to follow her final movement. The asteroid crashed into its body, sending it squirming away.
Maggie continued on, a little more confident now, having skimmed the surface of death and managed to pull away in time. Then several more asteroids ahead of her started to shudder. Many more space worms stirred from their slumber, awoken by the cry of their kin.
Maggie wasn't sure what to do. There were at least six of them blocking the path ahead. She thought maybe she hadn't cheated death at all—she had just delayed it. Maybe she wasn't destined to be the meal of one, but a feast split between an entire brood.
Then, behind the wall of rock and worm, she saw Gemini Left pass by, with its many turrets turning into place. They opened fire, blasting through the gathering worms. The creatures roared out, perhaps a cry to their mother, before slithering away.
Maggie was never so glad to see guns blazing, and yet she felt a secret guilt that her life had been spared that way. She remembered Skip mocking her belief in the sanctity of all life, telling her that some day she would pick up a gun just like the rest of them. That day had not yet come, but many others were shooting for her. She didn't feel she could entirely absolve herself if the outcome was the same.
The asteroid field ended, and the pieces of the Gemini starship rejoined each other. They continued on at sub-light speeds, keen to get as far away from that nesting ground as possible. The fear of the mother returning was on all of their minds. They just hoped she wasn't coming back the way they were going.
They hadn't travelled far when they faced a new barrier. Ahead were a series of floating warning buoys, black octahedrons that periodically blinked red. They were different to the ones the Empire used, but their purpose was instantly clear. This was the literal rim of the Edge. After that point, the galaxy ended.
“Pull us back!” Toz shouted.
“We're safer out here,” Larsman replied.
They drifted past the warning buoys, into the great expanse beyond the Edge. The Pan-Galactic Empire had no name for this region. It simply called it the Unknown. There were no records of humans having travelled out this far, and though Maggie was making some mental notes, she had a growing fear that she wouldn't live long enough to record them.
Chapter 22 – The Rising Tide
Skip kept walking, until his muscles began to weaken, and then he walked some more. Every step was harder than the last, and the water didn't make it any easier. Yet, no matter how far he'd have to go, he'd go there. He'd crawl if he had to.
As he went, he could hear footsteps far above, muted by the metal. A whole army walked above him, toiling away, readying their weapons, conspiring and colluding with whomever the illusive Masters were. He couldn't make out their words and could only imagine their deeds. It made him wonder what his own crew were saying and doing now. He couldn't hear them either.
Yet there were other sounds that were clearer in these sewers of the ship. The sound of creaking metal. The sound of gushing water. He added to them the splash of his boots in the shallows below him and the grunts and groans he made as he stumbled on.
Then he realised that the sounds he was focusing on were not a mere meditation for the march. They were things his gut was directing him to pay attention to. They were sounds that could save his life.
He reeled in his wits just enough to notice that the water below him was rising. It'd been just below the lip of his boot, and now he felt the water seep inside. That must've been an inch higher than before.
Another valve creaked. The water flooded in more. He couldn't tell its source, only that it was rising steadily around him. Now he was waist deep, wading more than walking. The prospect of death gave him a second wind, but he thought he might need a third or fourth if he were to escape.
He pushed on, and the water pushed back. Its uncanny tide cast him back as many steps as he made, or thought he made. Those steps seemed easy when the tide moved the other way.
He looked up and around, searching for some exit, some little crack he might widen, some door he might unlock. He rarely looked down, where the water kept on rising. He didn't have to. He felt it slowly swallowing him. That it was slow was the torture of it all. In battle, death was often quick.
He struggled to kick off his heavy boots, and was only glad that he wasn't wearing his armour now. Yet, part of him wished he was. It had its own oxygen tank, and he might have been able to punch a hole through the wall with those giant gauntlets. The thought was no help to him now. It was like staring down the barrel of a gun and wishing you'd fired first.
He started to float, and swam up as high as he could, until his hands could almost touch the ceiling. He turned on the spot, looking for one of the hatches he couldn't reach before. It was so dark, he could barely see his own thrashing arms as he moved. Most streams offered the prospect of life, but this black river offered only death.
He swam on, feeling his way across the walls, and now the ceiling, catching his nails in the tiniest crack here and there, but finding he could do nothing to widen the gaps. His vision was blurring. The ebb and flow, and his own splashing, cast some of the dark water into his eyes, until he thought for a moment he'd gone under. It was no relief to find he hadn't, because the dread of it remained.
He thought he saw a faint light far off. He swam for it, ten metres, and yet the light seemed as far as ever. Maybe it was hope. He wondered if this was the point that most gave up, if they hadn't already. He saw their bobbing bodies in his mind, food for the rats. He swore that would never be him. He'd swim the even darker rivers of the Underworld if he had to. Part of him wondered if maybe he was already there.
He kept going. First it was foot after foot, step after step. Now it was arm after arm, just like it was as a child. He was made for this. The water taunted and jeered. He promised he would defy it, that he would overcome it, that he would ultimately triumph. Yet he wasn't a child. The tests of an adult had a higher price. Sometimes failure didn't just bring a lesson. It brought death. He had four decades under his belt, and wished he could cast them off to make him lighter.
He finally reached the source of light, finding a crack of about a centimetre between the doors of a hatch. He looked through it, and the light outside was blinding. He thought maybe that was a mercy, because then he couldn't see the rising waters. Yet his eyes adjusted, and he saw a boot pass by, and then a furry foot. He saw the shapes of Raetuumaka working away in the room above.
He thought about crying out for help, about begging for mercy. Maybe that was what they wanted. He wondered how many had gotten this far, past the bobbing bodies of their peers, and were left so broken that they auctioned their lives to the bidders above. They couldn't sell their souls, because by now they were shattered beyond repair.
He defied that urge inside him, just like he defied his captors. They could take all he had, but he wouldn't give it willingly. In that, they couldn't take his resolve. That was the one small victory he could take to the grave.
The grave was damp and rising.
He saw an eye suddenly appear at the crack. Someone had spotted him. There was a laugh above, followed by a series of shouts in the Raetuum tongue. He thought he heard As-hamaz's name called out. Then he saw the Mind-killer enter the room above and stand over the hatch doors, staring down. He smiled, and Skip had never seen so much glee upon the face of an enemy. Normally by now he had blasted it off.
“Seal it up,” As-hamaz told the workers. He turned away, and with a clank the hatch doors sealed tight, plunging Skip into almost total darkness.
No, the light was not hope. It was just a veiled despair.
There was little left for Skip to do. The water caressed his throat, like a strangler's foreplay. It nudged his chin, forcing him to pull his head back, to take some final gasps. It swallowed his face, filling up his ears and nostrils, making a tributary down his throat. It had all of him now, all but the tips of his fingers, which still grazed the ceiling above. Then it had those too, and all that was left was the little victory of his resolve.
He blinked in the moving waters. He felt the suffocation. He thrashed involuntarily. Then the blackness faded to a different black, and all those racing thoughts reached the finish line, where it was altogether still.
Chapter 23 – Some Kind of Afterlife
Skip had a vague recollection of being dragged out of the water and placed on a bed, of having his lungs pumped, of having his body filled with electrified needles. If that was what the angels did, he thought maybe he'd fare better with the devils.
When he awoke, he found himself back in the cell with El-erae, thinking his ordeal in the sewers was just a horrible dream. If it was, waking up wasn't a whole lot better. He feared he'd face it all again.
“One down,” El-erae said.
“Huh?” Skip felt the grit in his throat. You'd think the water would have washed it down.
“The First Death.”
“That'll come later.”
“Death by stars?”
El-erae said nothing.
Skip shook his head, immediately regretting the movement. He felt like he'd been bashed with a thousand bats. Maybe that was another of the Dozen Deaths.
“So it was real,” he said.
“Only as real as everything else,” El-erae mused. The more Skip talked to her, the more he realised that she must have been some kind of Raetuumaka monk. Even her robes and the way she sat suggested this. It seemed like even when she talked, she was meditating.
“Everything's pretty damn real to me.”
“Then you will feel the Dozen Deaths all the more.”
“So they bring you to the brink.”
“Oh, no. They bring you beyond.”
“So, I really did die?”
“Yes, and they bring you back, before the final cord is cut. That is the ultimate torture, not allowing you to let go.”
“What if you don't wanna let go?” Skip asked. He saw that childhood self, clutching the bars.
El-erae looked at him with eyes of pity. “Then the pain will be greater still.”
Skip didn't want her pity, or anyone else's. He'd never gotten any before, and he didn't expect to get it now. If he got out of this mess, it'd be through his own efforts, not because someone just let him go. Maybe El-erae thought that made him his own jailer, but at least then freedom was within his grasp.
Skip groaned as he stood up. He never felt so sapped of energy before. He supposed he shouldn't complain. The dead didn't usually manage to stand up again.
He sauntered over to the cage door, resting against the bars. Perhaps they'd thought they had defeated him, that they'd won. Perhaps they, like the Alphan children, had gone home feeling victorious. He felt the overwhelming urge to prove them wrong.
“Well!” he shouted, as much as his weakened voice would allow. “Where's the next one?”
Chapter 24 – An Unhappy Second
The Gemini kept drifting slowly into the Unknown. Maggie sent Cada to fix the damage to the Offspring, while she rejoined Toz in the control room. She found her Second sitting in her chair, still gripping the arm rests tightly. He glanced up at her with fire in his eyes.
“Everything okay?” Maggie asked.
He scoffed. “Is everything okay? You've got some nerve.”
“We made it.”
“Barely. I'm sick of this, Maggie. I'm sick of following you to the brink. And by God, we're beyond the brink now! Why didn't you use your Executive Star to give me the reins? I would've kept us from crossing the Edge.”
“I was a little busy,” Maggie said. “Besides, Larsman's about the best pilot we've got.”
“We can't think like that. Not any more. We're not two crew. We have to be one if we want to succeed out here.”
“That's easy to say when they've got all the firepower. There's no goddamn weapons on this side!”
“Are you serious? Look at what we just faced!”
“Faced and won.”